Almost weekly, an article or YouTube video pops up from a Christian (usually a minister) who has discovered some new-fangled revelation about those desolate and destitute whom they label “new atheists.” They assert to have uncovered some clandestine impulse that causes one to reject Christ’s love. This is often followed by a list (there’s usually seven) of ways to communicate the truth and inerrancy of Scripture to those without “ears to hear or eyes to see.”
While I “have faith” that these individuals are sincerely motivated by genuine compassion, I believe their prose does more to expose their distorted vision obtained from observing the world through their rose colored “stain glass” spectacles (hat tip to Petra). With this article, it is not my goal to discourage proselytizing (from either side), but to foster and cultivate honest dialogue between theists and nontheists alike. To do so, I will first explain a little of my own background, and then clarify what I believe to be common misconceptions many believers have about those I will refer to not as new atheists, but “newer atheists.”
First, let’s clarify what I mean by “newer atheists”. A few have protested that there is no such thing as new atheism. They argue that atheistic philosophies were formulated in ancient Greece, and assure us that as long as there has been god(s) belief, there have been those who denied them. However, I consider the term “new atheist” to be used correctly when differentiating between the atheists of antiquity and those of the modern movement which was spawned by the writings of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens).
However, for the purpose of this article, I feel it is important to distinguish these new atheists further. It will soon be ten years since the new atheist movement began with the publishing of The End of Faith. Since then, thousands (if not millions) of people have abandoned the faith of their youth, and have endeavored to replace it with the awe-inspiring wonder of reality. It is these people, these “newer atheists” who are now at the forefront of atheism. While their predecessors may have attended churches or synagogues associated with a traditional denomination (if at all); these “newer atheists” were once very devout believers, and were involved in nontraditional evangelical churches. These are the churches that serve coffee in their atriums, feature theater seating, and are led by Hawaiian shirt wearing pastors.
It was at their church’s rock-and-roll youth group, that these “newer atheists” walked down the aisle (or raised their hands) to accept Jesus into their heart. It was where they were encouraged to read their Bibles, and to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus. It was at these churches where they felt love and acceptance in a very powerful way.
For those who don’t know, I have spent the better part of four years traveling around America speaking to several local atheist groups and at a handful of national conventions. I have had the honor of private conversations with virtually every mover-and-shaker in the atheist movement, and have had countless intimate exchanges in person, and on Atheist Nexus, with those who had recently decided to embrace atheism.
I also understand the viewpoint of those who have an honest longing to minister salvation to the lost. I was not raised in a religious home, but as a teenager (who struggled greatly with depression), I ran away from home, and ended up having a very real “born again” experience. Soon thereafter, I began sharing the “good news” with anyone who would listen (and a few who wouldn’t). Jump forward several years, and I ended up attending a Bible College, and eventually became an associate minister at a 12,000 member mega-church. It is a story for another time, but it wasn’t until several years later that I was capable of making the arduous decision to seek truth with no preconceived presuppositions, and acknowledged the reality of atheism.
It is from this dichotomy of perspectives that I present the below seven (seemed ironically appropriate) clarifications about atheism, and specifically the plethora of “newer atheists” who were formerly Christian, and have been the focus of so much evangelical attention as of late. It should go without saying, but I do not speak for all nonbelievers, and there are exceptions to every rule. I am merely attempting to articulate what so many of the “newer atheists” have expressed to me concerning their frustrations when interacting with believers.
Clarification #1: Atheism is not a religion.
An atheist is someone who has no belief in deities. That’s it, plain and simple. There are no other mindsets—or baggage—attached to it. It is amazing how many self-appointed experts will declare that atheism requires faith and is just another religion. Not only is atheism not a religion, it is not even a form of religious belief. To declare it so, one would have to brand not playing golf as type of sport. (On a side note: This is why the word atheism should not be capitalized.)
With this understanding in mind, it is important to recognize that atheists occupy the ends of every extreme. Atheists are liberals and conservatives, capitalists and communists. There are those who are motivated by a profound kindheartedness toward mankind, and those who are nihilistic jerks who creep around in the shadows waiting to pounce on anyone who reacts to their sneeze with a “God bless you.”
Clarification #2: Newer atheists are not militant.
I know there are many atheists (including Richard Dawkins) who use the term “militant atheist,” to describe their activism. Also, the phrase is used repeatedly by many believers. However, in my never humble opinion, this is a mistake and the phrase should not be used. Words have meanings and implications associated with them. When one chooses not to participate in group prayer, they are not being militant. When someone refuses to sit quietly while a person spews religious doctrine all over them, they are not being militant. Atheists do not fly planes into buildings in the name of humanism. They do not behead those who deny Darwin, or bomb Creationist centers. Atheists talk. They ask questions. They debate. They are not ashamed of being vocal, and there is nothing even remotely militant about these actions.
