The New Atheism

An article in the new issue of Wired chronicles the rise of the New Atheism helmed by leaders such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. The New Atheism as opposed to the old as an agressive evangelical ideology that holds not only a personal disbelief in god but an assertion that no one else should believe in god either.

“This autumn, Harris has a new book out, Letter to a Christian Nation. In it, he demonstrates the behavior he believes atheists should adopt when talking with Christians. “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you,” he writes, addressing his imaginary opponent, “dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.”

The New Atheists tend to define the ideological conflict as being between the Brights and the Dims, the Rationalists and Superstitious. Dawkins has argued that parents should be forbidden from teaching religion to their children. I would tend to define the most important ideological divide as being between the Relativists and the Absolutists. Between those who believe that we should live and let live and Those Who Know What’s Best.

It is unfortunate to me that people as bright as these fellows should be unable to see that their ideological bedfellows are the crazy Islamists and right wing evangelical Christian nutballs who wish to impose their beliefs upon everyone. Dawkins argues that the moderately religious create the environment that allow the extremists to dominate. I would argue that extremists breed extremists and that tolerance breeds tolerance. I tend to think that C.S. Lewis, evangelical Christian theologian though he was summed the heart of the matter up pretty well:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

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12 responses to “The New Atheism

  1. “Dawkins has argued that parents should be forbidden from teaching religion to their children” – it gives me shivers. What is the difference between this an a fundie?

    Nice post btw.

  2. For myself, the essential message to take away from Dawkins, Harris, Dennett et. al. is that we should be subjecting religion and religious beliefs to the same scientific scrutiny we subject all other topics. Just because someone believes something and holds it sacred doesn’t mean it should be off limits. Neither should criticism of religion, or even of religious beliefs, be considered to be intolerant. That doesn’t mean we’re intolerant of individuals who have religious beliefs. Actually, I would say that if we understand how and why people have religious beliefs we tend to be more tolerant.

    To me this is all self-evident but I understand where people have problems with the manner in which Dawkins, Harris and Dennett (and myself at times) argue. On some level, I think it depends on the scale one is looking at (see my reply to Jory in comments here). However, once you get beyond the notion that religion should be subjected to scientific scrutiny, it’s all polemic. At least until we have evidence that religious beliefs harm developing minds or that religious belief must necessarily lead to extremist behavior and I’m not sure we’re going to find that. In fact, I would say that the neuroscience literature would directly contradict notions such as that. I still don’t see religion as de facto good, but I don’t see it as de facto harmful either.

    The important thing I think is that we should be aggressively pursuing a secular society, especially in the political realm, leaving religious belief (or nonbelief) to the personal and private. It protects non-believers as well as believers and helps insure that extremism doesn’t take root, but in and of itself a secular society while necessary is not sufficient. To that end we also need to insure a high standard of living and education. It’s just that religious extremism so drives world affairs today that I think it’s only natural that we are seeing a influx of books such as The God Delusion.

  3. “For myself, the essential message to take away from Dawkins, Harris, Dennett et. al. is that we should be subjecting religion and religious beliefs to the same scientific scrutiny we subject all other topics.”

    But that is just baloney. Humans simply don’t subject all topics to scientific scrutiny unless they are ill. Not all truth is scientific truth. I can’t perform an experiment to prove my love for my wife and children, but it is very real to me. If you would feel compelled to reduce that to the component biological urges and electrochemical reactions, I would say your human experience must consequently be the poorer for it.

    “Just because someone believes something and holds it sacred doesn’t mean it should be off limits.”

    Here we agree, but I would argue that any religious person who attempts to use scientific analysis in defense of, or to be persuasive of faith is fighting a losing rear guard action. Faith by its very nature is mystical and not subject to the rigors of a scientific argument. That’s why it is called faith. (belief that is not based on proof) In that regard it is precisely as logical (as Dawkins or Harris might argue) as believing in unicorns, and those who are religious (and honest) should acknowledge this.

    “Neither should criticism of religion, or even of religious beliefs, be considered to be intolerant.”

    Well of course not. But Dawkins tends to go much further than criticism and well into the realm of ridicule. He is just pompous and rude, in the same way that all fundamentalists are when speaking of those who do not believe as they do.

    “At least until we have evidence that religious beliefs harm developing minds or that religious belief must necessarily lead to extremist behavior and I’m not sure we’re going to find that.”

    Well, that’s generous of you. Given that the vast majority of people in the world are religious to some degree and the vast majority of people don’t engage in extremist behavior, and given that extremist behavior his been clearly observed in ideologies identifying themselves as atheist, I think you are well founded in your extremely tentative conclusion.

