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Is New Atheism a Religion?

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It's a question that comes up and in fact I have been asked it a couple of times by new atheists themselves, worrying that they are being tarred with the same brush as Catholics and Evangelicals. It was a question that crossed my mind when I read one of the responses to my recent piece on Darwinism and the problem of evil. One of the junior new atheists -- that is to say, not one of the big four of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris -- took extreme umbrage to my picking on him (even more umbrage at my not naming him by name) and my suggesting that absolute reality might not correspond exactly to his worldview.

The point is that there was a bitterness about his response that I associate with religious differences -- the implication that, because I did not agree with him, I was not just wrong but immoral. People who squabble about abortion -- a paradigmatic example of a religious issue, for why else would one argue that a fertilized ovum is fully human except one think that God has already attached an immortal soul? -- show this kind of bitterness. Conversely, if you have a philosophical disagreement -- for example of whether the end always justifies the means -- by and large it is nothing personal. Everyone can go out for a drink afterwards and argue about baseball or whatever.

The bitterness can arise in non-religious contexts. Obviously the English and the Germans at the beginning of World War I felt this way about each other. The same can be true of issues like feminism. I remember when, at the university where I taught, there was the question of starting a Women's Studies Program. Those of us who questioned its worth, on such grounds as the fear that one would be ghettoizing the topic and putting off the male students (many of whom were precisely those who needed some education on the matter), were considered not just out-of-date but positively evil.

But, as I say, the bitterness that is shown by New Atheists to opponents -- especially those like me who have no religious beliefs but who refuse to label believers as either stupid or cowardly (or evil) -- certainly reminds me of the practices of the religious. (Not all of the time obviously, and probably not even most of the time. But you know what I mean.) So is New Atheism a religion?

Defining "religion" is notoriously difficult. Roman Catholicism is clearly a religion. But what about Quakerism? No creed, no steeple houses (as the founder George Fox called churches), no ministers, no service, no distinction between men and women, and happy acceptance of homosexuals as real people. A lot of Quakers these days aren't really very sure about the God question. And if you include the Quakers, then what about the Rotarians and the Free Masons?

The trick that most of us philosophers pull at this point is what Wittgensteinians call "family resemblance." You list a number of characteristics, no one of which is necessary, but a number of which taken together are considered sufficient. (Wittgenstein did not invent this kind of thinking. It is for instance discussed carefully by William Whewell in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, published in 1840.) So although Quakerism doesn't have everything we associate with religion, it has enough features to get under the canvas. Something like Rotary does not.

Of course, some features are more important than others. Belief in God would surely be one. Which certainly leads into fields relevant to the New Atheism question. It seems to me that the negation of a claim is likely to be of the same type as the claim itself. If "eggs are good for you" is a claim about nutrition, then "eggs are not good for you" is a claim about nutrition. "God does not exist" seems to me a claim about a religious idea, perhaps even a religious claim, whereas the claim that "apples are nicer than oranges" is not. (That is a big reason why I fear that teaching something negative about God is a violation of the first Amendment, as much as teaching something positive about God.)

I am not sure that making a claim about religion makes you religious, any more than making a claim about eggs makes you a nutritionist -- but, if you go on making claims about eggs and bacon and hash browns etc., then you are getting closer to being a nutritionist and the same is surely true of religion and being religious. If you keep harping on and on about religion, even though denying its truth, I suspect that you are giving a good clue about whether you are religious or not.

Another good clue would be a personal belief that one has a religion -- or that one's views are religious. In the late 1960s, the then Tim Zell (now transmogrified into Oberon Zell-Ravenheart) wanted to get IRS acceptance that his new Church of All Worlds, based on the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, was a genuine religion. I am sure his strong belief that it was helped to sway the case positively in his direction.

Among atheists I would put Julian Huxley (the older brother of Aldous Huxley) into the religious group. After all, he did write a book called Religion without Revelation. I am inclined to do the same for the Harvard ant specialist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. In his book, On Human Nature, he makes it very clear that he sees evolutionary humanism as a religion substitute. He feels that the need for religion is part of an innate biological heritage and that we must have something.

Conversely, vehement denial that one has a religion or is religious should surely be taken seriously if not definitive. Although atheist, I would not think of either Huxley or Wilson fitting comfortably into the category occupied by Dawkins et al. One thing about the New Atheists is strong repudiation of suggestions that they are merely offering a new religion or religion substitute. Of course, they have political reasons for arguing as they do. They don't want to be put into the very category that they are lambasting. However, the fact that politics points to various sought-after conclusions does not in itself make the conclusions false.

What does seem to me to be important is the fact that, although non-believers, both Huxley and Wilson are trying to find some kind of objectively backed meaning to their lives -- a meaning that they find in a shared commitment to an absolute progressive drive that they believe characterizes the evolutionary process. Evolution from simple to complex, from value-free to value-full, from (as they used to say in the old days) monad to man. It is because of this progress that Huxley and Wilson think we get an objective morality -- our obligations are to preserve and help the highest form of evolutionary result, namely Homo sapiens. This is why Wilson is so committed to biodiversity and the preservation of the rain forests. He thinks that these are important for human wellbeing and hence must be cherished.

It is true that Dawkins believes in evolutionary progress, but neither in his writings nor in those of his companions do I see the same sense of objective meaning. The New Atheists certainly think that their position leads to moral norms and actions -- their revulsion at the behaviors of Catholic priests shows that they do not subscribe to "anything is okay so long as you like it." But my sense is that, at some level, they think that freedom from religion puts upon you the obligation to find and pursue your own sense of morality and decency. It seems strange to speak of Dawkins and Dennett as existentialists, but in a way that is what they are -- and I do not mean this in a negative sense at all.

So my conclusion is that if someone argued that the New Atheists have a religion -- or perhaps better, are religious (because of their atheism) -- I don't think I would want to say that they are completely wrong. The obsession with the topic, the nastiness, and other things like near mystical veneration of the leaders -- look at the Dawkins website if you don't believe me. But at the moment, I am not inclined to use the religion label. To me, New Atheism is more a philosophy than anything else. I don't mean this as praise; but then, if I called the New Atheists religious, I wouldn't be saying that as a term of criticism.

Around the Web

New Atheism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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New Atheists, The [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

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Beliefs - The New Atheism, and Something More - NYTimes.com