“The New Atheists”

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.

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8 Responses to “The New Atheists”

  1. Will says:

    Perhaps the problem that those like me who think you over-generalize in your approach to “religion” is because at least here you seem to think of it only as organized or an institution. What about unorganized or ad hoc religion? Do you lump the “spiritual but not religious” folk into your polemic or are they exempt?

    • midiguru says:

      To me, religion is a social institution. As I suggested above, it’s entirely on a par with the Odd Fellows and the NRA, and should be treated in the same manner (with respect to taxation, non-profit status, and so forth). If the leaders of a social institution are peddling lies, they should be confronted — exactly as we confront tobacco companies and the NRA. Unfortunately for the religiously minded, religion is packed full of lies. Without enthusiastically repeated lies, religion as we know it could not exist.

      Everybody is welcome to have whatever private beliefs they find comforting or inspiring … but if they mention their beliefs to me, it’s entirely possible that I will apply logic to their beliefs, and that may make them uncomfortable. Passing on one’s bizarre beliefs to one’s children can be, and often is, a form of child abuse, but it would be difficult to legislate against it, so I suppose we’re stuck with it.

      I have no idea what the word “spiritual” means. When people say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I’m just baffled. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Possibly this is code for “I have a sentimental attachment to the idea that maybe the religious people are right — I just don’t go to church anymore.” Is that a fair way of characterizing it? I don’t know.

      • Will says:

        I think your analogy’s misplaced. Recently I watched a YouTube video of a prominent scholar of religion, Jonathan Z. Smith, in which he says that no one has ever come up with a satisfactory definition of “religion.” For him, the most that can be said is that it is a human activity, like sports. The Roman Catholic Church, however, is a social institution which you can inveigh against, like the NRA. Religion then would be more like gun enthusiasts, only some of whom join the NRA.

      • midiguru says:

        Private, personal, non-institutionalized beliefs are of many kinds. Some people believe in flying saucers. Shall we say that on that account they’re religious? I think the definition needs to be a little more rigorous than that.

        In any case, I don’t care about people’s private beliefs unless they happen to proclaim them within earshot. As Lady Astor said, “I don’t mind what people do, as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.”

        Sports are an organized group activity with rules. If Smith says that religion is like sports, he is implicitly agreeing both that it is a group social activity, not a private belief system, and that there are rules for what the participants are to believe and/or do.

  2. Where I see Dawkins failing is that he treats religion like a disease, while those things that are wrong with religion are really just symptoms of deeper sicknesses which he does not address.

    For example, atheism in the Soviet Union didn’t cure the major disease of which the former state religion was a symptom: the idea that a handful of old men bossing everyone else around is anything but obscene.

    What does it matter if you invoke divine right, or the march of history toward some idealistic state, or anything else, as an excuse for having a good ol’ boys club running the show? The appearance and severity of the symptoms may vary, but the disease remains the same.

    Another disease is the attributing of what amounts to magical power and authority to words and language, and the status of natural forces to cultural artifacts. Religion is just stuff that oozes out when you stuff a human with this particular depravity. No one dare address this disease because doing so honestly and thoroughly will make you a social outcast.

    • midiguru says:

      Just out of curiosity, can you cite a passage in “The God Delusion” in which Dawkins “treats religion like a disease”? I’m not at all sure what you’re saying.

      Atheism doesn’t attempt to cure anything, other than the belief in supernatural forces and entities. Expecting that atheism would have cured the Soviet Union of tyranny is not realistic.

      I agree with you about the abuses perpetrated by men (and it’s mostly men) who are in positions of power, but that has nothing to do with debunking religious ideas.

      Religion is a complex human phenomenon. I’ve been reading Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained,” a very good book. I think it’s very oversimplified to say that religion “is just stuff that oozes out” when you attribute magical power to words or the status of natural forces to cultural artifacts. There’s a lot more to it than that!

      • The entire book assumes that religion *creates* problems, but I think the whole religion circus is a mask and a distraction from what really creates problems.

        Yes, atheism doesn’t attempt to cure anything other than the belief in supernatural forces and entities- that’s why on its own it doesn’t do much to stop the problems we see manifested in religion, problems which lie deeper than religion and will simply take another avatar in the absence of religion, unless confronted directly. Not believing some, let’s face it, unbelievable story is nowhere near enough of the kind of lack of belief necessary to make more than cosmetic differences in society.

        Have you read “spiritual”, “esoteric”, New Agey stuff as well? It’s full of “pyramids”, hierarchies, and above all dehumanization (astrology signs, archetypes, “character types”, blah blah). Same shit, different box.

  3. Using the e-prime language makes for attacking both religion and bogus thinking behind religion far more effectively than any atheist books.

    Curiously, in my experience, introducing e-prime to people has deeply upset a few, much more than any political or religious debate with them has.

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