Atheism’s New Clothes

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Book Review: “Atheism’s New Clothes: Exploring and Exposing the Claims of the New Atheists” by David Glass

anc-glassEveryone seems to be talking about atheism. The so-called “New Atheists” are out and proud. Their books are in every bookstore, waiting to perpetuate ideas about religion: that it is evil and causes violence, that its adherents are positively irrational or even delusional, and more. Dressed to impress, atheism is sporting “new clothes,” and David Glass, in his Atheism’s New Clothes, seeks to expose them. Glass explores the primary works of the “New Atheism”: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Glass starts Atheism’s New Clothes: Exploring and Exposing the Claims of the New Atheists by outlining the claims of the new atheism. One problem with this movement is that it rejects theistic belief simply because it is, according to them, simply obvious that theism is false and so they do not bother to interact on a scholarly level with theistic discussions.[1] In particular, the new atheists define faith in a way which is most helpful to their own case and refuse to interact with theologians on the topic. Harris goes so far as to argue that they can ignore what theologians say because they are allegedly irrelevant to the faith of the faithful.[2] However, Harris’ argument is based upon reading Hebrews 11 in “the right way,” which is of course his own reading that is not based upon the Greek or even exegesis of any sort.[3]

Glass counters the contentions of the New Atheists’ by exploring a number of Christian responses to faith throughout history.[4] He notes that the consensus is that “within Christianity it is entirely appropriate to provide arguments and evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity… note that the New Atheists fail to engage with any [view of faith outlined by Glass] or any other well-thought out view on the subject.”[5]

Another prominent aspect of the New Atheism is that science is alleged to undermine belief in God. They rail against a god-of-the-gaps and make it out as though that is the only way religion has interacted with science. Glass, however, notes that “science took root in a monotheistic, and specifically Christian culture, rather than a polytheistic or pantheistic culture… The question here is how such scientists [Christians who were scientists] could really have engaged in their work of science by its very nature removes the need for God as the New Atheists maintain… They thought of their work as expressing how the universe behaves in accordance with the laws God had put in place.”[6] In contrast to the notion that believers propose God to explain what science cannot, Glass stresses that, like Swinburne, it is more a matter of explaining why science explains.[7]

Can miracles occur? The New Atheists immediately appeal to Humean types of arguments, but Glass argues that these fail. In fact, it seems that here it is the atheist being unreasonable, for “it seems that no amount of evidence would be considered adequate to make it reasonable to believe a miracle had occurred.”[8]

Glass then turns to evidence for the existence of God. He outlines over the course of two chapters a cosmological argument—one which argues from the beginning of the universe—an argument from the orderliness of the universe, and an argument from consciousness.[9] The arguments Glass presents are fairly familiar, but by tying them into a discussion of the New Atheists’ responses (or lack thereof), Glass provides a valuable resource for answering the objections of those who use a similar tactic. For example, in response to the fine-tuning argument from the orderliness of the universe, Glass notes that the New Atheists’ “reasoning seems to be that the mere feact that some… scenario might be possible is all that is required to make it preferable to theism as an explanation…”[10] Yet, Glass notes, this leads to some things which the New Atheists would not find palatable, like the notion that “miracles such as the resurrection occur naturally somewhere in the multiverse without God having to bring them about.”[11]

Glass uses a chapter to focus upon Dawkins’ arguments against God specifically. He notes that Dawkins wavers between a Humean argument and a Darwinian argument: on the one hand he seems to argue that miracles are in principle impossible; on the other hand, he argues that Darwinism has undermined belief in miracles. Yet the arguments themselves offset each other. Why argue that Darwinism undermines the miraculous origins of life if miracles are, in principle, impossible?[12] Furthermore, Glass argues that both arguments ultimately fail to challenge belief in God.[13]

The New Atheists all seem to think that they can explain religion by showing how it evolved. By using the concept of a “meme”—an idea which can evolve just as much as any biological organism—they hold that religion has evolved as a useful capacity, but we have outgrown its usefulness.[14] However, Glass points out that even if this could explain how religious belief can arise, it would not explain away religious belief as untrue.[15] In regards to Christianity in particular, the argument would do nothing to explain the historical evidence for the religious practice.[16] More fundamentally, however, the argument could be applied to any area of knowledge, and therefore undermine all belief. It is self-defeating.[17]

