The new atheists (aka EZs, News) to put it bluntly are taking heat. Worse, they are taking it from some very smart,–dare we say– bright people. Florida State University philosophy Professor Michael Ruse writes.
“So my conclusion is that if someone argued that the New Atheists have a religion — or perhaps better, are religious (because of their atheism) — I don’t think I would want to say that they are completely wrong. The obsession with the topic, the nastiness, and other things like near mystical veneration of the leaders — look at the Dawkins website if you don’t believe me. But at the moment, I am not inclined to use the religion label. To me, New Atheism is more a philosophy than anything else. I don’t mean this as praise; but then, if I called the New Atheists religious, I wouldn’t be saying that as a term of criticism.”
Ruse, elsewhere, says this: “I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party. It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.”
Close behind, but with more literary oomph, Jacques Berlinerblau who heads the Jewish Studies program at Georgetown University, summarizes his opposition to the News this way:
“American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership. In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel. The News are not just a disaster to American life, they are “a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America.”
At some point (how about now) it must occur to the controversialists that key opposition to their agenda is not coming from religious zanies but from people, like Ruse, who are not believers at all and others, who if they are believers, have a lot of explaining to do before they get their baptismal certificates renewed.
On the other hand, it is not clear that the EZs are listening, at least not directly, to their critics, because their royalty checks and speaking fees are talking too loud.
Berlinerblau hits the nail on the head when he observes that “what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.” –It is almost as though they believe that to the extent atheism has a history (i.e., that it has been hanging on the bough for several hundred years, probably longer if you go back to classical adumbrations), it is too easy to explain away its radical, exciting, and mind-blowing newness. (Jacques doesn’t actually say this last bit: I did, and thus want credit for completing the thought).
And then there is this: “Atheism” may not be a good word to describe the EZs. Their critique involves God, but it’s really not directed at belief, or the grounds for belief. It’s directed at believers and at the disembodied essence they prefer to describe, oceanically, as “religion.”
The mode of critique is lodged somewhere between “Stupid Pet Tricks”- and “Bushisms”-style humor, a generation-based funniness that thrives on ridicule as a worthy substitute for argument: Blasphemy contests, Hairdrier Unbaptisms, Blowgun-slogans (“Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”), and my latest personal favorite, Zombie Jesus Jokes (“He died for your sins; now he’s back for your brains”). The message of the Four Horsemen, now conflated into one big message, is that religion has been nothing but retardant and deserves nothing but contempt. The message of their EZ followers is as controlled as a post-car-smash pig-fest.
For all the activity, there isn’t much evidence that it means anything. While in olden days atheists (who preferred to call themselves philosophers and–even–theologians) started with postulates because they saw the postulates as errors in a reasoning process (Aquinas: “Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.” [ST, 1.Q2] –I know schools in Georgia where he could still be fired for saying that.) EZs begin with the postulators, who are obnoxious and stupid. They are able to do this because (as Berlinerblau sees) without historical tribute to pay they can throw slogans and mud around, hoping that at least some of it will coalesce into a rational critique or a policy agenda—except…“New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.”
I would add to that two other projects: (1) ensuring that there is no such animal as a liberal religious position (Harris’s absurd ahistorical view) and (2) poaching statistics to make it seem as if their ranks are much larger than they are, vires in numeris. Berlinerblau mentions Dennett’s 2004 Brights Manifesto where statistics about people who might best be described as uninformed or intellectually hazy are turned into “27 million would-be Brights” who are poised for political action. “That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more.”
My own naivete about the deliberate sensationalism of the EZ atheist movement was profound. At the beginning, having seen Dawkins worthily opposed in debates at Oxford in the 1980s, I thought the discussion was an earnest attempt to enlarge the atheist perspective, that books that were extended polemics about the evils and ignorance of religion would lead to better books and better discussion. What we got instead was the debate script without the rebuttal.
But, as it soon became clear, the only people who the News wanted to debate, or wanted to debate them, were preposterous self-promoters like William Lane Craig and John Lennox; serious “theists” (and loads of skeptics and critics of religion) had better things to do, and it became a mark of dishonor in the Academy to take News too seriously. There were exactly three topics in their pannier bag: the existence of God, the creation of the world (cosmology and evolution), and the resurrection of Jesus. The answer to all three by the way is No. An early and surprising vote of no confidence in Dawkins’s approach to (or failure to engage with) theology came in a 2006 London Review of books article from former Oxford colleague Terry Eagleton: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” It has always been a sore spot for the News that the charge of amateurism has stuck, even though they defended vigorously the right of scientists to pronounce on the existence of a being who doesn’t exist anyway.
