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Concerning “The New Atheism”

By George A. Ricker

Much has been said and written during the last 18 months or so about a cultural phenomenon called “The New Atheism.” The phrase has been used widely in the media. A Google search conducted recently yielded references to articles in such diverse locations as Dissent, Wired Magazine, The Nation, Newsweek, and ZNet.com, to name just a few.

“The New Atheism,” we are told, is more strident, more uncompromising and more confrontational than in the past. Led by best-selling authors Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great), this new breed of atheists has adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude toward religions and religionists. At least, that’s the claim being made.

What’s going on?

It is certainly true that atheism is getting more press, and books by atheists are being more widely discussed than ever before. That much is definitely new. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that, with the exception of Harris, the authors in question already had published quite a few successful works and were well known in their respective fields. Something else that is new is the willingness of established professionals to speak out about their own nonbelief and to do so without apology.

But is there really anything new about “The New Atheism?” If we are to believe its critics, the new atheists mirror the extremists in the camps of various religions. Their critique of the god idea and religions runs the risk of alienating all the moderate religionists out there who might otherwise be willing to ally themselves with nonbelievers in secular battles to preserve the environment and restore the wall of separation between government and religions that has been weakened by the actions of the Religious Right in recent years. Their attacks on religion will further marginalize atheism, rather than strengthening it.

Can we really accept the notion that critiques of religions and the god idea by atheists are new? And even if we accept that claim, how much does any of that have to do with the nature of atheism itself? Does “The New Atheism” describe a legitimate phenomenon or is it simply a convenient label used to conceal the real agenda of those who use it?

Consider the source

The first thing that must be understood about “The New Atheism” is that the label originated with atheism’s critics. None of the authors in question set out to establish a movement called “The New Atheism.” Although Dawkins, in particular, spoke of the need for atheists to come forward and speak out, he didn’t use the phrase until others used it to brand him and other critics of religions and the god-idea. I first became aware of the phrase when I read the essay, “The Battle of the New Atheism” by Gary Wolf on Wired.com’s web site. That essay has since been retitled “The Church of the Non-Believers” and is archived under that title on Wired.com. My response to that piece can be found in “When atheists attack,” a selection that’s included in my new book mere atheism: no gods…no problem! and is also on my web site.

But all the clamor over “The New Atheism” seems to miss the point. None of the authors in question has advocated outlawing religion or padlocking churches. None has suggested new laws to limit religious expression or to curtail the activities of televangelists. None has demanded, contrary to the impression given by some perpetually offended religionists, that religions and religious practitioners vacate the public square. What these authors have asked for, have demanded really, is the right to criticize religion with the gloves off. And even if we concede that some of those criticisms may have been over the top, we also must acknowledge critics of “The New Atheism” have been no less extreme in their rebuttals.

So the image of hordes of angry atheists led by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et. al., traveling from town to town and tearing down religious edifices while they simultaneously attack the religious just doesn’t hold up very well when compared to the reality of academics authoring books and giving lectures. The right to criticize, analyze, lampoon and even ridicule religion, non-religion or any other subject is inherent in any society that values free speech. Religionists may well be offended by some of what gets said and written in that effort, and they certainly have every right to react to those offenses. Being offended, however, is not an argument. Being offended entitles no one to special consideration. Being offended gives no one a monopoly on truth and may well be met with a sardonic and well deserved “So what?”

It is also worth noting that many of the same people who are now so offended by “The New Atheism” were never all that happy with “The Old Atheism” either. Since acknowledging my own atheism, I have been aware of a constant drumbeat of opinions to the effect that atheism is a negative word and, therefore, atheists shouldn’t call themselves atheists but should seek a softer, gentler term. Mind you, most of this flack doesn’t come from those on the Religious Right but from members of the, so-called, freethought community itself. In his essay on “The New Atheism,” referenced earlier, Wolf claimed that, among his—apparently very limited—circle of friends and acquaintances, the only people he could find who were willing to accept the label “atheist” were those who enjoy—and this is a direct quote—“pissing people off.”

Harris’ problem with atheism

Interestingly, one of the authors in the vanguard of “The New Atheism” has announced he too thinks those of us who call ourselves atheists should abandon the term. Speaking at the Atheist Alliance International Convention in September, 2007, Sam Harris noted he had never thought of himself as an atheist until others began attaching the label to him. (You can find an edited transcript of Harris’ remarks here.)

Harris stated that in accepting the label of atheist, “it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms.”

