Thursday 24 April 2014

Why I am not an atheist

The New Atheist movement that has developed from the mid-2000s around the 'four horsemen of the apocalypse' - Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, and various other pundits, has had a tremendous public impact. Godlessness has never had a higher public profile. How wonderful for unbelievers like me? Hardly. I am as embarrassed by the New Atheists as many Christians are embarrassed by the evangelical fundamentalists who appoint themselves the representatives of Christianity.

It has often been noted that the New Atheist movement has contributed no original arguments or ideas to the debate about religion. But the situation is worse than this. The main achievement of New Atheism - what defines it as a more or less coherent movement - is its promulgation of a particular version of atheism that is quasi-religious, scientistic, and sectarian. Atheism has been redefined and rebranded into an identity I must reject. My unbelief is apathetic and simply follows from my materialism - I don't see why I should care about the non-existence of gods. What the New Atheists call 'rationality' is an impoverished way of understanding the world that excludes meanings and values. At the political level, the struggle for secularism requires more liberalism, not more atheism.

The metaphysical problem: Too much God

New Atheism isn't nearly godless enough for me. These atheists seem somewhat obsessed with the quite unremarkable fact that god doesn't exist, like an ex they claim to be over but can't stop talking about. Indeed, it seems so central to their personal identity that I find it hard to tell the difference between them and the official religionists.

I appreciate that many atheists will find this claim very disagreeable. Well, if so that should help you see my point. Atheism should not look like just another option on a select your religion drop-down menu! It should be beyond religion. Take the role of truth. The followers of religions attach great practical significance to the fact that they are True - it's what makes that religion worth following rather than another. But atheism should be the opposite. The idea that god doesn't exist should not gain any significance for being true.

So it is disquieting that one cannot straightforwardly distinguish New Atheists from religionists in terms of 'unbelievers' vs 'believers'. These atheists are believers. They not only hold specific religious beliefs - about the existence of God, the divine nature of the universe, the proper interpretation of sacred texts, and so on. They hold them with passion and fervour.

First, the fact that atheists' beliefs about the divine are all negative in content doesn't mean that they aren't religious in orientation and character. After all, negative beliefs are central to many religions, e.g. that there is no more than one god, or, in some versions of Buddhism, that there are no gods. Indeed, it is striking that this kind of atheism is constructed in the same negative way as religious heresies, i.e. by beginning with orthodox beliefs and then rejecting one or more of them for more or less intellectually convincing reasons. Note that heresies, for instance Satanism, don't stop being religious just because they reject certain orthodoxies (though at some point they are likely to be recognised as new religions in their own right). They are a challenge to content not form.

Second, the fervour of new atheism more resembles that of evangelical religions than a purely intellectual movement, such as the science it claims to identify with. Like members of many other religions (such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons) new atheists appear committed to sharing the Good News they have discovered with everyone else, and even to see proselytising as a sacred duty that is inseparable from their faith as a whole. Part of being this kind of atheist is to preach to the heathen masses and seek to save them from their false gods by converting them to the Truth. Hence their routine breaches of social etiquette as they go around telling people they are deluded, just as many churches put up billboards threatening passers by with damnation and promising salvation. Hence their interest in seeking out and creating conflicts that will lead to media publicity, thus leveraging their relatively small numbers into greater public attention and fostering the perception that they are the legitimate representatives of unbelievers in general.

The fundamental problem with all this is that the New Atheists have failed to break the intellectual chains of religion and haven't even realised it. I find it somewhat bizarre that, from the perspective of freedom of religion jurisprudence, New Atheism would seem to have the same significance and deserve protection for the same reasons as any other religion. This kind of atheism doesn't actually challenge the intellectual and social domination of religion any further than religious pluralism already does. As a repudiation of Abrahamic mythology it remains entirely derivative of it and flatters and legitimises its object of critique by its obsessively clinging rejection of it. The atheist identity feels significant because orthodox religious people think it is significant and New Atheism is constructed as a mirror.

