Sunday, July 20, 2008

The problem with the New Atheism

'The New Atheism' is the term that has been used to describe the recent surge in books on atheism over the last couple of years. Authors in this genre include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I’ve read stuff from some of these authors, and I've been feeling, for a while now, slightly uncomfortable with the way in which the New Atheists have exerted themselves in the public sphere.

Alister McGrath, in his historical outline of atheism, The Twilight of Atheism, argues that atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear, a fear of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world. Atheism, he argues, thrives when the church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful. Although I don't agree with McGrath that fear is the motivation for atheism as a belief, I do think that fear is the motivation for vocal atheism. The recent surge of atheist books, it can be argued, is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and in the Islamic world. Like many other individuals, the New Atheists are worried, and their worry is fully justified.

But where the New Atheists have erred, I think, in their approach is that they have alienated themselves from other groups – which include Muslims and Christians alike – who also share the same concerns about religious fundamentalism. I think they have done this by doing two things: first, by presenting the idea that atheism is linked to evolution; and second, by adopting a unbalanced strategy of attack that does not take into consideration the positive attributes of religion and religious living.

In terms of evolution: the creationists have always preached – quite falsely – the idea that evolution and religious belief are incompatible, and that evolution is based on atheism. I believe that Dawkins, in particular, has entrenched this idea by stating, for him at least, that evolution led him to atheism. I often wonder if Dawkins, through other, similar comments, hasn't unwittingly provided the ammunition the creationists need to strengthen their attack on evolution in the political sphere. There are many, many theists who don't regard evolution as threat to their faith, but I wonder how many young, bright theists will decide against pursuing evolution as a career, because they might mistakenly believe that evolution will kill their faith.

In terms of unbalanced attack: the New Atheists have written much on the evils of religion, but they have written little – as far as I have read – on the positive aspects of religious belief. The idea that all of religion is bad is a view that immediately divides the entire religious debate into two camps: those who don't follow evil religion (i.e., the good guys) and those who follow evil religion (i.e., the bad guys). This binary view automatically alienates those theists who exist in the grey area between these two extremes, those theists who share similar values to the New Atheists in terms of respecting democracy, secularism, and civil virtues.

By painting all of religion with the same brush, and by linking atheism with evolution, I think the New Atheists have weakened their position considerably. There is value in a lot of what they say, but I think the tactic they have used of bringing their concerns to the wider world has alienated many who otherwise might be willing to give them a hearing.

12 comments:

CyberKitten said...

KP said: Although I don't agree with McGrath that fear is the motivation for atheism as a belief, I do think that fear is the motivation for vocal atheism..... Like many other individuals, the New Atheists are worried, and their worry is fully justified.

So their vocalism is fully justified then? I think one of the motivating factors for the sudden emergence of the so-called New Atheists is that they are tired of being ignored because many people were unaware of their very existence. I would suggest that particular item of general ignorance has now been addressed.

KP said: I believe that Dawkins, in particular, has entrenched this idea by stating, for him at least, that evolution led him to atheism.

Reading Dawkins on Evolution helped to bolster my unbelief - not that it needed much bolstering - and can, I think, help to undermine some theists belief in God. But, as you rightly said, Evolution does not in itself imply atheism. Atheism presupposes a natural explanation of phenomena & Evolution supplies that naturalist explanation of the diversity of life on Earth - therefore Atheism & Evolution are linked in a round-about way.

KP said: the New Atheists have written much on the evils of religion, but they have written little – as far as I have read – on the positive aspects of religious belief.

I think that there's already a considerable amount of literature on that topic don't you? How many theists have written on the positive aspects of atheism? Not many I would suggest!

KP said: The idea that all of religion is bad is a view that immediately divides the entire religious debate into two camps...

I don't think that religion is responsible for all (or even most) of the 'evil' in the world & I agree that some of the new atheists go too far in this regard. What they should be doing is undermining religion by pointing out just how wrong-headed and irrelevant it is - rather than scare mongering about it being the enemy of humanity and ultimately responsible for the end of the world & such...

KP said: There is value in a lot of what they say, but I think the tactic they have used of bringing their concerns to the wider world has alienated many who otherwise might be willing to give them a hearing.

I don't think that many 'dyed in the wool' theists would give them a hearing no matter what they said. Most people are more than happy with their (wrong IMO) beliefs. Neither strident atheism or gentle atheism will have much effect on them. Comforting illusions (or delusions) keep billions of people warm at night & get them through the following day. Toning down the new atheism to accommodate them would have little impact on the spread of that view point.

