Saturday, January 24, 2015

Understanding New Atheism

Having already addressed the factually challenged attacks on Islam from the clergy and laity of the Church of New Atheism, it seems an appropriate time to examine in greater depth the dogma of that sacred institution. Like any good cult, it provides its members with a conveniently prepackaged set of beliefs that they need not take the time to think too critically about; in fact, the less they do so, the better. Let us take a look, then, the doctrines of the Church, starting with its most fundamental.

The Church of New Atheism’s golden rule, the core of its dogma, is that "religion" is the supreme evil to be exterminated; I put religion in quotes because it essentially means whatever the New Atheist wants it to at any given moment (usually Islam or, to a lesser extent, Christianity). The creation of religion is the original sin in the New Atheist scripture, and mankind has suffered throughout history because of this sin. The only way forward is for religion to be eradicated. The New Atheist Sacred Cause is the fight against religion, a fight that trumps all others in its importance.

That this is held as a sacred principle should be evident from both what those from the Church do and say; the Reverend Sam Harris has said that, given the choice to eliminate religion or rape, he would "not hesitate" to choose religion. Archbishop Richard Dawkins has said that he considers faith as "one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." The deceased, ever-venerated Saint Christopher Hitchens went so far as to praise Lenin and Trotsky's forcible, murderous "secularization" of Russia, not even acknowledging the obvious inhumanity of the religious persecution that accomplished it.

Furthermore, the Church of New Atheism really must view religion as some kind of almost transcendent evil for it to unite its members as it does; Saint Christopher, for instance, eagerly supported the Iraq War, but even the New Atheists who opposed it (and, accordingly, must see it as the cause of perhaps hundreds of thousands of unneeded civilians deaths) still see him as a holy figure. The New Atheists have substantial differences on political issues, but are all capable of agreeing that religion is so intolerable that not only is it worth it to join arms with those whose views are otherwise horrific, but that those who fight in the name of the Sacred Cause are admirable, almost regardless of whatever else they may do.

The idea of religion as the supreme evil is held, like Holy Truths tend to be, on pure faith; there is no evidence to show that the greatest threat to the world today is religion, and the New Atheists are by and large intelligent enough to understand this if they were so inclined to try. Even if one were to hold that religion truly is the most damaging force today, is it really so much more damaging than the evils of nationalism, militarism, corporatism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia that those topics are far less important than religion? That's hard to imagine, and yet you find Archbishop Dawkins and Reverend Harris devoting a tiny fraction of their attention to subjects like that in comparison with their borderline obsession with the Sacred Cause. Even for those New Atheists who do address such topics, Saint Christopher and Reverend Harris are nonetheless held up as righteous men, despite the fact that they have only contributed to those problems.

As evidenced by Archbishop Dawkins's statement about faith, it is not just religious institutions, but religious belief that is an evil; while the New Atheists often present their objection to religious belief as being that it is irrational or harmful, their relative silence on other widespread irrational or harmful beliefs (nationalism, faith in existing societal institutions such as the government, militarism, etc.) renders these claims implausible. Religion—at least if it's Islam or Christianity—is fundamentally evil. In an instance of amazing intellectual acrobatics, both the Archbishop and Reverend Harris have accused religious moderates of helping to "make the world safe" (the Archbishop’s phrase) for religious extremists, because by being kind and tolerant, they make religious faith seem innocuous or even as if it has something good to offer; for this idea to be coherent, we must assume that religious extremists have correctly interpreted their faiths (an idea which the Church of New Atheism’s members will often eagerly agree with) and moderate Christians and Muslims are not "really" Christian or Muslim. Any more complex interpretation of these religions is, under New Atheist dogma, the propaganda of politically correct apologists for religion, who are, of course, a particularly despicable brand of infidel.