In this regard, I think that New Atheism is not nearly as obnoxious to religionists as my own kind of godlessness. Of course god doesn't exist. So what? As a materialist, it follows without further ado that I don't believe in any of the various supernatural phenomena that some people do, including Santa Claus, crop circles, witches, ghosts, homoeopathy, gods, fairies, and astrology. I see no prima facie reason to select out my unbelief in ancient Abrahamic mumbo jumbo from that list of non-beliefs as a matter of great significance, so I see no more reason to describe myself as an atheist, than as an afairieist, ahomeopathist, etc. Religion lacks sufficient standing to bother to rationally dissent from. There is no more need to meet the religious sceptical challenge - how can you prove there is no god? - than there is to meet the sceptical challenge of proving that you're not a brain in a vat imagining an external world.

To put it another way, even if I meet the strict definition of atheist because I believe there is no god, the way I hold that belief differs from the New Atheists. If I am atheist I am an apathetic one: the non-existence of god is a matter of great insignificance to me. And isn't that how it should be if atheism is true?

The epistemological problem: Scientism isn't rational

Scientism is the pejorative term for the idea that our only way of knowing anything properly is the (natural) scientific method. New Atheism is characterised by a commitment to rationally justifying one's beliefs that pretty clearly amounts to scientism. Indeed, the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci argues that scientism is the feature which distinguishes New Atheism most clearly from previous atheist movements (pdf). It is explicitly promoted by most of its prominent authors, with the notable exception of the literary Hitchens, and seems to have become integral to the atheism brand. The atheism reddit, for example, with 2 million members, begins its guidelines by noting that "This is a community in favor of scientific understanding...."

This scientism is problematic in at least two ways. It weakens the intellectual argument against religion in the first place. And it is an impoverished, even anti-intellectual epistemology within which to have to live.

First, the New Atheists embrace the scientific method as a means of disproving or at least radically undermining various empirical claims made by religions, such as about the age of the Earth. Dawkins provides a particularly fine example of this in his explanation of how natural selection can produce the appearance of design, making supernatural creation stories redundant. This kind of exercise is important in establishing the viability of naturalism as a metaphysical thesis - it undermines the case for religion by showing that we don't need supernaturalism or scripture to explain anything about how the world we live in works. That supports 'apathetic naturalism' - the religious sceptic who challenges you to prove that the world isn't kept spinning by god isn't worth bothering to answer any more. (Indeed, I think science has been so successful that many religionists these days can also be described as naturalists, as living in the same thoroughly disenchanted material universe as the rest of us. Heaven, for example, no longer hovers overhead but seems to have been shunted off into another dimension or into metaphor - previously.)

However, trying to treat religion as a whole as a scientific hypothesis which scientific methods could disprove is to beg the question. Science cannot actually refute the supernatural claims of religion because those claims are beyond its remit. Science is an epistemology restricted to naturalism, so all it can do is say what can and cannot happen according to our best understanding of physical laws. Since supernaturalist claims are always about (divine) intervention in contradiction to those physical laws, proving that creation or miracles are impossible merely puts you into agreement with the religionists. Proper arguments for atheism require wider and deeper intellectual resources: if you want to argue metaphysics you need more than physics - you need to do some proper philosophy. In this light, New Atheism's disdain for the discipline of the philosophy of religion looks like hubris or even a kind of anti-intellectualism. New Atheism has revolted not only against religion, but against the intellectual history of atheism itself.

Second, the New Atheists have noted the centrality of faith to religion, and they oppose it with 'rationality', the claim that one should only believe things one has good evidence for. Yet the definition of rationality they use seems specifically developed against religion, to undermine the legitimacy of belief in 'spooky' supernatural forces and entities like angels. Thus, their claim that only rigorous empirical methods - natural science - can generate real knowledge is directed to ruling out the possibility of knowledge that can't be tested by scientific methods, i.e. to exclude in advance all claims about the supernatural.

Unfortunately, this definition of rationality cuts away rather too much in its effort to delegitimise faith by demarcating real knowledge from mere metaphysical speculation. It somewhat resembles logical positivism, an idea of knowledge that was last in vogue back in the 1960s. It excludes the kinds of knowledge produced by reason itself, such as by philosophy, logic and mathematics. It is limited to third personal knowledge, excluding the dimension of subjectivity - meaning - that we must use the arts, social sciences, and ethics to get at (Roger Scruton has a nice essay on this). It is philosophically bankrupt.

