by Thomas Wells
The 'new atheist' movement associated with the 'four horsemen' (Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, Dawkins) doesn't speak for me. It combines uninformed foolishness with a quasi religious dogmatism of its own and tops it all with an illiberal political programme. As a non-believer I am as embarrassed by them as many Christians are embarrassed by the ravings of the evangelical fundamentalists who appoint themselves the representatives of Christianity.
Too much God
This new atheism isn't nearly godless enough for me. Its proponents seem somewhat obsessed with the quite unremarkable fact that God doesn't exist. Indeed, it seems so central to their identity – they seem to substantially organise their lives around it – that I find it hard to tell the difference between them and religionists.
Certainly one can't distinguish them straightforwardly in terms of 'unbelievers' vs 'believers'. These atheists are believers. They hold very strong religious beliefs – about the existence of God, the divine nature of the universe, the proper interpretation of sacred texts, and so on. The fact that they are all negative in content doesn't mean that they aren't powerful religious beliefs. After all, negative beliefs are central to many religions (e.g. that there is no more than one god, or, in some versions of Buddhism, that there are no gods).
To me it is striking that this atheism is constructed in the same negative way as religious heresies, i.e. by beginning with orthodox beliefs and then rejecting one or more of them for more or less intellectually convincing reasons. Note that heresies, for instance Satanism, don't stop being religious just because they reject certain orthodoxies (though at some point they are likely to be recognised as new religions in their own right). In the same way because new atheism is structured as a religious heresy rather than as a genuine alternative to religion, it looks very much like a 'protestant' or 'dissenting' faith.
Unsurprisingly, these passionate atheists are not content to hold their beliefs privately. Like members of many other religions (such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons) they not only want to share the Good News they have discovered with everyone else, but they actually see proselytising as a sacred duty that is inseparable from their faith as a whole. Part of being this kind of atheist is to preach to the heathen masses and seek to save them from their false gods by converting them to the Truth. Hence their routine breaches of social etiquette as they go around telling people they are deluded, just as many churches put up billboards threatening passers by with damnation and promising salvation. Hence their interest in seeking out and creating conflicts that will lead to media publicity, thus leveraging their relatively small numbers into greater public attention. The obnoxiousness of the new atheists is the obnoxiousness of any growth focused religion, one that is trying to grow by conversion rather than reproduction.
One interesting result of the passion of these faithful atheists is that from the perspective of freedom of religion jurisprudence their faith would seem to have the same significance and deserve protection for the same reasons as any other religious beliefs. They should come forward and claim their tax breaks.
The fundamental problem with all this is that the new atheists accept that religion is important enough that it matters whether one has the right or wrong beliefs about it, and have specific views about what religious beliefs one should hold. What separates them from me is that I don't consider religion worthy of rational dissent, and I don't consider that true freedom from religion would require me to rationally justify my lack of belief or interest in it. Of course god doesn't exist. So what?
There are many supernatural things that some people believe in that I don't, including Santa Claus, UFOs, crop circles, witches, ghosts, homeopathy, gods, fairies, and astrology. I see no particular reason to select out my non-belief in gods from that list of non-beliefs for special attention and justification. I see no no more reason to describe myself as an atheist, than as an afairieist, ahomeopathist, etc. To put it another way, my non-belief is apathetic: the nonexistence of God/Gods is a matter of great insignificance to me. And isn't that how it should be?
It has not been sufficiently noted that freedom of religion requires freedom from religion. If the foundational idea is that people should be free to follow their reasoning about the nature of the world where it takes them, then that reasoning should actually be free from coercion and constraint. One such constraint consists in understanding freedom of religion as a kind of menu of different religious options from which people can choose. That menu has an atheist option, but I reject it. I don't think I should have to choose from a menu of religions in the first place.
