You’ve heard it before. “They hate us for our freedoms”. It’s a catch-all excuse, where we can simultaneously pat ourselves on the back for being so “free”, whatever that means, and condemn others for not being as “free”. I’ve developed a bad reaction to that: I want to know what you mean by “freedom”. Freedom to exploit people? Freedom to harass? Freedom to eat bacon? Freedom to pray to your gods? There are a lot of freedoms that are worth exercising, and many of those that I’m happy to say can be exercised in my country. There are also things people call freedoms that are truly awful, and those get exercised, too — like the freedom to take advantage of underprivileged people. There’s also a tendency for my fellow Americans to assume that America is the land of the free, and that everyone is equally and completely free, which is not true. They also tend to get angry if you point out the shortcomings of America, in particular that different people have different degrees of liberty.
So my usual reaction is to wonder how the ‘freedom’ cheerleaders define freedom, and whether they seriously think the ideal is to be free of all responsibilities and obligations. It’s usually used vacuously, as a dogma that is not to be questioned.
Which means that I had to facepalm at this complaint about new atheism. That’s fair; there are good reasons to criticize, and an important part of intellectual growth is to address good faith criticisms. I read this, for instance, and didn’t reject it out of hand.
Many new atheists, including Dennett or Dawkins, have been criticised for being too radical. The phrase “militant atheist” is often thrown about. The general worry is that they have little patience or compassion for religious people and the reasons why they choose religion.
I’ve heard that complaint frequently enough that we should pay attention to it and try to deal with it. I wasn’t particularly impressed that this critic then goes on to babble approvingly of Alain de Botton, one of the shallowest, least interesting, wanna-be replacements for Richard Dawkins ever.
But don’t worry! He’s got a suggestion for what the next generation of atheists need to do.
What should we do then? Is there a genuine, not merely superficial alternative to both religion and the “something bigger” new atheists talk about? I suggest that there is a very simple alternative: we should try to avoid forcing a straight-jacket on our ever-changing self – by religious doctrines or by one of these “projects” the new atheists talk about. We should accept and cherish our freedom to change.
For the new atheists, freedom plays a very limited role. You are free to choose what you devote your life to, but once you’ve done that, your life is on a fixed track – no more free decisions. The new atheists’ “projects”, just as religious doctrines, put unreasonably severe constraints on our inner freedom.
The opposite of religion is not the slavish following of “something bigger” as the new atheists suggest. The opposite of religion is freedom.
Baffling. What “projects”? Is this a thing among the new atheists? (I think I’d know.) What “straight jacket” [sic]? Where is this assertion that new atheists aren’t allowed to change and grow, that they’re on a fixed track? This is news to me.
And what is his alternative? Fucking “freedom”. What does that mean? It’s stunning that this platitude comes from a professor of philosophy. Define your terms. What do you mean by the “opposite of religion is freedom”? Religion is slavery? All a slave must do is accept atheism and they are free?
We need good criticisms because we do need to improve our image and our approach. This is not a useful argument. We don’t need hackneyed bromides. Explain what “freedom” means in a social movement.