The comparison of religious faith to a mental disorder is also exceedingly common within the Church, from its deacon Bill Maher explicitly referring to religious belief as a "neurological disorder" to Reverend Harris stating that the doctrines of many religious traditions are "suggestive of mental illness" to Archbishop Dawkins naming his book (a New Atheist Sacred Text) The God Delusion. Not only does this hark back to the charming history of any "irrational" or "dangerous" belief being deemed a mental illness and being "treated" accordingly, it once again ignores the prevalence of often-absurdly irrational beliefs among the general populace. Rather than an analysis of the conditions that have allowed religious belief to persist, the Church would rather consider its survival an "accident of history," to use the Reverend’s phrase. Religious belief is to be degraded, not analyzed.

Religious institutions at their worst are not the result of relatively universal human flaws such as greed, ambition, and the like, but rather the inevitable result of religious faith. Whatever good that religious institutions do, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the religion they claim to represent, but rather is representative of relatively universal human virtues, such as generosity, empathy, and compassion. The absurdity of this double standard is, of course, obvious to those who haven't drunk the Church's Kool-Aid, but to the New Atheists it is apparently an entirely reasonable way to view history. Religion is to blame for everything bad committed in its name, but earns credit for nothing good done in its name.

Of course, the blanket statements against "religion" do not keep the New Atheists from singling out the worst religions, which is reasonable enough. Their methodology is where it gets interesting; a religion's fundamental badness is determined by how damaging its extremism is, as long as the damage is obvious to Westerners, as a general rule of thumb. Islam, whose extremism and theocracy we're constantly reminded of, is naturally the worst religion; Christianity is usually the runner-up, which is unsurprising given the prominence of Christian fundamentalism in Western society, particularly the United States. Nonetheless, Christianity is often a fairly distant second, as the ways in which its extremists have caused the most damage—the Iraq War, for instance—are not exceedingly obvious to many Westerners. Religions like Buddhism are often considered relatively benign, in spite of the widespread Buddhist violence in Myanmar against the Muslim minority; as this is not something many Westerners are readily aware of, it merits little consideration.

I've already noted the New Atheist dogma that extremists are the only religious people who interpret their religion correctly, so naturally the Church sees a religion's extremism, insofar as it is visible to Westerners, as indicative of the principles embodied by that religion's sacred texts. As Sister Jaclyn Glenn tells us, "if [Islam] were peaceful then extremists...would simply be extremely peaceful." To state the obvious, this is yet another rule that only applies to religion, according to New Atheist dogma; were it applied to other ideologies, almost every ideology imaginable would be deemed violent, given that extremists representing virtually any ideology you can name have committed violence in the name of their ideology. And, again, it goes without saying that "extremists" includes only those extremists who cause damage readily visible to Westerners.

Because of these rules, the West is widely viewed among New Atheists as representing the very concept of civilization; the West is less religious than the Middle East, and the damage caused by religious extremists in the West tends to damage those outside of the West, in ways that are far less visible and obvious to the average Westerner. Thus, by New Atheist logic, the West is superior to the Middle East, QED. The innumerable crimes against humanity committed by Western governments (particularly the US government) are either conveniently overlooked when discussing "Western values" or, by the bolder members of the Church, justified as somehow attempting to fight against jihadism or Islamic fundamentalism. (Reverend Harris is a good example of a New Atheist in the latter category, given his argument that the Iraq War was an instance of "civilized human beings...attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people.")

The New Atheists like to present their Church’s innovation as being its willingness to aggressively take on religion in ways it hasn't been challenged in the past, but this is yet another bit of fraud on their part. Thinkers like Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Friedrich Nietzsche have all been willing to criticize religion, and in spite of what the New Atheists may believe, their twisted, baffling ideology bears little resemblance to the ideas of these men. For the Church of New Atheism and its believers, religion is not simply the result of the ignorance and superstition of the masses, a means of subjugating and controlling the people, a means of escapism for the oppressed, or a way for the weak to enslave the strong, as for the aforementioned philosophers; rather, it is some kind of virus which has mysteriously spread and must be wiped out. It is not part of a larger problem, it is the problem, towering above all others and independent of them. This leads, predictably, to statements like the Reverend’s about eliminating religion, with no comprehension of the fact that if religion were eliminated in the world we live in today, ideologies probably just as bad, if not worse, would quickly spring up to replace it and take over the role it serves as the opium of the masses and the tool for controlling the people.

