Remember “new atheism”? It seems like such a long time ago. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, new atheism was an important part of the cultural landscape, especially on the internet. Books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens inspired a movement to actively oppose religion in the public square. These days, it has been eclipsed by other issues, but there was a time when atheism versus theism was the biggest debate raging on the internet.
The main difference between “old” and “new” atheism was one of attitude. The new atheists were aggressively opposed to religion, and they brought the debate into the public square. They were also effective early users of social media, such as Twitter and YouTube.
The standard atheist claim is that religion is irrational: that it is not supported by evidence, and that many religious beliefs are logically or conceptually absurd. In addition to the standard skeptical critique of religion, the new atheists also claimed that religion is immoral and has negative consequences, and so it should be actively opposed. They argued that religion is the cause of war, hatred and oppression.
Such claims are harder to back up intellectually, but they have more crowd appeal. Most people find moral and consequential claims more interesting than epistemology. This shift to emotionally charged rhetoric also lowered the intellectual level of the debating arena. Especially in online forums, debates between theists and atheists tended to degenerate from philosophical discourse to moralizing, and then to personal attacks and general mud-slinging. That is the normal trajectory of ideological conflict.
In spite of its flaws, the new atheist movement did help to bring philosophical issues into the awareness of many people. Debate tends to expose weaknesses in belief systems, and the biggest weakness of almost every belief system is that it has no ultimate basis or justification. New atheism raised questions that it couldn’t answer, such as “What is knowledge?” and “What is morality?”. New atheists tended to assume that their secular worldview had answers to those questions, and were often stymied when skepticism was turned against their own assumptions.
New atheism generated an opposition movement, which I will call “new theism”. New theism was the mirror image of new atheism. It was aggressive and highly online. Instead of playing defense against atheist critiques, the new theists went on the attack. They critiqued the atheists as having no foundation for their beliefs, including the rejection of religion. The basic argument of new theism is that atheism is incoherent, because atheism implies nihilism. The new theists argued that the atheists couldn’t rationally make any claims at all, because they were lacking God as a foundation.
The new atheists were often caught off guard by these attacks, because (like most people) they had never really thought about the basis of their own beliefs. They came prepared to attack religion, not to defend their own beliefs against philosophical skepticism. Many a debate was won by the new theist’s out-flanking movement. They used skepticism against the skeptics, by expanding the scope of skepticism to include all beliefs and methods of judgment, such as science, morality and logic.
Like most people, the typical atheist is philosophically naive. He has never thought about what his morality is based on, nor tried to give it a rational justification. He has never thought about the nature of knowledge, nor tried to come up with a philosophical theory of truth. He has never thought about the purpose of life. After all, the typical atheist isn’t a deep thinker, or a true skeptic. He just knows a few arguments against theism, and uses them to claim intellectual and moral superiority over theists. New theism takes advantage of this naivete. The new theist turns skepticism against the atheist, by challenging the atheist to justify his own worldview. Of course, the new atheist can’t meet this challenge.
However, the new theists aren’t really philosophical skeptics. They are not motivated by the desire to expand rationality. They are motivated by the desire to win an ideological conflict, and to protect their religious beliefs from skepticism. Thus, the new theists must have some defense against skepticism. To defend their beliefs, they use various complex philosophical rationalizations of religion. The most effective of those rationalizations is the transcendental argument for God, or “TAG” for short.
The TAG is an attempt to bootstrap God out of the abyss of nihilism. It has the following general form, which is always presented with plenty of rhetorical flourishes:
Without GOD there is no foundation for morality, purpose or truth. Without GOD there is no ultimate explanation or justification for anything.
Thus, YOU MUST BELIEVE IN GOD, ELSE YE SHALL BE CAST INTO THE ABYSS OF NIHILISM.
This is a stick and carrot approach. The new theist first threatens the atheist with the horrors of nihilism. This typically involves bringing philosophical skepticism to bear on the atheist’s unexamined assumptions, such as his naive faith in morality and science. Then the new theist claims that God can rescue us from the abyss of nihilism. He claims that God solves all of the philosophical problems that he has brought to the attention of the naive atheist. God provides an ultimate foundation for morality, purpose and truth. God provides an ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe, and for the order that we represent in scientific theories. God gives us an ultimate justification for our beliefs. God is the foundation of belief, and without God there is no foundation for belief.
Now that I have summarized the TAG, I will explain why it is wrong.
First, it contains an appeal-to-consequences fallacy, which has the form: “You should believe in God to escape from nihilism”. The new theist acts as if he is offering you a choice between God and nihilism, and you can just choose one or the other. That is a trick. Belief or disbelief in God isn’t like a choice between vanilla or chocolate. You can’t just choose the one you prefer, and make it true by choosing it. Even if belief in God did protect us from the horrors of nihilism, that wouldn’t be a reason to believe in God.
