The Errors of the Militant Atheist

Published November 6, 2015

National Review Online

The thought that most frequently pops into my head when I read diatribes by militant atheists is “Why won’t you read a book?”

Of course, put thus, the thought is implausible. The militant atheists who get interviewed in newspapers presumably have read books. Christopher Hitchens had certainly read a lot of books. But there are good books and there are bad books, and then there are necessary books. And, clearly, they haven’t read any of the books that should, in a cultured society, be presumed necessary for participation in public debate.

Take the theoretical physicist and public speaker Lawrence Krauss. Krauss is, in a way, a perfect example, because he doesn’t even pretend to be a philosopher — unlike, say, Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins. Krauss recently received the 2015 Humanist of the Year award and delivered himself of a speech attacking religion; before that, he wrote a piece for The New Yorker that went viral, calling on scientists to attack religion.

Krauss’s belief — and it is a belief — is that religion and science are competing ways of explaining the world. Religion is based on dogma, and science is based on doubt, and those two are, at the end of the day, incompatible. One must win. I’ll let you guess which side Krauss is on.

The problem, as always, with Krauss’s case isn’t that he’s on the wrong “side,” it’s that he doesn’t understand what he is talking about, and as a result ends up spouting nonsense.

So, in the interests of, well, reason and culture, let me point to some of the most egregious errors of typical militant atheist discourse, so that we can get past it.

There is no such thing as “religion.” Some words are fine to use in everyday discourse, but become completely useless if one is trying to be conceptually precise. “Religion” is one of them. Religion is probably the most complex, the most variegated, and arguably the most profound human phenomenon. It stretches into the realms of personal experience, dogma, myth, storytelling, social organization, belief, and practice. Militant atheists often use the term “religion” as a shorthand for “dogma,” but in reality many, if not most, religions do not have dogmas. Militant atheists deride the literalistic interpretation of sacred scriptures, but, putting aside the fact that “literalism” in this sense is itself a modern phenomenon and is sidelined by many great theistic scriptural traditions, many religions do not in fact have scriptures. Sometime in the 18th century, the British informed the Indians that they had a thing called a “religion” and that this “religion” was called Hinduism. Somehow, they had got by for thousands of years without this crucial piece of information.

Any generalization that begins with the word “religion” is ipso facto meaningless. What exists, instead, are identifiable traditions, worldviews, bodies of belief and practice, and so on.

Take the “religion” versus “reason” dichotomy. Is there a conflict between religion and reason? Well, that’s a meaningless question. Many faith traditions have struggled with this question and have come up with different answers. Within Christianity, the Roman Catholic tradition has spent literally 2,000 years wrestling with this very question and has produced a considerable body of thought harmonizing its, yes, dogmas with what it understood as the best of philosophy. In fact, Roman Catholic doctrine actually condemns as a heresy the proposition that reason and faith are incompatible (and, speaking personally, that is one of the chief reasons why I am a Roman Catholic). Maybe the Catholic synthesis fails, but to demonstrate that one would have to actually address its actual claims based on their merit and not just throw around meaningless platitudes. By contrast, also within Christianity, the fideistic tradition represented by writers like Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard affirm that faith is in some sense opposed to reason. They think of faith’s unreasonableness — the reckless universal love shown by Christ, say, or the profundity of spiritual experience — as part of its appeal. And, especially outside the West, some traditions simply have nothing to say about the question, because they do not work with those kinds of concepts.

The point here is that most militant atheists fail to say anything actually meaningful, fail to say things that are even wrong, out of ignorance. They would have to actually learn something about the things they want to talk about; they would have to make an effort to stop suspending their critical faculties. I get it: It’s hard.

Religion and science sometimes do, and sometimes don’t, conflict. Krauss is known for his opposition to the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” — that is to say, the idea that science and religion are simply about two different things, and that therefore there is not, or should not be, competition between the claims of science and religion.

Well, again, the problem here is one of conceptual confusion. Since there is no such thing as “religion,” the idea is meaningless.

Some religions do make empirical claims, which can be investigated empirically. For example, as David Bentley Hart pointed out, we now know that the sun is not a god named Tonatiuh, at least not one who must be fed with human sacrifice every morning lest he stop shining, since we have withheld his meals for a few centuries now without being plunged in total darkness. Creationists deserve all the abuse they get (or almost, perhaps) from both scientists and serious biblical scholars.

