What Is Atheism (and, by extension, New Atheism)?

What Is Atheism (and, by extension, New Atheism)? February 15, 2015

Last week, the tragedy of Chapel Hill shocked the nation (or, at least, it did once major news networks got around to reporting it). Because of some of the details on this situation, namely that the victims were Muslim and the perpetrator was an atheist, believers and heathens alike flocked to their computers, radios, and television sets to both listen to the opinions of others and offer some of their own. I am of the latter on this, and my piece here on Patheos: Atheism Did Not Kill Three Young Muslims In Chapel Hill, earned some full-throated responses with circa 5,500 shares on Facebook and Twitter. In reading the comment threads in many places where it was posted and on the original article (which had over 900 comments at the time of this writing), I’ve discovered that we are faced with a Confucian problem of language. Despite my brief explanation of the way atheism does not have a set of moral codes or doctrines in the same way Christianity has Scripture, for example, a great deal of erroneous discussion seems to be centered around 20th Century atheists and their atrocities. It’s also been flimsily asserted by atheist apologists and theists the world over that New Atheism–which we shall talk about in more detail–provides social and political motivations that are, they admit, not inherent in a mere atheistic mentality. Colleague Dan Arel covered this in his excellent piece, and for more info on that squabble, I would refer you to him.

I would not say I am an expert in the philosophy of atheism because I am not sure such a thing exists, but I can claim to be well-read on it. In the upcoming book 666, I was asked to write the chapter on the philosophy of atheism while other components of the same subject were covered by Lawrence Krauss, Richard Carrier, and other far-worthier writers. In my work on that piece, I’ve come to the conclusion that atheism is going through the strange metamorphosis that all ideas endure when they become popular enough to change from a personal paradigm to a form of politics. Now that unbelievers are becoming a larger, more influential, and more a vocal group than, perhaps, they have ever been in history, we are seeing schisms rise and factions define themselves. This is a good thing: any idea that is so simple that it doesn’t evoke discussion within the ranks of those who prescribe to it probably lacks something integral to survive.

Atheism, as I am sure all of you have heard before, simply means a lack of a belief in a god or gods. This mentality is the platform from which all other atheist philosophy stems. The logos of this assertion is simple: the absence of an affinity for something does not ipso facto supply an antithetical response to that thing. Being an atheist, in other words, does not come with a prescription to be outspoken or demonstrably antagonistic to people who adopt opposite assumptions, any more than someone who lacks a taste for orange juice is supplied a mandate from the void where “liking orange juice” would typically exist to go forth and obliterate orange juice lovers. I use an insanely childish hypothetical because I feel the submission that “atheism” has created a social policy to be itself insanely childish. Let us be clear on this above all things: the lack of a belief in god does not come with an instruction manual or a series of creeds to which all atheists must adhere in order to fit the definition. It is not a political party. It is not a religion. We don’t have a revealed text. This is a claim that religion is thoroughly unable to boast for itself. I don’t want to lour upon this too long as I feel I made that case as clearly as possible in my previous words on Chapel Hill.

In this way, the repeated allusions to Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, et al., on my article and in many places where the article as been reposted, as in all general conversations on this subject, are fundamentally ridiculous. Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao were atheists (unlike Hitler who was an ardent and out-spoken Christian. The lie on this subject from internet threads to Bill O’Reilly’s show must be called out on a kind of historical malpractice. A chapter in my book Oh, Your god! along with the work of Hitchens and myriads historians on the subject–not to mention a tiny modicum of common sense, have made the case too plainly to be ignored.). But the assertion of their atheism had nothing to do with the atrocities that they inflicted on their countries. Communism absolutely carried the theory that the only effective government that could exist would be one without churches, but while communists are atheists, not all atheists are communists–see squares and rectangles. It is a logical fallacy to prescribe the merits of one thing to the definition of another. In order to justify the claim that atheism is responsible in and of itself for the Gulag or the Cambodian Killing Fields, one would have to find within the defined philosophy of atheism where the mandate to inflict such atrocities is written. Obviously, it can’t be done. This isn’t a scapegoat or a semantic loophole to absolve ourselves of the responsibility of psychopaths. It is to say that psychopathy and atheism are not the same thing–and, more to the point, psychopathy is readily capable of assigning such bloody missions to people who suffer from it, whereas atheism by its definition does not. (Note: I am not using the word “psychopathy” in the defined sense as listed by the DSM, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the above-mentioned names could posthumously be diagnosed as such.)

