We are the New Atheists. We do not, however, like the name — ask any of us, and we’ll tell you that there’s nothing new about our atheism — all we’re doing is speaking out about godlessness. I’ve talked to a lot of the so-called New Atheists, including some of the biggest big shots in this movement, and what do they do when they hear the term? Roll their eyes and shrug. We only grudgingly accept the term, not because we find it agreeable, but because it is imposed on us by a clueless media and an even more ignorant body of theists.
Weirdly, I’m now hearing more and more about something called Atheism 3.0, and unbelievably, they are using the term unironically, as if they really think they have something new to offer, some advance over the “Old Atheism,” whatever that was, and the “New Atheism,” misnomer that it is, and deserve a moniker that implies a new bump in the version number. I would like to remind the proponents of Atheism 3.0 of two things: they’re offering nothing new, either, and a version increment isn’t always a good thing. I remember Mac Word 5.0, which was a clean and simple thing of beauty, and Mac Word 6.0, which was an abomination, a hideous slug of a program that should have been aborted and the mewling, squirming undead fetus incinerated. I kind of feel the same way about this New New Atheism.
Atheism 3.0 is, as I said, nothing new. It’s been around as long as atheism has, and there’s a much better and far more descriptive term for it: “Atheism But.” As in, “I’m an atheist, but I think religion is a wonderful institution (usually for someone else, just not me.)” It’s atheism for people who don’t like atheism, or who want to neuter atheism so it doesn’t challenge a pious status quo, or have this condescending idea that the rest of society is dumber than they are, and needs the palliative of unreasoning faith. The New Atheists, as much as we detest the title, at least offer an honest, open integrity about their ideas; these guys seem to be more interested in hiding the significance of the nonexistence of gods so they can hide behind a façade of superficial religiosity, and appeal to a waffly, wishy-washy middle ground.
Greg Epstein, one of the most conciliatory members of the Atheist But brigade, even goes so far as to praise Rick Warren’s awful little book.
Epstein argues in his forthcoming book, “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” that morality does not depend on a judgmental deity and that nonbelievers can lead meaningful, even purpose-driven, lives. But they can also learn from people of faith, such as California megachurch pastor and “Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren, Epstein says.
Warren’s best-selling book basically says that “you have to have a purpose in life bigger than yourself, and that not everything is all about you,” said Epstein. “And he’s absolutely right about that. But he’s wrong in saying that you have to believe in Jesus Christ and if you don’t you’re going to hell for eternity.”
Have you ever read The Purpose Driven Life? (You can read the first seven chapters for free, not that I recommend this drivel). It’s ghastly. It is Rick Warren stating with absolute certainty the intent and needs of an omnipotent being, which just happens to be that the most important mission you have in life is to be his personal slave. Oh, and the unwritten subtext is that since Rick Warren has such clarity of understanding of this ineffable and inconsistent being, you’d best listen carefully to Rick Warren. It is a wretchedly evil little book that represents all the misbegotten inanity of religion: the claims of divine knowledge, the demands that followers be subservient to the deity, and the charlatanry of making promises of strength, prosperity, happiness, and immortality to everyone who obeys the words of the prophet.
Atheists should not respect this book, and they should not encourage others to appreciate its message…except in the sense of acknowledging the effectiveness of propaganda and the adept sleight of hand of the professional con artist. An Atheist But can babble about learning from Rick Warren, but an atheist will simply tell you that all you can learn is what not to do.
What the Atheist Buts are trying to do is occupy a middle ground, compromising with religion to find an illusory magic mean. They’re all but indistinguishable from another group, the God Buts. These are people who don’t use the word atheism at all, but instead preach a nebulous version of religion that has no relationship to any established religion — instead, they want you to accept the virtues of simply believing in…something. Anything. If you told them you worshipped the transcendant god personified by the earthly presence of Mickey Mouse, they wouldn’t question you in the slightest. Deny god, though, and suddenly you’re treated as shrill, militant, and strident.
