The New Atheism

Among philosophers and theologians, responses to the movement sometimes labelled the “new atheism” have been varied. A personal view by Keith Ward, which the ISSR Executive Committee feels is a good starting point for evaluation of this movement, may he read by clicking here. A further piece by him – originally published in the Church Times and responding to the views of Stephen Hawking – may be read by here.

The New Atheism

Keith Ward

In the last few years a group of writers has come to world-wide prominence, widely known as the ‘New Atheists’. They have initiated a public campaign against religion, claiming it to be both irrational and harmful. They include the zoologist Richard Dawkins, philosophers Daniel Dennett and A. C. Grayling, and writers Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. They have many prominent scientific supporters, like Lewis Wolpert, Harry Kroto, and Richard Lewontin, and it is not uncommon for people to say, ‘As a scientist, I support Dawkins’. There have been organised campaigns in favour of atheism, and protests against the use of leading scientific academies to host Templeton foundation events (which seek to promote better understanding of science and religion issues).

What accounts for this outbreak of hostility to religion, and the enlisting of science as a declared enemy of religious faith? One obvious factor is the rise of Islamic terrorism. Although condemned by the vast majority of Muslims, this can give the impression that religion is a cause of violence and terror. Another factor is the rise of religious fundamentalism, which does conflict with evolutionary science in an obvious way. Creationism is a minority Christian belief, but it is an important cultural phenomenon.

Yet millions of religious believers dissociate themselves from both terrorism and fundamentalism. So there must be other factors at work. One is a revival of the legend of a historic war between science and religion, which I think is historically indefensible, but I will leave historians to deal with. (A good starting point for those wishing to explore this topic is a book edited by ISSR member Ronald L.Numbers, entitled “Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion”, published by the Harvard University Press in 2009) Another, which I intend to discuss, is a trio of philosophical beliefs: that science entails materialism, that only scientific methods can discover truth, and that all reasonable beliefs must be based on publicly available and repeatable evidence.

These beliefs entail a rejection of personal experience as a reliable source of knowledge, and the consequent down-grading of value, consciousness, and purpose as being subjective and causally inoperative by-products of a wholly material reality, of which science gives the only reliable form of knowledge.

It is extremely odd to try to make science rely on such a very highly disputed philosophy as materialism. To say that the whole of conscious experience, with its rich and value-laden content, is either reducible to physical processes in the brain or is wholly causally dependent on such processes, is a hypothesis that is far from being established scientifically, so no view which purports to rest only on the well-established findings of science should assume it to be true. It rests on a commitment to philosophical materialism, which seems to many philosophers, including me, to undermine the very basis of human knowledge, which in the end lies in conscious experience.

Materialism is indeed self-contradictory if it asserts as true the proposition that ‘only public observations of physical phenomena in space and time can count as evidence for true beliefs’, since the evidence for the truth of this proposition cannot be any set of public observations. It will not do to say that the proposition is not a truth, but simply a declaration that one will not count anything but public observation as evidence. If such a declaration is to be reasonable rather than quite arbitrary, it must be based on something like the consideration that only public observations provide useful or fruitful knowledge. But that begs the main question at issue: are our subjective experiences of value and transcendence, our struggles to understand our own lives and learn how to live well, all useless and fruitless? Are our often agonised attempts to find meaning in our lives, to face up to the anguish of despair and death, to find something worth-while in our inner struggles, to be consigned to being pointless by-products of unconscious material processes?

Perhaps here we touch the real heart of the New Atheism – a rather old atheism in fact, that reached its zenith with Nietzsche and Marx. For this is not just an abstract philosophical debate between idealism and materialism. It is a passionate debate about the value and meaning of human life and experience.

For the New Atheists belief in God is a virulent disorder of the mind and heart, and it is to be exterminated with every available rhetorical device. That is partly why the debate can get so heated, and why atheists can use such emotive language about believers, calling them not just people with a different philosophical view, but ‘unthinking’, ‘mendacious’, ‘dim’ and ‘deluded’. What is at stake is what it means to be truly human. Scientific studies are very important in investigating this question. But is it clear that science entails the materialist belief that minds are at best by-products of material processes, and that there cannot be a mind (the mind of God) that underlies and generates the existence of a material universe?

