Sunday, May 23, 2010

Misunderstanding New Atheists

Magen Avraham Synagogue, Beirut
Magen Avraham Synagogue, Beirut, 2005

Back in the mid to late 1990's, I was active on the Usenet newsgroup alt.atheism. Those were good times. We talked about all kinds of stuff, from ethics and morality to politics, economics, and metaphysics, with the occasional fundamentalist providing enough entertainment to keep things cheerful. Lately, all that stuff has popped up in the mainstream, under the label of New Atheism. Much of what gets said about it appears to be either complete nonsense, or based on significant misunderstandings, or at least confusion between any of a number of concepts.

So who, or what, are we dealing with, exactly, when we talk about New Atheism or New Atheists?

First off, we need to make a few distinctions. Lower-case-A atheism is not the same thing as the loose collection of somewhat like-minded individuals that fall under the New Atheist label. Plain ol' atheism simply denotes a lack of belief or disbelief in a personal god or gods (theos). Any number of people with any number of belief systems are atheists, and any number of conceptual systems, from mathematics to physics, are atheistic as well, even if many people who use them, aren't.

New Atheism isn't a philosophical movement as much as an activist one. It's a reaction to a number of societal problems that revolve around religion in general and some religions in particular. While individual New Atheists can range in philosophical and political views from Objectivists to Marxists, and everything in between, they do share a narrow but identifiable agenda that comes with the identity.

The special privileges of religion should be abolished. We have stuff like state churches and tax exemptions for religious organizations. If you run a business and fire someone because you find out he's gay, you're liable to be sued for discrimination, except if you're a religious group whose religion forbids homosexuality. New Atheists hold that religious organizations should be treated the same way as any other associations or businesses; that religious views should not give you a free pass to do—or avoid—something that you'd otherwise have to deal with.

Religious speech should be treated no differently from other speech. The concept of blasphemy gives religious concepts special protection against criticism or mockery: while it's entirely acceptable to make a no-holds-barred attack, complete with mockery, imprecations, moral opprobrium, and what not on Marxism or libertarianism or Tea-Party-ism or Liberalism, it's not acceptable to make the same kind of attack on religions—at least not some religions. (In the USA, for example, Christianity and Judaism clearly enjoy a more favored status than, say, Islam or Hinduism.)

Public morality, ethics, and laws should be based on reasoned argument. Arguments from authority, tradition, or the bandwagon, or other logical fallacies, should have no place in public speech. Instead, ethics, morality, and laws should be based on open and explicit rational argumentation and debate.

Religious education has no place in schools. If religious matters are taught at all, they should be taught as comparative religion studies, in the context of social sciences or history. Instead, schools should teach children to think rationally, to understand the basics of the scientific, rationalist worldview, and to learn enough skills and knowledge to be able to navigate the masses of information our society is bombarded with.

And that's about it, really. Individual New Atheists will hold a huge variety of different views on any number of other political issues, but this is about as far as any shared agenda goes—a frontal attack on the special position of religion in society and thought. New Atheism doesn't really make any claims about the nature of the Universe; the theory of evolution doesn't have any special place in its conceptual apparatus, other than being talked about a lot because religious fundamentalists, especially in the USA, try to stop schools from teaching it. Individual New Atheists will certainly have ideas on these topics, but they won't always agree on them. What they have in common is a shared perception of what needs doing vis à vis religion. New Atheism isn't a philosophy; it's an in-your-face attitude about religion and believers. Back on alt.atheism, we called it BAAWA—Bad Ass Atheists With Attitude.

Incidentally, I'll gladly support any of these causes.

However, things get a little bit more thorny once you delve below this activist surface, to find out what kinds of values drive the agenda. They also get a lot more complicated, because things start to diverge quickly between individual New Atheists. Nevertheless, I think we can identify a few ideas that most New Atheists would probably agree that they support.

Religion today is a net negative. While most New Atheists will admit that religions have resulted in good things as well as bad ones, either as relative improvements to the social situation where they arose (e.g. the way Islam gave women legal status as individuals, such as the right to own and dispose of property), or as enduring cultural artifacts (e.g. the religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach), they argue that in today's world they are holding back society (e.g. the way Islam defines a woman's property rights as half a man's).

"Moderate" believers are enablers for dangerous fanatics. By providing cover to religious irrationalism, nonfundamentalist Christians or Muslims are complicit in the offenses of fundamentalists, whether we're talking about gay-bashing televangelists or suicide-bombing Al Qaeda terrorists.

