Atheist, But Not New

Atheist symbol

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


17 thoughts on “Atheist, But Not New”

  1. Non-atheist weighing in, though I’m admittedly not fit to do so. I’m about as up-to-date on Dawkins as your average atheist is on Billy Graham. Nevertheless, here goes: I think your average religious person rejects out-of-hand the fundamental “religion can be proved or disproved” assertion that I understand to be a principle of New Atheism. If one posits an omni-everything Deity, doesn’t it follow that said Deity exists outside of — and superior to — the laws of logic, nature and the scientific process? It’s a dialogue non-starter to try and science your way into or out of faith.
    As a former atheist myself, I’m certainly sympathetic to the desire of atheists to “fight back,” assert themselves, combat discrimination and misunderstanding, and try to educate and even persuade for the perceived benefit to humanity. I think that there’s no better way to do all that than to live a moral, principled, godless life, engaging in open dialogue but accepting that the faithful are, en masse, prepared to value their faith at or above the level of science.

  2. While I am not necessarily a member to the “New” Atheist movement, I absolutely must reject your claim that the New Atheist movement is not helping. The New Atheists exist as the logical counterpoint to the evangelicals, and are, in my view, primarily responsible for the increasing awareness of the nonbelieving populace. As nonbelievers, we need someone or something to increase our visibility to the general populace; it is only through that visibility that the average theist can see that we are not the baby eating monsters that their religious leader paints us to be. Can they be confrontational? Can they be controversial? Of course! Just like the majority of successful protest and awareness efforts.

    If the New Atheist movement were more akin to the Christian Dominionists, then I would agree with you that they are counter productive. There are very powerful members of American society that actively want to remove us, as the least trusted minority group, from any position of power and influence. In my lifetime, there has been a sitting president who stated that we shouldn’t be considered citizens!

    The way to combat injustice and oppression is with truth and visibility. If the New Atheist movement gives atheists the confidence and feeling of support required for additional nonbelievers to share that part of themselves, then it is a huge positive. Religion having a place from the perspective of evolutionary psychology is not a sufficient justification to continue allowing it to exclusively control the levers of power.

    1. @Peter: Thanks for your comment.

      I agree: the way to combat injustice and oppression is with truth and visibility. But are all non-atheist people / organizations actively promoting injustice?

      1. Absolutely not. But a sizable minority are actively promoting injustice, while a very significant number of people are passively promoting injustice. Every day life is an insult to nonbelievers; if money was covered in “Gods aren’t real,” then believers would understand. The majority of those who don’t actively wish injustice are acting as contributors by dismissing the claims of the nonbelievers as an unhappy vocal minority that is actively trying to exert its will on the majority.

  3. As far as your point about ‘requiring religion’ – true, doing good in the world doesn’t require religion (I hope I can be an example of that, myself). But there’s no real conditionality on doing bad, either. I guess I see that argument as cutting both ways.

    Re: dogmatism: Any organized system of inquiry requires some form of dogmatism. Authoritarianism, too, at least if you’re a scientist. I know exactly what you mean about people treating other people conditionally based on affiliation. Some of my work in grad school, for instance, dealt with issues of repressed memory – does it exist, can memories be falsified, etc. There was a huge schism in the 90’s – the Memory Wars – that still has echoes today. If you’re on one side of the argument, you very likely don’t have many glad tidings for the other.

    Re: the drive to associate: I think that’s just a basic human need. I don’t think that affiliation necessitates divisiveness; pigeonholing is an entirely different (and human) function.

    Finally, yes: there are other norms that can fit into place. But I don’t know that trying to tear down the majority norms are the smartest strategy. I much prefer the approach of people like Carl Sagan: heal the divisiveness by showing that a sense of wonder and belonging can just as easily be found in a lab as it can in a house of worship.

    1. I’m fond of the old saying (I want to say it’s Max Planck’s but I’m not sure) that “old scientific theories never die, but old scientists do”. While, as you say, science can incorporate dogmatism and authoritarianism, it’s engineered in such a way that eventually facts win. Even the most dogmatic scientist will eventually die or lose their influence and new generations will have to pick the theory that has the best value as a model. Dogmatism and authoritarianism aren’t required (even if they do spring up) to do good science, but they are pretty much integral to any lasting organized religion (those that don’t typically don’t survive). Again, while we cannot eliminate dogmatism and authoritarianism, it is often well worth the effort to reduce our reliance on systems that make them more prevalent.

      I suspect we’ll have to agree to disagree on the issue of tearing down majority norms. In my view, the worst offenders aren’t interested in healing the divisiveness or with finding alternate sources of wonder to their churches. Showing them as flawed will help individuals peel off of that mindset and find alternatives that hopefully do show them that wonder.

      That said, I have no particular feel that any one approach will work in all cases. I suspect that your favored approach will indeed be effective in cases where a “tearing down” would fail and vice versa. That the dismissive and abrasive approach is used more commonly than it is likely used effectively I think is probably true, but I do believe it is possible for that strategy to be used effectively.

