The New Atheists are so religiously anti-religious they even make atheists feel uncomfortable. Isn’t that a wee bit odd? How is that the most anti-religious people on the planet can resemble religion to the point that every other Tuesday they get accused of being militant fundamentalists?
The answer is fairly simple: when you fight a war of ideas and culture you will end up looking like everyone else who has ever fought a war of ideas and culture. No one has been fighting that fight longer than religion.
First we need to understand what New Atheism is all about. Then the oomph behind much of the apparent religiosity becomes fairly obvious. This thing we call New Atheism really got going after 9/11. Since then it has evolved into a collection of endeavors and interests mostly in orbit around a number of atheist authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. This solar system of atheism is roughly united by four beliefs:
1) The supernatural doesn’t exist. Gods, ghosts, and your daily horoscope are all wrong.
2) Religious belief is irrational. Believing in God isn’t just mistaken, it’s stupid.
3) Science is the best source of knowledge. Science disproves the ‘God-hypothesis’. Science can show us the best way to live.
4) A moral standard exists. Religion violates this standard. Therefore religion is immoral.
Agree with these points? Chances are you’ll like Dawkins and crew. So what’s new about all this? Approximately… nothing. Varieties of these arguments have existed for generations.
What is noticeable is the forceful emphasis on beliefs 2) and 4). Religion is irrational. Religion is immoral. Forget atheism, this is anti-theism. Religion is harmful stupidity.
This moral mission is the raison d’être for most of the apparent atheist religiosity: anger, intolerance, and evangelism. If you think religion is evil, then you’ll be angry at religion. You won’t be able to tolerate a culture of religion anymore than you’d be happy with a culture of pedophilia.
This moral war is a struggle for minds. Such a campaign requires publicity and propaganda. A mission needs missionaries. No wonder people are reminded of the world’s proselytizing religions.
A movement needs members. Accidentally or otherwise, the New Atheist mission has encouraged atheism as an identity. They compare their struggle to that of gay rights – the identity struggle par excellence. Atheist’s need to feel free to come out of the closet.
However, atheism is a single-issue philosophical position. Is there a God? No. In contrast, religion has always been about belief and identity.
The religious merger between belief and identity is why people go supernova when their religion is criticized. Dawkins’ insistence that, “I respect you too much to respect your beliefs,” always fails – “I am my beliefs!” Criticism is a knife to the gut. This is partly why New Atheism is unavoidably rude. You just don’t slam identity.
Making atheism an identity makes it religious. All that supernova-nastiness gets sucked on in. Echo-chambers. Touchiness. Leader-adoration. Infighting. Bigotry. (In fairness, atheists living in a religious lion’s den have little choice here. You are scandalously The Atheist whether you like it or not.)
So that’s the moral fervor.
Belief number two makes New Atheism act patronizing; Religion is irrational. Rational beliefs deserve debate. Irrational beliefs deserve a Sesame Street lecture on How-to-Think-Good with Socky the Sock-puppet, followed by a brain-scan.
This faith in universal religious stupidity also permits whomping great truckloads of over-confident ignorance. Do you really need to study Santa to disprove Santa? Do you really think Santa’s real? Do you? Same deal, says New Atheism, with Noah and his you-can’t-fit-four-hundred-million-animals-on-that boat. Why bother understanding religious nuance when faith is that silly?
Combined with the condescension this all comes across as dogmatic and simplistic, a little bit religiousy.
Speaking of dogmatism we have belief number 3). Science. New Atheism is infatuated with science to the point of abuse. Deep philosophical questions are swept away with a “Who cares? Science!” The official slur for this is scientism. There’s some things you just can’t ask science to do. It’s not right.
Put all these factors together and team New Atheism smells of strident triumphalism. Just like a religion. Yet, in the end we do need to remember one thing: the word religion is so nebulous that almost anything looks like a religion if you stare at it long enough.
This one word, religion, failingly attempts to cordon off the entire crash-prone intersection between culture and belief. Dare to be a human who believes stuff, and you will be stuck on the wrong side of that barrier. And in the middle of all this credo-cultural carnage, the New Atheists are waging war. They always were going to end up reflecting back a little bit of their nemesis, old religion.
Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole
A classic New Atheist discussion, “The Four Horsemen”, on Youtube here.
An examination of the New Atheists on the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, here.
Atheist Church, yes there is Atheist Church. Here.
The New Atheism has old roots. Try a Roman celebrating the freedom of knowledge over the tyranny of religion with De Rerum Natura, here.
An example of the criticism that New Atheism is religious, by an atheist. “Why Richard Dawkins’ Humanism Reminds me of a Religion“, by Michael Ruse. Here.