37 thoughts on “Are The New Atheists Committing The Old Mistakes?

  1. Doris Sanford

    Interesting and thought-provoking article. Several observations come to mind: You make an assertion that Christian faith is not (too) dangerous if it makes people feel good, a thought rooted in your own belief that faith is a man-made religion rather than TRUE. What if the claims of Jesus ARE true? Your position is based on faith, just as mine is. Second, as a Christian I do not see my faith as a list of rules, but as a follower of Christ. Is there anything that Jesus said about himself that you find offensive or hard to believe?

    Thanks for expressing your personal view so well.

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    • shep adler

      One of jesus claims is that the old testament is the word of god. Christians cant run from it by saying jesus washed its laws away.

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        • shep adler

          well then you and i can agree that the old testament IS NOT the word of god, does not describe the beginning of the world or offer “commandments” with any more weight than those found in a harry potter novel. this was a fruitful exchange! i had no idea christians found the bible to be a shoddy longwinded book of fairy tales same as me. i stand corrected.

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          • Doris Sanford,

            You responded to a statement I didn’t raise. I do agree that the Old Testament is LONG, however. As a Christian my belief is that the point of the OT is that none of us can manage to obey all those laws and that Jesus was the only perfect person so he took the hit for you and me (and, the rest of the world) by his death on the cross. Its totally a matter of faith, of course, but to believe that a rational, science-minded person does not exercise faith is nonsence…..we just have faith in different.beliefs. I respect your ability to articulate your faith so clearly.

  2. shep adler

    In regard to the “grandma” argument, Im pretty sure my grandma had no idea those big brown nuts were actually called brazil nuts. Im also pretty sure she never lynched anybody or made anyone drink from a “colored” fountain. the problem is, nice ol’ grandma, was a bit of a useful idiot for forces that did do these things. Yes, most religious people keep to themselves and seem harmless but are, in fact, like sleeper cells ready to fall in line behind a manipulative fundamentalist nut, to go along to get along, as long as his policies only hurt “sinners”.

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    • Carolyn Watson Dubisch

      I know a lot of religious people who are not at all idiots. They are very good at critical thinking and are not likely to do any of what you’ve described. They are also not extremists, like you seem to be.

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      • shep adler

        I know a guy who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day who can run real fast. But the truth is hed run faster if he didnt smoke and hell never run as fast as the fastest non smoker.

        religion is a handicap to reasoning, like smoking is to running. the religious start in a fantasy based world where they talk to an invisible sky daddy. they must overcome that just to get to ground zero in the reality based world. Very smart people are brought up in this system and thrive despite it not because of it but when they meet their equal,who isnt hamstrung by fantasy, on a level playing field of thought (science) they get their ass handed to them. The smartest then wise up and release the anchor of religion.

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  3. Patrick

    Well stated Mark, but I tend to disagree. IMO, faith is the problem. The cost of faith (religious, political, etc..) is far too apparent and damaging to a society. It’s time to grow up as a species and not lend credence to the idea that wishing makes it so.

    Your mother won’t be enticed by the New Atheist’s arguments, but a younger generation not yet steeped in its traditions might.

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    • Patrick

      I’ll add that I think the idea of making rational choices from irrational beliefs (faith) to be unrealistic. I don’t think it’s possible to separate them.

      At very least, if the New Atheists contribute anything it will be to dispel the privileged position faith has in our public discourse. The virtue of faith should be turned into a slight embarrassment. It is possible. It will be a cultural shift.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/us/28beliefs.html?pagewanted=1&sq&st=nyt&scp=3&_r=0

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      • shep adler

        Correct. the goal is to shame them (the fundamentalists). Just like you cant convince a KKK’r to change his views but you can shame him into staying quiet. This slows the spread of the disease and gets it under control. There are lots of people with dumb beliefs that would adversely affect my life but they dont have a support group big enough to get anything done. Unfortunately christians still do. Thats why i cant make my own end of life decisions or marry who i want in most states because, jesus.

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    • Brad

      While I agree with you in spirit, Patrick, I think as Mark points out, some kind of belief will always be with us. As he says (I’m paraphrasing), for some people, atheism can’t fill the void that a loss in faith would leave. While in my version of a perfect world, faith in the metaphysical (and by extension, religion) would be unnecessary, I don’t believe it’s possible. At least not anytime soon.

