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.



  1. Are you alluding to Russell's piece by the same title in homage or in irony?

    1. It's a whole genre, actually, that the title is supposed to riff off. But I'm not sure it quite works as I intended

  2. I admire this post and agree with most of it after careful re-reading. There is something missing, though, and I must ask; what is the precise difference between an unbeliever and an atheist? Since about age 14 I have thought myself an atheist - but perhaps I'm an unbeliever, instead.

    1. There isn't a real dictionary difference.

      I was trying to explain my objections to the new atheist style of unbelief and its influence. They have made the atheist brand into something I don't want to be associated with. So I needed another word for my godlessness.

  3. "Of course god doesn't exist. So what?"

    Do you really not understand what the response to this would be by someone like Dawkins etc? Are you unaware of the role of religion plays in shaping the behavior of humans? Can you honestly claim that there are equivalent consequences to the belief in Santa Claus and the belief in yaweh?

    "Of course god doesn't exist. So what?" So how do we reduce the number of girls who will have their genitals mutilated, faces burned with acid, bodies crushed with rocks, minds stultified, rights trampled and lives extinguished, by people that do believe in god?
    How can you sit there growing your beard knowing full well what sort of violence is being done; how the minds and bodies of children are being warped and inserted into a self sustaining cycle of abuse and ignorance, and say something as trite and trivial as "Of course god doesn't exist. So what?"

    1. If the problem is oppression then the answer is liberalism. Atheism is irrelevant.

      One doesn't need to engage with people's reasoning for doing evil things in order to be against them. And liberalism has the advantage of being available to religionists too. The great majority of people in Afghanistan - somehow, 'despite' being muslims - oppose the mutilation and murder of girls and support laws against it. It seems rather more plausible to try to end such evils via the spread of liberal values than by attempting the universal conversion of religionists to atheism.

    2. "One doesn't need to engage with people's reasoning for doing evil things in order to be against them."
      Uh, sure but if one hopes to reduce the evil things done one has to address the thoughts that lead to them. What you are saying is the equivalent of saying, "Its OK for people to think that women and minorities are inferior as long as we all oppose them being treated that way." Its a clear denial of human nature. If you think you can separate a belief in god from all religious writings and associated social traditions, you clearly know something nobody else does. Liberalism is not accessible to those that think magic will allow all transgressions to be washed away in another world where a supreme being judges us by some imagined rules.

    3. Anon. Liberalism is political not metaphysical, about behaviour not beliefs. The argument that everyone should be treated equally does not depend on the belief that everyone is equal in their capacities. See e.g. Mill on The Subjection of Women. Political liberalism is manifestly accessible to people who believe in magic. The history of liberalism is entangled with the history of religious pluralism and finding a way to secure a society's peace, order, and prosperity by privatising religious beliefs.

    4. Well sure liberalism is tied on religious pluralism, but isn't what new atheism is trying to get to. Challenge the dominance of the major religions and insist that non belief be given a seat at the governing table in countries like the US where being and a non believer makes you an distrusted minority? Comparing them to religion for trying to create a popular movement in support of those two ideas, because the public discourse doesn't meet the standards of intellectual purity found in a college philosophy seems like snobbery at the expense of progress. Just read through your points against the new atheists in this article. "like religion" and "lack depth" But where are the differences on substance? Where is the depth of your argument beyond critique of style and an unkind comparison of the faithless to the faithful. I certainly at times have found the horsemen harsh and petty, but I am sure the Audubon society sometimes feels the same way about Greenpeace, but you don't see their executive director saying they are no longer environmentalists and think we are all better off not challenging those that think the earth is our domain and we should do with it as we choose.

    5. I don't know how to say it any clearer than I already have, but maybe I can say it shorter.

      Much of New Atheism, and especially its best known authors, is intellectually embarrassing and politically bigoted. That's why I don't want to identify myself with it.

      Supposedly 20% of Americans profess no religion, but only 4% call themselves atheists. Perhaps I am not the only godless person put off by 'style'.

    6. You know its nice to have it short, but your point was clear, your response to my points seem less than clear.

      Maybe I can clarify.

