The New Atheists Aren't Godless EnoughBy Philosopher's Beard
The 'New Atheist' movement associated with the wave of books and public commentary by people like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens has been criticised for its obnoxiousness. It is indeed concerned not with tolerating religion but with confronting and countering it with rational argument. I recall watching one Q&A with Dawkins in which he said to a religious believer (something along the lines of), 'Yes, I don't doubt that you sincerely believe in God. But nevertheless you are deluded'.
Well, I don't have any beliefs at stake in the game, but I can see how this species of militant atheism might be perceived as extremely obnoxious and a breach of some tacit principle of civility about respecting other people's religious beliefs. However, my own discomfort about the obnoxiousness of the New Atheists has nothing to do with its incivility. Rather, my problem is that I find it hard to tell the difference anymore between the atheists and the 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.
To me it is striking that this atheism is constructed in the same negative way that characterises religious heresies, i.e. by beginning with orthodox beliefs and then rejecting one or more of them for more or less intellectually convincing reasons. Heresies like 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). Likewise, New Atheism is structured as a religious heresy rather than as an alternative to religion (thus its adherents are a kind of 'protestant' or 'dissenter'). It accepts that religion is important enough that it matters whether one has the right or wrong beliefs about it, and it has specific views about what religious beliefs one should hold.
Furthermore these beliefs appear central to the personal identity of the New Atheists - they seem to substantially organize their lives around them. I recall listening to a revealing debate between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, a former Anglican bishop. It was Dawkins who sounded most religious, going on in soaring rhetoric about the beauty and the majesty of the universe and the importance of atheism for opening one's eyes to its true wonders. (Harries was much more restrained, and actually raised more problematic issues about Christianity than Dawkins did.) One interesting result of the passion of these atheists is that, from the perspective of freedom of religion jurisprudence and moral philosophy, their faith would seem to have the same significance and deserve protection for the same reasons as 'real' religious beliefs. They should come forward and claim their tax breaks.
Finally, back to the obnoxiousness. These militant 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. That is why they routinely breach rules of etiquette and tell people they are deluded. That is why they deliberately seek out and generate conflicts that will lead to media publicity, thus leveraging their relatively small numbers into greater public attention.
In other words, the obnoxiousness of the militant atheists is the obnoxiousness of any growth focused religion (trying to grow by conversion rather than reproduction). Religious people complaining about atheist incivility should reconsider their own behaviour, like the billboard sized signs threatening damnation and promising salvation outside many churches.
The reason I find the New Atheist movement so disappointing is that it isn't godless enough for me. Because it implicitly accepts the intellectual worth of making and debating religious claims, it brings the world no closer to real freedom from religion, as opposed to freedom of religion in which atheism is just one more religious choice. The political movement concerned with securing freedom from religion is called secularism, not atheism.
My turn to be obnoxious. 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. 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.
As a significant feature of contemporary culture, religion can be an interesting object for social scientific study, such as by anthropologists, and for ethical discussion around principles of secularism and toleration [previously]. But to take religion seriously in its own terms and actually try to rationally debate and refute its ridiculous claims is to give it an intellectual status it does not deserve. Religion is frankly not interesting or important enough to bother not-believing-in in any formal way.
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