Why Do We Need New Atheists? Can’t We Just Spruce Up The Old Ones?

Today’s guest post, by skeptic activist and accomplished author Karla McLaren, is a doozy (and I mean this in a good way). In it, she talks about “New Atheist” polemic, and the need to move on to dialectics. It’s a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement, and I recommend you read it from start to finish with an open mind and a critical eye. As someone who acknowledges the importance of the so-called “New Atheists” for cracking open the space to allow for the conversations about atheism and critical thinking about religion that I have — for facilitating greater atheist visibility and a change in our cultural climate that has made my work possible — and the many things they say that I agree with, I also deeply appreciate Karla’s assertion that we need to move beyond polemics in order to build a sustainable movement and healthy communities. Without further ado:

So here’s the situation, if you’re not familiar with it. Atheism, which has traditionally been a rather disrespected minority[i] viewpoint, is enjoying a surge in visibility. This is due in a large measure to the popularity of books by four authors: Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004, Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007). Collectively, these four authors are known as the New Atheists. Some also call them The Four Horsemen, though I call them the Fractious Four, which has a cool superhero ring to it (even though their superpower is to argue with everybody).

Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written polemics against religion, and true to the polemical form, they’ve taken a moral absolutist stance which asserts that religion is orders of magnitude more harmful than it is beneficial (if it is beneficial at all). Dennett is a philosopher, and his work is nuanced and, well, philosophical – and I often wonder why he’s included with the polemicists. However, he is, so on we go.

The Fractious Four have put forward some very attention-grabbing ideas in a post-Twin Towers world, where many of us have seriously questioned the purpose and limits of faith and supernaturalism. However, the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them. But see, that’s the point of a polemic … you put forward the most extreme version of your argument, and you don’t make any room for moderating views.

A polemic is a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror. If it’s done skillfully, a truly masterful polemic is melded with a careful overlay of logic, scholarship, and verbal skill. A polemic is made to be powerful and arresting, and it can be a very beautiful thing indeed. But it’s not something you should make a career of, because it’s exhausting (both to create, and eventually, to witness).

It’s also not something you can use in a relationship or a conversation, and it’s not something you can build a movement upon, because the intensity of emotion in a polemic is too extreme for most of us to manage deftly. Your polemical rage, if you try to use it in a conversation, can make you look scary and mad-intolerant. Your polemical despair, if you try to use it to convert your religious friends, can make you seem constitutionally incapable of seeing the bright side of life (or the importance of religion for people who may have nothing else). And your polemical terror, if you try to blog about it, can make you look like a wild-eyed doomsday prophet (who is nearly always wrong).

A polemic has its place, but it’s not a tool of normal interaction, because its purpose is to dramatize an extreme position and silence all critics and all moderating voices. Actually, a polemic is not a tool as much as it is a weapon; therefore, if you’re going to use it skillfully, you have to be at the top of your game intellectually, academically, socially, and ethically.

But even if you are at the top of your game, your polemic can easily backfire. Here’s why: the form requires that you come out swinging from an extremist position, and that you choose only those examples and philosophies that support your ideas, while dismissing or ridiculing the examples and philosophies that don’t.

This is why it’s so easy to critique a polemic; it’s not nuanced because it’s not meant to be. It’s not all-encompassing, because it’s not meant to be. It’s not scholarship, it’s not philosophy, and you can’t create a lasting movement based upon it, because it’s a burning brightly kind of thing. A polemic is a display; it’s dramatic theater. It’s made for igniting passions and selling books, for forcing sudden and unsupported change, and for shaming any opposing voices into stunned silence. A polemic is not and cannot be sustainable, and it should not last too long, or it just gets shrill and sucks all the novelty and majesty out of the original argument.

stopfightingWhich brings us to our current predicament. A number of atheists have taken the work of the Fractious Four to heart, and they’re fighting to utilize polemicism as the leading voice of the atheist movement (this is the New Atheism), such that atheists who aren’t offended by religion, or who actively work to understand and communicate with religious people, are branded pejoratively as “accommodationists[ii].” The idea is that if you don’t continually and loudly protest all things religious, spiritual, and supernatural, then you are tacitly agreeing with and supporting them. And since these ideas have been shown to be unrepentantly incorrect, why would you do that? Why would you accommodate something that has been shown to be injurious and unjust? That’s the hard-line, polemical New Atheist position.

Just so you know, Chris Stedman, who is working at a Humanist Chaplaincy to create awareness of atheism and humanism as worthy approaches to morality and life, is branded by some New Atheists as a super-accommodationist. This is because he works hand-in-hand with religious and spiritual people, but does not confront them about their beliefs or suggest that atheism is the paramount ideology. If I were publically aligned with atheism (I prefer the non-polemical position of agnosticism), my somewhat analogously respectful connection to people in the New Age would surely brand me as a super-accommodationist as well.