      1. Although I would concede that the most effective erosion on religious belief is prosperity and an effective general education and not pop culture talk of atheists, I do think you are missing the point of what new atheist movement is trying to address. You see in the 1970's the american religious conservatives joined forces with the anti-civil rights, and the financial conservatives to form a new american conservative movement whose primary goals seem to have been, eliminating the social safetynet, eliminating any, economic govt policy that might promote shared prosperity, and attacking public education. particular science education, including spending millions to promote the idea that education should be moved to religious schools. And despite 40 years of folks saying that that isn't terrible christian of them and promoting liberalism. the masses sitting in the churches that are part of this coalition haven't gotten up and walked out. To be clear, they are winning despite an aging and sometimes shrinking base, and its not just about global warming. Your blog seems to say we should ignore the problem if we can't counter it with a public message that meets your intellectual standards.

      2. Although its nice to know you are embarrassed it seems absurd to me someone would write a 3500 word essay about how intellectually deficient a movement is and then mostly critique them on style and not substance. Now, if it were up to me I would change a lot about the new atheist message. I too find it harsh at times and potentially ineffective. But I do think that establishing that being publicly critical of religion is acceptable, in addressing my first point, but am not always crazy about the content. All that said, I am not drumming myself out of the corp because of it.

      Anyway, also enjoy the bigoted addition. I suppose a few millennium of telling folks they deserve eternal torture for who and what they are probably casts a large shadow over those implying those folks are hateful idiots, but we should avoid sinking to their level.

      Red 1GM

    7. 1. I'm not American. Your problems are not my problems. If New Atheism is really a wing of the Democratic Party then that it is a further reason for me to reject it.

      2. Is this what you mean by substance? Sam Harris appears either insane or else an outrage machine designed to grab media attention and push books; Hitchens seems to have simply recorded himself giving one of his famous polemics and had someone type it up (chapter 3 - Why heaven hates ham??); Dawkins goes downhill very quickly from about half-way, when he starts trying to talk about religion (trying to squeeze the Westboro Baptist Church into mainstream religion and so on). That was enough for me. Those books were so bad - at their silliest they reminded me of Glenn Beck - as to actually undermine the intellectual respectability of godlessness.

    8. 1. I see now why you lack perspective on what has mostly been an american movement. I am sure living in a country where atheists can hold public office is peachy. Also, how does all opposition to american conservatism have to be part of the Democratic party?

      2. Substance = insane, outrage machine, simply recorded himself, silliest, Glenn Beck? See those are attacks on motivation, style and sort of some implications about substance sort of.

    9. Well, we don't seem to be getting anywhere with this.

      I don't know what you mean by substance. Do you? If criticising New Atheism's metaphysical, epistemological and political philosophy commitments isn't substantial, and neither is specific criticism of specific texts, then what are you after except the thrill of trolling?

    10. So your substantial critique of New Atheism lack of philosophical chops can be somehow represented by your distaste for Hitchen's chapter "Why heaven hates ham" and Dawkins branding all Christians as westboro supporters? Is it Hitchens title or its content? I am not sure I heard the embarrassing part. Just pointing out some history and possible explanations for a superstitious belief. I think a common thread of some to use anthropology to give better explanations for traditions than holy texts do.

      Also I went and looked for Dawkins assertion. In the God Delusion I couldn't find reference to Westboro until page 290 of 374. Its in a section about Faith and Homosexuality. The chapter is his response to the question. Isn't Religion just harmless nonsense, which he claims he sometimes gets from intellectual non-believers that would rather leave religion be. Which I suppose is similar to the question I have attempted to raise here. One I don't think you have a decent answer for. He does seems to state some of Phelp's propaganda of how much support he has, which probably isn't true. But he could have replaced that a few Pew polls about how many folks support the idea of biblical or sharia style punishments and made a much less debatable point. or just quoted the bible.

      "If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them." (Lev. 20:13, NASB)
      "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them." (Lev. 20:13, ESV)

      Red 1gm

    11. Yes, religion is obviously mostly harmless nonsense. At the least, the New Atheist writers do a terrible job of proving otherwise with their laughable attempts to squeeze most of the world's problems and conflicts into a religious box. (Northern Ireland, etc as religious conflicts - how very very silly. Have these people never picked up a work of sociology?)

