Initially the new atheism attracted quite a bit of attention but now, as Bryon McCane pointed out this week, it is fading fast. I take some solace in its demise not because I dislike atheists but because the new atheism sowed needless confusion. Atheism is, and always has been, irrelevant in the origins debate. But the rise of the new atheism made atheism appear more important than it really is.
For many, atheism is the driving force behind evolutionary thought. Isn't the origins debate between religious people and those who reject god? Did not Princeton's Charles Hodge early on identify Darwinism as atheism in disguise? Is not the rise of twentieth century atheism evidence for this? After all, it was the leading atheist Richard Dawkins who admitted that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
The rise of the new atheism seemed to confirm such views. Evolution, it seems, is all about atheism.
Before we close this case, however, let's take one more look. First, there are no arguments for evolution made from atheism. If you study the evolution genre, and especially that part that argues for the veracity of the theory, you will have great difficulty finding atheistic premises. In fact, I have not found any.
The strong arguments for evolution are, and always have been, from theism. God would not create this gritty world so it must have evolved. There is no meaningful distinction between theist and atheist when it comes to belief in evolution--they both rely on the same theological premises. An evolutionary theist, such as Francis Collins, and an evolutionary atheist, such as PZ Myers, use arguments that rely on the same theological assumptions.
This is the dirty little trade secret of atheism: it is parasitical on theism. Atheism, itself, has nothing to add to the origins debate. As McCane notes, "the new atheists’ biggest mistake, by far, was to be openly intolerant of religion. They mocked, derided and made fun of it."
Indeed, atheism is motivated by skepticism of theism. It is not a positive argument for atheism, but a negative argument against theism. But an argument against theism usually entails theological convictions. Talk to any atheist and you're liable to hear strong convictions about what god should and should not do. As the atheist Myers wrote in the LA Times recently:
We go right to the central issue of whether there is a god or not. We're pretty certain that if there were an all-powerful being pulling the strings and shaping history for the benefit of human beings, the universe would look rather different than it does.
How do they have any idea what god would and would not do? Because they hold certain beliefs about god. Their atheism relies on their theism. Unbelievable. The folks who bring you the new, cutting edge, atheism rely on, yes, their own ridiculous pious pleadings. How pathetic.
But this "new" atheism is nothing new. Arguments for evolution and atheism have always been religious. In his massive investigation of the rise of atheism in eighteenth century France, historian Alan Charles Kors found that French atheism had come from the church and its culture. Kors wrote:
“[My] inquiry led not to a prior history of free thought ... but to the orthodox culture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in France. It was, above all, within the deeply Christian learned culture of those years that there occurred inquiries and debates that generated the components of atheistic thought. It was, to say the least, not what I had expected; it indeed was what I found. … Before one can understand the heterodoxy of early-modern atheism, one first must understand the orthodox sources of disbelief.”
Likewise the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume buttressed his religious skepticism and nascent evolutionary ideas by relentlessly pounding home his attacks against theism. The complexity of the world was a tremendous problem for Hume, but it was trumped by the world's evil. "Here I triumph," proclaimed his character Philo.
Hume's arguments were largely borrowed from seventeenth and eighteenth century theists. So were Darwin's. In the centuries leading up to Darwin, Christians were pondering how god created the world. A handful of theological concerns mandated that god created strictly via natural laws rather than divine intervention. Leading theologians and philosophers declared that the world must have arisen via natural processes (read evolution). By Darwin's day these arguments had gained momentum and it is no surprise that scientists on different sides of the world were convinced that an evolutionary narrative was required, though they didn't know how the species could have evolved. Yesterday's theology had become today's science.
The story is no different today. Scientifically the theory is a muddle, but metaphysically it is mandated. Its truth is derived from the rejection of design / creation. Today, as in centuries past, the arguments come from the theists and are borrowed by the atheists.
Evolution is not about science, it is about god, and atheism is irrelevant. It makes no difference whether the theological arguments come from a theist such as Francis Collins or an atheist such as PZ Myers, the science is asinine either way.
And what was it that Dawkins said? "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Note the causal relationship. It was evolution that fueled atheism, not the other way around. The real problem with atheism is not that it is the driving force behind evolution; rather, the real problem is that it masks the driving force behind evolution. It is theism, not atheism, that is the driving force behind evolution.