Religion is nothing more or less than a set of (flawed) propositions and behaviors accepted on faith. These propositions include statements about the nature of the universe, ethical imperatives, values, and rituals. The physical and metaphysical claims have been superseded by scientific discoveries, the ethical imperatives and values are based on nothing but irrational belief in authority, and the rituals are merely "mind viruses" set up to replicate themselves.

People are, or should be, fundamentally rational. People behave irrationally because of the irrational values and behavior patterns transmitted to them by society, in particular by religions. Should these pernicious influences be removed, people will naturally start to behave rationally, and most of society's woes will go away. If a problem cannot be solved by reason, it is insoluble.

The world ends at Wittgenstein 7. If something can't be defined or verified, it's as good as non-existent and therefore not worth talking about.

This is where I part ways with New Atheists. Human reason is powerful, but it's not unlimited. Conceptualized thinking—"discriminating thought" in Buddhist terms—by definition excludes direct experience. We can talk about the color red all we want, but ultimately we have no way of knowing whether your experience of red is anything like my experience of red. Just because something isn't tractable by reason doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or isn't important; in fact, I believe that the things that really matter fall in this category. For them, we leave the realm of reason, and enter the realm of music, poetry, art—and religion. While individual New Atheists will certainly have ideas about music, they'll no longer have these ideas qua New Atheists. With that stuff, they become just another guy with an opinion.

Moderate believers aren't mere enablers for fanatics; they're our best hope for keeping the fanatics from taking over. As the world becomes more globalized, there won't be such a thing as a religious majority. That means that the best way for any believer to protect her freedom to practice her religion is a society that doesn't take sides among religions. A secular state is in everybody's best interest, except the fanatics'. By explicitly alienating their biggest potential ally in the struggle for such a state, New Atheists are doing their cause a huge disservice.

The tragic irony of New Atheism is that while they start out with an entirely laudable goal—that of putting religion on the same footing as any other human activity—they so often overshoot it. They fall into exactly the same trap as the one they're trying to dismantle, and end up treating religion not like football or opera or Lady Gaga or libertarianism, but as something altogether different. The only difference is that they treat it as different and nastier, while the status quo treats it as different and better. I don't think religion is fundamentally any different from any of the other stuff we do. It's all just stuff, and it all has its flip side. Football is great for keeping fit, making friends, and being entertained and excited, but it also gives you hooligans, fixed games, corrupt gambling, and what have you. Religion can be deeply meaningful in ways that go beyond words, or it can lead you to throwing rocks, or worse, at people who believe differently. 

They don't quite get what religion is, or can be, either. That's probably because so many of them either have had no deep personal contact with a living religion, or they hail from a fundamentalist background that really does match their caricature of Bible-thumping, hellfire-throwing, obscurantist fanaticism. Shame, really.


  1. This is a very good summary of New Atheist positions. I would say that it illustrates where I part ways with them as well, although I would agree that religionists tend to provide cover for fanatics in at least Christianity.

  2. Thanks for the clear and interesting summary.

  3. I wonder where one would draw the line between the religion of religion, if you will, versus the religion of no religion. Both sides really seem to be about crowd control, just using different structures and different groupings of us-n-them. You kind of touch on that with the overshooting comment, but it seems a little more structured than some unintentional "overexhuberance".

  4. Well, maybe. On the New Atheist side, though, it really is very unstructured—there are opinion leaders and visible proponents, but apart from loose "freethinkers' associations" that have, for the most part, been around for decades, there's not a whole lot of organization. New Atheists are a highly independent-minded bunch, and with the diversity of thought outside those core ideas, I think it'd be pretty hard to even make a viable organization from them.

    Religious organizations, OTOH, can get as controlling and totalitarian as any on the planet.

    IOW, I think they're destined to remain gadflies on the margins of the conversation.

  5. @Mumon: Maybe they do, but they also moderate their influence.

    I'll give you a concrete example. Currently, our Finnish state church (the Lutheran one) is split on the issue of blessing gay households. It looks like the moderates—those who think the church should do so, and perhaps even marry gays—are winning the debate: they just elected a new archbishop, and the progressive one won. (As usual, the Swedes with their lesbian bishop, are about 20 years ahead of us on this kind of stuff.)

    I think this is a better outcome than having the moderates walk out and leaving the church to the fundamentalists.

    IOW, while there is some truth to the New Atheist accusation that moderate believers provide cover for the nasties, that's not the whole truth. From where I'm at, the equation balances differently.

  6. "New atheist" is just the new label to replace "heretic" or "pagan".

    Instead of accepting that individuals may respond, react to or have been provoked by their local religion or religions that affected them, all criticizm is generalized into a strawman that is conceptualized and given a name.

