Jay Reding.com

Meet The New Atheists, Same As The Old Atheists

Wired has a provocative piece on “the new atheism” and how it is effecting society. Sadly, this new form of atheism seems to be more like a kind of anti-religious fundamentalism:

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.

The problem is that if one look at recent history, atheism far outweighs religion in terms of the sheer devastation wrought upon the world. The Third Reich used Christian mythology to their advantage, but they sought to supplant religion with the cult of the Führer. The bloody reign of Stalin was expressly and abjectly atheistic — the same with the Cultural Revolution in China. Hundreds of millions of people have been killed in efforts to eradicate religion from society, and that kind of militant atheism is certainly no less odious than the religious movements that the “new atheists” wish to destroy.

As the article continues:

But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.

It’s clear that the “new atheism” is innately fundamentalist in outlook. It’s not enough to respectfully disagree with religion, religion itself must be destroyed — to be replaced with a “rationalist” outlook.

The problem with that is what replaces religion? “Rationality?” By whose definition? What these New Atheists seem to be advocating for is a system that is wholly and completely incompatible with human nature. It has been tried, and the results have been disastrous. The reason for this failure is that what inevitably replaces religion is the state. The second the state takes the place of God civil government becomes tyranny. Efforts to create the perfectly rational, perfectly logical, scientifically-based state are invariably horrendous failures because human nature is rarely rational, logical, or scientific.

As Lord Acton so rightly observed, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When the Church is subsumed by the State, the amount of power in the hands of the state increases dramatically. If for no other reason, religion is valuable in society because it puts certain things out of the hands of mere mortals and lets us make categorical statements like “all people have value” and support things like “there are universal human rights.” The modern conception of liberalism and atheism go together so well because both of them predispose a state that controls nearly every level of human society.

What is interesting about the Wired piece is that even the author finds this “new atheism” less than compelling:

Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me.

It is a statement to the power of religion that so much of this “new atheism” has the trappings of religion. The so-called “Brights” might as well call themselves the “chosen people.” Scientists take the place of prophets. Darwin becomes scripture.

Religion has a crucial purpose in society and human relations, so much so that not even these militant atheists can avoid sounding like mere reflections of it. This “new atheism” is little more than the self-superiority of those who think that they know all the answers and everyone else has no choice but to follow along. We already have enough of that outlook as it is.

11 responses to “Meet The New Atheists, Same As The Old Atheists”

  1. Seth says:

    Is this how the right is trying to motivate the evangelicals these days? Yikes.

  2. […] Jay Reding has a great write-up pointing out that a “new atheism” which preaches intolerance against believers is just as bad as the religious fundamentalism it seeks to unseat. (These are the same folks who call themselves “the Brights” – a trend that even has other skeptics wailing and gnashing their teeth.) Reding’s points about the atrocities committed by secular governments in the 20th century seems all the more poignant in light of this link I saw recently on Metafilter, which reminds us of the “forgotten Holocaust” that Stalin perpetrated in Ukraine. […]

  3. Jay Reding says:

    Is this how the right is trying to motivate the evangelicals these days? Yikes.

    I know this may shock you, but not everything is about politics and elections…

  4. Erica says:

    Stalin and Mao simply did the opposite of what dictators have traditionally done. Instead of embracing a state religion and using it to oppress the people, they simply made the State the religion. In both cases any competing belief system is singled out for eradication. I don’t believe that in either case the people in power really care at all about the system of belief, as long as it is effective in giving them control.

    The ONLY thing one atheist has in common with another atheist is a non-belief in a god or gods. Atheism is not a movement, it is not an organization, there is no dogma, there is nothing to hold any two atheists together. It’s possible to believe any amount of supernatural garbage and still be an atheist. Atheism, by itself, is pefectly harmless and relatively meaningless. Most people are functional atheists, in that they don’t actually act like there are any deities in their day-to-day lives. Anyway, if you want my point of view (and I can’t claim to speak for all atheists) we don’t want to eradicate religion. We simply feel that religion has no place in government. It’s about allowing people to live their lives as they see fit (your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins). Truthfully, I’m surprised that the Republicans don’t embrace this concept, since they supposedly hate big government.

    Honestly, this article isn’t really provocative. It’s the same old apologizing for religious wankery while saying “see, atheists can be bad too!” Well, of course they can. People can be good or bad, thus both the religious and the non-religious are capable of being good or bad. But just because Stalin was an atheist and a terrible human being doesn’t mean that all atheists are terrible human beings or that all atheists share his mental illness. Just like not all Muslims share the beliefs of bin Ladin and not all Christians share the beliefs of Timothy McVeigh.

    And saying that Darwin is our god is a really, really old and stupid Creationist tactic. So, congratulations…you’ve just lowered yourself to the rhetoric of Kent Hovind. There should be a prize for that.

    Seth: There has to be an Other for people to fear. That’s how the Republicans get votes. If the people aren’t wetting their beds over Muslims any more (I bet you $10 Jay has plastic sheets), they have to find a new boogeyman.

  5. Jay Reding says:

    Atheism is not a movement, it is not an organization, there is no dogma, there is nothing to hold any two atheists together.

    For these “new atheists” there is, if it’s a loose organization.

    People can be good or bad, thus both the religious and the non-religious are capable of being good or bad. But just because Stalin was an atheist and a terrible human being doesn’t mean that all atheists are terrible human beings or that all atheists share his mental illness. Just like not all Muslims share the beliefs of bin Ladin and not all Christians share the beliefs of Timothy McVeigh.

