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