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Ian Hutchinson on the New Atheists

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February 23, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's video features Ian Hutchinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Ian Hutchinson tells us in this video discussion that New Atheism -- a term used to describe recent intellectual attacks against religion -- is actually a misnomer. It is better, he says, to call the movement “Militant Atheism”. In fact, the arguments made by New Atheists are not new at all, but rather extensions of intellectual threads which have existed since the late 19th century. The only unique quality of this movement is the degree of criticism and edge with which its members write and speak about religion.

According to Hutchinson, the books written by New Atheists in the past decade simply restate many of the same arguments which have emanated from atheist thinkers for decades. The militant edge of these arguments is what makes “New” Atheism unique and elevates it to a level of popularity within a subset of the population. It is because these Militant Atheists show no respect at all for religion, says Hutchinson, that they are receiving status as a new movement.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #52841

February 28th 2011

Part 4

D: Is not deriving morality from what we see in nature still seem like moral relativism?

R: No.

D: Is the story of Marx offering to dedicate his book to Darwin a myth?

R: It is not true.

D: Will you deny your claim that Dawkins and many other atheists say nature is morally good?

R:  If nature encourages morally good behavior, like cooperation, this is proof that nature is morally good.  Harris, an atheist, says that nature encourages cooperation.  If Dawkins agrees with Harris and he thought that nature supported cooperation enough to overcome the selfishness of the selfish gene, then he appears to be open to this idea.

Alan Fox - #53045

March 3rd 2011

(I’d even say Dawkins and Hitchens are much less rude that the deist Thomas Paine or the agnostic Robert Ingersoll.)

A friend of mine who splits her time between France and UK lives round the corner from Dawkins in Oxford and encounters him occasionally in the street and social gatherings. She tells me he is, in her experience, perfectly civil and polite. You can’t see his horns at all, apparently!

Alan Fox - #53066

March 3rd 2011

I’d even say Dawkins and Hitchens are much less rude that the deist Thomas Paine or the agnostic Robert Ingersoll.

According to a friend who lives round the corner from Dawkins and has met him a few times at social gatherings, he is very polite and self-effacing in person.

Alan Fox - #53067

March 3rd 2011

Oh flip Sorry folks about double post. I should pay more attention to the fact that comments arte now paged.

Argon - #53085

March 3rd 2011

Roger, your wrote: “Lynn Margolis, one of the best scientists of our time agrees with me…

Quick question: Did you perhaps learn from reading Margulis about Darwin being mistaken because of the way he emphasized Malthusian competition in his theory and or his failing to recognize the role of environment in evolution?

I ask because I’ve seen these sorts of claims from Margulis before.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #53096

March 3rd 2011


I think that I first became aware of the work of Lynn Margulis through the book by Frank Perry, Darwin’s Blindspot.  This book describes ecology’s challenge to Darwinian Malthusian view.  I was not satisfied with this aspect of Darwin’s Theory before, but this book made me aware of a scientific alternative to Malthus which made much more scientific and philosophical sense. 

Also Perry encouraged me to read Lovelock’s writings and Margulis for myself as well as Dawkins, Dennett, & co, as well as others on this topic.  I hope that answers your question.  Certainly the work of Lynn Margulis speaks for itself and demonstrates that ecology and symbiosis do a much better job in describing how evolution has worked over the millenia than Darwinism.

Rich - #53114

March 3rd 2011

Mike Gene (52482):

Sure, Coyne is a narrow-minded hothead who has it in for religion, and has always had it in for religion.  No argument.  But I find him far more honest, and far less political, than his “boss” at the NCSE, Eugenie Scott.  Eugenie works with people for whose personal beliefs she has (in my view) contempt, for political ends; Coyne wears his heart on his sleeve and indicates that he wants no truck or trade with Christians.  I can converse with a man like Coyne; you know where he stands.  I prefer frank atheism to a devious atheism which affects neutrality while strategically pitting Christian against Christian (TE against ID) in order to further non-Christian ends (the long-term goal of a wholly secular scientific society, which at least Dawkins, Coyne and Myers are up front about).  Coyne opposes Christians, but he doesn’t try to use them as tools in a non-Christian game.  For that he gets at least a few points from me.

Mike Gene - #53134

March 4th 2011

Looks like I was right.  

Hutchinson just defended his use of the term ‘militant”:

What do I mean by Militant? Nothing different from what the dictionary says. ‘Vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause’ (Free Online Dictionary). The Pocket Oxford Dictionary says ‘engaged in warfare (Church militant, Christians on earth), combative,’ So this ephithet has not historically been considered an insult and is not intended by me as one. Militant atheists is a factual description of those who are active and aggressive in support of their atheist cause. If they wish to return the compliment by referring to militant Christians, they will have some historical precedent and I shall not complain, but I am personally less aggressive, even if perhaps not less vigorous, than the likes of those who are often called New Atheists!

Now, if we could only get Coyne to defend his use of the term ‘eradication.’

Roger A. Sawtelle - #53177

March 4th 2011

Personally the problem with militancy on both sides is that they are defending a position, instead of seeking the truth or seeking a common ground for finding the truth.

Mike Gene - #53304

March 5th 2011


“Coyne wears his heart on his sleeve and indicates that he wants no truck or trade with Christians.  I can converse with a man like Coyne; you know where he stands.”

You are being naive.  You cannot converse with someone like Coyne because he is not interested in conversing with someone like you.  He has made it clear that he prefers the eradication of Christianity over respectful dialog.  And for those who might quibble and bob about what he meant about respectful, he clearly concluded his essay by asserting that dialog with Christians “only enables superstition.”  Since enabling superstition would undercut his agenda of eradication, he is not going to dialog or converse with you.  He might engage you to ridicule you, misrepresent you, attack you, mock you, and hold you up as a threat or a fraud, but if we are to take his words seriously, he won’t converse with you.


Rich - #53316

March 5th 2011

Mike Gene:

You misunderstand me.  I don’t mean that Coyne would seriously consider the possibility of the truth of Christianity.  I thought I made that clear in my remarks.  What I mean is that *I* could talk to *him*, because I would not feel waves of contempt inside me for the dishonesty of his position.  I can talk to people who think that there is no God and that religion has been an evil force in the history of mankind.  I understand how they think, and why they think that way.  And I respect them for talking straight talk, non-weasel talk.

You should watch the way you throw around the word “naive.”  Here on Biologos, a number of columnists and commenters seem deeply surprised that Coyne and Dawkins aren’t more willing to work with TEs on the side of “good science.”  I would call “naive” anyone who ever thought that any alliance between atheists and TEs could ever possibly last.  All ID people knew from the beginning that people like Coyne could only be restrained by Eugenie Scott for so long.

I actually welcome Coyne’s angry outbursts against religion, his irrational and mean-spirited criticism of Collins’s appointment to the NIH, etc., over the last year or so, because they sound the death-knell for Eugenie Scott’s carefully crafted but cynical alliance.  ID people knew all along that there could only be war between Dawkins/Coyne/Myers/Forrest and any orthodox formulation of Christianity; it was TE/EC people who harbored the NOMA-driven illusion that it could ever be otherwise.  Talk to someone else about naivete, please.

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