New Atheism is being subjected to attacks, and it’s clear from those attacks, from what the critics say, that many really don’t understand New Atheism, and in many cases haven’t read what New Atheists actually say, but rather rely on what other opponents say New Atheists say. There are descriptions of New Atheism around the internet, but many of them don’t really explain what is being missed. So, here’s my take.
I’m focusing on New Atheism here, rather than atheism generally, or humanism, or Atheism Plus (A+), because it is so often attacked by some members of these other atheist groups, by #LimpLogicLiberals, #PseudoLiberals, as well as by theists.
New Atheism is the label assigned to atheists that are more vocal in their criticism of religion. It’s not a self-appointed label, but one that those labelled with it accept as being in common use. Some don’t particularly like the label, but accept they are stuck with it. In most respects they are not saying anything new that all atheists say, when it comes to belief in God; and they aren’t all that more critical of religion than many earlier atheists. What seems to get peoples backs up about them is their ‘stridency’, and the fact that they have it in for Islam. Now all this has arisen since 9/11 in 2001, which was a turning point.
The current two New Atheists that get most stick are Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Hitchens is dead, and Dennett is rather mild mannered by comparison. Jerry Coyne has taken up the mantle to some extent. He, like Dawkins, leans towards the educational aspect as well as the wider social implications of religion – he, like Dawkins, opposes the prevalence of Creationism and the rejection of Evolution in schools. Both criticise the Christian Creationism in the US; and Dawkins also covers Islamic Creationism in the UK, particularly in relation to the move towards religiously controlled schools that sneak creationism in, or blatantly push it while rejecting Evolution.
Then there are many less prominent but public figures who could be called New Atheists – so Stephen Pinker is one that finds himself grouped with the New Atheists, whether he likes it or not, because he writes stuff that often includes a science based criticism of irrational belief; and Michael Shermer is another, more in the Skeptical community, though he has critics in the self-styled A+, Feminist, Skeptical community; and Michael Nugent, who focuses on religion in Ireland, but expresses many of the same views as the New Atheists, and also might be lumped in with them for also being attacked by the A+ crowed.
And then there are the many nobodies such as myself, that haunt the internet putting theist straight in their foolish ways.
One problem for anyone trying to get a handle on New Atheism is that, despite the common claim by opponents, it is not a religion or a singular political belief system, or an ideology – there is no New Atheist doctrine or text. It is the amalgamation of a number of beliefs, or more realistically, a number of adaptive processes for coming to beliefs, and as such it is comfortable with allowing for difference of belief and changes to belief. And, just to emphasise the ‘adaptive’ aspect, since the views of New Atheists are based on reason and evidence, those views are subject to change – they are contingent on evidence in particular. Show with good evidence that some ‘intellect’, some extra-universal agency actually creates universes and they will take that evidence seriously, if cautiously at first. Some may be pretty confident in their atheism that they express more concrete rejection of theism, but like I said, New Atheism isn’t a cut and dried label.
One way of describing New Atheism is to observe its relationship to other strands of thought:
Humanism – While many New Atheists are Humanists, in that they subscribed to Humanist organisations, national or international (Dawkins is a member of the BHA), all of them that I have come across are at least humanists, small ‘h’, in that they support humanist beliefs.
Humanist organisations tend to spell out their beliefs, in something like a Humanist Manifesto: proposals or agreed tenets of behaviour worked out using some of the principles above, but they are not tenets of absolute belief, the way tenets of a religion might be. That’s not to say that some humanists don’t hold to them as if they are absolute. You will find some humanists declaring Human Rights to be absolute, but I’d argue with that. Our rights are contingent upon our feelings as evolved and culturally developed humans, and as such can vary with culture, and could have varied further had we humans arrived here with different evolved feelings.
If you look at this list, on Humanist Manifesto III, you’ll see that it pretty much covers the rest of the items below. Humanist organisations tend to be more politically active, while the prominent New Atheists may be included in that activism, they are better known for their own unaffiliated works.
