Classical Atheists vs New Atheists

Most people know “New Atheism” as a term for the particularly militant, aggressive, populist, anti-intellectual, noxious atheism of the second half of the first decade of the 20th century, typically represented by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, lesser lights such as Michel Onfray, Victor J. Stenger, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, and their epigones.  But the thing was misnamed. There wasn’t really anything new about New Atheism, except one thing.  As Tom Flynn wrote in 2010,

New Atheism Not New

Since there wasn’t really anything new about the New Atheism, except as a popular novelty, one which has now worn off, it seems fairly safe to say that the New Atheism is more or less over.  New Atheism is passé.  It has suffered the fate of everything foolish enough to put the word “new” in its name suffers: it stopped being new, and got old, as things do.

However, just because New Atheist phenomenon has burnt out doesn’t mean that we can’t repurpose the name, which could still be useful.  This is a suggestion made by a Twitter friend of mine, @philosophynerd2, one I heartily endorse.  He suggests that we classify atheists as either Classical Atheists or New Atheists, defined as follows:

A Classical Atheist is an atheist who understands atheism to mean the denial of the existence of God, and who holds that God does not exist.

A New Atheist is an atheist who accepts Antony Flew’s redefinition of the term “atheist” and understands atheism to mean a lack of belief in the existence of God, and so is an atheist who doesn’t deny the existence of God, but only insists he does not accept the existence of God.

Flew himself used the term negative atheist to describe his new kind of atheist, as opposed to the older positive atheists.  That never caught on, since it sounds strange to call a denial of the existence of God positive (it makes sense, but it still sounds wrong to most people).

Back in the early 1990s, when I used to lurk on Usenet’s alt.atheism, the terms strong atheist and weak atheist were used to distinguish those who denied the existence of God and those who claimed in a Flewian fashion only to lack a belief in the existence of God. Sometimes the weak atheists would complain that the term “weak” made them sound a bit, well, weak.  To which the strong atheists would usually retort that they were weak, that they should man up, stop being pussies, and become strong atheists (which were still generally regarded as atheists proper).  It wasn’t that weak atheists weren’t considered atheists, but they were definitely widely considered to be an inferior or second class kind of atheist. But that was then.

I think the assessment of the strong atheists was and is entirely correct. Weak atheists are an inferior kind of atheist. They are inferior in intellectual rigor and intellectual honesty—largely because the accept not only Flew’s redefinition of atheism but also his contention that it follows from this redefinition that atheism is the presumptive “default position” and that the burden of proof in the atheism/theism debate lies entirely on the theist.  As it happens, Flew is wrong.  Neither of these things in fact follow (and are no longer taken to follow in the philosophy of religion, largely thanks to the work of Alvin Plantinga, who made such a powerful case for the rational presumption of theism that he essentially single-handedly rolled the discussion back to its pre-Flew state).

But at the same years professional philosophers of religion were working out that Flew was wrong (and Flew himself was reading Aristotle seriously for the first time, which eventually led him to theism), Flew’s ideas were trickling down into the wider population, where they have now essentially become the new atheist orthodoxy.  This has had a number of bad consequences, especially with respect to the level of atheist intellectual discourse. Since the Flewian New Atheist considers himself not to hold a position, but to win by default, he has not, as a rule, cultivated much capacity in the way of making a rational case for his position (why should he expend the effort of time and thought to make a case for a position, when he wins by default precisely by not having a position?).  Now to win, even by default, the New Atheist does still have to make some arguments, but this is limited to criticism of theistic arguments. And as everyone knows, it is much easier to criticize and tear down than it is to create and build up. It is hard to make a detailed case for something; it is fairly easy, on the other, hand to attempt to poke holes in someone else’s case.  Not many people can successfully do the former; the latter lies within the range of most mediocre intellects.

One can’t help but of think of C. S. Lewis’ characterization of two English teachers who used a watered down Emotivism and the “fact/value” distinction to ‘debunk’ all claims involving an expression of emotion or value:


Worse still, since the New Atheist believes he wins by default and that atheism is merely “a lack of belief in God”, he can claim victory (of a sort) if a theist fails to induce in him a belief in God—something which is entirely within the power of his own will to prevent.

The New Atheist, if you let him define the terms of the debate in a Flewian manner, cannot lose: he wins by default if the theist fails to persuade him to believe in God, and this is something entirely within his power to refuse to do no matter what. You can see why a certain sort of atheist likes this situation very much—I suspect they are the same sort of people who play video games on “god mode”—but these circumstances are not healthy with respect to finding out the truth. A cheap and easy rhetorical victory is substituted for a serious inquiry and endeavor to find the truth.  This is why popular Flewian “New Atheism” tends to make one anti-intellectual, lazy, dogmatic, strident, arrogant, and willful.

