Posted by: Jim | October 30, 2006

The New Atheism

I read with great interest the article in this month’s WIRED magazine about The New Atheism. It seems that a few prominent atheists are making an intellectual call-to-arms. Among them is Richard Dawkins, who has been a significant influence in my life via his books “The Selfish Gene,” “River out of Eden,” and “Unweaving the Rainbow.” However, my friend Pete from the U.K. seems to find him arrogant, and after reading this article, I’m starting to wonder about him myself.

The New Atheists are condemning religion, and also condemning anyone who does not condemn religion. Dawkins justifies his arguments by claiming that religion is bad for society–that it is contributing to our destruction. While there is certainly a lot of recent evidence to support his theory, I think he is wrong. To get a better explanation of his views, I encourage you to read the article. (It’s online in its entirety, and it’s free.)

While I am an agnostic, and take exception to people who call us “fence-sitters,” I believe that religion serves a very specific and necessary service in society. Pardon the aside, but allow me to explain.

Fact: We all have brains.
Fact: Not all brains are equal.
Fact: Our brains can formulate questions that our brains are not equipped to answer. (“Our reach exceeds our grasp.”)

How we resolve this dilemma will vary based upon several factors. Some people only have enough willpower or brain power to accept the answers that others feed them. Others, have a little more willpower and/or brain power, and come up with answers (theories, religions) and provide them to other people. Still others are able to question those answers, and accept or reject them on the basis of reason. Finally, a scant few are even able to question their programming from where these questions arise.

But the vast majority of people fall into the first group; they simply need answers. Without the backdrop of religion, and the peaceful contribution of its answers, I’m not sure the human race would fare very well, or even survive. Granted, the answers are patently false, but they keep a lid on the boiling pot of the human psyche, and keep us from killing each other.

In fact, one could argue that humans have survived because our brains created the “safety valve” of religion–a method to keep us from going nuts with far-reaching, unanswered questions. Enter God, stage left.

And these new strident atheists are also putting the cart before the horse. Their aims are, ostensibly, humanistic. Many religions have humanistic goals that can ride along peacefully with secular organizations with similar goals. Jesus said to feed the hungry, so most Christians are fine (and even donate to) secular organizations that feed the hungry. But this apparently wont sate Dawkins. So I am left wondering if his goal is a humanist world, or an atheist one. 

Lastly, I don’t think Dawkins qualifies his culprits well enough. If religion were a city, the proverbial “bad neighborhood,” where all the crimes are being commited, would be the fundamentalist neighborhood. These are the people who believe in killing. These are the people who believe that Jesus is coming back, and therefore our stewardship of earthly resources is a non-issue. These are the people who take away the rights of others because they are “sinners.”

The article suggests, however, that the moderates within a given religion validate the extremists. To wit, all the peaceable non-violent Muslims are passively allowing the Al Sadr-type Muslims to practice violence as a form of religion. The New Athiests are concluding that it is therefore wrong to tolerate any religion at all. Perhaps they are trying to “dumb down” their theory for all of us burgeoning atheists, but it’s not too complicated for us to understand that it is wrong to use violence, and it is wrong for a member of a religion to tolerate others who commit violence in the name of their religion. I suggest that these atheists avoid sweeping generalizations, lest they become the fundamentalist branch of atheism.   

Religion is fine. It is good, even, based on the purpose it serves. Fundamentalist religion, however, is bad. Dawkins should reframe his argument.

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Responses

  1. you’re probably going to get alot of bashing for this one, doc. @_@;

  2. I agree with you, mostly — but I also agree with Dawkins on many points, especially the one about moderate religious types legitimizing and subsidizing the extremists. There’s a very good book that covers this topic among others, called ‘The End of Faith’ by Sam Harris. It makes a rather convincing argument that when just a few people walk around believing in irrational, baseless and potentially antisocial concepts, we call them crazy — but when there are enough of them, we call it a religion. That without the tacit support of millions of well-meaning peacefully pious folks, the thin margin of extremists would merely be sociopaths who were easily rounded up and locked away for their psychotic behavior.