Science – Typically there is an agreement that science can reveal much more about the world, and about humans, than mere navel gazing or inventing magical entities that reveal knowledge ready made. There is much confusion here, caused by humanists, and some Humanists, that while not anti-science intentionally, do a great disservice to humanism by crying about ‘scientism’. No current New Atheist I know claims that science actually has the answer to all our problems. They simply don’t – ask them. The claim that New Atheists think ‘science knows everything’ or that ‘science can answer all problems’ is one of those false attributions, straw men, that others accuse New Atheists of.
What New Atheists will tend to say is that science, now, or in the future, is a set of methodologies that offers the best way to come to understand the world and humans. None of them I know of deny totally the value of the arts of various kinds – and in fact many, maybe most, value the arts greatly. And on balance I’d say that scientifically educated and professional scientist New Atheists appreciate the arts far more than many of their non-science critics appreciate science. In fact many of their critics are quite ignorant of many aspects of science, especially its general nature. This is a bone of contention with theists and philosophers typically, but also with some non-sciency liberal journalists: they ignorantly think scientists don’t appreciate art, while often being spectacularly ignorant of science themselves.
Science is the result of humans using their natural evolved faculties of the senses and reason, and applying those more rigorously, often with the aid of instruments and mathematics, in order to enhance the range data gathered and analysis of data that comes from being more rigorous. Science is not some extra-human realm of magic. All humans are in principle capable of learning and challenging any claim made in science. New Atheists tend to expand the use of the term ‘science’, certainly to include many of the social sciences, but also to include straight forward observation and common sense – with the caveat that the raw unrigorous natural human faculties can be so fallible that where possible the methods of science should be used to test our hypotheses.
It’s such a broad and inclusive description that one wonders why anyone would object to it. But some do, for the expedient purpose of objecting to New Atheist criticism of their religion or their philosophy.
This broad science approach is in contrast to religion, where all its significant claims about knowledge are based on the imagination of some magical entity revealing knowledge to humans, often particular humans.
This also contrasts with pure reason of philosophy, where the mind is the only tool of significance. Of course even the most Rationalist or Idealist philosopher bases all he knows on empirical observation. And the most supernaturalist Christian or Muslim theist relies on the empirical observation of the content of a book (for all they take too much from it). But that’s not always appreciated. The most extreme critics of the sciency approach, those that cry ‘scientism’, use the same approach too, but badly, and in such a way they think they are engaging in ‘other ways of knowing’. This seems somewhat delusional, for there is zero evidence of other ways of knowing beyond the use of our senses and reasoning about what we observe.
But back to science and its influence on New Atheism. So, what science does, even in its most basic form of observing the world and reasoning about it, is it reveals something very significant: science is hard work, and the results are not always easy to interpret, and ideas may change over time as new data comes in.
And this is a foundational appreciation of the nature of reality and the human condition. We are learning as we go.
On that basis, and based on where science is now, we can say no human has any knowledge about how the universe came into being, despite a few centuries of trying to figure that out, and a few millennia of the religious claiming they already found out. There is zero data to support any notion of some supernatural being; and while there is no evidence to exclude one there is also no evidence to exclude multiple supernatural beings, a hierarchy, of hypernatural, superhypernatural, or any other source of beings. There is zero evidence that the intelligence ascribed to such imaginary beings exists in any form, other than the form we experience in ourselves.
But, despite this overwhelming lack of any data about gods of any kind, the contingent nature of knowledge on future developments is such a compelling idea that New Atheists informed by science are pretty much compelled to hold that no human has all the answers to all the questions we ask, and therefore it is reasonable to accept, even encourage, a variety of thought, even if that leads to mistaken beliefs sometimes.
Freedom of Belief – The above idea alone, of the contingency and fluidity of accurate knowledge, is sufficient for New Atheists to support the freedom of belief. But add to that the general humanist principle that all humans are valuable, then all together New Atheists have nothing that would lead them to persecute people for any of the varieties of form that humans come in – skin colour, place of and parentage of origin on earth (race), sexual orientation.
Religion is set of belief systems that New Atheists do not hold with, and based on the above, New Atheists find religions to be loaded with bad ideas. But from a humanist and observational perspective it is clear that most believers are indoctrinated into their religious beliefs from being children. Additionally there are many charismatic con men out there that can easily turn the unwary to pretty much any religious belief, so even adulthood is not protection from erroneous belief. And even New Atheists acknowledge many natural cultural human biases that can deflect their own thinking from the best reasoned path. So, it would seem at least cruel, to blame all theists for their beliefs, or to blame anyone entirely for whatever they come to believe.
