‘Militant Atheism’ Isn’t a Religion; It’s an Oxymoron

Primatologist Frans de Waal has written a new book called The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (released today). While the focus of the book is on the evolution of morality, an excerpt from the book on Salon suggests there’s an undercurrent of anger at the New Atheists:

Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”

Why are we on “media rampages”? Because we get invited to talk about our beliefs by segment producers at major networks and it’s a great opportunity to defend our beliefs in front of a large viewing audience.

Why do we wear shirts proclaiming our atheism? Because we’re rational, intelligent people and we’re tired of treating that as a shameful secret.

Why are we calling for “militant atheism”? We’re not. I have no idea what that means since no atheist in the public eye has ever called for violence or anything but a revolution of ideas. We want people to see the world as we do and we’ll attempt to make that happen through our words.

What do we have to offer? Truth! Skepticism that cuts through bullshit to get to the heart of reality! A world view supported by the evidence instead of superstition and mythology!

de Waal made many of these same points in the New York Times in 2010 and it’s obvious very little has improved in his thinking on the matter:

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

This is a man who doesn’t the most basic fact checking (people who are not “Brights” are not considered dumb, according to the people who created the term) and doesn’t do research into theories opposed to his own. Morality is not “Christian” even if the faith permeates our culture.

Dr. Jerry Coyne tore his argument apart right after he wrote that:

What’s bizarre in all this is that de Waal, despite his own atheism, has surely found a way for himself to be moral without being pseudo-religious, and yet he tells everyone else that they need established religion to secure their ethics. Can we not assume, Dr. de Waal, that other people may be as savvy and reasoned as yourself, and find a way to live ethically without a god?

It’s patronizing nonsense, that’s what it is. de Waal should have stuck to the evolution of morality.

Coyne added more recently:

The goal of New Atheism, as I see it, is not mainly to insult religious individuals, but to question the tenets of belief, point out the invidious consequences of unsupported belief, and question the unwarranted privilege that religion has arrogated to itself. Surely that’s something that a scientist like de Waal would approve of.

Bingo. This isn’t about attacking believers. We understand why they believe in God and we respect their right to believe it, but we want them to understand that there are better explanations out there for most of what they consider to be the handiwork of God. That involves pointing out when religion goes wrong — and even when religion goes right, because doing the right thing for the wrong reason isn’t ideal either.

Incidentally, the subtitle for the Salon article reads “Prominent non-believers have become as dogmatic as those they deride — and become rich on the lecture circuit.

There’s nothing in the excerpt justifying the latter part of that statement (and, as I argue above, nothing justifies the former part either). If people like Dawkins and Harris make money giving talks, it’s because they’re best-selling authors who can command high speaking fees. (For that matter, so can Malcolm Gladwell and Ann Coulter.) There are plenty of popular atheist authors out there who get little to no money for their talks, so it’s not like talking about atheism is a gateway to wealth. Furthermore, the subtitle suggests that the “prominent non-believers” are only strident about their atheism in order to rake in cash, as if their passion for the subject has nothing to do with it.

It’s misleading and unfair. It’s a provocative headline designed to generate more pageviews even though the article in question doesn’t mention it at all. You expect that from low-readership blogs, not professional websites/magazines like Salon.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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