There are some indications that science does not entail such beliefs. Science confirms that there are rational and mathematically elegant laws of nature. Physical entities behave in regular, predictable, and mathematically describable ways. From Newton to Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, sophisticated mathematics has been used to decode the structures and fundamental forces in accordance with which particles interact. It looks as though nature has a beautiful and intelligible structure, a set of laws that somehow gives rise to physical realities. That does not seem like pure accident, and it is compatible with the existence of a creative intelligence.

Some cosmologists speak of the universe emerging from quantum fluctuations in a vacuum. The vacuum is not just emptiness. It is a precise balance of, for instance, the forces of inflation and gravitation, and within that balance fluctuations occur in accordance with quantum laws, which thus seem to pre-exist the physical universe.

Since there is no time ‘before time’, it is hard to see how anything can literally fluctuate before the universe exists, in order to originate the universe. We must therefore be speaking of a timeless set of possible states of affairs, one of which is this universe. There is a timeless mathematically or conceptually well-ordered but non-physical reality which exists ‘beyond’ the universe, which in some sense includes all possible states of affairs, and which gives rise to this universe as one of those possibilities.

It is not surprising that Roger Penrose sometimes calls himself a ‘Platonist’, as does Peter Atkins, one of Oxford’s evangelical atheists. Physical reality is not the ultimate reality. Underlying it there is a necessary realm of conceptual timeless truths, and this universe arises from it as, in Plato’s phrase, ‘a moving image of eternity’.

Peter Atkins thinks of the Christian God as an invisible person who irrationally interferes in nature in order to obtain parking spaces for Christian shoppers. But God, in traditional Christian thought, is precisely the supra-temporal (we might quite properly say ‘supernatural’) and necessary source of all being, which somehow encompasses all possible states of affairs and generates this universe, not arbitrarily, but for a good reason.

Some Platonists would deny that such a God is personal, though they might not object to a necessary, timeless and purely rational source of the universe. They might say that this God need not be conscious, or have any purpose. It just is necessarily what it is, and what issues from it does so without anything like intention or purpose.

Consciousness, purpose, and value are indeed crucial and contested concepts for many scientists. Some would reduce conscious states to physical brain states, would deny that there is any purpose or direction in cosmic evolution, and would insist that all values are purely subjective feelings. But these are not strictly scientific findings. They are philosophical theories which are used to put a particular interpretation on science. Those theories are put in question by at least one twentieth century worldview that arises from modern advances in science.

The problem of the relation of conscious experience to the brain, for example, is an ancient philosophical problem, and there is no agreed solution in sight. Since natural sciences are by their own self-definition concerned with the behaviour of publicly observable, measurable, and experimentally testable physical states, they cannot directly deal with conscious mental states which are not publicly observable, measurable, or subject to controlled experimental observation.

The denial that there are any such states both flies in the face of the common human belief that the way I see the world is not open to anyone else to know, and assumes that scientific knowledge is the only sort of knowledge there is (introspection and personal experience do not count).

Since the 1960s cognitive psychology has accepted the existence of mental states, and has made great advances in understanding them. But while emphasising their dependence in the human case on the brain and on an evolutionary understanding of human cognitive development, there is no necessary implication that conscious states not dependent on human brains are impossible. Such conscious states (like the mind of God) are simply not accessible to physical investigation. Science is in no position to deny their possibility. (A good review of issues in this area, by ISSR member Warren Brown, is available on the ISSR website.)

In philosophy and in quantum physics, moreover, there are some good reasons for thinking that consciousness may play an essential role in the very existence of the material world of publicly observable physical objects. After all, the world of vivid colours, varied tastes and sounds, of felt solidity and pleasing sensations, is the appearance to our consciousness of an objective reality which is very different when it is not being observed. The objective world, according to some quantum physicists, is a ten or eleven dimensional world of probability waves and superposed states, which collapse into precisely locatable particles only when measured by humanly constructed devices which prepare them for observation. The world as we see it is not the world as it is in itself. It is the product of an interaction between consciousness and what the quantum physicist Bernard d’Espagnat calls ‘veiled reality’, a reality whose objective nature is forever hidden from us.