    Since that you seem to have an urge to hold the religious accountable for the harm that religious extremists cause, do you have a similar urge to call Atheists to account for the harm either caused by or fueled by ideological proximity to extremist Atheism?

  4. Since that you seem to have an urge to hold the religious accountable for the harm that religious extremists cause, do you have a similar urge to call Atheists to account for the harm either caused by or fueled by ideological proximity to extremist Atheism?

    Well, first of all, let me pick a nit. There can be no extremist atheism for the simple fact that atheism is not a belief system. It’s simply a lack of belief in a god or gods. Individual atheists though can have beliefs about god(s), religion and religious beliefs but the simple lack of belief in and of itself is not a belief. In that sense there can be atheists who espouse extremist ideologies so if you were to say “extremist atheists” then I would have no problem with that.

    But to answer your question… Of course! And I do frequently. In particular I will counter atheists who portray religious belief as mental illness (I’m not sure Dawkins has progressed to that point, I believe he claims the title of his book was chosen for him). Of course, extreme religiosity may be a symptom of mental illness but religious belief in and of itself is not a mental illness. If Dawkins has crossed that line, then obviously I’ll criticize him. I’m holding off judgement though until I’ve read The God Delusion (which may be quite awhile).

    BTW: We’ll have to disagree on the first paragraph in your reply. I believe it is absolutely essential that we as a species subject everything about the human experience to scientific scrutiny. In so far as religious beliefs are held by human animals and religion is behavior engaged in by human animals and the human animal is itself made out of the same matter as everything else in the universe then I can see no reason why we should not treat religious beliefs and religion as fit subjects for science. Whether individuals want to do so or not is of course their own choice. Perhaps you might think that obscenely reductionist. I don’t, but then I am a materialist (or naturalist if you prefer).

  5. The accusation that New Atheism is a new form of fundamentalismt is a vacuous and a cowardly one. The only reason such an accusation is made is because of the inability of the accusers to take on the arguments presented by these authors.

    They don’t define this as a war between the “Brights and the Dims”. If you go to Dawkins’ website you have a video of a recent event in CA where you see him on video saying that he doesn’t think people believe in religion because they’re stupid. D. Dennett also explains in “Breaking The Spell” how the term Bright is to be taken the same way the term Gay is. It doesn’t mean that heterosexuals are “Unhappy”, the word “Bright” is just a chosen epithet to describe a person with a naturalistic world view. Like he says, theists can even choose to call themselves “supers” if they want to. Unfortunatelly it seems like the author of the post has only read the poorly understood opinion of a WIRED writer and not read any of the work of these authors who all clearly state their intentions in their texts.

    None of these authors state that you will become a better person should you voluntarily choose not to believe in God or gods ( although the inverse is true of religion, so maybe that’s where you got your erroneous thinking). They simply state that reason should be applied to any belief that has a serious effect on the world. The reason religion should be held up to scientific scrutiny is because religion makes scientific claims about the Universe. With every other area of our life we require sound judgment and evidence, all that these authors argue is that religion should be no different. It is a matter of equality, not of subjugation (something which religion is most often the culprit, not the victim).

    I could go on correcting all the misunderstandings (be they intensional or not) in this post but I won’t bother.

    If you truly wish to criticize these authors then actually do read their works and refute their arguments. Also, when you claim they say something do try and actually quote them or provide the source which you’re paraphrasing. Sometimes being accountable for what you’re writing does wonders to clear your mind of any misunderstandings.

    • Lets you post stand and doesn’t reply. This idea of Brights v Dims has been quoted from this piece and placed in print in The New Atheist Crusaders by Becky Garrison. (tell enough “misunderstandings” , enough times… etc, etc.)

  6. Pingback: Friendly Atheist » Interview with Becky Garrison, author of The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail

  7. “Given the power of our technology, we can see at a glance that aspiring martyrs will not make good neighbors in the future. We have simply lost the right to our myths,
    and to our mythic identities.”
    Sam Harris, The End of Faith

    Atheism is not new. But why is it that so many books on the subject have been published in a few months. Ask any of the authors, especially Sam Harris or Dan Dennett, they will tell you that it is a response to the rising tide of religious fundamentalism, most strickingly revealed by 9/11 and the not less fondamentalist response to it.

    What tone should you use to convince your fellow humans when you fear a great danger if they don’t change their beliefs? Too “stringent” might indeed be counterproductive. But a mild and tolerant approach won’t do either.

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