I like your old atheism better than your new atheism

September 16, 2007

Well, I’ve been following a few comment threads around the bloggy-ball-shaped-thing and have discovered that (apparently) I’m a New Atheist. Sounds ominous. Do you think there’s an ointment for that?

According to Matthew C. Nisbet I’m part of a noise machine (which is bad) and I just listened to an episode of the Point of Enquiry podcast where DJ Grothe (in his ever so subtle pseudo-devil’s advocate fashion) and Paul Kurtz spent most of the interview pointing out that their brand of secular humanism is ever so much nicer than that nasty New Atheism that’s going around.

(Edited to add: Dr Nisbet has now written a post about the Point of Enquiry podcast. I sure know how to pick my links.)

So what is the New Atheism, and why is it so last season?

Well, from what I can see, New Atheism is a term predominantly used by the various flavours of Old Atheism* to distance themselves from those nasty arrogant, blunt and outspoken Militant Atheists** like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.

It’s a bit like when a creationist uses the term Darwinist to describe an opponent who supports the theory of evolution. By using a term that people don’t actually identify with they are able to define it’s meaning themselves and then triumphantly slap down their own straw man. Except in this case it’s people on the same side of the fence who are making their bones by calling out their more outspoken and widely known contemporaries.

After a fair bit of reading, I’ve been able to glean two main points made against New Atheism:

1. Those New Atheists are just negative and against stuff. They don’t actually stand for anything.

Says who? In my experience you generally can’t even get a relatively small group of atheists to agree on a definition of atheism, let alone how they think that it fits into a greater sociological framework. To say that a certain subset of atheists don’t stand for anything is a gross generalization and a straw man. If you’re making such a claim, then the burden is on you to prove it, not on the so called New Atheists to defend your unwarranted assertion.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins quite clearly advocated the positive influence of the changing moral zeitgeist – he just said that the morals represented by it had nothing to do with religions or gods, and thus society didn’t have any need of them.

2. Their poisonous attitude towards religion doesn’t get us anywhere! They turn off people who might work with us or be convinced by those nice humanists. They alienate religious moderates. They’re just big meanys!

Well, this presupposes that Atheists should work with religious moderates to effect change. Calling for Atheists and Theists to meet on common ground gives equal credence to each side as a means of determining scientific and moral truth. Except that Atheist morality has a grounding in philosophy and logic and science, and religious morality is (supposedly) based on omniscient decree. Atheists might be able to achieve more by pandering to superstition, blind faith and dogma, but they shouldn’t have to.

Theism and Atheism aren’t opposing and equal beliefs. Atheism is based on a lack of belief resulting from a lack of evidence, and as such is the default position. The burden of proof is on the believer to substantiate their claims. Calling for a common ground gives religion a bargaining position that has not been earned.

New Atheism is just an external label allowing certain flavours of non-theist to differentiate themselves from other flavours they consider to be too loud or outspoken.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?


* Nice Atheists who don’t offend people

** Those nasty Atheists who don’t automatically respect religious beliefs, but rather apply the the same level scrutiny, criticism and (gasp) logic, to them as society applies to any other area of human inquiry.

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10 Responses to “I like your old atheism better than your new atheism”

  1. Dave Says:

    It’s funny how psueso-intellectuals will automatically try to apply labels to anyone not supportive of their ideals. I’ve added the scarlet letter to my blog in protest to the theocracy that uncle Sam seeks to create.

  2. Dave Says:

    I’m sorry, that first link didn’t work. My blog is http://www.daveramone.wordpress.com


  3. For all your blustering, you seem to have submitted to the same steriotype that you seem to seek to avoid.

    There are religious people who have distanced a belief in some for of Other Power (God, Allah, Yweh, etc) from a need to base legal and moral decisions on the vague decrees of their followers hundreds of years ago. But it’s obviously pure apostasy that a logical, moral atheist, basing their morality, politics, and science in considered thought and reality-based practices meet with another like-minded person in order to facilitate a common goal. That’s illogical and would never work.

    Yeah, I get it. There’s a whole load of religious fucktards out there, and they’re getting way too close to all sorts of things that they shouldn’t, like power. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t religious folks out there who have applied thought to their beliefs and discarded ones that don’t survive that consideration, and that those same people aren’t keen on slowing down the progress of said fucktards in their apparent mission to make all of religion look unreasonable and stupid.

    Try not to get so sucked into anti-religious dogma that you become as mindless and irrational as the very fundamentalists you oppose. And try and keep in mind that there’s some religious folks on your side, too. We aren’t all suckers for alamist media, whether it’s from Dawkins or from … Whatever idiot is currently getting America’s fundamentalists all riled up about gays and abortions and sinners and the usual BS.

