By Ian Tingen
I am an atheist. Even so, I tend not to discuss it openly – although I am making an exception today. I didn’t come out of the godless closet until I was in my mid-twenties. This wasn’t just because I didn’t want to break my mother’s rather religious heart, but also because of simple things like learning about the laws on the books in multiple states that prohibit me from holding elected office and testifying in a court of law. It’s a silent but powerful kind of message: we don’t want your kind here.
After I made my proclamation of non-faith semi-public, the questions started. How can you be moral? (Answer: My parents raised me, not a church.) How can you be involved in social justice issues like you are? (Answer: I care about humanity because I am a member of it.) What do you think happens when we die? (Answer: We contribute our elements back to the earth and the stars from whence they came.) In addition to these simple quandaries, there have been a number of indulgent, nights-long discussions about our place in the universe and how best to exist if in fact there is no Whoever. I treasure those discussions almost as much as I treasure my former privacy on the matter. So why am I giving that privacy up?
About a week ago, a friend forwarded me an article describing the New Atheists as Islamophobes (it’s not the best article, but still provocative). For the unfamiliar, the New Atheist movement is essentially evangelical atheism; a counter to religion, especially the Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. You’ve probably seen or heard of Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion; if you’re a NYT Bestseller watcher you’ve likely also seen Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. These two, along with Christopher Hitchens (RIP) and Daniel Dennett make up the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” – the originators of the movement. They’re all eloquent, passionate, well-educated, eager souls who give a voice to one of the most despised minorities in America.
I also largely want nothing to do with them.
My ill ease with association has nothing to do with their careers: Dawkins was a brilliant biologist before he was a New Atheist, Dennett is a prominent scholar at Tufts University, and Hitch(ens) was a sharp-tongued and uproarious god of the pen. (In fact, go read his essay on dying. Cancer took him in 2012, but his words on the topic are notable. EDIT: Does anyone have a live link to it? I can’t find one.) Sam Harris is not an academic like the first two, but still has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. When I first heard about New Atheism, I was excited: “Look at these titans of science, advocating for me! Finally!” The truth is, atheism sometimes is a somewhat lonely orientation, especially if one is used to the fellowship of a church. As my plans to create an atheist Sunday meeting had stalled out, I had hoped that Dawkins et al would provide me some way of combating my God Squad withdrawals. I picked up a copy of Delusion, and set to reading.
Even then, as an undergraduate, I thought: “Wow. Dawkins is a great biologist, but a horrible psychologist.”
My basic problem is this: religion, as described by Dawkins et al, is treated as a malignant tumor on the corpus of humanity without any regard to the social and cognitive processes that it springs from. Yes, religion can be used in terrible ways, and I am sure we have not seen the last of the hellish horrors that we will visit upon each other in the name of Whoever. Even so, religion is easily understood as a socially and culturally convenient mechanism that nourishes one of the most basic human needs: affiliation.
Religion is not necessarily the province of the mentally deficient – it is a blossom, an outcome, whose roots are planted in our neurons and our nature. Don’t mistake me: I’m not making some naturalistic fallacy (that what is ‘natural’ is right and good), especially given that, for example, it doesn’t take much to get us to start fighting each other. In fact, humans can start hostilities over practically nothing (eye color, for example) even if they’re from similar ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Religion is convenient here, too, to call out ‘us vs. them’ – especially when the lines are drawn around invisible deities. Put another way: religion is a great excuse to fight, but it’s not the core reason of why we fight.
There’s no ‘delusion’ here: just simple truths about the social nature of humans. But that doesn’t mean that the rhetoric from the New Atheists even pretends to understand these points. To be honest, their derision of religion reeks of classical economics’ fetishization of rational self-interest: that all humans are hyper-efficient, self-centered logic machines. This embrace of reason above all is a lofty ideal, but just doesn’t hold water when it comes to explaining human behavior well. It doesn’t pay any heed to the power of subjective reality. I get it: the New Atheists are supposed to be controversial, they’re supposed to spur discussion. Unfortunately, the arguments of the New Atheists are partially founded on beliefs about humanity that are almost as dogmatic and ancient as the institutions they rail against.
In short, Dick, you aren’t helping. Maybe you should stop focusing on pruning wilted roses, and perhaps commit yourself to curating and understanding some of the more foundational aspects of the bush you’re ignoring. I want to like you, I really do. Many people I respect love your work. I believe that you want to make the world a better place. Plenty of atheists wanted to be part of a bigger movement, and such a movement needed fire to begin. But now, your fire is burning me when I try to start a dialogue with the religious majority that surrounds me.
I am an atheist. I believe that religion, like all human endeavors, does good as it does bad. My concerns, however, do not lie with religion. The issue is not if Whoever exists, but why people do what they do to each other. We know that people will always need to affiliate as they will always find ways to discriminate and harm based on those perceptions. That’s not a question of religion, it’s a broader question of psychology. If I am ever given a platform like Dawkins’, you can be damn sure that I will charge towards a better tomorrow, albeit in a way that respects what modern science tells us about human nature.
Last-minute edit: Thanks to friend of the blog Matt Hunt for bringing this recent article re: atheist discrimination to my attention. It’s citizen science, not perfect, but still weighty.
P.S. – If I ever get the chance to talk to Dawkins, I will leap upon it with heretofore-unheard-of-zeal. I’m willing to stand beneath the flame of rebuttal in the name of building dialogue. It’s only fair. – IWT