One occasionally sees references to “the new atheists.” It’s not a term of flattery or respect. The people who use this phrase seem, almost without exception, to be trying to discredit the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and perhaps one or two others.
Their attempts are usually irritating. Bad reasoning, ad hominem attacks, and sweeping ignorant generalizations are not in short supply. Tonight, while doing the dishes, I think I figured out what the problem is.
At a fundamental level, atheism is one thing, and criticism of organized religion is a different thing. One can be scathingly critical of organized religion (some of it or perhaps all of it) without being an atheist. Conversely, one can be an atheist purely as a personal matter, while possibly retaining great respect for religious values, religious communities, and religious symbols.
It seems to me that people who use the phrase “the new atheists” are not, for the most part, upset with the atheistic reasoning (call it a credo if you like; I won’t) of atheists new or old. Lack of belief in a deity is not the issue. The issue is that these people think you shouldn’t criticize organized religion. They think religion is entitled to be accorded some sort of unique respect — that religion is deserving of a special social standing that lifts it into a region where criticism ought not to penetrate. What they’re disturbed about is that Dawkins, Hitchens, and their allies. not content merely to profess or promote atheism, also insist on leveling devastating and well-reasoned critiques at the institutions of organized religion. And from time to time at the mental processes of religious believers.
This is, I suppose, a new trend. There have always been atheists. We have a few writings from pre-Christian Rome that suggest that at least a few upper-class Romans were atheists. It seems quite likely that several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also atheists, though they cloaked their opinions very carefully in their writings in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. But until quite recently, religion was sacrosanct. Protestants could criticize Catholics in vicious terms; Catholics could retaliate by lambasting Protestants. But very few people were willing to stand up and say out loud, “Hey, the whole thing is a crock of shit.”
It should have happened 2,000 years ago. But until the invention of the telescope and the microscope, until the theory of evolution was developed, the criticism of religion could only be of specific practices that might be considered objectionable. The foundations of the whole enterprise could only be revealed as deeply and horribly flawed when science had progressed to the point at which religious belief of any sort was no longer intellectually defensible. Those who are still trying to defend it have to resort to more and more arcane and convoluted pretexts.
As far as I’m concerned, religion — any religion, or the whole enchilada wrapped up in greasy paper to go — is entitled to no more respect than the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, Monsanto, or the NRA. All of them are human institutions, and all can be, and indeed must be, criticized using the same intellectual tools and the same criteria. For starters, do the leaders of these institutions tell lies? I don’t know whether the Odd Fellows tell lies, but I’m damn sure bald-faced lies are being told by most Christian ministers, most Sundays.
I think it may have been in Dawkins’s The God Delusion that he, or somebody, remarks that there is really no basis on which Oxford or any other university could grant a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That pretty much sums it up.