| by Helen Pluckrose |
“New Atheism” is dead. This is what we are told by many people both positive and hostile to the New Atheist approach and to a large extent they are right. The conversation has moved on, at least in the West. (At the last count, the 2013 Arabic translation of The God Delusion had been downloaded 10 million times and the numbers continue to rise.) In the West, anyone involved in discussing religion and non-religion is very familiar with the arguments and in all real senses, the debate has been won. There is no evidence of God, faith is a terrible epistemology and religion is responsible for much bloodshed and oppression. Constantly belaboring the points is tedious and tiresome and it seems likely that people who have not been persuaded by them so far never will be.
However, in another sense, the underlying ethos of the New Atheists is needed now more than ever. In a society in which we are faced with postmodernism on the Left and post-truth on the Right, this skeptical, rational, evidence-based, unapologetically outspoken, liberal mentality can act as an effective antidote if applied broadly, consistently and strategically.
The term “New Atheist” to describe the development in atheist writing pioneered by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett is much disputed. Those who think favorably of the development will often argue that it is a nonsense term because there’s nothing new about the atheism (how could there be?) People simply became less accommodating of and conciliatory to religious feelings in their discussion of it.
However, directness to the point of abrasiveness and a refusal to pull punches in consideration of religious feelings is not the defining feature of New Atheism (although the fact that it is often perceived this way could indicate a need for discussion about whether this could be getting in the way of convincing people). The wounding of religious feelings is essentially a by-product. The New Atheist ethos gave no respect to unevidenced claims and granted no privilege to well-established theological beliefs. The scientific element placed religious claims (which Dawkins pointed out were, in fact, scientific claims about the origins of the universe, the nature of humanity and the ability to survive the death of one’s brain) on the same level as other claims and required them to prove themselves. The philosophical component took apart the faulty thinking and showed its flaws with no respect for the cultural value we place on “faith.” The ethical element refused to look the other way politely when religion inspired human rights abuses on a massive scale.
For the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, James Taylor defines the central features of New Atheism on two grounds: epistemological and ethical,
“[T]hey insist that a belief can be epistemically justified only if it is based on adequate evidence… Moreover, they think that it is possible to live a satisfying non-religious life on the basis of secular morals and scientific discoveries.”
I would qualify that to “on the basis of secular humanist morals” and broaden “scientific discoveries” to “exploring the world with an understanding that an objective reality exists and knowledge about it can be discovered by empirical and rational means.” This is “scientific” in the etymological sense. The word “science” comes from the Latin stem Sci which gives us the verb scire — to know as a fact — and the noun scientia — knowledge in the empirical sense. This is not limited to the objects of study typically undertaken in the natural sciences. The same thinking can be and should be applied to culture, history, art and more.
Taylor goes on:
“The epistemological component is their common claim that religious belief is irrational. The moral component is the assumption that there is a universal and objective secular moral standard.”
Or at least that we can develop one from a humanist perspective in which the wellbeing of humans and other animals are assumed to be of primary importance. Discussion about the best way to go about this will probably continue until our extinction.
Faith-based thinking which makes huge unevidenced claims about the nature and purpose of humanity, the universe and everything and religious moral frameworks which perpetuate values positively harmful to human (particularly female, LGBT & non-believing human) wellbeing have run afoul of New Atheism.
New Atheists have been criticized for not evaluating religious claims in the way they have been for centuries; using philosophy and theology which assumes that God exists. There is an enormous sense of entitlement here which is as amusing as it is exasperating. When James Taylor says,
“Dawkins’ assumption that God would need an external cause flies in the face of the longstanding theological assumption that God is a perfect and so necessary being who is consequently self-existent and ontologically independent,”
one wonders what he expects a biologist arguing for believing in things on the basis of evidence to do with such a claim!
Other critics of New Atheism have argued that religion brings comfort, community, a sense of protection and alleviates the fear of death and softens bereavement. In short, they accused New Atheists of ignoring the psychological needs met by religion. This observation is a sound one. New Atheists don’t tend to be very sympathetic to claims that religion is comforting (particularly when made by atheists who claim not to need it themselves but be concerned for other people who do.)
Both the “But philosophy/theology…” and “But psychology…” criticisms of New Atheism are founded in the flaw of human thinking in which we imagine that if something is satisfying intellectually or psychologically, it must also be true, or, at least, that this is more important than what is true. Although arguing against believing something because there is no reason to think it true is perfectly reasonable and no further justification is needed, motivations for disbelief are often assumed and they are rarely charitable. A sincerely held position which holds that truth is important for its own sake and that evidence is the best way to get closest to it accompanied by an argument that humanity progresses best this way is often unrecognized.