One of the eminent God Buts is Karen Armstrong, who I’ve laughed at before. Another is Robert Wright, who is becoming increasingly shrill, militant, and strident himself in his criticisms of New Atheists. This is a telling point, too: these defenders of religion never seem to get as riled up about the ranting fundamentalists as they do a few outspoken atheists. Wright’s latest is full of fury and claims that the atheists are doomed, also citing a familiar complain: atheists are hurting the cause!
And this year doubts about that mission have taken root among the New Atheists’ key demographic: intellectuals who aren’t religious and aren’t conservative. Even on the secular left, the alarming implications of the “crusade against religion” are becoming apparent: Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East.
If you’re a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won’t turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world’s most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world’s most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.
So, we have a rising tide of liberal secularists who dislike atheists…wait, no we don’t. These are the same old conciliatory apologists who have been around for ages, the Atheist Buts. A chorus of whining from the nags and scolds who are ashamed of atheism isn’t going to dissuade anyone, although Wright may find comfort in it.
That last paragraph, though, is the crux of the problem. Children might leave the faith of their fathers, and this is a horrible, evil, scary possibility, since, after all, atheists are monsters. What we should do is ask all those scary atheists to go hide their scary faces so the God Buts and the God Firsts and even the Atheist Buts can continue to freely demonize them. Only Good Christians should be promoting evolution. That Dawkins can be both an atheist and a scientist, and even worse, explains that science led to his atheism, is going to empower creationists.
Evolution has implications about how the world works. If you deny them, if you pretend evolution is cheerily compatible with the god-is-a-loving-creator nonsense religions peddle, you aren’t teaching evolution. You are pouring more mush into the brains of young people. If you are a conservative Christian, it’s entirely understandable that you would fight evolution, because the truth does not favor your position. If you are a moderate Christian, you are not helping science education by enabling fear of atheism by continuing to lie to people, assuring them that science isn’t going to challenge their religious beliefs. It will, or the teachers are doing it wrong.
Unfortunately, Wright’s message is that we can’t challenge religion.
All the great religions have shown time and again that they’re capable of tolerance and civility when their adherents don’t feel threatened or disrespected. At the same time, as some New Atheists have now shown, you don’t have to believe in God to exhibit intolerance and incivility.
Flip it around; that’s an admission that the religions feel intolerance is justified when they’re not coddled and respected. That’s part of the problem, too. I don’t respond well to extortion from god-bothering zealots, sorry. What the New Atheists (who are the same as the old atheists) have shown, though, is that they can be subjected to generations of intolerance and to continued denigration by people like Wright, who think their call for atheists to be silent and modest is a liberal attitude, and yet we manage to cope without resorting to violence or threats to shut up our critics. That’s something the apologists for faith need to learn, too: religion should be strong enough to stand against academic rudeness and mockery without this pathetic bleating for shelter from skepticism. It’s easy to be tolerant and civil when you’ve compelled everyone to be agreeable with you; the challenge is to do the same when you’re being denounced.
All the Atheist Buts and God Buts are missing the key point, too. We don’t care if you think religion is good for you, or if you love your faith, or if you think rituals are lovely, or if believers have done good in history, or if a lack of praise for Jesus irritates the Baptists. That’s not the issue. The central, fundamental question is whether anyone has any reasonable evidence for the existence of any gods, especially the gods that everyone is so busy propitiating. You haven’t got any? Then we’ll continue pointing out that you’re chasing leprechauns, no matter how annoying you find it. It’s the truth. Argue against that with evidence — anything else is fluff and noise.
They can’t do that, though. They’ve decided that they can’t compete on that ground, and instead have rushed to occupy a meaningless middle…an intellectually empty wasteland with no approximation to the truth, only a comforting distance from the real crazies of the devout. They’re nothing but the lords of vapor, the kings and queens of the æther, too frightened by the retreating ghosts of old myths to join us in reality.