Mar 03 2012

Neo-Atheism is filled with crazy people

I recently read Bryan Appleyard’s critique of the new atheist backlash against the more moderate atheists who wish to not be seen as a rabidly anti-theistic.

I don’t know… I am torn between both camps, it’s a pretty ridiculous issue being made by both sides. Atheists are not immune to stupidity, I have mentioned that I know anti-vaccine atheists and many animal liberation fanatics are atheists too. Doesn’t make their stupidity free from criticism, nor should it ever be.

But at this point? I don’t think either of these two extremes is right. Not if actual death threats were made.

On the one hand we have a group of passionate individuals who don’t want to appease religion. Which is all fine and dandy and great! New Atheism is something I identify closely with, but I also am a lot more moderate. My faith was not personally ruined and I was lucky enough to be educated in more than one faith (I am aware of Islamic, Hindu and Christian philosophy and to some extent about Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism alongside the Animist faith of my ancestors). Lucky because faith and religion has so little a hold of me because I am aware of all the differences.

I don’t feel the urge to go rub it in the average religious person’s face. I feel that one can be completely civil about atheism as such. By all means fight against religious intolerance but don’t become intolerant yourself. I see no issue in insulting the crazies while being as civil as possible.

However on the other side we see a more accommodating group. These atheists think we need some spirituality in our lives and that we should have a “temple of atheism” and maybe outreach programs to present a more likeable face. It’s not for me, but as long as it’s not spreading woo and nonsense I have no qualms about them.

And there we have it. The problem in our argument is that we as a group of people do not have a structure like faith. We have huge differences as atheists even in what we believe in. Despite all accusations, there is no arch-atheist. At our core we simply do not believe in any gods. With that in mind let’s deconstruct the arguments in a more sensible way.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

We do have a lot to learn from religion! It’s just that me and De Botton have different ideas on what we can learn from it.

I have no issues with the different ways religion inspires people. It does do that, the question remains is, how can we do the same thing. My opinion?

Religion is basically a story, not one like Harry Potter but one with a rich heritage and history. There is not many things similar to it because of the age of the material. So let’s just take science as an example.

ArtArchitecture? Music? It’s all there. The thing is religion may have inspired these things, but so can many other things. One doesn’t have to believe in Zeus to like the Parthenon. Atheism doesn’t inspire these things because there isn’t anything in atheism to inspire. We don’t have biblical imagery. We don’t revere anyone in particular in the same way that people revere Shiva. We don’t have “atheism only buildings” so we don’t have an architectural style that we like beyond personal taste.

So let’s say a sense of society. Can we as atheists learn something about this? Well we can, and we should learn! Many religious groups have a strong sense of community, can we not match that? Can we improve on their model and make it even more inclusive as we have seen recent. We don’t have to have a temple, but we can make our meetings a bit more friendly to everyone involved.

It’s not stupid to realise that there are some things (like charity) that religion does better than us. It’s not stupid to try and improve ourselves to match or exceed them.

However we can improve these in a way that makes sense. Catholic Charity would be very good if they sent more doctors and less priests, more condoms and less communion wafers. Why not be that? Why should their sermons not be matched with our classes on science, our better women’s health, or teaching modern farm theory. Why not start secular missionary work? 

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”

This is probably true. If there is one thing that we know about the internet is that it’s easy to say things like this. This isn’t indicative of new atheists, this is the problem of the internet where people post without thinking. De Botton has merely portrayed a version of religion where he ignores all the bad and just looks at all the good. Rose tinted atheism if you will.

De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality. “To say something along the lines of ‘I’m an atheist; I think religions are not all bad’ has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?”

For the same reason that writing “I am an Atheist” will get “Repent or Die Messages” or “I work on vaccines” would get you “Child killing torturer and Mengele fan” on your wall.

First, a definition. By “neo-atheism”, I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.

See this is where we begin to disagree. Science is a system where we test and retest hypothesis to form theories of how the universe functions based on observation, experiment and inference. Religion is merely the confused writings of people from ages ago about how they perceived the world and is very often wrong. They are deluded to a phenomenal level. The entire point is we can simply ignore that and look at how they function and learn a few lessons. Of things to avoid and of things to do.

Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Chris
tian can easily be a secularist – indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” – and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.

Secularism is the idea that in the work place and in government there should not be any arguments based on the belief in an imaginary friend. That no religion should be given a leg up by the government. Atheism is an entirely physical metaphysical position and leads onto secularism as a political position. Caesar’s position was unchangeable by lay christians. Render unto Caesar merely states the opinion that christians should go along with Caesar. In a democracy the vote affects the people and “Render Unto Caesar” means “Tough No Abortion” or “Tough, you are now being taught stupid sex education” or “Tough, Earth now 6000 years ago, Jesus rode a Stegosaurus”. Religious views should not be taken into account because the arguments are not based on logic but on frankly insane beliefs.

Do you seriously think we should discuss banning women from public places because muslims, LDS and some Jews think so? Some religious views are fine and dandy, some are just backwards and nonsensical and should be treated as such. Not everyone’s opinion is good. I don’t see why I should have to listen to the Pope’s opinion on women’s healthcare and sex education since he clearly has no fucking clue what’s going on. Secularism is just the stance that we shouldn’t let religious officials have a say in the functioning of our government, nor should we do things solely because of our faith in a god.

To put it in a simple way, if you don’t believe women should have abortions, then you don’t have an abortion. Don’t force other women to follow your religion’s rules.

The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.

No. Darwinism is merely the insult used by religious people to describe modern evolution theory by comparing it to a belief system rather than a fact like gravity which is also explained by a theory (like gravity). It’s used to denigrate an actual science in the USA (the term has no negative connotations in the UK) by making it seem like evolution is without facts, evidence and logic and is more akin to a religious belief.

It’s not an AK-47, it’s more like a battleground where Christian, Jewish and now Muslim faithful have suddenly realised that they aren’t the divine spark of magic within a clay shell like their book says but the product of evolution and they are “just” a very intelligent ape. It’s not a bad thing, but when we say ape, these individuals assume that this is carte blanche to behave like a chimpanzee.

Religion is a uniquely dangerous threat since despite evolution being fact, it is still under threat by religious fanatics who try and shovel their Jesus into science at the cost of evolutionary theory or co-opting it to give credence to their arguments. 45% of the USA do not believe in Evolution which is like saying that 45% of a nation believe that gravity is caused by the gravity fairy.

“There is this strange supposition,” says the American philosopher Jerry Fodor, “that if you’re a Darwinian you have to be an atheist. In my case, I’m an anti-Darwinian and I’m an atheist. But people are so incoherent on these issues that it’s hard for me to figure out what is driving them.”

Well it’s a good think Jerry Fodor is a philosopher! Because it certainly is the only field where you can happily say that you don’t believe in evolution and not be considered a moron.

The neo-atheist cause has been gathering strength for roughly two decades and recently exploded into very public view. Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, was in the headlines for making a speech at the Vatican warning of the dangers of secular fundamentalism, which aims to prevent religions from having a public voice or role. Warsi, a Muslim, subdivides propagators of this anti-religious impulse into two categories. First, there are the well-meaning liberal elite, who want to suppress religion in order not to cause offence to anybody. Second, there is the “perverse kind of secular” believer, who wants to “wipe religion from the public sphere” on principle.

Let’s see, because all religions have to live under a single set of rules and we cannot have Sharia law for Muslims, Catholic law for Catholics and so on. We live under one law and the law that works the best is secular law. The gripe of these people is that they are being made more and more unnecessary in a modern world and they can no longer get handouts to their faith based on who they know.

And yes, it shouldn’t be in the public sphere. Because nearly every religion is either equal to a secular government where decisions are made sensibly, or worse. I don’t think any Abrahamic faith has anything to give modern society that cannot be gained from a non religious source.

