Why God Won't Go Away: Reflections on the "New Atheism"
Atheist blogs regularly feature agonized reflections on the failure of the movement to gain the intellectual high ground. Appeals to reason and science have failed to score anything even approaching knock-out blows against belief in God. To the intense irritation of New Atheist apologists, their Christian opponents regularly appeal to both in their critique of atheism, and in their proclamation of the rationality and relevance of the Christian faith. More books than ever have been published recently asserting the intrinsic rationality of Christian belief. It's not comfortable for New Atheist foot soldiers to have their weapons used so effectively against them.
Even worse, society at large has not bought into its analysis of the pathological role of religion. Instead of thanking the New Atheism for enlightening everyone with the dreadful truth about religious people, people are complaining about the movement's intellectual shallowness, dogmatism, and intolerance. It's outrageous! 9/11 obviously demonstrates that religion leads to terrorism. So why is everyone interpreting it in other ways, and ignoring the obvious truth? Why did Barack Obama praise faith in his 2009 election campaign, instead of rubbishing it?
Yet perhaps there is a more interesting development that merits consideration. Has the aggressiveness of the New Atheism caused a rupture within the mainline atheist movement? Paul Kurtz, co-author of "Humanist Manifesto II," was founder of the secularist Center for Inquiry. In June 2009, he was ousted from the Center in what he described as a "palace coup." Kurtz's own account of this development, written two months after his sacking, merits reading:
I was unceremoniously ousted as Chairman of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational on June 1, 2009. It is totally untruthful to state that I was not. The effort by the CEO to cover up this deed offends any sense of fairness and I do not wish to be party to that deception. It was a palace coup clear and simple by those who wish to seize immediate power.
Kurtz was appalled by the aggressive new direction that was then taken by his organization under its new leadership. The viciousness of the New Atheism, he declared, was likely to set the cause of atheism back. The New Atheism would come to be seen as a form of intolerant fundamentalism that ridiculed its opponents, rather than seeking to understand and engage them. This "atheist fundamentalism" is, Kurtz suggested, fundamentally "mean-spirited."
Some years ago, I used the phrase "atheist fundamentalism" to refer to the specific form of atheism I found in the recent writings of Richard Dawkins. It's good to see a leading atheist explicitly and approvingly adopting it, and using it against the obvious excesses of the New Atheism. Let me make it clear that I would not dream of using this phrase in describing the academically thoughtful and culturally respectful atheism of writers such as Iris Murdoch, or the functional agnosticism of an "atheism of indifference." But it's right on target to describe the dogmatic intolerance of the New Atheism, which resembles the nastier forms of religious fundamentalism at these points.
Kurtz profoundly hoped that this new "aggressive and militant phase" in the history of atheism would fizzle out before it inflicted lasting damage on the movement. This "dogmatic attitude," he declared, "holds that this and only this is true and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool." Hardly anyone was going to accept that, in his view. It was no wonder that the New Atheist approach was losing public sympathy and credibility.
Most atheists that I know are decent and compassionate folk. What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.