The Empiricist Has No Clothes

Korey D. Maas
Friday, February 29th 2008
Mar/Apr 2008

Christianity fell out of intellectual favor during the Enlightenment in large part because Rationalist and Empiricist critics charged it with being incompatible with all reason and evidence. At the time, sadly, the church as a whole did less than a stellar job of responding to such charges. But a funny thing happened on the way to an atheist paradise: the Enlightenment turned on itself-quite literally in events such as France's Reign of Terror, but also on the intellectual level as even über-skeptics such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant began to wage war on their colleagues' naïve confidence in "pure reason."

Such naïveté, or the hollow shell of it, is back in full force. The new philosophes are those "New Atheist" polemicists-mostly scientists overwhelmingly committed to empiricism grounded in philosophical naturalism-who have taken to excoriating Christianity in several recent best-sellers. Men such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have all the intellectual confidence and acerbic wit of Voltaire (indeed, many of their arguments, such as they are, are simply eighteenth-century rehash); but a number of their fellow atheists are less than impressed by their forays into anti-theist propaganda and the arrogance that attends it.

Even Hitchens, for example, whose own arrogance is on full display in a book unambiguously subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything, publicly chastised Dawkins and Dennett for their "cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called 'brights.'" (1) Others have astutely noted that the smug dogmatism on display in the New Atheist oeuvre bears a striking resemblance to the religious fundamentalism it condemns; it's been dubbed by many as "Darwinian fundamentalism" or "evangelical atheism." (2)

To be sure, some of this contention is carryover from earlier disciplinary feuds and has little to do with critiques of religion per se. Such is the case, for example, when the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed Dawkins' ideas as "a logically flawed and basically foolish caricature" of Darwin's, (3) even going on to lambaste Dawkins' acolyte Dennett, calling his own "limited and superficial book" a "caricature of a caricature." (4)

But such strictly scientific feuds are not irrelevant for understanding many skeptics' equally hostile criticisms of the anti-theological works penned by Dawkins et al. As Gould also noted, the fundamentalist tendency simply to anathematize opponents "rarely follows the dictates of logic or evidence, and nearly always scores distressingly high in heat/light ratio." (5) It is the utter lack of logic and evidence in the most recent atheist screeds that a growing number of skeptics and atheists themselves find most disturbing.

Representative of those embarrassed by such polemic is H. Allen Orr, evolutionary geneticist at the University of Rochester. "Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist," he recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, "I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more of an amateur." (6) Orr is clear on what prompted such a conclusion: "One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn't seem very good at it." (7) Despite Dawkins' scientific commitment to empiricism, he notes, "None of Dawkins's loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It's just Dawkins talking." (8) When (rather predictably) Daniel Dennett came to Dawkins' defense with a letter to the editor, Orr remained unapologetic, insisting Dawkins had done nothing more than "string together anecdotes and exercises in bad philosophy." (9)

The bad philosophy of the Dawkins-Dennett duo has also taken well-publicized lumps from Florida State philosopher, skeptic, and admitted "hard-line Darwinian" Michael Ruse. Corresponding with Dennett, he wrote bluntly, "I think that you and Richard are absolute disasters" in the public war on theism. (10) Once again, the warrant for such a pronouncement derives from the blatantly illogical claims of the New Atheists. In a comment that could just as well have been directed at Hitchens as at Dawkins or Dennett, Ruse rightly insisted that it is "just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil." (11) The repetition of this claim at great length by Hitchens himself has been similarly rebuffed in publications not known to be mouthpieces for Christian apologists. Shaun Doherty of Britain's Socialist Review charged Hitchens with engaging in "wilful intellectual dishonesty," concluding his piece with the short, sharp declaration that "Hitchens is a fraud." (12)

Well-founded charges of intellectual dishonesty among the New Atheists are nearly ubiquitous, even in reviews penned by those equally hostile to Christianity. Evolutionary anthropologist David Sloan Wilson complained in a Skeptics Society newsletter that Dawkins, especially, misrepresents the work of his colleagues. (13) Philosopher Antony Flew, no longer a strident atheist but certainly no defender of Christianity, concurs: "Dawkins is selective to the point of dishonesty when he cites the views of scientists." (14)

Even more revealing than comments about misrepresentations of fellow scientists, however, are those concerning disingenuous dealings with theological viewpoints. Criticizing Dennett, Doherty had to spell out the obvious: "If you want to engage critically with religious belief you have an obligation to engage with it at its most persuasive rather than simply scoring a few cheap points." (15) Apparently, this is far from obvious to the New Atheists, whose works are regularly described-again, by fellow atheists-as "trite" and "shallow," (16) "sophomoric," (17) and "deeply misinformed" (18) when it comes to the Christianity they are attempting to refute.

As Richard Dawkins is the most well-known and egregious offender, Michael Ruse is eminently justified when he complains, "I would like to see Dawkins take Christianity as seriously as he undoubtedly expects Christians to take Darwinism." (19) None of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, or Hitchens), however, offer the slightest evidence that they intend to take Christianity seriously. Then again, they don't offer much real evidence for anything. They emote, they vent, they jeer, and they cheer; but in the end it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The empiricist has no clothes. And his bedfellows know it.

1 [ Back ] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2007), p. 5.
2 [ Back ] Stephen Jay Gould, "Darwinian Fundamentalism," The New York Review of Books 44/10 (12 June 1997), p. 34. Simon Blackburn, "The Ethics of Belief," The New Republic (1 December 2003), p. 30.
3 [ Back ] Gould, p. 34.
4 [ Back ] Gould, p. 36.
5 [ Back ] Gould, p. 36.
6 [ Back ] H. Allen Orr, "A Mission to Convert," The New York Review of Books (11 January 2007), p. 22.
7 [ Back ] Orr, "A Mission to Convert," p. 22.
8 [ Back ] Orr, "A Mission to Convert," p. 24.
9 [ Back ] H. Allen Orr, "H. Allen Orr Replies," The New York Review of Books (1 March 2007), p. 49.
10 [ Back ] Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett, "Remarkable Exchange between Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett" (19 February 2006), posted at intelligent-design/the-ruse-dennett-briefwechsel-the-clash-between-evolution-and-evolutionism/.
11 [ Back ] Ruse and Dennett.
12 [ Back ] Shaun Doherty, "Review of God Is Not Great," Socialist Review (July/August 2007), accessed at
13 [ Back ] David Sloan Wilson, "Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong about Religion," eSkeptic: the Email Newsletter of the Skeptics Society (4 July 2007), posted at
14 [ Back ] Antony Flew and Benjamin Wiker, "Exclusive Flew Interview" (30 October 2007), posted at
15 [ Back ] Doherty.
16 [ Back ] Shannon Love, "The Atheist Delusion, Part 1" (6 December 2006), posted at archives/004608.html.
17 [ Back ] Michael Ruse, "Through a Glass Darkly," American Scientist (November/December 2003), p. 555.
18 [ Back ] Wilson.
19 [ Back ] Ruse, "Through a Glass Darkly," p. 555.
Friday, February 29th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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