Atheism and all the things it’s not

On his recent visit to Britain, Pope Benedict XVI brought with him a stark warning;

As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the Twentieth Century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny.

I dealt with the specific charge (that Nazism can be boiled down to atheism) here. However, this quote is just one small part of a growing modern discourse wherein atheism becomes far more than simply having no belief in a creator deity. It is a movement, a crusade for either good or evil depending on which angle you come at it from.

On the one hand, we have the Pope and the fundies equating atheism with the Nazis, chaos and destruction, and/or devil worship. It inspires pickets, tirades, and sermons of hell-fire and brimstone.

On the other hand, there are those who talk of “New Atheism.” There is discourse about its successes and failures, critiques of its perspective, talk of where to go “Beyond New Atheism,” and even factionalism. As though it were a political doctrine like Marxism or conservatism.

The truth is that atheism is neither of these things. It will never live up to the strawman constructed by religious leaders and cultural conservatives. But, equally, New Atheism will never take off as any kind of movement.

On his visit to Britain, Pope Benedict XVI was the latest religious figure to link outspoken atheism to "extremism"

My aim in this article is to dissect why this is. To demonstrate that atheism isn’t the devil, and there’s nothing wrong with tolerating unbelief, whilst exploring the numerous reasons why atheism will gain significant momentum as a political movement or pressure lobby. I also want to argue why a perspective upon the world based entirely upon religion is not only flawed but also potentially dangerous.

Atheist extremists

The idea behind the label of extremist atheism is summed up rather aptly by the blog Saint Gasoline;

As a result of this increasing social presence, many atheists and atheist groups are being attacked and criticized, and the most prevalent criticism is the charge that many atheists are too extreme. This criticism is often voiced in a number of ways, and these critics refer to atheists as “fundamentalist,” “militant,” “dogmatic,” “radical,” or “extremist.” In fact, the critique of the developing atheist movement as extremist is so common that it has even become an internalized dispute among nonbelievers; it certainly isn’t a criticism made solely by theists.

In essence, the criticism of the emerging atheist movement centers around the provocative nature of its figureheads. Dawkins, Hitchens, and various other prominent atheists are frequently criticized for being arrogant, rude, and dogmatic extremists, among other things. The New Atheism is seen as inflammatory and divisive, driving a wedge between atheists and more liberal theists who could potentially be sympathetic to the movement, and causing the atheists to become as reprehensible as the religious fundamentalists they despise. As a result, critics charge that the New Atheism will only become more militant and extreme, unable to support itself and ultimately failing without accommodating any sort of alliance with moderate theists.

This debate should seem familiar. In most social movements, factions are divided into “extremists” on one hand and “moderates” on the other. But what is being branded as “extremism,” “militance,” and “fundamentalism” in the New Atheist movement is hardly analogous to the extremism found in most other social movements. In Islam, for instance, the extremists talk of destroying infidels and western society, strap bombs to themselves, and fly planes into buildings. In Christianity, extremists and fundamentalists vilify homosexuals and the reproductive choices of women, often attempting to curtail their rights through legislation. In the civil rights movement, groups like the Black Panthers advocated and even practiced violence. Meanwhile, in the New Atheist movement at worst you might find Hitchens making a smug remark, and that is what constitutes “atheist fundamentalism” and “extremism” to so many critics of this movement.

In explaining the charge, the blog also answers it. What is called “extremism” is really “more akin to mild impoliteness.” One certainly can’t compare Richard Dawkins saying that “if the church wants to claim [all who have been baptised] as Catholic, it has to claim Hitler as a Catholic” to the terrorism carried out by al-Qaeda or Hezbollah.

To do so would be “tantamount to equating the indignity of not excusing a burp to an atrocity like flying a jet into a building or throwing a pipe bomb into an abortion clinic.”

But, of course, it isn’t only Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al that the charge of extremism is levelled at. The pope’s example was Adolf Hitler, but the likes of Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot are also used. Communism was anti-religious, so the argument goes, and therefore all of its crimes can be laid at the doors of the unbelievers.