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    • Daria Dykes

      It’s really interesting how militant atheists like to talk about the “cost of faith” and the damages – but they draw lines around religious faith, as if it’s different from all of the other sorts that we rely on just to form a coherent and meaningful image of the world. Like the faith in “free markets.” How about “ecosystems.” Or “democracy.” Why is democracy considered inherently “good” by atheists? It should be measured by how effective the resulting government is – and they aren’t all they’ve cracked up to be, are they? My favorite is “rights.” Even atheists like to argue that fundamentalist Christian legislators want to ‘invade women’s rights.’ There is no purely rational defense for any such interpretation as one involving ‘ rights.’ They are purely faith-based (no, I’m not saying rights have to be rooted in religion, I’m saying they are similar articles of faith in and of themselves.) No, we have many areas of faith that nobody wants to question, so they are conveniently ignored by people who claim that they champion an ideal of “only believing in what science can prove.” Seriously, that is just a ridiculous statement.

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      • Patrick

        I love how you people like to use the word ‘militant’ regarding atheists who like to point out the flaws and dangers of religious belief.

        http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_yuGrGn6oYns/SogtZpzYlVI/AAAAAAAAAII/S8vq4bRjWf0/s400/militant_atheists.jpg

        These other ‘faiths’ you are talking about are known as entirely human concepts and are debated as such by secularists. We can have rational discussions about what economic and human rights systems we choose to live in. This isn’t possible with religious faith because it ‘a priori’ posits an immutable ‘reality’. The differences are foundational between a scientific and theistic worldviews. Faith is believing what you want to be true regardless or in spite of any amount evidence. The ‘militant’ atheists simply like to point out this type of thinking is harmful to society as a whole and should be seen as a weakness NOT a strength. They simply want to turn the rest of the world into Scandinavia. See my link above.

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        • Daria Dykes

          They want to force everyone to be just like them. Oh, yes, I see the difference between that and fundamentalism.

          It’s none of your business what my spiritual beliefs are. I won’t be sharing them with you (because I rarely share them with anyone) – so you needn’t insist that you know anything about “people like me.” When people like you decide that you can judge my feelings as valid or invalid, yes, that’s rather militant. What I will say is that my spiritual beliefs shape and give meaning to my feelings and experiences in pretty much the same way that those other reified notions give meaning to the feelings of a lot of other people. And they have about the same connection to my scientific worldview that your beliefs of right and wrong have to do with yours. Damn, I’m tired of atheists telling me what criteria my beliefs have to fill before they can count as “religious.”

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          • Patrick

            Who wants to force anyone to do anything? Who’s forcing you what to believe. It appears you think certain beliefs can’t be criticized otherwise somehow they will be taken away from you. That’s all the ‘militant’ atheists are doing. They don’t want to force people to do anything other than examine their own beliefs under the same light they expect of other beliefs. No sacred cows. If your spiritual beliefs can’t stand the light of rational inquiry then they shouldn’t be a source of pride or comfort.

            And I am tired of being called militant and extreme because I apply the same standard of rational criticism to religious belief as I do to any other. If I blow up a church or shoot up a parsonage feel free to call me militant.

          • c wayne s

            Who is forcing you to believe, or do, anything? Is that even possible? Lady, criticizing your beliefs by pointing out that they are superstitious and inaccurate is not FORCING you not to do anything. Grow the hell up.

            If it’s none of my business what your spiritual beliefs are, GOOD! Quit browbeating everybody on earth with them.

  4. jme

    i’ve always considered harris and hitchens poor spokesmen for a secular movement or enlightenment for reasons very similar to this. after all, atheism is itself a religious conviction: it is the absolute conviction of the non-existence of god. to be so convicted of either the existence and will of a deity or the non-existence of one is the height of human arrogance and no place to begin an honest dialogue, either with fellow humans, or with the vastness of the universe. i consider myself and agnostic and try my best to approach the world and others with a balance of curiosity and humility.

    as an anthropologist, i agree with most of what they say, and yet i can understand how the smug and often insulting attacks of atheists could make religious believers feel defensive and even threatened. there is a place for myth and metaphor in a modern, scientific world, and i think there always will be because our psyche derives great benefit from it, and the fabric of our society is often bound by common myths. but there is a danger in taking these myths too literally and believing them as facts, as they then stunt our growth intellectually and spiritually, and the focus becomes the ‘fact,’ rather than the spirit or meaning of the myth; this is where religion becomes divisive instead of inspirational.

