Just the other day, NPR published an article that got quite a bit of attention on Facebook: A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists. Basically, it talks about the difference between “new atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – “a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers,” and more tolerant forms of atheism.
Unfortunately, the article is kind of shallow. In particular, I think it totally runs over some important distinctions that can be made about kinds of objections to the new atheists. There are at least three possible interpretations of the objections:
1. Epistemic objections: One might complain that the new atheists, as a group, inappropriately ignore or discount the evidence for theism and wrongly interpret the evidence for atheism. As such, their atheistic conclusions and efforts to persuade people to believe them are contrary to good knowledge practices. Or, less strongly, one might think that the new atheists’ high level confidence in atheism or high probability ascription to atheism is unwarranted, and ought to be lowered.
2. Moral objections: Quite apart from whether the new atheists follow good knowledge practices or not, one might think that the new atheists are reprehensible just because of the way many of them purposefully insult and provoke theists. Even if they are correct about atheism, treating even people with mistaken beliefs such as theists in this way is morally unacceptable and evidence of faulty character.
3. Prudential objections: Finally, you might simply think that the tactics of the new atheists, while not contrary to good epistemic practices or morally wrong, are simply unlikely to help them achieve their ends of converting people to atheism and are therefore imprudent. For instance, inflammatory books and speeches may actually have the effect of galvanizing the fundamentalist religious base, doing more harm than good to the atheist movement.
(Note that 1-3 are interrelated in complicated ways. For instance, you might think that people have moral obligations to engage in epistemic good practices in addition to epistemic obligations to do so. Or, you might think that insulting religious believers would only be morally wrong if their beliefs were epistemically unwarranted. And, moral and prudential reasons often overlap. But we can disregard all this for now).
So, what is *really* the criticism against the new atheists by the old atheists? I think if the old atheists have an epistemic objection, it is the weaker one I suggested above, and that they think new atheists ought to have more epistemic humility, even if their conclusion is ultimately the correct one. But I can’t really tell to what extent their objection about new atheists insulting theists is a moral objection, and to what extent it is a prudential one. If the insulting tactics of the new atheists did no harm whatsoever to the atheist movement, would they still be wrong? If so, then the wrongness is probably moral and not prudential. Anyone have any thoughts on this? What kind of difference really divides the atheists?