P3T3RK3Y5 said...

hear hear - well said.

fwiw: in my experience - fear seems to be behind religious fundamentalism (an excellent choice of terminology which portrays fundamentalism as its own religion - irrespective of particular beliefs).

david groom said...

we are the christions,we are the muslims,we are the borg all drones in the collective.whip out the the individuals.

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

I am glad you wrote this post. I have been thinking something along the same lines. This seems obvious to me and turned me off to atheism because I find Dawkins to be just as irritating as his Christian counterparts. I am currently not sure what I believe, but I appreciate your perspective on this thanks for sharing.

Lui said...

There are several reasons I think you are wrong on this one.

Firstly, the New Atheists have arguably done an enormous favour to many closet-atheists who might otherwise be too intimidated to speak out about their ideas for fear of ostracism. Books by Dawkins and others have helped to show that not only is it okay to be an atheist, but that there are plenty of like-minded people out there and that atheism is perfectly normal. If we're going to talk about "tactics", then the limelight afforded by stirring up controversy and rocking the boat isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Secondly, and more specifically on the issue of tactics, there must come a time when principle comes before political expedience. We acquiesce too much when we pretend that religion itself - and not just its fundamentalist and toxic strains - is not to a large degree a huge part of the problem in the first place. If we are focused only on defeating the fundamentalists who want to undermine education and impose their narrow interpretation of their holy book on society, then we give up the opportunity to directly and forcefully question irrational beliefs per se. We could adopt a conciliatory position like Gould's NOMA, but why do we need to pander to irrationality just to avoid the worst forms of it? THAT would be a course of action taken because of fear. But look at what you'd be conceding. Why shouldn't it be the religious who provide actual reasons for their beliefs, rather than drawing upon the faith card (which is deemed somehow good enough to end a discussion - and most people accept that as though there were nothing at all wrong with it)? Why should there be a pact of "mutual respect" if religion is taking advantage of the unwritten taboo against criticising faith in order not to "offend" (even while practically everything else is up for grabs)? As Dawkins has commented, the one thing that we as a society don't want to acknowledge is that beliefs have consequences. If there are to be beliefs, then they should be scrutinised and open to criticism from all quarters, not shielded behind a veneer of polite convenience.

Thirdly, the actual arguments made by the New Atheists don't often seem to be addressed directly. Theist critics often end up waffling and resorting to things like appealing to the popularity of religion, "other ways of knowing", "oh, that's not MY religion you're attacking", "but Dawkins hasn't studied theology" (and neither have most theists). Theologians often say one thing to a sophisticated audience or when in the company of scientists, but who say something quite different when they are delivering a sermon to believers.

Fourthly, religion is an archaic belief system and it's about time we stopped pretending that there isn't an element of the ridiculous about the fact that so many continue to partake in it. Of course, that's not just an indictment on the disturbing power of religion to make people believe in absurdities; it's also an indictment on societies that degrade and trample on people to such an extent that they seek solace and meaning in religion. But how much more corrupt is a society when there is an unwritten pact not to criticise certain brands of irrationality too strongly? I rather think that people (including religious people) should find it patronising that certain ideas are deemed so "sensitive" that they must be left alone, as though their delicate ears couldn't handle it. For what it's worth, I think that the New Atheists probably do focus too much on religion at the expense of social problems that contribute to its popularity, but one of the steps in fixing these problems will be to weaken the hold that superstition and irrationality have on the collective psyche. Perhaps if people can be jolted out of their complacency, they will appreciate just how important it is that they not settle for promises of an afterlife in exchange for their earthly circumstances but to fight for their right to live with dignity. While religion does provide comfort for those with little else, it is precisely for the sake of these people, more than anyone else, that we should be vocal.

Paul said...

Well put. I don't like fanatism (religious, non-religious, anti-religious - whatever form it presents itself). I think we must respect people's sincere beliefs and convictions - even if we don't share (all of) them. I also wonder why people are so fanatic about their ideas. The fear factor must at least be part of the explanation, I guess.

CyberKitten said...

paul said: I think we must respect people's sincere beliefs and convictions - even if we don't share (all of) them.

Only up to a point. We can respect a persons belief without giving them a free ride. No belief should be automatically immune from criticism.

