One of my top three favorite magazines, Wired, has a really good piece on The New Atheism this month. It covers the mouthpieces at the head of this movement (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett), as well as articles on other notable atheists including Steve Olson, Penn and Teller, and Warren Allen Smith.
What I really like about these new atheists is:
- Their open hostility to religion. They take their total faith in reason to its logical end – that of being opposed to all religion. They don’t hide their disdain for faith, but are compelled to evangelize for atheism and against religion, and to utilize government to prevent people from indoctrinating their children. Their extreme honesty shows their extreme prejudice in these matters.
"But the atheist movement, [ ] has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes. "It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?"
- Their rejection of agnosticism and liberal religionists. They clearly find these positions cowardly, illogical, and akin to aiding religionists. In a word, they find these positions hypocritical. I tend to agree with respect to liberal religionists, but I think agnostics are probably honest about their lack of faith, without resorting to the hubris of telling everyone else that faith is foolish.
"Like Dawkins, Slade rejects those who might once have been his allies: agnostics and liberal believers, the type of people who may go to church but who are skeptical of doctrine. "Moderates give a power base to extremists," Slade says."
Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, "Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.’" This is the type of statement she would never want to make.
This is the statement the New Atheists believe must be made — loudly, clearly and before it’s too late.
- Their rejection of religious pluralism. They reject the idea that we must respect every belief that calls itself a faith, because by this rule, we must accord those like Bin Laden some measure of respect and validity. Of course, their solution, rather than exercising discernment so that we can evaluate the value of a faith tradition against objective measures of such things as the production of liberty, reason, works of mercy, kindness, and justice, to name a few, is to reject all faith. When you are an extremist, life is so simple!
As Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers."
The New Atheist insight is that one might start anywhere — with an intellectual argument, with a visceral rejection of Islamic or Christian fundamentalism, with political disgust — and then, by relentless and logical steps, renounce every supernatural crutch.
Of course, I don’t really LIKE the aims of this atheism, but at least it doesn’t equivocate. However, the atheist approach has many problems.
- It rejects what it cannot prove with logic
- It fails to inspire or give meaning
- It is impractical in that it assumes that people will abandon faith in the light of argument
- It provides no alternate to people’s real need for faith
The author of the article admits his unease with the limits of the new atheism
- Their Arrogance: "Contemptuous of the faith of others, its proponents never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists. I hear this protest dozens of times. It comes up in every conversation. Even those who might side with the New Atheists are repelled by their strident tone."
- Their lack of practical solutions: "The New Atheists never propose realistic solutions to the damage religion can cause. For instance, the Catholic Church opposes condom use, which makes it complicit in the spread of AIDS. But among the most powerful voices against this tragic mistake are liberals within the Church — exactly those allies the New Atheists reject. The New Atheists care mainly about correct belief. This makes them hopeless, politically."
- Atheism’s Result – Cruelty?: "Didn’t they try a cult of reason once, in France, at the close of the 18th century, and didn’t it turn out to be too ugly even for Robespierre?"
The article, overall, is informative and engaging, well worth reading.