Sunday, February 09, 2014

The politics of New Atheism

New Atheism is a political movement. It is about changing our ethical norms, cultural values, and, to the extent of strongly defending the separation of church and state, the behavior of governments. We have some ancillary goals, but primarily, we want to create a society where it is completely ridiculous for anyone to put his (or occasionally her) collar on backwards and tell us what an invisible man in the sky wants us to do with our money and our reproductive apparatus. We are unashamedly attacking a collection of institutions that do precisely that: institutions that assert there really is a God, and He really does want only one penis to only go in one vagina (and don't you dare do it just for fun), He wants us to kill people who have a slightly incorrect opinion about Him, He wants a woman's uterus to be the property of the State, He wants his special guys to get away with the physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse of children, and He needs money. The New Atheists see these institutions, and we want them gone; our argument is that it is ridiculous to suggest that God wants us to do anything, because there is no God to want anything.

The usual straw men and obviously fallacious arguments aside, there are three broad criticisms of New Atheism. The most obvious is that there are religious people who are not racist, sexist, homophobic, nor prudish, who do not suborn child abuse, who do not want to murder anyone, and who do not want to fleece the rubes. No one has ever argued that religion automatically turns everyone into the worst sort of bigot and criminal. Furthermore, there are no small few atheists who really are bigots, criminals, or just plain mean and selfish. Again granted. No one has ever argued that atheism automatically turns everyone into the best sort of generous, kind, and virtuous citizen. The New Atheist argument is much simpler. There is no way at all, despite millennia of trying, to consistently discover what God wants (which is a big part of why we don't believe any such being exists). Once anyone says that he (or occasionally she) knows what God wants, even if what he says sounds good, he has no basis at all to argue against someone who says God wants something different. There is no way of telling. Furthermore, if God wants exactly what we want, then there's no reason to invoke Him: we can do things we want just because we ourselves want to do them. Indeed, Bob Avakian makes this point forcefully in Away with All Gods: scratch a "liberal" (American) Christian, especially their leadership, and you will often discover God-justified sexism or homophobia. We're pleased that not every Christian is Fred Phelps, but we say that the liberal Christians are using the same arguments that Phelps uses, and we cannot tell who is correct about God. Arguing that God wants us to do good stuff reinforces arguments that God wants us to do bad stuff because it assumes that it is important for us to find out what God wants. The New Atheists go straight to the root: there is no God, there is no way of discovering what God wants us to do, so all the arguments, even the ones that assert that God wants us to do good stuff, fail. Want what you want, but do it on your own nickel, not God's.

The second argument is that we ignore "sophisticated" theology and philosophy. But New/Gnu/Undergraduate Atheism is not a philosophical movement; we are not out to solve the philosophical problem of God. Millennia of theological and philosophical speculation have failed to move even an inch forward on saying anything consistent about God; it's time to move on. Even "sophisticated" theologians and accommodationist philosophers admit that the idea of a personal God — the king of personal God that billions of people believe — is untenable. But the kind of "god" the "sophisticated" theologians describe is at best the weakest of tea, at worst vacuous nonsense. The ground of all being? Seriously? More importantly, nobody but sophisticated theologians care about sophisticated theology: the actual content of sophisticated theology has no political, cultural, or social relevance whatsoever. As far as we New Atheists are concerned, the philosophical issue is solved: there are no gods worth talking about. We've seen the arguments for sophisticated theology, and, frankly, we think they're as silly and irrelevant as arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some people might want to work out their existential angst through metaphysical or theological speculation, but most New Atheists don't want to waste our time. We are busy attacking the real foundations of real institutions that do real harm.

I have to ask, however: If the billions of believers in a personal God — the kind of God the New Atheists attack — really have God so completely wrong, why criticize prominent New Atheists, especially their favorite target, Richard Dawkins? Do we not have a common enemy, people who have got God so completely wrong? Dawkins and most New Atheists have explicitly declared that we're not particularly interested in "sophisticated" theology; why not go after FEMA, or NASA, or Greenpeace, who are equally uninterested? There can be only three reasons. First, the assertion that there is no personal God somehow undermines the faith of those who believe in some kind of "sophisticated" metaphysical, ground-of-all-being, cosmic-purpose God that nobody but they themselves care about. Maybe so, but it seems the most fragile faith that is undermined by simply being ignored. The second is that they themselves want to assert religious moral authority. If so, they are spectacularly ineffective. The third is that this metaphysical god actually supports the moral authority of the religious institutions the New Atheists struggle against. By failing to challenge metaphysical theology, the moral authority of religious institutions — with whom "sophisticated" theologians supposedly profoundly disagree — remains strong. These complaints seem either childish or mendacious.

