Why Atheism Needs Philosophy

Atheism and science are bros. Everybody knows they belong together, just like Troy and Abed. For most of the reign of New Atheism, science has been right hand man, directing New Atheism’s trajectory and enjoying the privilege of being considered totally awesome by most atheists. I have yet to meet an atheist who doesn’t whole heartedly support scientific exploration and scientific understandings of the world.

But sometimes bros need to be willing to let a new friend join the party. Or, if we’re using metaphors aptly, sometimes bros need to be willing to let their old bro back into the fold. That’s right atheists, I’m talking about philosophy. Last week Salon published an interview with Jonathan Sacks about the downfalls of new atheism. It’s not as if articles about what’s wrong with atheism are new, but there was a particular passage of this interview that stuck out to me as half incredibly truthful and important, and half utter bullshit.

“Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts them together to see what they mean. And I think the people who spend their lives taking things apart to see how they work sometimes find it difficult to understand the people who put things together to see what they mean.”

It’s true that much of science is about breaking things down into constituent parts, about understanding the functionality of the world rather than the purpose of the world. What isn’t true is that religion is the only method we have for putting things together into larger pictures. In fact for most of history, that was philosophy’s role. While many scientists tend to view philosophy as just science lite or “science without any actual observation or evidence”, philosophy actually takes a different approach than science, and it’s one that pairs incredibly well with scientific exploration.

Here’s how I like to think of it: science gives us the raw pieces. It tells us what things are and how they work. Philosophy is the lens through which we view those pieces, the paradigms we build out of them, the larger pictures we try to understand through the evidence we have. It does that with rigorous logic (at least if it’s done well. I am the first to admit that many a first year philosophy student just makes it all up). Philosophy helps us build back up the why when we’re building our own meaning and purpose.

And while some scientists will assert that we don’t need philosophy for this (coughSamHarriscough) because we can easily find the way to the best possible human life through science, what those scientists miss is that they’ve already done their philosophy. They’ve already decided that the best possible human life (one which maximizes flourishing) is what we should be aiming for. But that’s a huge assumption that isn’t shared by everyone and isn’t self-evident. We need other ways to talk and think to try to figure out what we should be doing. The options here aren’t “science or make believe”, but are in fact “science and logic or just science”. It’s a good idea to have the logical, more abstract, larger systems perspectives because they do minor things like give us the scientific method (thanks Francis Bacon, you philosopher you!)

Similarly, philosophy is also an important part of reaching atheist conclusions for many people. Things like the cosmological argument or the ontological argument can be dismantled using logic and philosophical techniques. For those of us (even the laypeople who unknowingly used philosophy to fight these arguments) who relied on philosophy and philosophical arguments to reach our atheism, it would be disingenuous to say that we no longer need it now that we have decided to be skeptics.

Skepticism itself is a philosophical position that requires philosophical tools to keep up. We have to be equipped to dismantle logical fallacies, dissect arguments, and have an epistemological framework that allows us to understand when we’re justified in believing something.

There are things missing from New Atheism if all New Atheism means is science and a lack of God. Those things aren’t enough to create a community or provide the support that many human beings feel they need in the pursuit of larger questions about purpose and meaning in the world. But where many people think the only way to get these things is through religion, we do actually have other systems of knowing that can support us: the humanities, philosophy, social sciences…all of these give us more information about how to connect and build community and get through life in a way that feels good to us.

So hey atheism, I think it’s time to remember how cool that old friend philosophy is and welcome it back into the fold. You’re way cooler when you’re not being exclusive, and there might be a few useful things it could teach you.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. Finally, a comprehensive rational thought from those who claim to be preeminently rational. Well done, Olivia.

    When new atheists like Feynman, Myers, and deGrasse Tyson decide to unnecessarily (and emotionally) turn off their brains, and utter unsophisticated gems like, “Philosophy is bullshit”, they sound like slow and frustrated children. Why they assume something they’ve obviously never studied is a natural enemy of their cause simply because various religious traditions have a history with it, is nonsense, and ultimately harmful. You need to engage intellectual enemies on all fronts, not arbitrarily cordon off the academic landscape and give people you don’t like the silent treatment forever.

    I believe they do this because they genuinely misunderstand philosophy and regard it as a competitor to scientific knowledge, when any professional philosophy scholar has never claimed such a thing, and never would, as it has been a distinct field of study for hundreds of years. Moreover, to disrespect other academic fields and extremely learned scholar simply for not studying physics or biology is self-defeating, pointless, and bigoted, quite frankly. New atheism needs a total package, not huffs and puffs or I’ll blow your house down!

  2. I also want to add that the atheistic community suffers from wishful thinking just as much as the religious, and they must accept this part of themselves. If you oppose a method of thinking purely on basis that you believe it shows (albeit erroneously) the opposing worldview they espouse, you are simply accepting their interpretation without taking the time to meticulously build up your own case. You will be inclined to believe that you empirical method of discovery is capable of demonstrating all manner of metaphysical truths, which is not only nonsense and tarnishes the intellectual reputation of new atheism, but this conflation of diverse spheres of knowledge also harm the sciences by introducing unnecessary metaphysical dependencies into the naturalistic worldview. One need not wishfully believe that philosophy must either demonstrate one’s own metaphysical worldivew or that of one’s opponent! That’s not what philosophy is, and it’s not how logical thinking works. A modicum of self-criticism is in order for the new atheists to accept the same human limitations in which the religious fit faith, and simultaneously show with confidence the reasonableness of the atheistic position, if possible. You can’t just pretend there are no logical gaps about the ultimate meaning of life, and simultaneously attempt to play philosophical definition games!

  3. The way I see things, skepticism is the philosophical view. Science is the application of that philosophy. In other words, science is applied skepticism.

  4. On the importance of science, from Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines:

    11. If we had never been troubled by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, nor by fears about death, nor by our ignorance of the limits of pains and desires, we should have had no need of natural science.
    12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
    13. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.

  5. Hmmm. Philosophy would seem to be, at best, a static set of mental tools for approaching other endeavors. If philosophers want to lay claim to boolean algebra, mathematicians may concede it, because it’s origin is of little consequence, and mathematics has so much else going for it.
    I submit, that while saying it is useless is too harsh, philosophy has had it’s day. When does philosophy ever prevail when it collides with a field of science? So long, and thanks for all the tools.

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