Do The New Atheists Target Religion Too Broadly?

A reader at The Daily Dish has the following objection to the New Atheists:

As an agnostic who sees all sides of this issue – brought up in a conservative Christian household, against which I rebelled, only to try to understand where they’re coming from, I can say that the main thing I object to is the New Atheists’ use of the term “religion”.  If you’re criticizing young-Earth creationism, or any specific belief or set of beliefs or set of behaviors that are identifiably harmful to our society, then yes, these are fair game and deserve criticism.  I don’t think any of us “accomodationists” would dispute that, or try to argue that we should somehow just let fundamentalists roll over us in the public sphere with their archaic religion-based social norms.

The problem is, the scope of the argument that they New Atheists make extends far beyond mere criticism of a given specific set of religious claims, and attempts to encompass all “religion”.  So, the arguments they’re making would seem to apply not just to “religion” as it is most commonly encountered in the public sphere in the U.S. (ie, evangelical Christianity), but also: Hinduism? Buddhism? Sufism? Taoism?  What are we talking about here, when we talk about religion?  Are all religious people of all stripes equally deluded?  What does it mean to be religious?  These are questions to which the New Atheists seem to believe there are easy answers, and here I protest: the picture is more complex than that, and I would expect, as well-educated members of the scientific community, that they might take an interest in being more specific with the language they use before making such generalizations.  Stop using the word “religion” when what you really mean is “fundamentalist followers of Abrahamic faiths”, and we’re getting somewhere.

Hitchens specifically goes after eastern religions as well as the Western ones.   I personally do not feel well enough versed in non-Western religions to say much about them but I can put the issue like this—what I fundamentally oppose are irrationalism, anti-secularism, fundamentalism, and traditionalism.  At least some of these things seem inherent to religion in all its variations even as what constitutes religion and what religion encompasses can vary a great deal from culture to culture and from religion to religion and, even, from religious denomination to religious denomination within a given religion.  If a religion exists or can be invented that can avoid all these pitfalls, then I really wouldn’t oppose it.

But the rough and ready reason to justifiably enough oppose religion with a broad brush is that the distinctly religious tendency is one of submission to a communal ritual, ethic, and/or way of thinking which puts limits on your abilities for free dissent and reimagination.  While different religions incorporate within them a wide range of different philosophies of varying worth—some with truly excellent ideas worth meditating upon—it is the close interlocking of idea with tradition with ritual which seems inherently opposed to the freest thought.

That said, there are innumerable instances of thinkers who think remarkably creatively and provide a great deal of illumination even within the strictures of religious traditions and many ideas and practices generated or reinforced in religious contexts have secular justifications that make them recommendable (or at least defensible options) for all of us.  So, I for one do not want to oppose everything that religion has involved but I do want to challenge faith, irrationalism, superstition, traditionalism, anti-secularism, and fundamentalism and insofar as at least some of these things arise in every religion, I am willing to broadly target the whole enterprise of rite-reinforced group-thinking.  There has to be a way to get our needs for ritual while at the same time being a community of inquirers thinking on common terms, without falling into the pitfalls of religious style indoctrination, dogmatism, traditionalism, etc.  But it’s a hard thing to do and, although I’m not an expert on this, I am under the impression that few religions have managed it.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.