Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why I am Not a "New Atheist"

In my younger days, I was quite the infidel. I led a campus groups of freethinkers and secular humanists, and continued for many years after graduation.

And then, I left. I'd had enough of the overwhelming negativity -- the emphasis on how wrong the other side was, and how "we" were not like "them."

From what I've seen, both inside and out, there is nothing all that "new" about the so-called New Atheism. Read the freethought literature of the nineteenth century, and you'll hear the same strident tone of scientific certainty. Problem is, when you embrace such an uncompromising approach, what happens when you disagree with one another? Sadly, I witnessed the answer to that question within hard-core atheist ranks, and it broke my heart.

New Atheism too often comes across as merely the mirror image of the religious absolutists which they tend to target. Worse, they fail to see how their own views and approach are as much a matter of faith as their counterparts. Yes, they pay attention to empirical facts, but sometimes their understanding of those facts seems rather simplistic.

Too many supposedly liberal folks, for example, seem to regurgitate the belief that "homosexuality is genetic," when the facts are much more complex than that. For example, many tendencies may have biological antecedents which are not necessarily genetic in origin. Then there is the interplay of social and psychological factors, the interaction of gender identity with sexual orientation, how people's perception and understanding of themselves can change over time, and so on. And just as a pure genetics argument is simplistically deterministic, believing that homosexuality is a choice still begs the question of why it must be considered as inherently unethical.

Given how vehemently New Atheists put down religion, it's incredible that they would even lower themselves to work with progressive religious folks on common issues like GLBT rights and reproductive choice. They remind me of Ayn Rand denouncing both conservatism and libertarianism because neither was pure enough for her tastes. And it reminds me of the smug BDSM dominant who pejoratively labeled open discussion groups at a Unitarian Universalist congregation as "come to Jesus meetings".

I'm sure that some would argue that this portrayal of New Atheism is itself overly simplistic. Then again, even portrayals of evangelicals can be overly simplistic. Just look at Jim Wallis, who considers arguments over homosexuality and evolution as distractions from more important questions of social justice and equity. Bottom line, the New Atheists appear to be spending so much energy critiquing religion -- whether just the extremists or altogether -- that they beg the question of how they hope to usher in a better world. Just what is their vision, and how does it guide their actions?

That, ultimately, is the real poverty behind the New Atheism. While religious and political movements are at least guided by a positive vision, militant unbelief is trapped in a never-ending cycle of combative philosophical debate. So, if we are to make a better world for all of us, we need to go beyond mere intellectual sparring -- as deep as the human heart, and as broad as the human family.

1 comment:

  1. I briefly went through a phase with a strong fascination toward the freethought movement, going to meetings and reading the literature for quite some time. Then I just found it far too dogmatic. I found that everything was couched as "this is the definitive truth".

    One of the reasons I love the movie and book Contact is that it shows the transformation of someone who thinks everything can be boiled down to a core truth, to someone who understands what faith is. Its a beautiful story.