(NB: Apparent scare quotes are actually uses of Pigliucci's terminology, for as I have expressed in the past, I think an "atheism movement" of any kind is probably an error, though it may be necessary at present to change the social tide. The real goal is demanding good reasons for beliefs from which atheism naturally follows.)
One might think that the extrinsic characteristic is based upon another overlooked intrinsic characteristic: an intense intentional effort to popularize "New Atheism," which is itself based upon yet another intrinsic characteristic: raising the visibility of the unacceptable harms of religion as a prime modus operandi, using only the fact that the religions aren't based on truths, rather cherished supertruths, to illustrate the utter failure implied by these harms.
These topics are not my intent to discuss, though, and neither is "scientism" itself, so I will leave them to talk briefly about what Pigliucci identifies as the intrinsic and defining characteristic of "New Atheism," its "scientistic" turn. He reveals very early in his paper that he feels that philosophy is critical to the "New Atheism movement."
The second reason is intrinsic [to New Atheism], and close to the core of my argument in this paper: the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. (p. 144)Maybe philosophy is that important. I won't dispute that here. There is, however, an important point that, perhaps, Pigliucci isn't considering with enough seriousness. He mentions atheistic philosophers like David Hume and Bertrand Russell, among many others, mentioning specifically that,
There [does not] appear to be anything particularly new [about New Atheism] from a philosophical standpoint, as the standard arguments advanced by the New Atheists against religion are just about the same that have been put forth by well-known atheists or agnostic philosophers from David Hume to Bertrand Russell.I wonder if Pigliucci has wondered much about why this might be.
The answer is easy: clearly it didn't work.
Religion, as a strident atheist and outspoken atheistic intellectual like Pigliucci must realize, is still something of a major problem. He cites 9/11 as a possible cause for the surge in popularity of New Atheism (leaving sociologists to work out the reality), and he's probably right. Why? It tragically put in dramatic relief the problems with continuing to espouse ancient-religious mindsets in an era including airplanes (as a symbolic technological advance that represents also machine guns, plastic explosives, missiles, and nuclear warheads).
Philosophy had hundreds of years of primacy between Hume and 9/11/2001 and many tens between Russell and that now-infamous date. The goal was to settle the problem, to reach the public in a way where the terrible grip of religion was broken. Hume's arguments should have been sufficient. Russell was a hammer. Religion didn't even blink.
What Pigliucci is missing is a fact that is likely to be taken as both impolite and cold to point out, but it remains. I'll add double emphasis it to make it stand out: Most people do not care enough about philosophy to revise their beliefs. In all likelihood, they never will, no matter how many papers like his are published.
The reason for this is also simple--and it's not a statement that most people don't care about philosophy as much as they should. William Lane Craig identified it in 2008 in his book Reasonable Faith (p. 48): "Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding." I'm reminded of the opening scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in which Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge is conversing with the Prime Minister of Britain, who wonders why the wizards cannot contain Voldemort with their magical powers. "The trouble is, Prime Minister, the other side can do magic too," Fudge explains.
To put that in plainer language, since theologians are often less concerned with being right than with defending their cherished beliefs, and this trait is shared perhaps even more strongly by lay believers, philosophy leaves for them a doorway that is open far, far too widely, allowing a dead debate to continue. And hence they continue to believe their beliefs. They still defend the Kalam Cosmological Argument and Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology, for instance! And some atheist philosophers intentionally help them do it! (Are they drunk with the intrigue of interesting and clever arguments?)
It is a metaphysical position (philosophy) that God exists, and as a metaphysical position, it is effectively unassailable to those who accept it (as I have insisted, axiomatically). On this metaphysic (philosophy) is attached a sense of telos (philosophy) through God, and to that believers cling. Many believers accept deontological moral values (philosophy) that come from God, hiding effectively unassailable behind the shield of nuanced moral philosophy, and to these believers also cling.
Philosophy may be an excellent tool to dismantle these arguments, perhaps even the best tool to do it, but they don't care because philosophy offers up enough of a defense to keep the conversation going hundreds of years later. (And meanwhile, the harms pile up and totter toward unimaginable potential heights.) Philosophy, in fact, may be the only tool to settle these arguments, but it faces the problem that among believers, it doesn't settle the arguments; it perpetuates them.
What's the difference with science? Physical evidence. The rock of reality. The epistemological salience of evidence cuts through theological bullshit, to quote Christian apologist and philosopher (with research interests in epistemology) Tim McGrew, "like a buzzsaw through balsa." (NB: McGrew was talking about the techniques in Peter Boghossian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists, which urge to stay focused upon the epistemological claims at the center of religious belief, which he rightly notes that they cannot defend.)
The other side may be able to do "magic" (philosophy in this case--not to imply that they are the same, it's just a literary allusion to make a point) too, but the evidence is the evidence--and it doesn't care a whit about anyone's beliefs. This difference is important, particularly when one side doesn't value getting things right as highly as continuing to believe.
Science has changed the world, and the effect in the last century is overwhelming and undeniable. We all have grown up in this situation now, and despite the growing distrust for science, we all recognize the incredible potency of science to get right answers to hard questions that matter.
Philosophy can do this too, but the door is too open; the rock is too subtle, and thus beliefs do not change. This isn't a discussion about whether or not science can answer every question, or even about scientism, but rather about explaining a clear reason why "New Atheism" relies more heavily upon science than philosophy. To quote Richard Dawkins in a way that Pigliucci certainly won't approve of--it works, bitches.
Look at the situation realistically. It's almost impossible to get devout believers even to accept evidence that repeatedly bangs itself against their faces. They deny evolution, to their peril if taken seriously. They deny climate science, to all of our peril, because it's so easy to tie that political agenda to their beliefs. They are caught in a web of confirmation bias that allows them to distort evidence in their favor whenever they can. Even the rock of the world, even when it rains disaster upon them, cannot so easily change their minds. It's part of God's plan, don't ya know, (philosophy); He knows best (philosophy); it's the wages of sin (philosophy); and who are we to question Him (philosophy)?
Though he may disagree, I would hope that Pigliucci has noticed that the "New Atheism" effort has had an unparalleled--which is not to say anything like complete--level of success at reaching people and helping them out of their beliefs. Its nearest rival is probably the God-Is-Dead movement of the 1950s which was largely based upon a "scientistic" public attitude, along with economic prosperity, which is key to rendering religious beliefs less relevant. Of course, that movement mostly led to dormancy in beliefs, leaving open the door to revival, which appears to be less likely following the overt stridency (and rebellion against institutionalized authority) that better characterizes "New Atheism" than any other characteristic. This rebelliousness is obviously resisted, but while philosophy may be able to guide and referee science, it cannot overturn observation.
The reason is straightforward if one understands the role philosophy plays in theology. It is possible to philosophy away philosophy, and it is possible to philosophy away evidence, but the latter is harder and gets more difficult as evidence mounts. Real evidence is always salient, and so disconfirming evidence is far more glaring to beliefs than contravening philosophy. It appears suggestive that the "scientismists" may have kept their hands folded and mouths shut, respecting the traditional narrow boundaries of science, for far too long.
I'm not saying that philosophy isn't a good or important tool in the effort to free our societies of the toxic grip of religion, but I am saying that while most people do not care enough about philosophy to change their beliefs, many more do care that much about science. This should offer a clear explanation for Pigliucci and others for the "scientistic" turn of the "New Atheism movement," and perhaps give him an opportunity to consider again if it is "not at all positive."
PS: This may be a philosophical argument as it is, but it's also a falsifiable, discoverable psychological/sociological fact about the world.