Friday, August 21, 2015

On the Poverty of the Contemporary Atheist Movement


The years since the Islamist slaughter of September 11, 2001 have seen the rise of the “New Atheism,” which is a movement of atheists characterized by a bold and energetic critique of religious beliefs and practices combined with a strong political agenda of removing religious influences from public policy debates.

The New Atheism didn’t begin on 9/11, to be sure, but it captured the attention of many people as a result of that day.

The atheist movement of today is well characterized by Camille Paglia’s neologism of “snark atheism.” Although an atheist herself, Ms. Paglia is scandalized by the poverty of contemporary atheism as a social movement.

I share this attitude. Although no longer an atheist, I speak with authority. I earned my Ph.D. in Philosophy by defending atheism. In 1991, I formed the first atheist student organization at the University of Minnesota, which became, under my leadership, the largest group of its kind in the country. The group exists to this day.

What has become of the atheist movement? Passionately critical of the small-mindedness and pettiness of religious people, this form of populist atheism manifests these very vices in spades. There are many sophisticated atheists who do not engage in this anti-intellectualism, but they are not the problem. The problem is the degenerate and sanctimonious atheism that has gained wide purchase.

The populist atheist movement relies extensively on the Straw Man fallacy by misrepresenting religious beliefs in the most absurd ways, and then mocking these misrepresentations. Religious people do not generally believe in an old bearded man who lives in the sky. Christians do not believe that Jesus is a space-man. And on and on.

The movement also frequently replaces serious argument with intellectually irrelevant speculations about motives. For example, religion itself is derided and mocked because religious people supposedly believe in it out of fear or out of lust for power. There are two things wrong with this: First, even if it were true that people believe in something for ignoble reasons, the truth of the thing in question is unaffected; and, second, to ascribe these motivations to religious people as if all of them were motivated in such a way is simply inexcusably ignorant. I have met countless people in my life whose religious beliefs were sincerely motivated by perfectly noble instincts.

The movement hypocritically claims that religious people uniquely wish to impose their beliefs onto other people when, in fact, the populist atheists nearly always wish to impose their own beliefs onto religious people. For example, same-sex marriage is now forced upon many religious people. You may wonder what is wrong with that. Well, if the issue is ‘forcing one’s beliefs onto other people,’ then there is a clear hypocrisy here.

Which brings me to the next point: The reason that the new populist atheism is so aggressive is that it is nearly always mated to a strong left-wing ideological perspective. Because left-wing atheists wish to impose their political agenda onto other people, their hatred of religion is augmented by the fact that religious people are far more likely to resist their political agenda than non-religious people are.

I believe that the populist atheists are intellectually and spiritually impoverished. To a universal institution of human history they wave their hands in disgust. They mock the human need to find meaning in transcendence. They ridicule the human need for ritual that is directed at God, the Gods and Goddesses, and the ancestors as if it were just so much superstitious trash. The maturity that they bring to religious discussions is that of an adolescent. They have no real human understanding of why humans are religious and they don’t seem to care. Those who came from religion often did not experience healthy religion, which they therefore think cannot exist.

Trying to get these populist atheists to understand religion is like trying to get someone to understand classical music who has absolutely no ear for music. He will mock those who love classical music and show contempt for them, yet it is he who is deaf to it.

None of what I said proves that atheism is false. That was not my point and could not be my point. I have offered a critique of a movement that, for whatever good it has done, is pulling us away from makes us so distinctively human—the search for and love of the Transcendent.