New Atheists and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Are the new Atheists suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?

In 1999 two psychologists of Cornell University (David Dunning and Justin Kruger) put forward the hypothesis that people of lower competency in an activity tend to overconfidence.   This overconfidence comes from the inability to do a particular task while at the same time recognising their level of incompetence.   On the other hand those with sufficient competence to undertake the task, tend to lack confidence because they are aware of their own deficiencies, especially in comparison with others.    

This observation has moved into popular parlance with any number of illustrations observed.    So, for example, the drunk thinks he can walk along a straight line because he is so busy thinking how to do it that he is no longer able to analyse his inability to do it.  Or again somebody using a mobile phone while driving is so concentrating on both talking on the phone and driving that they do not notice their significant drop in driving competency. 

Coming to a beginners understanding of this field of study, it occurred to me to ask the question: “Are the new Atheists suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?”   For example, many of the reviews of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, have pointed to his incompetence in the areas in which he writes.   Some of these reviews are not written by Christians or theists defending themselves from his attacks, but by non-Christian professionals embarrassed by his misuse of their academic disciplines.  

Critics from both sides

Writing in the New York Times in 2007, the Roman Catholic journalist Prof. Peter Steinfels noted that the criticisms of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion come not just from the believers but also from atheists and unbelievers.  He pointed to the reviews of such academics as The Oxford literary critic Prof. Terry Eagleton, The Harvard literary critic James Wood, the Rochester evolutionary-biologist Prof. James H Orr and the New York philosopher Prof. Thomas Nagel.  And Steinfels could have added others like the Florida philosopher of biology Prof. Michael Ruse. The chief complaint of these critics of Richard Dawkins is his incompetence in dealing with the subject of God and theology.  

Prof. Dawkins rejoinder to complaints about his lack of serious study of theology is his rhetorical question "Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”    This is contrary to the famous Chinese advice on the Art of War: to know your enemies.   Unfortunately for him, those of us with some training in Christianity are left unmoved by his anti-theistic tirade.  We know enough to recognize incompetence and the need for considerably greater humility before the facts.  

Many Christians have written against The God Delusion, but being believers their viewpoint gets little airspace in public media or debate - being discounted with “of course they would disagree”.   Writers, with as much academic credibility as Prof Dawkins, such as the Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox or biologist turned theologian Prof. Alistair McGrath have published helpful criticisms of the new atheism.  Prof. McGrath, who earned doctorates from Oxford University in both biology and Divinity, turned from atheism to Christianity through his ‘discovery of the philosophy of science’ and his investigation of ‘what Christianity really was’.  He has written a helpful little book called The Dawkins Delusion. (SPCK)

Weighing the merits

To discount such writings because of the authors’ bias is as irrational as to discount the atheists’ writings because of their bias.    Each must be weighed on its merits. 

To accept what they say because of their academic credentials is also irrational.   There are moments in time when the little boy in the crowd can see through the academic pretense and declare the emperor naked.  But on that occasion a quick check of the facts brought hilarity on all sides.  It is reasonable to expect that scholars with reputable academic qualifications will write in their area of expertise and be self-aware of the limitations of their knowledge. 

And that brings us back to the Dunning-Kruger effect that the less competent you are the more confident you are likely to be.   To launch out on a world-wide campaign on subjects over which you know little and have researched less – to say nothing of intentionally not studying because you do not believe – is less than acceptable as genuine public debate or academic discussion, to say nothing of failing in the art of war.  

It was Prof. Dawkin’s great hero Charles Darwin who wrote in his introduction to The Descent of Man:''Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.''


Phillip Jensen, is the author of a number of books and a sought after speaker in Australia and internationally. He is the Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral. Visit his page here or go to

Comments (6)

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  • James Ramsay
    February 11, 11 - 10:23am
    The fundamental problem with the "New Atheism" is that it is based on an irrationally generated belief that its adherents try and pass off with a rational façade.

    Dawkins isn't an atheist because he carefully and rationally examined the issue, he is an atheist because that is what his gut is telling him is true (hence all the irrational tirades about religion being responsible for all the worlds evils and the like).

    The New Atheists are full of the crusading zeal and fervour of the worst of "religious people".

    I am a psychology student and one of the fundamental things that has changed my thinking is seeing that most people are a lot less rational than they believe they are. It is virtually impossible for a human to be wholly rational. Most of our decisions are irrational and we just later justify them to ourselves.

    P.S. I have met rational atheists with a deep understanding of theology. Dawkins aren't anything like them.
  • Dianne Howard
    February 11, 11 - 11:49pm
    a case of rationality....

    "Therefore, O King Agrippa, I (Paul) was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles."....(cont)
  • Dianne Howard
    February 11, 11 - 11:50pm
    ... And as he (Paul) was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind."

    But Paul said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe." And Agrippa said to Paul, "In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?" And Paul said, "Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains."
    (Acts 26)
  • Dianne Howard
    February 11, 11 - 11:55pm
    a case of irrationality...

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1)
  • David Ashton
    February 14, 11 - 10:24am
    I don't think that atheists (new or otherwise) are the only ones who might suffer from such a syndrome. I often notice many christians - particularly new ones - whose denomination is theologically shallow often express sentiments that they cannot demonstrate have any biblical basis, or are way beyond their experience as christians.

    The Religious Right in the U.S. would seem particularly subject to this syndrome, as their bellicose and silly pronouncements or statements indicate.

    There seems to be a trend towards superficial faith based on feelings and away from the Fact-Faith-Feeling idea I was taught and I think accurately represents New Testament christianity.

    This might be in part due to the erosion of the concept of truth, both as an absolute and as being important in itself, that comes from the Post-Modernist influence in our culture.
  • Stephen Davis
    February 15, 11 - 1:58am
    When all is said and done, no matter what type of intellectual angle people try to put on it, there has never been and never will be a successful argument against the existence of God - full stop. People like Dawkins will, I believe, be given a much stricter judgement, why? Because as a biologist, he has been granted access to a world under the microscope which would reveal things that anyone who was not gifted in this area would have difficulty understanding. But he has been given this understanding and still rebels against it by burying his talent in the ground. The incredible processes and the order of things around us should tell us quite plainly that we are not here by accident but in fact were created. The order, consistency and design in everything around us puts paid to any argument about no creator/God.