Wednesday, November 19, 2008

New Atheism 101

The name is a little misleading, since New Atheism is simply an extension of previous efforts by atheists to promote a naturalistic worldview and criticize religion. The main difference appears to be its "aggressive" nature - refusing to treat the topic of religion with kid gloves (a social faux pas), and railing away at the perceived absurdities of religious beliefs and casting greater emphasis on the harmful consequences of religious belief (such as Islamic terrorism and Christian advocacy of creationism and dominism). The Four Horsemen - the top advocates for the movement - are Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, who each wrote bestsellers on the topic of religion.

The goals seem to be to encourage nonbelievers to come out of the closet and work together, to break the spell of public deference paid to religions through conversational intolerance, and to protect and promote science education (this is the focus of Richard Dawkins in particular).

I sometimes jokingly refer to New Atheist movement as Celestial Being due the thematic similarities - much-resented "militancy" designed to end conflicts and ultimately bring about positive universal change.

But why did New Atheism suddenly explode on the scene? Worlds Apart has an excellent explanation:
The reason for the sensation are fairly straightforward I think: the silent majority of British people are now non-believers, yet religious organisations have seemingly been wielding a greater and greater degree of political influence in recent years, both domestically and internationally. Hence there is a deep well of non-religious frustration to be drawn upon. Furthermore, amongst intellectuals and scientists, there seems to be a high degree of frustration that religion has not withered away as many had expected, and that religion appears to be associated with the rejection of well supported scientific theories and evidence based reasoning in general.
In the United States, I think it's a reaction against organized religion in the wake of religious terrorism and violence, as well as increased intrusion by Christian conservatives in political/social affairs. A good chunk of it is also a growing non-religious population, especially among young adults, who are "getting fed up with being routinely marginalized, ignored and insulted", as the Nation puts it.

The criticisms

Like anything else, the New Atheist movement has its critics: everything from religious people who resent their beliefs being attacked to non-religious people who bemoan the "strident" tone of their fellow atheists.

The usual criticisms of this New Atheism are very predictable and not very convincing:
  • New Atheists criticize only fundamentalism, my "sophisticated" and nuanced religious beliefs remain untouched.
My reply: unless you've sophisticated yourself out of your religion entirely, you still hold to the core beliefs: miracles, divine plagues, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, angels, Satan, the divine authority of the Bible, the trinity, etc. Clearly, more than a couple of these are just as implausible as any fundamentalist belief.
  • New Atheists don't understand religion.
A strange accusation, since a substantial fraction of adult atheists come from a religious upbringing. PZ refutes the accusation with the Courtier's Reply , the rejoinder that one need not know everything about something to find it faulty - one doesn't have to read every last treatise on astrology to figure out that astrology is bunk or read every last painfully obtuse creationist tract to figure out that creationism is false. In fact, most religious people themselves spend vanishingly little time learning the beliefs of other religions that they themselves reject. When's the last time you heard a preacher tell the faithful that they mustn't eschew Islam without first reading the Koran and the hadiths?

  • New Atheists are dogmatic, arrogant, aggressive meanies.
Not much to say on this one, since it's more of a smear tactic than any actual argument. It's annoying how often this comes up, as if being congenial were more important than being truthful. More often than not, this perception is not the critic's fault, but a defense mechanism people have when any of their "deeply-held beliefs" come under scrutiny; people instinctively react with hostility and project aggressiveness onto the critic. In reality, "Even the most tigerish
of the New Atheists are pussycats in their rhetoric, compared to many others.

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