Teetering on the edge of Godwin’s Law, many attempt to link atheism with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. This adds to the misconception that there are automatic values and mindsets interlinked with atheism. While it is true that some of the most malevolent dictators in history were atheists (except for Hitler. He was Catholic.), it does not mean that their belief system is shared by modern atheists. These despots did not embrace the ethical ideologies of Spinoza, or the humanist philosophy of Comte. They substituted religion with their dogmatic political ideologies, and placed themselves on thrones demanding total obedience and absolute servitude. They made themselves gods. All of these actions are despised and rejected by all proper freethinkers.
Clarification #4: People do not become atheists because of traumatic experiences with church.
One of my personal pet peeves is a shared by many “newer atheists.” Almost instantly after I tell someone that I am an atheist, I am asked, “What happened?” As if one could only deny the existence of God because of some harrowing experience. While it is true that many begin to question their faith after a painful incident which is initially blamed on God, or at the feet of a church member, it rarely is the reason one becomes an atheist. These events are purely the empowering catalyst required to question one’s faith. The conclusion of atheism is reached when one rationally separates themselves from the highs and lows of emotions and accepts reality.
Conversely, it is out of desperation and misery that the “newer atheists” became Christians. No minister rationally explained the values of Islam, Buddhism, or any other religion or philosophy to aid in one becoming saved. No. Instead, ministers are trained to push sensitive and emotional buttons, and to tug on heartstrings to manipulate a person to turn to Christ. It is when an individual is at their lowest, that they are told that there is a God shaped hole in their heart that can only be filled by Jesus. It is multilevel marketing (as well-intentioned as it may be) at its finest.
Clarification #5: The decision to become an atheist is proceeded by great fear and emotional heartache.
When a “newer atheist” realizes their disbelief, the subsequent distress and emotional turmoil is much worse than the painful event which instigated their questioning. It is often quite paralyzing. They are aware that giving up their faith could result in being cut off from family and ostracized by friends. Others struggle with the possibility of losing their spouses and/or jobs. All of this is quite traumatizing.
If you add Hell to the mix, there is no wonder why so many tremble at the thought of becoming an atheist. It seems silly to me now, but I was an atheist long before I would even admit it. I somehow thought I could hide from God with my own form of Pascal’s Wager. This fear is very powerful, and I correspond quite often with believers who struggle with this exact horror. Hell truly is the original terroristic threat.
Clarification #6: Many “newer atheists” long for the sense of community they felt in church.
This is perhaps the number one subject “newer atheists” discuss with me. They express feelings of great loss associated with leaving their church families. They speak of the vacuum created when the feelings of love and acceptance were lost (regardless of the many strings attached). If they had a loved one in the hospital, or if there was a death in their family, someone from church was always there prepared to provide arms to hug, a shoulder to cry on, and an ear to listen. Regardless of these wonderful experiences, “newer atheists” are always frustrated when believers use these conditional relationships as a way to manipulate their return to church.
Currently, the larger atheist community has yet to provide a valid alternative to church community. Out of necessity, all of our attention has been focused on defending the rights of atheists and encouraging nonbelievers to come out of the closet. Nonetheless, I’m confident the “newer atheists” will begin addressing these needs and will start providing alternatives. Perhaps the most cliché term ever is: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” While atheists have discovered there was no baby to begin with, some are beginning to realize that there was tremendous value in that bathwater.
Clarification #7: Newer atheists are open-minded and desire honest discussion with believers.
In closing, I want to make it clear that “newer atheists” appreciate, and actually enjoy, participating in discussions that challenge their viewpoints. Though they are not saints, they endeavor to scrutinize all evidence before reaching (what they hope is) an unbiased conclusion. And most, are even willing to forgo their disbelief if evidence for deities were ever to be presented. For these are the requirements for any true skeptic.
Yet, meaningful discussion is often halted when the atheist is accused of being “closed minded” by a hypocritical believer who is the very personification of the term. It is the believer, and not the atheist, who claims to know absolute truth, and is unwilling to forfeit their belief system if it could be proven false. It is the believer who diminishes the dialogue into a tool that improves their evangelical prowess and sharpens their debating skills. As with any argument, nothing truly productive will be accomplished until both parties are willing to change their minds.
I hope this has been insightful to both believers and nonbelievers. Who’s ready to talk?