Why New Atheists tend to love science and hate philosophy

Among the so-called “New Atheists” (that is, those zealous about their atheism) and their iconic authors and speakers, a disrespect for academic philosophy is all too common. It is psychologically interesting that this special class of atheists—the kinds who go to atheist conventions—celebrate science together so passionately. The reverence has been called cultic because it ostensibly extends beyond a mere innocent love of and fascination with the wonderful mysteries and products of the natural world. Instead, at these atheist conventions, "science" is used as a perpetual buzz-word, worthy of a drinking game, and is projected more as a revered arena champion to pit against religion.

New Atheists and Philosophy

So whence the wide distaste for philosophy? The answer is pretty straightforward, in my opinion: academic philosophy quickly eats away at the attractive simplicity of New Atheism's assumptions and arguments. (I will contrast this with academic atheism another day.) New Atheism's appeal tends to bank on suggestive slogans; it merely gestures at arguments which they often lack the training to spell out. The problem is that both strategies break down under careful analysis, and this can be very frustrating for those atheists who are not used to being carefully challenged, especially by a dirty Christian—individuals who many atheists are trained to automatically judge as irrational. The cognitive dissonance is almost tangible sometimes ("exposing the irrationality of theism is supposed to be simple, like it appeared when Dawkins and Krauss talk about it!") To illustrate how philosophy can throw a monkey wrench into the slogans, consider the atheists inference from the general success to science to the truth of naturalism (the view that only mathematically describable nature exists).

Is Science at all Beneficial to Atheism?

Granted, science does aim to explain things naturalistically, without God, but so what? That doesn't mean everything actually has a non-God explanation. Science is also in the business of always looking for a smaller particle, but does that mean there will always actually be a smaller particle? Of course not. Well suddenly, we've pulled the rug out from under half of the New Atheist's slogans about science. The New Atheists also often try to argue this way:

—“Every time so far that we thought something had a supernatural explanation, it turned out not to be so. This suggests there are no supernatural explanations.”

However, this is a philosophically naïve abuse of inductive reasoning, and most New Atheists have fallen for it. Explaining why it is an abuse would take too long in this blog post, but the abuse is easy to demonstrate by parodying the argument:

—“Every time so far that we've thought we had identified the smallest particle, we found one smaller. This suggests there is no smallest particle!”

—“Every time some particular Christian has looked at an alleged error in the Bible, she has found a good answer to it. (Let's say this is true of all the particular alleged errors she looked at so far.) This must suggest that there are no errors at all in the Bible!”

Clearly, these latter two inferences are abuses of inductive reasoning, and so too is the New Atheist's. The only two real arguments which atheists use to get from, “science is wildly successful” to, “and this supports naturalism/atheism,” are flops.



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