I don’t support New Atheism

“But Tom, I read your last post. You don’t support regular Atheism!”

Well, that’s not entirely true. I do support Atheism. I support Atheism more than pretty much any other belief system; Agnosticism, of course, is just a little higher, and I’m a big fan of compassionate, logical, rational theism. I can support systems of belief without subscribing to them.

So, I’ve been reading a bit about “New Atheism,” and I really don’t like what I see. The basic idea seems to be that, while Atheism is either the disbelief in religion and supernatural traditions or the lack of belief in same, “New Atheism” is the outright condemnation of any belief system not based in reason and evidence, and the rejection of the notion that such systems deserve respect.

See, on one hand, I agree with this completely. I don’t have much respect for people who come to their beliefs without reason, and I don’t think we should privilege religious people or organizations with things like tax exemption or service positions, unless we give the same concessions to similarly-purposed secular organizations. I don’t think any system of belief is inherently deserving of respect; respect must be earned. And if it’s a belief system which is based in logic and reason and evidence, that’s a good way to earn respect; if it’s a belief system which compels its followers to be kind and just and good to their fellow humans, that’s also a pretty respectable position. But no belief system deserves respect just by virtue of being a belief system, just by acknowledging the existence of some supernatural sky-spirits, or something of that sort.

The problem I see is with equivocation: belief systems don’t inherently deserve respect, but people do. Even the people who believe in magical sky spirits or alien-soul psychology deserve a modicum of respect. Sometimes, we (by which I mean I) forget that. People can do or say or believe things that cause us to lose our respect for them, but as long as they share a species with you, as long as you wish to claim some moral integrity, then they deserve some of your respect. No matter who said it, religious or secular, the Golden Rule is a damn good piece of advice.

And that’s the other problem: belief in the supernatural is not sufficient to qualify someone as irrational. Some of the most intelligent, rational people I know are theists of one sort or another (one of the benefits of going to a liberal religious college). There’s the Lutheran pastor and religion professor with polytheistic tendencies, or my fideist Lutheran English professor; and what of the legions of theistic or deistic scientists? Showing this intellectual disdain for faith doesn’t advance the cause of science and rationality, it just alienates the faithful who fight for those causes alongside the godless. Science and logic are universal things; everyone can benefit from them, everyone can practice them, everyone can accept them. That’s why they’re science and logic, and not religion. What I see here is New Atheism staking a claim on rationality, science, and evidentialism, and saying “no faith allowed.”

Maybe I’m mischaracterizing the issue here, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a leap from “we condemn these beliefs, and feel that they are utterly undeserving of any respect” and “we condemn the people who hold these beliefs.” Forgive me my lack of faith in the ability of people to make that distinction. Atheists are commonly mischaracterized as smug, arrogant, angry, petty people who just want to rain on everyone’s parade; while I will fight tooth and nail against that sort of idiotic stereotype, I can’t help but feel that this “New Atheism” is just furthering that image. I can’t help but feel that “New Atheists” are condemning intelligent, rational people, people who support the scientific process, people who support progressive social values, people who put their beliefs through the same sort of rigorous questioning and introspection as any nonbeliever, condemning them for not arriving at the same conclusions. Even if belief in the supernatural is irrational, is it any more rational to suggest that all people through logic and inquiry will arrive at the exact same conclusions? Perhaps if they’re given the same evidence, the same tools, the same experiences, we could make that claim. But in matters of metaphysics, the only evidence is experience. Should we condemn people who receive their empowering, enlightening, “spiritual” experiences from music or literature or exercise? Are those pursuits undeserving of respect?

“New Atheism” is a gunshot to the foot of the freethinking world. It’s one thing to condemn the irrational, to denounce fundamentalism in all its forms (for indeed, there’s only one sort of fanaticism, it just adheres to different dogmas), to espouse the ideals of inquiry and reason and evidence and empiricism. It’s quite another thing to claim intellectual superiority over all other systems of belief, and to effectively shut out dissent and diversity. There are many forms of reason; evidentialism is only one aspect.

The thing that really scares me about this is how dogmatic it all seems. Everyone else is wrong, this is the only way, no other beliefs deserve respect…seems more like “Fundamentalist Atheism” to me. If we alienate rational, progressive theists and theistic scientists, force a schism between “New Atheists” and all other freethinkers, and further the negative stereotypes about the areligious, then who exactly does this movement end up helping? Is all that damage worth an ego boost to those angry at religion? Because that’s what this ends up looking like, once you consider the ramifications.

An aside: As I said before, I don’t care for faith, but that’s my own personal choice. I understand that faith is a powerful motivating force to many, and in matters of the unprovable or unfalsifiable, it acts for many as a substitute for evidence. I have the utmost respect to people who put their faith through testing and questioning and introspection and arrive at a belief system–whatever that system may be. I arrived at strong Agnosticism, others arrive at Atheism, others find some sort of theism. I don’t think that those differences make one party significantly more or less rational than the others. I have a deep respect for fideism as it was explained to me, that it is belief purely rooted in faith, that the lack of proof or provability is acknowledged and accepted. When my professor discussed it, she compared her beliefs to those of CSICOP founder, skeptic icon and anti-pseudoscience crusader Martin Gardner: credo consolens, “I believe because it is comforting.” Is it irrational to find meaning in that which brings comfort? Is that not a reason to believe something? If there is no evidence for or against (since it’s supernatural), and it is comforting to believe in it, and you do not seek to justify it through evidentiary methods or to force others to conform to that belief, then what harm is done in believing it? Where is the irrationality there?

