The New Atheist Movement
Atheism: Then and Now
It’s a tired story by now: in 2001, a radical act of presumably Islamic terrorism shook the world as it resulted in the destruction of what had stood as a monument of World Trade in America.
With this startling example of the behavior which could be wrought by blind belief in religion, a simmering anti-religious sentiment erupted to a boil as books like The God Delusion and God is not Great rocketed to the best-seller’s list and an entirely new sub-culture emerged. Atheism was no longer a quietly held bemusement at those who still chose to cling to their outdated myths: it had become aggressive, evangelical and morally indignant.
Sixteen years later, a variety of problems are beginning to come into sharp relief, causing many within the ranks to question the movement as a whole.
Religion and Government
New Atheism Versus Institutionalized Religion
There are two hallmarks of the New Atheism which have been there from the start: a rigid commitment to the advancement of scientific rationalism to stamp out any vestiges of primitive superstitious thought and the establishment of a secular agenda. Not merely the “separation of church and state,” but the total isolation of the church from any aspect of the state: hence campaigns to remove plaques with the Ten Commandments from various courthouses, to disallow nativity scenes in public locations during Christmas, to have the phrase “In God We Trust” removed from United States currency, etc.
Of course, laudable or not, religion isn’t just so much garbage occupying the veranda of American soil. It has classically served a function in society, and as it is tidily swept away to the corners, something must rush in to fill the vacuum left in its wake. When one surveys any classic moment of American history, whether it be the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech or the words uttered at the moon landing, people have traditionally grounded values in references to God.
The New Atheism has largely adopted classical Humanism as the grounding for the moral outrage it expresses toward the wrongs it sees being committed in the name of religion. This being the case, the New Atheist movement tends to push against the so-called “Religious Right”, expressing viewpoints which extend into the opposite end of the political spectrum.
But when, 16 years from inception, the New Atheists survey their ranks, a disturbing fact becomes apparent. After two decades of pushing a liberal agenda, the majority of New Atheists are still white, heterosexual males.
The Modern Atheist
Trends within New Atheism
There are a number of trends, either ingrained from the very inception, or arising over time within the New Atheist community which has many within that group questioning the movement as a whole.
Possibly most embarrassing in the current political climate is that the New Atheist movement was essentially born of what would now be termed “Islamophobia.” This is a line of reasoning that famed New Atheist frontman, Richard Dawkins, is apparently still holding. He has been quoted saying that he has mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, "in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse." Dawkins says, "There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.”
This kind of rhetoric is evidently embarrassing to some who wish to hold Atheism up proud. Atheist writer Jeff Sparrow agonizes “…how did a movement ostensibly full of progressives end up so identified with writers who sound less and less like incarnations of pure reason and more and more like your Islamophobic uncle after he chugs his sixth pint?”
Another persistent trend within the New Atheist movement is the threatening treatment that women within that movement have received. In his devastating 2014 expose, “Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement,” Mark Oppenheimer details a vast undercurrent of misogynistic behavior present within the mainstream Atheist movement, including the worst kind of chauvinism at Skeptic conferences and cyber-bullying of women and feminists; all of this while the movement, as a whole, pays lip-service to the absolute sanctity of women’s rights. Understandably, as Oppenheimer points out, this has pushed many women away:
“For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
But perhaps the complaint that has the most considerate of atheists distancing themselves from the movement is that New Atheism tends to caricature and blindly attack that which it designates as a target without any attempt to understand or interact with the ideas. This torch-and-pitchfork waving tendency has a fundamentalist – almost religious – zeal to it which is exactly what these thinkers were attempting to escape in the first place.
In his article “Can We Save Atheism from the New Atheists,” Jeff Sparrows highlights the classist and racist problems within the New Atheist assumptions when he writes, “You don’t have to be a believer to see that religion genuinely offers something to its adherents (often when nothing else is available) and that what it provides is neither inconsequential nor silly.
“By contrast, the New Atheists engage with religion purely as a set of ideas, a kind of cosmic rulebook for believers. On that basis, it’s easy to point out inconsistencies or contradictions in the various holy texts and mock the faithful for their gullibility.
“…That’s the basis for the [obnoxious behavior] that so many people now associate from the New Atheism, a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots.”
Another atheist, Eric MacDonald, has expressed similar concerns with the lampooning of religious behaviors by an atheist community that makes no attempt to understand them:
“[I find] its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw.”
MacDonald was repulsed by the tendency within the movement for the Atheists to de-humanize the religious people in question, and to classify their beliefs not so much as a worldview, but rather as a pathological disorder:
“…one is reminded of the George Orwell’s 1984, or the common practice in the Soviet Union of placing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. There is a deeply threatening aspect to the belief that those whose ideas you oppose are somehow mentally ill, or victims of pathological ways of thinking in need of a cure.”
While not renouncing Atheism, MacDonald is placing distance between himself and the New Atheism, stating, “new atheism is quickly attaching itself to beliefs that are as dogmatic and irrational as many religious dogmas, and to a kind of ideological certitude that may be as dangerous as the ideologies of the past that caused so much harm.“
In his article, “What Scares the New Atheists,” Atheist John Gray points out that Atheism in and of itself has no inherent values, and that in the past, atheism has dogmatically championed such causes as the racial superiority of Ernst Haeckel and the eugenics of Julian Huxley. Says Gray,
“None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.”
Gray is not the only atheist thinker to express this thought. In his article “Morals Without God,” Frans De Waal says, “Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”
Is there a future for the New Atheism? It is hard to say. And just what that future might be if it continues on its current course is threatening enough that even some of its most staunch adherents are beginning to jump ship.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.