He added, “So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves ‘atheists.’ We should not call ourselves ‘secularists.’ We should not call ourselves ‘humanists, or ‘secular humanists,’ or ‘naturalists,’ or ‘skeptics,’ or ‘anti-theists,’ or ‘rationalists,’ or ‘freethinkers,’ or ‘brights.’ We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.”

Writing in Free Inquiry magazine (December 2007 / January 2008 issue), the redoubtable Paul Kurtz agreed with Harris about using the label “atheist” but took exception with the idea of eschewing all labels. It would be counterproductive, he argued. Flying under the radar might be useful for individuals, but it’s unrealistic if one wishes to find allies and build movements.

As it happens, I agree with the thrust of Kurtz’s argument, though I disagree with both men about the use of the word “atheist.” Much as the idea of renouncing labels might appeal to me at times, the fact remains that labels provide useful information and can be very helpful when they are used, and understood, properly.

One of the things Harris overlooks in his call to abandon the word “atheist” is that any of those decent responsible people who attack any of the many bad ideas espoused by religions will be called “atheists” whether they want to accept the label or not. And if they stand mute, all of the negative connotations unfairly attached to that word will be attached to them. Among the religious, “atheism” and “atheist” have long been words of condemnation. So much so that some in the religious community have used the word to brand anyone who opposes them, whether it is appropriate or not.

Labeling dissent

Consider the fate of Thomas Paine, who had sounded the call for revolution in the American Colonies with the pamphlet Common Sense, and had worked tirelessly for the success of the revolution until it was completed. Once Paine had the audacity to publish his criticism of the Bible with The Age of Reason, he was vilified in the press and from the pulpits in the nation he had done so much to bring into being. Even though Paine clearly believed in a deity and said so at the very beginning of his book, Theodore Roosevelt would refer to him, in a work published in 1888, long after Paine had died, as a “filthy little atheist.” Roosevelt was hardly alone. His words echoed the sentiments of many.

When Lisa Herdahl objected to the Pontotoc County, Mississippi, public school’s practice of daily Bible readings and Christian prayers over the school intercom, the recitation by students of an organized “blessing” before going to lunch, and religious Bible instruction as part of the official school curriculum, she and her family were ostracized and harassed in their community. Herdahl, who is a practicing Christian and raising her children to be the same, and her five school-age children were called atheists and devil-worshippers, and her children were teased and humiliated by teachers and students alike at the school. The family received bomb threats. The practices, which had been going on for years, continued from fall of 1993, when Herdahl first raised her objections, until March of 1996 when a federal judge issued an injunction, declaring the school board’s actions to be unconstitutional and ordering a halt.

More recently, in Dover, PA, parents and teachers who objected to the school board’s efforts to have a statement proposing “Intelligent Design” as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary theory read in public school science classes were called atheists by those in the community who wanted the statement read. Even those who were themselves active in their churches were labeled with the “A” word, according to the NOVA documentary, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.”

These examples, and there are many more that could be cited, illustrate the folly of thinking that those who actually are atheists can escape the negative connotations of the word by not using it. In the minds of some believers, the “A” word is a label used to brand anyone who thinks differently on matters of religious practice or doctrine, whether it fits or not. And, mind you, these examples have nothing to do with “The New Atheism.”

Pot, kettle, etc.

Harris is certainly correct when he notes that “The New Atheism,” like the older “militant atheism,” is used to trivialize and marginalize those who raise objections to various ideas about gods and the religions that have grown out of those ideas. However, as his own experience should have taught him by now, the strategy he proposes to counter that tactic will not help matters.

Indeed, it seems hopelessly naive to suggest, as Harris seems to, that his works or those of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchins and others, would have been more kindly received if the authors had avoided all of the labels customarily attached to nonbelief. Any author who proposes that belief in a god might be a delusion or that religion is a natural phenomenon and should be studied as such or that religions are responsible for a good bit of harm to individuals and whole societies is going to get blasted in a large segment of the popular media. Flying under the radar is not an option under such circumstances.

So the only real alternative, if we are to take the advice of Harris and eschew all labels, is to simply shut up altogether. And that’s the real objective of those who attack “The New Atheism.” Their discomfiture is not caused because “The New Atheism” is so much more strident than the old. It is caused by the existence of atheism itself and the willingness of more and more people to lay claim to that title and wear it with pride instead of fear.

The best way to deal with all the brouhaha over “The New Atheism” is to recognize that there really is nothing new about atheism at all. The mistake Harris, Kurtz and others who advise us to abandon “atheism” make is in their acceptance of the notion that atheism should be defined by its critics. It’s as if we said no one should call themselves “Christian” because everyone knows some Christians are reactionary ignoramuses who believe every word in their holy book is absolutely true and those who think otherwise are going to burn in Hell for all eternity.