    So it looks like I’m on your side, even if you don’t seem to like the idea of it.

  4. Dave Says:

    Yeah, I get it. There’s a whole load of religious fucktards out there, and they’re getting way too close to all sorts of things that they shouldn’t, like power. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t religious folks out there who have applied thought to their beliefs and discarded ones that don’t survive that consideration…

    I suppose that is part of what I see as the problem. If application of thought is enough to reach a moral decision, why is the religious dogma necessary in the first place? Surely that process which allows the moderate religious person to pick and choose amongst the dogma of their particular flavour of faith is sufficient all on it’s own?

    I don’t mean to imply that I’m completely intolerant of moderate religious belief per se, but rather that I think it is too rooted in dogma to be used as part of a fair and rational decision making process.

    So it looks like I’m on your side, even if you don’t seem to like the idea of it.

    Fine by me. It is only when unsubstantiated belief, religious or otherwise, is used to make decisions effecting non-believers (or believers of a different flavour for that matter) that I really have a problem.

  5. Snaars Says:

    Hoorah! New Atheists, unite!


  6. Again, I suspect you’re suffering from a degree of confusion between religion, and religious law. The two are not irrevocably entangled, for all that some people will try and convince you that they are.

    First, the core tenet in religiousity is a belief in Another Power, usually defined as a God or Goddess, with all sorts of different names and the likes. Nothing more or less. From there, people write books and codify laws that were, at their time, relavant and fair to the culture they were written for. Those dogmatic codices still provide a decent starting point for moral discussion. Do we agree that all in The Bible (for example, just ’cause I’m more familiar with it) is Absolute Law? Fuck no. Do we agree that Murder is a Morally Wrong thing, and that Incest is pretty gross? Generally, yes.

    We likely would have gotten to the same place eventually, but if Atheists codified laws in 500 BC instead of the Israelites, the cultural fallacies that are complained about and persist in fundamentalist religious belief would have been present – it’s a cultural failing, not a religious one. If religious law was being written NOW, it likely would pretty much parallel what our current judicial law says. It’s merely a necessary point that our moral and legal definitions are the derivatives of religious law – the first laws were religion based, and the legal system we adhere to was originally based in another set of religious law.

    How can it be so wrong to actively think through the same process which our legal system has taken, as opposed to starting elsewhere. I think you need to remember that the important place in any legal or moral debate is not the route taken, but the end result. It is only if a particular point is taken or discarded for purely religious reasons, as opposed to rational ones. The only place this is excepted is when the rule is purely faith-affecting and derived.

    Don’t hold someone’s background against them – that’s just as intolerant as the anti-atheists you’re so riled up against. Instead, judge them based on their opinions and their actions. This will likely mean you occasionally have to listen to people. Sometimes you won’t agree with them, even. But for fucks sakes, give ’em a chance, or you’re no better than the Fundamentalists or the intolerants.

  7. Dave Says:

    Do we agree that all in The Bible (for example, just ’cause I’m more familiar with it) is Absolute Law? Fuck no. Do we agree that Murder is a Morally Wrong thing, and that Incest is pretty gross? Generally, yes.

    Well, I’m guilty of a little over generalization here, but then to be fair, so are you. While many moderate religious people might not believe the absolute correctness of their faith’s dogma, there are many less moderate believers who do – and they do have a real influence, both socially and politically. This is where I see a problem, because such belief is not subject to the level of rational scrutiny that would be applied if the beliefs were not religious.

    Don’t hold someone’s background against them – that’s just as intolerant as the anti-atheists you’re so riled up against. Instead, judge them based on their opinions and their actions.

    I don’t hold anyone’s background against them, it is only when a person’s religiosity effects their actions in such a way that it has a detrimental effect on others that I have a problem.

    This will likely mean you occasionally have to listen to people. Sometimes you won’t agree with them, even. But for fucks sakes, give ‘em a chance, or you’re no better than the Fundamentalists or the intolerants.

    If I didn’t listen, then wouldn’t have anything to complain about. I do listen, I just disagree.

  8. AV Says:

    Those New Atheists are just negative and against stuff. They don’t actually stand for anything. (Emphasis added)

    The funny thing is, that is a charge usually levelled against atheists by theists–and I’m sure that if Grothe were to encounter a theist making such a remark he would very quickly jump on it.

  9. AV Says:

    The point isn’t whether atheists and moderate theists couldn’t work together on many issues–I for one think they can and do.

    The point is that atheists shouldn’t have to feel obliged to hide their atheism under a bushel, or to refrain to arguing in defense of their position, for fear of offending someone. Theists do not seem to feel the same obligation.


  10. […] around the head with a fish. And it’s not just theists throwing it about – some of the the old atheists and new humanists have been fairly free with it […]


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