Who Speaks for Atheism? A Review of John F. Haught's Book, God and the New Atheism, Part 3

This is a continuation of my review of John F. Haught’s book, God and the New Atheism. Earlier parts can be found here.

In chapter two Haught compares the so-called new atheists with some of the atheists of yesteryear. He teaches a course on “The Problem of God,” in which he requires his students to read the best available atheist literature. He maintains that the writings of the new atheists “would never have made the list of required readings.” When compared to the “more muscular” atheist writings found in Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre, whom he calls the “hard core atheists,” the “soft-core” new atheists offer a “pale brand of atheism.” They offer a “relatively light fare” in comparison to “the gravity of an older and much more thoughtful generation of religious critics.”

The older atheism, according to Haught, “if one is serious about it, should make all the difference in the world, and it should take a superhuman effort to embrace it.” The older atheists realized that “most people will be too weak to accept the terrifying consequences of the death of God. However, anything less would be escapism, cowardice, and bad faith.” Haught sums up Nietzsche by asking: “Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.” By contrast, Haught argues the new atheists seem oblivious to the logical conclusion that atheism leads them to. They “want atheism to prevail at the least possible expense to the agreeable socioeconomic circumstances out of which they sermonize.” “They would have the God religions simply disappear, after which we should be able to go on enjoying the same lifestyle as before, only without the nuisance of suicide bombers and TV evangelists.” This kind of atheism, Haught argues, would have “nauseated” the older hard core atheists. At least they understood that for sincere and consistent atheists “the whole web of meanings and values that had clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center.”

Haught is correct about these older atheists. Camus, for instance, wrestled seriously with the question “Why not commit suicide?” Sartre argued that if God doesn’t exist then there is no human nature. We alone define ourselves and we alone must invent our own values. But why must Haught compare the new atheists to these particular older atheists? There is other atheist literature to compare their writings to, like Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew, J.L. Mackie, and Michael Martin, to name some of the most notable and prolific ones. The fact is that the particular older atheists Haught is comparing Dawkins, et. al. to, are mostly known as existentialists. They are men who argued from atheism to a particular conclusion about values and morals, which they believed had no other grounding than one’s inner subjective choices. They were relativists and could see no reasonable explanation for morals apart from the “will to power,” or choice itself. And they concluded, falsely I might add, that without a rational grounding for morals in God our world is potentially screwed. No wonder Christians like Haught love these other atheists so much, because they seem to confirm what Christians want them to confirm about a society without God, that it could potentially go to hell in a handbasket.

By contrast, Bertrand Russell wrote plenty about morality, as did Antony Flew, J.L. Mackie, and Michael Martin. These atheists do not conclude what the existential writers did about morality and a society without God. There have been some other good atheist writers like Erik J. Wienberg and Michael Shermer, who have likewise offered good reasons for morality and a good society if there is no God. Unlike the existentialists of the past who were groping for moral answers in a godless society, subsequent atheist writers have found reasonable solutions to these questions. And these solutions allow me to say that the new atheists are indeed correct that there will be positive changes with only minimal kinds of other changes to society and moral values without God, despite what the existentialists claimed.

So let us atheists decide who speaks for us. Don’t go telling us that Nietzsche speaks for us. We atheists disagree about a great deal of things. In fact, just because one is an atheist does not mean we will agree about much of anything else. History has moved on. We have all learned some lessons of the past. The problems of the past are being solved by more thoughtful thinkers. And when Christians like Haught want to compare apples to apples let's do just that. The new atheists are writing in a new generation, one which has good reasons to think society itself will be better off than one in which the God religions exist, not the other way around. So let's compare their writings to the other atheist literature today.

Besides, if Haught thinks he can declare which atheists speaks for us in this new generation, then what does he say when we do the same thing to him? We atheists can legitimately claim his views of the Bible are lame and insipid compared with those of the previous centuries. We argue that when it comes to the logic of the Crusades, Inquisition, witch hunts, slavery and so on, that given the Bible, the logic of such horrific actions was impeccable. We argue that Christians like Haught have continually retreated in what they think is morally acceptable in light of the advancement of learning and the lessons of history, which is the same basis for how atheists learn their morality. When we do this he would cry “foul,” wouldn’t he? He would say the Christians of the past don't speak for him. So do I when it comes to some atheists of the past, even though I have a much better case to make than he does.


AdamH said...

Interesting analysis, but to say that the logic of the crusades, etc. was impeccable is hardly sound.

Even at the time there was theological opposition to those policies.