    If you have a guy next door who sells more than you do you have someone to blame for not selling as much. It's much harder if people of all kinds come into your shop and complain about your product. One way to deal with it is to conceptalize an archetype in your mind to which you assign all who complain.

    That said, we do have the problem with people who make atheism into their identity. Like it's some kind of salvation in it's own with a whole arsenal of positive values associated with it. Atheism do not carry anything on it's own, it carry no state architecture, no ethics, no answers to existential questions etc. There are non-theist alternatives to all of those, but atheism doesn't carry it and shouldn't be assumed to carry it.

    Now to the elephant in the room. The greatest strawman is the word "religion" itself, which is what now backfires to whoever took that label. It's only because Buddhism is accepted as a "religion" that they get collateral damage when people react to Christianity or Islam. The word "religion" is the greater problem since it really does fit everything from Unitarian Universalists to the 9/11 hijackers, which tend to become a problem both for people who support "religious freedom" and people who support "abolish all religion".

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  8. Let me try that again;
    Since "religion" is wide enough to fit both "friendly" and "aggressive" acts and movements, the word religion is a problem.

    Anyone who is a supporter for "religion" automatically supports aggressive acts and movements.
    Anyone who is an opposer of "religion" automatically supports friendly acts and movements.

    "You should respect religion", "you shouldn't respect religion", "religious freedom", "abolish all religion", each of these four carry the same problem of being overgeneralizing.

    Feel free to read your entire post again and give yourself a point for each time you defend "religion" without within the same or the next sentence or in context with clarified what you mean with the word. Then consider that those points is equal to the number of times you gave open support for the 9/11 hijackers, radical and exploitive cults, fundamentalists, extremists and everything bad that can be included in the label. That's the "enabling" problem with the word. It's just as wrong as to compare, let's say, the Swedish Church with the Taliban.

    We can't pick and choose between what's convenient and what isn't when we use that label.

  9. I think there is one difference: "heretic" and "pagan" (and "apostate" and "unbeliever" etc. etc.) were labels applied by Christians on non-Christians, whereas New Atheist is a label that is accepted and used at least by some New Atheists. I'm not entirely comfortable with the term either, but it is gaining currency, and it does appear to label a facet of identity for quite a few people. It really reminds me a lot of the BAAWA! we stuck in our .sigs on alt.atheism.

    I agree with you entirely re "religion." It's a lousy word with too many different connotations for different people, and impedes talking about... whatever it is we're talking about. Trouble is, we really don't have that many alternatives. "Spirituality?" Yech. "Practice?" "Tradition?" None of them really fit.

    (In fact, I've explored this problem on this very blog on a number of occasions, e.g. in the "Is Zen a religion?" post.)

  10. The word "heretic", "pagan", "apostate", "unebeliever", "satanist" and "devil-worshipper" have been "accepted". Many of us tend to take on labels we are called by others. Even those who get their identity forced upon them can take the word and make it into something possitive. "Nigger" and "Gay" are such taken/accepted identities. "Nerd" is one I feel pride about using myself. This doesn't make the label itself "true", just accepted by those who take it as their identity. Many have taken on a label simply to challenge or be a rebel.

    "Religion" is teleological. The fact that the word exist doesn't make the word useful. We have tried to give meaning to it by finding unaffiliated organizations and we try to throw them together, thus the problem "Is buddhist a religion?". I do not think the word need a replacement. It's easier to see the unaffiliated movements called "religions" today and examine them as organized movements with different ideas and goals. Judaism is the story about the Jewish people. Buddhism is more of a philosophy about the self. These two have almost zero in common.

  11. Can you suggest alternative words to use instead of "religion?" I think the original Latin sense of the word is quite useful, from "religere," "to bind together." That, IMO, all religions do have in common.

    Another thing they have in common is that they're a way to practice and experience something that's outside the realm of discriminatory thought, rather the same way IMO as art, music, or theater. That applies equally well to Islam as Buddhism.

  12. I used the word organization above. Ideology, philosophy, community, movement, company, enterprise etc can also be used, so can culture. The problem is clear, religion doesn't have a unified meaning.

    What the world religions have in common is that they each respond to human questions, human needs, human behavior. Some of them, like Judaism is directly integrated with a people. Some, such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are more like franchises, kinda like a bridge to the ideologies.

    Just spend a moment to think, what isn't called religion today and "bind together", inspire practice and experience beyond discriminatory thought? There's no border between what we call religion and not except habit. We just call some movements religion and being recognized as a religion usually takes some accumulated power.