As Warsi was on her way to catch her flight to Rome she heard Dawkins, the supreme prophet of neo-atheism, on Radio 4′s Today programme. He was attempting to celebrate a survey that proved, at least to his satisfaction, that supposedly Christian Britain was a fraud. People who said they were Christians did not go to church and knew little of the faith. Giles Fraser, a priest of the Church of England, then challenged Dawkins to give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Falling into confusion, he failed. Fraser’s point was that Dawkins was therefore, by his own criterion, not a Darwinian. Becoming even more confused, Dawkins exclaimed in his response: “Oh, God!”

We don’t follow Darwin anymore in biology. The idea of evolution that Darwin proposed and what we have are entirely different beasts. Darwin’s books are actually for all intents and purposes “Wrong”. Accusing someone of being a Darwinist is like accusing someone of being an Aristotlean. We don’t actually study Darwin’s work because it’s now part of literature.

“Immediately he was out of control, he said, ‘Oh, God!’” Warsi recalls, “so even the most self-confessed secular fundamentalist at this moment of need needed to turn to the Almighty. It kind of defeats his own argument that only people who go to church have a faith.”

“Oh God!” is a stock standard phrase derived from blasphemy in the same way that I say “Jesus Christ” when I swear. It doesn’t mean I am turning to Jesus who to me is about as fictional as Asterix the Gaul, it means I am swearing.

It’s a statement of exasperation. No one who says “Oh My God!” is invoking a god but is expressing disbelief with a stock phrase.

“He has taken a very strange position. He’s unusual, in that he came from an elite British Anglican family with all its privileges and then he had this extraordinary career, and now he stands at the head of what can really be called a cult . . . I think what happened was that he has been frightened by the militancy of religious people he has met on his travels and it has driven him to the other side. 

“It smacks of a sort of psychological collapse in him, a collapse in those resources of maturity that would keep someone on an even keel. There is what psychoanalysts would call a deep rigidity in him.”

Hardly. Dawkins has been subjected to criticism from within the new atheist movement. Like every celebrity, he has fans but he doesn’t speak for most atheists.

I ask Fraser what he thinks are the roots of this ideological rigidity among the neo-atheists. “It coincides with post-9/11,” he says. “The enemy is Islam for them. That was true about [Christopher] Hitchens in an obvious way and Dawkins said something like ‘it was the most evil religion in the world’. 

“With Hitchens, it was bound up with liberal interventionism. It is also clearly an Americanisation. It has come over from their culture wars . . . People are pissed off with Dawkins because there is a feeling that we don’t do that over here.”

Actually, most New Atheists live in the USA. There is a massive USA centred movement about them (and indeed this is seen by the demographic) and they are mainly anti-christian. Those who are in the UK however are mainly anti-islamic in their mindset since in the USA the big threat to secular values is Christianity while in the UK the rise of islamic fundementalism represents a threat to secular values particularly in the fact that there are only two opinions in the UK which range from “Islam isn’t so bad” to “Muslims should be put on a plane to wherever it is they came from!”. There is no middle ground between Sharia Court and BNP. It’s frankly irritating that the people who shout “Yeah!” over your shoulder when you criticise Islam are people who want to throw me out with the Muslims!

Islam has MASSIVE problems. It’s a violently reactionary religion. It’s a religion with a terrible history of the treatment of women. It’s a religion which is incredibly anti-education. It’s a religion that doesn’t encourage scientific thought and discourse. It cannot handle criticism rationally. In short? It’s a massive elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

When we do talk about it we have charges of islamophobia or racism levelled at us, leaving atheists incredibly puzzled as to why in the UK we have things like Sharia Courts and tolerate the thuggish behaviour of some islamic groups.

For me, the events of 9/11 were certainly a catalyst, the new ingredient that turned the already bubbling mix of anti-religious feeling into an explosive concoction. Coming from a scientific family, I had accepted the common-sense orthodoxy that religion and science were two separate but complementary and non-conflicting entities, or what the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). I first became aware of my own complacency in this regard when I interviewed Stephen Hawking just before the publication of A Brief History of Time (1988). He had become – it was his then wife who told me this – vehemently anti-religious. And in my presence he was contemptuously anti-philosophical.