The physicist John Wheeler has said, ‘No elementary phenomenon is real unless observed’. John von Neumann says ‘all real things are contents of consciousness’. It seems to them that consciousness constructs the world we experience, and that the objective reality with which we interact can be represented only by rather abstract though fantastically accurate mathematical models. Far from being a by-product of a clearly describable material process, consciousness seems to many quantum physicists to be something that actually selects the sort of material world we experience. Even our mathematical representations, of course, are products of our consciousness, so if we take away consciousness, it is hard to see what is left except an unknown ‘somewhat’ that produces impressions of the world in our minds.

Modern physics may leave the question of the ultimate nature of reality open, but it seems to have decisively overturned the hypothesis that reality ultimately consists of material particles located in space (the old form of classical materialism). Consciousness may be an ultimate constituent of reality, not just a by-product of matter. If both sensory experiences and mathematical truths are products of consciousness, it becomes wholly intelligible that there could be an ultimate consciousness, God, that generates both the Platonic world of conceptual realities and the common sense world of human experiences. In other words, the idea of God as a conscious reality and source of the universe is both consistent with modern physics and is positively suggested by some interpretations of quantum theory.

Once consciousness has been posited as the fundamental reality, the ideas of objective value and purpose become wholly intelligible. The best reason for the creation of anything is the satisfaction of creating and contemplating states that are good and worth-while in themselves, states of goodness and beauty. These states will be objective values, and the universe will have the purpose of realising a set of such states (which, in a free universe, may be necessarily bound up with many possible disvalues).

Scientists, especially biologists, sometimes reject any notions of purpose in evolution, on the ground that the processes of nature seem random or morally arbitrary. But if there are general laws of nature, nothing is truly random. As Charles Darwin said, in a letter to T.H.Farrer, ‘If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance i.e. without design or purpose’. (A review of Darwin’s religious beliefs by ISSR President John Hedley Brooke may be found on the ISSR website.) The universe has a purpose if it inevitably produces worth-while states through an elegant and efficient process. The laws of nature are elegant and efficient, and they have produced many states of beauty, understanding, and creativity that are immensely worth-while.
Many modern physicists see the universe, not as a machine endlessly and pointlessly grinding out repetitive manoeuvres, but as a holistic and open emergent system. It successively realises a diverse range of possibilities as it grows more complex, emergent properties like consciousness arise within it, and it is creatively open to develop in new directions. Of course not every particular part of the system will develop – bacteria are quite happy to be bacteria, and they are very good at it – and of course in any creative and open system there will be dead-ends and regressions. But the history of the universe from a primeval Big Bang to successively more complex and integrated structures of heavy atoms, replicating molecules, central nervous systems, and consciousness-producing brains, can look as though it is moving, as a whole, in an inevitable direction towards the emergence of conceptual understanding and creative intelligence.

This may be only one possible world-view that is suggested by modern science, but it is a rational and consistent one, not just a mass of conflicting superstitions, as the new atheists claim. It is wholly consistent with modern science to see the universe as a rational and elegant totality. Humans are an integral part of the material universe, not an alien intrusion into matter. Freedom (open-ness) is a fundamental characteristic of the universe, which has great consequences for its future. The existence of a cosmic consciousness is a coherent and plausible hypothesis for understanding the nature of physical reality. Science at its best supports the search for fuller understanding of the universe, sensitive appreciation of its amazing intricacy, beauty, and power, and the creative shaping of its future possibilities for good. Science embodies a hope, a faith commitment, that such a moral goal and purpose is achievable, for it is built into the essential possibilities of the universe at its origin.

There will continue to be naturalistic and reductionist accounts of science, which allow no place for God – but it is important to recognise that such accounts rule out God by definition, and represent only one highly controversial philosophical opinion. There is a quite widely held scientific worldview of the universe as holistic, open and emergent, and as grounded in a supra-temporal, beautiful and intelligible reality which may be in some sense conscious and value-oriented.

