The Problems with the “New Atheist” Approach

An article by Konstantin Petrenko in ReligionDispatches discusses the “two faces” of new atheism.

We know plenty of good things that have resulted from the atheist authors’ bestsellers. So no need to dwell on that here.

But Petrenko points out a couple major problems with Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens/Dennett and the like:

While plausible, this argument [that you don't need religion to be moral] does not prove that religion has no effect on morality. In fact, study after study has shown that deeply religious people tend to give substantially more to charity and to volunteer more often than their nonreligious counterparts. Regardless of the reason for this trend, it seems obvious that something about religious communities and worship encourages individuals to love their neighbor, to share resources, and to be involved in the community.

Whether atheists like it or not, religion does have an ability to inspire remarkable acts of kindness and generosity, and usually it does so not by scaring people with hellfire, but by appealing to their highest ideals of love, compassion, and justice. Sadly, one would be hard-pressed to find any mention of the positive effects of religion in atheist literature.

I don’t think the New Atheists deny that religious people do good things — and in many cases, more tangible good things than non-believers — in the world. Their focus is on the fact that religious people do these good things for the wrong reasons. Furthermore, the same beliefs that can cause them to do good have caused them to do plenty of bad.

The same Bible that urges people to help the poor can be used to justify crimes against non-Christians and oppression of minority groups (like GLBT people).

Religion doesn’t poison everything. But the New Atheists have set out to show that it causes quite a bit of damage. They also want to show that the alternative — a non-religious worldview — is more realistic, more honest, and still provides people with the reason and inspiration to do great things.

  • Andy D

    How much is actual charity though? Last I read only 15% of Church tithing goes to charity

  • James H

    Religion doesn’t poison everything. But the New Atheists have set out to show that it causes quite a bit of damage. They also want to show that the alternative — a non-religious worldview — is more realistic, more honest, and still provides people with the reason and inspiration to do great things.

    Well, Hitchens, does in fact, say that religion poisons everything. It’s right there on his book’s cover.

    My pithy rejoinder aside, I think the criticism of the New Atheists is valid. In all three pop atheist books (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris), the authors are entirely too ready to dismiss out of hand the good the religion has brought about and the good deeds of many of the faithful.

  • Nick

    The last portion of the article seems to present this argument: criticism of religion is valid, but being too critical of religion could lead to hatred and intolerance.

    Why would someone wishing to make an argument present evidence that would be contrary to their point? Or even bother with bringing up what the other side will inevitably do? The books are meant as one-sided argument and not political maneuvering. It’s like if Oreo did a commercial where an announcer states: “Well, those Tollhouse guys got some tasty cookies, too.”

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis

    Sadly, one would be hard-pressed to find any mention of the positive effects of religion in atheist literature.

    He must not be reading the same atheist literature as me. I’ve seen many atheists write on this topic.


    In fact, study after study has shown that deeply religious people tend to give substantially more to charity and to volunteer more often than their nonreligious counterparts.

    And statistics also show that nations with the lowest levels of religiosity score significantly higher on almost every measure of social well-being. If that’s the case, then while religion may have some benefits on an individual level, it also seems that other factors, ones that tend to promote atheism, have an even stronger positive impact.

  • David D.G.

    I don’t think the New Atheists deny that religious people do good things — and in many cases, more tangible good things than non-believers — in the world. Their focus is on the fact that religious people do these good things for the wrong reasons. Furthermore, the same beliefs that can cause them to do good have caused them to do plenty of bad.

    Exactly. Furthermore, much of the “good” that gets done is practically coerced (through social pressure if not outright requirement, as is tithing in some denominations) or is highly arguable as to its “goodness” value and/or the degree of actual altruism (e.g., sponsoring Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the church building or feeding homeless people in a soup kitchen, both of which often involve explicit or implicit proselytization).

    Another point is that religion is intrinsically organizational, thus greatly facilitating any sort of group effort — “good” or otherwise. Atheism unfortunately tends to lack that useful tendency, but it is beginning to make some headway in the direction of group altruistic activities nonetheless — which, considering religion’s head start of several thousand years, is actually pretty good progress.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Religious people want charitable giving to be controlled by the church, not the state. That is the reason why the religious right has allied with the “club of growth” keep-taxes-low crowd. Religion is in competition with government for both taxes and wealth redistribution. Even though religious people may give more to charity, this is offset by them also voting to reduce government wealth redistribution.