Bob Estes said...

In looking back at a quote from Dawkins from thirteen years back, I was surprised to see that it was the cruelty of evolution and life itself that convinced him of the purposelessness of the universe, though I had read it before. I deal with that quote among other things in a piece called On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism on my blog. I, after many years of atheism, came to belief in God, and I touch on some of my thoughts on the experience in the blog post.

Laughing Boy said...

This is an excellent post! Thoughtful, insightful, balanced.

What did you think about The Twilight of Atheism? I got the impression that McGrath was predicting atheism would succumb (or at least yield) to a wave a charismatic brand of christianity (now prevalent in Africa and Latin America). I'm somewhat convinced that charismatic Christianity is prone to collapse into atheism, given the weight it places on experience and emotionalism over intellect and understanding. Everybody should be Presbyterian :-).

Van said...

Well, Daniel Dennett's book discusses the purpose and benefits of religion. I haven't finished his book, but it seems that he doesn't think it's as beneficial or as logical as atheism, but he doesn't seem to rant the way Hitchens or Harris does.

Lorena said...

I don't have too much of an issue with the writers you mention. At least Dawkings and Harris allow for some sort of spirituality. They talk of meditation being a useful practice, and even talk of tolerance--sometimes.

Who I fail to understand are their die-hard followers. I started a group of ex-Christians in my town, and ONLY atheists came.

All of these atheists profess to follow Dawkings but have an extremely black-and-white view of things: meditation is for crazy new agers, the word spiritual is erased from their vocabulary, and believe only stuff said to be proven by science. They're the kind of people who edit everything you say, and if you for a second deviate from the dictionary definition of something, they beat you right on the head. Because, well, they're always right and you're always wrong.

There is no middle of the road for the atheists I know. They're hard core and hard to like. It is almost as if they skipped those parts of Dawkings and Harris that show moderation.

Kevin Parry said...

Good comments all around!

Cyberkitten wrote:
I think one of the motivating factors for the sudden emergence of the so-called New Atheists is that they are tired of being ignored because many people were unaware of their very existence. I would suggest that particular item of general ignorance has now been addressed.

This is a good point. I think any maligned group of individuals, when they finally get the opportunity to speak out, will start out being rather vocal. This is to be expected, as I’m sure the group probably feels that it should fight for its rights to have a place in society. Didn’t similar movements, such as the gay and woman’s rights movements, start out in a confrontational style, but later mellowed out as society slowly accepted their views? I wonder if the New Atheists movement will follow the same path.

Barbara(aka Layla) wrote
This seems obvious to me and turned me off to atheism because I find Dawkins to be just as irritating as his Christian counterparts.

I can understand, but for me Dawkins’ approach doesn’t turn me off atheism. Rather, Dawkins’ approach turns me off Dawkins. For me, being an atheist means that I lack belief in a supernatural god. I don’t have to agree with Dawkins, or follow some group, to call myself an atheist.

Lui wrote
The New Atheists have arguably done an enormous favour to many closet-atheists who might otherwise be too intimidated to speak out about their ideas for fear of ostracism.

Excellent point! This is definitely a positive consequence of the New Atheism. But another positive consequence, related to the one you have mentioned, is that the New Atheists have highlighted the fact that there is nothing wrong in being an atheist. I think this was one of the messages in the The God Delusion that was most relevant to me.

Lui wrote
We acquiesce too much when we pretend that religion itself - and not just its fundamentalist and toxic strains - is not to a large degree a huge part of the problem in the first place.

I understand what you are saying here, but I wonder how far the New Atheists – who are a relatively small group anyway – will get by attacking religion in general. Wouldn’t they loose the support of the majority of the population? Without that support, would they really succeed? So in terms of practicality, I can see the merits to the argument that the New Atheists should instead partner up with thinking theists, and together tackle the elements of religion that do cause harm to society (such as fundamentalism, creationism, etc). But again, I also agree with Dawkins’ that society doesn’t criticise religion enough. So I guess we have to figure out how to criticise religion effectively, but still retain the support of thinking theists. I don’t know if this balance is possible.

Laughing Boy wrote:
What did you think about The Twilight of Atheism?

Very interesting. His basic premise is that atheism is a social phenomenon that resulted and blossomed as a result of modernism. He argues that atheism is now in decline, due to certain factors (such as the growth of charismatic churches and postmodernism). I reviewed the book here, if you are interested.