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How new atheism ends up with some of the worst qualities of religion

April 12, 2012

Timberwraith over at Haunted Timber has had a few posts recently about falling out of atheism and into agnosticism. Her latest post describes the many ways in which the New Atheist movement in particular ends up being a disappointment. Some parts that really stuck out to me:

My atheism was a reaction to the injustices I saw perpetrated by dominant forms of religion. During these two decades, my critiques focused upon the human flaws of prejudice, hierarchy, and authoritarianism which interlaced so many religions (quite similar to my critiques of many secular institutions, actually). I didn’t care about others’ faith so long as their beliefs excluded these three social ills. Abuse of power and the spreading of oppression were the horrors that offended me.

Many atheists describe their atheism as a simple matter of not believing there are gods. Atheism under this minimal definition is about a singular lack of belief. But there are other atheists who insist that atheism is more than a dictionary definition. As PZ Myers puts it in that post:

In that Montreal talk, I explained that there is more to my atheism than simple denial of one claim; it’s actually based on a scientific attitude that values evidence and reason, that rejects claims resting solely on authority, and that encourages deeper exploration of the world. My atheism is not solely a negative claim about gods, but is based on a whole set of positive values that I will emphasize when talking about atheism. That denial of god thing? It’s a consequence, not a cause.

Now I don’t claim that my values are part of the definition of atheism — I just told you I hate those dictionary quoters — nor do I consider them universal to atheism. I’ve met plenty of atheists who are in our camp over issues of social justice — they see god-belief as a source of social evils, and that’s why they reject it. That is valid and reasonable. There are atheists who consider human well-being as the metric to use, and we call them humanists; no problem. There are also atheists who are joining the game because their cool friends (or Daniel Radcliff) are atheists; that’s a stupid reason, but they are atheists.

My point is that nobody becomes an atheist because of an absence of values, and no one becomes an atheist because the dictionary tells them they are.

I can see the point that PZ is making, even though I have some quibbles with it. But I think problems arise in the middle of PZ’s statements.

Even though he caveats that his values aren’t part of the definition of atheism, nor are they universal to atheists, his contention is that atheists are going to have some values associated with their atheism. If this is so (I don’t think this is really all that controversial), we should be willing and able to check the stated values of atheists against how they actually live those values.

As PZ alludes, many atheists have social justice issues tied to their atheism — so it’s like timberwraith said about: their atheism is a reaction to the injustices they see perpetuated by dominant forms of religion.

The problem, however, is that atheists, when they come together in an organized sense, have some of the same hangups with social evils. Timberwraith puts it this way:

As you can see, this isn’t an unfortunate loss of temper for Dawkins. Endorsing mockery, ridicule, and contempt at a rally in the US capitol is more than a momentary lapse of reason.

This is hardly a novel approach in new atheist realms. If you spend any time on new atheist blogs and comment threads, you can see Dawkins’ recommended mode of discourse play out on a daily basis. In the weeks following the rally, I have searched new atheist spaces for a critique of Dawkin’s “advice” and what I have encountered have been either rationalizations or a deafening silence. This is more than the misdeeds of a few bad apples. This is endemic to the movement itself.

These common place bouts of intolerance and bigotry drive me away from the new atheist movement. If this is the way new atheists wish to engage religion and spirituality, then the movement is only a few steps shy of becoming a hate group. This saddens me, because this movement could be so much more than it is. This could be a truly progressive movement which encourages not only the acceptance and understanding of non-belief, but also a movement that encourages the acceptance and understanding of all philosophical and religious minorities. Instead, the excitement and energy of the moment are being squandered in a celebration of petty insults and aspirations of religious conformity. New atheism has distorted the social insights of secularism into a negative form of religion, replete with tribalism, dogma, and leaders who spew exclusivist drivel.

But I would add something more. You don’t even have to look at atheist-theist interactions to see ugliness. Instead, you can instead look within the atheist community itself to see misogyny and sexism. But actually, timberwraith already addressed that — in her Agnostic post:

Unfortunately, the albatross around new atheist’s collective necks is one of demographics. Atheists are largely white, male, and from previously Christian backgrounds (especially in the US). Atheists, like so many others in the Eurocentric West, are the beneficiaries of centuries of colonialism. So too are they the beneficiaries of current-day Western imperialism. In spite of the absence of religious privilege that is endured by nonbelievers, the demographic composition of atheism accords large degrees of privilege and ignorance. This produces massive blind spots in the movement.

New atheists want others to stop discriminating against their kind, but they have little appreciation for the forms of oppression that others experience. They want others to let go of their hurtful attitudes toward atheists, and yet, they call for mockery, ridicule and contempt toward others. New atheists think that they understand the workings of the world and yet, they have little understanding of those who live outside of their small, white, male, non-believing corner of Western culture.

If mentions of atheism and atheists were taken out of these statements, you’d think that these were quotations about religions. Timberwraith’s comments about what atheism could be at its best — a truly progressive movement — sounds like something that any feminist Mormon could write about Mormonism.

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  1. Hi Andrew.

    Unfortunately, I was in the middle of re-editing my post on the new atheist movement. I have a bad habit of re-proofing my writing after I post it to WordPress. I was dissatisfied with the flow of the original text, so I did quite a bit of rewording. The basic meaning remains the same, but your quotes of my blog may differ slightly from what is now posted.

    Sorry. :(

    • No problem, timberwraith…I’ll edit my quotations in the next few hours then.