One might as well say that, given an atheistic view of the world there is no problem with filling the world with nuclear weapons, developed by atheisitc scientists. (Oh wait, that has already happened.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, adamH, there was always some dissent, but I take it you haven't actually read the arguments that persuaded several generations of Christian people on behalf of these atrocities. Here is one example.

Ignerant Phool said...

Well said Mr. Loftus

Very similar to what I would have said and more. Especially the point about the different era's, and all that must be put into consideration, making such comparisons. Perceptions will differ with time and circumstances, or any given moment, and this cannot be ignored. But I think what remains is the possibility of truth to a certain degree, regarding that perception, at that moment in time. This could seem like a problem, as may be the case in Mr Haught's analysis, but as you have shown, his camparisons does not work, and in my opinion, pointless.

I'd like to also say that you should be included in the "new atheist" category if you aren't already, as I don't think it would be in bad company. You (and your work) as a representative of atheism is needed.

My praises

stevec said...

His arguments seem to be that the new atheists aren't really atheists -- or aren't "good enough" atheists -- because they don't consider the consequences of a world lacking in belief.

Well, what if they don't consider the consequences? What has this got to do with whether or not atheism is true or false?

Nothing. In fact, if one argues that atheists ought to consider the consequences of atheism before embracing it, one is arguing that atheists ought to commit the logical fallacy called "appeal to consequences."

John Haught is effectively complaining that atheists are *not* committing a logical fallacy.

John Haught, it doesn't *matter* what the consequences are. If it were the case that atheism somehow invariably led to zombification and brain-eating, the fact that this would be undesirable would have nothing to do with whether or not atheism were true or false. What matters, when it comes to whether some proposition is to be accepted or rejected as probably true or probably false is not whether the consequences of that truth or falsehood are desirable or undesirable, but what sort of evidence is available in support of a claim (or of the opposite of a claim), and what sort of claim it is that's being made. The consequences do not enter into it. The new atheists have, if anything surpassed the supposed great atheists of old in that they don't commit the logical fallacy of allowing the supposed consequences to be considered as something which influences the likelihood of the truth or falsehood of a given proposition.

AdamH said...

John, your assumption, "I take it that", that I have not read the arguments that you refer to is incorrect.

I simply see it differently than you do.

Do you suppose that Jesus, whom the leaders of the inquistion, for example, were supposed to be following would have applied the Jewish laws in the way you suggest?

I know you will argue yes, of course, but I know you know better than that.

But carry on.

AdamH said...

Stevec, do you include Marx, Nietzsche and Lenin among the great atheists of the past?

Considering that they did so much for mankind, it is of course best to maintain that consequences of ideas have nothing to do with the truth of those ideas.

Of course, if you are going to argue that, then don't use the crusades or inquisition to argue against Jesus.

I mean, if you want to be consistent.

Unknown said...


But you overlook several factors here.

I assume that with Marx and Lenin you are reffering to communism and i'll agree that its an innately silly idea which has been proven not to work terribly well in practice.

However, Marx and Lenin were humans. Very clever ones but fallible normal humans. The Christian church however is not supposed to be normal or fallible. It is in possession and guided by a supposedly divinely inspired book of wisdom (the bible) and in the case of the catholic church (responsible for the crusades and inquisition) is divinely mandated by christ himself.

And yet still they fuck up.

Quite simply put, christians insist on a double standard but this turns back and bites them on the arse.
The catholic church claims to be divinely mandated but commits moral horrors such as the crusades, inquisition and nazi appeasement (for which Pope Gutless-Bastard is now enroute to being canonized).

As for atheistic world views leading to mass nuclear weapon proliferation. This is the same old tired "lack of christianity = moral depravity" arguement that bears absolutely no fruit.

There is no atheistic world view. Atheists have many different world views, all that they share is the lack of a god. My world view no doubt differs from Johns, which differs from Marx, which differs from Nietzsche which differs from Dakwins, etc, etc.

Even christians don't sharethe same world view. A liberal christian would have a different world view to a conservative baptist. A calvinist has a different world view from a catholic.

Shygetz said...

Well said, John. Considering the fact that Haught chooses only those atheists that support his point and calls them the only atheists worth listening to gives me grave doubts about the seriousness of his book.

One might as well say that, given an atheistic view of the world there is no problem with filling the world with nuclear weapons, developed by atheisitc scientists. (Oh wait, that has already happened.)

Developed by scientists of many faiths and none at the behest and using the funding supplied almost entirely by Christians.

