Are The New Atheists Committing The Old Mistakes?

Prominent atheists’ attacks on religion may be counterproductive to their cause. Exploring the nature of belief, disbelief, and religious extremism.



y mother believes that God created the Earth. She believes there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. And yes, she worships Jesus as the Son of God, though Roger Federer comes in a close second. And I was taught to believe these things, too. I believed that Adam and Eve had a pet dinosaur. I took great satisfaction in knowing I was going to Heaven, and felt bad that you weren’t. I felt so bad that sometimes I tried to “witness,” to convince others of a religion I myself didn’t understand. Usually, these attempts were met with the glazing over of eyes or polite dismissal. “Looks like Hell gets another one,” I shrugged, getting on with my life. At some point, though, in the back of my mind, I began to question the wisdom of a God who would create the world in such a way that almost everybody would burn in Hell forever. I could understand wanting a few born-again Christians to play pool with in Heaven, but was it necessary to use the Earth as a puppy mill for the afterlife? While watching sword and sandal flicks on TV, I would think about all the religions that had come and gone in the history of the world. What were the odds, I wondered, that I happened to be born at the right time into just the right religion? Even as a kid, that struck me as being a little too lucky.

Our faith was the centerpiece of our social lives. We went to church twice a week. Our friends were by and large people we had met in church. If someone was sick, or things weren’t going well, you could count on a visit from the “prayer warriors.” It was also from my faith that I drew my sense of self-worth, my sense of identity. My faith made me feel better about dying someday, and connected me to something stronger and wiser than myself. Given the advantages to believing, it was easy to suppress my doubts for a time. But as I grew older and discovered a world much larger than the one I had been shown, the doubts began to breed. Without quite realizing what had happened, I awoke one morning no longer believing in God, and perhaps even more alarming, no longer needing to believe.

In 2007, I read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. Eloquent and powerful, it brilliantly summed up many of the misgivings I’d had about my own faith. As a response to the 9/11 attacks, to attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights, to cement the Biblical definition of marriage (well, one of them, anyway) into law, or to sneak Creationism into schools, it was emboldening to see someone call out religious fundamentalists, to make them defend their beliefs in the public square. Sam Harris refused to let them hide behind the shield of religion, as if that made their politics immune to criticism in the same way their church was immune to taxation. Starting with The End of Faith in 2004, Harris uncorked a wave of pent up secular resentment, and soon he was joined by other intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whose books God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The God Delusion (respectively) sold millions to non-believers and apostates like myself. Their collected works coalesced into a movement known, for lack of a better term, as the “New Atheism.”

Like the pamphlet-toting witnesses of my youth, the New Atheists are less about explaining themselves than converting you.

The disillusionment I felt with the smug theology of my upbringing now had a worthy champion and a just cause. Why should anyone follow rules written before human beings understood how to make a decent sandwich? That was my feeling.

At some point, though, as I became increasingly immured in YouTube videos of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens destroying some hapless preacher in a debate, I started to become a little uneasy with the New Atheism I had embraced so easily. Somehow, the rhetoric of both sides started to look eerily similar to me, particularly when New Atheism went on the offensive, not only against the fundamentalists who were busy imposing theocracy by piecemeal, but against believers who were perfectly happy minding their own business, and against the very idea of religion itself. Like the pamphlet-toting witnesses of my youth, the New Atheists are less about explaining themselves than converting you. As if theirs was less a mission to defend the faithless than to cow-tip the faithful. To quote Sam Harris, from his 2006 essay “Science Must Destroy Religion”:

“The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not.”

It was, in large part, this sort of moral and intellectual reductionism that drove me from the church in the first place. So I began to wonder if the New Atheists were combatting fundamentalism by duplicating its mistakes.

Religious fundamentalists are defined by the need to transmit their faith. They operate under the tacit assumption that the Bible (or the Qu’ran) was written as a sort of divine textbook, and as such, it must either be the 100 percent factual word of God, or a worthless heap of crap. The New Atheists, as per Sam Harris above, operate under the same assumption. The only difference is that New Atheists argue that because the Bible is not factual, it cannot be the word of God, whereas fundamentalists conclude that because it is the word of God, it must therefore be factual. In their quest for a launching pad from which to export their beliefs, both miss the point about what the Bible is, or was meant to be.