    Reply
    • Patrick

      “atheism is itself a religious conviction: it is the absolute conviction of the non-existence of god.”

      No one I know uses that definition for atheist. I know at least Dawkins and Harris admit to a possibility for there being some sort of God. I haven’t read Hitchen’s book. If you lack a belief in a god(s) then you are an atheist.

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      • Daria Dykes

        Could you give a citation for where Dawkins has admitted to a possibility for there being some sort of God? I have read a couple of books written by him on the topic, and in those he insisted that there was absolutely no possibility of any such thing, and anybody who says otherwise is stupid.

        And now you know of at least a couple of people who use that definition for atheist – the commenter you responded to, and me. I know plenty of others, but I guess that doesn’t help you. Btw – another category of people who “lack a belief in a god(s)” is agnostic. Many others simply call themselves secular – they don’t really care whether there is a such thing as a god, they don’t think it’s an important issue. Atheism is not a “lack of belief in god(s),” it is “a belief in the fact that there are no god(s).”

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          • Daria Dykes

            Well that is interesting. Especially since, if he does acknowledge that there could actually be a god(s,) then when he says that there is no evidence to support it, what he really means is that HE has never had an experience to support it. He would have to accept also the possibility that there are other people who have had primary sensory experiences that are fairly attributed to god. And much like the primary experience of having a headache, it need not be of a nature that can be intersubjective. So, he’s a hypocrite.

          • Patrick

            As a scientist he would reject subjective experience as primary means to objective truth. So no he’s not a hypocrite.

        • c wayne s

          Daria, it is impossible to disprove. There is no hypocrisy in admitting that fact; it is self-evident. There is, however, a very wide chasm between being unable to verify a truth, and its opposite being the case.

          For example, I cannot prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are, in fact, Daria Dykes. You could very well be an imposter named Arnold Jones. I have no available way to disprove an unknown. Admitting that I can’t prove it does not mean you aren’t Daria Sykes. I am also not a “hypocrite” for arguing that you probably are who you say based on all appearances and likelihood.

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      • jme

        there are several forms of atheism, most broadly ‘strong atheism’ and ‘weak atheism’, the latter referring to a simple lack of belief in god(s) and the former more or less excluding the possibility of either a specific god (ie the god of the bible) or any form of deity at all, depending on focus. as i said, they are broad categories, but as the latter is basically a form of agnostic atheism, i find the definition muddy and prefer to simply call it what it is: agnosticism.

        but i find it amusing that harris, dawkins, and hitchens have essentially appointed themselves the high priests of atheism in our culture at present, when they are hardly the most representative or the most thoughtful among secular voices in recent (or past) years. if i needed the thoughts of a few pretentious, narcissistic douchebags like those to form my opinions about the world, i’d have serious doubts about my life right now.

        Reply
  5. Randy Paré

    These are pretty much the points many of us have tried to make when discussing the issue with either New Atheists [anti-theists] or Fundamentalists [Bible-thumpers].

    When debating Fundamentalists it gets one labelled a soulless atheist and when debating anti-theists it gets one labelled superstitious dullard.

    Sadly, as I read this comment thread… The “New Atheists” [anti-theists] are taking Mr. Russell to task and arguing against everything he just wrote.

    Thank you Mark, I do believe that reasonable people, theist and atheist alike, share far more common ground than those who live at the zealous extremes.

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  6. gannonned

    I have no issue with exposing fundamentalism for what it is. But “belief” of any kind is so often attacked in these kinds of discussions. If you attack the idea that Noah couldn’t have possibly fit all the animals in the ark, you attack a particular kind of fundamentalism, but you also fail to acknowledge faith in all its more subtle manifestations as almost all of the outspoken new atheists do. Perhaps you are not concerned with these, as they may be more “personalized”. As is suggested, everyone believes in something. The late great Ronald Dworkin suggested cynicism has become a moral position for many academics. And while that doesn’t sound bad at first read, it doesn’t leave you “for” much of anything and results in a kind of paralysis when it comes to solving problems.