So all-in-all New Atheists have every reason to support the freedom of belief.
The humanism, contingency of knowledge and the freedom of belief lead New Atheists to another principle:
Secularism – Secularism isn’t atheism, though it is often passed off as such. Secularism is the disassociation of power from belief, particularly political power. In specifically that leads to the separation of church and state, the most common expression of secularism and that which is included in some Humanist ‘manifestos’
Secularism allows people of varying beliefs to engage in any requirements their belief systems have, without favour or privilege and without persecution. Keeping belief systems as far away from state power as possible prevents the persecution of non-state-validated belief systems.
This is difficult of course, because states use powers, and some of those powers will inevitably align with some belief system and not with others, while at the same time some other powers might align with different belief systems. It’s difficult not to restrict state power to the lowest common denominator, which means no power, without enabling chaos and violence in the name of belief systems to proceed unchecked. Some degree of state power and policing is necessary in order to then allow as much individual freedom as possible. While the Golden Rule is the most commonly acknowledge lowest common denominator it isn’t universal agreed upon, particularly by religions that profess that their God insists they should interfere in the lives of non-believers. But this latter case is a very good reason for endorsing secularism, unless you follow the religion in power.
There are many believers that appreciate this dilemma, of balancing freedom of belief with the freedom to impose your beliefs on others, and so there are many religious believers that subscribe to secularism as the separation of church and state – though of course confusion ensues because some of those same theists use the term secularism to refer to atheism and the loss of religious privilege that exists for their religion.
All this isn’t to say that New Atheists are the sole torch bearers for atheism, humanism, secularism, science and scepticism. There are members of the liberal elite that support all those but are also engaged in a diatribe of abuse and misrepresentation of New Atheists. But more on those another time. For now, that’s my summary of New Atheism – or how I see New Atheism, in myself and in the expressed views of people like Dawkins and Harris.
This is presented as a separate thing, and is discussed and engaged in in terms of the ‘Sceptical Community’ (Skeptical in the US). It too is a bit of an amalgamation of approaches, but emphasises scepticism and often targets religion, but is also critical of the paranormal – so JREF and CFI are typical of this wider focus. But of course, scepticism is a natural feature of a good science based approach to knowledge, and a feature of New Atheist thinking.
Clarifying Some Points
The prominent New Atheists are even somewhat reluctant to call themselves New Atheists, though some accept the label for want of a better one.
Opponents of New Atheism make various claims about New Atheism or New Atheists that are simply untrue. In an attempt to clarify some specific points I present the following.
Is New Atheism a belief system? Not as such, in that it has no beliefs set in stone. But it does look for evidence to inform and support beliefs. But then those beliefs are contingent and subject to improvement. They are contingent conclusions of a method of thinking and observing the world, and are not something that we start out with. Having said that it’s quite possible that the same beliefs were arrived at by other means, along with many mistaken beliefs, and that New Atheism methods have trimmed our beliefs down to some set that we think most reliable, for now.
Is New Atheism a political movement? Not explicitly, and the most prominent New Atheists are generally scientists and philosophers rather than politicians. But in other capacities they engage in social and political change – for example, by being members of organisations like the British Humanist Association, which does lobby politicians for social change – or they object to the neglect and abuse of science in education.
It is fair to say New Atheists are anti-religion. Though they generally acknowledge that many people can use religion for entirely good purposes, the method of belief, using faith and relying on presuppositions declared in ancient texts, is such an unreliable guide to knowledge that it can be so easily turned to hate, oppression and terror – and much of the effort of New Atheists is engaged in pointing out these faults. This is the extent to which they are anti-religion.
It is fair to say that New Atheists are anti-theists. This is somewhat less of a social and political position than is being anti-religion – more of a science and philosophy take on the absence of any evidence to support the beliefs of the dominant religions, or any religions for that matter. The New Atheist approach also includes explanations on what is clearly the poor reasoning of many of the religious. Some philosophers object because they think they see some presuppositions at work – but generally those presuppositions are both reasonable, and can be backed up with yet more argument from observations about the world.
