Screwtape compares the souls of contemporary sinners unfavorably to those of bygone days:
Oh, to get one's teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there, something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your inwards when you'd got it down.Scott Stephens makes a similar point--a point made earlier this year by David Bentley Hart--about the intellectual quality of modern atheists.
I have said many times before that the New Atheists are a pale imitation of the old atheists of late 19th and early 20th centuries who were not simply cultural barbarians, but men widely learned beyond science, most of whom actually understood much of what they criticized. The Thomas Huxleys and H. L. Menckens have, alas, been replaced by the likes of Myers and Richard Dawkins.
Huxley, of course, claimed to be an agnostic, an intellectual character George Barnard Shaw once called an atheist without the courage his convictions. But Huxley was just as much an enemy of the Church.
Where are the atheists now who can come with lines like Huxley's, "extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science like snakes around the cradle of Hercules"? Or Mencken's "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing"?
They were wrong, of course, but they were magnificently, gloriously wrong--unlike Myers and his ilk, who, when they go wrong (which is not infrequent), do it with an unfortunate lack of rhetorical sophistication. If you're going to be wrong, you should at least provide your audience with something to marvel at. To read Mencken's Treatise on the Gods is, if not to be philosophically impressed, at least to be wondered at for its creativity (he basically makes up the history of religious belief as he goes along).
When the old atheists missed, you could at least admire the impressive explosion, but when the New Atheists miss (which they do at least as often), you find yourself standing there disappointed, gazing on a logical dud.
When the old atheists fired a barb, you often found yourself tipping your hat. With the New Atheists, you just find yourself shaking your head. To read Myers is to have to wade knee high through sophomoric vitriol that someone like Mencken would scorned as juvenile, if not simply insipid.
They also had stouter constitutions, these paleo-atheists. Today's atheists--like the ones now suing the state of Kentucky over God language in its Homeland Security statute--have even taken to claiming to be emotionally traumatized by mentions of God. The expression "put on your man pants" suffered severe overuse in the last election, but if it has a legitimate use, it would be here.
No self-respecting atheist of yore would claim he experienced "mental pain and anguish" because of theism. He would instead have tried to inflict it on his theistic opponents.
Hand it to Myers, he at least tries to do this, if he doesn't exactly succeed.
In a new post at his blog, Myers complains about these unfavorable comparisons of him and his fellow New Atheists to the Great Atheists of Old:
This is such a dreary and dishonest approach; it involves puffing up dead or less popular atheists into demigods who strode the earth with cosmic seriousness, while anyone new and slightly less moribund is sneered at as inferior, the weak and enfeebled scions of a diminished age, and therefore deserving nothing but dismissal.Well, at least he produced a mildly competent alliteration in that first sentence. And I do like the "strode the earth" bit. Oh, and the "scions of a diminished age" isn't too bad either.
Maybe there's hope.
But it's all downhill from there. Myers retorts that he and his New Atheist friends place greater stress on science--something he apparently thinks the old atheists knew nothing about:
I disagree — these New Atheists are simply basing their ideas more strongly on science, something the theistic critics don't seem to comprehend — and I don't consider them less than the Old Atheists, just different, and even there, we're all making the same argument that gods don't exist.The point Myers seems to miss is that at least the Old Atheists knew enough about science to know the difference between science and philosophy, a distinction people like Myers, Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking run roughshod over without apparent notice. In fact, Myers seems to have a generally troubled relationship with philosophy, the one discipline competence in which is required to conduct the kind of discussion in which he thinks he is competent to engage.
So Myers, seemingly unequipped with a philosophy gland, beats his chest and let's loose the atheist yell which he hopes will resound throughout the religious forest, attracting an opponent:
And if the New Atheists are such scrawny, flabby specimens, why aren't you simply clobbering us with those powerful arguments you developed to crush our predecessors?Um, maybe because he wouldn't recognize a powerful argument if it had a sign saying "Powerful Argument Here" on it? There are a multitude of arguments offered by thinkers far more substantive than Myers that have been presented over the last 2,000, and the fact that Myers isn't impressed with them tells us very little about the quality of the arguments themselves. They tell us more about Myers.
Myers has confronted the theistic enemy before, only to come away scratching his head. He complains that Stephens doesn't offer any real arguments and then compares him in this regard to Terry Eagleton and David Bentley Hart.
It's interesting that he should mention Hart, who is one of the theists Myers has ham-handedly tried to confront, only to walk away thinking he has encountered the enemy successfully when in reality he has only encountered his own philosophical inadequacies.
The technique Myers and others (I'm thinking especially of Ed Brayton here) use is this: they troll the Internet for stupid things Christians say, present them to their readers as representative of theistic thought, shoot them down, and then high five each other as if they had really accomplished something. Call it the Shooting Fish in a Barrel Method of atheistic apologetics.
It's sort of like going down to the local pay lake, catching a big fish and thinking that you're God's gift to sportsmanship.
If he were really interested in competent theistic opposition he could go over to Frank Beckwith's blog--or Ed Feser's. But no. That would require some actual intellectual exertion. Or maybe it's because every time he does do this, he simply embarrasses himself.
As soon as Myers encounters a competent thinker like Hart, he seems to experience some sort of intellectual breakdown that causes him to rhetorically wander around mumbling imprecations against his target that indicate he knows nothing about what the person is talking about or simply become oblivious to what the person is saying, not understanding the person' simplest statements.
Myers recent responses to two of Myers posts on Hart have been dealt with in detail by my co-blogger Thomas here and here. But suffice it to say they are not exactly inspiring intellectual displays.
Nope. Stephens is right. They just don't make atheists like they used to.