Sunday Meditations: New Atheism

I have a couple of friends who are New Atheists and have had conversations with several more.  If you haven’t run across them, New Atheism is a sort of grassroots movement among atheists that has gone beyond holding the position that no god exists to the position that theism is actively bad for the world and that atheism should “evangelize” actively to move people away from theism and religion.  The movement is spearheaded by the writings and stylings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.

Recently, my good friend, Christian brother and ad hoc accountability partner, and business partner Travis told me about a book: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.  While there are a few bits and bobs that I’m not sure work out, I heartily recommend the book as a whole.  It was obvious to me that the author had actually had numerous atheist friends that he took seriously (many of which disavowed the excesses of New Atheism) and was well acquainted with the talking the points of the new movement and why they tend to be pretty weak.

This has been my experience as well – that the New Arguments of the New Atheists tend to be Pretty Bad.  It actually makes me long for the days of Old Atheism when atheists were self-critical and pragmatic about their atheism.  But why is this?  Why is this particular brand of atheism so much more strident in its claims and so much worse about being able to substantiate them?

There could be a number of reasons for this.  I have found in my own experience that New Atheists tend to believe that merely adopting the position of atheism grants them intellectual super powers.  Anyone who is an atheist is automatically intelligent, a critical thinker, and cares about what’s best for humanity regardless of how stupid or selfish they may have been the day before.  Yesterday, they may have been arguing about the necessity of racial profiling to protect America, the use of torture to get information from terrorists, or the unfortunate necessity of bombing children’s hospitals if it helps us stop the worldwide advance of Islam, but today their atheism has made them see the li… ok, sorry, Sam Harris argues for all those things.  Bad example.

They are now not only smarter than you, but they are also academic experts on a wide variety of hard and soft sciences.  They get this attitude from their leaders who make incredibly ignorant statements in their books about history, philosophy, religion, political science, and any area of science that is not their own field – but they are atheists, so they must be correct.

But my contention is primarily this: New Atheism is the New Secular Fundamentalism.

For those of you who grew up fundamentalist (or still are fundamentalist, I guess), you know what this looks like:

  1. There is a set body of truths that differentiate Us from Them, and They are the enemy unless they convert and become Us.
  2. Our authorities are not to be challenged.  Every counter-claim is a lie.  Every doubt is rebellion.
  3. We are the only people who know the Truth.  Everyone else lives in a perpetual state of deception.
  4. We care about evidence if it supports our claims.  Anything else is not evidence and can be dismissed.
  5. We know what our enemies really believe, no matter what they claim.
  6. Our own history and followers are morally spotless, in contrast to the degradation that runs rampant in The World.
  7. Any opposition is persecution.
  8. Modernist epistemology is correct and deserves exaltation.

That last one is not often explicitly stated, but is an implicit assumption.  And on and on the list could go along those lines.

While there are certainly some Christians that view themselves and the rest of the world along such polarized, black and white, Us vs. Them, it’s all true or all false kind of fortress mentality, it has been interesting to see this same paradigm rise up in atheism – quite possibly from the fact that many New Atheists are former fundamentalist Christians (and occasionally Muslims).  They have taken their exact same view of the world and truth and others and left it completely intact; they have simply removed God from it and replaced it with other forms of worship and truth claims.  It’s not surprising that Sam Harris has made a good chunk of money writing books that are explicitly about atheists recovering things they used to get from religion (i.e. morality, mystical experiences, etc.) because that’s more or less all this is.  We don’t want God, but we want everything else to stay exactly the same.

As a result, they have become a religion – a fundamentalist religion based around fundamental principles.  Principles such as “only empirical data counts as evidence” and “all scientists are objective, unbiased, dispassionate entities who can be depended on to give us direct access to Truth” and “religion is an unmitigated force for harm in the world and must be stopped by Us in Whome Dawkins Hath Relegated Such an Holye Taske.”

There is a reason “old atheists” disavow the New Atheists, and it’s because they recognize fundamentalism when they see it.  Atheism didn’t used to be a religion, but it definitely is, now.  It has a priesthood, mantras, unquestionable sources of authority, a mission, an enormous sense of persecution, iron clad ideas of what can and cannot be true, and an ultimate quest to destroy evil as they define it.

Christians are known for producing apologetics that are pretty terrible outside of a middle-school playground.  They are not just terrible because of logical consistency problems; they are terrible because they often depend on facts that turn out to be quite wrong.  If you have ever read Evidence That Demands a Verdict, for example, and you try to use most of those points in conversation with scientists or historians, you will quickly demand the verdict that you don’t know what you’re talking about.  The reason apologetics books sell the way they do is often not because they are bulletproof argumentation, but because they are convincing to people who A) already believe, and B) are not going to research the accuracy of the evidence.

New Atheism is currently working overtime to produce similar works for a similar purpose.  They want to equip an army of believers with arguments that will overcome the dark deceptions of the enemy.  But the sheer inaccuracy of these works is so overwhelming that even the atheist community is responding.  Self-respecting, self-critical, thoughtful atheists have decided that their interests are not served when other people produce terrible research and claim to speak for them (incidentally, I feel this way about a lot of Christian “science” and “history” and can relate).

It is really difficult to see the New Atheist movement as anything but a repackaged variation of Christian fundamentalism in the 80s and 90s.  All we need are some Contemporary Atheist Music bands and some evangelistic youth rallies.  Oh wait.

You can probably tell from my tone that I don’t have a lot of respect for New Atheism.  I do respect atheism, and at the risk of being cliche, some of my best friends are atheists.  Although I don’t agree, and I think there can be some pretty far reaching consequences, I can understand why someone would think they had no particular reason for believing in God or a use for such a belief.  I can also understand why people would become disillusioned with Christianity (or whatever their theistic religion was).  I also believe Christianity has created more atheists than atheism with some segments being pretty die-hard against things like scientific consensus and social justice.  I mean, really – you tell a teenager that either the Earth is 6000 years old or everything in the Bible is false, and what do you think is eventually going to happen?

But I have about the same respect for New Atheism that I do for fundamentalist Christianity, which is lowish, and for precisely the same reasons.  I don’t have a lot of use for someone regurgitating bad arguments supported by blind faith in their authorities, but masking it as intellectualism because being an atheist means that you’re automatically smart.

Turns out that being smart doesn’t work that way.

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