Philosopher Edward Feser posts an interesting, albeit smarmy, taxonomy of atheist attitudes. It's worth checking out, but it also has a "most hostile atheist attitude" that needs to be taken to the woodshed.
Feser calls this the position of "vulgar cranks" such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, P.Z. Myers, and Jerry Coyne.
According to Feser, this vulgar attitude has very little regard for the theoretical aspect of religion, defined as religion's "metaphysical commitments and the way in which its practical teachings are systematically articulated":
1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.Notice the identification of this as the level-one attitude. It's counterpart on the practical side, religion's "moral teachings and rituals," is categorized as the A level by Feser:
A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of. The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition. Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry. Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history. Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context. They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.Thus, the A1 atheist is the New (or Gnu) Atheist.
Feser goes beyond clever categorization, however. His real argument is that the A1 atheists are mean poopyheads who really don't know what they're talking about. The A1s, he says,
are invariably the ones who are the least well-informed about what the religions they criticize actually believe, and the least rational when one tries to discuss the subject with them. And when you think about it, even before one gets into the specifics it is pretty clear that A1 is prima facie simply not a very reasonable attitude to take about at least the great world religions. To think that it is reasonable, you have to think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations -- Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al. -- had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition, more or less rationally groundless and morally out of sync with the deepest human needs. And that simply isn’t plausible. Indeed, it’s pretty obviously ridiculous. Even if all religious belief turned out to be wrong, it simply is not at all likely that its key aspects -- and especially those aspects that recur in most or all religions -- could have survived for so long across so many cultures and attracted the respect of so many intelligent minds unless they had some significant appeal both to our intellectual and moral natures.And Feser finally gets around to his own version of the New-Atheists-as-religious-fundamentalists argument, as we knew he would:
When one considers the prima facie implausibility of the A1 attitude together with the ill-informed smugness and irrationality of those who approximate it, it is pretty clear that its roots are not intellectual but emotional -- that it affords those beholden to it a sense of superiority over others, an enemy on which to direct their hatreds and resentments, a way to rationalize their rejection of certain moral restraints they dislike, and so forth. In other words, A1 atheism is pretty much exactly the sort of ill-informed bigotry and wish-fulfillment A1 atheists like to attribute to religious believers.Although one can quibble convincingly at Feser's descriptions, let's accept them. And let's accept for argument's sake that Gnus indeed hold the A1 position. Now, let's think a bit about Feser's assertion:
A1 is prima facie simply not a very reasonable attitude to take about at least the great world religionsFeser will apparently tolerate dissing any cult or religion, so long as it is not one of the "great" ones. But you gotta respect the greats, he says. For them, the A1 position really is unreasonable.
Enough of my mocking. Truthfully, I see nothing wrong with asking what the serious intellectual content of a "great" religion is, and why our default attitude toward it should be one of taking it seriously. The A1 attitude is extreme--no question--but it is not unreasonable, despite Feser's objection:
To think that it is reasonable, you have to think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations -- Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al. -- had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition, more or less rationally groundless and morally out of sync with the deepest human needs. And that simply isn’t plausible.Contra Feser, I think it surely is plausible. Why couldn't these thinkers--great though they are--have been mistaken, bigoted, superstitious, fast-and-loose with reason, and at some distance from human moral needs? If we evaluate these thinkers by contemporary definitions of bigotry, superstition, rationality, morality, and understanding of human nature, then all of them fall short in many respects.
This is not unfair or unduly harsh. This is, rather, as it should be. The religiosos were wrong. We see that now. It's cool, and we can move on from it.
But what about the rest of Feser's appeal in the paragraph we have been studying?
Even if all religious belief turned out to be wrong, it simply is not at all likely that its key aspects -- and especially those aspects that recur in most or all religions -- could have survived for so long across so many cultures and attracted the respect of so many intelligent minds unless they had some significant appeal both to our intellectual and moral natures.That Feser's in deep water here is evident in light of earlier comments. Religion's "significant appeal" lasts insofar as one ignores the force of contemporary insights into "our intellectual and moral natures." Dismiss the picture of "free will" or "the soul" being drawn by modern neuroscience and one can remain attached to religion. Otherwise, such concepts as free will and the soul become so highly problematic as to be eliminated from serious consideration as hypotheses about reality.
Feser can hardly fault any atheist for viewing religious belief as superstition. To an atheist, theism is a form of superstition. Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia's four species of superstition:
improper worship of the true God (indebitus veri Dei cultus);An atheist sees any worship to any god as improper. Similarly, any worship is idolatry. Messianic impulses and assertions of going to heaven or hell are forms of divination. Eucharistic practices, baptism, inviting in Elijah the prophet for Passover, and so forth are all examples of vain observance.
vain observances, which include magic and occult arts.
Intellectual necessity impels the atheist to view religion as superstition, not hostility.
Feser's problem, if I may be so bold, is that he doesn't take the A1 position seriously, and he should. He waves it away as prima facie unreasonable and implausible, but he ought to work harder to examine religion from the logical position represented by A1. This is the position that wants to define "serious intellectual content" from the ground up. For example, Augustine doesn't get a free pass as serious intellectual content because his books are popular and influential. Neither does religious practice escape scrutiny for being "traditional" or even "universal."
The A1 position is extreme. It may even appear aggressive. But it is an intellectually productive position precisely because it is provocative. Those of us who aspire to intellectual growth often appreciate intellectual provocation. Although Feser and his camp may object, asserting that the Gnus say nothing new or philosophically interesting. To them I reply, "you're not really listening."