None of the authors of the Bible even remotely imagined that they were writing a history or a science textbook, the accuracy of which would determine the fate of souls. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a shepherd. There is no reason why someone should find strength in the words of Christ, or in the wisdom of Proverbs, only if they are also willing to believe the Earth was created in six days, or that prophets can summon bears. In equating the Bible’s factuality with its value, both fundamentalism and New Atheism predicate their arguments on a misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief.

To be fair, many Christians do believe these things. And if someone thinks Noah was good enough at Tetris to cram a few billion species of animals onto a homemade boat, it’s easy to dismiss them as an idiot. The New Atheists are right in that many of the stories in the Bible beggar belief and probably never happened as anywhere close to the events as described. But growing up in an evangelical Pentecostal church, I don’t recall anyone joining because they had scientifically concluded that Evolution was a crock of shit, or because they had fossil evidence which validated the Biblical flood story. The average conversion went like this: Somebody had just been through a terrible divorce, or was recovering from a drug addiction, or was feeling suicidal, and for whatever reason playing a tambourine, dancing in place, and speaking in tongues got them through it. Jesus really hit the spot. Spiritual need was the basis of their belief, not a rational assessment of facts. In truth, “belief” is probably the wrong word for what we are talking about. “Acceptance” would be more accurate. As such, atheists attacking Christianity on the Bible’s non-factuality is no more effective than Christians using Bible verses to prove their faith to atheists. They’re both bombing a house nobody lives in.

Contrary to what the New Atheists or Christian fundamentalists would have you believe, science and religion are not competing worldviews, but attempts to answer different questions. Science is the sole arbiter of truth when it comes to the outside Universe. It’s earned that right. But there’s a whole universe inside a human being to which science does not speak and religion does, at least for some people. Everything that’s valuable about science vanishes the moment it tries to make sense of who you are and what you want out of life, and everything that’s awful about religion—the evangelism, the violence, the flim-flammery—is only possible when your beliefs try to cross over into the outside world. Religious belief is not a factual assessment of the Universe, but an attempt to find one’s place in it.

While New Atheists build a great case against religious fundamentalism, that’s not good enough if it’s religion they are actually trying to convict.

Of course, the New Atheists would respond to this by saying it is naive to separate religion from fundamentalism, as one is the natural consequence of the other. To quote Richard Dawkins from The God Delusion:

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that.”

And yet, as is the case with 9/11, the only hazards they seem able to produce when building their argument against religion are to be found among the actions of fundamentalists. And they offer no examples of threats posed by the millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims (not to mention people of other faiths) from around the world who are perfectly comfortable with scientific reality, and never try to impose their faith on others whether through law or uncomfortable dinner parties. The real world consequences of a boy praying over his frozen burrito are conspicuously absent from their analysis. So while New Atheists build a great case against religious fundamentalism, that’s not good enough if it’s religion they are actually trying to convict.

When my grandmother was dying, my siblings and I went to see her one last time to say our goodbyes. Her last words to us, as she smiled as much as an 84-year-old woman riddled with cancer can smile, were, “I’ll see you in glory.” Regardless of whether she actually will “see us in glory,” or whatever that might entail, who would want to take that moment from her? Now, if her last words had been “Abolish gay marriage,” then nuts to Grandma. But as long as she can keep her religion in her pants, what is served by disabusing her of it? What great catastrophes are averted? Bingo night?

I don’t pretend to understand why we fill the gaps in our being with the gravel we do. I have no idea why anyone listens to prog rock, or stares at the sky, or speaks in tongues, and neither does Richard Dawkins. So I try not to prognosticate too much on the murky wiring of other people’s souls. And if we want people to have these rich, albeit weird, inner lives without living under a theocracy, then our goal should be to convince those with religious needs that they can have their Jesus or Allah without taking the rest of the world with them. Whereas if we make war on religion as a whole, we are asking the believer to ignore the existential void filled by their beliefs, which may be the one thing they know for sure to be real.