However, whilst New Atheists may be impatient with demands that they take on metaphysical assumptions when they consider the existence of God or that they acknowledge that religion feels good when considering whether its truth claims are justified, it is untrue to say that atheists have neglected philosophy and psychology. Atheist philosophers who have argued for the importance of evidence and logical reasoning in philosophy and applied this to religion include Daniel Dennett, Peter Boghossian and Russell Blackford. Theirs is a philosophy which believes that objective truth exists and that when it can be found, it is by applying reason to evidence. There are also good arguments for not neglecting the importance of understanding the psychological needs met by religion. Arguably, the best one has been made by James A. Lindsay in Everybody is Wrong about God in which he argues that an understanding of the social and psychological needs enables us to find other ways to fulfil those needs and more effectively loosen religion’s grip on humanity.
The connection between New Atheism and liberalism has also frequently been criticized. To the political philosopher, John Gray, its liberal values amount to a false belief. In his essay, “What Scares the New Atheists,” he asserts,
“This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning…But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.”
This history is hard to deny (although it’s not clear any New Atheists do and, in fact, many have written about it at length). Historians and social scientists are well aware that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies are a recent and unusual phenomenon. There is a consensus that when societies become more stable & wealthy and their inhabitants’ most essential needs are supplied, religiosity declines and secularism & liberalism increases. Jonathan Haidt observes that:
“Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from “traditional values” in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward “secular rational” values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from “survival values” emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward “self-expression” or “emancipative values” that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.”
For New Atheists and secularists and liberals more broadly, this has been a positive development. Secular scientists, including Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer, have measured the increase in liberal values worldwide and celebrated them. John Gray is both less hopeful and less optimistic:
“The predominant varieties of atheist thinking, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed to show that the secular west is the model for a universal civilisation. The missionary atheism of the present time is a replay of this theme; but the west is in retreat today, and beneath the fervour with which this atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic.”
It is clearly incoherent to accuse New Atheists of both being complacent about the inevitability of secular, liberal democracy and observe that their whole raison d’etre is to make strong arguments for it and criticize failures of it. In fact, optimism or pessimism about the future of liberal, secular democracy varies hugely among liberal skeptics but whether or not they think secularism, liberalism, science, reason & the fruits of modernity generally will triumph, they are united on believing they should and committed to fighting for them. This is a fight all liberals should engage in right now. The rise of authoritarian identity politics and cultural relativity on the far-Left and populism and a racist form of nationalism on the far-Right in addition to the ongoing problems of religious fundamentalism leaves no room for complacency. If taking these threats to liberal, secular democracy very seriously & arguing against them is a “liberal moral panic,” so be it.
The New Atheist ethos can be summarized as a commitment to the importance of evidence and reason, a respect for science, a liberal humanist ethos based on the wellbeing of all humans regardless of their identity and a refusal to respect or capitulate to unevidenced claims no matter what historic or academic or religious or ideological authority they may have, how good they make people feel or how sacred they are held to be.
Western society had made good progress towards being able to criticize or mock sacred ideas and promote reason and evidence as a basis for knowledge over subjective belief and revelation. The consensus that religious ideas were entitled to a respectful deference not afforded other ideas had begun to be shaken. However, the last few years has seen something of a reversal. Skeptical, secularist liberals, by promoting skepticism and critical thinking and a respect for evidence over subjective experience and personal “truths,” are accused of a bullying intolerance and even bigotry even though religious privilege still dominates society. The balance is swinging back again against the skeptics, the empiricists, the rationalists and the universal liberals, but the pushback is not driven by the religious.
Western society’s resurgence of respect for subjective and unevidenced narratives and lived experience comes from a philosophical shift in the largely secular Left. The postmodern shift towards irrationalism, subjective truth and faith-based thinking opens the door again to religion, particularly those of minority groups, but also quasi-religious theories and movements within Social Justice. As science and reason and universal liberalism became associated with an oppressive, ruling, western, white, male elite in postmodern theory (thereby “erasing” the contributions of scientists, rationalists and liberals who do not fit the description), the demand to respect “alternative ways of knowing,” unscientific truth claims, irrational belief-systems and illiberal values intensified.
That social justice is now seen in opposition to liberalism is significant and this is exemplified in the shifts in the concepts of diversity and tolerance. Support for diversity once meant support for a range of different people and ideas. In liberalism, this indicates an inclusion of all people and all ideas in the marketplace of ideas which can be evaluated on their merits. In the new Social Justice, it means promoting ideas stereotypically associated with marginalized identity groups. Evaluation of these ideas by members of other groups is discouraged (to say the least.) The understanding of “tolerance” as an acceptance that ideas one dislikes must be allowed to exist and be expressed in words and lives has shifted towards a requirement to accept the ideas themselves and refrain from criticizing them. Furthermore, it is increasingly believed within social justice circles that tolerance in the old sense naturally indicates tolerance in the new sense. If one accepts that an idea may be expressed, one must accept the idea and commit to refraining from criticizing it. Equally, working backwards, criticism of ideas is thought to equate to a desire to denying the holders of those ideas the right to exist and hold their ideas.
