Defining a Place for the New Atheism

I’m moving to Brooklyn! With no internet. Hence delays. 

Andrew Sullivan, with Bryan Appleyard, together question the value of the “new atheism,” which they define as a belief system devoted to the absolute eradication of both religion, and its influence on mankind. Appleyard:

By “neo-atheism”, I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.

For them, neo-atheism rests on equal parts atheism, cultural secularism, and Darwinism, with the latter serving as  “the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.” The definition is hardly elegant, and relies on context for its meaning: by characterizing neo-atheism at least partially as a reaction against creationism, he denies the concept an independent existence, and so risks stopping short of identifying any error in neo-atheism except in its relation to competing ideologies. But even if Appleyard’s neo-atheism is an antithesis, rather than a free-standing concept, we can take his argument as a case for synthesis — that reactionary, militant atheism shares the flaw of exclusion with the very ideologies it opposes.

[A]bsence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated. People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn’t. . . . The history of attempts to destroy religion is littered with the corpses of believers and unbelievers alike. There are many roads to truth, but cultish intolerance is not one of them.

Indeed, the fault runs deeper. The problem isn’t that militant atheism excludes, though it does; nor is it that it’s an incomplete explanation of the world, though it is (for now); nor even that humanist morality, the companion of atheism, fails to resonate with some individuals as strongly as religious morality. It’s that in a pluralistic society, which we declare ourselves to be, there can be no one answer. Christopher Hitchens once argued, correctly, that “the taming and domestication of religious faith is one of the unceasing chores of civilization.” That’s a battle we continue to fight against fundamentalist versions of Islam and Christianity alike. Similarly, we should recognize that atheism will have to civilize and accept difference before it can play an exclusively positive role in American society.

Thankfully, that task should not be terribly difficult. Many of the assumptions that underlie secularism and atheism are uniquely suited to American democracy, and easily adaptable to strengthen the integrity of our shared state. By proscribing the notion of a single religious Truth, atheism strongly justifies a constitutional structure that enables each citizen to discover their own personal truth. It maximizes freedom, by eschewing the kind of subjective norms that some would deploy to circumscribe the inoffensive, private moral choices of others. And it fits handily with the American Constitution’s formal declaration of its own religious neutrality, and its creation of what is (in the view of some scholars) a public, pan-American secular morality (a “constitutional faith”). As religion serves society by creating (for some) a necessary moral compass, atheism can serve the state by justifying each citizen’s decision to create that moral compass for themselves, and reminding them not to inflict it on others.

Consequentially, the only claim that atheism must renounce to complete its “taming and domestication” is the claim that other religions are, objectively and publicly, wrong and dangerous. To see itself integrated into civil society, atheism must find validation not just in an individual’s decision to abjure all faiths, but in the more common, private, and individual choice to follow one faith, and renounce others. Such decisions are, after all, declarations of atheism as to all but one (set of) god(s), made with the blessing and legal protection of our secular constitution. And there can be no greater victory over fundamentalism — atheism’s only true enemy — than to separate religiosity from orthodoxy.

But because atheism is a reactionary movement, query whether its “domestication” should precede or follow the end of religious fundamentalism in America. Until that time, militant atheists will have a point: religious fundamentalism actually is dangerous. It erodes our scientific competitiveness, justifies injustice, promotes bullying and therefore suicide, and provides moral support for domestic terrorism. We can look forward to the day when virulent atheism and fundamentalism produce, together, a stable synthesis, but in a world where Rick Santorum actually stands to win a Republican primary, we’re still a ways away.

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2 comments

  1. Eradicating religion and its influence therefore eradicates ethics, then morality which would lead to the absolution of law, and then the functioning of proper society.
    Why kind of person would advocate something like this??

    1. Do you really think people can’t be ethical without religion?

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