Second, God doesn’t protect us from nihilism. I agree with the new theist that without God there is no foundation for belief. However, it doesn’t follow that God is a foundation for belief. There is no ultimate foundation for belief. By “ultimate foundation”, I mean some objective ground on which the subject can base his beliefs. Subjectivity doesn’t have an objective basis or foundation, because we can’t get outside of subjectivity.
New theists will often act as if showing that the atheist has no foundation somehow proves that the theist does have such a foundation. That is an illogical leap. Philosophical skepticism exposes the lack of a foundation for belief. Skeptical critiques of knowledge and purpose apply equally well to the atheist and the theist.
Even if God existed and you believed that God existed, you would still be the ultimate authority over your own beliefs. You would still be free to question them, and thus, you would have no foundation for them. God could not rescue us from the abyss of nihilism, because the abyss of nihilism is just the subject’s awareness of being a subject. Having no foundation is a necessary condition of being a subject.
New theism works as a debating strategy, because most people are philosophically naive. They have never stared into the abyss. They are unaware of philosophical problems. When confronted by philosophical skepticism applied to morality, truth and purpose, they become confused. They are put on the defensive. They have no answers.
New theism resembles post-modernism in its hypocritical use of philosophical skepticism. Post-modernists use philosophical critiques of knowledge and consciousness to attack the (right-wing) beliefs of others, but they don’t apply the same critiques to their own (left-wing) beliefs. They hold their own beliefs off-limits to examination and criticism, while applying radical skepticism to the beliefs of others. The new theist is hypocritical in the same way. He uses philosophical skepticism to attack the beliefs of the atheist, while holding his own religious beliefs off-limits to skepticism.
If you challenge the new theist to show how God gives him a foundation, he will fall back on faith in God. His “foundation” is just a set of assumptions about God and how God relates to objective reality and to the subject. Those assumptions are held off-limits to thought. The imaginary “foundation” of the theist’s worldview is not God, but his refusal to question the assumptions of his worldview.
If challenged, the new theist will typically emit a confusing barrage of fancy words, vague mystical notions, references to Plato and Aristotle, and other nonsense. That is just a smoke-screen covering up his lack of a foundation.
If you keep pressing him to justify his claims, you will eventually get to his actual foundation: faith. Even if God is holding up the rest of his worldview, his faith is holding up God, and thus the whole thing rests on faith alone.
Of course, the new theist will try to project the source of his faith onto the magical properties of God. He will say that God is inexplicable, beyond doubt, logically necessary, yada, yada, yada. But none of those claims give God an independent justification or basis. They are just beliefs about God, and thus open to philosophical skepticism. There is nothing that stops me from questioning God, doubting God, or not believing in God. No bolt of lightning comes out of the sky, or out of logic, if I question or reject belief in God.
Faith in God doesn’t solve any philosophical problem. It simply pushes philosophical problems into the concept of God. It is a way to hide problems, not solve them. For the new theist, God is a box into which he places all the problems of philosophy, and then puts a lid on the box and declares the problems “solved”. The concept of God is an elaborate deception contrived to pretend that philosophical problems don’t exist, as long as we have faith in God. That faith is just the refusal to think about those problems. It is not a solution to them. Faith is just keeping the lid on the box.
It is worth pointing out that the new theist’s conception of God goes way beyond what he claims is necessary to give us a foundation for truth and value. Most of his religious beliefs could be discarded or changed without affecting his argument. The Christian Bible could be thrown away. The story about Christ on the cross? Totally irrelevant. Christian morality? Not required.
To have some fun with the new theist, I could tell him that I have been persuaded by his eloquent presentation of the TAG, and I now believe in God. But I don’t believe in his God. Instead, I believe in the 7-Headed Pig who lives in a black hole at the center of our galaxy. The 7-Headed Pig gives me a basis for morality, knowledge and purpose. He is the ultimate explanation of everything — except himself, of course, because he is inexplicable. He provides the ultimate justification for all beliefs, but requires no justification himself. Tremble before the mighty 7-Headed Pig!
Of course, this is just a variation on the flying spaghetti monster concept. The point is that the transcendental argument is not affected by the substitution of one god for another. Strictly speaking, this argument is unnecessary, because the TAG is fallacious. But it’s also worth pointing out that it is religiously vacuous as well. Even if it weren’t based on a fallacy, it would not justify the theist’s specific religious beliefs. It would be equally compatible with Satanism, Flying-Spaghetti-Monsterism or 7-Headed-Pigism.
Last but not least, the new theist’s conception of God doesn’t solve any of the standard skeptical challenges to religious belief.
So, are we just back where we started? No, not at all.
The new atheists attacked belief in God, arguing that it is irrational. The new theists retaliated by attacking the atheist’s faith in science, reason, morality and purpose. Both were right. Neither side has a rational worldview. Both helped to bring philosophical problems into the public square. Both raised awareness of the abyss.