Popular atheism

The following is an excerpt from my book in progress.

My next point is one I have to address because I need a better way to talk about Dawkins, Harris, and the rest than by calling them, “Dawkins, Harris, and the rest.” What’s important about them, beyond their atheism?

It’s that, because of them, more people are reading books (and articles and blog posts) about atheism and the harms of religion than ever before. More people are listening to talks about those topics than ever before (though YouTube also helps with that). And more people are talking about those topics than ever before.

Because of this, I’m going to call what Dawkins and Harris have been doing “popular atheism.” What they’ve done is made popular ideas that have been around for a long time. And–this is where I have to correct one of the stupid things people have been saying about them–their ideas aren’t new. Bertrand Russell (born 1872, died 1970; from here the dates a person lived will be written with just a dash, like this: 1872-1970), one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, said:

My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.

Now Lucretius (99 BC-55 BC) was an ancient Roman philosopher, so you might think Russell’s brand of atheism goes back to ancient Rome. But it’s not clear Lucretius would have gone as far as Russell. Lucretius belonged to a philosophical school called Epicureanism, and the Epicureans said it was wrong to worry about what the gods might do to us not because they didn’t exist, but because they didn’t mess with human affairs.

Still, Russell wasn’t the first person to say things like that. Not even close. Here’s another quote:

But since all these abuses, as well as all the other abuses and errors I spoke about, are only based on the belief and persuasion or opinion that there are gods, or at least, that there is a God… it is necessary now to prove and show clearly that men are still deceived in this an that there is no such being, i.e., there is no God. Consequently, men falsely and abusively use the name and authority of God to establish and maintain the errors of their religion, as well as to maintain the tyrannical power of their princes and kings.

That was said by a French priest named Jean Meslier (1664-1729). He wrote it in a book about religion that he left for his friends to find when he died in 1729, because it would have been too dangerous to say while he was still alive. In other words, people have thought religion is extremely harmful since before it was safe to say so publicly.

I say this because the most common term for recent popular atheism is “New Atheism,” which is not an accurate term. The popular atheists themselves are not to blame for the inaccuracy; while they’ve sometimes used the term because it’s what everybody else uses, they did not choose it.

The first use of the term anyone seems to be able to find is from an article by Gary Wolf in Wired magazine, titled “The Church of the Non-Believers.” The main part of the article is actually a fairly good profile of Dawkins and Harris, along with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of the 2006 book Breaking the Spell, and the late journalist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), author of the 2007 bestseller God Is Not Great. But it begins and ends with some very silly comments about how the “New Atheists” say that “Now that the battle [against religion] has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking” and “Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban.”

None of the people in Wolf’s article actually say any such thing, of course. I’m sure they realize that there are too many worthy causes in the world for everyone to be involved in every worthy cause. They do criticize religious moderates for a number of reasons: for saying faith is a virtue, for saying science can never tell us whether religious claims are true, for saying Islam is a religion of peace. If Wolf had disagreed, he could have given reasons why the religious moderates are right, but instead, he decided to make stuff up.

Why do that? Wolf hints that he himself is an atheist without quite calling himself one, and even refers to Christian beliefs such as the Virgin Birth (the belief that Jesus’ mother was a virgin when she bore him) as “absurdities.” Apparently, though, Wolf was uncomfortable with hearing other people express such thoughts publicly. So he came up with an excuse to say they’re wrong.

Wolf doesn’t explain why he chose the term “New Atheism,” but other writers who’ve picked up the term often explicitly contrast the bad “New Atheists” with the much better atheists we used to have. But as I’ve already shown with the quotes from Russell and Meslier, such a contrast has no basis in reality. Why make it then?

My guess is that it’s because it’s easier to dismiss an idea if you can tell yourself the idea is a recent perversion. Are certain atheists making you feel especially uncomfortable? Would you like to be able to ignore them? Just tell yourself that until recently everyone, even the atheists, would agree with your dismissal. You’ll feel better, I promise.

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