Different religious traditions view things differently. The militant atheist philosopher A. C. Grayling often contrasts the supposed dogmatism of Christianity with the supposed open-mindedness of the ancient Greeks, but one of the counts of accusation against Socrates was investigating “the things beneath the earth” — that is to say, doing science, or proto-science. After all, if you went to the top of Mount Olympus, you might find out Zeus doesn’t live there. By contrast, the medieval schoolmen, on the basis of the ancient Christian beliefthat God is the Truth, and also the Logos, or the Word, the rational principle indwelling all things, affirmed that all knowledge is in principle noble as an entry into the mind of God, and made “natural philosophy” — that is to say, science as the medievals understood it — a mandatory part of the university curriculum.

Here we have two radically opposed approaches, both motivated by “religion.” Platitudes won’t do. You have to actually know what you’re talking about, and face up to specific claims, specific data. One would think a scientist would like that sort of mandate.

For the record, the position of most of the great developed theistic traditions, at least in the West, is that if you see a conflict between science and religion, you’re dealing either with bad science or with bad religion (as I said, within Catholicism, this is treated as an axiom). For example, in the late 19th century, the theory of polygeny — that different human groups had evolved from different origins — an offshoot of Darwinism, was used to promote so-called “scientific racism.” Christians who objected on the grounds that the Bible describes all the human race as descending from Adam and Eve were dismissed as obscurantists. The problem in the conflict was bad science. By contrast, the post-Renaissance Biblical exegetes, mostly found within Protestantism, who objected to heliocentric theories on scriptural grounds were doing bad religion.

And some religions not only make empirical claims but are positively anxious that they be investigated. The claim that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead is an empirical claim, and nowhere in the New Testament do we find its authors arguing, say, that one should believe it because doing so produces an overwhelmingly pleasant feeling. Instead, they are all stubbornly insistent on the facticity of the event, and argue for it on the basis of eyewitness testimony. And many have looked at the evidence concerning the birth of the Christian Church and concluded, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Which brings us to one last point:

Evidence for a type of claim must be of the same kind as that for the claim being made. In debates about the existence of God, militant atheists inevitably bleat a demand for “evidence.” But “evidence,” like “religion,” is a slippery term. Theists frequently, and loudly, insist on putting forward their evidence for the existence of God.

Science, at least in the sense defined by the scientific revolution, is a process for formulating non-obvious, reliable predictive rules through controlled experiment. This means that not all claims are scientific claims and only a specific type of claim is scientific. Scientific claims are claims that can be validated or falsified through a scientific process — namely, controlled experiment. When the physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously dismissed a paper as “not even wrong,” that was what he meant: Because the claim made could not be adjudicated by scientific means, it did not even qualify as a scientific claim, and therefore could not even be proven wrong.

Some people claim that only scientific claims are meaningful, but this is clearly nonsense. Scientific claims are one specific type of empirical claim, but, for starters, there are plenty of other meaningful empirical claims one can make.

The claim “I had John over for dinner at my house last night” is clearly an empirical claim, clearly meaningful, and yet clearly not scientific. One cannot design a scientific experiment to prove the claim, but one can still produce evidence for (“Here’s a selfie we took over dessert”) or against (“But Sally said she saw you down at the pub last night”). But for the evidence to be meaningful, it has to be of the same kind as the claim being made.

Another type of empirical claim is “Julius Caesar invaded Gaul.” What type of empirical claim is this? It’s a historical claim. It’s not a scientific claim — even if you could reproduce the invasion of Gaul in a lab, it wouldn’t tell you anything about what actually went on over 2,000 years ago. But it’s clearly a meaningful claim, and one that can be empirically investigated — using evidence of the same kind as the claim itself, that is to say, historical evidence. Similarly, then, of the claim “Jesus of Nazareth was publicly executed, and found three days later alive, possessed of a body, with open wounds and yet uninconvenienced by them.” Christians do, in fact, provide voluminous evidence to support the claim. Maybe the evidence is not enough to prove the claim, but it is clearly admissible evidence — historical evidence.

Now, are there meaningful non-empirical claims?

Well, yes. There are claims of logic, for starters.

