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New Atheism has lost its reason

The standard of debate has declined rapidly since the age of Bertrand Russell. It’s up to Catholics to restore intelligence to the God debate

By on Friday, 30 March 2012

Is atheism on the increase, and if so, can we do anything about it? This was a question put to me the other day, and I am surprised it isn’t asked more often.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI asked the Jesuits to take on the task of combating atheism (you can read about that here). I remember being with some Jesuits once who mentioned this, and wondered just what this meant in practice. One Jesuit said modestly that he had done his bit already, having debated the existence of God with Bertrand Russell on the radio. That had been in 1947, and there is a transcript, which is well worth reading, here. 

The debate between Fr Coplestone and Russell is terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards in that it was immensely civilised. Whether atheism is on the increase is hard to measure, but one thing is sure: the terms of debate have changed.

Once upon a time, there used to be people called unbelievers with whom the Catholic Church sought dialogue. These sorts of people have faded from the scene to be replaced by a newer breed, people like Professor Dawkins; compare him to Russell, and you see how far we have come, and not in a good sense. There was a time when unbelievers made common cause with Catholics on certain social and moral issues – nuclear weapons for example – but that too seems a thing of the past.

What changed? The answer lies in the events of 9/11, which marked out religion as the enemy of modernity. Religion could from then on be identified as the root of all evil.

This is a huge oversimplification, though it does have a grain of truth in it. Fundamentalism is indeed the enemy of modernity, but not all religion is fundamentalist. Nevertheless, despite its long and distinguished intellectual history, there is a constant failure to make the distinction between Catholicism and fundamentalism.

And here is the problem: the Catholic faith requires a nuanced approach if it is to be properly understood; the sledgehammer assault from contemporary atheists is not interested in nuances, nor in rationality, nor in matters of the intellect. The sledgehammer assault chimes in well with our modern soundbite culture and makes sense to many who are quite ignorant – thanks in part to falling education standards – of the language of religion and religious culture.

The God Delusion is a ludicrous and laughable book. Terry Eagleton said: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

One can read his excellent review of the book here. But the sad fact is that Eagleton is an intellectual, in a way that the general public, for whom Dawkins was writing, is not. While Eagleton represents the best counter-blast to Dawkins to date, nevertheless, it remains a fact that Dawkins (and Dan Brown for that matter) is the media superstar and Eagleton is not.

When the public turns their back on subtlety of argument, people, believers or not, ought to be worried.

So, what can be done? How can we oppose atheism today?

I have written about this before: what we need is to learn from the past, particularly the success of the Counter-Reformation. 

We need to make sure we are passing on the content of the faith, whole and entire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is useful, but we also need some good course books for use in the classroom, adapted for local use. We must not flinch from being intellectually coherent. Now is not the time to lose faith in reason. More than this, we need to demonstrate the intrinsic worth of the Catholic brand in education, but also in art, in music, and the quality of our community life.

In the end Communism failed not because someone out argued the Hegelians, but because people saw where it led – the Gulag. The single biggest weapon in the armoury of modern anti-Catholicism is the child abuse scandal. We need a moral reformation in the Church, we need new saints, and we need to communicate our joy in being Catholic.

  • Jpcogan

    “On my own part — I used to be an agnostic.”
    Which brings me to another question that I have no doubt you’ll dismiss without reply: no rational person claims to be “agnostic” about, say, Zeus, Odin, Ra, or any number of deities from other cultures. Why does the God of the Bible merit any special consideration in this aspect?

  • Jpcogan

    Why should your purported divine revelation be given any more credence than that of, say, a Hindu?

  • Jpcogan

    I didn’t need to read between the lines, I was addressing your view that cause implies a sentient agent, which is simply incorrect. Also incorrect is the assertion that chance has been discarded as wanting. By whom, may I ask? Moreover, even if both were the case, it would not follow that a supernatural creator is even a valid explanation, much less the best one, nor that theology is at all useful for learning anything about it. 

  • Jpcogan

    A vacuous cliche that you are unable to address, apparently.

  • Jonathan West

    The authorities at Ealing Abbey don’t seem to regard it as sufficiently awful for them to change their child protection policies so that every allegation or incident of abuse will with without exception be reported to the statutory authorities.

