I am an atheist, and I spend most of my time asking questions about value, or, for lack of a better term, meaning, in my life. This tends to be the disposition of people who are attracted to philosophy. Perhaps this is why I am so puzzled that another purported philosopher, Stanley Fish, has taken it upon himself to attack the so-called “new atheists”* in his weekly New York Times blog. Fish’s straw-man charge, which he makes second-hand, via his review of a book with an identical thesis, is that the new atheists (people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) have somehow failed to take seriously the fact-value distinction. He correctly observes that science alone cannot answer questions of value, then quotes a number of annoying platitudes about the purpose of theology, before coming to the unremarkable conclusion that reason alone still leaves us in want for the meaning of life.
Fish’s blog begs for a defense of prescriptive philosophy as a legitimate place to describe meaning in a world of descriptive calculations, but, instead, he limp-wristedly defends God. Without ever offering any positive defense of superstition or religious dogmatism, he dismisses the weight of these charges by groundlessly asserting that science is its own type of superstition and scientists their own type of dogmatist. I find this kind of equivocation appalling, especially coming from a philosopher, because it is exactly this sort of bad scholarship that leaves impressionable people believing that all opinions are equally valid, that truth is relative, or that appeal to “reason” is just a manipulation of the powerful upon the weak. It is ludicrous, and it is sophistry.
As a corrective, I want to make the case that there are many of us “new atheists” who are concerned with the questions that Fish credits as being “theological” in nature. For example, anyone who has ever studied Kant (and there are many atheists among us) has worried about the question, “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” It turns out that this is a fundamental question in epistemology and metaphysics, and the fact that we are not quick to settle on an opaque and ultimately useless answer like “God did it” does not say anything about theological intuitions. It just suggests that we are intellectually honest. The same goes for questions such as “Why is there anything in the first place?” Here, the postulations of atheist philosophers are as equally legitimate as the postulations of theologians, but philosophers are quicker to catch on to the fact that neither reason nor evidence will give us the kind of answers we want for that question. Again, the only difference here is that philosophers don’t just make up the answer they want.
In the contemporary world, the fundamental disagreement between atheists and their detractors is not about the existence of God but about whether propositions premised upon the existence of God can be justifiably used in a public debate. This translates into debates over creationism, homosexuality, treatment of women, child care, and many other prominent contemporary issues, but the core point for the atheist remains the same: You need to show me evidence to convince me of your conclusion because your belief in magic is not a reason for me. It is silly to begin an attack on the new atheism by making generalizations about what atheists don’t care about because that is not a unifying feature of atheism in any way. What unifies atheists is that we demand reasonable justifications (appeals to empirical evidence, valid arguments) for our positions and for positions that affect us.
Ideas matter. No group is more aware of that than the deeply religious, and so it should not be surprising that they respond to atheists with ire or incredulity. It is appropriate that the proponent of creationism feels that he is being attacked because he IS being attacked. But it is surprising that a figure such as Fish would mock atheism from the sidelines. If Fish takes himself seriously as an intellectual, he should take the pursuit of truth seriously as well. Otherwise, he is a step below any person who seriously engages questions about God and meaning, regardless of conclusion.
* As to the distinction between “new atheism” and “old atheism,” my best guess is that we “new” atheists are a bit less scared to come out of the closet and a bit less apologetic when we do.