Certainly not all theists are fideists. Certainly not all intelligent, rational theists are pure fideists. But there are rational folks of every religious stripe, whose beliefs do not infringe upon the realm of science, do not infringe upon the beliefs of other individuals, and do not compromise the integrity of logical, rational thought. Why are we condemning them? End aside.

No belief system inherently deserves respect; systems earn respect through the content of their beliefs, and through the evidence which supports them. The question is, what does “New Atheism” offer to deserve respect? Because if “disdain for other beliefs” and “justification for beliefs in the moral/intellectual superiority of one group over another” are the only innovations of the movement, then I don’t see why it’s any more respectable than the religious traditions it decries. There’s only one sort of fundamentalism, it just adheres itself to multiple belief systems. Hopefully skeptics, scientists, atheists, and freethinkers are observant and rational enough to keep it from attaching to our favored traditions.

By the way, while looking up Martin Gardner, I came upon this very relevant post on The Uncredible Hallq. It really mirrors some of what I’m saying here, and does it more succinctly and less ramblingly than I could.


5 Responses to I don’t support New Atheism

  1. Roy says:

    These last two entries of yours have been extremely enjoyable to read- a lot of it mirrors my own feelings on the subject (which is kind of reassuring- it’s nice to know that other people feel the same). I guess that’s it, really- Great entries.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    Well, thank you very much for the kind words, and for the readership. I’ll try to keep the quality up :).

  3. Hallq says:

    Thanks for the link. I plan to write a longer post linking to this one, but for now I should point out that about two months after that one I wrote another taking a somewhat different position. What touched it off was an encounter with a guy who essentially believed on faith that everyone who disagrees with him goes to hell. This had made me tend to think that while believing on faith may not be inherently dangerous, it removes a guardrail against dangerously irrational belief.

  4. JackalMage says:

    Wee! Thread necromancy!Anyway, I can both agree and disagree with you.I agree that it is very, very easy to move from “I have utterly no respect for your belief system” to “I have utterly no respect for you.” I have no problems guarding against the move for people that I know personally, but it’s much harder when I’m talking to people online, say, or discussing groups of people in general. When you’re discussing or considering just that one aspect, it’s very easy to conflate it with the entirety of the person. That’s why I prefer guarding against it explicitly when I state my beliefs, by saying something like “I hate religion, but not the religious.”Now, the part that I disagree with is this:”It’s one thing to condemn the irrational, to denounce fundamentalism in all its forms (for indeed, there’s only one sort of fanaticism, it just adheres to different dogmas), to espouse the ideals of inquiry and reason and evidence and empiricism. It’s quite another thing to claim intellectual superiority over all other systems of belief, and to effectively shut out dissent and diversity. There are many forms of reason; evidentialism is only one aspect.”‘Evidentialism’, otherwise known as simply using inductive logic, is the only valid way of discovering knowledge. There are many, many ways of theorizing about things, but evidence is the only way to discover which theories are correct. I’m not prepared to defend myself against the statement that inductive logic is only valid by inductive logic, though. ^_^ At the moment, I’ll posit it as obvious.Related to hallq’s comment, anyone who posits anything on faith has the risk of *demanding* that it is only knowable by faith. A fideist as you talk about is simply an ‘evidentialist’ who makes up answers to questions that he doesn’t yet know the answers to.The danger, as I said, is when you *do* find an answer to a question inductively, and it’s different from your faith answer. Which do you stick with? If the experimental answer, then your faith is worthless. If the faith answer, then your faith is dangerous. As well, to somebody raised with the faith answer to an unknown problem, it may be difficult to tell that there isn’t an experimental answer. We take many, many things for granted because they seem reasonable. Oftentimes, we don’t even ask for evidence – we take that for granted as well. The problem, then, comes when people start taking for granted things without evidence, assuming that they must be well-supported, since everyone believes them. That stifles curiosity and the scientific impulse.

  5. Jacqueline says:

    Taken from the New Atheist website: "One of the fundamental beliefs…"There was I thinking atheism was about a LACK of belief!".. in atheism is that the theory of evolution, through reasoning, can only lead to atheism."I would have thought that scientific evidence would lead someone to disbelieve mythical accounts of creation, not a "belief" in atheism."Therefore, evolution contradicts all religions and the belief in God. As a result, there is no middle ground, such as creationism."I'd like to know if the guy that wrote this studied ALL the various creation myths around the world before making such an overly encompassing statement. I'd have thought that there may be a few myths that come close to, or even go along with evolution purely because there are so many myths. "Creationism is not based on any evidence or fact that can be scientifically examined…"Since creationism is usually based upon just the word of the Bible, and that book's history can be verified through the science of archaeology then our New Atheist is technically wrong here."..or verified. Therefore, creationism is not a theory of science, but rather a theory of religion."Except when creationists try to use science to discredit science. Anyone can make up a scientific sounding hypothesis. It is in the testing that it stands or falls."Even agnostics, who are not committed to the existence or nonexistence of God, are being renounced by the New Atheists; because all scientific evidence points away from religions…"No uncertainty there then. ALL scientific evidence? I thought that total certainty was for dogmatic religionists, not so called atheists.JS:)

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