When Richard Dawkins took on this argument The God Delusion, he said that even if “Hitler and Stalin shared atheism in common,” it was irrelevant. “They both also had moustaches, as does Saddam Hussein. So what?”

Critics, such as John Cornwell, claim this is fatuous. He writes that “such banalities betray once again your pitiful lack of background reading.” He then accuses Dawkins of a “failure to acknowledge, still less explore, the consequences of triumphalist atheistic science as ideology.”

Omar Salah dissects this nonsense ably;

Atheism is indeed an integral component of totalitarian socialism. … Throughout his tyrannical reign, Stalin’s policies caused the death of up to 20-million people. Stalin was an atheist.

Unlike the atrocities of Medieval Europe that were committed in the name of religion, Stalin’s behavior was not done in the name of atheism. He did not starve his people because of his unrelenting skepticism, nor did he wage wars for the advancement of objective empiricism. Soviet atheism is an important part of the communist dogma. To be a communist, one’s loyalty must belong to the people and their party. All other affiliations, whether national, political, or ideological were distractions that would eventually lead to the destruction of the system. The tragic actions of the communists were in pursuit of blind and unrealistic dogma. They were committed by atheists, it’s true. But they were not carried out for atheism. In fact, communism resembles far more closely religious fanaticism than Western secular ideals.

Atheism is life without god. It does not require belief in any universal and unchangeable truths, and therefore will never compel their forceful enactment by its adherents. Religion, with its all-knowing god, is inherently a dividing force. As long as people believe in a vengeful and demanding god who works above and beyond human reason, religion will always be a potential tool for evil.

The point being that Stalin’s crimes (or Hitler’s, if we continue to humour the nonsense idea that he was an atheist) weren’t done for a belief that there is no god. They were done in the name of a quite specific political ideology, and the atheism of their perpetrator really is no more relevant than his moustache.

Indeed, it might be less relevant given the superstitions in Russian politics around the hair of their leaders.

No atrocity has ever been committed in the name of atheism and, given that it is not a creed, an ideology, or a dogma, it is fairly safe to say that none ever will be. This does not mean that you can never have an atheist who is “extreme” in their views – indeed, Atheist Revolution offer a definition of what such a thing would look like – but that still doesn’t translate to Dawkins et al’s “mild impoliteness.”

One can find lunatic fringes almost everywhere. It doesn’t justify the Pope’s attack on atheism and secularism as “lead[ing] ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society.” It certainly doesn’t justify applying such labels to “New Atheism.”

“New Atheism” is not a movement

Another label that should not be applied to it is “movement.” At least, not in the sense that we would talk of the anarchist, socialist, trade union, and other political or social movements. It is no such thing.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens are the most prominent figures of the New Atheist "movement," but they are writing books and offering critiques - not agitating for social change

Social movements – going to Wikipedia for the simplest definition – are “a type of group action.” They “large informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change.” Though both supporters and critics would like to think so, this cannot be applied to New Atheism.

The misunderstanding, perhaps, comes from living in a passive society where doing very little at all can be called “action.” Where people can “stand up to” fascists by having a party half a mile away, or wage class warfare by asking their leaders – please – to call for a protest.

Hence why people expect a movement on the back of what amount to little more than advertising and PR campaigns. The Atheist Bus Campaign, for example, was quite literally nothing more than adverts on public transport to “raise awareness of atheism in the UK.” And The Out Campaign was just a mass declaration of atheism – alongside some t-shirt sales.

Atheist “activist” groups, such as the Rational Response Squad, are but talking shops. The RRS made a thought-provoking film in The God Who Wasn’t There and courted controversy with the Blasphemy Challenge, but can’t claim to have achieved anything concrete.

There is a lot of real activism undertaken in the arena of faith and atheism. For example, support groups for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, Margaret Downey’s cataloguing of acts of discrimination against atheism, campaigns for secularism in Islamic countries, etc. But to put these down to an “atheist movement” would be at best disingenuous.

There may be an atheistic current within social discourse. There may be a growing degree of atheism amongst the general populace, or a greater number of prominent and outspoken non-believers.