Glass goes on to analyze theism as opposed to materialism in regards to morality. Although materialism may be able to explain how we have moral beliefs, “it does not tell us whether we actually have such an obligation [to be moral].”[18] Religion is very often based upon revelation, the notion that God has revealed truths to humans. Glass argues that the New Atheists’ rejection of revelation is based upon a number of assumptions and faulty arguments.[19] A particular problem is their terse dismissal of revelation based upon conflicting revelations. Glass asks, “Is it really the case that there is no evidence to distinguish [the truth claims of various claimed revelations]?” and argues that there are, in fact, ways to determine the truth of a revelation.[20] Atheists also claim that the Bible in particular has a morally reprehensible code, but Glass notes that much of this is based upon a misunderstanding or naïve reading of the text.[21]

Finally, Glass argues that Christianity in particular is based upon a claim which can be investigated: the resurrection of Christ.[22] He argues from a minimal facts perspective; that is, he argues that there are certain historical facts which must be explained by a hypothesis and that no rival theory to the resurrection succeeds in explaining these facts.[23] As he closes his work, Glass notes that only on theism can life have real meaning, purpose, and rationality.

There have been a number of works written to respond to the New Atheists, and interested readers may wonder where Atheism’s New Clothes stands out. Glass provides perhaps the most in-depth look at the specific arguments of Dennett and Dawkins in particular. Furthermore, the book is presented not just as a response to the New Atheists but as an apologetic primer. It contains a number of arguments for the existence of God and an extended defense of the truth of the Gospels as well as the resurrection of Jesus. These qualities make it essential reading for those looking to respond to atheists who make claims similar to the New Atheists’. The thoughtfulness with which Glass approaches the arguments of the New Atheists and his in depth analyses make it a worthy read for those looking to respond specifically to the authors of the four aforementioned books. Christians should not let this book pass by.

This review was originally posted at Apologetics 315.

[1] David Glass, Atheism’s New Clothes (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2012), 24ff.
[2] Ibid, 39.
[3] 40.
[4] 42ff.
[5] 51.
[6] 69.
[7] 72-73.
[8] 86.
[9] 93ff.
[10] 133, emphasis his.
[11] Ibid.
[12] 151ff, see especially 163 for this apparent problem.
[13] 158ff.
[14] 180ff.
[15] 184ff.
[16] 187-189.
[17] 190-195.
[18] 212.
[19] 238ff.
[20] 243ff.
[21] 249ff.
[22] 265ff.
[23] 286ff.

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Guest Post: “The Presumption of Popular Atheism” by David Glass– In this post, David Glass, himself an able response-man to the New Atheism, highlights one primary argument atheists make regarding theism: that theists have all the burden of proof on their side.

SDG.

——

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Guest Post: “The Presumption of Popular Atheism” by David Glass

David Glass is the author of Atheism’s New Clothes: Exploring and Exposing the Claims of the New Atheists published by IVP/Apollos. He writes for the apologetics website ‘Saints and Sceptics’ and has a particular interest in the relationship between science and Christianity and in how evidence should be used in debates about the existence of God. He works as a lecturer in the School of Computing and Mathematics at the University of Ulster where he does research on topics at the interface between computing and philosophy.

anc-glassIn the New Atheism and related forms of popular atheism belief in God is frequently ridiculed and dismissed without any serious consideration of the arguments. Underlying this mindset is the belief that there is a quick-and-easy argument against belief in God and that as a consequence there is no need to take theism seriously. The argument is this: in the absence of evidence for God’s existence it is much more rational to disbelieve in God than it is to believe or to adopt a neutral stance. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes this point by drawing on a story by Bertrand Russell. He asks us to consider how we would respond to someone who claimed that there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, but which is too small to be detected by any telescope. Just because there is no way of proving that it does not exist, it does not mean that we should adopt the view that there is a 50:50 chance that it does exist. Since there is no evidence for its existence, we should believe that it does not exist or, more strictly, that its existence is very improbable. By analogy, he claims that the same applies to God.

