New Atheism and Its Discontents – Ben Sevart

I don’t like saying I’m an atheist to people who aren’t. It feels like I’m saying they’re wrong about the world in the most profound and consequential way possible. It feels like I’m implicating myself in a whole stream of atheism—dubbed New Atheism—that prizes confrontation, polemics, and bigotry over the universal respect for humanity its adherents claim is so hindered by religion. To be clear, I am an atheist, but I reject New Atheism. Maybe I am wrong; maybe I have been conditioned by my particular experience; maybe New Atheism is valuable, and I should start shouting back at the street preachers who occasionally inhabit Library Mall here in Madison. Does this theory add up?

Perhaps I can chalk up my lack of hostility towards religion to an upbringing without it, especially without the oppressive forms of religion (of any tradition) that feature so heavily in the narratives of some militant ‘converts’ to atheism. Familiarity does breed contempt, but this cannot explain New Atheism, since the power and influence of organized religion in the Anglosphere only decreased throughout the period before New Atheism and after its decline.

Perhaps it is my gender. I do not face, and could never face, those particularized forms of legal and social violence against women that permeate some religious societies (again, of any tradition). Yet I find this unconvincing too, since the leading New Atheists—the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett—are male as well. There are female New Atheists too, but there was also Phyllis Schlafly.

Perhaps it is my age, as I experienced neither the Moral Majority, nor 9/11, nor Creationism in public schools, nor the worst of the moral panic around homosexuality and AIDS. My age means that while Pat Robertson still thumps his Bible on television, he does not run for President; it means too that the President, despite his insipid Bible photo-ops, clearly cares no more for religion than a fish does for a bicycle. However, this is not a counterargument but my point exactly.

Whatever value New Atheism once had (and I do not concede much) is gone. Times have changed. Religion is simply no longer as important a force for conflict and oppression as to warrant such vigorous opposition. The Global War on Terror, once seemingly the fruition of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations between Islam and the (Christian) West, has devolved into pragmatic geopolitical rivalries between state actors and their bumbling proxies. Meanwhile, the spectre of Christian theocracy, articulated so starkly by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, loses some relevance when the major achievements of a Republican administration in control of all branches of government for two years were a trade war, a tax cut, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.

As these examples show, it is nation-state violence, global capitalism, and climate change that worry me. What is the role of religion? It is my sincere hope that religion (1) allows for broader international peace and cooperation, as Interfaith movements from the fight against Apartheid to the dismantling of Jim Crow demonstrate; (2) reminds people that there is meaning and value outside of things that can be bought and sold, that we are not Homo economicus but Homo sapiens; (3) mobilizes people against the logic of unlimited resource extraction and exploitation that threatens the planet we all share.

New Atheism misdiagnoses problems, alienates potential allies, and sets up for failure the frankly tiny minority of committed atheists. These are the reasons why I reject it. Is there a strain or idea within your faith tradition that you have struggled with? If so, what is it, and why?

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