The claim (a + b)^2 = a^2 + b^2 + 2ab is not an empirical claim in any meaningful sense of the word. It is a logical claim, and a specific type of logical claim — a mathematical claim. The evidence for or against it must be of the same type: mathematical. You can’t design an experiment to prove it, and it wouldn’t make sense to say that it’s true because Caesar invaded Gaul. It wouldn’t make sense either to say that all the great mathematicians have believed it — you have to actually respond to the claim on its merits.

Are there non-mathematical claims of logic? Well, yes. There are the laws of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction.

And then there are metaphysical claims. Metaphysical claims are claims based on a certain type of logic — metaphysical logic. For example, the claim that a universe of finite causes cannot explain its own existence and so must find its source in some infinite ground of existence, an uncaused cause, is a logical claim, which can be debated using a specific set of logical tools, just like mathematical claims. Maybe it’s wrong. But it’s a logical claim, not a scientific claim.

I point this out because, circling back to Krauss, this sort of confusion is endemic. Krauss in fact wrote a whole book-length non-sequitur about this: a book titled A Universe from Nothing, which became a New York Times best-seller and in which, as the title indicates, he tries to argue that physics supports the idea of a universe appearing out of nothing. He writes: “What would be the characteristics of a universe that was created from nothing, just with the laws of physics and without any supernatural shenanigans?” Well, “just the laws of physics” is not nothing. So, yes, if you define “nothing” as “not nothing,” you can account for the universe appearing from “nothing.”

And this is the basic error: Because science can only adjudicate empirical claims — and indeed only one specific type of empirical claim — it cannot, by definition, adjudicate non-empirical questions, such as why empirical claims are possible to begin with. Theistic claims about the creation of the universe are logical claims; these claims may be wrong, but they cannot be adjudicated with science. (And in this specific sense, certainly, the magisteria do not overlap.)

Here’s the problem with all these false dichotomies: At bottom, they come from, and reinforce, illiteracy. And while sophisticates can, and too often do, produce their own exquisite forms of barbarism, widespread illiteracy probably inexorably leads to barbarism. A scientist who doesn’t understand anything about epistemology, or religion, or philosophy, and gets on his soapbox is a joke. A scientist who does all these things and as a result is on best-seller lists and gets published in The New Yorker is a symptom of a serious social disease. Never mind the science-versus-religion “debate,” such as it is — widespread confusion about science’s epistemological framework is producing a lot of shoddy science, and that should have us all concerned.

In his New Yorker article against the presence of religion in public life, Krauss writes: “It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science.” But as pro-lifers, both religious and secular (yes. they’re out there) point out relentlessly, going blue in the face, it is a scientific fact that human life begins at conception. Now, the belief that every human being has an intrinsic dignity that ought to be protected in law is not a scientific proposition, it is a metaphysical one, one that many militant atheists loudly insist can be sustained without belief in God. That debate can be resolved in a great many ways, but it actually exists.

That Krauss, while singing the praises of an epistemic of doubt, blithely evinces absolutely none about the nature or value of human life — he only needs to know what “religious” people oppose to know what he’s for — merely shows that he’s ignorant and intellectually lazy. That he can write this in the pages of a magazine that is supposed to be a beacon of American intellectualism without rebuke, or even throat-clearing, from his ideological fellow-travelers shows that the illiteracy is widespread and cultural. Such confusions stem from the false dichotomies I’ve been trying to destroy. If someone opposes abortion and is a Christian, the implicit worldview of most of the staff and readership of The New Yorker goes: He must do so on “religious grounds” — that is to say, not “rational grounds” or “scientific grounds.” But this is just nonsense on stilts. It is on scientific grounds that pro-lifers believe that life begins at conception; that this life ought to be protected in law can be justified on the basis of reason, or faith, or both.

Now, none of this is to say that there is a God (though there is) or that abortion is wrong and should be illegal (though it is, and it should be). But it is simply to demonstrate that we have arrived at a peculiar moment when our elite institutions and discourse seem to be utterly ignorant of their own philosophical and cultural legacy. The institutions we live in and through, whether the scientific revolution or liberal democracy or the concept of human rights, were built and explored by great thinkers, who in turn were grounded in great traditions of rational speculation (that is to say, of philosophy), and it is mystifying and, frankly, very scary that we have arrived at this moment of what can only be called cultural amnesia — an amnesia so profound that we have not only forgotten, we’ve forgotten that we’ve forgotten.

— Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a writer based in Paris, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist at

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today