    One has to look at different countries with different philosophies about who evens out inequities in society to really make a comparison between the religious versus secular approaches.

  • http://neosnowqueen.wordpress.com/ neosnowqueen

    I was basically going to say what David D.G. said before he said it.

    As far as altruism goes, it’s hard to measure how much of that altruism goes beyond the boundaries of maintaining the infrastructure rather than reaching out to help people. I’m amazed at how much money it takes just to keep a small megachurch running, and I’m paid pittance as it is.

    Also, new atheists are only just beginning to emerge as an organizational movement – most altruistic tendencies have to go through religious institutions that can be despicable in some cases. As the new atheist movement grows, it should provide a secular forum for altruism. It is pointless to compare a system set up for centuries through religion to a movement only gaining ground over the last few decades.

  • Gordon

    In response to the Ryan Report in Ireland there are people who have said, in all apparent seriousness, that we shouldn’t let all the child abuse make us forget all the good those orders had done.

    Madness!

    Hitchens was right, religion poisons everything.

  • Zar

    You’re assuming that giving more to charity is inherently more helpful. If these are religious charities we’re talking about, a good portion of the money will go to trying to win converts rather than actually helping people.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    In fact, study after study has shown that deeply religious people tend to give substantially more to charity and to volunteer more often than their nonreligious counterparts.

    I’m pretty sure this is factually wrong. I can’t recall where I read it, so be skeptical. But I do know that religions tend to inspire the poor to give up their money in larger quantities (by proportion to total income) than the rich…

  • Aj

    It’s kind of ridiculous to suggest these authors don’t think religions have an effect on morality, when it’s clearly a large part of their books (accept for Dennett’s), they just think it negatively effects them. Petrenko has a strange idea of what would represent positive morals, giving money to charities and volunteering aren’t good in and of themselves, not all charities are good. That’s also the worst bit of special pleading I have ever seen, “regardless of the reason” he pleads for us to ignore his ignorance and just go along with his prejudged belief.

    I don’t think there’s any atheist on Petrenko’s list that doesn’t acknowledge the power of religion. Not all atheists, especially those with independent spirits would want to aspire to emulate religion regardless of how powerful it is. If he actually read the books he refered to he would have read many compelling examples and arguments against such a thing. Religion poisons everything, if we let it.

    Why can’t these people understand Sam Harris’s point about moderates protecting and encouraging extremism? It’s ironic that Petrenko’s defense is given through the example of religiondispatches.com, as out of the top four stories three include atheist bashing. The other doesn’t include any criticism of fundamentalism, or any religion, despite the religious motivated crime, which is Sam Harris’s point. Too busy protecting your petty silly beliefs from reason, not capable or willing to go after the silly beliefs that do harm.

    Once again atheism is blamed for the atrocities of Communist regimes. Then Petrenko turns around and criticizes atheists for burning bridges. These people have their heads so far up their own arses I doubt they get enough vitamin D.

  • Bo

    This is an old complaint. And why does Dennett get lumped in with Harris and Dawkins? Have people even read Breaking the Spell? Where does he ever come across as hostile to religion?

  • AcornHunter

    and to volunteer more often than their nonreligious counterparts.

    How much of that is volunteering at Church? Because preparing the food/decorations for Church services provides no altruistic benefit to humanity and thus shouldn’t be looked upon in any positive light. Emphasizing this is like saying,”Religious people help humanity more because they give to their Church,” without actually addressing how much of this “volunteering” and “charity” is actually beneficial to humanity.

  • brian

    If religious people give so much to charity, why is there so much need?

    The church were I used to go uses all the money given just to meet the needs of the building. There was nothing left for charity, and every year they were asking for more money so they could have something left and then give to charity.

    They also used money to send to missionaries around the world to spread the gospel in poor countries.

    Yes, religion poisons everything.

  • Miko

    Whether atheists like it or not, religion does have an ability to inspire remarkable acts of kindness and generosity,

    I don’t believe this, because:

    usually it does so not by scaring people with hellfire, but by appealing to their highest ideals of love, compassion, and justice.

