The nerdiness of the New Atheism

This Sunday, the New York Times published a hugely entertaining review of a book purporting to demonstrate that quantum physics definitively answers the question “why is there something rather than nothing,” absolutely and once and for all. The reviewer goes to great lengths to show how ridiculous this claim is, but the best part of the piece is when he responds to the author’s polemic against religious thinkers:

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

8 thoughts on “The nerdiness of the New Atheism

  1. New atheism’s attacks on religion follow the same model that liberal attacks on neo/social-conservatism follow. It isn’t about attacking on substance. It’s about mocking. Not because of some well reasoned critique, but because religion, like conservatism, is dumb (read “easy to mock”). The critique that religion is “cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human” hasn’t changed. What changed is that new atheists no longer take it seriously enough to do anything other than make fun.

  2. And it always appears to me like the people who grasp hold of physical mechanisms and models of how the universe is, and how it works, and attempt to use the “how” of process as a “why” of origin, have abjectly failed at science. And that includes Hawking, who in so many other respects is a brilliant man. The moment you attempt to make “how” into “why,” especially when you attempt to replace an agentic account with a mechanistic account, you begin to make the mechanism into an agent in its own right. And walk clean out of usable predictive natural science and into religious novelty!

    QM as a theory is a great model for the “dreams that stuff is made of” — the probabilistic fabric of the universe. And the answer to “why is there something here” certainly can drill down into QM for an answer at the level of local probability. But this is because QM has already moved the bars that Krauss is complaining about — QM explains the fabric of a universe underneath both “something” and “nothing.” It describes the universe in which stuff appears. And so physics has redefined “nothing” in ways that the “cultured despisers” have yet to catch up with. So I’m doubly offended — not only is religion a joke, but so is natural science. And so the statement boils down to more than “religion is dumb” — there is an equal and opposite pale, small, silly, nerdy assertion that physics is “cool.” As though a small child is trying to play divorced parents against one another, when they both have better things to do.

  3. The fact that the author apparently doesn’t get that he’s just defining his problem away by using a point-missing definition of “nothing” — i.e., that he doesn’t realize he’s engaged in the most transparent sophistry — shows the dangers of amateur philosophizing.

  4. Every religion gets the atheism it deserves, right? And maybe vice versa. Krauss and Dawkins live in William Lane Craig’s world. They haven’t read Altizer, but they have read Jerry Jenkins.

    And William Lane Craig hasn’t read Zizek, but he has read Hitchens.

    They all deserve each other.

  5. Why do we suppose that questions like ‘Why does this take the form it takes?’ are why-questions? How can they be answered without inviting the further question, ‘Why did that take the form that took?’ The problem with ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is not so much the definition of nothing — though that is a problem: why do we suppose there could be nothing? — as the ‘Why’. I won’t say that whys suppose minds, but they do tend to anthropomorphise questions which don’t necessarily have anything to do with humans or their minds, except that they are asking them. Why do we ask why?

  6. We suppose there could be nothing because if there couldn’t, we’d be supposing a situation where there could not be nothing, in otherwords a transcendent framework within which things happened for a reason. But we could still ask why this framework “exists” rather than not. On the other hand to suppose there can be nothing is not to suppose a framework in which nothing is possible, which is the mistake anyone makes who tries to answer this question.

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