    “…that all men are created equal…” is a belief which I hope some of us wish to hold to still. There is no evidence for this, in fact, science has often argued to the contrary. There are truths that can’t be proven, such as the goodness of civil disobedience. I simply choose to believe that MLK, Gandhi and Steven Biko got it right (among others). There are truths in the Iliad about the role of power (written about so elegantly by Simone Weil) even though it is full of violence and violent gods who I would not want to emulate. And so it is with the OT which you seem to summarily dismiss, though hundreds of great works of art have been influenced by it, not to mention the cultural impact of three large religions. Literal interpretation is a problem that goes beyond religion and into other spheres like law. The Constitution is constantly viewed as being explicit and this is a problem, much like religion, that causes bad legislature.

    The problem with the dichotomy view is that it doesn’t exist. People belong to churches and faiths for all kinds of reasons. One that you touch on here is the idea of team. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt speaks of belonging to a team as a moral element with strong importance to conservative psychological types. Are you on team atheism instead of team fundamental christian? But this is only one aspect. Robert Wright suggests others in his book, The Evolution of Religion. He suggests that rituals, such as burials, weddings and graduations are part of the cultural role of churches. But all of this does not sum up the varied and complex role of religion. Sometimes I agree with Dawkins that sending a child to church is a form of child abuse because you may be instilling false constructs in that child’s head. But the truth of the matter is that we instill false constructs anyway in other forms. Such as the low tax/trickle down theory, which is perpetuated despite evidence contradicting is effectiveness and is probably destroying our country much faster than religion (see The Price of Inequality by Stiglitz). I guess ultimately, I don’t disagree with much of what you say. I simply grow weary of the extreme atheist view and the extreme religious view. Neither of which appeal to me and neither of which seem “true” to the wonder of life.

    “We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” – Lincoln

    Reply
    • c wayne s

      Oh, come on. You sound much too intelligent to expect us to accept that our views are not “for” something. You just don’t like what they are for. The absence of belief in a Prime Mover does not imply absence of any belief. If you wish for me to elucidate that remark, I’d be delighted, just let me know. (However, something tells me you are already well aware what I will say.)

      As for “paralysis when it comes to solving problems,” with all due respect, you seem to think that “having faith and letting it happen” is a problem-solving method. To me, nothing says paralysis quite like sitting around and waiting for the sky to move your hand.

      The rest of that is incoherent and ridiculous rambling, and I’m afraid I have no idea what you are talking about.

      Reply
  7. GuerillaOntology

    Something that a lot of these “new atheists” don’t seem to grasp, is that religion IS science.

    Religion is what we call science that is old, and when you understand this, not only do the narratives in these ancient texts begin to make A LOT more sense, but you begin to grasp that the same problems of propaganda manipulation, political and economic subversion, and confusion exist in science today.

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    • Enderwilson

      If you’re defining science as a philosophical pursuit, then maybe this makes sense, but as a scientist I have to disagree. I believe I speak for many, if not most (much less all), scientists when I say that we see science as an exercise in pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. Religion may have a role in ‘musing’ about the way nature works, but the one glaring difference is objective (in some case attempted objective) use of the scientific method. The purpose of science is to get away from ‘musing’ and ‘waxing philosophical’ about nature, but rather rolling up our sleeves and taking a good hard look to see if we can understand what is really happening in the universe. The thing I see and chuckle about religious fundametalists is their lack of understanding of the scientific process when they victoriously point at all the things that science hasn’t yet revealed. Yes, there’s a lot that science has yet to study. The universe is a big place, but science will continue to shine a light on those unseen places to reveal the nature of the universe for what it actually is. Religion and those who are fundamentalist about it will continue to cling to their fables as real, even after science has demonstrated that the realities of the universe do not back them up.

      Reply
      • jme

        very well said. and i disagree with OP that the primary ancient purpose of religion was ‘science.’ ancient peoples understood the workings of the natural world better than we give them credit for, and though their understanding of science as we know it was limited, religious thought has almost universally been conceived as mythology and metaphor, and is only taken as literal fact by fundamentalists under circumstances of social anxiety and stress. religion itself may be a tool of social control and/or group identification/exclusion, but the religious impulse is not an attempt at explaining the world in ‘scientific’ terms, but one of understanding the deeper questions, wonders and fears of existence through the veil of myth and metaphor.