Of course, being a church, the Church of New Atheism can’t have just a force for evil it battles against—a devil—it also must have a deity to worship, or it wouldn’t be a church at all. It finds its deity in Science; not science as a tool, as a means to an end, but Science as an end itself, as the end, the sacred end, the divinely ordained end, forever and ever, amen. New Atheist dogma includes not just a belief in the usefulness and reliability of science, but rather, a faith in Science as such—scientism, as it is known. Science is, from the New Atheist viewpoint, not simply able to debunk religious superstition, but locked, by its very nature, in a struggle against religion—and, for the good of humanity, Science must win this struggle, and dethrone and replace religion.

Science is, under New Atheist dogma, the diametric opposite of religion—accordingly, whereas religion can only do wrong, Science can only do good. Whereas religion is blamed for all evil actions done in its name and given credit for no good actions done in its name, the opposite is true with science; modern medicine, technology, and the other things that have contributed to human well-being are, of course, here by the grace of Science, and you can count on New Atheists to remind you of what Science has done for the world whenever the opportunity arises; mysteriously, nuclear weapons, environmental pollutants, and increased capability of government surveillance, while undoubtedly enabled by science, don’t seem to enter into the conversation.

Likewise, Science is represented in the Church’s teachings by the Newtons, Einsteins, and Darwins of history, who, the New Atheists say represent what science really is; the Tuskegee scientists and the Nazi scientists who experimented on humans, of course, do not represent science, but rather their evil deeds reflect only on their own personalities; science was merely an excuse. This stands of course in stark contrast to the attitude toward religion, which is exactly the opposite.

Boldest of all is the idea on the part of many New Atheists that Science can even replace religion in determining what our values ought to be; and I refer not even to the soft sciences when I say “Science,” but to the most empirical, objective branches of science. Per the usual, Reverend Harris is the prime example of this principle taken to its extreme, as he claims to be able to scientifically determine the “correct” morality, which is every bit as frivolous as it sounds. This bit of insanity is not limited to the Reverend, though, as Archbishop Dawkins has also dabbled in the field of a “scientific” morality, declaring that anyone with a Down syndrome-afflicted fetus is morally obligated to abort it. One can only imagine the veritable Utopia that would be created under the principles of these men, where whether one should live or die ultimately comes down to what is “scientifically” the most ethical.

To be clear, I don’t intend to draw false equivalencies between religion and science; science is always the rational way to understand how the world works and to gain useful knowledge, and I do not believe religion is necessary to have a set of values; indeed, I wish more people would personally choose their own values rather than blindly accepting those given to them by whatever house of worship they attend. But the Church of New Atheism offers us not an analysis of the dangers and irrationalities of religion or the useful benefits of science, but rather blind vilification of the former and songs of praise to the latter (on occasion literally, as Sister Glenn can testify).

To those unfamiliar with the Church and its doctrines, it must seem amazing that anyone but utter fools could believe in such idiocies, and the New Atheists are not fools. As with any church, the members of the Church of New Atheism believe in such doctrines because of their own psychology; many likely have likely been drawn to it due to their own irreligion and the pervasive influence of religion in society around them. When one feels like an outcast, joining a cult can be easy. But, ultimately, one can hardly imagine that when John Lennon asked us to “Imagine…no religion,” and even when Marx and Engels looked forward to a world where religion was a thing of the past, that they had in mind the demonization of other people’s religious beliefs. The Church of New Atheism, like many a church before it, set out with the goal of uniting mankind under its belief system—but, as usual, the divisions have only been made starker.

1 comment:

  1. You certainly take a strong stance, and I can see how militant atheism can provoke such feelings, although I'm not sure your analysis is entirely fair. The idea of the 'correct' interpretation of religion is a fascinating one