By Nathaniel Torrey
It seems that the latest crop of New Atheists is having its own Reformation. In August, atheist and feminist blogger Jennifer McCreight of Blag Hag nailed her 95 theses on the blogosphere in a post entitled “How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club and Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism.”. In the post she describes the intense backlash she has received on the internet from male atheists as she has tried to bring in social justice issues into the movement. This new breed of atheism, promoting social justice and combatting racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, etc., has been christened Atheism Plus. She writes:
It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.
Since her posts she has met with even more backlash from mostly male atheist bloggers. The harassment has been so extreme, including threats of violence and sexual assault, that as of September 4th she has resigned from blogging for an indefinite amount of time.
I first want to say that it is entirely unacceptable that anyone be threatened with violence and rape simply for voicing an opinion — theistic or atheistic. It is truly abhorrent, especially for a group that esteems themselves as so enlightened, to resort to such levels of barbarity. Regardless of my disagreement with Ms. McCreight about God, no human being ought to be subject to the humiliating treatment she has received.
But this is exactly where I and atheists like the male bloggers and Ms. McCreight have to part ways. We differ exactly on the grounds for basis for how human beings ought to be treated. This extends from civility all the way to human rights. I contend that an atheistic worldview steeped in a purely materialist, mechanistic, and empirical understanding of knowledge cannot offer any coherent basis for the way human beings ought to be treated. I applaud Ms. McCreight and other issues for caring about the way human beings ought to be treated but their world view simply cannot give them any standard by which to judge the way human beings should be treated.
Any observable account of phenomena given by empirical science(I assume that for this group of atheists this is the sole criteria by which one can say to know a thing at all, that a thing is observable and measurable with a degree of rigor) can only tell simply that: what was observed and what happened, how things are. It is merely descriptive of reality. If empiricism and rationalism can only provide descriptive accounts of things, including human beings, how can we from this say how things ought to be, or how a human being ought to be treated? I can say I‘ve seen people react to certain kinds of treatment, and I can even reflect that I have felt poorly when treated similarly, but simply knowing that does not tell me that I then ought to treat people how I want to be treated. There is no proscriptive element in those observations. In respect to social justice, the poor may suffer if I don’t feed them or clothe them and women may earn less than men in certain occupations, but those facts don’t tell them an equal amount of work should get an equal amount of pay or that we should help people in need. They are just descriptions, and by a materialist account only description of matter organized different ways. There is nothing proscriptive in an empirical account of matter organized in a particular way, say human beings, and of another, say an inanimate object. There is nothing by the measured and observed account of anything that tells what one ought to do.
One could object and say that I’m being a bit dense or callous, “It’s obvious that human beings should be treated a certain way,” but by a materialistic atheists’ own account there is no way to know how human beings ought to be treated. If it can’t be measured or observed with the rigor demanded by empirical science, then it isn’t knowledge. It has been relegated to opinion, belief, or, even worse, superstition. So how can an atheist say how anyone ought to act in anything? How do we even know that to be reasonable is good? Even the standard of empiricism fails its own test: What empirical and measured observation has provided us with the knowledge that empirical and measured observation is the best form of knowledge?
This is where any demand that we ought to treat the LGBT community, or the poor, or people of different nationalities and skin color, or women, runs into trouble. The clarion call to social justice by Atheism Plus has no basis in their own belief. Their particular brand of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism has made it impossible for any kind of prescriptive behavior to be known at all. One could say human beings are compelled to care, or a particular activist may say, “I just feel it to be right” but for all the talk of rationalism and high standards of knowledge, mere feeling doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
Feelings are just that: feelings. There isn’t necessarily any prescriptive content in them either. Just because a boyfriend feels jealous, doesn’t mean he necessarily ought to feel that way. His suspicions could be misplaced. That is, he could use his reason to determine based on evidence whether or not he has a right to be suspicious. But I’m afraid the criterion for admitted evidence put in place by these atheists is insufficient for the subject at hand: ethics.
The tactic used by the New Atheists and their ilk is like using a grenade in hand to hand combat. One will most certainly kill their opponent. However, they can’t help but kill themselves as well. To set the criteria for knowledge such that no ought can be derived in order to get God out of the discussion also leaves the atheist without any standard and without any way to derive value at all.
Unfortunately for Atheism Plus and Ms. McCreight, their desires for justice are just checks that simply cannot be cashed by the way they view the world. Without an absolute or transcendent standard of how we ought to act, which they choose to banish since it cannot be an object of knowledge by the standard meted out by empirical science, any attempt at bettering the lives of people is without any basis.