Why is New Atheism like Old Religion?

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.




The Paradox of Progress: why does making things better make things worse?

One more labor saving device and I think I’m going to crack.

A strange truth shadows modern society: the better things get, the closer we all drift towards collectively admitting ourselves to the psych-ward. We are the richest miserable people to ever exist.

Yet it’s not just us. This enigma haunts civilization – each jump up in technology has resulted in humanity face-planting into some awaiting tree branch we didn’t see coming. Agriculture gave us food. Great! Then it gave us cholera. Not so great. The industrial revolution gave us rapid fire consumer goods. Then rapid fire machine guns. Then Auschwitz, and nukes, and climate change, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stand today at the peak of our powers, the precipice of our annihilation, and in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

Why is progress so problematic?

One answer is we’re all just whiners. Buck up. Be happy. Everything we measure is getting better, you whiny wimps.

Unless… we’re measuring the wrong things.

The global economy is very good at meeting material needs. Too good. Like a supercharged robot gone rogue, the global economy is so committed to making stuff that it is on a suicidal quest to convert the entire mass of the solar system into a spinning disc of Buy-One-Get-One-Free deals. Meanwhile all the other things us humans need are being destroyed: community, meaning, stability, equality, nature….

Coupled onto all this is a pill-poppingly depressing narrative. We are told we live in a meritocracy. Rags to riches – anyone can do it. We all end up where we deserve. Therefore, if you fail then you are a pathetic worthless loser. And by the way, we’re all engaged in ruthless selfish competition. Don’t bother asking for help. Just die. Worm.

Slather on top the 24hr tragedy news-stream and it can’t start to feel like the world is ending. What’s worse, we might not be wrong. Climate change, nukes, mass extinction….

Be happy?

Go suck a foot.

The rate of change alone is enough to do us in. We go from snappy youngsters with all the latest tech, to confused eighty-year olds stumped by doors. Our progress is progressing too fast.

Technology has another big problem – The Law of Unintended Consequences. Each new techno-power cuts the red ribbon to a new district of possibility. Sadly, many of those new neighborhoods turn out to include crime-infested ghettos of horror. Sometimes, it’s all ghetto. We’re looking at you leaded petrol.

These muck-ups aren’t all the fault of incompetent inventors. The nature of the system invites surprises. Solving problems creates new problems.

Imagine you are a butt-naked farmer. It’s you, the dirt, and some beans. A three component system. As simple as it gets.

But you aren’t growing enough. To boost production you make a digging stick. It’s a stick. You dig with it. Great! One wrinkle – now you have to cut up a tree. Now it’s five components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, and the tree.

Wood is hard. Snapping it up by hand is borderline impossible. The time you spend tugging at that tree could’ve gone into growing beans. So you make a stone-axe. Now the system has seven components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, the tree, the axe, and the stones.

Each round of problem solving – progress – lifts the complexity of the system exponentially. Every new component requires resources, maintenance, and managing. They all interact. Each problem solved creates a myriad of new problems to solve. Keep this process going and soon you’ll be needing deep-shaft mines, trade caravans, governments, and ten-thousand years later, the entire global economy. Billions upon billions of components.

The Law of Unintended Consequences rules supreme. Components conflict. Energy requirements grow. Resource depletion sets in. Interactions spin off in unexpected directions.

Problematically all this complexity is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Going from bare hands to a digging stick is a big win. But adding the stone-axe is only useful insofar as it allows more digging sticks. With us, we have reached a point where we are considering vast Geo-engineering projects whose sole purpose would be to save our bean farming from all the things we done to improve our bean farming.

Progress becomes regress.

We end up in a dizzying world which paradoxically winds down the more it winds up. We feel like we’re losing our minds. Thankfully we solved that problem by inventing anti-depressants. What could possibly go wrong?


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Just in case you weren’t already feeling depressed, according to Dr Joseph Tainter diminishing marginal returns on complexity is the sign of a civilization about to collapse, watch on Youtube here.