  2. Thank you for the editing. Thanks for sharing my ideas with your readers, too.

  3. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    When I teach about atheism in my course, I talk about “positive” atheism and “negative” atheism. (These are philosophical distinctions, not moral judgments!) “Positive atheism” I describe as an approach to the world which is primarily concerned about understanding the world in terms of observable phenomena. I guess another term for it would be “rationalist materialism.” “Negative atheism” I describe as a negation of theism — it’s about critiquing God concepts. I suppose, technically speaking, atheism is always the latter. A rationalist materialist is not of necessity an atheist, but only incidentally one because he or she doesn’t find convincing proof of the existence of God in her or his explorations of the natural world. Still, I think there are a lot of people who describe or think of themselves as atheist who fall into the former category rather than the latter.

    Another thing I talk about in my course is that modern atheism couldn’t exist without the moral or ethical focus. I think the only reason atheism becomes philosophically compelling to massive numbers of people after 1780 is because of its ethical component — because of its argument about how theism makes people morally bad, and because of its interest in establishing a moral order on the basis of rationalism and science. The moral and ethical connections were made by a number of European philosophers (starting with the Baron d’Holbach) in the wake of the French revolution.

    Without this, I think, atheism would always have remained nothing more than an eccentric belief of handfuls of isolated individuals (like it probably was for the millennia prior to 1780). This also explains why atheism has historically flourished best where state church establishments were implicated in social injustice, or in societies with long histories of bloody religious conflict.

    The separation of church and state in the U.S. was a fantastic innoculation against atheism… And I strongly suspect that the growing interest in atheism among twenty- and thirty-somethings in America has something to do with four decades of religious right activism, and efforts to undermine the separation of church and state…

  4. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I don’t know if you’ve read Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. He talks about how many of his contemporaries (he counts himself in this number) became disillusioned with atheism precisely because they saw no evidence that atheists were morally better, and sometimes even found evidence that they were morally worse, than theists. He particularly cites the bad example the Soviet Union set.

    Reading this post, my reaction was, “Well, that’s just human nature.”

  5. John,

    I haven’t read any Alister McGrath…maybe I’ll have to check that out…

    With respect to what you’ve said about separation of church and state being a fantastic innoculation, I think there definitely is something to this. At the very least, by having a religious marketplace that’s more than just a state-produced monopoly, that forces churches to evolve and change with the tides…so even though particular religious traditions may fall in and out of favor, religion in general does not.

    That being said, jumping back to your second comment, I think it’s somewhat disappointing. So we have this troubling thing: human nature. Some people think that religion improves its worst parts; others think that religions exacerbate its flaws. But the problem is — no matter what the religion, no matter if there is or isn’t a religion, nothing seems to be able to reliably, consistently change and improve human nature.

  6. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Could we, for instance, measure, per capita, how much money and time atheists donate to charity, compared with believers? Maybe, measure the percentage of articles in atheist publications that mock religious people, compared with the percentage of articles in religious publications that mock atheists and/or people of other faiths… Maybe it is possible to establish whether belief or unbelief has a greater likelihood of increasing moral behavior.

  7. Since churches are considered charitable organizations and tithes are considered charitable contributions, that would be a skewed measurement right there. Among other problems with the methodology there.

  8. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    You get what I mean though, right? Devise a measure, if you want, that excludes money that goes to building church buildings or temples, or things that have the exclusive purpose of promoting religious worship/institutions, paying the salaries of religious leaders, etc. Only count charitable giving (time and money!) that provides relief for refugees, or builds and funds hospitals or homeless shelters or food shelves and so on. (Maybe for LDS, that would mean you only count fast offerings? And the percentage of tithing that supports the Church welfare program?)

    I still think percentage of literature that is spent attacking other groups is also a good measure… A bit less anecdotal, anyway, than the criticisms you’ve aired here…

  9. Percentage of literature spent attacking other groups could be one thing…but then there should also be percentage of funds spent attacking other groups…and then in addition to other groups (e.g., other religious groups or nonreligious groups), we could look at funds spent promoting campaigns on certain issues (e.g., against women’s equality, against gay rights, etc.,) Perhaps that count of funds could be deducted from the funds which are used for charitable purposes?

    …one problem here is, we don’t really have a good measure of “good.” Because some things that I think are good and bad, others would think are bad and good. In that way, I think that measure may still be bad.

    I mean, what do we do about missionary work? Do we count missionary work as attacking other groups (vs. say, ecumenical work, as not)?

    • John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

      Yes, figuring out how you define “good” will always be a problem. Philosophically, it’s always been a problem for atheists.

      But, it’s worth noting that atheism became popular at a juncture in history where European and Euro-American cultures started to define “goodness” in terms of concrete reduction of suffering. It’s the moment in history, basically, where Christians all of a sudden are really uncomfortable with certain parts of the Old Testament, when wholesale slaughter seems less godly.

      So go ahead and define the “good” in terms of alleviating human suffering, and promoting justice and freedom in society as a whole. Then find concrete ways to measure it.

      Some believers might remonstrate that “God’s” definition of good is not man’s, etc., blah, blah. But as long as they think “God’s” definition of good means trampling the unbelievers, taking away freedom, promoting one group over another, etc., they’re investing in precisely the kind of belief system that has driven atheists away in search of meaning elsewhere. So I think it’s a fair definition of the good. (And it’s a measure the majority of believers in the world, I think, will generally sign on to.)

  10. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I should add… This definition of the good is definitely a fair measure for an atheist who is critiquing other atheists, and questioning whether they are as “good” by their own standards as believers are…

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