    2. Organized systems of inquiry require axioms, and the choice of axioms will always have a pragmatic, if not outright arbitrary, element. But some axioms are better than others and some are simply wrong.

      So if by “dogma” we mean axioms not open to criticism and revision, then I think you’re mistaken. A good organized system of inquiry is precisely one which doesn’t require us to be dogmatic in our assumptions and beliefs.

  4. I’m somewhat in between your stance and that of many of the new atheists. In terms of why it’s a matter of the lesswrong wiki’s quote (on the fallacy of gray page) about the qualitative way: ” I say it is not too obvious, for many bloggers have said of Overcoming Bias: “It is impossible, no one can completely eliminate bias.” I don’t care if the one is a professional economist, it is clear that they have not yet grokked the Quantitative Way as it applies to everyday life and matters like personal self-improvement. That which I cannot eliminate may be well worth reducing.”

    I think that religion is a flawed system, and while I agree with you that the underlying causes of the flawed system are integral to humanity, I cannot help but feel that reducing our reliance on that flawed system is something worth doing.

    1. Andy: Thanks for the comment.

      I absolutely agree with the contention that nobody can completely eliminate bias. The second part of that argument is that, yes, many things can be done to reduce it.

      While I can agree that some religious structures are a flawed systems, I think that many of the ‘non-squeaky’ religious wheels can be quite good for communities / people. If you mean reducing reliance on polarized factions, sure – but what about the good parts? Should they be discarded as well?

      1. That depends on what you mean by “the good parts”. What about religion would you consider to be something actually requires religion? I don’t dispute that, at least in the USA, religious groups do much better generally in the “community service” area, but I don’t believe that it’s something that actually requires religion to be effective. Scandinavian countries with far less religion and far higher percentages of atheists view the community as a universal obligation integral to the culture.

        Plus there’s the issue of organized religions inherently requiring some aspects of dogmatism and authoritarianism, which in turn almost necessitate that for any good part you’ll get arbitrary bad parts. I’ve worked with fantastic friendly warm people that epitomized the ideal Christian view and who did countless things for and with their communities, but who also had that warmth and friendliness conditional on the person in question being a heterosexual Christian. Is that satisfaction of the drive to associate a good thing when it also serves as a system that encourages divisiveness and competition against other groups that don’t fit the mold for their association?

        I think there’s room for other non-religious social norms to take their place and do a better job of it and part of that effort is elimination of the old systems. I agree that many new atheists are particularly obnoxious about it, but I can’t help agree with their goal while finding their methods somewhat lacking.

  5. I worry a bit about the overwhelming assertion of the Salon article that the New Atheists are going anti-Islam in lieu of going anti-religious extremism. The trick here is to question everything, and if one can argue that the reason that Dawkins and Harris are targeting Islam is because radical Islamists have the highest bodycount (ensuring they get attention because they’re riding the media wave caused by terrorist acts), one can just as easily argue that the reason Nathan Lean characterizes them that way is to characterize the New Atheists as hatemongers and thus ride on the auxiliary popularity of Dawkins and the late Hitch.

    Frankly, it’s easy to defeat religion by demanding science. It’s moronic to oppose religion (and by extension, religious extremism) by saying “your religion is exceptionally dumber than all other religions,” which is what Lean seems to be telling us.

    Moreover, and I don’t think you or Lean touched on this at all, but creating a feedback loop where the mujahideen hear about a bunch of Western godless heathens talking smack about them doesn’t really make them interested in NOT trying to blow the shit out of Westerners at every turn. One could argue that the New Atheists are probably killing more US soldiers by inciting a reaction from the terrorists, but that… that might be going to far.

    1. @CrowUnlimited: Thanks for the comment.

      I agree, there’s a definite “if it bleeds it leads” angle to all of this. Bloody coattail riding abound in all this.

      As far as the feedback loop: Yes. Reactance is the key here, which is something that, again, the New Atheists don’t get. They make the fundamental attribution error, thinking that the reactions they chastise are something unique to Muslims. Take this quote from Harris’ response to the Salon piece:

      “So, imagine: A copy of the Koran gets burned tomorrow—or is merely rumored to have been burned. What will happen if this act of desecration is widely publicized? Well, we can be sure that Muslims by the thousands, or even the tens of thousands, will riot—perhaps in a dozen countries. Scores of people may die as a result. Who can be counted upon to defend free speech in the face of this pious madness?”

      Gee, Sam. You mean to say that doing stuff that’s offensive to a group of people who have been under a US microscope since 2001 might get them riled up? Who wouldn’t react that way? Hell, look at the claims of Christian persecution here in the US – people can get deeply offended damned quick when it comes to their faith lifestyles.

      What I find most egregious about Harris’ statement is that he uses it as justification to continue his tirade.

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