    The things you said, "bind together" or "a way to practice and experience something that's outside the realm of discriminatory thought" is still happening. Maybe you can call it "to human".

  13. I feel mentally disorganized today. The point was that the stuff often assigned to religion isn't unique to the movements that have been accepted as religions. Those who have been accepted as religions just happens to be old and powerful, unless you refer to ethnic groups.

  14. I like what you're saying, there. I would add "practice" and "tradition," too. None of the words are entirely accurate, but all of them describe some aspects of the phenomena we're talking about. It's all in the context.

    As does "religion," come to think of it.

  15. Very interesting and thorough post, and I agree with many of your conclusions. I do have some more to say about this, but a bit later as I am about to go swimming.

  16. Hawaii. Rub it in, will you?

  17. Studying anthropology have made me realize just how different the structures called religions are. Most religions are similar to Judaism or Hinduism in being an integrated part of a peoples culture, the religion live with the people, if the people die the religion die. Most of us never learn about tribes understanding of the universe, their cultures and traditions when we speak about religions. Most people instead as the very few that managed to recruit billions, which creates a problem when we try to understand the ones that doesn't work the way we think a religion should work.

    Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are in that regard very different as they are tied to a form of teaching rather than a specific group of people. Each of them targets the individual person, regardless of race, and have to be taught to and accepted by that individual. Another thing these have in common is that they have a founder and often produce personality cults. Judaism targets a people and prohibits making idols. Similar to this, the religions in tribes also targets a people, without lifting forth a single person. Jesus said outright "worship me", but he also challenged religious authority. Muhammed and the Buddha were specific about not worshipping them, yet there's something very human about giving another human divine status, in that regard they aren't far away from Lenin.

    Another thing Christianity, Islam and Buddhism have in common is that they have branches, branches that have very different interpretions of what the religion is supposed to be. Christianity have Calvinism, Lutheranism, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and one could for historical reasons add the sects as the fifth one (which includes baptists, puritans and other offshots who have in common that they challenge authority to go their own way). Islam in turn have I think four versions of Sunni and Shia on top of that. Buddhism have at least 3 major denominations. Now the important part about this is that theese promote a very distinct authority structure that makes them very different in practice. Take a simple thing about who's divine and who isn't. There is no Pope in Protestantism, Monks are the only people who can reach nirvana in some branches of Buddhism, Shia Muslims are closer to a personality cult than Sunni.

    These branches comes, I think, from syncretism. Since they are spread across cultures, different cultures interpret them differently. The branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal) interpret texture differently, but these differences aren't so fundamentally different compared to the difference between the ones above. Another interesting thing is how these interpretions then interact with politics. Calvinism works well with capitalism and Social Darwinism simply replace "Gods chosen" with "Natures chosen", the . Catholicism is an authoritarian hierarchy. Lutheranism promotes defiance and living a secular life with hard work, which works great with reformed socialism. The radical turnover in the Russian revolution and the need to completely replace rather than reform the old is consistent with Orthodox understanding. In China Mahayana is popular and so was Communism. etc. etc.

    Islam and Christianity are political where as Buddhism is personal. I do not think Buddhism have too much state building in it's scripture or philosophy, correct me if I am wrong. Each of the three Abrahamic religions carry the design for theocracy within them as well as divine authority to carry out a law.

  18. Pretty good summary, there.

    No, Buddhism as such doesn't say much about state-building or the social order. You could very roughly divide the core Buddhist texts into three groups—practice instructions, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical, and psychological texts, and monastic bylaws. The Pali canon is heavy on practice instructions and monastic bylaws, the Abhidharma on the more philosophical stuff, and the later Mahayana texts on, yet again, practice instructions.

    None of these have much to say about how to run a government, beyond "don't be a douche" (which, regrettably, doesn't appear to work very well, for government). While there are people like Ashoka and Milinda who attempted to apply Buddhist principles to government, they must've had to improvise most of it.

    (As an aside, the divisions in Buddhism are, IMO, considerably less deep than the ones in Islam or Christianity. For example, it's acceptable to train and even be ordained with several different Buddhist traditions, whereas it's just not possible to be, say, both a Roman Catholic Franciscan monk and a Lutheran pastor, or a Shi'ite marja' and a Sunni mufti. Many Buddhist teachers I've come across also cheerfully read and cite texts from a wide variety of traditions, not exclusively their own, and not even exclusively Buddhist—I've heard a very good lecture based on the writings of an Iranian Sufi, for example.)