If one accepts these premises and commits to a thoroughly postmodern SocJus ideology, it becomes essential to oppose free speech, ban certain types of speech and even enforce other kinds of speech. To let a racist speak, even to argue with him, is to endorse racism. To criticize the speech of a Muslim is to deny Muslims and Islam the right to exist. In this way, heresy (belief or opinion contrary to doctrine) and blasphemy (disrespecting sacred values) are making a resurgence and its advocates seldom advocate separation of church and state. In the same way that religion has opposed science which conflicts with ideological beliefs on principle, so too do adherents to ideologically motivated theories of gender, race, sexuality, criminality and more. The similarities between theories of privilege and Original Sin have been argued for convincingly.
There is a need for a response to this and the New Atheist ethos of commitment to the importance of evidence, reason and science, a universal liberalism and a refusal to be cowed into capitulation to sacred orthodoxies seems ideal. And yet, it needs to adapt and expand to encompass diverse irrationalisms and the need for this is only slowly being recognized. It should be apparent to all that some of the people pushing the most irrational, illiberal and anti-humanist SocJus views are atheists whilst some of those most committed to breaking this down and establishing reasonable, consistent principles which apply to everyone are religious. Most notable among these are Muslim reformers and liberals who don’t want the conservative values which oppress them to be respected and protected. They’d much rather have the same right white non-Muslim westerners have had to critique and change their own culture. Other people committed to secularism and concerned about SocJus authoritarianism and irrationalism are believing Christians, Jews, Hindus and more.
In addition to the problems on the Left, we also have the rise of a “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” conspiracy theory-loving Right to contend with. Again, we find atheists among the traditionally Christian Religious Right and Christians among the liberal opposition. There have been considerable attempts to legitimise irrational and illiberal positions under the guise of New Atheist skepticism and rationalism, but a closer inspection reveals them to be nothing of the sort. Instead, there abound conspiracy theories about liberal Muslims secretly lying in wait to impose Sharia Law on western civilisation leading some atheists to undermine and disparage the very reformers and liberals trying to ensure this doesn’t happen. A virulently tribal “anti-SJW” element has emerged, hostile not only to SocJus extremists but liberalism generally and willing to overlook or justify far-Right versions of the very authoritarianism they condemn from the far-left and the social conservatism they condemn in Islam. Sam Harris, in particular, has enraged this type of atheist by being intensely critical of Donald Trump and supporting and working with Muslim Reformers, particularly Maajid Nawaz. Richard Dawkins too has been berated for his scathing comments on Trump, on Brexit and on racist forms of nationalism.
New Atheists who consistently combine reason and a respect for evidence with universal liberalism and argue for these unapologetically come under fire from religious apologists for failing to respect their beliefs, from the far-Left for criticising both minority religious and postmodern nonsense and from the far-Right for refusing to abandon their liberalism. These are very good detractors to have if one wants to consider oneself a balanced, ethical liberal. Furthermore, these forms of ideological blindness are exactly the problems their ethos can address.
If we atheists of the “New” variety rather than the SocJus variety or alt-Right variety want to persuade people and avoid establishing our own tribe forever in opposition to those groups and forever encountering the Backfire Effect, we will need our skeptical, rational, liberal principles but also some psychological and philosophical tools. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong about God is an essential read for anyone wanting to have more productive conversations with believers and understand what “God” signifies on a psychological level. For understanding the moral frameworks people with different political beliefs are working within and being able to speak to them in their own language, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is unsurpassed. Peter Boghossian’s Socratic “Street Epistemology” approach, outlined in A Manual for Creating Atheists with a practical accompaniment in the Atheos app provide a powerful method of questioning and reducing confidence in unsubstantiated beliefs and a way to get people to think about what is true and how we can know this.
It might well be time to retire the name “New Atheist,” which few have ever adopted and which could lend itself to tribalism and exclusiveness. My point here is not to define the in-group “New Atheist” and identify out-groups but to argue for a skeptical, liberal attitude which can cross boundaries, make alliances with reasonable liberals from all groups and influence society. It is time to expand our horizons and argue against the irrationalism and illiberalism of religious extremism, far-Left postmodernism and far-Right post-truth. We need to maintain a consistent skepticism regarding ideological truth claims and demand evidence for them, to pick flawed arguments apart and try to rekindle a dying respect for science, evidence and reason. Above all, it is time to focus on promoting a universal liberalism which does not shy away from criticizing bad ideas from any ideological group but supports reasonable liberals & secularists from every group. The New Atheist ethos adapted and expanded and backed by an understanding of psychology and philosophical tools can do this.
Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities. You can connect with her on Twitter @HPluckrose
Header Photo: Greg Rakozy