Today I was instructing the children to clean up the living room in preparation for an unexpected visitor. In the process I had the following exchange with Miles, who is four:
Me Miles, pick up your shoes and put them where they belong.
Miles They’re not shoes; they’re sandals!
Me You know what I mean, so stop arguing and do it. Sandals are a kind of shoes. Then take those dishes and put them on the counter.
Miles I’ll take this one.
Me No, take them all.
Miles But I can’t carry them all!
Me Obviously you can’t carry them all, so obviously I meant one at a time. My goodness man, you’re like a New Atheist reading the Bible!
Miles I’m not a man!
In light of how much time I’ve spent debating new atheists, it has been very instructive having children—but especially having a little boy. I keep being struck by similarities in their ways of thinking. For example, not only is Miles disposed to argumentative literalness despite repeated correction, but he confidently asserts beliefs as incontrovertible facts merely on the basis of momentarily wanting them to be true. Indeed, he will insist not only on things he couldn’t possibly know to be true, but also on things he knows to be false. Then, when challenged, he resorts to special pleading or outrage in lieu of trying to reason together.
These sorts of epistemic and argumentative strategies mesh intriguingly with Peter Pan Syndrome, which became rampant in the West around the same time as new atheism. As Wikipedia notes, PPS is characterized by coveting independence and freedom, chafing at boundaries and limits, and tending to find any restriction intolerable.
This is, of course, entirely circumstantial and anecdotal. Yet it strongly suggests to me what my own experience as a new atheist also confirms: that new atheism is not motivated by rational considerations so much as by a kind of arrested cognitive development.