      That reality distortion field is a major problem with the New Atheism movement and it underlies the intellectual deficiencies of the books I mentioned: "Oh no, the bible says homosexuals are an abomination and the New Atheists say we have to do everything the bible says. That's why we stone homosexuals in America."

      Is that the substantial criticism you were looking for? It was already in my post but I have tried to make it extra blunt since you missed it before.

  4. That is an awesome article. I've had similar thoughts, written up here:

    My early thinking (in my 20s) was influenced by two friends. One is a new atheist. The other chooses a god to believe in each year (Thor, Ganesh, etc.) because the feels this is cool.

    1. Thanks! And thanks for recommending your post.

  5. Yes, but don't you see cultural that is literary and artistic value in the belief in God?
    It is a product of the imagination and is interesting and the clash between the atheists and believers adds to the light and heat of that fire.
    I'd also like to ask if religion is part of human nature or the human condition which may explain why the new atheists are so strident.

    1. 1. Sure - Reading the KJV bible might help to better understand English literature from the early modern period to mid-20th century. Religion can also be a fascinating object of study by the social sciences, such as anthropology. But those are different ways of taking religion seriously than either religionists or the New Atheists seem to prefer.

      2. Pace Alvin Plantinga, religion seems pretty clearly part of the human condition not human nature, a social invention rather than something basic to the human species qua species, like breathing oxygen or sexual reproduction. More here

  6. I appreciate your understanding of the ridiculousness of scientism. If atheism is to have any intellectual weight, it must take an intellectually honest position. Too few people, or perhaps I should say too many New Atheists, end up throwing out reason and the ability to engage in metaphysical argument implicitly by adopting scientism. Conversely, too many modern religious adherents end up throwing out reason in favor of a fideism. At this point, there is really no way to engage in a rational discussion about the issue. Any atheistic argument that does not stem from the philosophical blunders of new atheism is a welcome change of pace, and encouraging the NA's to adopt a coherent position is commendable.

  7. I am failing to understand the reasons for which you call the none-existence of God to not be a "profound" belief for someone to hold. For many, this shift in belief can give rise to a shift in personal morality. (For example: To stop believing in homosexuality as being fundamentally wrong with the conversion from being raised Christian. For many people, to break away from the beliefs of their upbringing, friends, and family, it can be very profound to become defiant within their skepticism.)

    However, I agree with you upon several points. The question of the existence of a "Divine Creator" can't be understood via science. I find it silly that so many profess, "God doesn't exist," when it seems as though, all we can claim is uncertainty. However, there is a role in which the evidence from studying the natural state of the universe that directly opposes the "truths" that have been laid out in the Bible. .... I think that many confuse their, "Atheism" to be confused for simply not believing in the Biblical form of God.

    I also agree with you that it is rather odd that people must state their "none-beliefs."

    1. It's not just you - I'm still dissatisfied with my clarity on this point. What I'm trying to get at is the asymmetry that should exist between believing in god and not believing in god. This is distinct from the significance of a conversion experience itself in moving from one to position to the other.

      Let's try this way. Suppose you are a materialist and someone asks you whether you believe in god. The natural answer is, of course not. The materialist comes to their belief that god doesn't exist via consulting their materialism, not via engaging with the idea that god exists. In contrast, the new atheist seems to take the existence of god as the benchmark for their reasoning and provides an argument that is always in conversion terms. To me that gives an artificial significance to atheism.

    2. It's like atheists should not believe in God rather than believe in not God, like the logical distinction made by Aristotle in one of his works on logic on the distinction between not that and that not

    3. I don't know. Grass would count as atheist on that criteria.

      Here's a metaphor that might get at it. It's like someone who claims to believe in nudity as a lifestyle (like atheism, rather more popular in Europe than America) but still wears clothes. This person is convinced that clothes are silly, unnecessary and uncomfortable things that have more to do with arbitrary social conventions than any useful function. So he makes a new set of clothes covered in slogans to promote his new beliefs, like "Nudism is natural" and "Clothes are just lies".

  8. Some existentialists like Becker, regard man as a naturally religious animal haunted by mortality, whose condition demands creative illusions.
    What do you think about their argument?

    1. Beckett? I won't say there's nothing to that idea, but it doesn't really persuade me. Modern human life, at least in the prosperous parts of the world, doesn't seem all that haunted by mortality.

