“New Atheism” & The Philosophy of Atheism

A recent (very) public fracas between Richard Dawkins and Glenn Greenwald (both people who I respect, though for rather different reasons) left me thinking about the direction that the “New Atheism” movement is taking, and where atheism itself should be going. Religion is a difficult topic to discuss, as it evokes such passion that you often move past logic into purely emotional discussions. Some atheists, unfortunately, are just as zealous that they too lose sight of logical discourse.

Dawkins is unquestionably brilliant, his book, The God Delusion, had a profound impact on me – I was taught as a child that I should believe in a god, at age 5 I began asking hard questions and was told to just accept what I was told. Further, I was told that even thinking of such questions was a sin, much less actually asking them. I kept my mouth shut and my questions to myself; for years, while being prepared to become a minister, I said nothing. I was always an atheist, though I didn’t have the courage to say it. Reading The God Delusion didn’t change my views, but it did help me find the courage to admit the truth to myself.

New Atheism & Islamophobia

I couldn’t even began to catalog all of the instances where the leaders of the New Atheism movement have been questioned on their anti-Muslim statements, and there are a goldmine of quotes that illustrate why:

“The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge”

Sam Harris, a founding member of the movement, has been especially outspoken on Islam; he has of course been critical of Christianity and other major religions, though his disdain for Islam and Muslims is clear:

“While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.”

another gem:

“It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.”

What we see here is that one religion is being singled out, attacked with greater intensity, and its adherents being criticized in a far more direct and vicious way. There are countless examples, these were simply the first ones I came across; with a few minutes of searching, you can find some truly shocking statements from these leaders of what should be a purely intellectual movement.

How Harris defends such attacks is even more disappointing – when faced with legitimate criticism, a clear, logical, honest response should be the reaction. What we see from Harris is instead an attack, a distraction from the issue:

“There is no such thing as ‘Islamophobia.’ This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.”

I wish I could say this is ignorance, but I can’t – it’s dishonest at best, no one could look at the world truly believe this statement. In the United States, the fear of Muslims is palpable, attacks, overt threats, and blatant racism are all becoming normal. In such a toxic atmosphere, there is no question that it is very real, and is ongoing. To feed such irrational fear is truly abhorrent.

Emotionalism vs. Intellectualism

Atheism, as a philosophy, is purely intellectual – it is applying the scientific method, evidence based analysis, to one’s world view. It is rejecting the emotionalism that is so common with religion and focusing instead on logic. To do otherwise, is to reject the core tenet that lead to atheism – the factual analysis of existence.

New Atheism, on the other hand, has a zealous component that borders on the religious itself.

Dawkins has been criticized for this, for creating a religion of intellectual elitism; a religion that promotes the same zeal for conversion that drives the Evangelical Christians. The world view he, and the other founders of the New Atheism movement promote is simple:

All religion is evil.

That view though, is at best naïve, and at worst intentionally dishonest. Attempting to reduce the world to good or bad is a mistake that is common in religion – and their movement makes the same mistake. New Atheism assumes all religious people are evil, just as many religions have taught that all atheists were evil. At least the religious have started to correct this error; the Pope himself acknowledged that atheists can do good in the world.

I can say, with no uncertainty, that classifying all religious people, including the most devout, as evil (or ignorant, or naïve, etc.) is intellectually dishonest. If there is one sin in atheism, it’s intellectual dishonesty.

The world is not so simple as to allow this clean and clear division of good and bad – some atheists are bad, many religious people are good. Anything that inspires hate or intolerance should be treated and viewed with suspicion – over the last thousand years, both Christianity and Islam have inspired unspeakable hate and violence. Despite the harm done in the name of religion, it’s unfair to universally condemn the religious.

Religion & Hate

It is hard to think of any group that has been exempt from religious violence; racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, supremacism, and even nationalism have ties to religion – countless innocent people have died because they didn’t fit into a religious group’s view of what’s right. Sexual orientation to skin color, there is no shortage of reasons that some religious people use to justify their hate – many religious leaders fuel such hate as part of their recruiting process.

All of the major Abrahamic religions include hate and violence in their founding texts; there is an undeniable history of violence against outsiders. In Christianity for example, there is a great amount of hate and violence in the Old Testament; the New Testament teaches peace instead – though it is the Old Testament that is often used to justify violence. This ancient penchant for violence still haunts the world today.

There is good reason to believe that we should teach science, logic, and peace instead of religion – and I firmly believe that’s what we should do. When children are taught to look at a challenge with logic instead of fear, you move away from the emotional basis that leads to such hate and violence in the first place. There are those that naturally argue that religion teaches peace and love – but it also teaches vengeance, hate, and intolerance – primal emotions that are difficult to control and too often exploited.

Hijacking Atheism

As I have said, atheism is intellectual; there is no room for hate, for intolerance, for racism, for sexism – in an honest, fact-based, analysis, this type of discrimination is instantly seen for the wrong that it is. People are judged for their actions, for their deeds, for the impact they have – not which sex they are attracted to, not the color of their skin or eyes or hair, not the anatomical components they do or don’t have. Critically, especially to this discussion, the same thing applies to titles – it is entirely unfair to judge a person based on them being called a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or any other religious designation.

“New Atheism” does just this, it attacks religion, and those that hold religious beliefs – this is a violation of fact-based analysis, it is intellectually dishonest, it is morally wrong.

I disagree with religion, but I have many religious friends – we have very open discussions on religion, we debate on legitimate points of philosophy and morality. I do not attack them because they hold religious views – I may attack the religion and illogical things that it teaches, but I never attack them.

The movement that is called “New Atheism” – is, I believe, a religion itself, it has no deity, but is still a religion. It has coopted the term atheist to serve its own purposes. It has diverged from the roots of atheism to pursue a course of political and religious zealotry.

I respect Richard Dawkins, but I do not respect all of his beliefs.

Philosophy & Atheism

Modern atheism was born of the scientific method, of fact-based analysis; it eschewed the dogma of religion for the philosophy of secular humanism.

I am an atheist, I wear it on my sleeve – literally. A symbol of atheism is tattooed on my arm for the world to see, it is a public statement that I reject religion and all the negative it inspires. I also do my best to be a good person; I expect no reward, I do not believe in heaven, what I do believe that we all have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it. When I die, I hope that I will be remembered for doing more good than ill.

Promoting hate, promoting intolerance of any sort is entirely incompatible with that goal – why should I fight religious people who aren’t doing harm? It simply isn’t logical. I will fight those that do harm, I will (and do, and have) fought those that espouse hate, for they are making the world worse for all. It is quite clear, there are some that operate under the banner of atheism that espouse hate, and they should be fought as well.

As an atheist, I believe in making the world a better place, I believe in being a good person that does good things. I believe in making up for the mistakes of the past, I believe in promoting peace as the most important need of humanity. I am not perfect, but I do try.

I respect Glenn Greenwald, and I do not agree with all of his beliefs – but it is clear that he was right to call out those that have coopted atheism and have allowed themselves to be consumed by emotionalism and hate.

We should promote peace, not hate.