    The same could be said in the political arena of course, which is why many clear-thinking people have abandoned one party or the other in favor of being ‘independent’ — but of course, in a de facto two-party system, this accomplishes little besides bolstering the other side. Luckily we don’t have a two-religion system. Or maybe we do.

    * * *

  3. It is true that moderates legitimize extremists, but it’s only true because of a basically irrational form of “Groupthink” that is prevalent among people who don’t want to think very much. It’s basically ‘innocent by association.’ “He is a priest, therefore it must be okay.”

    It would be the exact same irrational leap to condemn all religion on the basis of a few damaging extremists.

    The “black and white” approach leads to a bifurcated society, which we have now. If we only condemn the condemnable behaviour, however, we put the ethical burden on every individual to choose their own associations carefully. I realize that’s an optimistic approach, but consider who you are dealing with. 😀

  4. Absolutely agree that fundamentalist atheism is no different than any other rigid orthodox groupthink. Anytime anybody is completely convinced of the unerring rightness of their own viewpoint, to the detriment of everyone else’s, BEWARE. That having been said however, I am unaware of anyone ever having been killed by fanatical proselytizing atheists, whereas the atrocities committed in the name of religion are far too numerous to count.

    * * *

  5. hmm..good points.
    and I haven’t even read it yet, :p

  6. I can think of atrocities committed by fanatical proselytizing atheists: Those committed by the North Vietnamese Communists in the 1950’s and 60’s out of intolerance for any religion.

  7. I can think of atrocities committed by fanatical proselytizing atheists: Those committed by the North Vietnamese Communists in the 1950’s and 60’s out of intolerance for any religion. Torture to that degree is almost worse than death.

  8. OK, Suzanne, point taken. But you want to know what torture is REALLY worse than death? Answer: missing you as much as I do.

    😦
    * * *

  9. aww. =]

  10. Ditto Brian. Indeed.

  11. So are we then saying that the world would ostensibly be a better place if religion never existed, thus, completely making this argument moot? There would certainly be fewer wars, but as Ellie Arroway said in Contact with regard to Occam’s Razor, “Is it more plausible that there is a great God out there who created everything, leaving behind no evidence of his existence, or that we invented God [religion] so that we wouldn’t feel so small?”

  12. I LOVE that quote by Ellie Arroway. I think it’s time to watch Contact again.

    But I think that religion has served as a psychic backdrop that enables us actors to play out our roles on stage.

    I think we are going to need that backdrop for some time. Because I can tell you first hand that when that backdrop is suddenly removed, the player on the stage no longer has a context for his “act.” Some people are not very good at improvisation. 😀

  13. Well, basically the question itself is moot. There is no way to answer it. We cannot estimate what the world would have been like; we can only analyze what it WAS and IS like. I can’t tell you if the world would be a better place had religion never existed — but I can say with confidence that it would be a better place if religion would disappear NOW.

    Once I was a teenager. I did a lot of stupid things. Perhaps because of those stupid things, I am a better person today. But I am no longer a teenager, and I no longer cling to my teenage way of thinking. Continuing to do those same stupid things would no longer serve me or the world at large. Religion may or may not have been a necessary and useful phase of human evolution; I am simply stating that it has outlived its necessity and usefulness and has become, like a sociopathic adult who still acts like a destructive teenager, a dangerous anachronism. A Grimm’s fairytale view of the world, with very real weapons.

    Religion, like a drug, is comfort to those who believe in it; those who are afraid of anything that isn’t simple and easily understood — like life. And it’s harmless if those people merely BELIEVE. But historical and modern events show us that the pious — or at least the ones that make history — are anything but harmless. The fanatical share an apocalyptic vision that they are determined to bring about. I know; I grew up among them, waiting excitedly for the mushroom cloud or the sound of a trumpet to bring it all crashing down on the heads of everyone who didn’t believe in our little narrow interpretation of a bunch of obscure writings of debatable origin. Every year, perhaps every DAY, was surely going to be the last, and that was supposed to be a GOOD thing — that was how I lived my childhood. The damage it did was impossible to describe.