This is a version of the presumption of atheism, the idea that the burden of proof lies with the theist to show that God exists rather than with the atheist to show that he does not. It’s important to distinguish the presumption of atheism from the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of God. In popular atheism, the two notions tend to go together with the latter point often taken for granted, but it is entirely possible to be a theist and yet embrace the presumption of atheism. Such a theist would accept the burden of proof, but claim that the burden can be met as there is plenty of evidence for God. Interestingly, it seems that the late Antony Flew, who was probably the leading advocate of the presumption of atheism in the twentieth century, eventually gave up his atheism because of the evidence for the existence of God. He still maintained, however, that the presumption of atheism was the right starting point; it’s just that the evidence for God was too convincing to ignore.

So one problem with the New Atheist approach to the presumption of atheism – what we might call the presumption of popular atheism – is that it presupposes that there is no evidence for God just as there is none for Russell’s celestial teapot. No doubt the New Atheists would claim that they have considered all the purported evidence and arguments for the existence of God, but their discussions of these topics leave a lot to be desired and are generally considered to be the weakest part of their attack on religious belief. Furthermore, their approach to the presumption of atheism seems to distort their views on what would constitute evidence for God. To take one example, does the fine-tuning of physical constants and other features of the universe constitute evidence for God? Dawkins is not impressed with the anthropic principle response to fine-tuning, the idea that we shouldn’t be surprised by the fine-tuning because we wouldn’t be here to talk about it in the absence of fine-tuning. For Dawkins, an explanation is required and so he appeals to a multiverse, the idea that our universe is only one of many. He doesn’t seem overly impressed with multiverse explanations of fine-tuning either, but he finds them preferable to design. Why? Because God is so improbable that he cannot be considered as an explanation for fine-tuning.

Notice the logic of the argument. Dawkins believes he has a good reason for adopting the presumption of atheism and hence assigning a very low probability to God. (We’ll come back to his argument for this in a moment.) He then uses this same belief to justify ruling God out as an explanation for fine-tuning and so he rejects the idea that fine-tuning can provide evidence for God.[1] In other words, his views about the presumption of atheism have determined whether fine-tuning constitutes evidence for God.

Setting aside the problems with the New Atheists’ hasty dismissal of evidence for God, what about the presumption of atheism itself? Let’s take the analogy between God and the celestial teapot. Clearly, God is not like a teapot orbiting the sun! The teapot would be just another object in the universe, admittedly a very odd one, but it would not help us to make sense of anything else. By contrast, as the Creator of the universe, God would be the most important being to exist. God would provide the ultimate reason for the universe itself, for the order within it and for our existence. As Dawkins himself points out:

a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice.[2]

The same could hardly be said for a teapot! For this reason, the hypothesis of theism cannot be dismissed in the same way as the hypothesis of the celestial teapot.

Dawkins does not merely appeal to an analogy with the celestial teapot, but provides an argument based on organized complexity to support his contention that God’s existence is highly improbable. Unfortunately for Dawkins, this argument fails for multiple reasons, the most obvious of which is that there is no good reason to think that God would possess the kind of organized complexity required for Dawkins’ argument to work.[3]

So Dawkins and the other New Atheists have given us no good reason to embrace the presumption of atheism. And they can’t expect the rest of us to embrace it just because it is intuitively appealing to them. As atheists have generally recognized, there can be no presumption of the presumption of atheism. If it is to be embraced, a good reason is needed yet none has been provided.

In summary, the idea in popular atheism that there is an easy way to dismiss belief in God based on a presumption of atheism and the claim that there is no evidence for God does not stand up to scrutiny. If the case for God’s existence is to be evaluated seriously, presumptions and analogies with teapots are not much help.


[1] I’ll set aside the question of whether there are other good responses to fine-tuning. Here I’m only concerned with the logic of Dawkins’ argument. Interestingly, even in the context of biology, he makes use of this dubious argument.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), p. 58.

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