You may have seen the above meme knocking about Facebook.
You get what it’s saying? That atheism has not been updated, but rather New Atheism is a stick to beat current atheists with, or, rather, is saying that atheism where it actively seeks to challenge religion is not new, or militant, or even evangelical, but just atheism as it always was.
But I disagree.
I understand that atheism, or rather its atheist proponents, have always sought to challenge the religious and their beliefs, but something does stick out about what had come to be described as “New Atheism” a while back, with Hitchens and Dawkins et al.
It wasn’t that in being atheist they were doing anything subtly different to other atheists older than them, but that their arguments were lazy, crass even.
With Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for example, there was the assertion that Darwinism itself could prove a challenge to religious belief. Forget for a moment that many religious people have been Darwinists – this argument doesn’t stand up either. But Darwinism if anything proved a challenge to the notion that a creator had made living species each from scratch. That’s it. Amazing, yes, but that’s all it did. It’s not a brain-buster to organise one’s own religiosity around this.
For the other “New atheists” Hitchens and Sam Harris, their critique laid focus on real-life problematic expressions of religion. In essence their’s was a look at how people act under certain circumstances and ideologies. As it was pointed out to them in many debates, critique of this sort is not the sole preserve of atheists, and as an atheist myself I accept this wholeheartedly.
That this critique could be purposefully conflated with a uniquely atheistic expression is a) to forget what atheism is (to be contrary to belief in God alone, not a positive expression of anything at all); b) to ignore the potential of this critique from others.
When going to the pains of critiquing the political and ideological expressions of the religious, we must remember all the time that these are specifically human expressions alone. That the religious may do them, FGM for example, does not tell you anything more about the religion, but expressly the individual.
But, any good humanist should accept that religiosity is a human characteristic as well.
Sigmund Freud, an atheist until his death, realised this in his old age.
The psychoanalyst held a particularly negative view of religion up until 1935 when an evident sea-change became apparent in his manner. In private correspondence Freud started to acknowledge the intellectual qualities of belief or acknowledgement in God on thought and enquiry (as, after all, the speculation of an absent property had immense benefits for abstract contemplation).
Freud’s understanding of the concept of God changed from illusion to promoting sapience. Rather than bogging one down with idle introspection, the concept permitted investigation. And there is nothing more human than investigation.
But, further, accepting the limits of our knowledge, of God and beyond, is the most crucial element of the human condition.
A characteristic of the so-called “New Atheists” was an inability to recognise this simple, but vital, point. That is why rather than New, I shall from now on call them the crass atheists.