    Read “The End of Faith”. Have that so-unamerican of virtues, an open mind, and read it.

    * * *

  14. Bri, the last part of your last paragraph was beautiful – that is how I remember my childhood. To me though, religion is not a drug, an escape, or a substitute for those things I do not understand. I, for instance, am a scientist at heart, with faith, nothing more. I do not fret or worry about those things I do not understand, filling those chasms with religion. Religion is a strange dichotomy, in that it is completely separate from, and yet can dovetail with my faith at the same time. Perhaps religion and faith can be described as separate entities with a common link?

    The bottom line for this blogger is that I don’t lean on my faith to explain the unexplainable – I rely on my faith to carry me through the hard times and assure me that, for those things I do not understand, that I will someday know the explanation. I’ve shared on this blog that my father passed from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. Well, his memorial service was in California in February, 2002. I was at the airport set to fly out to pay my final respects, when a snowstorm socked me in to Colorado Springs. A very weird sense of calm came over me – I knew that getting upset at the ticket agent would get me nowhere, and that a tantrum would be completely useless, and most likely, counterproductive. This peace that came over me was, I believe, my father, assuring me it will all be good. I can’t prove it, but my faith tells me that’s exactly what it was…

  15. Ya know, Todd, the more I hear from you, the more I respect you. We may not share the same beliefs across the board (although we surely did at one time, long ago), but I absolutely appreciate the way you express yourself and the rare open-mindedness that you exhibit — most of the time, anyway.

    Because of this, I’d like to recommend a really good book to you. Perhaps you will be one of the few Christians I can actually recommend this to and have them not scream ‘Blasphemer!!’ without even getting past the cover.

    If you consider yourself an absolute King James Biblical literalist, and you refuse to dig deeper into the origins of your faith beyond what you were raised to believe, then that’s fine; don’t bother reading the book. But if, as I suspect, you might be a bit more flexible than that, I think it will at least give you some interesting insights to ponder. Because while it does question the literal interpretation of the New Testament (I have different books regarding the Old), it doesn’t invalidate the Christian faith — in fact, it clarifies its meaning in relation to historically verifiable traditions that pre-date it, and suggests that the modern — especially American — interpretation of it does it a disservice by twisting it into a narrow set of superficial simplistic meanings rather than the profound deeper truths it contains.

    The book is called ‘The Jesus Mysteries’ by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy — who I believe are both Christians, by the way. I highly recommend it.

    * * *

  16. Jim,

    We atheists have been attacked by the theists for years. Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation are truly fighting back. It’s time for religion to stop being “safe” simply by virtue of the fact that it’s a religion. Such thinking leads to claims of bigotry against anyone who would dare point out the harassment by scientologists, or the money-grubbing of Rev. Moon. The days of religion being protected from scrutiny simply because they say “I’m a religion!” have to end.

    The Freedom from Religion foundation publishes a monthly blotter of crimes by the clergy. Yet as an Atheist, I still hear from theists who tell me I’m likely to be a criminal because I don’t have religion. It’s nonsense, and I, for one, support Atheists fighting back.

  17. Ray! Great to hear from you again!

    This week was a fun one regarding religious people commiting crimes (and sins).

    While I do think it’s appropriate for people to “push back” where religion has encroached upon people who choose a secular lifestyle, I am nervous about Dawkins’ approach. He makes it sound like if he had his way, praying would be a “thought crime.” Intolerance should end where individual rights end. Promoting intolerance of another group, when that group is not impacting the life of anyone outside the group (or involuntarily inside the group) is wrong.

    Now, arguably that is not the case today, so I cautiously support ffrf.org.

  18. You make a very good distinction here.

    Intolerance and self-defense are really two wildly different things. But I have to say that my take on Dawkins was that he was merely talking “age of reason” logic. Not crime at all.

    Look, there were a lot of ideas that were blasphemy over the ages. That the earth revolved around the sun! But eventually the world had to come to terms with the The Undeniable Truth(tm) as controversial and difficult as it was at the time because of political or religious pressures.

