Courtney Haigler

The poverty of New Atheism

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On the 21st of September, New Humanist magazine held a debate at the Royal Society of Arts in London called "After New Atheism: Where next for the God debate?" The speakers put forward variations on a central theme: that the so-called New Atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris has, after a few years now of anti-God and anti-religion arguments, done more harm than good in the name of non-belief.

I tend to agree -- the so-called 'God debate' has become tiresome. It is true that the debate has raised the public profile of atheism and atheists and it might be argued that this is a good thing. Certainly I, as a non-believer, once thought it was. But now it is clear that this benefit is a mitigated one, for among other things, the attitudes of these "new" atheists are rather wanting.

The New Atheists have largely taken up a confrontational attitude toward religion and God, arguing that God does not exist and that religion, as Hitchens says, poisons everything. God is not a being which a rational person ought to believe in, they say. There is no good evidence that God exists, and we do not need to postulate the existence of God to explain features of our world. They point to the advances of modern science, especially physics and evolutionary biology, to show that God is a hypothesis for which we no longer have a use. With no good evidence and no explanatory need, atheism is the only intellectually respectable world view.

So goes their confrontational and argumentative stance. And certainly, in principle, confrontation and argument are not to be denounced. The issue here, however, is twofold: the New Atheists are alienating more than they are educating and their criticism of theism and religion is based on a very poor, elementary understanding of the nature of religious belief. The former flows from the latter -- it is their impoverished understanding of religious belief that motivates the style and nature of their arguments and it is this approach which alienates, angers and fails to edify.

Instead of arguing that belief in God is unjustified and that rational people should not be religious, contemporary atheists should be explaining why non-belief in God is a viable, fulfilling world view for many people. This is not just for the sake of propriety and it is not because it's not nice to challenge people's beliefs. What are at issue here are fundamental existential attitudes and convictions, deeply-held world views and lifestyles. But Dawkins and his friends treat religious beliefs and attitudes as is they were no different from our everyday or scientific beliefs about the natural and manufactured world. For them, thinking that God exists is like thinking that a particular planet exists in a particular place in the universe, or thinking that there is an afterlife is like thinking that there will be dessert after dinner. But this is not what religious belief is.

We have a tendency to think that all kinds of things that fall under a given term are alike. 'Belief' is one of these terms. It can easily appear that all beliefs are fundamentally the same type of thing. But religious beliefs are not like beliefs about planets, just as beliefs about planets are not like beliefs about what is right and wrong. To best see this, we ought to look closely at how particular kinds of beliefs are woven into the fabric of our activities.

Religious faith is much more important and much more fundamental to an individual's character. These beliefs structure and influence the way people think and the way people act. Their words and actions are always cast in its light.

One might wonder why this should make religious beliefs unsuitable for the New Atheist's philosophy. Religious beliefs are not subject to the same constraints and factors as other beliefs. The religious or theistic proposition has to strike one as being deeply important or relevant to one; it has to make one feel as if something important has been grasped. It becomes the background on which other beliefs and attitudes come and go. This background may change, but the change is of a different sort. You cannot argue someone out of what strikes them as deeply important because treating it as an object that appeals to evidence and hypothesis-construction treats it as exactly what it isn't. It treats religion as bad science instead of treating it as religion.

It is true that certain people of certain religious sects do treat their religion like science. Creationists come to mind, but these people are just as in error as are the New Atheists about what religion is. For atheists, God and other associated notions just do not strike a chord. Or if they did in the past, they do not any longer. Changing one's mind about one's deepest convictions is not like changing one's mind about whether or not it is raining outside. It is less like thinking something is false instead of true and more like shifting the way one sees the entire world.

Given this, the best thing that non-believers can do is exchange confrontation and attack for dialogue and mutual understanding -- to make our convictions clear and to explain why we think and believe what we do. This is not relativism; of course we atheists think we have got something right. We wouldn't believe what we do otherwise. Our world view strikes us as just as vital and important as the theist's does to her. But we have to understand that its rightness for us will not necessarily translate into rightness for others and that this is fundamentally an existential, not a factual, matter. It is a difference of world views.

If we want to raise the profile of atheism and help the public at large understand that it is a credible, important and meaningful part of many people's world view, then we have to understand the nature of the world views of the religious. Whether or not religious believers will become atheists is up to them; it depends on how the world, their lives and what we say strikes them. But argument will not have much effect here. Mutual understand and edifying conversation is far more rewarding.

For atheists, our atheism is what matters least. What matters most is our humanism and our commitment to secular pluralism. That we do not believe in God is of little consequence. What matters more is our focus on promoting human flourishing, ameliorating human suffering and fostering the peaceful and productive coexistence of people with diverse world views. What place does the God debate have in all this? Next to none.