  • JabbaPapa

    yeah 1st oops-a-daisy !!

    mockery is one thing — the deliberate organisation of focused mockery of a definitional feature of any particular religion on religiously-defined grounds is quite another.

    Substitute mockery of whichever central tenet of Islam for his proposal that the Eucharist should be publicly ridiculed — there is no question that such mockery would be immediately denounced as an incitement to religious hatred.

  • JabbaPapa

     Why should any policies as they are already required by the law be “changed” ?

    HINT : What you are proposing has been in effect throughout the Church since the 1990s. Since the 20th century.

  • JabbaPapa

     Vacuous clichés are by their very nature devoid of significance.

  • JabbaPapa

     Because a Hindu did not provide the divine revelation in question.

  • JabbaPapa

     How is it possible to miss the point of an atheistic cliché that I have already been exposed to several dozens of times in the past ?

    Honestly, the arrogance of some of you, imagining that simply throwing out these tired, weak, superficial “arguments” to somebody that you haven’t dealt with before might constitute some sort of “point”, whereas in fact we’re talking on the **internets** ZOMG !!! — is pitiful.

    Not happy that I’m not being respectful of your position ? — well, tough !!! It is undeserving of respect.

  • JabbaPapa

    If we were to accept the premise that God’s footprints aren’t discernible

    Except that we haven’t accepted that premise either, have we.

    So, you have a choice. Either God leaves discernible evidence on which [] understanding of him is based, or he doesn’t.

    Answer : I don’t know.

    Nor do you.

    Stop pretending that the truth of this matter can be established via e-mail correspondance with strangers.

  • Jonathan West

    Unlike you, I have read the child protection policy for St Benedict’s School. I was the member of the public which brought the shortcomings in the school’s child protection arrangements to the attention of the Department for Education. As a result the DfE ordered an additional inspection of the school, and that inspection brought to light six separate cases which the school should have notified but didn’t. Moreover, the inspection found that the school did not have an established policy for making these notifications.

    In addition, it was as a result of my request at a meeting with the Papal Nuncio that the Apostolic Visitation to Ealing Abbey was ordered.So when you say that policies to report abuse have been in effect throughout the church since the 1990s, you are trying to kid somebody who knows better. If you care about the safety of Catholic children, you will not make that claim unless and until you are entirely certain that it is true.

    If you make that claim in order to protect the reputation of the Catholic church when in fact  there are still serious and ongoing problems, then I have to say that I, an unbeliever and an atheist, care more about the safety of Catholic children than you do.

  • Jonathan West

    I note that you didn’t answer the question, and I content for people to draw their own conclusions from that.

  • Jonathan West

    Why should I believe a divine revelation given either to you or to a Hindu?

  • Jonathan West

    So which of the church’s current teaching are transient? I would be very interested to know that. I think quite a few Catholics mich be interested to find that out a well.

  • JabbaPapa

    If you make that claim in order to protect the reputation of the Catholic church when in fact there are still serious and ongoing problems, then I have to say that I, an unbeliever and an atheist, care more about the safety of Catholic children than you do.

    What a load of rubbish !!

    Cases of child abuse are possible anywhere and in any school, completely independently of the nature of that school.

    For example :

    Information about this school says :

    Miramonte Elementary School


    Our mission at Miramonte Elementary is to provide a standards-based curriculum in which students are taught to be socially-conscious critical thinkers and problem solvers who can apply their knowledge to real life situations.  Mastery of the standards will result in increased academic achievement that prepares them for successful participation in a global society and becoming life-long learners.   


    The Miramonte Elementary School learning community will work collaboratively with all stakeholders, focusing on pedagogy that is culturally relevant and responsive to the
    needs of all learners, while providing a safe and nurturing learning environment that teaches values, responsibility, and respect for our school and community. 

    The school is entirely secular, as you can see, and yet sexual abuse of children has occurred there, despite whichever measures for the protection of children may have been put in place.

    Your association between child abuse and Catholicism is therefore completely biased and it is objectively wrongful.

    In fact, paedophiles seek to gain employment in institutions where they may gain access to children ; the nature of those institutions otherwise is irrelevant to them, all that they want is the access to the kids.

  • JabbaPapa

    This is ridiculous — I can only assume that, like far too many atheists, you imagine agnosticism to be just atheism with a different name.