      NB Dennett provides an alternative 'empirical' explanation for religion in Breaking the Spell.

  9. Some form of curiosity exists in all animals but we animals do something more; we wonder. We want/need to know. What? How? And even Why? Factually impoverished, we create. Something, Anything, to fill the facts-void. Myth does that until actual facts are discovered. At long last we are beginning to find the Whats and the Hows, but Why? will always have the question mark because there isn’t any. So even if we may some day have impossibly discovered all knowledge about everything, Why? will still be left for people of faith to kill each other over.

  10. howard berman7 May 2014 at 03:01

    Earnest Becker, anthropologist and Freudian, wrote The Denial Of Death in the early seventies. Unconsciously, we are haunted by death and everything is an impossible scramble to escape it. There is a social psychological research paradigm showing that people have unconscious anxiety about death.
    It was part of the times but was influential

  11. You're missing a very important detail that scientists get rather tired of pointing out over and over again - scientists admit when they don't know something. (That's really the beauty of science, isn't it?) Scientists don't claim to have all the answers, and this whole "scientism" thing, that's bullshit. Scientism is the claim that someone is attempting to use science where science does not apply, such as in the existence of a divine being or divine power and influence, and the scientific method is authoritatively applied in contexts in which it cannot be. But what scientist does that? The scientific method may very well be the best explanation for phenomena in the world around us, but it's based on ideas that are falsifiable. Many scientists reject religion, God, and divine intervention BECAUSE these ideas are not falsifiable, and the scientific method is not applicable in that context. We'll use the existence of God as an example, that's an easy one. Scientists who refuse to believe in God (or who might refer to themselves as atheists) typically do so because it is in context outside of observation and experimentation, and the claim that asserts that God exists is improbable because it is not supported by evidence. No good scientist is trying to use the scientific method to show that God doesn't exist; that would be a waste of time. Scientism makes claims about scientists that just aren't true.

    "New atheists" is just a label. Most atheists do practically nothing except express their views from time to time (usually when a different demographic attacks them first). It's like Bill Maher said, "The great thing about being an atheist is that it takes so little of my time." The label "New atheists" was made up to make atheism look like religious dogma, when in reality, most atheists aren't doing much at all. Sometimes, however, they might type out a response like this one, in which they feel that they are being attacked and discriminated against by someone who thinks differently.

    I'm an atheist by definition, but by your mislead understanding of atheism, you'd be surprised at how little influence it has on my life.

    1. Yes, scientism is bullshit and no good scientist should do it. But the depth of philosophical illiteracy among research scientists means that it happens more than it should, e.g. Economists claiming to be able to do ethics without doing ethics (welfare economics); neuroscientists claiming to have found love in the brain; physicists claiming to have explained why there is something rather than nothing.

      Ah, Bill Maher. I enjoyed his film Religulous, but I can't watch his show any more. He seemed to spend rather a lot of time 'being atheist', much of that involving hating on Muslims.

    2. Scientism is bullshit because good scientists aren't responsible for it. It simply doesn't exist in the scientific community. And none of your three examples of scientism are valid, I'll go through them one at a time.

      Economists are social scientists. Scientism deals with natural scientists. So we can rule that one out.

      Neurologists claim that they may have found a chemical reaction that occurs in the brain during sexual attraction, not necessarily the same as "finding love in the brain". They way you word something can change its meaning entirely. Invalid.

      "Physicists claiming to have explained why there is something rather than nothing". You're referring to Lawrence Krauss's book, "A Universe From Nothing", no? Krauss explored the implications of modern cosmology on the early universe and how it affects the debate on the existence of God. He did not claim to know exactly how or why the universe started. So that one's bullshit, too.

      This idea you call "scientism" holds no weight. It's just a term used in modern philosophy to make science seem dogmatic and authoritative.

      In response to your second paragraph, what does "hating on Muslims" have to do with being an atheist? Bill "hates on Muslims" because his show is satiric comedy and is all about making fun of people, not because he's an atheist.

    3. Scientism is like neoliberalism - a construct of the critics, rather than a self-professed identity (on the whole) - but that doesn't mean it lacks a referent. Anyway, I didn't originate the concept and it doesn't make sense to explain it here. Go look it up.

