Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) described “New Atheists” as early twenty-first century atheist authors promoting atheism.
The “New Atheist” label for these critics [that include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens] of religion and religious belief emerged out of journalistic commentary on the contents and impacts of their books. A standard observation is that New Atheist authors exhibit an unusually high level of confidence in their views. Reviewers have noted that these authors tend to be motivated by a sense of moral concern and even outrage about the effects of religious beliefs on the global scene. It is difficult to identify anything philosophically unprecedented in their positions and arguments, but the New Atheists have provoked considerable controversy with their body of work.( The New Atheists, pub. James E. Taylor, IEP)
Taylor explained that “New Atheist authors share the central belief that there is no supernatural or divine reality of any kind.[…] The moral component is the assumption that there is a universal and objective secular moral standard.”
To avoid painting all atheists with a single brush, I have used New Atheists in this article as described by Taylor.
Friedrich Nietzsche And English Flat Heads
As New Atheist, Mary Anne Evans, also known as G. Eliot, rejected the existence of God yet held to objective humanistic moral standard. Nietzsche notices that by getting rid of Christian God, a person cannot cling on Christian (Objective) moral standard. Nietzsche mounded ridicule upon G. Eliot and her fellow. Only “English Flat Heads” would not see the consequences of the death of God.
Nietzsche expounded the “English inconsistency” in rejection of supernatural reality and yet clinging to objective moral standard. He explained that “They [English Flat Heads] are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality […] By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands”(Nietzsche 1982: 69-70)
What Nietzsche was trying to show, is that if God does not exist, then “There are altogether no moral facts”(ibid, 55) Morality explained Nietzsche “has truth only if God is the truth – it stands or falls with faith in God”(1968: 70). Though I would substitute “faith in God” with “existence of God”, since its ontological base of morality, and not epistemological that is in question, I believe Nietzsche is correct. With the death of God comes the death of objective moral values and duties.
Jean-Paul Sartre resonates with Nietzsche in showing that by abandoning God namely God does not exist, “it is necessary to draw the consequences of his [God] absence right to the end.” Sartre also noticed the inconsistency of French professors’, towards 1880, secular morality. As New Atheists and Nietzsche’s G. Elliot “English Flat Heads”, these professors, according to Sartre, believed that “nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself.” He explained:
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.”(Sartre 2007: 28)
If there is no supernatural or divine reality then there is no objective ontological ground to base a universal and objective moral standard. Naturalism, assumed by New Atheists, cannot account for the objective moral values and duties, if indeed objective morality exists. Wilson and Ruse expounded that; “ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate”(Ruse & Wilson 1989: 51). Ruse goes even further:
“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than our hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when someone says, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory.”(Ruse 1989: 268-9)
Ruse nailed it even further as he contended that “[t]he Darwinian argues that morality simply does not work (from a biological perspective), unless we believe that it is objective. Darwinian theory shows that, in fact, morality is a function of (subjective) feelings; but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity.”(Ruse 1998: 253).
Holding a similar stance with Paul Kurtz and Julian Baggini, Richard Dawkins correctly reiterates, if God does not exist[no designer], then “at bottom,[there is] no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”(Dawkins 1995: 85) He explained:
“Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”(Dawkins 1995: 112)
Are New Atheists Nietzsche’s “English Flat Heads”?
C. S. Lewis pointed out what Nietzsche would call “English inconsistency” as he wrote “[a] moment after they have admitted that good and evil are illusions, you will find them exhorting us to work for posterity, to educate, revolutionise, liquidate, live and die for the good of the human race”(Lewis 2001: 59) Michael Ruse, though cannot be grouped with New Atheists, perfectly fits Lewis observation as Ruse contended: “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, “2+2=5”.”(Ruse 1982: 275).
New Atheists, whom I believe Nietzsche would tag them “Flat Heads”, fail to see the necessity of drawing the consequences of the absence of God. If God does not exist, then there is no objective ontological ground for “a universal and objective secular moral standard.”
Are New Atheists Nietzsche’s “English Flat Heads”? I will let you decide as I wind up with Dawkins’ inconsistency, which I believe, is common in New Atheist’s “atheology”.
As an academic scientist I am a passionate Darwinian, believing that natural selection is, if not the only driving force in evolution, certainly the only know force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature. But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs. (Dawkins 2003: 10-11)
Question: If a New Atheist, what is the ontological ground for holding objective moral standard?
Dawkins, Richard (1995). “God’s Utility Function”, in Scientific American, November 1995,
_____________________ (1996) River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Basic Books.
____________________ (2003): A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections On Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968). Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ. New York. Penguine Books.
________________________(1982) The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. And ed. W. Kaufmann. New York. Penguine Books.
Lewis, C. S. (2001) Miracles. San Francisco: Harper Books.
Ruse, Michael & Wilson, E. O (1989). The evolution of ethics. New Scientist 17, 108-28
Ruse, Michael (1982). Darwinism Defended. London: Addison-Wesley
________________ (1989). “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics” in The Darwinian Paradigm. London: Routledge.
__________________ (1998). Taking Darwin Seriously. Amherst, NY: Primetheus Books.
Sartre, Jean-Paul (2007) Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.