* A talk delivered at the Friendship Fellowship at Pineda, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Brevard County, FL, on January 27, 2008.
Concerning The New Atheism
Rethinking the A word
By George A. Ricker
I want to begin my talk with a brief disclaimer. Though Im sure it was done innocently and may simply have been a newspaper typo, I have to make it clear that I am not a consulting minister, as was indicated in the announcement for this service in yesterdays Florida Today, or any other sort of minister for that matter.
That hasnt always been the case. Forty-three years ago on a Sunday morning in January I would have been either preparing to deliver the sermon or assist with the morning service at St. Lukes Methodist Church in Atlanta, Ga, where I served as associate pastor while attending the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. But that was a long time ago, and while I did spend that year in seminary, I was never ordained. In the years since, much has changed.
Indeed, I am sometimes astonished at the turns my life has taken. Had anyone back then told me that by age 66 I would have been an atheist for three decades, would have written two books on atheism, and would have created a web site called Godless in America.com, I would have said they were delusional. But here I am, with no gods and no religions. And, since I have no wish to mislead anyone, I hope you will understand if I decline the title consulting minister and refer to myself as a guest speaker instead.
If I were inclined to join a religious fellowship, however, I think it would be one like this. Ive read your statement of principles and find them most agreeable. I especially like the invitation on your web site, authored by Rev. Dr. John M. Higgins, who is a Consulting Minister.
Welcome to this place.
This is a home where no revealed truths are promoted and no scripture or human being accepted as infallible. It is a place for searching for truth, but we are believers
We believe in intellectual freedom, we believe in justice, we believe in compassion, and for concern for each other and for the whole world. We believe in commitment to those ideals which make us active in the struggles for human dignity.
We are Unitarian Universalists.
Though Im not a Unitarian Universalist myself, I can certainly endorse those sentiments wholeheartedly.
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, thats the claim being made.
So what I would like to do this morning is examine the idea of The New Atheism to see whether there really is anything substantial behind all the smoke being generated or it is simply the result of people in and out of the media who are more concerned with fanning the flames of controversy than shedding any genuine light on the subject. Ill conclude with a few comments on the nature of atheism, as I see it, and how it relates to The New Atheism.
Whats 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 doesnt hurt that, with the exception of Harris, who was an unknown when The End of Faith was published, 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 moderate religionists and will further marginalize atheism, rather than strengthening it.
Can we really accept the notion that criticism of religions and the god idea by atheists is anything 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 atheisms 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 didnt 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.coms web site in 2006. 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 thats 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 is advocating outlawing religions or padlocking churches. None is suggesting new laws to limit religious expression or to curtail the activities of televangelists and preachers. None has demanded, contrary to the impression given by some 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 have been over the top, we also must acknowledge that the 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 assault the religious just doesnt 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 around 30 years ago, I have been aware of a constant drumbeat of opinions to the effect that atheism is a negative word and, therefore, atheists shouldnt call themselves atheists but should seek a softer, gentler term. Mind you, most of this flack doesnt 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 hisapparently very limitedcircle of friends and acquaintances, the only ones he could find who were willing to call themselves atheist were those (please forgive the language but this is a direct quote) who enjoy 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. (It should be noted that the organization at which he was making these remarks was meeting in a hotel ballroom.)
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 radarfor 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 to the idea of eschewing all labels. It would be counterproductive, he argued. Flying under the radar might be useful for individuals, but its unrealistic if one wishes to find allies and build movements.
As it happens, I agree with the thrust of Kurtzs 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 if one of those decent responsible people he invokes attacks any of the many bad ideas espoused by religions, they are going to 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 as well. Abandoning the term will not cause the word to disappear. It will only give more ammunition to those who cannot tolerate any dissent from their respective orthodoxies.
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.
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. When Paine had the audacity to publish his criticism of the Bible in his book, 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. (I want to note, in passing, that Tuesday will mark the 199th anniversary of Paines death on January 29, 1809.)
When Lisa Herdahl objected to the Pontotoc County, Mississippi, public schools 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, a practicing Christian who was 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 boards actions to be unconstitutional and ordering a halt.
More recently, in Dover, PA, parents and teachers who objected to the school boards 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 thats the real objective of many of those who attack The New Atheism. Their discomfiture is not caused because The New Atheism is so much more strident than the old. (Do none of these people remember the late Madalyn Murray OHair?) 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.
Its 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 dont 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, mere atheism, I state, Atheism is the absence of god-belief. All else is embellishment.
Among other things, that means 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 dont think a god had anything to do with the creation of the universe or anything in it. You may reasonably conclude that I dont 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.
On the About page of my web site, Godless in America.com, I introduce myself this way:
My name is George Ricker. I'm an author, an activist and an atheist. I have worked as a full-time journalist and have done a bit of free-lance writing. At different times in my life, I have worked as an English teacher, an associate pastor, a purchasing agent and a warehouse manager. I have been a bookkeeper, a paperboy, a yard man and a truck driver. I read books, shoot pool, cook, play chess, listen to jazz, drink gin, watch movies and sometimes just sit by myself and think about things. I enjoy my family, my friends and most of the people I meet along the way. I'm also a husband, father, grandfather, friend, brother, son, cousin, nephew and uncle. The point is, like most of you, I wear lots of hats and there are all sorts of labels I could attach to myself that would be valid and appropriate. On the other hand, there is no one label that defines me completely. I hope you will keep that in mind as you peruse these pages.
If I asked each of you to make a list of all the labels that might apply to you, Im quite sure that, like me, none of you would have any difficulty coming up with a dozen or more. Im also sure that no one of those labels would define you completely. So this notion that those of us who dont believe in gods shouldnt use the word atheist because we dont 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.
Its 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 Its 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.
Writing in the most recent edition of Free Inquiry magazine, editor Tom Flynn says he once tried to dodge the A word by identifying himself as a secular humanist. However, he said questions invariably returned to whether or not he was an atheist.
Now, Flynn explains, when asked whether he is an atheist, he responds, Yes, but thats just the beginning.
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. Its 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 the last chapter of 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 humankinds 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.
© 2008 by George A. Ricker