But, in the sense that it means organisation and activism with the aim of either enabling or preventing change, there is no such thing as an atheist movement.

The problem with a faith-centric worldview

I would also add that there in fact shouldn’t be such a movement, for a variety of reasons.

One of these is practicality. The only thing that atheism requires is the conviction that there is no god. Any tendencies beyond that – anti-religionism, secularism, humanism, rationality, or reason – are optional extras. You can possess some, all, or none of these things and still be an atheist.

Add to that the fact that atheists can be libertarian or authoritarian, liberal or conservative, socialist or capitalist, tolerant or bigoted, sane or deranged, and you realise that such a movement can have no coherence. If your only common ground is that there is no god, you simply cannot do anything more than host a talking shop.

But the central reason that such a movement shouldn’t be is that a worldview built around the single issue of religion and rationalism is a limited one. It offers no credible answers to real issues, it turns people into caricatures, and it is an ideal breeding ground for reaction.

This point is exemplified by Sam Harris’s work, The End of Faith. In it, Harris attacks Noam Chomsky for his “moral equivalence” in comparing 9/11 to crimes committed by the west, and essentially uses a dissection of Islam as a justification for war and imperialism.

This poster, advertising Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, sums up aptly the New Atheist worldview - but it also ignores the fact that the majority of the world's problems (including Islamic terrorism) have roots outside of religion

Johann Hari, though far more a “New Atheist” than I, tears this argument down;

Harris says starkly, “We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so.” Really? Who is this ‘we’? In the context of the chapter, he is clearly talking not about atheists but about the United States. But surely this is the country he has already identified as pickled in superstition, a nation where more people believe in the Virgin Birth than Darwinism? Why are ‘we’ automatically on the side of an evangelical Christian President against (in his formulation) even the most moderate of Muslims?Harris’ answer is patchy, and draws on some pretty dubious hard-right sources – Alan Dershowitz, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington, for example. He crosses a line here from condemning all religions for their gross delusions to claiming that Islam is a uniquely poisonous and evil system. “Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest – more than any other religion human beings have devised, [it] has all the makings of a thorough-going cult of death,” he writes.

It is at this point that a crucial flaw in Harris’ argument becomes clear. Although he does not state it explicitly, part of him clearly believes that religious moderates are as bad as fanatics; that there is little real difference, and even the most democratic and moderate of believers is “capable of anything”. Militant atheist though I am, I can’t follow him into this bog.

The world is not currently experiencing a war between Islam and non-Muslims. No; what we are currently witnessing is a war within Islam between Muslim fanatics and Muslim moderates that is sometimes spilling across into the non-Muslim world. Bin Laden attacked America not because he wants to conquer the United States, but because he wants to topple the US-backed regimes that he sees as being in the corrupt, moderate Islamic camp. Since Harris does not really believe that religious moderation exists, he cannot see this. He clearly regards all believing Muslims as essentially insane and prone to suicide-murder – whereas I would say that the fanatics are insane and the moderates are merely horribly misguided.

Harris argues for a one-stage intellectual war to replace Islam with atheism. I believe this is both wildly impractical and a recipe for failure. Defining every single Muslim as a de facto al-Quaida supporter is not a recipe for the erosion of faith but for its inflammation. No; I believe we (meaning all the potential victims of jihadism, both in Muslim countries and in the West) must embark on a two-stage battle. The first step is to replace fanatical Islam with moderate Islam. This would, in itself, be a massive achievement, and it is currently a distant goal. The second step – and this is the work of centuries – is to persuade moderate Muslims of the case for atheism. Harris disregards moderate Islam as an essential intermediary stage because he cannot see how moderate religion would be any better. This has lead him to write a chapter on Islam that is itself quite crazed, and even veers into bizarre speculation about circumstances in which a nuclear first strike would be acceptable against jihadists with a nuclear weapon.

My main disagreement with the above would be that I don’t see atheism as a necessary prerequisite for anything. As I wrote in Against Religion, secularism is vital for a free and equal society, and genuine secularism does not bar or make a taboo of faith.

