The New Atheism and G.K. Chesterton

by Ethan Mack

           

 

The New Atheism has undoubtedly been the most successful “evangelical” atheistic movement in modern history. Today, more and more people are publicly declaring themselves atheists. A mere half-century years ago, doing such a thing would have resulted in semi-ostracism from mainstream American society. Even as Christian morals were largely forgotten in the 60s and 70s, belief in God remained quite high, especially in the United States. Why is it that this “New Atheism” has been so successful in bringing about unbelief in a nation that has historically had strong roots in some sort of belief in a God?

 

I’m inclined to conclude that the New Atheism’s success is largely due to the simplicity of its message. It creates a very clear dichotomy of science vs. religion and tries to show why you should accept the former and reject the latter. It claims that science is an empirical, objective build-up of facts that constantly strives to achieve a full body of knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs that are accepted with little to no grounding. When faced with this straight-forward reality, one’s path becomes immediately clear: ones should devote themselves to the truths of science and shun the uncertainty of religion. However, while this simplicity is what makes the New Atheism so appealing to a mass audience, I also find it is what ultimately undermines its philosophical groundings. The main issue I have with the New Atheism is that it’s sharp juxtaposition of science against religion ultimately amounts to a false dichotomy.  Religion and science are not in conflict in the way that Dawkins and Dennett put forth. I think this false conclusion that the New Atheists come to ultimately stems from the fact that they accept a very narrow view of metaphysics and epistemology with very little critical examination into either field.

           

One of the greatest arguments ever put forth against materialism was by G.K. Chesterton, in his fantastic book entitled Orthodoxy.  In one of the early chapters of the work, Chesterton states that the greatest error of the materialists is not that they are logically inconsistent. Quite the contrary, they describe the material universe so thoroughly that it would be unlikely that there are any problems with materialism internally. According to Chesterton, the ultimate problem with materialism is not what it puts forth, but rather what it leaves out. The sciences can’t simply be the be-all-end-all of human knowledge. There are certain aspects to human existence that are simply unaccounted for though the sciences. Questions like what is being? What is knowledge? What is the good life? What is Virtue? What is friendship? What is love? These are all unanswerable via the scientific method or the methods of natural science that preceded it. Yet trying to answer these questions is an essential, undeniable structure of human life. However, the new atheism tries to just avoid these questions or deem them unimportant, rather than address them. The New Atheism's greatest flaw is not found in what it says, but in what it fails to say.


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