The New Atheism — Sounds A Lot Like the Old Atheism

Wired’s long story on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others, Battle of the New Atheism, certainly garnered a lot of coverage and commentary, but pardon me if the “new atheism” looks a lot like warmed over “old atheism” (and that’s not a compliment).

For an extraordinarily long time, atheism in the United States was identified in the popular imagination with one person — Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For O’Hair and her organization, American Atheists, it was not enough to simply make the philosophical and historical case for atheism while defending the rights of atheists. No, O’Hair had to take the next step and argue that religious belief itself was an unmitigated evil and that pretty much everything wrong with the world was due to religion.

This was an absurd position that caricatured both religion and atheism. On the one hand, it ignored the many contributions that religious systems and thinkers played in the evolution of secular, liberal and humanist thought. This was a view that lumped both the Inquisition and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together on the same side of an irrational belief in the supernatural.

On the other hand, it ignored the very obvious fact that some of the world’s worst mass murders — those in China, the Soviet Union, and Cambodia — were carried out by avowed atheists. Typically, something like the Inquisition was said to be quintessentially Catholic while the Bolshevik murder of priests had nothing at all to do with their atheism.

The media attention on the American Atheists had already waned in the mid-1980s, and the group pretty much dropped off the radar screen after O’Hair’s tragic murder. Here was an opportunity for a different face on atheism.

Instead, what we get are people like Dawkins. In what I assume was a compliment, Boing! Boing! hit the nail on the head by referring to Dawkins’ “evangelical atheism.” With all due respect, though, the last thing we need is an atheist counterpart to Ted Haggard, especially when some of Dawkins views are so extreme that the only analogy I can think of among the fundamentalist Christian movement are the Westboro Baptist Church nutcases.

For example, Dawkins doesn’t just think that there is no god and that believers are, thus, deluded. He argues that parents who teach their children to believe in god are guilty of child abuse. Here’s what Dawkins wrote in a 1997 article in The Humanist,

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

As an atheist with two children, the only thing bizarre here is Dawkin’s deranged view of how, apparently, the state and/or other actors should interfere with family matters.

In a flawed but still helpful review in Prospect, Andrew Brown points out how this sort of extremist nonsense leads Dawkins to nonsensical conclusions. For example, in The God Delusion, Dawkins blames religious schools for suicide bombings, saying “It children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet there would be no suicide bombers.

Brown cites a study of terrorism which rightly notes that secular Marxist movements have also resorted to suicide bombings, and certainly secular movements from the anarchists to the suffragettes resorted to terrorist tactics to try to advance their political causes.

Brown also nicely demolishes Dawkins’ apologia for the crimes of atheist China and the USSR,

Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it’s nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that “Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.”

Yet under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood was exterminated simply for being priests, as were the clergy of other religions and hundreds of thousands of Baptists. The claim that Stalin’s atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book, but it has competition from a later question, “Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief [atheism]?”—as if the armies of the French revolution had marched under icons of the Virgin, or as if a common justification offered for China’s invasion of Tibet had not been the awful priest-ridden backwardness of the Dalai Lama’s regime.

One might argue that a professor of the public understanding of science has no need to concern himself with trivialities outside his field like the French revolution, the Spanish civil war or Stalin’s purges when he knows that history is on his side. “With notable exceptions, such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people play lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles.” Really? “The majority of us don’t cause needless suffering; we believe in free speech and protect it even if we disagree with what is being said.” Do the Chinese believe in free speech? Does Dawkins think that pious Catholics or Muslims are allowed to? Does he believe in it himself? He quotes later in the book approvingly and at length a speech by his friend Nicholas Humphrey which argued that, “We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out.” But of course, it’s not interfering with free speech when atheists do it.

As I’ve said before, if this is the best atheism has to offer, I’ll take my chances with the Christians.

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2 thoughts on “The New Atheism — Sounds A Lot Like the Old Atheism”

  1. My belief is that religious fanatics like Ted Haggard and militant atheists like Richard Dawkins will end up in hell eternally where they will be forced to listen to each other preach their respective philosophies.

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