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The New Atheists

November 18, 2006

(article by Gary Wolf)

(article by David Biema)

(article by Sam Harris)

A number of popular magazines have run cover-stories or large features on “The New Atheism” lately, prompted by the success of new bestselling books from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, E.O. Wilson, and Daniel Dennett.  The basic spectrum runs something like this: Dawkins and Harris have evangelicals in a tizzy over their frank description of Christianity as a myth and over religion in general as a source of oppression and violence.  Dennett and to a much greater extent Wilson, while no less atheistic, are searching for common ground with religionists.

Dawkins is a lightning rod and has become a symbol of strident, “intolerant” atheism by saying that defending even moderate religion gives cover to religious extremism.  He is in favor of an end to religion altogether, the sooner the better.  But when you actually read anything by Richard Dawkins, or hear one of his lectures, you might realize the perception of arrogance is simply that he is speaking a very unpopular message in bluntly honest terms.  Not that arrogance can’t be found in New Atheism, though – just visit the far less civil atheist blogger PZ Meyers, whose rhetoric leaves almost no motivation for common ground between athiests and religionists (especially when he gets riled up about apocalyptic millennialism)

I like PZ Meyers and enjoy reading his weblog, but long story short; religion isn’t going away anytime soon, so we are all going to have to learn to live with one another on this planet.  Not to say Meyers should change – he has probably shocked some religionists out of their torpor – but I can identify more strongly with E.O. Wilson’s quest for common ground with Christians.  Our starting point should not be “Christians are all idiots and should be like me,” but “What common ground can we identify as a starting point?”

For example; many Christians believe in preserving, not exploiting, the Earth; I agree.  Christianity theoretically requires public officials to be scrupulously honest with public funds; I agree.  One of the tenets of Christianity is that mercy and compassion are more important than strict adherence to the rules; I agree.  Christians believe that Islam is a false religion; I agree.  (Of course, I also agree with Muslims that Christianity is a false religion – the sword has two edges!) 

With this and other common ground identified, there are substantive differences that I have with religionists.  These fall into two categories; disagreement with their religion and disagreement with how they practice it.  As much as possible I extoll the attractions of a secular society in which people are free to practice their religions, as opposed to a religiously-driven society which inevitably ends in oppression.  There is already a recipe book for this society in our Constitution, which we should be defending, promoting, and teaching to our children. 

Bottom line; spirituality is not the patented invention of Christianity, and intellect is not the sole proprietership of atheists.  If someone wants to wall off an area of irrationality in their lives where they choose to believe in a god, that is their right as free men.  I am more concerned that they agree to our secular compact for society.  The Christian’s right to swing his religion around ends at my tax dollars, which is to say at the boundary of our schools, our courthouses, our laws, and our science.  The founding fathers made no mistake when they made no mention of God in the Constitution.  But they again made no mistake by guaranteeing the freedom to practice individual beliefs.

This would be a good time for atheists to come out of the unbelieving closet.  Let our Christian neighbors see us as the individuals they have always known.  Staying hidden only lets the perception of atheism fall to the loudest, and in many cases the least palatable, expressions of what should be a humanistic way of being.

We are going to be together on this Earth a long time, we atheists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  For thousands of years we’ve been killing one another over our disagreements.  Let’s stop doing that, and stop compelling thought, speech, and personal taboos of one another.  We can discuss and persuade one another with safety only in a society where everyone is free.  The next few centuries might make all the ones before – even this one – seem like a dark age. 


  • (You are reading a second rewrite of this post.  My apologies if anyone thought the first one was better – it was much longer and I thought, poorly organized.  If anyone wants that original text for any reason, let me know.)

  • If you think there’s a War! On! Christianity! going on, check out this post by GeekMom on Elwed’s blog, where she answers the question, exactly what would a secularist war on religion be like?
  • Vjack over on Atheist Revolution has a good response to Elton John, who had called for banning religion and an equally good view of the summary issues at the Salk Institute Forum on Science and Religion
  • And Red State Rabble takes PZ Meyers to task for ‘Darwinian Fundamentalism
  • After viewing this video of Neal DeGrasse Tyson responding to Dawkins at the aformentioned Beyond Belief conference, a phrase which comes to mind is; when trying to persuade someone, have you created a bridge between his position and yours, or simply condemned him for being on the wrong side of the stream?  (The video is worth watching if only for an hilarious comment made by Dawkins in response)
  • update January ‘06 – While I have no problem with frank discussion of Christianity’s factual deficits, PZ Meyers seems to have lost perspective and purpose.  Meanwhile Dawkins, having found himself in the midst of a blow-up over the subject of children and religion, appears to be stepping even more carefully while not diluting his message.  So I have added the Dawkins Institute to my sidebar links in place of PZ Meyers’ Pharyngula.
  • Update, 30 March 2009 – how we do change over time.  After the whole “Expelled” debacle, I have completely lost patience with the Christianists, who deserve only mockery.  Off come the gloves, forget all the conciliatory things I said above.


Categories: Religion
  1. Ed
    November 19, 2006 at 12:05 | #1

    Great analysis of a rational being’s thoughts on being a nonbeliever in today’s irrational world! I think you, like all atheists, are lacking a fear of the unknown that cripples one’s quest for truth.  Maybe we are all wired this way, to fear what we don’t understand, and it takes a major cerebral effort to overcome.

  2. Ed
    November 19, 2006 at 19:36 | #2

    I saw this right after I read your blog:


    You must been in telepathic contact with Scott Adams!


  3. mizlee
    February 4, 2007 at 11:19 | #3

    Awwwww.  The Christian right, which is the most obnoxiously strident entity imaginable, is complaining that the new atheists are “strident.”
    I don’t see stridency, I see reasoned resistance to the juggernaut of the religiously deluded.  These same lame brains have had deference paid to their beliefs for so long, they think it is some kind of “god-given” right to be respected.  As a life-long atheist, who has finally stood up to be counted, I am grateful to see I have more company than I ever dreamed.  I prefer to think that the firestorm of criticism from the fundamentalists displays, as nothing else in recent memory, that they have finally begun to fear the invasion of reason into their circumscribed worldview.  I say it’s about time.

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