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    • c wayne s

      Science doesn’t consider “old science” science. So I will slightly correct you by pointing out that what “new atheists” do grasp, is that religion WAS science, and that the religious don’t seem to grasp that the world moved on, became round, accepted medicine over spells, and actions with positive outcomes over unanswered prayers for divine intervention.

      The things sound quite different to me, GO. Sorry about that; I guess I’m just an old materialist dummy. Feel free to point out what I’m failing to grasp.

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  8. c wayne s

    Well, no, we aren’t.

    There are plenty of reasons one would listen to prog rock or stare at the sky. To engage in a discourse about the topic–for whatever reason we are engaging in it; people like to talk about things, I guess–I need not require that one take my argument on faith, but only appeal to those reasons to make a case for why people do so. If this is the truth about listening to music, or staring at “something amazing,” or whatever, then why should I bite my tongue about it? I don’t believe that I am under any cosmic obligation to convert anyone to my beliefs, either. As a thinking human being, I have the right to assert my epistemology, as does anybody. Sometimes ideas clash, and human beings hash this all out. It is not a mistake, old or new. If Dawkins is the poster-child for the “New Atheist,” does that mean somebody like Russell would be the “Old Atheist?” What changed, then? I think their arguments are much the same.

    Furthermore, there are interests, and they are vetted and in my opinion quite dangerous, that would have us teaching the Tetris-Master Noah theory in our schools while they, in a calculated way, “left out” objectively verifiable scientific observations. And if they won that little concession, I imagine it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to believe that pretty soon, my friends would have to defend themselves against the torch or stocks for being caught in the woods on the Day of the Sabbath.

    These are extremely real, undeniably politicized threats to personal freedom and open discourse regarding physical reality. If they sound absurd to our modern ears, it is only because the New Atheists are devoting their lives to screaming against the overwhelming tide of what the author refers to as “idiocy,” but what many, many people whom I personally know refer to as fact, “the way God made things.” First off, it isn’t a mistake. Second, there’s nothing “new” about it.

    I honestly believe these New Atheists would counter the author’s main point by pointing out that there is nothing wrong with belief out of “spiritual need” to believe in something greater for emotional/ “personal” reasons; it is only the quite militant agenda to push the “other/impersonal” side of their dogma down our throats that lead us to commit the unthinkably gauche act of pointing out them that it is all absolute BS.

    This article is dangerously close to all those “Why should privilege matter in a post-racial America?” ones that keep popping up. I am tired of a fundamentalist majority tasked with converting every single person under the sun to its beliefs arguing that it is still some poor, persecuted cult in danger, any minute now, of being fed to the Lions by the mean old heathens. If you want me to believe what you say, stop using every dirty move in the playbook, and appeal to my reason. It isn’t that damned hard.

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  9. Steve Worley

    Replace references to Christianity, the Bible, and Christians/believers in America with Islam, the Quran, Muslims in Iran and the premise of the article is invalidated.

    Mollycoddling moderate believers by granting religious beliefs a special protection from criticism in order to spare hurt feelings or out of cowardly fear of reprisal will do nothing to lessen religious fundamentalism, but will only embolden it to greater heights of abusive power. Molly-coddling these irrational beliefs are what we have been doing over the past sixty years or so during which the fundamentalists have aggrandized their massive political powers to the extent that they exist today. Witness the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby banning contraception, as a prime example victory for the Christian jihadists.

    Let Grandma have her glory on her deathbed, but let us also make sure that all Christians and other religious believers know that the United States is a secular, not a Christian or other theocratic nation, that evolution is a scientific fact of nature, that the Earth is billions not a mere 6,000 years old, that the dinosaurs did exist and did not live together with humans, that “prayer-healing” isn’t a viable replacement for medicine or medical science, that modern human rights ethics trump anything written in the Bible about punishing “the Other” for not fitting in, hurt feelings about these facts of reality notwithstanding.

    Also, the Bible and the religion of trinitarian Christianity itself were the political inventions of Emperor Constantine as established by the Council of Nicea and the Edict of Thessalonica with the aim of strengthening Constantine’s authoritarian hold over the Roman empire. These are historical facts.

    Reply

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