There are a lot of people who dislike Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, PZ Myers, and other prominent “New Atheists” (or, as some prefer “Gnu Atheists”) so much that they do not want to be called atheists. John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts had a post (and many remarks in the comments section beneath it) wherein he defended his decision to call himself a Militant Agnostic on what kept amounting to political grounds—he distrusted the atheist movement since it made things tribal.
Rather than offering particularly strong arguments to the charge leveled at him by myself (here and here) and others that he was a de facto atheist as a purely descriptive matter whether or not he liked the title, he persisted in treating the label as radioactive because apparently it would conscript him against his will into an unnecessarily adversarial relationship to the religious.
And tonight a friend on Facebook momentarily confused me for a lockstep New Atheist and railed about their tendency to think that dismissing the monotheistic, personal Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was all that there was to answering questions related to God. What about deists and agnostics and a thousand other flowers of non-theists?
And a particular matter of tension here again was the worry that New Atheism was so thoroughly coming to define atheism that even though we can rightly classify agnostics, deists, and many others as atheists we cannot accurately group them in with New Atheists. And if New Atheism becomes synonymous with atheism itself then more people like my friend on Facebook and like John Wilkins are going to be squeamish about calling themselves atheists because doing so will carry with it connotations they refuse.
I am partially sympathetic to this worry. I have never joined a political party and no matter how undeniably leftish my politics is on many issues, I loathe the idea of being called a flat out Democrat or a liberal or a progressive. I am an independent thinker. It actually frustrates me to an extent that I find the right wing so toxic that I cannot feel more torn between the parties. I recoil at Democrats who joke about wanting a Sarah Palin nomination because they want Obama to score a knockout reelection victory. I genuinely yearn for a serious choice between two competent, moral, constructive, humane parties with competing promising proposals to choose from. I really wish it was like that.
But to stay on topic, it is atheism is not just New Atheism and because of that New Atheists should be wary of saying broad unqualified things like “atheists believe” or “atheists think” as though they speak for all atheists. Just say what you think from your atheist-influenced perspective (and, yes, sometimes one’s atheism does have implications for other views, even if it’s not a determinative factor by itself).
And so, New Atheism-haters, here are a few bits of advice:
Many New Atheists I read seem quite comfortable with deists and self-identifying agnostics and grasp that there is more to God discussion than crapping on the patently implausible and malevolent Abrahamic God all the time. But they talk about that God in shorthand as though it was the only one because, frankly, that’s what most Westerners mean by God. It’s shorthand. And it’s important to attack this imaginary friend vigorously because it takes the debate to where most people really are.
Yes, there are other concepts of a source of all being or necessary beings that are more sophisticated and interesting. Being an atheist in the practical sense—one who lives without the belief in personal, intervening gods—can still allow for open minded speculation about such philosophical concepts. The New Atheists typically celebrate the deists of the Enlightenment as their own. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t understand this and feel some kinship with those proto-atheists whose beliefs were anathema to faith-based thinkers and worshipers who insist God is a personal, interventionist being.
Don’t confuse the shorthand use of “God” taken to refer only to the Abrahamic God as the limit of what New Atheists know about. And, understand, for too long religious apologists have pulled off an infuriating bait and switch whereby they convince people of the apparent reasonableness of some abstract philosophical principle of divinity and then by sheer equivocation or the most superficial arguments claimed that this proved the personal, interventionist God of their own religious faith. It’s absurd.And atheists who allow this equivocation to go unchallenged and say, “yes, I see where God is an interesting metaphysical concept worth considering even if I reject it” get cut off at the pass while religions sell superstitions about human sacrifices of incarnated god men to pay off ransoms and intellectuals never bother to address the nonsense involved in that.
But even if your gripes with the New Atheists run deeper than this—maybe you’re worried about tribalism, maybe you think some of the common arguments or paradigms of New Atheists are flat out dumb, etc. then the solution is not to claim you’re not an atheist but to stand up and be counted as an atheist who disagrees. This is not a religious institution. There’s no pope to silence you. No imam to issue a fatwa against you. Go ahead. Even the New Atheist PZ Myers made a pretty good list of gripes with common New Atheist memes he does not like (and most of which I don’t either).
And we at Camels With Hammers for have happily taken unorthodox stands for the New Atheist movement whenever they’ve seen right to me. Just last week, Eric Steinhart explored a great variety of already existing, viable atheist positions on metaphysics and values, and then bashed materialism (which too often all atheists are naively assumed to affirm necessarily).
In my own writing here, I have characterized only lack of belief in gods as the inclusive requirement for atheism, I have explicitly noted that even though evolution by natural selection makes a personal God highly unlikely, it leaves the door open for non-personal God conceptions, I have criticized Aquinas’s views on God but again explicitly left room for a plausible “source of all being”, and I have convinced myself that there can even be something called “true religion” (and “true spirituality” too).
I have also disapproved of unnecessarily abusive language, jocular attitudes, and anti-religious prejudices among atheists (while nonetheless defending “militant” New Atheist activism and, with nuanced qualifications, some forms of mockery and embarrassment of religion, some forms ofantagonistic “blasphemy“, and nearly all art that challenges religious ideas and symbols). And despite a highly Sam Harris-influenced stance against all religious moderates early in my blogging career, I have since made some explicit concessions to their value too.
And just you wait for the posts I have lined up this week to make party-line New Atheists recoil!
In sum, my advice to atheists who object to the New Atheists: you’re atheists regardless of what you say, so you should just stand up for your interpretation of atheism as such or for the best values or metaphysics you know of, rather than try to do linguistic gymnastics to deny the lexigraphically and socially obvious.