Jerry Coyne on Atheists Criticizing Other Atheists

On his website, Jerry Coyne yesterday wrote a blog post with the provocative question, “Why Do Many Atheists Hate the New Atheists?” The blog post seems to be the result of a book-length attack on the new atheists by C.J. Werleman (link).

Now I haven’t read Werleman’s book or, for that matter, many other critiques of the new atheists by fellow atheists. What I found interesting was Coyne’s summary of atheistic critiques of the new atheists:

The critique of New Atheists by other atheists seems to consist largely ofad hominem accusations, distortions of what they’ve said (Sam Harris is particularly subject to this), and, most of all, complaints that they dare criticize religion publicly. 

Maybe this is true of some or even many of the atheist critiques of the new atheists, but it isn’t true of all of them. And, for the record, I have no problem whatsoever with criticizing religion publicly.

Coyne’s list of characteristics of atheist critiques of the new atheists isn’t complete, however. He does not mention another element of atheist critiques of the new atheists. This element, made primarily by atheist philosophers, is that some / many / all of their arguments against theism are philosophically weak. 

For example, philosopher (and atheist) Erik Wielenberg devoted an entire article in a peer-reviewed philosophical journal to the central argument of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. Wielenberg calls that argument “Dawkins’s Gambit.” In that article, an article which Dawkins has so far ignored, Wielenberg shows decisively that Dawkins’ argument is simply irrelevant to what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe.

The central weakness of Dawkins’s Gambit, then, is that it is aimed primarily at proving the nonexistence of a being that is unlike the God of traditional monotheism in some important ways. There are various versions of what Dawkins calls “the God Hypothesis,” and his argument is ineffective against some of them. To see this point more clearly, we may distinguish these two versions of the God Hypothesis:

(GH1)There exists a contingent, physical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.

(GH2)There exists a necessary, nonphysical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.

Dawkins’s argument may be effective against (GH1), but no clear-thinking Jew, Christian, or Muslim accepts that thesis. (GH2) is much closer to traditional monotheism than is (GH1), but Dawkins’s Gambit is ineffective against (GH2). In light of this, I must side with those critics of The God Delusion who have judged Dawkins’s Gambit to be a failure. (118)

Wielenberg is aware of the Courtier’s Reply, which Dawkins endorses. Towards the end of the article Wielenberg offers a critique which I take to be devastating to the Courtier’s Reply.

… As this excerpt should make clear, the courtier’s reply is intended as a response to those who criticize The God Delusion on the grounds that it fails to engage with sophisticated work in theology. The essence of the reply is that since theology deals primarily with a nonexistent entity (God), there is no need for Dawkins to engage with such material.

The reply does nothing to blunt the criticisms offered in this paper. A central element of my critique is that Dawkins’s Gambit provides no reason at all to doubt some of the most widely-held versions of the target of his attack, the God Hypothesis. I do not know exactly how much theology one needs to know to disprove the existence of God, but one needs to know at least enough theology to understand the various widely-held conceptions of God. In general, in order to argue effectively against a given hypothesis, one needs to know enough to characterize that hypothesis accurately. Furthermore, if one intends to disprove God’s existence, it is hardly reasonable to dismiss criticisms of one’s putative disproof on the grounds that God doesn’t exist anyway.

Thus, the central atheistic argument of The God Delusion is unconvincing, and the courtier’s reply cannot save it. However, Hume’s critique of monotheism is not so easily blunted in that the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contains challenges to all three versions of the God Hypothesis identified in this paper. Therefore, atheists who wish to press the case against the God Hypothesis ought to look to Hume rather than Dawkins, and theists who wish to defend the God Hypothesis ought not to rest content with critiquing Dawkins’s Gambit. Parties on both sides of the debate should engage with the best the other side has to offer, and Hume is the more worthy model for atheists and the more challenging opponent for theists. He may be gone, but his aroma lingers on. (127, boldface mine)


Let’s return to Jerry Coyne’s post. Skipping ahead a few paragraphs, he writes:

The attacks by atheists on New Atheists stand in strong contrast with how religionists act when they disagree. Christians, for instance, don’t spend lots of their time attacking the character and arguments of other Christians like William Lane Craig or Pat Robertson. Yes, I know that there is some criticism along those lines. But I can’t think of a Christian or a Muslim who makes their living writing article after article criticizing individual coreligionists. Nor, do I think, do believers try to damage other believers by consistently misrepresenting their positions or questioning their characters. When they do engage in such criticism, they’re usually straightforward about their disagreements, not prone to distortion, and are rarely snarky.

Again, I haven’t read Werleman or (I think) the other atheist critics Coyne probably has in mind, but, again, I don’t think Coyne is fairly representing all critics of the new atheists. Erik Wielenberg does not “make his living writing article after article criticizing individual atheists.” Nor does he “try to damage other atheists by consistently misrepresenting their positions or questioning their characters.” His article is straightforward, does not distort Dawkins’ argument, and is not snarky at all.

So, to sum up, Coyne may well be correct in his characterization of some, many, or even most (?) of the atheist critics of the new atheists. But other critics, like philosopher Erik Wielenberg, cannot be so easily dismissed. The new atheists have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from honest, fair-minded interaction with such critics.