Mamas, Don't Let the New Atheism Grow Up to Be the Same Old Shit in a Different Package

Damon Linker recently wrote a piece for The New Republic about what he calls "the new atheism" (as represented by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) and its potential to undermine the very principles (progressive liberalism and secular politics, particularly) it asserts to advocate. Now, there are problems with the article; it simplifies atheism so it can be neatly divided into two strands, and it ignores altogether that strident anti-religiosity is not unique to atheists. It also falls into the trap, right from the title ("Atheism's Wrong Turn"), that so many articles on religion have—treating atheists as a monolithic group. (Was the federal marriage amendment, for example, "Christianity's wrong turn"?)

But, despite those caveats, and some other quibbles, it made a fair point about movement atheism's capacity to subvert its purported objectives with regard to a secular public sphere, if it begins to actively pursue an injection of atheism as a religious replacement, as opposed to merely removing public references to theist beliefs. There is, after all, a meaningful difference between eliminating "In God We Trust" from our money full-stop, and eliminating "In God We Trust" only to replace it with "God Is Dead."

Linker's evidence that movement atheism (or "the new atheism") is poised to embark on such a crusade is thin—but, given atheists' and agnostics' routine wonderment that moderate and liberal American Christians allowed the fundies to seemingly hijack the religion, the debate, and sometimes the very country itself, I'm willing to tentatively play along.

Harris, for example, seeks to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity," which—though perhaps off-puttingly bellicose if he hopes to win Christian converts to atheism—is a nonetheless a goal not inconsistent with a pluralistic liberal society, in which a variety of philosophies ever wrestle for dominance; but he reportedly suggests a policy of having public schools "announce the death of God" in pursuit of that goal, which, if accurate, is demonstrably at odds with a pluralistic liberal society, and bears little material difference to compulsory prayer in school to both believers and non-believers who prefer religion be left out of public schools altogether (which necessarily includes any references to the lack thereof).

Beyond that slim (and rather unconvincing) example, there is precious little support for the idea that the "new" atheists are on their way to rivaling Christian conservatives with, say, detailed policy proposals for faithless-based initiatives, ahem. Politics, however, is more than just government legislation, of course—and there is some deeply troubling rhetoric emanating from movement atheists, suggestive of an escalating ideological war that will inevitably do nothing but create the opposing twin in a matched set of intolerant bookends, in between which those of us who can find political agreement irrespective of theological differences will become immutably stuck.

What, I wonder, could Dawkins have possibly hoped to accomplish with this mess?

In the penultimate chapter of his best-selling book The God Delusion, biologist and world-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins presents his view of religious education, which he explains by way of an anecdote. Following a lecture in Dublin, he recalls, "I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place." Lest his readers misunderstand him, or dismiss this rather shocking statement as mere off-the-cuff hyperbole, Dawkins goes on to clarify his position. "I am persuaded," he explains, "that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell."
By Dawkins' reckoning, a child is better off repeatedly raped than raised Catholic. That is, I cannot say it more simply, an abandonment of reason.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons to argue that a child should not be raised Catholic. (And lest I pick exclusively on Catholics, the same will be true of many—though not all—Christian denominations, as well as sects of other religions.) The doctrine and customs are inarguably sexist. The doctrine and standards for employment and communion are inarguably homophobic. The doctrine and guidelines for sex and marriage are inarguably misogynistic and contemptuous of human nature itself.

Then again, ignoring the millions of people who relieve themselves of a religious upbringing like a snake out of its skin seems a bit contemptuous of human nature, too.

There's that bookend feeling again.

As I've said before, I'm no stranger to the need to stand steadfast against the legislation of religion (or a specific morality which extends therewith), but the passionate advocacy of an eradication of all religion, to a point of vicious intolerance, is uselessly extreme. I'm quite aware there are movement atheists who would scold me with accusations of ignorance; tell me I'm patently stupid for failing to recognize that organized religion has long been the most inexhaustibly fertile sources of misogyny and homophobia. It's frankly an argument that means very little when one of the leaders of "the new atheism" casually belittles the severity of sexual assault for a flippant bit of hyperbole. I have a need to fight the same battles in all quarters, of which I am all too painfully aware.

And beyond uselessly extreme, it's a breach of my cardinal rule: MREWYB. I know—believe me, I know—they exist, but I'm not personally acquainted with a single Christian who wants his or her beliefs legislated. I'm also not personally acquainted with a single Christian who believes every single thing their religion tells them to believe, which means that all Christians are not equal. Not even all Catholics are not equal. See: long-time Shaker Lark Ohio and Donohue, Bill. I've not a single tiny wee drop of interest in telling Lark Ohio that she's got no business believing what she believes. She is a lovely and kind person, whose religious habits are, as far as I'm concerned, just one of many social/cultural phenomena in which I don't participate, like the Junior League and line-dancing.

Last week, I said, "I don't give a shit if a politician is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Pagan, a Zoroastrian, a Scientologist, a Pastafarian, or a worshipper of the Great Pumpernickel Loaf from the Eighth Dimension of the Planet Zorgon. All I ask from the people who want my vote is that they not attempt to legislate their personal spiritual beliefs or pen asinine resolutions proclaiming their belief system to be Teh Greatest in Teh Universe!!11!!!" In case that wasn't clear enough, let me summarize: Believe in god(s) or don't. I don't give a shit. Just keep it to yourself and leave me the fuck out of it.

Lest any proponents of "the new atheism" miss my point, the appropriate solution to illiberal, intolerant, dogmatic impositions of one's beliefs is not more of the same.

[See also: Yglesias and DJW.]

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