The iconic status of the News made any criticism, after a while, blasphemy to their followers; critics could be written off as mean-spirited or simply envious of the success the writers enjoyed.
Instead of discussion we got books and more books by people who didn’t seem to recognize that Dostoyevsky (and Tolstoy, Freud, Camus, Ionesco, Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Becket, Smetana, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood) had explored the ramifications of the post-God universe for the better part of a century, and even then were building on a crisis that was already fledgling in the nineteenth century.
Can you name one artistic movement, one literary school, or one serious poet, dramatist or musician of the past century who has not been affected by (or embraced) the death of God as angst, anxiety, ennui, nausea and chaos? Neither can the News. Their skill was solely in making naive readers and listeners believe that they had discovered for the first time a situation that had been the status quo of western civilization for most of their lives.
Instead of reflecting their superior knowledge of the artistic and literary contours of the twentieth century (the state of affairs Lippmann described in 1929 as the “acids of modernity”) the EZs wanted to locate society’s major cultural crisis in the backwater churches of Slicklizard, Alabama. When you consider that three of the four basked in the glow of Oxford bona fides, the almost anthropological fascination with American backwardness is not surprising. In America, unlike England, the atheist agenda could be approached with something like missionary zeal. Besides, that’s where the money was.
In the middle of it all the “Good without God” craze was born, copping a title from Paul Kurtz’s book originally titled Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion and then released in 1994 under the title Living without Religion. In the book, Kurtz made no bones about the fact that atheism, even if implied in the secular humanist position, cannot be the end of the story.
“…I think that the term ‘humanism’ is crucial, because humanism is an effort to suggest that if we reject God and proclaim that ‘God is dead,’ we need to affirm human worth. The chief aim of humanism is to create the conditions for the good life here and now, and beyond that to build a global ethics for the world community. The purpose of humanism is to realize and fulfill all the things of which we are capable, and to advance human freedom. Accordingly, there is a positive agenda of humanism which is constructive, prescriptive, and ethical. Therefore, at the very least, we need to say that while we are atheists, we are also humanists. Humanism has a basic cognitive aspect, and it involves a commitment to rationalism. Again, the rationalist position is cerebral and intellectual–it is committed to the open mind, free inquiry and skepticism.”
For Kurtz, it is less that the individual “becomes” an atheist than that modern society operates on rational principles, principles which, if they are followed faithfully exclude the possibility of a traditional belief in God and absolutely exclude the possibility of dogmatism and supernaturalism as contrary to freedom. No follower of the existentialists as such, Kurtz nevertheless believed that the role of humanism begins in the constructive work that “the modern situation” imposes on all of us. We are world-makers and the shapers of destiny on this planet.
This implied an educational task, outreach, a movement. But it was not to be a movement that garnered support from people who had simply been trained to think religion was evil. It was a movement based on the twin premises that “religion” and “atheism” do not automatically embody the rational principles of secularism and humanism, the great intellectual gifts of the Enlightenment. It required fine tuning, this message–a high wire act. For that reason it did not get the credit it deserved in a country addicted to one hit wonders. It was Nietzsche’s man on a rope, extended precariously between the good that God once represented and the evil that would ensue if courageous people did not act in his absence.
When Good without God and assorted bus and billboard campaigns (modeled on atheist awareness drives in Britain) started three years ago, the architecture of discussion changed dramatically. It moved from what Kurtz would have called exuberance (a joyful response to the challenge of seeking wisdom and finding happiness, eudemonia from self-discovery—a tradition that takes us back to the Greeks) to self-defense.
The unstartling result was that atheists glommed onto the rhetoric of victimization that had been imported from various rights movements, on the most superficial of grounds: As women, gays, blacks, and other marginalized groups had fought for recognition in spite of the social obstructions they faced, atheists could claim that religion offered no monopoly on virtue. The case was easily “proved”: Look at religious violence. Look at the way religious people interfere in politics. Look at the imbecility of the religious right. Look at the anti-science campaigns of the fundamentalists. That is, essentially, all the EZs looked at.
But unlike the groups which had legitimate claims to exclusion on the basis of unalterable conditions or status, atheists were asking to be judged by what they did not believe, not who or what they were. The whole pretext was absurd. And unlike the marginalized, their undeclinable position was such that they could not claim simple equality to the religious majority.
Their binary approach to reality admitted of only right or wrong–God (1) or No God (0). For that reason, it was difficult for the EZs to admit that religions promote virtue, since their view of belief was that religions were merely coercive and that all rely on a primitive command ethic that has never evolved and never been modified in two thousand years.
