This is something I have been thinking of submitting to the Huffington Post for a while. If you have ever paid attention to the comments on any article in the religion section, you probably already know that it is regularly trolled by New Atheists who have too much free time. “New Atheism” refers to a particular school of atheism that has cropped up in recent years. It has roots in evolutionary scientists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet, possibly as a reaction to some of the unsavory elements of Christian neo-Fundamentalism (i.e. anti-Darwinian Evangelicalism). I don’t have a problem with atheism. I rather respect the atheism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, but New Atheism lacks the philosophical gravitas of those thinkers. New Atheism argues that religion is dangerous, and therefore the path to world peace and enlightenment necessitates moving away from God. That’s its position in a nutshell. I normally don’t like talking about whole “schools” of thought because there can be a lot of variety among New Atheist thinkers, but when one blogs, one must often settle for conceptual shorthand.
But why do I say New Atheism is adorable?
It completely lacks a sense of irony. Only two kinds of people have told me about their religious beliefs within two minutes of speaking with them: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists. Only two kinds of people have ever met me outside a convention center with some kind of tract about religion: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists. When it comes to religion, two kinds of people troll blogs and leave the same kinds of comments over and over again. Do I have to say who those kinds of people are at this point? The thing about being anti-something is that you need the thing you oppose in order to be what you are, and you also end up replicating a lot of the behaviors you find so despicable in others. But it’s okay, you tell yourself, because you are the good guys. New Atheists have tracts, radio programs (that discuss conversion techniques), blogs, conferences, and even churches. I mean…come on!
It lacks philosophical gravitas. One of the things I say in a recent critique of the prominent New Atheist and evolutionary scientist, Jerry Coyne, is that New Atheism seems to confuse philosophy with science. This leads to a kind of intellectual hubris and conceptual naiveté. Why pay attention to actual philosophical questions if you think you already have an expertise in that area? Thus New Atheism fails to do what Marx and Nietzsche did so well: take religion seriously. Otherwise, New Atheism might be less prone to act so fundamentalist.
It takes a leap of faith. New Atheism likes to tout itself as being reasonable, but a New Atheist is no more reasonable than a Christian who takes science seriously. It might seem logical to conclude that religion is false because religions have similar myths. The idea of a virgin birth and resurrection are repeated in various paganisms. But that is reasoning by analogy. It is to say that if x is false, and y is like x, then y must also be false. Resemblance is no basis for judgment, especially when it comes to “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” That is how St. Anselm of Canterbury defined God. We are dealing with an inherently unthinkable “being” here. So no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment anymore than you can make God appear at the end of an argument about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Christian apologetics is another form of atheism). “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself. It is an inherently impossible concept. Therefore, agnosticism is the only philosophically defensible position. Anything else, whether belief in God or atheism, is an act of belief. No logic. Just faith.
So that is why I find New Atheism so adorable. New Atheist screeds against religion always make me picture a puppy slipping across a newly waxed kitchen floor. (I am not sure there is a metaphor there, but if there were, then let the puppy be logic, and the floor be metacognition). Personally, I would prefer if New Atheists and Christians would work harder to get along. I know this blog post seems pretty hypocritical in light of that desire, but more than a few believers have been extending olive branches to New Atheists only to be hit over the head with them (if you don’t believe me, then click the above link, and read the comments). At a certain point, I think it becomes okay to say, “No! Seriously! Stop it! That’s annoying!”
After that, then one should return to business as usual, which is what I intend to do. New Atheism does irritate me, but I have not written this post until now (even though it has been in my head for years) because atheism and Christianity actually have a lot in common. There is no reason we cannot work together for the common good. My hope is that maybe some thoughtful New Atheist out there will, if nothing else, take point number 1 to heart. My problem with New Atheism is not the atheism. I like atheism. I just don’t like fundamentalism, smugness, and superiority complexes, either in “defense” of God or against God.
I am posting my thoughts today because, for various reasons, I am exacerbated. Now I plan to shut-up and keep holding out my olive branch. What happens next is not really up to me.