      I also wondered what hating on Muslims had to do with atheism. But it was there week after week in Maher's show. And it's also very apparent in the pronouncements of the New Atheist authors - as I have seen for myself since I started following some of their twitter accounts.

  12. I don't have the intellectual firepower you guys have but your essay pretty much nails my position. When pressed I admit to " I don't know and I don't care and I don't care that I don't know or care. I've wasted to much time in my life on this nonsense, when I should have just paid attention to the life in front of me. I am certainly not going to start bowing down to the "scientist priests". Pardon my reference to my Moody Blues Philosophy education.

  13. I greatly appreciate the thought and intellect in much of what you write but this statement, as if it were a proven fact; "These atheists seem somewhat obsessed with the quite unremarkable fact that god doesn't exist", is remarkable in that the best atheist scientists philosophers have yet to prove by a preponderance of evidence or philosophical ranglings unless one uses the silly ramblings of biblical interpretation by the afore mentioned fundamentalist Christians. Many of the greatest philosophers in history are found among monergistic theologians. They have always held their own in the philosophical arena with the best atheists have to offer. Of course the best atheists have to offer doesn’t include any of the four horsemen (new atheist gurus) you mentioned as I have seen them attempt to debate people like Dr. William Lane Craig, and Dr. John Lennox neither of which have monergistic leanings. The best one can say about the entire existence of God debate with full intellectual honesty is this, “I am a believer”, or, “I am an unbeliever”, based on personal preferences and that is it.

    The idea suffering and injustices around the world is mainly due religion is preposterous assome have alluded to in the comments. Atheists and atheist communist regimes are responsible for around 260 million deaths in the last 100 years alone. What is responsible for wars and iniquity among mankind is not what is written in religious books or atheististic dictums, it is the evil written on the hearts of human beings in the form of greed, apathy, self-righteousness, selfishness, and arrogance which is in the nature of all. And, what no economic system can properly account for which is why they are all doomed to massive failures as history has attested too. It is common to all human beings from all walks of life…religious and atheist alike.

  14. It has to be kept in proportion, but Islamic supremacism as an ideology is an actual threat to the safety and, at the outside, existence of liberal societies. The threat bears some resemblance to the old one of communist movements, being a transnational motley grouping of movements mixed in varying proportions with ethnic and national aspirations. Much of Iraq and Syria, Yemen and Nigeria, Afghanistan and Libya are under its sway; and in currently liberal societies small but well-funded (by Saudi Arabia) Salafist and (by Qatar) Q'tubist groups try to burrow into respectable religious and community institutions in classic fashion.

    The existence of Islamic supremacist movements is no indictment of Muslims or Islam as normally practiced, but a surprisingly high percentage of Muslims, polled in Pew surveys and the like, at least pay lip service to supremacist ideas. MI-5 directors have given eloquent speeches outlining the dimensions of the problem domestically. Since Muslims are usually the first and often the last targets of the supremacists when they become violent, and since most Muslims seem very comfortable living in liberal societies, the actual supremacist political movements don't seem to command wide or deep support among those Muslims living in non-Muslim polities.

    But pretending that these ideologies and movements don't exist, don't draw support from large absolute numbers of Muslim religionists, or don't present physical and moral threats to liberal societies, seems more like wishful thinking than hard-headed analysis. None of this justifies New Atheist or Christian or Hindu bigotry against Muslims, but it is important not to lose touch with reality in order to feel a good liberal. When I was growing up it was very common for American liberals to deny the existence of communism, going so far as to not use the word to describe explicit communists such as Angela Davis or Ho Chi Minh.

    1. I mostly agree. But my point remains that this phenomenon is irrelevant to the case for atheism as far as I can see, and that the new atheists who have made authoritative claims about the psychopathic nature of Islam are themselves guilty of some wishful thinking.

      I'm sure ideology does really exist, but I think that its totalising form is much rarer than we think. Khrushchev probably still believed in 1961 when he gave his famous speech promising communism in 20 years, but how many Russian were really still committed to the project by 1980? How many Iranians are committed to theocracy now?

      In the real world, ideology seems more muddled and nuanced and hypocritical than a matter of strict logic as the armchair pundits (not only new atheists) suggest. Sociology not philosophy seems the most relevant discipline.

