The “New Atheists”: Are They Saying Anything New?

From a presentation made by Marilyn Westfall at the Theatre of the Upper Arlington Library, Columbus, OH August 4, 2007.

When I originally was asked to speak on this topic-“The New Atheists, Are They Saying Anything New?”-my memory went back to the time when I was a Catholic, which was at least nominally until about age 19. I recall how I wouldn’t dare to ask any priest or nun, “Are you saying anything new?” Such a question, if I were a good Catholic, was inappropriate (or so I was taught), because clerics were there to relay tradition or to institute the dictates of the pope.

So when I thought about the question that we’re addressing today, I wondered why, in a sense, it was essential that these authors say something distinctly new. After all, the greater portion of the American public knows very little about the history of atheism, agnosticism, freethought, and humanism to begin with; how much would the general public appreciate the “new”? It could be that the freethought tradition itself raises too many uncomfortable questions, or perhaps the subject is considered too “distasteful.” In fact, I heard Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, interviewed some time ago on a Public Radio program; he was one of several people on the show, and the person opposing him was another scientist, whose name escapes me. This fellow kept hedging, whenever Dawkins asked him, do you believe in the dogma perpetrated by religion? But finally, because Dawkins persisted in asking the question, the fellow responded and said (I’m paraphrasing here) that is just wasn’t “nice” to be talking about such things.

Not nice or perhaps not easy? Or not wise? Or not without fear of repercussion? As Christopher Hitchens says in God Is Not Great: “We cannot know the names of all [the] men and women [who have been unbelievers] because they have in all times and all places been subject to ruthless suppression. For the identical reason, nor can we know how many ostensibly devout people were secretly unbelievers” (254). Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, is quite graphic about the torture, mutilation, and horrible deaths infidels of all sorts suffered in recorded history, and the sufferings inflicted on anyone who could be labeled as “other” by a dominant religion, and seen as a threat to orthodoxy.

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, tells several stories of American intellectuals and social reformers who were either ignored by historians or whose very families tried to expunge all record of their professed atheism. Among these was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, certainly one of the powerhouses of nineteenth-century feminism and author of The Women’s Bible. As Jacoby points out: “…Stanton’s children contributed to the long obfuscation of their mother’s antireligious beliefs. […] ‘[T]hey had rewritten her letters, destroyed her diary, and altered her autobiography” (204-205).

Here is some information that I can share about attempts at expunging the historical record of freethought from the map. I’m from Texas, where there was a great infusion of freethought in the nineteenth century especially, with the coming of German immigrants, the Freidenkers, who wanted nothing to do with organized religion because of the persecutions they had witnessed in Europe. There was a monument to honor these freethinkers established in Comfort, Texas in the late 1990s; the town was central to the cultural heritage of the Freidenkers. That monument, a 32-ton rock, was unceremoniously removed and dumped on private land, because it acknowledged an “atheist” tradition. (More information here) The “great infidel” and agnostic Robert Ingersoll had a Texas town named after him; the name was changed, however, from Ingersoll to Redwater, after a religious revival resulted in sudden conversions. (More information here)

What is it about challenges to faith and orthodoxy that move people to murder, to purge and censor those who are unbelievers? Sam Harris, as I’m sure you all know, now wants “faith” to become a word that is an embarrassment to utter by any educated individual. He hopes instead that “reason, spirituality, and ethics” can be brought together to address a “rational approach to our deepest personal concerns.” More on that later. Christopher Hitchens’ book tells the long, sordid and violent history of religion that many would prefer to sweep under the carpet, because the story is not “nice” and makes for discomfort.

I myself have researched the religious history of California, from the founding of the Catholic Spanish missions; these were religious and often military outposts stationed along the California coast. The leader of the mission effort was Father (Padre) Junipero Serra, who was fond of saying that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” His efforts and those of the other padres to Christianize the peaceful California natives resulted in untold deaths-probably in the hundreds of thousands at least, from outright murder to death by exposure to European diseases. (See books such as The Way We Lived, edited by Malcolm Margolin, for more information.) And while this horror was happening on the West Coast of America, the United States founders were creating The Declaration of Independence on the East Coast.

Some of us are of the informed opinion that religion shouldn’t “get a pass” as a force for good; there are those of us who outright reject religion. We both have drawn some of our conclusions from our knowledge of religious history. Sadly, this knowledge seems to need repeating and updating. As Christopher Hitchens laments, regarding the writing of his book God Is Not Great:

This book has been about the oldest argument in human history, but almost every week that I was engaged in writing it, I was forced to break off and take part in the argument as it was actually continuing… [H]urrying to show solidarity at the embassy of Denmark … whose…embassies were going up in smoke because of the appearance of a few caricatures in a newspaper in Copenhagen. (281)

Near the final pages of his book, Hitchens concludes: “Religion has run out of justifications” (282).