    An agnostic has no set opinions at all about the truth or falsehood of any religions, ancient or modern. The possibility of truth or falsehood is inherent to any and all of them, from a strictly agnostic point of view.

    The only particular consideration that I had towards the Bible, God, Jesus, or Christianity during the period of my agnosticism was cultural in nature. The Bible did not cause my conversion.

    The divine revelation that I received was therefore a **massive** shock to my existing worldview.

  • Jonathan West

    And the child protection procedures at Ealing Abbey still do not come up tot he standard you said was in effect throughout the church since the 1990s, so the children there are still vulnerable.

  • JabbaPapa

    Ealing Abbey is not the Catholic Church as a whole, obviously.

    If it were, then by the same token child sex abuses are rampant throughout the secular schooling system as evidenced from the one single case of it that I provided (though I’m sure I could find dozens of other cases in secular schools very easily, this one just happened to be the top hit in my google search).

    Anyway, bloody good job there of willfully missing the entire point of my previous post !!

  • JabbaPapa

    That’s what you get in return for asking a non-question.

  • JabbaPapa

     I don’t know.

    Make up your own mind ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Please stop these silly attempts with this silly trick.

    It’s stupid, and it’s meaningless, and I have no idea why you continue in your failure to understand that I refuse to participate in this ridiculous little game for reasons of its stupidity.

  • JabbaPapa

     The disciplinary teachings mainly, and several of the pastoral ones.

    Anything not specifically described by the Church as being a permanent teaching, or infallible, or so on, is transient in nature.

  • Jonathan West

    If some part of the church is still not up to the standard, then it follows that you cannot truthfully say that the standard is in effect throughout the church. That is what you did.

  • GordonHide

    I second this. Chinese communism is still going doubtless with their version of the gulag. But communist economics has been dumped overboard in favour of the free market.

  • GordonHide

    The Catholic Church is roughly the size of a small country,
    taking all its employees as “citizens” or perhaps I should say subjects. If you
    look around the world in search of the least corrupt administrations you will
    see they are all democracies with some important features in common:


    The rule of law

    Equality before the law

    Public trials held in a timely manner

    Reasonable access to the law for redress of grievances

    Freedom of expression

    Freedom of information

    A free press

    The division of power between different organs of the state

    The executive arm

    legislative arm


                The civil

                The police


    Because the system is in tension with each power group eager
    to expose wrongdoing on the part of the others corruption is held within
    reasonable bounds. Corruption is of course not limited to the sexual
    exploitation of minors. Financial corruption, abuse of power and exploitation
    of women and minorities is also reduced.


    I don’t know to what extent it might be possible for the
    Catholic Church to become more like a modern state but I think you can see the
    scale of change necessary if one really wants a permanent solution.

  • Jpcogan

    *Zing* went the point over your head, deliberately, I would guess.

  • Jpcogan

    No, my question was fairly specific. Why is the IPU a “vacuous intellectual cliche”, other than because you say so? You seem to use this a stock response to anything you can’t answer.

  • Jpcogan

    You’re far too quick to dismiss any question you find uncomfortable as “inane”, “ridiculous”, etc. Once or twice would be understandable, but you have done so constantly and consistently. That not only fails to advance the discussion, it leaves the distinct impression that discussion is not your goal here.

    No, I do not “misunderstand” the nature of agnosticism. I do, however, also understand that anyone claiming to be “agnostic” about claims of, say, leprechauns, would be rightly looked upon as daft. So to repeat my question, why is the God of the Bible (or any other, for that matter) deserving of such a position WRT its existence?

  • Jpcogan

    Once again, “stupid”, “meaningless”, “ridiculous little game”… all words I could use in dismissing, say, Catholic doctrine without a response, but that would be just as unproductive and intellectually cowardly as the ridiculous little game of handwaving you’ve been playing throughout this thread.

  • Jpcogan

    Denounced by whom? I’d like to see far more ridicule of Islam. I can peacefully co-exist with the Roman Catholic Church; I regard Islam as an existential threat to the West, whether religious or secular.

  • Jpcogan

    Do you deliberately miss the point of practically everything said in this thread. Obviously, I’m asking why a third party should believe your claims over those made by a Hindu who claims to have received a divine revelation.