New Atheism's scientism may be explicable, even understandable, as the kind of reactionary position one falls into, exhausted, after endless rounds of debating evolution with creationists. Nevertheless it is a very silly posture to end up in: a defensive crouch. Just because the natural sciences disprove many claims by religionists about how the world works doesn't mean that only the natural sciences can speak truth. It doesn't mean that one can actually get along with just the objective knowledge of matter in motion provided by physics, or determine the moral status of foetuses with the findings of developmental biology alone. Rejecting the broad but blinkered understanding of the world provided by religion only to lock oneself into the deep but narrow perspective provided by science doesn't seem particularly rational to me. Even most philosophers of science - who still think physics is awesome - have long since dropped this worshipful attitude towards the scientific method.

Science is only one part of a proper post-religious epistemology, which would draw from all the intellectual branches we have available. I call that broad and deep epistemology humanism, for its emphasis on us, not the gods, as the measure of all things.

The political problem: Secularism requires liberalism, not atheism

At least some readers may be becoming rather annoyed by now at my failure to grasp the practical urgency of atheism. The reason atheism is important while afairieism isn't is that people who believe in fairies aren't imposing that belief upon others. New Atheism is not an intellectual project but a political one of resisting the illegitimate invasion of our civic and private spaces by religionists in positions of power who want to force your children to say prayers in school, ban contraception and abortion, block gay marriage to stop god from sending floods, and so on. The militancy of New Atheism is only about defending the principle of secularism, a basic tenet of liberal democratic society.

In the context of America's culture wars I can sort of understand where this is coming from. Yet from the wider historical perspective the threat of religious fundamentalism looks exaggerated and the New Atheists' response misguided.

I admit to only having lived in countries, of which there are increasingly many, where religion has next to no political standing (Britain, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands). So I don't have the visceral experience of social prejudice that atheists in the southern US, say, receive from their communities, nor do I have to put up with politicians at every level declaring their allegiance to god as if that was some kind of argument for their competence. Nevertheless, if one zooms out to look at the bigger picture it seems pretty clear that religion across the world is better behaved than more or less ever before. And the reason for this is the global advance of political liberalism: the centrality and equality of individual freedom in political arrangements.

The New Atheist authors present a view of politics which is bizarrely distorted, perhaps by the trauma of 9/11. They conflate religiousness with irrationality and irrationality with evil acts. This is an ideological rather than an empirical perceptual apparatus. (It reminds me of Republicans talking about welfare recipients, or Russian state TV talking about Europe's takeover by fascists who hate Russia.) So it is not surprising that they seem to sincerely believe that many or most religionists are fundamentalist theocrats anxious to impose their religious beliefs on the whole of society or blow everyone up trying. This relates to the strange and disturbing obsession several New Atheist authors have with the bogey of Islamic fundamentalism, which provides an anecdotal illustration of religion's threat to liberalism, a kind of proof of concept that stands in place of actual evidence. These terroristic fundamentalists mostly don't live in liberal democracies but far away in strange lands, which makes it possible to project all sorts of theories and ideas on to them that no one would believe of the church-goers who live next door.

Of course the reality is quite different. There are few real theocrats these days, especially in the parts of the world where most New Atheists live, reflecting the general triumph of political liberalism. The overwhelming majority of religious people today are not 'moderate' in the sense of being crypto-fundamentalists, as New Atheist writers like Harris and Dawkins claim. Rather, they are moderate in the sense of accepting the foundational tenet of liberalism: people matter, and so other people matter too. As the history of America itself shows, it is perfectly possible to build a political consensus for secularism and toleration in an overwhelmingly religious society. That is because the intellectual and political work can all be done by, and has historically mainly been done by, religious liberals including intellectuals like John Locke and John Milton, and clerics like Roger Williams, John Smythe, and Thomas Helwys. Atheist arguments against the truth of religions are not required. It also appears quite possible, even normal, for large numbers of religionists to support 'progressive' liberal causes, like equality for gays or contraception for women, whatever the official orthodoxy of their religion. For example, most Americans are not atheists yet somehow gay marriage rights are conquering America, state by state.

Misreading the threat of religion has led New Atheism to adopt an unfortunate political stance of opposition to religion in general in order to protect politics from takeover (though this antagonistic view of secularism is not unique to 'New' atheism, e.g. the anti-clericalism of revolutionary France). If religion is the enemy of liberalism and religion is caused by irrationality, then it must be displaced by rationality. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it risks reintroducing the very sectarianism that secularism is supposed to prevent and that the New Atheists claim to be so worried about: the divisive belief that the Truth of your message, rather than the general agreeableness of your behaviour, is a sufficient basis for political authority.