    That’s fair. My issue with these “Brights”/New Atheists is that they do want to eradicate religion. Personally, I don’t think atheism is at all like a mental illness. I disagree with it, and think it’s a worldview that’s stacked with hubris, but I don’t particularly think someone is crazy just for not believing in a God.

    And saying that Darwin is our god is a really, really old and stupid Creationist tactic. So, congratulations…you’ve just lowered yourself to the rhetoric of Kent Hovind. There should be a prize for that.

    Actually, I didn’t say that. I said for these “new atheists” Darwin becomes the equivalent of scripture, which isn’t even close to the same thing.

    You do point out some frequently-used strawman attacks against atheists — just watch that you’d don’t launch into any yourself…

  6. Nicq MacDonald says:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (unfortunately, I’m quoting myself):
    “The theist fears the atheist because, without God, anything is permitted. The atheist fears the theist because, with God, anything is justifiable.”

    Of course, this begs the question- Jay, what are you? I know you’re not a particularly pious type, so I’m assuming some sort of deist-humanist (at least from what I can remember). So, if you don’t necessarily believe in any given revelation, what is it about the existence or non-existence of God that you find relevant to your own life? Without a coherent revelation, one is faced with the latter problem quoted above- God can be used as an excuse for anything. Every religion is susceptible to this to some degree (Islam is the most eggregious example, but it can be seen in Christianity and the eastern faiths frequently as well. Judaism seems to be the most coherent religion, due to the Talmudic tradition, but even it can fall victim to justification- read up on the Sabbatean heresies for the most blatant example).

    All of this said, I find Dawkins atheistic fundamentalism to be very… annoying. I’m much more open-minded than he is regarding religion and spiritual possibilities, and I have a feeling the man hasn’t touched a proper work of theology in his life. Harris is… peculiar, as he seems interested in experimental spiritualities, yet little of that seems to come across in the mainstream treatments of his work. From what I understand, he’s more of a secular Buddhist than a Dawkins-style atheist.

    Lastly, I don’t think it necessarily follows that without God, people will turn to statism and government- hell, the last six years seem to have shown that religious folks can be as statist- if not more statist- than atheists. And given how many atheists I’ve known who are anti-state libertarians and anarchists, it really doesn’t seem to follow. Most atheists seem to want liberty from God and government in my experience. Old style materialist communists seem to be the exception to the rule… the most statist people I’ve known have generally been Christians.

  7. Erica says:

    Nicq kind of sums it up for me, really. I’m not an anarchist or a libertarian, but I don’t get super excited about government interference either.

    BTW, Buddism is actually atheistic. Buddha never claimed to be a deity, he simply reached Nirvana. Of course, many Buddhists have adopted Hindu deities; I saw statues of Lord Ganesh at temples I visited in Thailand for example.

  8. Nicq MacDonald says:

    Erica:

    I was well aware of that; I used to be a Zen novice at Mt. Shasta. I was just saying that Harris isn’t an atheist of the Dawkins variety. In fact, there have been skeptic groups who have attacked Harris for his interests in meditation and psychical research… this article sheds more light on Harris’ position and how it is significantly different from that of many atheists- in fact, he’s more or less just an unusually credulous New Ager:

    http://www.sacw.net/free/Trading%20Faith%20for%20Spirituality_%20The%20Mystifications%20of%20Sam%20Harris.html

  9. ken says:

    I see your Soviet Russia and raise you a Spanish Inquisition.

    People are going to do what they’re going to do. They’re also going to believe whatever they want to believe. There are Socialist Christians and there are Libertarian Atheists. In fact, during Thatcher’s regime in the UK, when the Christian Socialists party was THE party of Ireland, they attacked Thatcher as atheist because of her free-market ideals. Here in the states it just SO HAPPENS that the left and right have the reverse in their respect to religion.

    I find it amazing indeed that you would react with such disdain for intolerance of another worldview from atheists, then follow up that condemnation of intolerance by calling atheism, and presumably all worldviews but your own, “hubris”.

    The bottom line is that while misguided, these New Atheists really are just taking the attitude that theists have taken for centuries: that their belief system is the only one that’s acceptable. And if you make any claim that your belief system is better than shintoism or peganism or anything else, you’re guilty of the same.

  10. Chris says:

    For those who act disgusted when hearing I’m an Atheist and then try to convert me:
    “You believe in religion, I believe in my genitals. When you’re finished trying to shove your beliefs down my throat, I’ll shove my beliefs down yours.”

    For those who cannot understand why I walked away from all religion upon realizing its’ twisted methodologies:
    “My parents frowned upon my invisible friend when I turned 5, yet they still forced me to go to their church to worship their invisible friend. They’ve finally given up on the Republican Party coming back to something worthwhile, but they still give money to this make-believe deity… I’ll never understand it.”

    Religion is weakness of the human mind. Just like the Republicans whip the weak into fearing their own safety and futures, preachers use the bible (no capital letter for that trype) to beat the weak minded down.

    God is fake.
    Jesus is dead.
    The Muslims are just Christians in a different language.
    Bush didn’t win either election.
    They have all lied to you.
    Deal with it.

    Signed,
    A veteran with a reality check.

  11. Bob says:

    This argument was addressed and refuted in Sam Harris’ book, “The End of All Faith”.

    It’s a pretty convincing (if tautologous) bit of apologetics though, kudos.