Of course the rejection of religion means the rejection of supernaturalist metaphysics, a world inhabited by extra ‘spooky' forces and entities like angels. I applaud the embrace of disenchantment: the universe is just stuff all the way down. But the new atheists are so keen to reject the ad hoc faith based reasoning of religionists that many of them go well beyond the implications of this common sensical metaphysical position to advance a bizarre epistemology in which our only way of knowing anything is the scientific method. That is, they insist on an account of rationalism borrowed from the idea of natural science that was in vogue back in the 1950s, an extreme version of logical positivism.
Perhaps this is just the kind of reactionary position one falls into, exhausted, after endless rounds of debating evolution with creationists. Nevertheless it is a very silly posture to end up in: a defensive crouch. Just because the natural sciences disprove many claims by religionists about how the world works doesn't mean that only the natural sciences can speak truth.
First of all, explanation is not justification. Factual beliefs do not in themselves determine ethical beliefs. For example we can't determine the morality of abortion via a study of developmental biology or of legalising marijuana via biochemistry. Though our debates can be informed by scientific findings, especially if we happen to be consequentialists, our valuational criteria are not themselves scientific.
Second, not all explanation follows the natural law model associated with 1950s physics. There's a lot of contingency to the way things turn out that cannot be precisely predicted but must be told, like a story. Even evolution is contingent – things bump into things or eat them, environments change, mutations appear, and so on. Likewise for the human condition – people bump into things, other people, and ideas. We can't understand much of the human condition, including the phenomenon of religion itself, with brain scanners and gene sequencers. For that we need to study the human ‘sciences', including literature, history, and sociology. (Philologists, incidentally, did at least as much to undermine the credibility of scriptural Christianity as the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Darwin.)
The opposite of supernaturalism isn't naturalism but humanism. Turning from the blinkered narrow mindedness of religion to another sort of narrow-mindedness isn't progress and isn't particularly rational. Even most philosophers of science, who still think physics is awesome, have long since dropped this worshipful attitude towards science.
The new atheist movement is often defended by projecting a political rather than a religious motivation onto its adherents. That is, the new atheists are only reacting to the illegitimate invasion of the public sphere by religionists who want to force your children to say prayers in school, ban contraception and abortion, block gay marriage to stop god from sending floods, and so on. These militant atheists are just standing up to defend the principle of secularism a basic tenet of liberal democratic society.
In the context of the American culture wars, especially about the teaching of evolution in schools, I can sort of understand where they are coming from. Yet the threat seems exaggerated and the solution misguided.
The new atheists conflate religiousness with stupidity and stupidity with evil. Thus they seem to suppose that many or most religionists are theocrats anxious to impose their religious beliefs on the whole of society. Yet there are few real theocrats these days, reflecting the triumph of liberal democracy in the parts of the world where most new atheists live. This may be why several of the prominent authors in the movement seem so obsessed with Islamic fundamentalists, who mostly don't live in liberal democracies: they provide a convenient albeit misleading illustration of the danger to liberalism.
New atheism's version of secularism seems more dangerous than the disease. To prevent religionists from imposing their irrational beliefs on the rest of us the atheists seem to demand not the neutrality of the state but its commitment to Truth, i.e. atheism. Will children be required to recite the Atheist's Creed in schools and will bank notes have “There is no God” printed on them? How ghastly.
There is a basic misunderstanding here about what secularism and liberalism mean. Secularism is not the same as atheism. Secularism concerns restrictions on the role of divine beliefs in public life. Atheism concerns what individuals should believe about the divine. Secularism is a political movement compatible with both religion and atheism, and is rather a matter of style than content. It aims at a state of affairs where people don't push their beliefs about the divine on you or even at you, but keep them to themselves.
It follows that arguments for secularism can come from many places besides atheism. Historically they have often come from and been institutionalised by religionists, as in America. (As is also the case with other aspects of ethical progress associated with liberalism, such as abolition, gay marriage, women's reproductive rights, and so forth.) From the perspective of liberalism the important issue is not whether someone has religious beliefs, but the extent to which they are reasonable in the way they hold them, that is, whether they abjure imposing their views on others. The militancy of the new atheist movement bears a worrying resemblance to the unreasonableness of the fundamentalist theocrats they worry about so much.