But Chris and I aren’t the only kinds of fellow secularists the New Atheists disparage. In atheism (and sadly, in the skeptical community, where people should know better), it is quickly becoming verboten to criticize or even question the polemical approach (Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, Michael McRae, and many other top-notch skeptics and atheists have been repeatedly attacked for pointing out that polemical confrontation can polarize far more people than it might liberate). If you challenge (or even question) New Atheist behavior, you are seen as stifling freedom of speech, disavowing the utility of the polemical, and protecting religions (and thereby supporting everything that is illogical and fraudulent in the world since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before that). Which, of course, is a totally polemical overreaction! See, once you get a polemic going, it’s hard to stop it.

But it’s not impossible if you understand how to put that weapon down. In the spirit of disarmament, I have to say that yes, the Fractious Four have caused some harm by making hard-line, polemical confrontation seem like everyday talk to a very vocal subset of atheists. However, as if by providence (!) I have heard from a few people who were able to break away from high-control religions (fundamentalist, insular, cultish denominations) specifically because Hitchens and Dawkins were so single-minded, vociferous, and polemical in their denunciation of all things religious.

There’s a way that the fervent emotional appeals in these books can reach into areas that would otherwise be completely sequestered from critiques of religion. These books don’t just open doors; they can demolish them and make possible the escape of people who were (perhaps unknowingly) imprisoned behind those doors. However, as I look at the way secondary New Atheists (readers of all four books) and tertiary New Atheists (people who simply enjoy an online brawl) have used the weapons the Four popularized, I often cringe at the savage glee with which these people carry out their attacks and sully the communal discourse.

Polemics exist because they are necessary weapons in specific instances, especially when they’re aimed at ideologies or institutions that are hidebound and seemingly untouchable. But healthy and lasting social change can’t be built on polemics alone – and you shouldn’t use polemics within a movement if you want it to survive. Polemics are shrapnel bombs lobbed over high castle walls, and they don’t merely break down doors; they also take out the castle walls, fill the moat with debris, and collaterally kill whatever unfortunate birds happened to be flying over the castle that day. Polemics may destroy old ideologies, but they can’t create a new and sustainable movement.

If atheism (old, new, and just-discovered) is to become a sustainable and welcoming minority rights movement (or even just a nice place to hang out), then it requires community-builders, dissent voices, ambassadors, comedians, argument that is intentionally non-polemical, and an eventual buy-in from the majority. That necessary evolution is made more difficult if secondary and tertiary New Atheists maintain their interest in continual polemical intolerance, in intractable polarization, and in imagining that any critique of their approach requires the donning of full combat armor.

There is a fear among New Atheists that moderating and dissenting voices are trying to erase the polemic as an avenue of approach. But that’s a polemical overreaction. No one is suggesting that we burn New Atheist books or silence their authors. Those bells have been rung. We can’t un-ring them, nor should we. The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.

crazyenoughIn order to move forward, we need to rely on more than mere polemics. How about if we try dialectics?[iii] Dialectics can be just as fun as polemics (and they require just as much skill), but dialectics have the added benefit of creating community, building intelligent synthesis out of seemingly intractable positions, and teaching people how to manage – rather than merely weaponize – their emotions. Moving to dialectics doesn’t erase the polemic; actually, dialectics require polemics, or there wouldn’t be anything to synthesize.

I grew up as an atheist in the 1960s, but my family was not a part of the formal movement spearheaded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair because it was too fractious. When I first heard the term New Atheist a couple of years ago, I had hopeful visions of an energized, spruced up movement that maybe, just maybe, wasn’t so enraged or contentious. Whoops! I understand and honor that rage, and the despair, and the terror that go with it, but now it’s time to dial it back and do the hard work it takes to create a workable, inclusive community for old atheists, new atheists, secularists of every stripe, and all refugees from religion and superstition.

karlaKarla McLaren ended her New Age healing career in 2003 to study the social sciences and the ways that social forces shape behavior. Her most recent titles are the book The Language of Emotions (2010), and the sociological study “Inside and Outcast” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2010), co-authored with cult expert Janja Lalich.


[i] In censuses and polls taken over the last half century, atheists’ numbers have typically been quite low (the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey put atheists at 1.6% of the population and agnostics at 2.4%. However, 11.8% of people either didn’t know what they believed about God, or refused to answer the question). Many social scientists and atheist proponents have surmised that the real nonbeliever population could be as high as 12% due to the underreporting that occurs among minorities. In general, if people can hide their minority status or their unpopular standpoints from pollsters or census takers, they sometimes do (which could place the refuseniks in the atheist category).

[ii] As you may recall, this word was first used by black Americans in the Voting Rights era against people who were seen as being too subservient and too accommodating to whites. I could write a whole ‘nother post about how interesting it is for atheists to imagine that their struggle is similar to that of African Americans.

[iii] Dialectics is a process of taking a thesis and its diametrically opposed antithesis, and working in community to create a synthesis of the two (not a capitulation or a compromise).

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Chris Stedman on MSNBC: "This is a really good thing, and I think people of faith should agree"
My review of Dan Ariely's new book, "Irrationally Yours"
About Chris Stedman

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