Interesting analysis, but to say that the logic of the crusades, etc. was impeccable is hardly sound.

That wasn't the point; if Christians get to define which set of atheistic worldviews are the only ones worth addressing, then atheists get to define which set of Christian worldviews are the only ones worth addressing.

Stevec, do you include Marx, Nietzsche and Lenin among the great atheists of the past?

Nietzsche, yes; although he was factually wrong in some cases, and I disagree with him in many others, there is no question he is influential. I count Marx among the great economic/political scientists, and anyone who thinks that he was entirely wrong is a fool; he was far too utopian for application, but many of his theories are still in use. I count Lenin among the great oppressive dictators; he had no contribution to atheistic thought.

Of course, if you are going to argue that, then don't use the crusades or inquisition to argue against Jesus.

Christians are not content to argue that Christianity is true; they also LOVE to argue that belief in Christianity is a good thing, irrespective of its truth. If Christians will agree to no longer take that tack, then I will agree to stop reminding them of the less savory consequences of their belief.

Larry Hamelin said...

Not only are Nietzsche, Camus, et al. existentialists, they're a particular kind of existentialist: those first breaking away from a modernist "our society is best because God has ordained it so" mindset.

As an analogy, if you've spent your whole life believing that money is happiness, it's going to be a profound psychological blow to lose your money. On the other hand, if you figured out early that money is pretty much unrelated to happiness, then its not going to be that big a deal to drop a couple of socio-economic levels.

In the terms you mention, "We alone define ourselves and we alone must invent our own values... values and morals [have] no other grounding than one’s inner subjective choices... morals [come from the] “will to power,” or choice itself," then I'm an existentialist atheist.

(Note the "will to power" is not some megalomaniac fantasy, but the simple idea that human beings act on reality to fulfill their desires. The will to power does not prohibit megalomania; on the other hand, I can't imagine any idea more megalomaniacal than that the creator of the universe holds a special place its heart for you personally, and will condemn to everlasting torture anyone who disagrees with you.)

But why should such a view in itself require any kind of superhuman effort? I'm "my own boss" morally speaking, and answerable only to reality, including the reality of my neighbors.

What (sometimes) requires a superhuman effort is not adopting a new morality but casting off the shackles of an outmoded and oppressive morality and overcoming the pervasive "Stockholm syndrome" such oppressive morality causes.

I got lucky; I had it easy: I was never indoctrinated into any kind of slave morality, Christian or otherwise, so I had no shackles to remove. No superhuman effort was required for me to understand that I alone was responsible for my own happiness. And while I have ordinary human empathy for others, I know cannot deliver happiness to anyone else; the best I can do is not actively hurt others and be polite and helpful where possible and reasonable.

This kind of morality is very very easy, easy as pie. It requires no superhuman effort, no profound soul searching, no sophisticated philosophy (I personally happen to enjoy all those activities, but they're not morally necessary).

ahswan said...

John, Once again, I have to agree with you (what's the world coming to?). While I haven't read Haught's book, if you've summarized him correctly, I think perhaps he's let his own bias corrupt his logic here. He might wish that all atheists were suicidal, but I don't think that's an essential point of atheism.

Is he perhaps claiming that if the New Atheists would be logically consistent that they, too, would eventually come to the same conclusions as the old existentialist atheists? That may have some merit, at least in theory, as many of the New Atheists are not that philosophically sophisticated. But, I'm not even sure that's the case.

Larry Hamelin said...

Philosophical "sophistication" is vastly overrated.

Larry Hamelin said...

I mean seriously. There's no god. So what? There's no extrinsic purpose for my life. So what? I'm going to die and I'll be worm food. So what?

Some parasitic priest has his panties in a bunch because I just don't give a rat's ass about the mystical mumbo jumbo that he uses to assuage his own fear that he might not be at the center of the universe. So what?

I'm alive now, I have needs, wants, and desires now, and I'm living my life now as *I* see fit.

Go live your life. Be happy. Be nice to other people, because we're sharing a crowded world with them.

For what possible purpose would I need the hair-splitting and elaborate obfuscation of the trivially obvious that constitutes philosophical "sophistication"?

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure old morality will fall, and the large blocks it has created (e.g. countries) will fall likewise, turning into smaller pieces (because it becomes extremely difficult to maintain common values in a too big society). BUT we will have new values. Don't worry, societies will always exist, as they used to in pre-Christian times or in non-Christian countries. Things will change, our notions of what is "vice" and what is honourable will change, but we will last, really ;).