Monday, February 17, 2014

So you're not a New Atheist

Thomas Wells Is not a [New] Atheist. So what? I go to all the meetings, and I don't recall that we asked him to join. Wells lists a number of complaints against the New Atheists, most of which are specious or have little or nothing to do with our project. Protip: If you're going to criticize a group for holding incorrect views, it is helpful to actually cite the actual expression of those incorrect views. Just looking at the article, a reader has no idea whether Wells is accurately representing our views or simply pulling straw men out of his ass. And I don't know what to make of someone who publicly expresses his view that publicly expressing our views is somehow disreputable. If religion is not "worthy of rational dissent," and if New Atheists are, as he says, religious, why does he (try to) rationally dissent from our views?

Rather than fisk this terrible post, which verges on libel, let me offer the perspective of a self-identified New Atheist, one who has been a part of the atheist and New Atheist movements since the beginning of the millenium.

First, atheism is not an organization. There are many atheist, humanist, non- and anti-theist organizations, but there is no overarching organization that in any way controls the message or the membership. The only conclusion you can draw about someone who calls him- or herself an atheist is that he or she:
  1. Probably does not believe that any god(s) really exist
  2. Chooses to call him- or herself an atheist
That's really it. Other than that all atheists will probably reject as invalid any statement of the form "God exists, therefore ...," there are no other valid generalizations one can actually make about people who call themselves atheists. And if you don't want to call yourself an atheist, don't. That doesn't offend us in the least.

The New Atheists are only slightly more restrictive. To be a New Atheist, you must:
  1. Call yourself an atheist as above
  2. Publicly criticize religion or endorse the public criticism of religion
  3. Choose to call yourself a New Atheist
Again, no organization, no formal membership, no party line. You do not have to even like the "four horsemen" — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens — nor the host of other prominent writers, e.g. Stengler, Myers, Coyne, Cline, Marcott, Namazie, to be a New Atheist. (Indeed, a lot of us find Harris shallow, Hitchens glib and sexist, and their views objectionably justifying or endorsing neocolonialism.) So again, the only conclusions that one can draw about all New Atheists is that we are willing to criticize the social, cultural, and legal role — outrageous privilege, really — of organizations, institutions, and ideologies that are uncontroversially religious, such as the Catholic church.

And again, if you do not want to publicly criticize religion, nor actively endorse the public criticism of religion, then don't. We will yet again take no offense; we do not insist that everyone join us. We ask only that if you agree with our project, stand out of our way.

As far as I know, no New Atheist supports "scientism," in any reasonable sense, including Pigliucci's*:
a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very deļ¬nition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding. (144)
What we do is fundamentally different: we see that many religious people make claims about the real world, and we apply a tool, scientific thinking, broadly conceived, to criticize those claims. We do not say that scientific thinking is the only tool to criticize religion (Only two of the "four horsemen," Harris and Dawkins are scientists; Dennett is a professional philosopher and Hitchens was a journalist.) We do not say that say that scientific thinking is the only way to criticize religion. We do, however, say that scientific thinking is one very effective way to criticize religion. The proof is in the pudding: I personally know many formerly religious people who became irreligious precisely because they saw a irreconcilable conflict between religion and scientific thinking.

*Pigliucci's definition of scientism seems eminently reasonable; it is his charge that New Atheists actually embrace this definition of scientism that is unreasonable.

The philosophical idea that science is the only possible form of knowledge depends on the definition of "knowledge." If knowledge is defined as anything we can come to common agreement about, then science is obviously not the only form of knowledge; we do not need to make a single observation to all agree that according to Peano Arithmetic or Set Theory, two plus two equals four. If we define knowledge as true statements about the real world, scientific thinking, broadly defined, seems the only way at present to gain knowledge. But that's a practical observation, not a philosophical position. Science works to understand the real world, and we use it; if you find something else that actually works, by all means, send me the link.

Although I reject scientism, I must yes, we New Atheists talk about God a lot, and we have negative beliefs about God. That's part and parcel of criticizing religion. In much the same sense, Democrats talk a lot about Republicans (and vice-versa), and communists talk a lot about capitalism (and vice-versa), and every good persuasive college essay addresses opposing views.

But yes, like almost every non-trivial statement, the New Atheists seek to persuade. If persuasion is itself objectionable, why pick on us? and why seek to persuade us to shut up? Persuasion is a completely normal human activity, and is not intrinsically religious.

We have a project: to erase the social, cultural, ethical, and legal privileges of individuals, organizations, institutions, and ideologies claim because they claim private knowledge about what God wants. If you do not believe that such institutions etc. actually exist, you are a fool. If you are uninterested in whether or not they should have privilege, then you're free to ignore both religion and New Atheism, just as I am free to ignore, and choose to ignore, literary criticism of Medieval French poetry. If you oppose religious institutions but think some New Atheists are doing it "wrong," then go out and do it "right" as you see fit (and please don't have the naked hypocrisy of accusing us of dogmatism for failing to follow your party line). If you think some specific criticism of religion is mistaken, then by all means cite, quote, and summarize the original work, and send me the link: if you're right, I'll change my views; if you're wrong, you should welcome the correction, n'est-ce pas?

But if you want to criticize the New Atheists for positions we manifestly do not hold, you are lying or negligently repeating a lie. And if you want to criticize the New Atheist — and only the New Atheists — for speaking publicly with the intention of persuasion, without criticizing literally everyone else on the planet who has, you know, an actual opinion, then you are trying to defend religion. And you are defending religion dishonestly: if you want to defend religion, then defend it directly.


  1. "Science works to understand the real world, and we use it; if you find something else that actually works, by all means, send me the link."

    If you use a criterion of "actually works" for any new knowledge that I receive from fairies, aren't you evaluating this knowledge using the methods of science, making your statement tautological?

  2. Excellent post. It has to do with the definition of the "real" world. Catholics, for example, believe that heaven and an after-life are "real" and ostensibly live their entire lives under this assumption. To a Catholic, the things that "actually work" in the real world are different than, say, what a non-Catholic.might say. Birth control pills don't "actually work" to improve lives in their reality because those individuals will suffer profound long term consequences in the "real" after-life.

    As an aside, since 98% of Catholics use artificial birth control, this tells me that most of them do not buy into the Church's definition of "real" world...but I digress. I think this has to do with most Catholics realizing that heaven and an after-life are not scientific realities-- they are not falsifiable-- and therefore they deny that anyone, even the Pope, can have any useful understanding of them.

  3. Very clear and interesting. I just want to correct the french expression you use at the end of a paragraph: it should be "n'est-ce pas". What you wrote is equivalent to "isn't" without the "it" that should follow.

  4. As something of a grammar nazi myself, I sincerely appreciate the correction. Thanks!


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