    2. I agree about the unfortunate nature of the NA tendency to bombastically attack Islam (although I suspect I am more sympathetic than you to people like Hirsi Ali who have had to live with "actually existing Islam.") And from the standpoint of absolute numbers, who knows how many true-blue doctrinal zealots there are in the Islamic supremacist camp? So I don't really dispute what you have to say about the NA attitude.

      But I'm not sure any of that matters if the Islamic supremacist movement is able to attract and mobilize substantial numbers of enthusiastic killers and apostasy punishers. Or if, after some part of the movement passes from its classic and romantic periods to its baroque and rococo ones, much of its momentum is supported by preference falsification and an inability to coordinate on a better equilibrium. Especially in the face of dominance by opportunistic bully boys who've hijacked the whole thing. (As a rule of thumb, in places where the movement does not control the government, as in Egypt, you'd expect more doctrinal and social commitment. In places like Iran, where the movement has ruled for a long time, the careerists and opportunists are more likely to dominate the leadership.)

      Communism managed to do a lot of damage around the world and would have done a lot more had there not been resolute resistance to it. Some of that damage was from zealots (see Pol Pot) some was from opportunists (see Mengistu) and some was from hybrids (see Stalin). Islamic supremacism seems less inherently threatening but has risen at a time when the ability of liberal societies to resist is weaker and when the potential for small groups to create mass destruction is greater. So I recommend not rejecting everything the NAs say just because they are saying it, even though their overall attitude is counterproductive.

    3. Even a broken clock will show the correct time twice a day, but that doesn't mean it is ever right, or helpful.

      The reason we shouldn't listen to new atheist demonisations of Islam is that have a dangerously mistaken understanding of religion. If we want to understand, predict, and counter Islamist extremists like Al-Qaeda or ISIS we need to hear from experts on the relevant history, culture, politics, and social structures. Anglophone twits declaiming on the basis of reading the Quran that all true muslims must be psychopaths are worse than useless. They contribute to the public misunderstanding of Islam that undermines the civil rights of muslim citizens and may still lead to war in Iran.

  15. I'm late to this it seems. But I am happy I found your essay. What I think I have found here is one explanation for why the most intellectually challenging atheists I run into. The most interesting and fun to talk to of atheists. They do not stay long on the topic of godlessness. I enjoyed this thank you

  16. Good stuff. I enjoyed the read.

  17. I am wondering on what is your position on agnostics,

  18. Good article! How would I go about getting permission to reprint it in our local humanist magazine?

  19. What a joy this was to read!

  20. I agree with most of this article, but I do think that you are making the same mistake New Atheists make by equating religious belief with the belief in supernatural phenomena. Plenty of materialists who reject supernaturalism are religiously inclined, including A. N. Whitehead, Wittgenstein, William James, CS Peirce, Charles Hartshorne, GEM Anscombe, etc.
    Also, to say that, "religion lacks sufficient standing to bother to rationally dissent from," seems to contradict the "if" in your sentence that follows: "And isn't that how it should be if atheism is true?" Perhaps I'm missing your point here? I can elaborate on why I think these two statements are contradictory if it is not evident to someone whose perspective differs from mine.

    1. Thanks!

      Could you elaborate on point 1? Being religiously inclined - e.g. having an idea of the sacred and profane (Durkheim) - doesn't seem the same thing as having religious beliefs about how the real world works, which seem to me supernatural to the extent that they claim that events have a meaning and are brought about because of that meaning. i.e. the heart of religious supernaturalism is the urge to convert mere 'causes' of an event into 'reasons' which motivated some agency to act to bring it about.

      Point 2. I don't see a contradiction. Firstly I argue that the religious skeptic isn't worth replying to: one doesn't have to prove that there is no god in order to be justified in believing that there is no god. Secondly I argue that while the existence of god would be a remarkable life-changing fact if it were true (cf Pascal's wager), the non-existence of god is an entirely mundane and unexciting fact. Thus, if one professes to believe that there is no god, one should not find this extraordinarily significant.