Scientific and Religious Exlanations

It is important to see that religion need not be a competitor with science. It is quite mistaken to see religious practices, whether simple or sophisticated, as early attempts at science –as trying to explain why thunder occurs, for example, by looking for some hidden physical causal structure, perhaps supposing that some sky-being walks on the clouds. That example may seem fantastic, and it is – but it has been proposed by at least one modern atheistic philosopher as an allegedly serious account of early religion.
This, however, is an example of how some modern critics of religion seem wilfully to misrepresent religion as some sort of outmoded science. They rarely study religious phenomena seriously, or try to understand what motivates intelligent people, whether in tribal forests or international cities, to have religious beliefs. A serious study of religions will show that most believers are not motivated by questions of how things work. They do not spend long hours closely observing and recording their observations, or trying to discern some pattern of regularities in physical behaviour, looking for hidden causal structures, or trying out ways to control and improve their environment. These are the marks of a true scientist.

Some assertions about God can superficially sound like scientific attempts at explanation. If we say, ‘God created the world’, that sounds like a scientific explanation. It explains why the world is the way it is, and why it exists, by positing a hidden cause, God. But the surface grammar is misleading.

That is because scientific and religious explanations are different in kind. Scientific explanations generally refer to data that are in principle observable and publicly testable. They can ideally be formulated in mathematical equations, or at least the data they deal with can be measured and quantified.

A good deal of physics and biology consists in positing atomic or molecular structures whose existence will account for closely observed physical behaviour. Experiments are devised that may verify the existence of such structures, and schemes of classification are invented that enable us to understand them more clearly. Good scientific theories enable us to predict and control physical processes, to produce nuclear fission or genetic control mechanisms.

When a believer says, ‘God created the world’, this does not show that an average church-going congregation possesses advanced scientific skills and interests. The statement is not the result of close observations carried out in many different situations, of repeated experimental testing, and of attempts to compete with Stephen Hawking in providing a mathematical model for the Big Bang. Religious statements about creation are not just bad science. They are not science at all.

For many people, the world that we see and touch and feel is a world of appearances, dependent on a deeper underlying reality of Spirit, of consciousness, wisdom, and beauty. The whole of space and time is an expression, half-revealing and half-veiling, of this time-transcending, eternal reality. The sense of such a transcendent presence, known in and through the finite universe – what the later Schleiermacher called ‘the sense of absolute dependence’ –  is part of the sense of God. To have that sense is to believe in creation.

‘God created the world’ does not give an ordinary causal explanation of some hidden physical reality that preceded this universe in time, that we could experimentally test, describe in a neat mathematical algorithm, and perhaps use to create improved universes in future. Creation speaks of the dependence of every time upon time-transcending Spirit, and it is something that is sensed, apprehended, or felt, rather than posited as a hidden causal structure. Indeed, God could not be a hidden causal structure, since God is not at all physical or subject to any causal laws, which belong only to created universes.

That is basically why God is not, and could not be, part of a strictly scientific explanation. God is not publicly observable, is not subject to experiment, does not act in accordance with mathematically describable regularities, and God’s acts cannot be predicted in measurable or testable ways.

For that now virtually extinct tribe of philosophers, the Logical Positivists, that meant that the existence of God could not be a matter of fact. This is a view repeated by Richard Dawkins when he says that the existence of God must be a ‘scientific hypothesis’. Matters of fact, the Positivists said, must be verifiable or falsifiable by sense-experiences, at least in principle. Even if that were true, however, it would not mean that all factual statements are scientific statements. For example, the statement that I am now sitting in a room in Oxford is certainly a factual statement, but I would not expect anyone to dignify it by calling it a scientific statement. It is not part of any theoretical explanatory scheme. It is a common-sense statement, and modern science is often far from common-sense, as is readily seen if you try to read texts on quantum cosmology.

