Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Atheism as Seen from the Outside and the Inside

The so-called "New Atheists" include Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, and others. They are supposedly "militant" in their criticism of religion and religiosity, which gets them millions of fans as well as detractors.

So far as I know, these people never call themselves New Atheists. This name has been bequeathed on them by those who are offended by them or shocked by them or who generally don't like them. Apparently, at some time in the past atheists were more mild mannered and not writing best-sellers or garnering so much attention in the media.

However, I am always amused when critics of the New Atheism try to use a "fight fire with fire" rhetorical strategy. These critics apparently see themselves as erudite folk who can out-do (and out-duel) any of the New Atheists in sharp, witty, and devastatingly clever ripostes. But the critics usually fail on two counts. One, they never write so well as their atheist counterparts, and two, they never fail to avoid the arguments actually made from the atheist side.

Case in point: Kathryn Lofton's recent piece, "So You Want to Be a New Atheist." Lofton opens the essay ploddingly with some gratuitous hand-waving about the New Atheists being just as fundamentalist as their religious adversaries (yawn). Fortunately, her companion point is how diverse a group of evangelists the New Atheists are, which is sooo fortunate because we readers at least know from the outset that what we'll get from this piece will be very carefully considered bullshit:
It is, by now, old hat to say that atheism is just another literalism, defined less by the content of its complaint than by the style of its conveyance. Writing of Richard Dawkins, literary critic Terry Eagleton remarked that he had more in common with American TV evangelists than the refereed scientists to whom he claimed frequent recourse. This is then to correct the caricaturist’s image of the atheist—new or old—as a nihilist. Atheism has long been described, as Julian Baggini has explained, as “by its very nature negative” and dependent “for its existence on the religious beliefs it rejects.” While the reliance on comparative religions is indisputable, the presumed inherent negativity of atheism needs some definitional fine-tuning. If the screeds, tracts, speeches and, today, documentary films demonstrate anything, it is that atheists are not bleak existentialists. They are and have been variously colored in their impulses, ranging from sweet naturalists and happy materialists to rabid idealists and polemical ideologues. Atheists are not mere merchants of the negative, but are posited—by themselves, by their fans—as knights of deliverance. As one reviewer in the Atlantic wrote, “For a man who is frequently labeled a misanthrope, Christopher Hitchens has an unexpected faith in humankind.”
Lofton at least does not here call Dawkins et al. "New Atheists." But her long-winded blah-blah finally amounts only to "today's atheism has a messianic component equal to that of any religion."

Of course, this falsehood is so very tired and, more importanly, peripheral. It completely misses the point of atheism, whether it's new atheism, old atheism, atheism 3.0 or whatever. What is the point of the new atheism? In my humble opinion, it is this:

Your religious beliefs are not above questioning and criticism, and they shouldn't be allowed to govern our personal lives and public policies.

Too bad Lofton chooses not to engage any of the atheist arguments against religion's truth claims or against religion's long history of ineluctable personal persecution and public repression. We can only wonder why she has made such a choice.

UPDATE, 12/14/2009: Apparently, Lofton's post has been removed.


  1. The worst part is the failure to realize that even if they were right, and atheism is in fact just another religion, all they've managed to show is that atheists are just like them. It does nothing to strengthen their own position.

    That her attack amounts to, "but you're just as bad as I am," probably says something about the strength of her position.

    The idea that atheism is defined by theism is true, but silly. If there was no one who believed in God, there would be no need to deny His existence, just as there is no need to deny the infinite number of things that no one believes exist.

  2. I suppose this line of argumentation attempts to "expose" the new atheists as hypocrites. But it's a line of argumentation that evades the actual arguments. The following dialogue sums it up:

    Atheist: You have not supplied any evidence that your particular brand of god exists or that your individual strain of religious thinking is the one correct way of understanding and worshiping this deity. Is there any evidence at all that we can discuss?

    Believer: You are just as fanatical as any fundamentalist believer. And you're arrogant and mean, too. Therefore, God exists.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.