The typical response of New Atheists to such arguments is to dismiss you as a “moderate” or a “tolerant,” as if you were a hippie reaching out to teenagers using uplifting rap music. But these labels misrepresent the critique. I’m not proposing some middle ground with fundamentalists. I’m not saying that theocracy is okay as long as it doesn’t go too far. I’m saying that the way to defeat fundamentalism is to subvert its very premise—the idea that religious belief needs to have basis in the external physical world in order to have meaning. By rejecting any value religious belief may have simply because it is not founded in reality, the New Atheists inadvertently reinforce the firmament upon which fundamentalism rests, and leave themselves with no means to engage believers except in fighting yet another pointless wizard battle over Evolution.

Of course, there is nothing “new” about atheism. The struggle between believers and atheists dates at least back to ancient Rome, when local governors routinely executed non-believers for refusing to sacrifice in their temples. These atheists embarrassed them in front of their gods, the very gods they depended on for rich harvests and good trade winds. (Not cool, atheists!) To the Romans, it was far better to put a few of these trouble-makers to death than to risk Neptune getting all pissy. Thus, they took the charge of atheism very seriously, often feeding nonbelievers to lions in the arena or burning them alive. The atheists the Romans worked to eradicate, however, knew themselves by a different name. They called themselves “Christians.”

There is an infinite variety of things people fill themselves with to feel better about their place in the Universe and their short time in it.

As Hitchens points out in his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, if you really want to see a theocracy in action, go to North Korea. The daily lives of North Koreans are almost exclusively devoted to the worship of a supreme being in a way that would make David Koresh blush. But as Hitchens himself seems to imply with this example, the problem with fundamentalism is not really “God,” but the human inability to keep whatever Big Other they worship within the proper scope of their existence. If the terror of religion is that your personal faith (whether in God, Kim Il Sung, or Roger Federer) will flower into a public decree on how everyone should live their lives, then it seems counterproductive to make distinctions between one brand of worship and another. Why is the prospect of a religion-based “theocracy” any scarier than a political one? Contrary to what Dawkins says, given that religion is but one possible outlet for fundamentalism, it is by definition fundamentalism that is the core problem, and religion which is symptomatic. So even a complete victory by the New Atheists over religion would accomplish little more than sealing a single gopher hole in a yard riddled with tunnels.

It’s true, as New Atheists are fond of pointing out, that every Christian is an atheist when it comes to every god but their own. But that is only half correct. Yes, all believers are atheists, but at the same time, all atheists are believers. There is an infinite variety of things people fill themselves with to feel better about their place in the Universe and their short time in it. Whether it employs deities or not, we all create our own religion to grasp the mystery of ourselves.

Despite the efforts of the New Atheists, religion appears to be chugging right along in America. According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, there are between 90 and 100 million Evangelical Christians in the United States. Eighteen percent of U.S. Congressmen identify themselves as Evangelical Christians, and for many of them, their religious identity is a considerable asset in getting re-elected, regardless of how well their policies serve the corporeal interests of their constituents. So there are very real social and political implications in how we engage fundamentalist Christians in America. And New Atheism has itself grown into a force to be reckoned with. There are more openly declared atheists in America now than at any point in our nation’s history, thanks in large part to the best-selling books and lecture tours of Dawkins, Harris, and (until his death) Hitchens. They have galvanized non-believers as never before and have focused them on the very real threats posed by modern day religious fundamentalists. And I support them in that cause. My fear, however, is that rather than mobilizing against the real problem of fundamentalism, the New Atheists and their fellow travelers will squander their energies on a futile and counterproductive war on religion. Futile, because they will never convince people like my mother, or the guy who dances in place and plays the tambourine in church, to abandon their religion, because they can offer nothing with which to replace it. Counterproductive because attacking religion for not being science backs believers into pretending it is.

