The New Atheism, a definition and a quiz
By ANDREW BROWN, GUARDIAN
Added: Mon, 29 Dec 2008 00:00:00 UTC
Since this is the season for warmed up leftovers and presents not entirely appreciated, I thought I would try to define the New Atheism that I, and others, so dislike.
In part this is difficult because the new atheism is largely a political and social rather than an intellectual movement. In some ways it can be understood as the canary in the coalmine of American power and exceptionalism. Before the crash, when it was possible to believe that globalised capitalism would go on making us richer and more liberal forever (at least if you didn't read John Gray) the new atheism was one of the few ways to express disbelief and fear and loathing in the way the world was going. "Religion" became a synecdoche for everything that might go wrong, so that belief in the evil qualities of Faith was not so very different from belief in the evils of witchcraft.
Note, this is not a claim that the new atheism is a religion. I don't actually believe that even religion is a religion in the sense that there is one thing or mode of thought which the word describes. But one of the ways to examine religion is as a set of shared stories and characters which explain what is happening in the world, and the new atheists, with their urgent, apocalyptic message about the dangers of faith, certainly offer that.
So, who are they? The ideas I claim are distinctive of the new atheists have been collected from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne, the American physicist Robert L. Park, and a couple of blogging biologists, P Z Myers and Larry Moran. They have two things in common. They are none of them philosophers and, though most are scientists, none study psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration. All of them make claims about religion and about believers which go far beyond the mere disbelief in God which I take to be the distinguishing mark of an atheist.
As an example of an old atheist, there is Anthony Kenny, the philosopher and former Master of Balliol, who left the Roman Catholic priesthood because he came to doubt that his faith was true. His book on varieties of disbelief, The Unknown God, was the immediate trigger for this post. In any case, he believes that all the proofs for classical theism fail and as such will do very nicely as a baseline atheist, and proof that it is possible to doubt God while rejecting all the distinctive doctrines of the new atheism. So far as I know, he would reject all of the following propositions.
â There is something called "Faith" which can be defined as unjustified belief held in the teeth of the evidence. Faith is primarily a matter of false propositional belief.
â The cure for faith is science: The existence of God is a scientific question: either he exists or he doesn't. "Science is the only way of knowing – everything else is just superstition" [Robert L. Park]
â Science is the opposite of religion, and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason. "The real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition" [Jerry Coyne] "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented." [Dawkins]
â In this great struggle, religion is doomed. Enlightened common sense is gradually triumphing and at the end of the process, humanity will assume a new and better character, free from the shackles of religion. Without faith, we would be better as well as wiser. Conflict is primarily a result of misunderstanding, of which Faith is the paradigm. (Looking for links, I just came across a lovely example of this in the endnotes to the Selfish Gene, where lawyers are dismissed as "solving man-made problems that should never have existed in the first place".)
â Religion exists. It is essentially something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous: if anything even more dangerous, because they conceal the raging, homicidal lunacy that is religion's true nature. [Sam Harris]
â Faith, as defined above, is the most dangerous and wicked force on earth today and the struggle against it and especially against Islam will define the future of humanity. [Everyone]
All of these propositions will be found in the authors I have cited as well as in the comments to religious articles here. I sometimes think that only the last two are unique to the new atheists: you can certainly find the others in earlier authors. But those are the six doctrines which I would reject when saying rude things about the new atheists.
What would be interesting in comments is if people would score themselves out of six. I expect that one of the most common forms of disagreement would be to claim that you are a three or a four, but none the less the believers are so repulsive and dangerous that the other two points just don't matter. That's how politics works, after all, and the new atheism is interesting as a political or social movement, not an intellectual one.
- - BBC News Comments
A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.
Robert F. Worth - New York Times Comments
A great article about Jerry DeWitt and the growing presence of atheist communities
Chip Rowe - Playboy Comments
Playboy Interview with Richard Dawkins
- - YouTube - townsquare Comments
Cara Santa Maria (Senior Science Correspondent, Huffingtonpost.com) leads this week's panel on 'The Point' to discuss these issues and more with Michael Shermer (Publisher - Skeptic Magazine), Sean Carroll (Theoretical Physicist - Caltech), and Edward Falzon (author of 'Being Gay Is Disgusting').
Kimberly Winston - Washington Post Comments
Last weekend, the Atheist Film Festival showed more than a dozen films about separation of church and state, freedom of religion (and no religion), the conflict between science and religion in public schools.
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Albert Einstein's Historic 1954 "God Letter" Handwritten Shortly Before His Death