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Friday, November 10, 2006

The New Atheists

Recently Gary Wolf wrote an article in Wired called, "The Crusade Against Religion" [link here]. In it, he describes the works of authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. These three authors have been writing books highly critical of religion, each from a different perspective however.

As a Humanist, I certainly agree with their conclusions about forming our beliefs based on rationality and evidence, rather than authoritarian dogma or unreliable 'feelings' and intuitions. I also agree with their conclusions that faith-based thinking is pernicious and does more harm than good to people. And then there are the institutional criticisms of religions, which even the religious will often agree with.

I don't, however, agree with the insulting and combative approach that Dawkins and Harris seem to advocate. Dawkins wonders aloud if we shouldn't have the state grab up children from parents who try to teach them their religions, while Harris even directly rejects the notion of religious tolerance itself in his book The End of Faith.

Within my local Humanist and Freethought organizations, there have been many debates on these authors and what they say. We have picked over their words (especially Harris') wondering just what it is they do and do not advocate. Many of their words would seem to encourage the basis of a totalitarian anti-religious regime of sorts, but when pressed they always come back to water down their statements until it resembles nothing more than: "atheists should feel free to express their beliefs openly".

Dennet seems the most palatable to me, although I disagree with him on the other end. In the article it seems he is far too willing to say, 'yes it's all silly but we really should just look the other way and permit some silliness for the sake of functionality'. I tend to think that reason and compassion are sufficient when employed in concert.

To me, the best summary Wolf gives of the confrontational atheist approach outlines its key flaw:

"The New Atheists never propose realistic solutions to the damage religion can cause. For instance, the Catholic Church opposes condom use, which makes it complicit in the spread of AIDS. But among the most powerful voices against this tragic mistake are liberals within the Church -- exactly those allies the New Atheists reject. The New Atheists care mainly about correct belief. This makes them hopeless, politically."

I think it is far better to always voice our own beliefs, but do so respectfully and with a sense of compassion. Humanists should focus on the positive things that are beneficial in the naturalistic and Humanistic outlook, and trust that reason will tend to prevail when given a chance to flourish in human minds. Instead, what many of these types of atheists stoke in those of other beliefs is their base animal defensive impulses. This is the opposite of what is needed for rationality to blossom.


  1. The "new Atheists" seem to lack the humility and awe that would enable them to respect the frailties of their fellow humans. They are so caught up in how smart they are that they have lost tolerance for the temptation to supernatural explanations. Unfortunately, they disqualify themselves from credible political influence in the process, as Wolf notes.
    On the other hand, it seems like our legal system could open up the definion of "hate crime" to include religious motivated hatreds, which could then be a legitimate way for secular governments to put teeth in the separation of church and state.
    We need someone to tell the story in a way that is not a put down of folks who haven't figured it out for themselves. The most powerful folks in this regard are the clergy of all faiths. They are in the best position to update the gospels toward a new universalism.

  2. Great comments Tom, thanks. I think you're right about the hate crimes and your point on the clergy being in a superior position to affect change. I think, for nonbelievers in the meantime, the Buddhist model works well. Simply talk about what we believe, stay kind and civil, continue dialogue, work for rights where they are threatened, and let people see the benefit in the example of our living and our ideas for themselves.

  3. It seems to me that insulting and combative atheists like Dawkins and Harris are the nontheist antitheses of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Just as atheists dismiss those theist polemics without any consideration whatsoever, so too will theists dismiss overbearing atheists. The atheist's arguments, no matter how well steeped in reason, will not even be heard, let alone accepted. Indeed, it will work against them, as the clergy will point to their works and say "See? Look what rude jerks they are without religion."

    I think nontheists would be much more successful with a kinder, gentler approach. I'd love to see a nontheist version of C. S. Lewis come on the stage! This will save atheists money as well, because a teaspoon of honey is cheaper than a gallon of vinegar.


  4. Agreed, thanks for the comment. It seems to me that Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Gene Roddenberry have been pretty good C.S. Lewis parallels. Let's hope for more :)

  5. I tend to agree here. Any sort of close-minded arrogance will not help to solve the problems either side presents.

    BTW, I'm reading "Varieties of Scientific Experience," by Carl Sagan, posthumously published of course. Have you heard of it?

  6. I haven't read that book - sounds interesting. I'll have to look into it, thanks.

  7. Humāinism,

    I'm not familiar with Harris, but I know Dawkins work well and hearing him compared to Robertson and Falwell sets my teeth on edge.

    Dawkins certainly uses strong language and at times is downright vitriolic. However and importantly, his arguments are actually arguments, in that they appeal to rationality and the scientific method rather than appeals to the unknown or willful obfuscation.

    I was very much struck listening to a particular point Dawkins made in his 2003 Tanner Lecture at Harvard. He showed a picture from a local newspaper covering some sort of Christmas pageant. It depicted the three wise men played by 3 young (4 years old each) girls of non-Caucasian ethnicity. The caption read: "Shadbreet Bains (a Sikh), Musharaff Khallil (a Muslim), and Adele Marlowe (a Christian), all aged four."

    He then said something to the effect: Imagine the outcry had it read “Shadbreet Bains (an Atheist), Musharaff Khallil (an Agnostic), and Adele Marlowe (a Secular Humanist), all aged four.”

    The difference between the positions (religious and non) is that one is a considered and freely chosen position, while the other is foisted on children when they are too young to so much as question what they're being told. It's a divisive claim, certainly, but if teaching children lies about the nature of science and the world is not a form of abuse, then we need to rethink what we mean by the word.

  8. Greg,

    I think it's important to delineate between the accuracy and worthiness of the message, and the methods by which it is delivered. Any comparisons of evangelical atheists to evangelical theists are no doubt comparing the latter rather than the former. In the case of message, there can be no comparison with the good sense and virtue of these atheist writers and the dogma of the likes of Robertson.

    In the case of delivery, I think it's an apt comparison. There is also much in common with the evangelicals when it comes to how they think about all others not in total agreement with them (especially Harris).

    Imagine a grid of categories, where we have religious positions along the top, and a range from "fundamentalist/extremist" to liberal freethinker along the side. Some people imagine that grid's darkest and widest lines of division to be along the columns, and the rows to be less significant. I look at the grid and imagine the most significant divisions to be the rows.

    As a Humanist and an atheist, I have the most in common with Humanists of course, but I tend to see more in common with many liberal religionists than I see in common with those who would expressly reject religious tolerance and demonize any brand of religious person.