The third argument is that religion, however false, is an indispensable social construct. The argument cannot be that people and institutions that call themselves religious sometimes do good. Every human social construct that lasts more than a generation or so does some good; no one would argue, for example, that we should have perpetuated antebellum slavery because otherwise all the black people in the South would have been out of work and starved. The argument has to be that we must tolerate the falsity of religion, its misogyny, racism, murderous intolerance of dissent, parasitism to obtain the benefits it offers. This is, I think, a very tough case to make. The argument that surgically removing religion from society, changing nothing else, would leave some unmet needs seems obviously specious. We cannot surgically remove religion, and there is plenty of time to meet or even eliminate the needs, such as comfort for the poorest, that religion presently provides. We don't say that religion is all bad; we say that we can do the good that religion does, and do it much better.

The New Atheists are struggling against institutions that we believe are bad, in any sane, civilized, and reasonable sense of bad. We are struggling against institutions that support and defend murder, misogyny, sexism, racism, absurd sexual prudishness, parasitism, oppression, and exploitation. If people disagree with us, if they think these institutions are doing good, that we ought to murder people who disagree with us, that we ought to subordinate women, that we ought to subordinate people of different races, that we ought to restrict our sexuality to a very narrow band, that we ought to do nothing for those most abused and oppressed by society but give them a comforting delusion, and that we ought to pay real money for a bunch of men to tell us that that is what God wants, then by all means oppose us, and stand between us and the churches. If, however, people agree with us, that these institutions are a blight on our society, then at the very least, stand out of our way, or, better yet, join the fray on the right side.


  1. There's surprising resistance among some atheists to acknowledge New Atheism as a political movement.

    A few months back, I posted this blog article to an (Irish) political forum and attempted to argue that New Atheism is part of the single issue political movements which arose in the West during the 70s. The response was overwhelmingly negative with many atheists refusing to accept New Atheism as a political movement because atheism "cannot have any positive creeds".

    1. <shrug> a lot of people, including Pigliucci, don't like the fact that some atheists have a political agenda. And yet, here we are.

    2. The issue is that, while atheists can have political agendas, atheism cannot.

    3. Black people can have political agendas, race cannot. Gay people can have political agendas, sexual orientation cannot. What's your point? And do you have a name?

  2. "The argument has to be that we must tolerate the falsity of religion, its misogyny, racism, murderous intolerance of dissent, parasitism to obtain the benefits it offers."
    I suspect that sophisticated theists would argue that their, or more likely “true”, Christianity (or other religion) is not misogynistic, racist, etc. They would argue that you can have the good without the bad. In order to make this claim true, I think they have to distance themselves so far from doctrine as to make the claim that they are Christian or whatnot spurious. Either this, or they will claim something along the lines of “it is an evolving faith tradition and it has moved past those narrow views”. In either case they fall immediately into the trap of simply asserting what God wants without even the highly dubious evidence to support the assertion. I doubt that any sophisticated theologian would accept the charge that they support a sexist, racist, intolerant faith. As you point out though, that latter fact is largely irrelevant as nobody but another sophisticated theist pays them any mind.

    1. Ack!

      My last comment should read

      dubious evidence of scripture to support the assertion.

      Also, not sure what happened to the formatting of the text. There was some, honest!

    2. Apparently, I did not make perfectly clear earlier that you are no longer welcome here. I will do so now. I am completely uninterested in hearing or publishing your commentary. I will leave this comment, but further comments will be immediately deleted. You need not acknowledge this demand.

  3. Boy, philos sure get paid by the word...whew! Lots of natural language nuttiness.

    Here are two major problems with the whole premise of everything but evidence based work, which includes philo, econ, religion and other natural language based folklore - the medical evidence for no free will. The medical face is that all behavior in all animals is "decided" completely unconsciously in 140 ms. No time fore anything to do with subjective experience and solipsism.

    Anti-religious folks are blind to this core debunking of all theri ideas.

    Philo is a dead language since, by definition, noe of it's statements can predict any measurable future event - thus, it is entireley self referential.

    So, all the self-refenential talk is just another example of magical thinking, the core premise of which is "Mind over matter"

    There is no such thing as a mind and subjective experience - really just word play - likely has a trivial effect on anyone's behavior. But it's and empirical question - which philo self-talk is just being an obstacle to and wasting time. ho hum..

    1. Boy, philos sure get paid by the word...whew!

      I don't get paid for this.

      the medical evidence for no free will

      I don't know what you mean by "free will." I don't know how much the fields of philosophy, economics, and religion, really depend on mystical formulations of "free will" and become incoherent without it.

      Although it looks like you might be trying to agree with me, I don't think your position is sufficiently well-thought-out.

  4. Larry,

    A delightful, thoughtful essay. Thank you for saying it far better than I could.

  5. Dear Larry, The Barefoot Bum,

    Your very, very interesting piece is now in Polish. You can see it here:

    Malgorzata Koraszewska

    1. You're welcome. Feel free to contact me here or by email if your readers want additional information or wish to offer criticism.


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