I would also make a much stronger argument for the fact that Islamic Extremism is a product of US imperialism. Not only through wars, sanctions and other actions which have inflamed sensibilities and added fuel to the reactionaries’ fire, but also directly in the fostering of the mujahedeen against the Russians and the destruction of secular Arab nationalism.

Of course, Harris’s co-thinker Dawkins is at the opposite end of the spectrum on this one. He spoke out against the Iraq War, and certainly doesn’t justify torture of flirt with the idea of nuclear war as Harris does.

But this is because Dawkins’s politics are those of a vaguely left-leaning conventional liberal. That is nothing to do with his atheism, one way or the other, and acknowledges that he has views beyond the remit of godlessness. He is a scientist and a rationalist more than a New Atheist, as we can see in his impassioned arguments for the wonders that an understanding of science can reveal to people.

But Harris is a New Atheist and little else. His politics, as one reads all the way through The End of Faith, are defined exclusively by his views on religion. Beyond it, he has little to no understanding and demonstrates an absence of critical thinking – and its ultimate conclusion is a worldview in tune with various strands of the reactionary right.

There is validity in much of what Dawkins, Harris, and their co-thinkers say on religion, because it fits in with the idea of a genuinely secular society. But there is also much said that is genuinely troubling or absurd, because it comes from a political outlook defined almost entirely by the religious leanings of others. This may not always be as poisonous as a worldview defined entirely by colour, but it is as limiting.

There is nothing wrong with being an atheist, and as one myself I wholeheartedly support the right of people to be such without persecution or ostracisation. But if we are looking to build a social movement, that is the last thing we need as its basis.

5 Responses to “Atheism and all the things it’s not”
  1. Jac says:

    Excellent piece. The loony bigotry of Sam Harris and Pat Condell shouldn’t be tolerated by progressive anti-theologists.

  2. Celia Os says:

    A crença é no credo. Eles usam a dor, o sacrifício e o martírio para impor na região o domínio; é o conhecimento de outro imposto na temeridade. O dominante cega a população que não observa nos paradigmas a real situação. O exercício dos líderes é subjugar o indivíduo em favor da lucratividade. A fé é certeza de vida. Trago o exemplo, onde viver importa: um leão vem em sua direção, ele é por natureza mais veloz, então corre buscando um refúgio, ou a expectativa de que ele fure a pata, caia num buraco. Quando ele aproxima, você estende o galho e finca na boca da fera. Ferindo mortalmente a “besta” O indivíduo é resultante da sua racionalidade, quer resolver o problema. Gosto muito de suas dissertações é sempre um carinho ao cérebro comungar com ateus exponenciais.

  3. lawguy says:

    I can imagine a fanatical atheist. One who believes all religion must be destroyed only because it is wrong. Therefore he or she goes in and blows up a church or kills a priest simply because they exist and are leading the people down the wrong path of belief. Although to be fair I’m not sure that has ever happened.

  4. Michael Handelman says:

    Does anyone think that part of the confusion that the New Atheists have, is they confuse the “Counter-Enlightenment” (e.g. the need to ‘resacralize’ ‘authority’ (e.g. the state) through ‘religious’ mystification) with religion per se.

    So for instance, insofar as religion makes concessions to the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ (e.g. the need to ‘mystify’ people about the nature of the world, for the purposes of ‘social control’.) it is a regressive force.

    (I also think Harris’ problem is that he is rooted on a Napoleonic conception of the Enlightenment. Just as Napoleon saw imperialism as a means to impose the ‘ideals’ of the French Revolution on recalcitrant populations, Harris has a similar rather ‘naive’ view regarding American imperialism as the imposition of Enlightenment values (e.g. his view of the need for a “benevolent” dictatorship to bring about secularization….which is empirically very odd because the one example I can think of (Shah of Iran) produced ‘fundamentalist resistance’ to the secular dictatorship of the Shah. Thus, a supposedly ‘benevolent dictatorship’ might actually produce fundamentalist resistance as a an unintended consequence).))

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