Hardly. September 11th just made Islamic Terrorism a bit more personal and less about distant people dying in third world nations. It was basically a taste of what people have to go through across the world to a group of people who didn’t have to experience that kind of fear. Atheists came out in force because it was a perfect demonstration of the ills of evil. But remember so did Christianity which nearly turned the war into a bloody crusade.

There had always been an anti-religious strain in science, a strain that had been present since Galileo and which, indeed, had grown stronger after Darwin. In the postwar period, both Francis Crick and James Watson conceded that one of their main motivations in unravelling the molecular structure of DNA was to undermine religion. It was strengthened even further in the popular imagination when Dawkins expounded the outlines of the neo-Darwinian synthesis in his fine book The Selfish Gene (1976). In the 1990s it became routine to hear scientists – notably in this country Peter Atkins and Lewis Wolpert – pouring scorn on the claims of philosophy and religion. They were, for entirely non-scientific reasons, in a triumph­ant mood. The sales of A Brief History of Time had sent publishing advances for popular science books soaring, and the more astounding the claims, the better the money.

Watson and Crick were atheists from a young age and the structure of DNA was a race between Oxford and Cambridge. There were three people who should be credited with the discovery of the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin was one of the discoverers of the structure. And yes, why shouldn’t we laugh at religion and indeed philosophy? It’s a group of people who don’t do experiments about the observed while discussing the unobservable while making claims about their conclusions that are not based on an ounce of empirical data.

While observing this, I became aware that the ground had shifted beneath my own cosy orthodoxy. Scientistic thinkers were no longer prepared to accept NOMA, the separate, complementary, non-conflicting realms. In the early 1990s I was engaged in a debate with Dawkins at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He said, to much applause, that the existence of God was a scientific issue. If, in effect, God could not live up to the standards of scientific proof, then He must be declared dead. There were no longer two magisteria, but just one, before which we must all bow.

Are we to simply declare the giant elephant in the room as taboo for discussion. Religion claims  to have an entity that is not only external to the universe but also fully capable of breaking the laws of physics through magic and we are to blindly accept this and carry on with our science and not even take a single measurement? Are we to simply ignore the man behind the curtain?

It was in the midst of this that Fodor and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published What Darwin Got Wrong, a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought which concluded that the theory of natural selection could not be stated coherently. All hell broke loose. Such was the abuse that Fodor vowed never to read a blog again. Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading the book but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.

It was not highly sophisticated. It was a book written by a philosopher with a poor understanding about evolutionary biology, writing about a theory that was nearly 100 years old by that point and had grown based on newer proof.

The argument was a philosophical one and one that simply doesn’t hold true in nature. It wasn’t all hell breaking lose so much as people calling them out for their inherent mistakes when they
tried to play scientist. Basically? Real Scientists in the field simply tore their arguments to shreds because these two individuals failed to realise that science has progressed a lot since the days of Darwin.

Ultimately, the problem with militant neo-atheism is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion – or, indeed, the human experience – in scientific terms is futile. “It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love,” de Botton says. “It’s a symptom of the misplaced confidence of science . . . It’s a kind of category error. It’s a fatally wrong question and the more you ask it, the more you come up with bizarre and odd answers.”

No it wouldn’t. The truth about Anna Karenina would be fascinating. Are we to suggest that archeology and paleontology isn’t fascinating because they deal with the past? Love as a study into neurology would be intensely fascinating while not altering it’s meaning one bit. So what if it’s just chemistry? Knowing how it works doesn’t make it less special. The entire point of science is you can ask any question and get an answer through empirical thought. Simply stating that you shouldn’t answer some questions is a ludicrous idea.

The answer demonstrates the futility of the neo-atheist project. Religion is not going to go away. It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown. Furthermore, as Hitchens in effect acknowledged and as the neo-atheists demonstrate by their ideological rigidity and savagery, absence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated. People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn’t.