Is ‘God exists’ a common-sense statement, or part of a scheme of theoretical and publicly testable explanation of physical structure or behaviour? Well, it is not quite either. The term ‘God’ is highly theory-laden, and while it is based partly on the sense of transcendence I have just adduced, and often on a positive experience of the benefits of religious practice, it has moved some way beyond that in the works of major theologians. It has become part of an explanatory scheme, but not a scientific explanatory scheme. It is axiological explanation, which in the case of ‘God’ is generalised to cover the whole cosmos.

Axiological explanation is the explanation of a process in terms of value. It has four major elements. First is the identification of some state or process as of intrinsic value, as being worth choosing for its own sake alone. This entails the second element, which is awareness of a range of alternative states on the basis of which such an evaluation could be made. Third is the assumption that a choice can be made. And fourth is the conscious appreciation and enjoyment of the value, without which all values would remain merely hypothetical rather than actual.

Such explanation presupposes that intrinsic values do exist, that there is consciousness both of their possibility and actuality, that purposive choices can be  made (choices made for the sake of realising a specific value), and that there are feelings or desires that can in principle be satisfied.

Axiological explanations are not usually used in the natural sciences, and none of the factors just mentioned can be publicly verified or established to the satisfaction of everyone. Strictly physical sciences do not ask whether anything is of intrinsic value, they set aside questions of consciousness and of subjective feelings, and they are extremely wary of speaking of purposes or goals in natural processes. The human sciences, like some forms of psychology and economics, may introduce such topics, but they usually retain a primary interest in recording publicly observable behaviour, in collecting data that can be measured in some way, and in attempting to frame significant generalisations that can be tested in varying contexts. They are usually content to record trends and correlations rather than to frame precise ‘unbreakable’ laws, and they are usually keenly aware of the many exceptions and unique cases that will qualify their general conclusions.

To give an axiological explanation of the whole cosmos would be to identify the intrinsic values that it realises, to suppose that the cosmos is selected from a number of alternatives precisely because it realises those values, and therefore to postulate that there is a consciousness – call it ‘God’ – that envisages, selects, and appreciates those values. This could not, as in the human case, be a matter of recording the publicly observable behaviour of such a trans-cosmic consciousness, or of measuring its behaviour, or of framing testable generalisations about it that would apply to all gods of the same sort, at least not if there is in principle only one God.

God is by most definitions a unique case, and is not a physically observable object, so it is hard to see how any physical descriptions or scientific generalisations could be offered in the case of God. This means there could be no scientific explanation of God’s actions. Nevertheless, God could function as an explanation of why the cosmos exists as it does – namely, for the sake of the values that it realises and that God, and perhaps other agents, can enjoy.

Once God has been introduced as a key concept in an axiological explanatory scheme, it becomes unsatisfactory to regard God as one personal being among others, who just happens to exist and be what God is. God’s consciousness is utterly inaccessible to humans, since God has no locatable physical body to express divine thoughts and feelings. Moreover, it is a consciousness that is not dependent on some complex physical structure like a brain, so it has a sort of causal priority over matter that is quite unfamiliar to us. God does not know things, as we do, through sense-organs. God’s knowledge is direct and unmediated, and it will cover not only the whole universe, but also all the alternative universes that could possibly exist.

Moreover, God’s desires and acts will not be whimsical or arbitrary. God will discern the true nature of all intrinsic values, and God’s creative acts will be governed by that discernment. Thus for most theologians, as for Plato and Aristotle, the being of God will itself be of supreme intrinsic value, since it contemplates all possible values without change, frustration or decay. God is the supremely Good and Beautiful, and that is, from an axiological viewpoint, the best of all reasons for the existence of anything.

Similarly God’s agency would not be one among others, but would be one source and origin of the whole cosmos. As such it would be beyond space and time, as their origin. Its knowledge and agency would thus be vastly different from ours. In the case of God, uniquely, there is no question of selecting one specific God from a set of possible alternatives, since the being of God already contains every possible alternative in itself, and without God no possibilities would exist. So God, the supremely Good, does not just happen to exist by chance. As the cause of all time, change, and possibility, God cannot be brought into being or changed or destroyed. If there is a God, then God cannot fail to exist.

