New Atheism's Wardrobe Malfunction

Given the nature of the New Atheists' attack on religious belief, it is not surprising that they have come in for a lot of criticism. In one of the more irenical books which discusses the New Atheism, professor of divinity at the University of Edinburgh David Fergusson writes:[1]

..the rhetoric employed by the new atheists is often as hostile and shrill as those of the most vehement religionists … the recent criticism of religion is at times too rabid and disabling of patient and constructive debate.

One of the key criticisms of the new atheists by John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, is expressed as follows:[2]

Their understanding of religious faith remains consistently at the same unscholarly level as the unreflective, superstitious, and literalist religiosity of those they criticize.

In his scathing review of Dawkins' The God Delusion in the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton, professor of English literature at Manchester University, asks us to:[3]

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.

Eagleton later describes Dawkins as "theologically illiterate". Philosopher professor Michael Ruse from Florida State University, an atheist, condemns the New Atheists in the strongest of terms:[4]

But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. … Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group. … I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.

It is worth noting that the authors quoted above are not merely drawing attention to the ridicule and mockery in the writings of the New Atheists, but to their lack of understanding of the very subject they are criticising and their poor scholarship in general. Perhaps worst of all is the charge that their approach is just like the extreme forms of religion of which they are so critical.

One response made by Dawkins is that you do not need to study up on leprechology in order to disbelieve in leprechauns.[5] A similar response, which has gained a lot of popularity in New Atheist circles, is due to P.Z. Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota and author of the popular atheist blog Pharyngula. It is known as the Courtier's Reply and is intended to follow on at the end of the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes. Theology is the Emperor, Dawkins the little boy and theologians the courtiers. It is quoted in part below:[6]

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. … Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity. … Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste.

This is wonderful as a piece of rhetoric, but will it really do as a response? Can it be used to excuse the New Atheists' lack of knowledge of theology and the inadequate engagement with arguments for the existence of God? In an article which criticises Dawkins' argument that God almost certainly does not exist, but defends an atheistic position, philosopher Erik Wielenberg states why he is not impressed with the Courtier's Reply. He writes:[7]

I do not know exactly how much theology one needs to know to disprove the existence of God, but one needs to know at least enough theology to understand the various widely-held conceptions of God. In general, in order to argue effectively against a given hypothesis, one needs to know enough to characterize that hypothesis accurately. Furthermore, if one intends to disprove God's existence, it is hardly reasonable to dismiss criticisms of one's putative disproof on the grounds that God doesn't exist anyway.

Essentially, the idea behind the Courtier's Reply is that it is obvious (or should be to any rational person) that there is no basis for belief in God, just as it is obvious that the Emperor has no clothes. But as we saw earlier in the context of Dawkins' references to the Tooth Fairy, it is not at all obvious that there is no basis for belief in God. And even if the New Atheists think otherwise, they cannot sensibly base their arguments on such an idea on pain of circularity.

My contention is that the situation is almost precisely the opposite of that which Myers describes. It is the New Atheism which is the Emperor. The various critics, both theists and atheists, represent the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes. But what is the Emperor to do? The last sentence of the original version provides the answer:

But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.

Despite numerous criticisms of their arguments, there does not seem to be any recognition among the New Atheists or their followers that their arguments do not work. Admitting this would not necessarily mean admitting atheism is false – there are plenty of atheists who do not subscribe to the New Atheism – but it isn't just about winning arguments. The New Atheism is a programme to marginalise religion and so the procession must continue, with the New Atheists walking "more proudly than ever".

There are a couple of key differences between Myers' version and mine. Unlike Myers I am not claiming that it is obvious the New Atheists' arguments are unsuccessful. It is necessary to understand their arguments properly and the objections to them before it becomes clear that this is the case. And since the New Atheism continues to find much support, those of us who think it is unsuccessful need to keep trying to show just where it goes wrong. Another difference is that Myers' view seems to presuppose that all versions of theism are obviously without any rational basis, whereas my focus is on the New Atheism rather than atheism in general.


[1] David Fergusson Faith and its Critics: a Conversation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp.11-12.

[2] John F. Haught God and the New Atheism: a critical response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p.xiii.

[3] Terry Eagleton 'Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching' London Review of Books (19 October 2006).

[4] Michael Ruse 'Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster'. From the blog Science and the Sacred (retrieved: 30/10/10).

[5] Richard Dawkins 'Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them?' See Dawkins' website, (retrieved: 30/10/10).

[6] P.Z. Myers 'The Courtier's Reply' From Myers' blog Pharyngula (retrieved: 30/10/10).

[7] Erik Wielenberg 'Dawkins's Gambit, Hume's Aroma, and God's Simplicity' Philosophia Christi, 11 (2009), pp.113-128.

Atheism's New Clothes Book Cover© 2012 David Glass
Extracted from Atheism's New Clothes by David Glass (Apollos, 2012).

This resource is reproduced by the kind permission of Graham Veale and David Glass. It is taken from the Saints and Sceptics website, providing resources "for saints with doubts and sceptics with questions".