New Atheism seems to be suffering under a basic misunderstanding about what secularism and liberalism mean. Secularism is not the same as atheism. Atheism is a metaphysical thesis - it concerns ultimate truth, what individuals should believe about the divine. Secularism is a political concept - it concerns restrictions on the role of divine beliefs in civic life and institutions. Secularism is a matter of style rather than content; civility rather than what you believe. It aims at a state of affairs where people don't impose their beliefs about the divine on each other. And this is in line with the vision of liberalism as political not metaphysical - about getting along with people you disagree with and still finding a way to get things done, not promulgating Truth.

It follows that arguments for secularism can come from many places besides atheism. Historically they have often come from and been institutionalised by religionists, as in America. The abuse of political power by religionists in America and elsewhere reveals a need for more liberalism, not more atheism. Oppression is not the kind of thing one can disprove. You have to make a political argument against it that persuades others to care and to join you in getting rid of it. As the gay rights movement has demonstrated.

So the militancy of New Atheism seems misguided in two ways. First, moderate religionists are natural allies in the cause of secularism, so it is distinctly odd for atheists who claim to believe in this cause to go around calling them crypto-fundamentalists. Although instilling righteous anger and grievance in one's core supporters is a standard political tactic, perhaps especially in America, from a strategic perspective pragmatism suggests that small minorities need allies more than they need rage. Second, from the perspective of liberalism the important issue is not whether someone has religious beliefs, but the extent to which they are reasonable in the way they hold them, that is, whether they abjure imposing their views on others. Liberalism has no necessary relation with atheism, and illiberalism has no necessary relation to religion. Indeed, the sectarian inclination of many New Atheists - their contempt for the large numbers of their fellow citizens with the wrong religious beliefs and their unironic demand that the truth of their own religious beliefs receive political recognition - bears a worrying resemblance to the unreasonableness of the fundamentalist theocrats they object to so strenuously.


The three dimensions of New Atheism that I have considered here - metaphysical, epistemological, and political - are related. My qualms about the religious style with which many 'New' atheists seem to hold their beliefs may seem obscure or just pedantic. What does it matter if atheists are fervent in their godlessness? And especially, why should it matter to a professed apatheticist like myself?

My fundamental concern is with the reactive, merely negative character of New Atheism. Belief in godlessness feels significant because the god hypothesis is taken so seriously by so many people. As in those revolutionary moments in science when theorists divide themselves up between competing camps such as geo-centrism and helio-centrism, the omnipresence of godliness continually confronts unbelievers, making them continually aware of their own godlessness and thereby imposing an artificial significance upon it. Unbelievers in fairies don't have to think about their unbelief very often and so don't consider it very important to who they are, which also goes for helio-centrism these days. Yet however explicable, this attitude to godlessness suffers from its external shaping - its meaningfulness derives from its position in a debate that is long over.

The reactive character of New Atheism is even more apparent in its epistemology and politics. The salience of the scientific method appears very much the product of America's culture wars, especially over the teaching of evolution in schools. It is not justified by materialism itself, nor a proper philosophical account of science or knowledge. The hyperbolic rhetoric of the culture wars has also infected the political orientation of New Atheism, leading to a distorted vision of the threat religion poses to liberal politics. I am particularly disturbed by the vicious contempt prominent New Atheists, such as Bill Maher, display towards Muslims, which has the dangerous nastiness of anti-Semitism and makes them allies of the most unpleasant fundamentalist Christians and neo-conservatives. Of course New Atheists have the right to publicly criticise religion, and also to press for the realisation of secular constitutional principles at the social as well as government levels. But they should keep those two exercises distinct. I worry that because New Atheism was born in battle it has developed a battle-field mentality of righteous anger for its cause and contempt for all who refuse to join it. That is the essence of sectarianism. It is not an appropriate attitude or strategy for the deliberately de-militarised space of liberal politics, intended for civilians and dependent on mutual civility.

Related post: How Religion became Secular

I was interviewed about this essay on Atheistically Speaking.

This is an extended and revised version of a column I wrote for 3 Quarks Daily which received a lot of reactions. The comments curated by The Dish were particularly thoughtful. I was also appropriately chastened by this cartoon.