The New Atheists Fight Back

Wired has recently published a long article, titled Battle of the New Atheism, about the inroads made by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and the attacks they have launched against faith. The article does not treat their views inaccurately or with malice, but nevertheless the author, Gary Wolf, seems scornful and dismissive of the idea that he or anyone else should actually pick a side in the debate. He begins and concludes his essay in much the same tone:

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me.

Wolf’s principal objection, apparently, is that the “New Atheists” are attacking not just the evil done by fundamentalists, but the faith of all religious believers. The point as made by Sam Harris and others is that religious moderates, though they do not do any direct harm, do indirect harm by teaching and contributing to an atmosphere where faith alone is an acceptable standard for decision-making and where it is considered impolite to criticize the beliefs of others. Both of these teachings make possible the more toxic brands of fundamentalism that pose a danger to all civilized people. Wolf seems offended by this argument and considers it to be misguided:

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.

Wolf’s suggestion is that, rather than opposing liberal Catholics, atheists should support their efforts. The problem with this is that the liberals have no voice in the Catholic church. The church is not a democracy, and its members cannot vote on which course of action they think best. It is an oligarchy, run by a small group of conservative men who choose their own successors. If a lay believer disagrees with the politics of the Catholic church, they have only two options: either suck it up and remain in the church, continuing to obey and support a faith whose moral injunctions they do not accept, or leave. People who will do neither are usually silenced or expelled. And other established churches are the same: the only effective way to oppose them is by disassociating from them entirely, cutting off the flow of their support. This is exactly what Dawkins, Harris and others are proposing, and this is what Wolf does not seem to grasp. What is his preferred alternative? Remain in the churches and denounce their harmful social policies while continuing to contribute the money and support that permits them to continue those policies?

For the record, we atheists do propose a realistic solution to the harm done by religion: we propose that people should stop being religious and embrace reason and conscience, not superstition and dogma, as the guides to our lives. Wolf apparently thinks this is unrealistic, but I do not. Other once widely held beliefs, such as racism and sexism, have withered within the space of a single lifetime. Perhaps religion is different, but we will never know until we try – until we provoke a widespread and vigorous debate over the merits of theism and see what the results will be.

(“The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a nonsubject,” Dawkins has written. “Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content.”) On the contrary, I find the best of these books to be brilliant, detailed, self-assured. I learn about kenosis, the deliberate decision of God not to disturb the natural order. I learn about panentheism, which says God is both the world and more than the world, and about emergentist theology, which holds that a God might have evolved. There are deep passages surveying theories of knowledge, glossing Kant, Schelling and Spinoza… It is all admirable and stimulating and lacks only the real help anybody in my position would need: reasons to believe that specific religious ideas are true.

Contradicting himself within a single paragraph, Wolf first rejects Dawkins’ assertion that theology is a vacuous subject, then agrees with it. As Wolf discovers for himself, despite all of theology’s byzantine and imaginative complexity, it lacks the most fundamental and important thing: reasons to believe that any of it is true. This is exactly what Dawkins is saying: it is a nonsubject, devoid of content. For all the artful effort and imagination that has gone into it, theology consists of castles in the air, built on nothing substantial. How can one possibly study in a field that possesses no solid evidence for the very object of its study?

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob… But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our convictions or our sanity.

But those “respectful conversations” are the very thing that Wolf’s subjects are calling for! We want there to be a free, open and healthy debate about whether or not we should believe. This is the very thing that is currently lacking in society’s discourse. Again, Wolf castigates today’s atheists for making a certain point and then goes on to agree with that point. Unless, that is, he meant something different by “respectful”, such as that any discussion of religion should not upset or anger people who believe in that religion. But if that is our standard, there will be no discussion of religion, because there are a great many members of every faith who view any doubt or disbelief whatsoever of their faith as the gravest of crimes. That definition of “respect” would lead to mutual silence, not debate, and again, this is the very standard that prevails in most parts of the world today and that atheists like Dawkins and Harris want to see changed.

My pilgrimage is about to become more difficult. On the one hand, it is obvious that the political prospects of the New Atheism are slight. People see a contradiction in its tone of certainty. Contemptuous of the faith of others, its proponents never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists.

It is a sure bet that any atheist confident enough about their own position to defend it in public will immediately be labeled as “no better than a religious fundamentalist”, and this predictable and tired line of attack is the one Wolf next turns to. His logic would entail that we should never claim to know or believe anything, that we should always remain too skeptical of our own beliefs to take any action because of them. Needless to say, if doing so is fundamentalism, then the alternative to fundamentalism is catatonia.