The way to conquer fundamentalism and to free the world from religious violence and theocracy is not to rob believers of their personal faith, but rather to convince them that it is the “personal” part that matters. The world is a better place when people find inner strength from their spiritual beliefs and make rational choices about the outside world based on observable facts. Why should they choose between them?
Illustration by Mark Russell.

Mark Russell

Mark Russell is a writer and a cartoonist living in Portland, Ore. He is the author of God Is Disappointed in You, a funny retelling of the Bible using modern language. His writing has been featured in McSweeney’s, The Nib, and Funny Times, among other places, and his cartoons are featured regularly at Nailed. Follow him on Twitter.



  1. 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.

    1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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. 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”.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

      1. 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.

        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.

        1. 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.”

          1. 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.

          2. 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. 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.

    1. “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.

      1. 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).”

          1. 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.

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

        1. 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.

      2. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

    1. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. I think you have jumped to the wrong conclusion: The world is _not_ a better place when people indulge in spiritual beliefs, even if they make some (but not all) rational choices about the outside world based on observable facts.

    Why should they choose between them? Let me take a different approach. Your article seems to suggest that the only truly negative (let’s say, ‘toxic’) effect of religion is when it takes the form of fundamentalism. I’d say there is also harm, albeit less obvious, in the belief in mythology over evidence in general. Rather than use terms like ‘taking comfort’ or ‘inner strength’. Instead, I suggest we refer to the habit of religion as a sort of ‘mental hygiene’, and consider it a minor foible, like being overweight, a state that can be a few pounds, all the up to being morbidly obese.

    When a person has the mental hygiene of surrendering reason on a semi-regular basis, I’d argue that their mind becomes a bit weaker. Religious belief embraces a sort of mental laziness that does not think things through. Why bother? Prayer does not ask for critical evaluation. Just Believe. Eventually, just the way an out-of-shape or overweight person could slide into obesity, this kind of mental lassitude can become the main way that one thinks (or rather, doesn’t think, but simply ‘believes’ all of the time). Such is the end state of fundamentalism. At this point, a person does not think about anything. Everything is driven by unquestioned zealotry.

    So following this parallel, like obesity, religion in large doses is toxic, and stifles the mental health of a person. In small doses, it may appear to be harmless, but in my opinion, it is not. People are given an ‘out’ so that they don’t have to believe in something unpleasant or uncomfortable to contemplate (say, climate change as being a result of human activity, or the fact that we did in fact evolve as a species from simpler life forms). Religion provides a time and place to stop thinking and uncritically believe. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, like a habit. Sure, I can cut you some slack and let you have your bad habit, but the New Atheists are perhaps like those healthy people who annoy people because they are always goading you on to exercise, eat right, and lose weight. Sure, they can be jerks, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t also right.

    Also, this paternalistic attitude: “Oh, let them have their personal beliefs, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone” is something I’ve seen before. It presupposes that there is no way that we will ever get some people to stop believing in religion, so we might as well see the good in it. No sense trying to persuade anyone that the nonsense they are spouting is at best a false comfort, or at worse, holding them back from growth intellectually. By writing off everyone else in the general population, you let the weight of religious mythology drag society down in general. So many political decisions are impossible because of these ‘personal beliefs’. Right now, in North Carolina, people are fighting over a stupid flag, and not talking about gun control, all because of strongly held _beliefs_, many of which are religious, that hold us all back. The same tribal resonances that fuel religion also fuel racism. It is the ‘reptile mind’ that Sagan spoke of in ‘The Dragons of Eden’. We would all be so much better off if we could throw off the shackles of religious dogma. But it’s not going to happen any time soon, and it will certainly never happen if the attitude of ‘Let them have their God, as long as it’s a personal one that never intrudes into public life.’ That will insure it will _never_ happen.

  11. I have a few close friends who define themselves as Atheists. I have long asserted that there are Atheist fundamentalists, though my Atheist friends think that I;m full of it. Yet, if an Atheist holds as tightly to their absolute rightness of their belief (or non-belief), it seems to me that they are fundamentalists in the same way a religious person would be. Thoughts?

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