Afraid that they fatally wounded themselves with the frat-party atmosphere of Blasphemy Day 2009, the living without religion branch of EZism, sponsored by a radically transformed Center for Inquiry adopted a more suppliant tone, while still insisting it had not been neutered.
One popular myth is that the nonreligious are immoral, or at least that they can’t be relied upon to be as good as those with religious beliefs. If you know any nonreligious people (and almost everyone does…), you already know this is not true. Human decency does not depend on religious belief. There are good believers and good nonbelievers; there are wicked believers and wicked nonbelievers. You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.
Another prevalent myth is that the lives of the nonreligious are empty, meaningless, and dominated by despair. This, too, is false. The nonreligious experience the same range of emotions, sentiments, and sensations as the religious. They are joyful and sad; they feel sympathy and disgust; they experience pain and pleasure. They have aspirations; they are concerned about others. They love and are loved.
One reason this myth persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love. We don’t deny that the religious may find inspiration in their beliefs—but our religious friends should not presume that accepting their beliefs is necessary for a fulfilling life.
We who are nonreligious lead meaningful lives without reliance on the supernatural. Moreover, we believe anyone can find meaning in a life that is human-centered and focused on the here and now instead of the hereafter. Some people have parted ways with traditional god beliefs intellectually but hesitate to give up their faith because they’re afraid of what life might be like without the beliefs and practices they have found so comforting. They’ve heard myths about the nonreligious, and they may think these myths are all they have to go on.
I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote this had never read the most prattlingly self-serving of all the speeches Shakespeare gave to any of his characters, Shylock in Merchant of Venice. But it is the same genre: Confronted with the evidence of his excesses Shylock immediately turns his personal vice into a discourse on antisemitism:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that?” The Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene I).
Confronted with the reality of excess (and fishing for a message that might appeal to the unchurched and the wavering Brights and “Nones”), the atheists at CFI now claim to care about your heart. We care, we love, we hope, we bleed. Just like you Christians.
I am happy that atheists care about caring, loving, hoping and the full range of human emotions. But is there really a general movement afoot to tar atheists as emotional defectives? The subject they are changing is not whether they have the same basic feelings as religious persons, but why in this latest plea for attention they have adopted Shylock’s position toward their adversaries.
This is not a real question by the way: it is an assertion. I want to suggest that these campaigns are not about ideas but broadening a financial base–and an admission that the anti-religion volume was pumped up way too high to attract the attention of anyone.
But the campaign suffers not just from wooden prose, defensive tenor, and a lack of pizazz: it also reveals that distressing ignorance that Berlinerblau detects in the atheist movement. “You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.” Sure you can: the “metaphysical” ideas of a terribly religious person who felt that he was receiving instructions from a god named Chaos and who wanted to advance his plan for liberation by killing people, and those of a terribly warped unbeliever who felt the same way, didn’t use the term god, but targeted people according to their religious views might be relevant in assessing moral character. That is not an extreme example: it is the metaphysics of most genocides since the Middle Ages.
Or this “One reason this myth [that the lives of the nonreligious are meaningless] persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love.” I frankly don’t know any religion that would put it quite that way, though I do know religions that make ample room for hope, caring and love as correlates of a loving God.
It grieves me of course to say that the most eloquent example of this sentiment comes from a religion. In the most famous discourse on the subject (1 Cor 13) St Paul doesn’t mention God at all, and makes faith a decidedly inferior virtue:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
All of which brings me back to Berlinerblau’s central point: an atheism that moves from intellectual respectability to Mission Accomplished-pride (Dawkins: ”Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument”) and then to begging for status is a humiliating outcome for a once-proud tradition. It’s what Allister McGrath projected in 2004 when he said that under the new atheist regime, exciting possibilities have been rendered dull. We only know what they don’t believe.
But it has only itself to blame. It has been disrespectful if not downright dumb about its history and origins and rude to its conversation partners. Skeptics who have their doubts about religion are also smart enough(like Sartre’s aunt) to be skeptical of atheism. The recent upward trend in criticizing new atheism suggests only that it has boiled down to marketing strategies, and that people know it. People know that the shop window is empty. The organizations, having not much to sell except the signs above the shop will try Commando-tactics one day, Victimization the next (I am trying to remember the date of the death of the last atheist martyr), and Misunderstood the day after. The closest analogy are the versatile rain dances of the Quapaw Indians in Missouri. On the up side, overhead is low when you’re not actually making anything.