If the obvious needs to be said: Yes, any of us might be wrong about what we believe – even atheists. We should always keep that in mind, and not allow excessive confidence to become arrogance and dogmatism. On the other hand, however, we should proportion our doubts to the evidence, and not doubt just for the sake of doubting. When there is evidence indicating that atheism is false – and Wolf has already admitted that he knows of none – then I will doubt atheism, but not until then. Becoming dogmatic is a danger to watch for, but the excessive dogmatism we should be wary of is the one that gives us such confidence in our own beliefs that we attempt to impose them on others by force. That is what religious fundamentalists do, all the time. That is not what atheists do, however. Wolf denounces the New Atheists as “fundamentalists” not because they have any desire to force their views on others, but merely because they have any views at all.

The equation of atheists with religious fundamentalists is an appalling insult. Over the centuries, religious fundamentalists have waged wars and bloody crusades in the name of their beliefs, have tortured and executed countless innocent people in the name of their beliefs, have created violent and dictatorial theocracies in the name of their beliefs, have waged savage and barbaric acts of terrorism in the name of their beliefs. And what is the crime atheists have committed, that we are compared to them so casually? Apparently, it is saying mean things about the beliefs that have led to such horrifying atrocities. When Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris start setting up inquisitions in the countryside or persuading their followers to chop off the heads of their opponents, then I will admit Wolf’s point. Until then, his glib comparison of atheists to fundamentalists is just another variation of the “pox on both your houses” fallacy frequently committed by those who refuse to support either side of a debate just so they can fancy themselves intellectually superior to both. (That stings, doesn’t it, Mr. Wolf? Perhaps now you understand how atheists feel when we see those same accusations of condescension directed against us in your writing.)

Another section of the article suggests what Wolf’s true concern is:

Were I to declare myself an atheist, what would this mean? Would my life have to change? Would it become my moral obligation to be uncompromising toward fence-sitting friends? That person at dinner, pissing people off with his arrogance, his disrespect, his intellectual scorn — would that be me?

…As one [of Wolf’s friends] said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'”

This seems to be the real basis for Wolf’s objection to the works of Dawkins, Harris and Dennett. It is not that he disagrees with their position, but that he fears he would become unpopular if he were to advocate it in public as they do. (Nevertheless, he already agrees with them to a greater extent than he apparently realizes. As previously cited, at the beginning of this article he called the virgin birth of Jesus a “blatant myth” and “antique absurdity”. This idea is still believed literally and taken very seriously by probably in excess of a billion people around the world, most of whom would be extremely offended by his cavalier dismissal of it.)

Despite that exception, this is the first point of legitimate concern I think he raises. It is a good thing that he does not want to be rude or arrogant, and admittedly, some atheist individuals and groups have not been good examples of what an atheist should aspire to be.

On the other hand, the time for polite silence, if there ever was one, is long past. In recent times, religious beliefs have wrought horrendous evil in this world, and they are continuing to do so. Islamic regimes that openly teach the heroism of suicide bombing and praise their terrorist martyrs to the skies are now in pursuit of nuclear weapons. Christian theocrats who welcome the apocalypse and the annihilation of humanity as a consummation devoutly to be wished are now in power in the United States, and are making policy decisions based on those beliefs. India and Pakistan, nuclear neighbors, are divided by conflicting faiths in whose name much blood has already been spilled. Adulterers and apostates are already subject to stoning, beheading and other barbarities in numerous countries under sharia law. Reason and liberty are under siege worldwide, and there can no longer be any excuse for remaining passive, silent, quiescent. Either we care about our ideals and are willing to defend them, or we are not. The passionate advocacy that Wolf so deplores is our only hope for this crisis; the fanatics who menace us are not going to go away if only we are sufficiently respectful of their beliefs.

I will not apologize for my convictions. These are things that need to be said, regardless of how popular they are. But what Wolf has not realized is that, if he does not wish to be branded an arrogant atheist, then he does not need to be arrogant. We can, and should, express our position with force and passion without personally attacking people who believe otherwise or labeling ourselves superior to them. We can and should criticize faith without implying that all believers are the moral equivalent of the Taliban. And we can and should respect other people’s right to hold certain beliefs while making plain the reasons for our disagreement. If you do not want to be that person at dinner, Mr. Wolf, then do not be him, but that does not forbid you either to be an atheist or to speak out about it.


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