Friday, May 29, 2015

Atheists Need To Stand Up To New Atheists

If you don't know who I mean by New Atheists, if you read this post all the way through, you will.

Hundreds of years ago, some of the people who didn't believe that God or any gods existed were afraid to call themselves atheists, and so they called themselves skeptics instead. Sadly, it's happening again.

Today, there are atheists who are choosing not to publicly refer to themselves as atheists, because they're afraid that if they do, people will assume that they agree with Richard Dawkins when he compares Trinity College in Cambridge to "the Muslim world" and tacitly assumes that Nobel Prizes are an objective measure of a culture's achievements; or with the late Christopher Hitchens' assertion, important enough to him that he made it a subtitle of one of his books, that "religion poisons everything;" or with Sam Harris when he says -- just about anything; or admire PZ Myers for covering a copy of Koran with garbage and feces. Or maybe they're afraid that people will assume that they share the Islamophobia or the large gaps in the education in history of all four of the above... They choose not to call themselves atheists, to behave as if the word does not mean what it meant when the big atheist superstars were Russell and Sartre instead of Dawkins and Harris, because they're afraid.

And so they're hiding behind less clear labels like "skeptic" or "non-believer" or, if they're even a little bit more cowardly than that, they just keep going to church, and claim on Facebook they if they come out of the atheist closet they'll be lynched. In the last instance I'm not talking about atheists living in countries where atheists actually have been killed, sometimes by the authorities. I'm talking about the cowardly atheists in the US who claim that if they publicly acknowledge that they're atheists, they will be risking their lives.

But back to the "skeptics" and "non-believers" : the thing is that "atheist" does -- for the time being, anyway -- still mean what it meant back when Bertie and Jean-Paul were kicking ass and taking names and winning Nobel Prizes in Literature (Ai kan also haz??) "Atheist" still refers, for the vast majority of the population, to anyone and everyone who thinks that God and gods and miracles and resurrections and so forth are all make-believe.

But even beyond that -- what has ever been the point of anyone calling him- or herself an atheist? Outside of the Communist bloc, it hasn't ever been done in order to increase one's chances of winning political office. It's been done for the sake of honesty. For the sake of clarity. For the sake of good sense. (I've stopped using the phrase "common sense," because as time goes on it becomes more and more clear to me how uncommon good sense is.)

And so, in order to be as clear and precise as possible, if you're an atheist who realizes that a phenomenon that has included billions of people over tens of thousands of years is far, far too complex to be referred to as all bad, an atheist who's noticed both all of the Muslims being killed by majority-Christian nations and all the Muslims fighting ISIS and fighting extremism in general and just can't go along with the fearmongering Islamophobic bullshit of Dawkins and Harris and Hitch, an atheist who finds it disgusting and counter-productive when someone literally craps on books, or who knows several things wrong about describing authors of the Bible as "Bronze-Age goat herders" -- if you're all or any of those kinds of an atheist, the thing to do is to say so. And not to surrender the label "atheist" to the fans of Dawkins, Hitch, Harris, Myers, Dennett, Coyne & Co.

It occurs to me that the situation may already have grown so ridiculously confused that not only some atheists, but also many religious people may agree with Hitchens' slogan "religion poisons everything." without agreeing with Hitchens or me or any other atheists (or skeptics or non-believers, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to) in any particulars whatsoever. I'm talking about the so-called "spiritual but not religious." Like the "skeptics" and "non-believers" who are actually atheists but prefer to be obscure, to hide from the danger of association with the barbarian New Atheist hordes, the "spiritual but not religious" have differences with people who share certain metaphysical beliefs with them (the set of beliefs known as "religion"), and instead of directly confronting those specific differences, whether they have to do with hierarchy in religious organizations, or corruption in religious hierarchies, or with politics -- instead of dealing with those specific issues, the "spiritual but not religious" have preferred to pretend that the term "religious" suddenly does not mean what it means. There are a lot of Buddhists who suddenly are pretending that Buddhism is not a religion and never was, and that Buddhism who think or thought it is or was a religion are or were doin' it wrong.

I think that we atheists should leave this sort of semantic nonsense to religious people, along with their metaphysical nonsense. If you don't believe God exists and you do believe Dawkins has become a huge jackass since he stopped studying biology a decade ago, or you have differences with Harris or Hitch or Myers -- or with Russell or Sartre or Nietzsche or Twain, or with me, or with anyone else who identifies as an atheist -- I think you should call yourself an atheist and talk directly and clearly about your specific differences with those other atheists.

Why? Because if you correctly identify yourself as an atheist, there's a greater chance that others will understand what you're talking about. Abandoning the term will only lead to confusion -- it has only led to confusion. Simple and plain as that. And again, what ever has been the point of any of us (outside of the Communist bloc) opposing religion and exposing ourselves to so much aggravation, if it has not been for the sake of greater understanding and greater clarity, and for the sake making more sense and speaking more plainly than those others in their churches and temples and mosques, and for the sake of striving to be better than those who know better but would thrive on the confusion of others?


  1. "I worry that because New Atheism was born in battle it has developed a battle-field mentality of righteous anger for its cause and contempt for all who refuse to join it."

    Your call to arms doesn't seem very different.

    1. I admit that I have my moments of anger and contempt. But I think there's a difference, for instance, between my anger at Islamophobia, and Islamophobia. A greater difference than that between the Islamophobia expressed by Harris and many of his fans, and that expressed by some traditionalist right-wing Christians.

      Thanks for your comment. You have a good blog there.

    2. When I first learned, around about 2010, that there was a group called the New Atheists, at first I assumed I was one, especially as I had read and admired Dawkins' work in biology. As I got to know them, I noticed more and more dissimilarities.