I was just listening to a lecture by PZ Myers about the Backlash Against the New Atheists at Skepticon 2 back in 2009. That’s actually a bad title for the talk, because Myers is really discussing the claim that the New Atheist movement is doomed to failure. In particular, some have argued that the movement is already fracturing into a bunch of subgroups who fight with others. Myers pooh-poohs this idea because atheists are not in open rebellion — as though Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t all get along at a conference where all they did was mock atheists.
The truth is that there is a problem in the New Atheist movement. I am an atheist. Yet I won’t self-identify as a New Atheist. For one thing, I don’t want to be associated with Richard Dawkins, who seems to think that totally legitimate complaints about sexism in the movement were invalid because western women’s genitalia aren’t being mutilated. Dawkins waited three years before offering the most pathetic of apologies. Unfortunately, the truly vile public statements made by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris will never even get that. In Harris’ case, I’m afraid we will have to live through decades of him finessing his racism.
But my problem with the New Atheist community is much deeper than this. As long as the movement is talking about religions, it is okay. But once they start talking about what they believe in, they show the true depth of their thinking. The following is a condensation of everything that you will hear at Skepticon about what atheists believe:
This is patently false. Think about the Big Bang. As a physicist, I think it is reasonable to say that I know a lot more about it — especially the reasons why it is our current best theory for the origins of the universe — than the vast majority of atheists. Yet my knowledge is still based upon my faith in a whole lot of other people. I haven’t read Penzias and Wilson, much less Doroshkevich and Novikov. And because I have been on the inside of it, I have a much more skeptical attitude towards the scientific process than most atheists. But I do have faith in it because it works. The plumbing in my house works. The lights go on when I flip the switch. I have good reasons for believing, but believe I do.
I’ve long said that the strongest argument for creationism is “God is testing me!” It goes like this: God doesn’t want to make it easy for me to get into heaven. So he created the universe 6,000 years ago — Saturday afternoon — about tea time. And he did it in such a way as to make arrogant science types like myself just think that the universe is 14 billion years old and that humans evolved from single cell organisms. I’m not joking: this is the strongest argument for creationism. The reason it is strong is that it can’t be argued against. It might have happened. And unlike the “missing transitional fossils” and other creationist arguments, it never has to be updated.
If we go even deeper, we see that humans are not nearly as rational as we think. And atheists understand that to one degree or another. They understand that regardless of how much they try, their decisions about what president you vote for will not be rational. But they will doubtless be able to rationalize it. So why is it that religious faith is so important to condemn but not political faith in choosing a president? Most religious people are not fideists. I’d be happier if we stuck to attacking that, but the assumption in the New Atheist community seems to be that any religious person is a fideist, and that is not, you know, a rational or “evidence based” assumption.
The New Atheist community would be better off with this statement of belief, because it is more defensible:
Of course, you have to be careful even there. I’m constantly amazed that people say things like, “Placebos don’t work.” That’s actually something you hear quite often from skeptics. But the truth is that placebos do indeed work. If they didn’t work, then scientists wouldn’t have to include them in their drug trials. The point of such trials is to find out if some expensive drug works better than a placebo, not to see if it works at all. The brain is complex and it is able to do amazing things.
So I think the question here is whether religion works. And I think, for many people, it does: for both good and ill — often in the very same person. And to not admit this strikes me as a very unappealing form of closed-mindedness. Probably the best example of New Atheist irrationality is the notion that there will come a day when people get beyond religion. The evidence for this? Zip. It seems much more rational to me to believe that in the year 2525, man will not still be alive.
But I don’t want to give the impression that I am more rational than the rest. It’s most likely that I have rejected the New Atheists because I feel rejected by them. Ontology-ignorant New Atheists (about as close to a redundant phrase as you get) love to tell me that I’m not really an atheist. Instead, I am supposedly an agnostic. For the record, I am as agnostic about God as I am about whether World War II took place.
The point is that there are divides in the New Atheist community. Why are the members of Atheism Plus going to want to continue to affiliate with the likes of Sam Harris and Penn Jillette? Movements are based upon what people believe. And ultimately, people who believe in social justice will care a whole lot more about that than in what happens to religion. And Penn Jillette will care more about keeping his taxes low. And Sam Harris will care more about his guns or whatever it is he’s into these days. What is this great thing that the New Atheists believe in? Evolution? So do Catholics! What does that prove? I know a whole lot of Republicans who believe in evolution, but that doesn’t make me a Republican.
I don’t see the New Atheist movement dying out. But I also don’t see it taking off. Even while America gets less religious, it doesn’t seem to be getting more atheistic. It will always be like libertarianism — a small, but important group — mostly because it attracts wealthy and privileged people. But I suspect that the New Atheist movement gains members at roughly the rate that it loses members — like me.
The image at the top of this article is of the “four [straight white] horsemen”: more or less the very definition of New Atheism. Notice that it consists of two bigots, one sexist, and Daniel Dennett.
I finally listened to the rest of the lecture. Most of the rest of the lecture is even worse. It amazes me that someone as smart as PZ Myers could be so clueless when he gets out of his area of expertise. I think the people arguing for the end of the New Atheist movement are wrong, and yet his counter arguments don’t hold up. It may be due to the fact that making good counter arguments would reveal just what an elitist (and thus limited) a movement New Atheism is. Regardless, you can’t counter a likely evolutionary basis for religious belief with, “But life would be better without religion!” Life might be better without meat too, but I still think that vegetarianism will always be a minority position.