    As an atheist, that’s how I view what Dawkins says. He’s not advocating thought-crime.. he’s saying that we should all know better…and we should all teach our kids better, too.

    More or less, what he says, is that the various monotheistic faiths simply don’t hold up anymore — yet somehow they get a free pass because they’re “religion”.

    Think about it. When it’s religion, the Right knows Right… they tell us who god is and what god wants and for some goofy reason it’s supposed to be beyond reproach. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever. Questioning it makes you ungodly (see Ann Coulter), un-American, un-ethical or worse. They beat on us mercilessly…and we take it.

    We have every right to be just as right as the right! (Wow.. I want a t-shirt that says that)… and we don’t have to drink their Kool-Aid.

    Science, in fact, has more of a right to be right than the right…. and damnit, people refuse to see that. It drives me nuts. 🙂

    -Ray

  19. Self-defense. I can dig that.

    But also, in the world of ideas, I have found it necessary to seriously give people the verbal smack-down before the realize just how irrational they are being. I recently had to tell a family member that my family believes in a “fairy tale” in order for her to understand where I was coming from. These words were, I am sure, a bit of a shock.

    Shock is good. Awe is even okay. As long as there are not bombs or bullets. 🙂

  20. Self-defense. I like it. And we should take the offensive in the world of ideas. As long as the movement does not tell people to shun the star-bellied sneetches who still cling to their religions, I’m down with it.

    In the world of ideas, I have found it necessary to seriously give people the verbal smack-down before the realize just how irrational they are being. I recently had to tell a family member that my family believes in a “fairy tale” in order for her to understand where I was coming from. These words were, I am sure, a bit of a shock.

    Shock is good. Awe is even okay. As long as there are not bombs or bullets. 🙂

  21. Shock is good and awe is okay… That statement reminded me of an Albert Camus quote — it was in one of his letters to a german friend who was a nazi supporter in WWII. Camus was working for the French resistance and putting his life on the line to write articles against the germans in an underground/subversive newspaper.

    I’ll probably munge it…but from memory:

    “the pen is not mightier than the sword. But the pen, coupled with the sword, will always win out.”

    There is room for resistance, rebellion and death (as Camus put it — and you know I’m a fan of him) in our culture. In fact, we could use some more resistance and rebellion. We have to avoid the idea that those things need to be pretty.

    This is where progressives have a BIG problem. We’ve been so sold into our own ideas of political correctness that we’ve rendered ourselves ineffective. Our friends to the right have no such compunction. Our compatriats in the fundamental, middle-east also have no concerns in this manner.

    There is such thing as taking the moral high road. But it’s also possible to render yourself useless through inaction.

    This is all the case religiously, politically and socially.

    So I kind of went a bit off topic here, because this conversation started about how Theists are treated but largely ignored how Atheists are and have been treated. Atheists need backbones. Progressives or LIBERALS need spines, too.

    We should remember… the pen AND the sword — it isn’t an either-or proposition. We need to stand up to these things and rage against them…and sometimes that will be ugly.

  22. “The New Atheists are condemning religion, and also condemning anyone who does not condemn religion. Dawkins justifies his arguments by claiming that religion is bad for society–that it is contributing to our destruction. While there is certainly a lot of recent evidence to support his theory, I think he is wrong.”

    Jim, the more I hear from you, the more I respect you and the more I understand you.

    This paragraph sounds a like a “group-think” that wants NO dissension! They demand it or else! This kind of thing is dangerous for society and definitely world peace and preservation.

    There are extremists in all views, political, religious or otherwise. I think the moderates are really the essence of the view itself, not that the moderates give credibility to the extremists.

    There are Muslims who are against their extremists and are ashamed that the extremists are “defining” them.

    The new atheism sounds a little Nazi-ish to me. They want religious cleansing. It shows that they don’t really value a persons life and freedom and uniqueness. Why would we want those type of people to rule the world?

  23. […] The author of the blog “Blue Hydra” quoted a 2-year-old post of mine, and it made me realize how much I’ve changed even in that short span of time. Two years ago, I […]


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