Are New Atheists racists? No. While not wishing to make any absolute statement, this is about as close as we might get to one. There is the positive belief, as a conclusion of contemplating humanism, evolution, biology, that race is a rather poor distinguishing factor. Race is often interpreted through the visual appearances of skin colour and cultural identity, but given that those alone make no significant distinction between humans, New Atheists are thorough anti-racists. Of course any human can have racist tendencies that they hide or suppress, so it’s not beyond doubt that all New Atheists are not racists – but then this applies to all humans, including the critics of New Atheists.
All the charges of racism I’ve seen aimed at new Atheists have been just actual lies, or lies by conflating religion with race. The latter is actually a racist move in itself, for it is explicitly these opponents that are identifying people of a religion with race, while the New Atheists make the distinction. And of course New Atheists have many anti-religious atheist allies that would be from the same genetic background as the supposed targets of New Atheist racism, but let’s not mention that in the presence of the hypocrites.
There have been and continue to be some despicable claims made that the criticism of Islam by New Atheists is racist. This is at best understandable coming from people of different cultures that have been subject to racism because of their culture, religion or skin colour – it’s easy to be consumed by the anti-western rhetoric and a complete misunderstanding of New Atheism. It’s understandable that Muslims will object to their faith being criticised, though there are many examples of Muslims lying boldly about what atheists say, and about New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris. But the most heinous lies come from fellow atheists, and those of the A+ agenda, or the #LimpLogicLiberals, the #PseudoLiberals, that have a factional axe to grind. Most commonly this lie is perpetuated by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, and is even bought into by otherwise rational people like Cenk Uygur, at the behest of the lying Reza Aslan. It may seem extreme to call out such people as purveyors of lies, but there’s plenty of evidence for such a claim.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
I disagree with a few things here, but overall it’s a fair description. I disagree particularly with the section 5, on Secular Morality. I disagree with its take on morality, and to some extent disagree with its take on what New Atheists think about morality. But I can go into that again some time. Section 8, on criticisms, gives the impression that most of it is epistemological and philosophical generally, but it fails to engage with the criticism from other liberal atheists that might have much the same philosophical perspective that the New Atheists have, where criticism is directed firmly, if unjustifiably in my view, at the approach New Atheists take to the criticism of religion, and of Islam in particular.
Good old Wikipedia
A common complaint is that New Atheists present too literal a view of religion – a point made by, who else, but the more sophisticated theologian that doesn’t buy the literalist take on the Bible and Quran. But the real issue here is that it is they, the sophisticates, that are in the minority in religious belief, in that sufficient Christians and Muslims hold to enough of the bad ideas in their holy texts to make the New Atheist criticism currently salient to the social effects of religion. And then there’s that totally fucked up opinion from Noam Chomsky. In what sense is writing a few books and appearing at speaking events or on TV ‘bludgeoning’ anyone? Its exactly the sort of freedom of expression that Chomsky engages in when he publishes his views. It is precisely not the ‘bludgeoning’ act of imposing apostasy, blasphemy, heresy rulings and punishments on people that religions engage in. The New Atheist rhetoric may be blunt, to the point, and direct, unlike the slimy slippery language of the religious, but that is one of its great features – the clarity of thought and reasoning from New Atheists outshines the fluff and magic of religion, and much of the philosophical hang wringing of people like Chomsky. And of course we can rely on the usual unsubstantiated claims of New Atheist bigotry, often from supporters of religious bigotry – it’s always a good move to convince your fellow theists that the atheist opposition is exactly what has been aimed at your religion, so much so that in Islam there’s a term for this common method: Takfir. Look it up.
This is a mixed site, with some good stuff, but also with an agenda in the mind of its creator. And it can get a little dated. For example, as well as listing the four horsemen, it also adds PC Myers as a ‘partner in crime’. Well, that ship has sailed. PZ Myers is one of the A+ members most critical of Dawkins and Harris, and the followers of Myers are about as anti-Dawkins and anti-Harris as you can get. But these guys are a whole other story.