  • GordonHide

     I don’t think it’s the new atheists who are your problem. They are better described as anti-theists. They make all the noise but are only a minority of atheists. If you can steel yourselves to “turn the other cheek” and not react in kind with headlines like “New Atheism has lost its reason” they’ll probably get fed up if ignored. They need the publicity more than you do. Don’t appear in debates and on talk shows with them. If you reply to their blog posts always be cordial whatever they write and don’t make sweeping generalisations about them.

    Your problem is the empty pews which the new atheists were never going to fill anyway. Read Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul. They explain why Christianity is in retreat in the developed world and why the US is the last bastion of religiosity in the West. I have to confess that I have no idea how you can reverse the trend but I’m sure you have a better idea of the resources available to the Catholic Church to address such problems once you are clear about the cause.

    On the bright side for you the long economic downturn may do more to arrest or even reverse the trend than anything else has done in decades.

  • sorojena

    in thats case here is an interesting story that i would like you to comment on; On the 6th of February 2012, a Nigerian pastor (Christian) by the name of TB Joshua prophesied that in 60 days and African president was going to die.  He indicated that this leader was advanced in age, one of the oldest leaders. According to pastor Joshua this leader would die suddenly. In less than 60 days this prophecy proved to be true, an African leader from Malawi passed away suddenly, he was advanced in age, fitting perfectly well into Joshua’s description.  Mind you Joshua is not from Malawi, so its a bit difficult to say that he had seen this man. Question is how could Joshua make such a correct guess? He attributes his knowledge to spiritual visions. My point is that there is just more to our reality than the physical. Google TB Joshua prophecy to get more details and maybe help this believer to know the physical explanation of this so called prophecy. 

  • sorojena
  • Barry Lyons

    [I mistakenly posted this first in the comments section of the Aquinas/Dawkins piece. But even though I should have posted this here, I decided to leave it at the other.]

    “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” — Sam Harris
    To which I would add two things, for clarification: the Laws of Nature have never been suspended, and there is only the natural world and no other. It really does come to these two basic truths about the world. I can’t think of a third.

    In the “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution” Denis Dutton writes: “Philosophers…are given professional leave to concoct purely imaginary thought experiments.” I would say instead that it’s theologians who concoct purely imaginary thought experiments. Colin McGinn and Thomas Nagel don’t concoct “pure imaginary thought” because the wellspring of their thought is rooted in the real, palpable, experiential world. When McGinn writes about the nature of consciousness he is writing about something that is palpable to all of us, namely, consciousness. But to speak of “angels” or the ethereal “soul” that allegedly exists in all of us, or to believe in telepathy, or to believe that a wafer is not simply a wafer, is to engage in pure mind thought that is utterly untethered from the palpable world. To be a Catholic one must take certain “leaps of faith”. In other words, one must entertain certain ways of thinking that are divorced from (or contrary to) the real, experiential world. Here’s my question: why am I supposed to want to take this leap of faith?

    Believers like to say that atheism is just another religion. Hah. Don’t be silly. Atheism is a religion in the exact same way not collecting baseball cards is a hobby.



    Faith has everything to do with everything…  and deciding what is and what is not rational – is only one’s opinion.. THANK GOD XOXO   

  • TreenonPoet

     When I use the term ‘rational argument’, I mean one that is logically sound. Logic is no more one’s opinion than arithmetic is. (A short example: given the premise that gold glisters, the assertion “all that glisters is not gold” is logically false because that would mean that gold is not gold. If other things can glister, it would be more correct to say “some things that glister are not gold”, though less poetic.) I suspect that the reason that Logic is not a topic on the National Curriculum, despite its importance, is that it clashes with religion and we are supposed to turn a blind eye to this fact.

  • Fraser Drummond

    rather in the way that religionists know nothing about evolution

  • Fraser Drummond

    william lane craigs justifications for genocide are pretty sick

  • Jay from Philly

     Renowned atheist and warmongering chickenhawk Christopher Hitchens insisted that WMDs were found in Iraq, that Iraq caused 9/11, that Iraqis threw flowers at American troops, and that Iraq is now a flourishing secular democracy. No proof of any these ever happening exists anywhere except in the hateful pretentious screeds of Hitchens, a man who gave up living rather than face a world without American soldiers dying in Iraq. So save your lies about atheism equaling science. You atheists take things on faith on too.