  21. I am a layman but I enjoyed the post. However, I have two series of questions: first, why you did you put the sketch of Socrates for yourself? Do you think you are representative of Socrates? Was he an atheist or disbeliever or the terminology what you have not invented yet? Second, why do you differentiate your stand from that of Buddha? I think Buddha had nothing to do with modern philosophical jargons like theism, atheism, agonism, believer, disbeliever etcetera. Why is it metaphysics greeks are forgivable than that of Buddha and Jain?

    1. I have no idea what you're talking about

  22. Thanks for this whole post and your responses to commenters. I think you have really nailed down the atheist problem perfectly, and many of your essentially-reactionary commenters certainly confirm the validity of your position.

  23. You are an atheist. It does no good to pretend that the term doesn't still mean what it did when Bertie and Jean-Paul were superstars, and surrender it to Dawkins and Harris and their flying monkeys. We need to try to reclaim the label.

    1. Our mutual unbelief in gods doesn't mean that we are members of the same communion. I am not a member of your church and do not wish to be.

  24. [I just wrote a really long careful comment and then went to log-in to publish it and the [beep] disappeared!]

    Is it fair to say that you're assuming that supernaturalism is essential to 'religion'?

    What about ad fontes burials in medieval Christian Europe? Don't they contradict the possibility that the people who did them could have exactly believed in supernaturalism in the modern version? (Ontological supernaturalism.)

    What do you think about emergentist religious naturalism? E.g.
    From Complexity to Life: On The Emergence of Life and Meaning, edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen, Oxford University Press, 2002; especially the chapter by Stuart Kauffman in that volume.

    (Disclosure: I am a believer, both in emergentist religious naturalism and Catholicism, and I make the two work quite harmoniously together. Needless to say I operate a radically pragmatist theory of truth. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one and I don't think this is really as innovative as you might assume, e.g. somewhere, sorry I can't find it again, I read a transcribed Jesuit homily from the 1930s about the metaphor of the "spring of living water" that was clearly emergentist. Emergentism can also be a sub-category of process theology, although not all emergentisms are religious at all.)

    I do have warm fuzzy feelings about an interior(ised?) image of a primordial community of lover, beloved and movement of love among, i.e. 'God', and I'm aware of my "will to believe" and that this is an option with risks attached, but I find it works quite well. There are probably infinite other possible logically coherent ways of conceptualising the world, so why we pick the one(s) we do pick has to be pragmatic usefulness.

  25. Shirley Blair Warg - Sweden21 February 2016 at 02:46

    I enjoyed reading your article and I can relate to what you wrote. I am a clergywoman (and obviously believe in God) but I really do have problems with fundamentalism of any kind (theism, atheism, political etc). None of us (the human race, that is) can claim to have a monopoly on what is right or true. That is why it is wonderful and valuable to journey through life, sharing our views and learning from each other.

    My theological studies in Scotland, included discussing the works of David Hume and I think that it was Hume who said that as far as empiricism is concerned, religion is neither true, nor false but meaningless. And I can agree with that. I don't mean that I personally think that my Chhristian faith is meaningless but that when it comes to verifying or falsifying religion or belief, it really can't be done using science. In fact, atheism is also meaningless too in this respect. I think Richard Dawkins said this himself in a debate in Britain not too long ago. He was asked whether he was an atheist and he said that he was not because it is not a scientific position to hold but followed up by saying that he was 99% on the agnostic scale leaning towards atheism.
    A recent trend in atheism is that the arguments that fundamentalist atheists tend to use is a criticism of fundamentalist christian views - but often these criticisms are directed towards christians who do not have fundamentalist views.
    I've had weird discussions with some atheists who have become angry that I don't take the bible literally or that I don't believe in original sin. They try to tell me I'm not a christian or that my definition of God is all wrong. Crazy! They also think that I must have a screw loose (maybe true) because I am very interested in science and logic but still believe in God. That's why it is called Christian faith and Christian belief. I know that I can't prove God exists - but of course, if I could then it would no longer be faith. Then, you wouldn't be writing what you wrote and I wouldn't be writing this. I've been a church minister for over 25 years and many of my colleagues hold similar views to me - but we're not fundamentalists. We believe, like most humanists, that it is important to respect people's right to believe or not to believe. We believe in tolerance and pluralism, justice and equality etc The only difference is that we believe in God, as is our right.

    Thanks for your article. I enjoyed reading it and feel that I share your stance here - but I must get back to writing my sermon now :)