However we can oppose it’s grasp on our children and indeed on our daily lives which are being influenced by people who lived 2000 years ago and had no idea about the world. Really? Do we honestly think that “Gay Marriage Is Anti Christian” is a logical and sane answer to the modern issue? No! You would have to be a madman to say that you refuse to accept two people’s marriage solely because you believe in the same things as people did 2000 years ago!

It is better to know that we know nothing than claim that we know everything. That’s the difference between science and religion. Science may be truly small but it will get bigger and bigger as we understand more of how the universe works. Religion assumes it knows everything which is why it stagnates and why it’s god is so small, petty and insignificant.

The ideological savagery exists in atheism, but should we point out the actual savagery of faith? The savage verbal assaults on the four gentlemen mentioned earlier are no different from ones we have all faced. This is a problem of humanity irrespective of faith. The problem with faith is that it can encourage a lot of people to assault a single concept. The problem with faith is that it can drive people to actual savagery.

Happily, the backlash against neo-atheism has begun, inspired by the cult’s own intolerance. In the Christmas issue of this magazine, Dawkins interviewed Hitchens. Halfway through, Dawkins asked: “Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?” At dinner at the restaurant in Bayswater we all laughed at this, but our laughter was uneasy. The history of attempts to destroy religion is littered with the corpses of believers and unbelievers alike. There are many roads to truth, but cultish intolerance is not one of them.

So far this article has been one of strawman after strawman. If it was about learning from religion and genuine criticism about the atheist movement and how to improve ourselves then it would be fine. Instead it’s a ridiculous assault on evolution, mixed in with complaints that people called other people out for making the ridiculous assault on evolution finally culminating in the idea that religion will always exist because people are too stupid and if we get rid of one we would have to deal with a crazier one.

There are many roads to the truth but the truth is singular. The truth of religion and of science are entirely different and science is based on proof and evidence while religion is not. Science does not accept anything as true until proven, while religion accepts things as true before finding proof. 


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  1. 1
    Mohammad Munawar Malik

    nice Chemistry Experiments

  2. 2

    I still don’t understand what is supposed to be ‘new’ or ‘neo’ in atheism.

    Freethinker: the voice of atheism since 1881: About

    “Cutting”, “abrasive”, “sarcastic”, “offensive” … These are just some of the words used to describe the Freethinker magazine, which was launched in Britain in 1881

    May 1991 Foote wrote:

    The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.

    The Ethics of Belief, by W.K.Clifford

    If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it–the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

    Huxley, Ingersoll, Russell, and scores of others.

    The only thing ‘new’ I see is that FEWER (sadly, still not none) are killed, imprisoned, intimidated or their jobs forfeited for speaking their mind on this issue.

    Thanks for this piece, saved me having to write one :)

  3. 3

    If there is one thing we can learn from religion, it is the power of living by a book. There should be a book — subject to amendment — containing a collection of ethical morals and scientifically established facts, neither affirming nor denying any deity.

    The basic things we know about the world, and the basic methods of acquiring knowledge, should be common refrains. Obviously, if most people speak of them, they’ll be used religiously also, but why is that a problem?

    Religion will always exist, as long as people are people. Just as porn will always exist. It’s human nature. But finding out how the world works is also human nature; and if the facts are presented attractively, people will pick them up. If religious people know more facts and get less ignorant, that’s a good thing. Too bad if New Atheists have a harder time figuring out whom to harass!

  4. 4

    P.S. It’s not Islamophobia to admit that Islam has massive problems. It’s not Islamophobia to admit that currently the world’s worst terrorists are Muslims. A few centuries ago, it was Christianity that had these problems. What we call phobia is ignoring this variability and focusing on Islam outside the context of factual accusation.

    If atheists had a strategy for destroying these problems, the world would listen. But that would mean defining what the problems are, against an objective norm. And since religion doesn’t provide that norm, you can invent one. We know it doesn’t take religion to be a good person by one’s own strength of character. But that isn’t enough; is it possible to lead people to a good character without mentioning religion (even in the negative)? I think it is, but I have yet to see anyone attempt it.

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