I think I will adopt my friend Philosophy Nerd’s technique of requiring atheists to self-identify as either a Classical Atheist or a New Atheist.  “New Atheist” seems to be a perfectly good term which either is or will shortly be in search of a new use—and since Flewian “lack of belief” atheists represent an entirely new definition of atheism, it seems like a perfect match.


6 comments on “Classical Atheists vs New Atheists

  1. Jay E. says:

    I’ve heard the New Atheists also called the Anti-Theists because the idea that somebody, somewhere might believe in God causes them to lose sleep at night.


  2. Henson813 says:

    Why do you assume all atheists, or what you would call “New Atheists”, somehow “win” when they are not convinced of this specific capital G God? It seems this boils down to you taking issue with atheists agreeing with Flew when you somehow just agree/assume Plantinga is correct in his work AND it also seems as though you are throwing up some imaginary victim card because you think atheists asking you questions is us “tearing you down” …

    How is this just not one huge straw man? How does this whole article not just boil down to “my position is right because it’s what I hold as true so no one else can have a rational position”? You assume this capital G God exists OR you have been convinced of some work someone else completed or work you have done yourself in your own thinking. If I am not convinced of either of those things up until and including this point, I am not going to believe the specific proposition that any god or your capital G God exists. I am not WINNING anything by doing this. I know I have been guilty of declaring theists silly or irrational for believing, but that is simply my view and opinion as is yours stated here. No one is “winning or losing” and the moment I read that you think this is some sort of game in which one can win or lose is just downright odd to me. Maybe that stems from argumentation labels in which someone “wins” a debate. Stroke away.

    When I, as an atheist or what you would call a “New Atheist”, says that I do not believe you, it is true that I am not asserting your specific claim is false. I am open to gods/capital G God existing but I have yet to be personally convinced. This is not a direct attack on your ability to prove things to yourself or others nor is it a tearing down of your beliefs. I can only speak for myself and I am currently not convinced any supernatural being exists. This is not me “winning” at all, but rather a charge to myself to continue my search for what is true if in fact that is all possible for humans in my own lifetime. Maybe I never believe in any gods/capital G God and maybe down the road I am convinced. If I am convinced, well then I would not consider this you “winning” either but I would have no problem if you wanted to claim your self imposed prize of a “win” if you would like.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      When I speak of “winning”, I am speaking of eristic argument—which is indeed the kind of debate one can win or lose. We have professional and formal debates in which arguers contend with one another, and one side wins, e.g. courts of law, political bodies, political debates. A debate may be taken as a kind of contest, and one may enter a debate with the intention of winning said debate. It is not necessary to speak the truth in order to win a debate. One can persuade many people by speaking false things persuasively than speaking true things ineptly. That is one of the perennial problems of the human situation.

      Socrates contrasts eristic argument with dialectical argument, which is not competitive, but cooperative. It is an exercise in which two (or more) people engage in a mutual exploration and inquiry and examination of arguments with the aim of finding out some truth, even if that is only clarifying the question(s) at issue.

      What I am accusing Flew of doing is introducing an eristic rhetorical device into the philosophical discourse with the explicit aim of furthering an agenda.

      You are aware that people do this, right? Suppose person F is convinced (a certain type of) feminism is true. She may then, safe in her assumption that her feminism is true, engage in activities designed to propagate belief in feminism that are strictly rhetorical or political, e.g. the feminist in Europe who wanted to criminalize “criticism of feminism” as an act of “hate speech.” This can be seen in the behaviors of any sort of ideological believer. Theists have often been prime examples: many Muslims are so convinced of the truth of Islam that they have no problem with the idea of making it illegal to question Islam, to criticize Islam, and a capital offense to leave Islam.

      You are just being naive—which I hope you are not—if you don’t think that atheists, secularist, or humanists can and do also behave in these sorts of ways. To take a couple obvious examples, Richard Dawkins apparently would criminalize giving a child a religious upbringing as child abuse, and Sam Harris has said that if he could “wave a wand” and remove religion from the face of the earth, he would do it. I, for one, am glad that Sam Harris does not have a magic wand—but what would he do if there were circumstances in which he attained political power? And if the circumstances were ripe for the persecution of the religious, do you not think Harris would do it? Or if not Harris, many people who would? History is REPLETE with examples of humans PERSECUTING others for their beliefs.

      If you assume that people always act out of purely reasonable and disinterested motives, you are mistaken.

