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.