I don’t call myself a ‘new’ atheist; I’m just an atheist. However, I won’t let that prevent me responding to what Giles Fraser says about new atheists who ‘simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism’. Being a humanist as well as an atheist, I was interested to see what this challenge is, so I read on and, my goodness, what a feeble challenge it turns out to be. It amounts only to two things: (1) putting in question an outlook inherited from the Enlightenment that, despite ‘the horrors of the first world war and the Nazi death camps’, persists with an ‘optimism about human nature and strong belief in the power of human reason and the inevitability of progress’; and (2) the following notions critical of humanism that Fraser takes from Louis Althusser:
There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness.
The only part of (1) that a humanist need sign up to is some belief in the power of human reason. It doesn’t have to be an exorbitant belief, such that reason is thought to be all powerful, but humanists think that there are human universals, there’s good evidence that the power of reason is one of these, and there’s much to be said, morally, for using reason to try to make the world a better place. That’s it. No humanist is obliged to be uniformly optimistic about human nature. This plainly has both good and bad sides, and while we should do everything we can to bring out the good and restrain the bad, a humanist would have to be a fool to let his or her humanism obscure the facts – so many and large are they – about the human capacity for doing serious wrong. Equally, humanists today can be cleverer than to believe in the inevitability of progress; we can just believe in the possibility of it, a possibility there are already grounds for thinking is not altogether utopian.
As for (2) the conjoint proposition ‘There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces’ is false. It is the result of taking the truth that we are all partly the product of external forces and turning it into the absurd claim that we are altogether the product of such forces; because only if we are that is it possible to maintain, against so much that is so obvious, that there’s no intrinsic humanity.
Three simple ways of seeing that this is false are the following. (a) Consider that, however hard you try, you won’t be able to get a collection of tomatoes to form a parliament, or find from amongst a population of bees a writer to emulate either Charles or Monica Dickens, or one to write essays on any topic whatsoever. (b) A human being forced to live on a diet exclusively of steel nails and blotting paper will die. (c) Given the choice between having a chat with friends and jumping into a blazing furnace, nearly all people in all cultures and at all times will choose the former. From (a) we learn that there are universal human abilities that distinguish us from other species. From (b) we learn that there are general human needs which must be met for survival. And from (c) we learn that there are all but universal human aversions.
These facts are so well known that only people in philosophical mood ever pretend or affect to deny them. But there is, thank goodness, better philosophy than the one governing that kind of mood. If Fraser’s account of the anti-humanist challenge is any guide, the latter should trouble no kind of atheist – or indeed non-atheist.