Rethinking the Atheist Movement

The expression of my atheism has gone through a few changes in the four short years since I officially declared myself an atheist. In 2009, I was completely green to the atheist movement as it had come to be defined by authors such as Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. I had not read any of their books. Most of my knowledge (and criticism) of religion came from my academic pursuit of it. I read authors like William James, Emile Durkheim, James Frazer, Sigmund Freud, Pascal Boyer, in an effort to understand the origins of religious belief. As I connected with other atheists online, I soon found out that apparently the only “proper” way to be an atheist was to be a rhetorically aggressive one who regularly challenged the faith and practices of religious believers.

I gave it a try. I set aside the one commandment I try my best to follow, don’t be an asshole, and I began attacking not only religious belief, but religious believers themselves. But here’s the thing: I don’t like being that person. It does not bring me joy to make personal attacks on a religious believer’s need to believe in something which gives them emotional comfort. Ad hominem attacks are not an ideal method to persuade a person into considering an opposing viewpoint. My goal is not to deconvert religious believers. My goal is to persuade them into thinking critically about the faith to which they adhere. In turn, it is my task to listen to their (hopefully) reasoned analysis and respond with further rational discourse. There is no reason why atheists and believers cannot discuss the merits and faults of religion without it degrading into a screaming match.

The atheist movement itself on the other hand seems to have undergone a schism in which several camps under the banner of atheism do engage in screaming matches with each other as though there really was only one true way to be an atheist. One of the reasons why I enjoy calling myself an atheist is because there is no higher authority above me, be it man or god, defining the “proper” path of atheism. I do not interpret the tomes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens as though they were the atheist versions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Atheism is anarchic: without authority. I read what I read, and then I decide for myself what I choose to accept. The squabbles among many particularly vocal atheists online have disillusioned me to pretty much the entire atheist movement. If this is how atheists are going to behave, then I don’t want to be any part of it.

Martin Pribble, an Australian atheist writer, recently published a blog post titled “I Quit“, in which he explained why he is no longer choosing to call himself an atheist activist. He writes that “[r]eligion itself, by itself, is not what is harming us. What harms us is fanaticism, and fanaticism in any form tends to be come [sic] blinkered if left to its own.” It’s dishonest, if not downright malicious, for me as an atheist to make the claim to a religious believer that their belief alone makes them a bad person. I know far too many religious believers of all faiths who actively fight for human rights, secular values, equality and justice for all. To dismiss their contributions, and their humanity, just because they believe in something I don’t would make me an asshole, and I don’t want to be an asshole.

This does not mean that I will cease being critical of the religions religious believers practice. I am a religious scholar. I study the origins, development, and practices of the religions of the world. Doing this exposes me to ideas and evidence which challenges many theological claims religions profess, and I want to make light of these contradictions and find out how religious believers deal with them. I think it is in the best interest of all religious believers for them to study their faiths in an academic context because it offers useful historical and cultural insight into their religion.

Though I stand apart from the greater atheist movement, I remain an atheist. I still adhere to the position that there is no place for religion in politics or science, and I will continue to speak out against such incursions. I will still condemn those who justify oppression in the name of religion, and those who sanction violence in the name of faith. But no longer will I dismiss a potential ally in the causees of equality, justice, and secular values just because they are a religious believer. Of course, I still have my own principles to uphold as a nonbeliever, but I would much rather be inclusive than divisive. I may catch flak from other atheists for taking this position, but then I didn’t come out as an atheist to engage in groupthink.

2 Comments

  • Dan Linford
    22 December 2013 - 14:58 | Permalink

    As an anecdote, I recently saw a Facebook thread where someone asked people to list their favorite atheist authors. Almost everyone listed the four horsemen. I responded with David Hume, Julia Offray de la Mettrie, and Anthony Collins.

    I am certainly with you in not holding Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris as the Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John of atheism. As you say, atheism is anarchic and has no higher authority (of any gender — to briefly reference your comment that higher powers could be “man or god”). And, like you, my academic interest in religion surpasses my interest as an activist.

    Yet I find a few things to disagree with in your post.

    You casually lumped Dennett in with the other Horsemen but I think you were mistaken to have done so. Consider that:

    –Dennett was the single Horseman to go to great lengths not to offend the religious. He makes great efforts to be conciliatory and does not aim his book at attacking religion and devotes a full third of “Breaking the Spell” to explaining why religious individuals should not fear what he has to say. For Dennett, religion can be positive, bad, or neutral and he carefully lays out criteria for distinguishing these three cases. I find it difficult to say that he produces an ad hominem attack on religious believers in that book.

    –Dennett does say that religion is comparable to a parasite or a virus, but he also explains that every human idea ever produced is comparable to a parasite or a virus and that this analogy is simply the way that he understands cultural products more generally.

    –He includes a single policy recommendation, which is that exhaustive education on all of the various religions should be included in schools. And he predicts that any religion which remains after this education would be one worth having.

    –Furthermore, much of his book was inspired by Hume’s “Natural History of Religion” and James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience”, books which, I would suspect, you are a fan of as well.

    The other reason that I would disagree with what you have to say is because I think that a religion studies perspective can be used to justify at least some of the rhetoric produced by the so-called New Atheists. See my blog post here: http://skepticfreethought.com/libere/2013/04/28/why-saying-that-religion-doesnt-cause-harm-isnt-nuanced/

    And, although I need to pursue it further, from the sound of it, ‘sociotheology’ seems to be pretty consistent with my view of religious violence: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-mark-juergensmeyer-on-sociotheology-and-cosmic-war/

    • 22 December 2013 - 16:56 | Permalink

      I haven’t yet finished Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”; I’m still less than halfway through it. I agree with you regarding Dennett’s approach compared to the other “Horsemen”. In contrast to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Dennett’s book reminds me a great deal of Pascal Boyer’s book “Religion Explained” in which he describes religious beliefs as kind of a side effect of cognitive mechanisms of the brain (such as agency detection). Dennett is far less abrasive toward religion than the others. The reason why I lump him in with the others (as many often have) is because he, like the others, is a prominent contemporary atheist author. But as you suggest, there are numerous other atheist authors writing over the last twenty five centuries. It’s a mistake for me to imply that these four men are the only ones who have ever written on atheism. I will have a look at the links you included, as well as finish Dennett’s book in its entirety.

      While I do have misgivings about the intensity of rhetoric some in the atheosphere propose regarding theists and theism, I shouldn’t let the tone of an argument preclude me from analyzing the content of the argument.

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