    Ideals of love, compassion, and justice have nothing to do with religion. However, memes such as displayed in this argument lead many people who have a preexisting concern for such ideals to go to religion as a means of fulfilling them.

    To properly study a question like this, one would have to ask whether people who had been religious and became atheists tend to give and do less, and whether people who were atheists and become religious start giving and doing more.

    I’d suggest that the real distinction is not religion vs. nonreligion, but activism vs. apathy. Cultural norms cause activists to gravitate towards religious community, but the religion is most often only a parasite upon their activism.

    This is not because of any natural advantage held by churches, but due to government interventions against the free market: the grassroots mutual aid societies of the early 1900s were destroyed by a coalition of legislators and doctors concerned at their success in keeping medical prices low through collective bargaining, union hiring halls were effectively outlawed, secular organizations are taxed to fund tax-exempt religious groups through the faith-based initiatives, peaceful activist groups are harassed by the FBI, etc. Meanwhile the “separation of church and state” is (mis)used to grant special privileges and exemptions to churches whenever it’s in their favor and ignored whenever the government wants to give them an extra boon. If we had a level playing field, alternative organizations would vastly outperform the religions and lure away the people who care primarily about love, justice, and compassion.

  • Tom S

    This topic makes me want to barf. I hate New Atheists, because in accepting the “NEW” label they think there’s something special about them, something different. There isn’t. Cynicism has been around way longer then any of us can claim to know. This “newness” is about as fresh as a pitstain on a hand-me-down shirt: nasty and worn out. It’s a bunch of complaining, really. I get tired of it.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    This topic makes me want to barf. I hate New Atheists, because in accepting the “NEW” label they think there’s something special about them, something different. There isn’t.

    For what it’s worth, the authors didn’t bestow the label on themselves. WIRED journalist Gary Wolf wrote the article on “New Atheism” that (to my understanding) coined that phrase.

  • Tyro

    The study and the conclusions are flawed, one only need do a cross-cultural study to look at other countries with much higher proportions of atheists. I think the problem with the study is that it defines time at church as “volunteering” rather than “socializing” and money donated to the church as “charity” rather than as “dues”.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    I haven’t read all fo the comments so I don’t know how useful my comment will be but I am a psych major who is currently spending a lot of time doing research…and causality is a very hard thing to find. The excerpt above implies that religion causes morality/moral acts, but they cannot prove that. There is no temporal precedence. Does religion cause moral behavior (we know it doesn’t) or does moral behavior result in someone being more likely to be religious? Also, in their little study, how did they study “deeply religious”? By the number of times they donate or volunteer? Or is it data from self-report, which is notorious for not being reliable. People lie on surveys because they want to look more socially desirable. Before anything, I would question their methods and measures. If they’re invalid, then the study is moot.

    Not only that, but I have seen altruism explained well by evolutionary theory. I would be curious to see what others think of altruism brought about by religion, because if it is, then altruism is again a function of society and not religion.

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    Those studies of charity are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of crap. What you also find with atheists is that they tend to be extremely liberal. And what do liberals emphasize? Social welfare programs run by the government. That is, we prefer to have our charity doled out by secular systems, like the government, rather than religious institutions. And for all the talk of how “inefficent” government-run programs are, they are surely more efficient than the “charity” of someone like Mother Theresa, who put the poor in hovels.

    Besides, the New Atheism doesn’t say NOTHING good ever comes from religion, so this is basically a straw man, to boot.

    I always found it ironic, of course, that those religious folk who proudly give to their church will rail at length about how horrible welfare is. I really don’t understand such a cognitive gap.

  • Mr. Underwhelmed

    The organizations representing us are so narrowly focused on fighting religious right nonsense that they rarely take a stand on issues that should be even more important to us, like genocide, poverty, torture, etc. Not to imply that the separation of church and state is not an issue worth fighting for, but it is not the most important issue of our time (at least domestically, which is where efforts are focused).

    How can a movement that, as represented in public, focuses almost exclusively on squabbles with fundies while staying mum on poverty, racism, genocide, etc. ever seem on an equal moral level with, for example Unitarians advocating for policies that reduce poverty and an end to the genocide in Darfur, or the churches involved in the civil rights movement?

    Can’t we do a little better?