      My complaint, as I think I made clear, is not entirely with the “lack of belief” position—although I think if you are honest you do think it is true that there is no such thing as God, just as you think there are no such things a fairies. Why would one go to the trouble of contorting one’s beliefs like this? Of insisting on this circumlocution of “I lack a belief that it is the case that …”? The answer, to me and many other people, is obvious: if you state your positive unbelief, your belief “it is true that God does not exist”, you will, not unreasonably, be asked to provide your reasoning and evidence for this belief. But by stating it indirectly, you can appear to escape this expectation. You can seem (although not be) a person who holds a purely “neutral” position and thus seem (although not be) a person adopting a reasonable neutrality. This works because people often equate or conflate “reasonable” and “disinterested neutrality.” This is essentially what Flew tried to do: to make atheism seem like the reasonable, neutral, “default.” But this is no more reasonable than it would be for e.g. the Democratic Party to try to make it seem like “being a supporter of the Democratic Party” is just the normal, rational, neutral, “default” position for human beings, and that one would need to make an extraordinary case to support the Republican Party. Supposing that the Democratic Party could actually do this. Do you not think they would do this? It is obvious that this sort of thing goes on all the time. Much of the political left has make great efforts to equate “conservative” with “stupid”, just as very very many atheists rhetorically equate “theist” with “stupid.” Why do people do this? Why do YOU do this? You’ve said you sometimes do this, and you do sometimes do this.

      But of course, I could use the same trick(s) as Flew. I could redefine “theist” to mean “one who lacks a belief in a Godless reality” and assert that lacking a totally conclusive atheistical argument everyone should, by default, be a theist. And if push comes to shove, I actually do think that theism is the natural default position of human beings, and that it is prima facie reasonable to hold theisms to be true. I also think this is the case with regard to belief in other minds and belief in the external world. These two examples show clear cases where belief in the existence of X is the rational default, and if someone wants to question them—and they have been questioned by some—he is certainly free to do so, but it is really up to him to make a good case. If one tried to say “No, it isn’t up to me to prove the external world doesn’t exist, it’s up to you to prove that it does, because mine is the negative position, and therefore the default position,” then I dismiss his argument. He holds:

      1. The negative position is always the default rational position
      2. Nonbelief in the external world is the negative position.
      3. ∴ it is up to the one who asserts the existence of the external world to prove it before it is rational to believe in it.

      I answer this by asserting that his argument is unsound. Premise 1 is false. I restructure his argument as follows:

      1. Belief in the external world is a positive position.
      2. Belief in the external world is the default rational position.
      3. ∴ It is false the negative position is always the default rational position.

      Some reflection on the matter should show you that I am correct. To maintain that the negative position of nonbelief is always the default is incoherent: one needs to believe some positive things to make any sort of proof whatever. And the principle is also self-defeating, insofar as “the negative position is always the default position” is a positive position that, by its own standard, ought to be rejected until proven, which it hasn’t been and cannot be (because it is destroys all possibility of any proof if applied consistently).

      What I deny, very simply, is that atheists and theists are in relevantly different epistemic circumstances, such that one side holds some sort of “burden of proof” or epistemic requirement not held by the other side. A proposition is either true or false. There is no “presumption of falsehood.” If an atheist ASSERTS POSITIVELY that atheists are in a PRIVILEGED EPISTEMIC POSITION, e.g. that they hold “the default position” or the equivalent, then I say he is engaging in Special Pleading. And the entire purpose of Flew’s redefinition of atheism was as an attempt to warrant this Special Pleading, which attempt fails as a rational case (I hold, and is now generally held by philosophers), but which is still constantly done as a rhetorical move in popular atheistic circles.

      The essential request in my post is for atheists to be honest about their unbelief. I am asserting, essentially, that classical atheists are honest about their beliefs, and New Atheists are not.


      • Roger says:

        You are absolutely correct about the idle “prove to me or I win” kind of atheists. You’ve stated the problem in an interesting way. But intellectually there is nothing to be said for such people. I notice that their key demand – “I don’t have to prove anything, you have to prove to me” – is increasingly widely rejected online, and met with “whatever you claim, in fact your atheism is really a religion, of a dogmatic kind, complete with life consequences; state it and prove your belief in it”. It’s the only possible response to such game-playing,


      • Roger says:

        Precisely. Everyone gets to put their cards on the table. Those who try to position themselves as a default are engaged in a fraud.


  3. […] So, we must concede that if “atheist” is defined in the new Flewian way as the factual lack of a certain psychological property, a belief in the existence of God, then human babies, incapable as yet of forming beliefs, do indeed lack beliefs, and so lack a belief in God, and so would be atheists. (This doesn’t mean the Flewian definition isn’t a stupid one: see here and here.) […]


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