  19. My comparison between Mahayana and Communism was the idea "everybody in". The idea that everyone is able to do something seems to be compatible with a collectivist understanding of society.

    I know there are ideas related to reincarnation that have an impact on society. The idea that the leader is reincarnated and thus found somewhere after the last one die for example. This is of course a lot more chaotic than when leadership is passed on to the kings offspring in Lutheranism, but still upholds the idea of a divine leader.

    Reincarnation also carry an excuse for a social darwinist-style of society, where the misfortunate are blamed for their own misfortune and the fortunate are praised.

    But I understand each of these to be specific to distinct branches of Buddhism.

  20. By the way, "nature", the economy and the state are modern concepts that have strong similarities to the old religious concepts. References to what's "natural" is very common here, as we are culturally brought into the belief that there's a rift between nature and culture, the physical and metaphysical, mind and body, the natural order vs artificial. We often like to equal what is to what ought to be, which means that it's easy to see human evolution as an excuse for social darwinism. Let nature decide we might say, but often fail to be critical to whoever interprets "nature" or pass claims on "what's natural". Natural commonly replaces the word "common", "recognized" or "familiar".

    Look at the nature movement, the pure. We should eat natural foods, not chemicals. The more artificial something is interpreted, the worse it is. The nature movement carry plenty of similar habits, thoughts about right and wrong etc as the old religions did. And it's all rooted in the idea about what's natural and what isn't, even if that distinction is a complete illusion when you begin to examine it.

    When power interpreted nature it was as dangerous as when power interpreted scripture. Who would say that the interpretion of nature was wrong? Racial biology, the subjection of women, the rally against homosexuals have both been rationalized as following natures will. Races are clearly inferior to eachother, eugenics explains why. Natural science explains gender roles, look at the strong male and the soft woman, these decide what genders are supposed to do. Heterosexual sex makes babies, therefore homosexuality is against nature.

    There's no great difference between "leave it to God", "leave it to nature" and "leave it to the economy" or "leave it to the state". The less human interaction the better in this philosophy. It's a reliance on something else, somewhere else, to do everything and it's best left alone. Usually it's when there's a guy somewhere making the interpretions from their own perspective things go wrong.

    Another odd idea in the west is the belief in pure rationalism. It's easy to see why people might believe in rational thought, free will, making choices etc. The romantic movement in germany with Hegel, Marx etc spent more time with human behavior, human drives, human wishes, human emotions than they did with rationalism. Romanticism did produce both nationalism and communism, but the understanding of humanity also produced sociology, anthropology and psychology that have been strong opponents to the idea of "free will" and the belief in "pure rational thought". Many ideas from old religions have been absorbed in what we might call "the left". This time not with the idea that a human should be subordinated something more powerful than themselves, but the idea that the human are subordinated something more powerful than themselves (society, environment, community) and can therefore not act according to their own will. Their drives will force them to act in ways they wouldn't do if the rational mind made the decisions.

  21. Re Communism and Mahayana: that would be a very interesting topic in its own right, and I think there just may be something to the connection, although it's not quite as direct or simple as that; I think in China's case it's very much a two-way street of features of Chinese culture expressing themselves in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism shaping Chinese culture, with the brief experiment in Chinese Communism reflecting both.

    It's too easy to find counterexamples, too. Japanese Zen, for example, doesn't really have anything recognizably Communist to it.

    In any case, Mahayana doesn't really have anything to say about the distribution of wealth, which is what Communism is about; in fact, it doesn't really say anything about wealth that's any different from Theravada. Both flavors of Buddhism would teach that wealth an sich is neither good nor bad, but greed and clinging to wealth is unhelpful, whereas being generous to those in need is helpful.

    If anything, Mahayana as contrasted with Theravada is a fundamentally democratic philosophy, and in some ways not unlike the Enlightenment concepts of equality and brotherhood. Theravada is more structurally elitist in some significant ways; however, since the elitism is of a "spiritual" variety, it doesn't easily lend itself to justifying authoritarian polities either.

    BTW, Staffan – I just noticed your blogs. I wouldn't have minded if you had brought them to my attention sooner!

  22. The point about the Chinese culture interpreting Buddhism and Communism in it's own way is a concept I could easily swallow whole without much consideration. That makes culture more important than any imported idea, whether it's religion, ideology perhaps even philosophy. New ideas might change the culture a bit, but it can't uplift the roots.

    I haven't bothered about advertising the blog since I do not have time to write on it or take it seriously. Instead I have written a couple of articles on the Swedish Humanist organization's blog and recently a surprisingly popular article on newsmill, a Swedish website for debate articles.