It is doubtful whether such a being should be called a ‘person’ in any normal sense. The Supreme Good that cannot fail to be, that is self-existent and perfect in actuality, is as far superior to human consciousness and personality as our consciousness is to that of a mouse or a beetle. Such a timeless, changeless and ultimate conscious cause of all would not have a particular personality, capable of developing and of being influenced by others. Yet, in having some form of consciousness and purposive causality, it would not be less than personal. So it can be seen that the theological idea of God is a rational development of the basic sense of God from which theistic belief naturally begins.

I suggest that this developed theological idea of God as the supreme case of cosmic axiological explanation places the original and natural idea of God as a personal basis of the universe in a coherent and elegant explanatory scheme. To assert the existence of such a God is certainly to make a factual claim, a claim about how things are. God is the spiritual creator of the physical universe. But this is not a scientific claim. It does not offer any particular physical explanation of how the universe came into being, and it does not offer publicly verifiable and experimentally testable evidence for the existence of God.

However, it would be quite wrong to say that it is irrational, or that it is based on no evidence. Belief in God is rational, because it is based on our most basic intuitions about consciousness and intentional agency, and because it can be developed as the key concept of a coherent and elegant metaphysical worldview. It is based on evidence, the evidence of personal conscious experience, of experience of value, especially in morality and art, and experience, within a religious context, of liberation from egoism and conscious unity with a supreme Good.

Not all good evidence is public or experimentally testable. We all know our private thoughts and feelings in ways no-one else can. And it would actually be immoral to devise experimental tests for whether people we know really love us. The deepest personal relationships depend upon commitment and trust, upon the cultivation of a rich inner complex of thoughts and feelings that we can never fully express, and upon loyalties that go beyond what we could strictly demonstrate to be the case.

Ironically, Logical Positivism, the philosophy that made verification the lynch-pin of its whole system, was unable to establish the possibility of public verification, since it remained always uncertain whether the public even existed, as a set of other minds not directly verifiable by the senses. Verification of some sort is important. But why should it be limited to external sense-experience, and why should anyone insist that it has to be conclusive, in a world as transient and ambiguous as this? Intimations of transcendence and of value are sorts of verification. Science does not deal with them, but there is no reason for science to deny them. The proper concerns of science lie elsewhere.


The ‘new atheists’ argue that acceptance of science is incompatible with belief in God. I hope I have shown that the case has not been made. Science does not imply philosophical materialism. There are sorts of truth – especially in morality, art, philosophy, and religion, but also in ordinary human experience – that cannot be established by the natural sciences. And many important truths about human experience cannot be publicly verified.

There are, in my view, five important respects in which these writers actually fail to meet the canons of rationality that they supposedly insist upon.

They have no initial sympathy with religious language, practices, or beliefs, and thus neglect the first principle of critical rationality, which is to appreciate and state one’s opponents’ views as fully and fairly as possible.

They do not admit the limits of scientific theory, and that there are many factual questions which fall outside any such theoretical framework.

They do not see or admit the philosophical weaknesses of materialism, and the strength of more theistic views, which have been almost universally espoused by the Western philosophical canon.

They fail to draw an important distinction between the well-attested findings of natural science and the wider worldviews of a philosophical nature, like materialism, that remain underdetermined by science.

And they have a deeply emotional antipathy to the idea of a moral and spiritual purpose for human life, which antipathy is rooted in a view of religion as anthropomorphic, literalistic, life, joy, and freedom-denying. To characterise all religion in this way is to fail to make important discriminations between various kinds of belief in God.

Belief or disbelief in God, like all beliefs entailing definite practical commitments, can be a highly emotional matter. But there is a place for reason in considering such beliefs. It is ironic that those new atheists who like to place themselves under the banner of reason, themselves break some of the basic canons of rational discussion, and that they espouse a worldview that makes it very hard to justify the value of rational enquiry as a means to discovering truth.

In conclusion, I stress that this essay expresses my personal viewpoint as a philosopher and a theologian. It should begin, not end, rational discussion. But I hope to have shown that rational discussion of science and religion is both possible and fruitful, and that its major questions are far from having been finally resolved.

By | 2017-01-13T13:21:13+00:00 January 6th, 2017|Categories: ISSR Statements|

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