  • Charon

    Zuckerman, in Society Without God, says the “religious=gives more to charity” idea is wrong. As a sociologist who studies religion, he might know.

    This is after you exclude donations that are purely for support of the church. Money for your church’s food bank counts as charity, money for new stained-glass windows doesn’t.

  • Charon

    Oh, and that’s just personal charity. As Saint Gasoline points out, that’s far from the whole story. Denmark and Sweden are hotbeds of atheism, and also have very strong social support funded by high taxes. This is charity, on a much larger scale than most religious people in the US can conceive of.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Cannonball Jones

    Sneakily writing this at work so didn’t have time to read all the comments. Just wanted to add that my usual reply to this objection stands – is it really moral if they’re doing these good deeds out of fear of punishment or desire for reward? The author tries to say that religion doesn’t use fear to inspire these acts of benevolence but he really needs to back that up I think. The ‘good books’ are peppered with warnings about the eternal horrors awaiting you if you don’t play nice, is he really suggesting that has no effect on believers?

  • Ron in Houston

    I think the key is balance. When you take the position the Hitchens does that “religion poisons everything,” even if you have a lot of concrete evidence, you still end up discounting or dismissing the contrary evidence.

    I think it’s good to point out that religion is not benign. However when you take an extreme position you end up marginalizing yourself.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    In fact, study after study has shown that deeply religious people tend to give substantially more to charity and to volunteer more often than their nonreligious counterparts.

    They need to factor in the negative impact of religious activity. For example, if you give to your church, and the money ends up funding a witch hunting minister in Africa, or if your volunteer activity is protesting at a reproductive services clinic, that’s a bad thing, not a good thing.

  • Luke

    In addition to the above comment, the research on religiosity and altrusim shows that although religious people give more in a planned or unspontaneous way, that less traditionally religious individuals, including atheists are more helpful in spontaneous or unplanned contexts, such as the stranger by the side of the road scenario where religion is not relevant to the context. This is particularly so when the individual in need of assistance is a “value violator” or someone who is outside the mainstream (gays, homeless, etc). In the laboratory, priming religious concepts by making them more salient improves generosity and honesty, but so does priming secular social concepts (e.g., justice, law, court).

    So the interesting aspects brought up by such research are: why are the religious helpful moreso in planned contexts where they can choose what to give or whom to help, whereas the non religious are less discriminating about who is being helped.

  • Aj

    More on what religious dispatches and so called “liberal” or “moderate” religion, how they simply refuse to combat religious fundamentalism and harm.

    Lets have a look at how they deal with the Daniel Hauser story. Apparantly, according to the author, the circumstances around the Hauser case raise “complex ethical questions”, that apparantly were missed by atheist bloggers. For instance should: parents be allowed to neglect their ill children, courts protect children, children be allowed to refuse important treatment. No, yes, and no you religious monster, that’s not complex at all.

    The news media is criticized for not making it clear that most conflicts between religion and medicine are resolved without the parents fleeing to avoid court ordered treatments. The author mentions religious families working with doctors but doesn’t go into detail, that could mean not giving blood tranfusions despite professional medical opinion. Apparantly the US government won’t step in unless it’s life threatening or could cause severe or permanent harm.

    Note that the beliefs aren’t criticized for being irrational. There’s no dismay at the harm these beliefs that involve denial of medical treatment cause. The parents aren’t criticized for actively withholding life saving treatment. Sites like this don’t combat harmful religion, they seem callously indifferent to the harm it causes, despite having no problem with non-religiously motivated harm (even imaginary). Atheist blogs don’t have this problem.

  • Infinite Monkey

    Did I miss something? How is giving to charity and volenteering become an example of morality? They are nice things, but how is that moral?

    I’d like to suggest that some of the worst people out there, to hide their true side, or maybe to compensate for their evils, give money to charity and volenteer. After all, when was the last time a serial killer was caught, and his neighbors said, “I knew it, he was always an asshole. Why didn’t I put two and two together?” I’m under the impression they are way more likely to say “I never would have guessed. He was the sweetest man, always giving to the community”.

    Other questions that appear in my mind is: What is defined by giving to charity? Usually, charity is usually defined as a non-profit organization. If that’s correct, then wouldn’t that make tithing “giving to charity”?


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