Anti-theism or New Atheism, on the other hand, seems to be taking the flak in many circles, instead. This, at the outset, would seem to make more sense, but it takes about five seconds of reasonable consideration to see that such a submission is equally as inane. New Atheism has been popular for intense rhetoric criticizing religion and its advocates and for good reasons. I, being an anti-theist myself, have no qualm saying that religion has asserted the most wide-spread and destructive collection of bad ideas in our recorded history. It has been the new favorite practice of many people desperately trying to back-pedal from being accused of Islamophobia or the puerile Affleck-coined “racism” to say that New Atheism has jumped the gun from the criticism of philosophies to a platform of hatred that scorns ethnicity and violates civic liberty.

New Atheism has undoubtedly been vitriolic in the rhetoric of many of its leading figures–and the subject of whether or not this is a bad thing is not for this piece. But it would take an act of credulity larger than I could conceive of myself or many others to leap from the idea that New Atheism is verbally abusive to faith and the people who champion it to saying that it is violently militaristic. I fail to see the connection between writing a series of books and making speeches at lecterns, whatever the grammar used, and pulling a gun on innocent students in a parking lot. As I said in a Tweet a few days ago, if Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were actually responsible for an act of “atheist terrorism”, people would be receiving books instead of bullets. I have no patience or sympathy for the cowardly submission that condemning faith is the same as emulating it: that New Atheism is to atheism what ISIS is to Islam is hyperbolic to an indescribable extreme. That’s the kind of propagandist stupidity that simply makes fun of itself. If Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris put the heads of their dissenters on spikes in Washington D.C., those people might have a case.

Religion, as it must be noted, cannot share in atheism’s separation of identity. The loudest complaints to my writing on Chapel Hill have come from those who think it is hypocritical to separate the crimes of an atheist from atheism while myself and many others lump together the crimes of the faithful with the religion to which they prescribe. But, as is probably clear from the above text, so many crimes done by religious people (and I won’t be as tawdry to list them as many of my readers have tried to do with mid-20th Century atheists: you know what they are without thinking too hard) have been proclaimed by the perpetrator to be done because of their religion. And, every time when we go to their prescribed mandate within their revealed text, we find that, indeed, god has commanded them in some form or other to commit such an act or provided them with precedent or inspiration. To link the evils of the faithful to the evils of the faith is precisely as simple as linking the bullet to the gun from which is was fired. Atheism, lacking the proverbial gun, cannot be evaluated in the same fashion. It would take a fanatical editing of The God Delusion (and a serious discussion of the atheist community’s acceptance of it as our code of conduct) to find the passage advocating the murder of innocent Muslim students. If such a thing were to happen, religion and atheism would, for the first time, be arguing on equal ground. Thankfully, such a bizarre and twisted circumstance is nearly infinitely beyond the realm of reality.

This lack of regard for the definition of atheism and the proliferation of New Atheism is intellectually dishonest. Until people get a better grasp of atheism and anti-theism and cease in promoting absolute lies on the subject in a pathetic effort to balance two opposing extremes that do not play by the same rules, we’re going to live in a world where people are too busy scrolling through the Facebook “likes” of a murderer rather than engaging in the sort of debate that makes such assumptions unnecessary. If nothing else, leave this page with a phenomenally simple truth: atheism and New Atheism do not have Terms of Agreement, while religion does. If you think that is too unfair and simplistic, then I’m afraid no dose of logic however sound will avail you.

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