Debate Magazine

Orthodoxy and Atheism

By Cris

Over at The Atlantic, Emma Green bemoans the “intellectual snobbery” of New Atheists. While evangelical atheists certainly have their issues, including overconfidence and myopia, snobbery is not so damning. When viewed from certain perspectives, intellectualism often comes off as snobbish. Green’s critique would have been more apt had she properly diagnosed the issue as “intellectual banality.” This is the primary affliction of New Atheism.

Because New Atheists are locked into discursive binaries of belief/unbelief and wage their culture wars inside a Christian or theist box, they have an unfortunate penchant for dogmatism and orthodoxy. When your opponents define the terms of the debate, you play on their field. When your opponents are dogmatic, you become like them. The two sides are distorting mirrors in this confined dialectic.

If you play these dogmatic games long enough, there will likely be a spillover effect. There is indeed evidence of such an effect and in this case, “snobbery” is the correct term. Back in December, science writer David Dobbs published an Aeon essay (“Die, Selfish Gene, Die”) interrogating Richard Dawkins’ famous metaphor and asking whether it should be modified or retired. It was a provocative essay, and while I did not agree with all or even most of it, I shared it with several anthropologists and scientists who also enjoyed it. It proved well worthy of several beer discussion.

There things stood until I recently learned that Dobbs’ essay was savaged by some who see themselves as enforcers of scientific orthodoxy. That they see themselves this way is not surprising, given that the savagers (Pinker-Coyne-Dawkins) are prime New Atheist players. It’s unfortunate when their dogmatism spills over and devolves into science snobbery. Dobbs, a well-respected writer who has done much for popular science, deserves better.

What we are witnessing here is an ironic inversion of the ressentiment which Nietzsche saw as a character defect giving rise to metaphysical yearnings. It’s not surprising, and indeed is a predictable consequence, that some New Atheists should take on these characteristics. When you wrestle with smelly theist monsters, the dogmatic stink will slough onto you.


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