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Krauss, Craig, Dawkins and a Difficult Week for McAtheism

Graham Veale
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By this stage, the dogs in the street should know that New Atheism has no particular intellectual force; it can only impress those who share its naïve secularism. Over the last week, however, even secularists have noticed that the New Atheism might be a threat to civil discourse. Matthew Norman complained:

I write as one who became a devout atheist at the age of nine…whenever I hear Dawkins on the car radio, spluttering lividly at the stupidity of those who cannot see the truth as clearly as he does, the instinct is to do a handbrake turn and drive like a maniac to the nearest church, synagogue, temple or mosque. He preaches so conceitedly, and with such poisonously illiberal scorn for those who follow the great faiths, that I want to worship alongside every one of them.”

Tom Chivers also expressed reservations over Dawkins’ “critique” of Islam:

Is he being racist? Maybe not, depending on how narrowly you define it. But whatever he’s being, it’s not nice, and it certainly isn’t advancing the various causes of secularism, atheism or everyone just … getting along.”

And, in an interesting and penetrating critique of populist atheism (or what we like to call “McAtheism”) Brendan O’Neill  worries that:

Atheists in the public sphere spend their every tragic waking hour doing little more than mocking the faithful. In the words of Robin Wright, they seem determined “to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers”… Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates.”

All three writers are atheists; all three seem to take the truth of atheism for granted. Yet they seem to be united by a deeper concern: McAtheism’s apparent desire to silence all dissent. If so, Lawrence Krauss might just have confirmed their suspicions. A brilliant physicist, Krauss seems puzzled and upset that William Lane Craig had the temerity defeat him in a debate at North Carolina State University; perhaps he is also a little annoyed that the secular world was underwhelmed by his book A Universe from Nothing. Whatever his reasons, Krauss agreed to share a platform with Craig once more, defending his views to audiences in Brisbane.

According to many  accounts, rational discourse made a polite excuse and left the room when Krauss made his opening argument. Krauss was asked to answer the question “Has Science Buried God?” But it seems that he was rather more interested in impugning Craig’s character and criticising Craig’s views on the slaughter of the Canaanites. To be fair, even many conservative evangelicals are not convinced by Craig’s arguments on this point. However, he is aware that his analysis is controversial and he is open to other points of view. Critically, his opinions about Old Testament ethics are not even remotely relevant to the intellectual coherence of Christian theism.

McAtheists tend to portray Craig as an evangelical guru whose opinions are slavishly followed by slack-jawed acolytes; in fact, he simply has the reputation of being an impressive scholar and an interesting evangelist. He has been matched, perhaps even bested, in debate on several occasions; oddly enough, the Christian faith has survived. His scholarship has been peer-reviewed, and has survived critique by erudite and hostile academics. So it will be rather difficult to make substantial charges of dishonesty or incompetence stick. Perhaps Krauss knows all this; but he must also know that open and honest discussion with academic theists is dangerous for McAtheism.

It is not enough for McAtheists to argue that theism is false, for McAtheists sell the meme that theism is obviously false. So they must show that it is no more rational to believe in God than it is to believe in “Binker”, “Santa” or “Flying Spaghetti Monsters”. However, Christians are not preaching blind faith and atheists cannot casually answer our arguments and rebuttals. If that information reaches the wider public, McAtheism is dead. So Krauss could have been well motivated to censor his opponent with bluster, cant and ridicule.

Grown-ups can tell the difference between satire and buffoonery. If an academic – in fact, if any adult – begins to censor another person’s views with a buzzer (and if he calls that buzzer his “bull-s**t -o-meter”) you can send for the men in white coats or ask some penetrating questions about this choice of rhetorical strategy. But desperate and puerile attempts to silence dissent and awkward questions should also arouse our suspicions. Just how weak does a worldview have to be if it has to be protected by hysteria and hype?

In a post-debate interview Krauss called Craig a “con artist” (a charge that he later seems to have retracted) who “makes it appear as if he understands the science, which he doesn’t” (a serious charge that implicitly questions the judgment of editors and peer reviewers at several prestigious academic journals). Then, explaining his view of philosophy and theology in general, Krauss then let the cat out of his bag:

“I was at the Vatican, invited to the Pontifical Academy, and I said to them something that sounded facetious but it wasn’t. I was amongst theologians and philosophers and I said, ‘Look you have to listen to me, but I don’t have to listen to you’. I wasn’t being pompous, although it sounds like it.”

Perhaps it wasn’t pompous, but it was comic. If Krauss had read a little more philosophy and theology, he might not have claimed that that ‘nothing’ is every bit as physical as ‘something’! But this comment might reveal what motivates Krauss. This seems to be about power. Krauss believes that his scientific expertise should give him the cultural authority once enjoyed by Popes and bishops. But he has no argument for this claim; all he can do is appeal to his cultural authority as a scientist, which is what has been called into question.

Should populist atheists admit that a reasonable person could see some evidence for God, or that rational debate about atheism is even possible, they will have conceded that atheism is not obvious.  Little wonder, then, that many McAtheists behave like hysterical children and refuse to take their fingers out of their ears, lest they hear something inconvenient; if Craig can only succeed in bringing Krauss to engage in reasonable dialogue, the game is up for McAtheism.

For further reading, see our article “McAtheism”