Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is There Such a Thing as a "New Atheist"?

A sad and spurious depiction of "New Atheists" from a fundie blog. In fact, there is no such thing!

It is a sad commentary that too many in this country who fancy themselves intelligent, independent thinkers, fall under the sway of corporate media euphemisms or canards. One can't so much blame the media, because they've always been this way in order to sell the maximum product. Their whole shtick is to seek to create divisions, controversy and conflicts, for example in their memorable creation of the "Blue states" and "Red States" in the 2000 presidential election. But wise and wary people don't allow themselves to fall into the specious usage of such terms, they seek or strive to transcend ignorance.

In the realm of unbelief, an unfortunate term that's come into wide use is "New Atheists" despite the fact there is absolutely NO evidence that the atheist has suddenly mutated to some novel form. Rather, the media in seeking to potray a small coterie of recent atheist writers (namely Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins) has sought to label them "New Atheists". But anyone that's seriously read their works can see they aren't "new" at all, but subscribe to the same basic precepts that atheists always have.

Some of these, accepted since the first Greek Materialists appeared, include:

· Only one life to live, no afterlife
· No "souls", only material bodies
· No purposive moral force that demands a particular code of behavior

And more recently (mainly based on findings of modern physics):

· All energy absorbed or emitted by atoms is in discrete units of energy (quanta)

· The behavior of matter, especially at microscopic levels, is subject to probabilistic rather than deterministic laws, e.g. the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

· Some subset of mechanical, physical processes falls within the realm of nonlinear dynamics or chaos. In this regime, ‘far from equilibrium’ states are possible and bifurcations can result.

· It is possible for self-organization or order, to arise within nonlinear systems of matter – i.e. following one of more bifurcations.

· Deterministic laws (e.g. Newton's laws of motion) remain valid at scale lengths for which Heisenberg's Principle does not apply, and whose time periods aren’t so long as to be affected by chaos.

· Every electron in an atom can be specified by a set of four quantum numbers (n, l, m and s) and no two electrons can have the same set (Pauli Exclusion Principle)

· Evolution – of matter, and life, is a probabilistic and algorithmic process with inputs from nonlinear dynamics (chaos) – from which order can appear naturally.

· Classical, quantum and chaotic systems are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but can overlap. Each governs a particular domain of mechanics, and quantum mechanics gives classical answers in the limit of very large quantum numbers (n -> oo, Bohr Correspondence Principle).

The above aren’t intended to be exhaustive, but they are fundamental in the sense that no modern Materialist-Physicalist can afford to be unaware of them. In that respect, and also from their relative simplicity, they form the cornerstone propositions for an up to date version of Materialism and also disclose the total redundancy of positing any non-physical system as an agent of causality. (Since any such agent proposed is easily subsumed by one or more of the above)

In the end, ALL of the so-called "New Atheists" subscribe to these principles, hence they aren't really "new" at all but the same atheists as always. They are merely referred to as "new" because the corporate media wants to distinguish (discriminate against them?) by virtue of their being more outsppoken then previous atheists might have been.

In this context, it is possible to puncture and skewer the various myths and misrepresentations that have appeared to do with them, as on assorted fundie blogs. Before doing that, it's worthwhile to look at a mainstream article, 'The New Believers', appearing in U.S. News and World Report , Nov. 13, 2006, page 40.) The article, by Jay Tolson, purported to highlight the recently published books of a number of high profile unbelievers, including: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennett. It actually framed all the unbelievers as being "extremists" and "unreasonable" for their positions. Meanwhile, the religious apologists were uniformly depicted as eminent spokespersons of reason, who actually supported working to make America “a more civil society” while the unbelievers were out to do the opposite. The last line of the piece essentially framed these top atheists as a pack of boors only too willing to launch into fights at dinner tables!

None of this ought to surprise the atheist, either the one in the making or the established unbeliever. The cold, unimpeachable fact is that the media in the United States is outright hostile to atheists, and finds little about them that is commendable or worthwhile, even to warrant a positive article. The one small concession was a piece in Newsweek, “The Case Against Faith”, by Sam Harris, in which he cogently argued how religion does untold damage to our national politics. Regrettably, most of the letters published in response to the piece were highly negative, basically accusing Harris of the same sort of “extremism” that Tolson painted with wide brush in his U.S. News article.

Meanwhile, a certain fundie blogger has really gone over the top in proclaiming with his usual bluster and bombast:

"Also , what's amazing is that very FEW of these "Nazis," ( or , as they prefer to be addressed as ,"Socialist Democrats," ) have ever served in the U.S. Military , as well as the MAJORITY of them never holding down a REAL job here in the good old U.S. of A. ! Are they afraid of REAL competition in the work place? ( hmmm ) . "

Of course, with the choice of the very first ad hominem ("Nazis") he's already lost his case, whatever one he was trying to make, since the use of such loaded language shows someone bereft of any argumentative ballast. He also reverses the correct term ("Democratic Socialists") to the incorrect ,"Socialist Democrats". Compounding this string of contempt and errors he drags in the red herring of military service, which is neither here nor there. Arguably, in fact, many unbelievers who volunteered in the Peace Corps probably accomplished more in their 3 or 4 years of service than he did in five tours with the Marines, Army or whatever. Further, they succeeded in actually building bridges as opposed to alienating whole populations, such as Amerikkan forces did in Vietnam using Agent Orange and Napalm.