Anyone who tried to sell that notion would be met with universal condemnation, and rightfully so. How is it that those who attempt to mischaracterize atheism are not similarly condemned?

A new understanding of atheism

Atheism means without god-belief. It may be described as the absence or lack of god-belief. Atheists do not believe in the existence of a god or gods. In fact, every human being on the planet is an atheist about some god or another. I don’t know of anyone who believes that all the gods ever worshipped by humankind actually existed and did the things attributed to them.

In my new book, I state, “Atheism is the absence of god-belief. All else is embellishment.”

So there is nothing about atheism that requires anger or bitterness. There is nothing about atheism that requires one to hate either religions or the people who follow them. There is nothing about atheism that gives one a political agenda or a moral code. Atheism is neither a religion nor a philosophy. It has no dogma and seeks no power over others. It is not a world-view.

All of this is well understood by most atheists. The truth of the matter is that mere atheism is simply the identification of the absence of something. If I tell you I am an atheist, all I have told you is that I have no belief in the existence of a god.

Now you may infer certain things from that. You may reasonably conclude that I don’t think a god had anything to do with the creation of the universe or anything in it. You may reasonably conclude that I don’t draw my moral values from the absolute teachings of some absolute deity. You may reasonably conclude that whatever my world-view is, a god is not part of it.

But beyond that you may not safely go. When it comes to political opinions, moral agendas, world-views and all the rest, atheists are all over the landscape. We are very much like Christians in that regard, though I have no doubt some will be shocked to hear me say it.

It is also fatuous to suggest that any one label can adequately define any individual human being. Each of us wears many labels. They may have to do with our relationships with other people, the character of our political and moral opinions, our economic philosophies, our racial and ethnic backgrounds and our religions or the lack of them.

If I asked everyone who reads this to make a list of all the labels that might apply to them, I’m sure none of them would have any difficulty coming up with a dozen or more. I’m also sure that no one of those labels “defines” any of them completely. So this notion that those of us who don’t believe in gods shouldn’t use the word “atheist” because we “don’t want to be defined by a negative” is just silly. I call myself an atheist because the word is a clear, unambiguous indication that I have no belief in the existence of gods, not because I regard it as a definition of who I am.

It’s a start

There is a series of commercials that have run on American television wherein one of the oil companies (British Petroleum, I think) talks about the steps they are taking to protect the environment. The commercials end with the tag line “It’s a start.”

And that is the point I want to make about atheism. It is a start. Mere atheism sets the stage, but it does not furnish it. In this I agree with Paul Kurtz and others who have noted that one must go beyond atheism to construct a world view, a philosophy, a set of values.

Certainly, whether or not one believes in a god is a matter of some importance. Such attitudes have consequences and implications. What is far more important, however, is the manner in which one lives life. I have long thought the best strategy for combatting the negative image of atheism is for nonbelievers to acknowledge their atheism. It’s much harder to demonize a group of people when friends, neighbors, coworkers and relatives are numbered among them.

So let me conclude with a brief passage from Godless in America:

“Imagine a world of open societies in which individual rights and liberties are respected and equal treatment and opportunity are ensured for everyone. Imagine a world in which nationalistic and religious hatred and mistrust are replaced by a spirit of cooperative effort and mutual respect for the diversity of individuals and cultures on our planet. Imagine a world in which some or all of the trillions of dollars spent on armies and armaments are instead spent to eradicate disease and hunger and to enhance literacy and education for all our children. Imagine a world in which we accept our kinship with all life on this planet and work diligently to heal the scars we have made on it. Imagine a time when, guided by reason and human curiosity, we find ways to move human civilization beyond this planet and to explore other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies, not with the goal of conquest and exploitation but of understanding and growth. Obviously, these things are not the work of a few years, a few lifetimes or even a few generations, but it has been said humankind’s goals should exceed our grasp. Surely these are goals that, while difficult to attain, are worth the effort. And if, in the end, we find we have fallen short of the mark, think of the world we will have made by making that effort.

“What does all of this have to do with atheism, you ask? Nothing, really. Atheism simply represents a starting point. As I said at the outset, atheism is the absence of god-belief. It is a simple thing, a place to stand without fear and without apology.

“Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them.” (page 128-129)

Atheists should not allow themselves to be defined or described by the paradigm implicit in “The New Atheism.” Nor should we abandon the word “atheism” as an appropriate label.

Of course, in the final analysis, it is not whether we wear the label “atheist” that matters most, but how well we wear the label “human being.”

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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