The "real job" reference is also choice, and this suggests the writer himself probably doesn't know what a "real job" is OR, more likely, interprets only manual labor as qualifying, as opposed to using one's head- say in teaching, doing scientific research or organizing a Philosophical society for an entire nation. But this merely explains why he's also unable to grasp that the use of "new atheists" is not a bona fide term, but rather a neologism dreamed up by the media. His inability to distinguish reality from specious word coinage is troubling.

His further attachment of his own imperfect understanding of atheism in toto, to the "New atheists", is also noteworthy, as he writes:

"I have also found it amusing ( were it not so sad ) , that they are now claiming that they don't unequivocally say that God doesn't exist , just that they "lack belief" in His existence . Now , and I've mentioned this in past blogs , would not God-given common sense dictate that that statement says that they concede that it is a POSSIBILITY that God exists? After all , if you were to ask them if they believe in the "tooth fairy," or the "flying green spaghetti monster," would they reply , "Nawww , I just 'lack belief' in their existence." Or...would they simply say "NO!" Personally , I believe they'd answer with the latter ( though , with some of 'em , one never knows , huh? ) ."

But again, despite umpteen corrections to previous demonstrations of ignorance, he still never learns. No modern atheist (fortified by modern physics or biology) is so daft or naive as to assume if science can't prove something it doesn't exist. The atheist has merely observed that the idea of any unproven, undemonstrated entity is logically unnecessary. Its incorporation, in other words, does not assist the physicist (or biologist, or chemist,) explain his respective objects of inquiry OR to make verifiable predictions. But see, this is too subtle a point, too nuanced by far, for a lazy attacker to process and address. It’s far easier to resort to red herrings, strawmen and misdirection.

Secondly the generic atheist doesn't say or assert he is "lacking belief" but rather that he is WITHHOLDING BELIEF, in the claim already made (by the believer). Indeed, one can "lack belief" for a totally different reason, including never having been exposed to the claim in the first place! Thus one may "lack belief" because he never knew what it was he's supposed to believe in! Anyway, what is happening with most (82%) of atheists is not active disbelief, i.e. in making a statement “There is no god,” but rather simply passively withholding belief in a statement already made. Hence, the deity believer has made the positive claim. The ontological atheist’s is the simple absence of belief in it. No more and no less. It does not and never has implied aggressive rancor or a vehement and militant opposition to the beliefs. (Though yes, some militant atheists – or what we call “strong atheists” – do have such attitudes! However, assorted surveys show them to make up barely 18% of all atheists.)

Let me quickly add here that this withholding of belief is by far the more natural position, as opposed to advocating belief, which is unnatural. (Especially if it lacks confirming evidence - since "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence") Consider a different context: a neighbor runs over and informs me that aliens have landed in his yard in a spacecraft. Until I actually go over and try to verify his claim I am under no obligation to accept it as a statement of fact. Thus, the default intellectual position is always skepticism, irrespective of the claim made. This again is because the onus is always on the (positive) claimant to make good, not the skeptic to “disprove” it.

It isn’t difficult to see from the above context that the more conservative (and reasonable!) position is withholding belief until a claim is validated. One does not, after all, accept a claim then do further research. One ab initio doubts the claim and then sets out to devise tests to ascertain the validity! And in the case of extraordinary claims (which certainly include visiting aliens in spaceships), it is remarkable the same critics absolutely withhold their own beliefs without any question - albeit based on the spurious notion of "being biblical" (though they have no qualms accepting a guy could live for 3 days in a whale's belly!)

It also isn’t difficult to see that this is exactly analogous to the atheist withholding belief in a claimed supernatural deity. After all, If a supernatural God genuinely exists, why is he/she/it not uniformly perceptible, at least in basic features, to all peoples? As I showed in a previous blog:

there are nearly as many different versions of deity as there are people. (Or at least, religions!)

This isn’t surprising after all, since each person filters deity through his or her own background, knowledge, experience and perhaps even genes[1]! Thus, it is far more reasonable to make reference to “God-concepts” rather than God, just as it makes more sense to refer to an “unidentified aerial phenomenon” than a craft from another planet when one observes one or more strange lights in the sky. Caution is the byword, and withholding of belief is warranted, until proof or adequate evidence is produced.

His other facetious reference to the "tooth fairy," or the "flying green spaghetti monster," when pressing atheists on the issue of belief is, of course, irrelevant - since no sane person is making a serious claim they exist. If such a person were, as the fundies and their clones do for their deity, they'd be clapped into a straightjacket and marched to a funny farm forthwith- to be administered electro-convulsive therapy six times a day along with lithium.

Lastly, his plaintive cry for our admission to the possibility of a supernatural deity is certainly worthy of consideration. Just like an admission to the possibility of an anti-matter universe, or one with infinite parallel worlds. But in each of those cases one must ask the proposer to provide us with the necessary and sufficient conditions of what it is he wishes us to agree is "possible", to exist. If he is unable to provide those conditions, then we simply can't take his proposal or possibility seriously, at least any more than insisting a cartoon of Bugs Bunny will eventually come to life and pop out of a TV screen to raid the nearest fridge of carrots!

Alas, it seems these constant efforts at re-education seem to be of little or no avail, which is a shame. Otherwise, without absorbing the facts and definitions in their proper context, it seems like we atheists are doomed to see a misuse of terms and words like "New Atheists" ad infinitum.

[1] Psychology Today (Aug., 1997), “Nature’s Clones,” by J. Neimark, p. 36.

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