In my opinion, the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali gives greater potency to the arguments made by Harris, Hitchens, et. al. The book also provides a fresh perspective by a woman on the subject of religious intolerance. Infidel is Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, telling about growing up as a Muslim in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, and the abuse she had to endure in order to submit to religious/cultural authority. She recalls her grandmother saying, “When you are born a woman, you must live as a woman. The quicker you understand that, the easier it will be to accept.” Living as a woman for Hirsi Ali meant enduring “female circumcision,” and attending Quran school where she learned the “inner struggle” which led to her adopt the hidjab; over the years, she developed into what she called the “caged virgin.” She managed to escape a forced marriage and took refuge in Holland, where she eventually became a citizen, attended college, declared her atheism, and ran successfully for parliament.

But to those of us familiar with the book Infidel, we know that Hirsi Ali’s is no Cinderella story. She wrote the script for the film Submission, which showed the bodies of women on which words from the Quran were written. The director of the film, Theodore van Gogh, was later murdered, because of the film’s content. Hirsi Ali was placed under strict security, and lost her seat in parliament and nearly lost her Dutch citizenship. The events that happened to her segue into what is “new” about atheism, and about what the “New Atheists” are saying. Hirsi Ali commented that she had become a pawn in a political game, to protect the religion of Islam and safeguard some of its worst dysfunctions. She said of the reforms she had hoped to institute as a new member of the Dutch parliament:

I wanted Holland to wake up and stop tolerating the oppression of Muslim women in its midst; the government must take action to protect them and punish their oppressors. Second, I wanted to spark a debate among Muslims about reforming aspects of Islam so that people could begin to question, and criticize their own beliefs. This could only happen in the West … in no Muslim country can there be free discussion on such a subject.

Third, I wanted Muslim women to become more aware of just how bad, and unacceptable, their suffering was. I wanted to help them develop a vocabulary of resistance. (295)

Once again, for those of us familiar with Hirsi Ali’s story, it seems that forces on the political Left and Right failed her, and indeed she was attacked for her attempts to deal with the dysfunctions of her former religion:

People accuse me [she says] of having interiorized a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument. Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughters? To be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other…? When I came to a new culture, where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different, would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice? (348)

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris ventures out to the precipice and declares, “We are at war with Islam” (106). This is new. This is not that we are at war with “Islamo-facists” or “evildoers” as the ever-eloquent Mr. Bush has oft said. No. Harris insists that any other analysis is “wishful thinking.” We are at war with Islam. I would like to know what you all think about this. To me, Harris’ declaration is the death-knell of a strand of Western liberalism, which in Harris’ book is typified by Noam Chomsky, linguist and cultural critic. Chomsky sees our conflict with Islam as one outgrowth of American hegemony, as in the case of our boycott of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of perhaps a half-million children. Harris concedes that the U.S. has a “great deal to atone for” in matters of foreign policy, but he also argues that American intentions for the most part are ‘good,” and are viewed in the light of moral reflection; the same cannot be said, however, for those intent on jihad-not the war within, but the war without, the war against “infidels.” Harris says that Western liberalism has made “sacraments of illiberalism, ignorance, and suicidal violence.” Both Hirsi Ali’s autobiography and Sam Harris’ analysis show an impasse in the West’s ability to come to terms with Islam. It is a “new” challenge.

What else is “new” about the proposals of the “New Atheists”? It is their appeal to make a thorough examination of religion by science. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is a primer for anyone who would like to know why science has its place in contributing to the understanding of religion and human morality. Arguing against non-overlapping magistra, which was put forward by Stephen Jay Gould as his attempt to give religion its domain over morality, and science its separate domain over the study of Nature, Dawkins says: “Why are scientists so cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians, over questions that theologians are no more qualified to answer than the scientists themselves?” (56). Dan Dennett, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, points out the urgency in studying religion scientifically:

We have particularly compelling reasons for investigating the biological bases of religion now. Sometimes-rarely-religions go bad, veering into something like group insanity or hysteria and causing great harm. Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum: a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight. We need to understand what makes religions work, so we can protect ourselves in an informed manner from the circumstances in which religions go haywire. (72)

Sam Harris, too, agrees with the proposal to study religion, at least to advance “spiritual” aspirations as opposed to religious dogma. “At the core of every religion,” Harris says, “lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed. […] But a more profound response to existence is possible for us…. The challenge for us is to begin talking about this possibility in rational terms” (204). Harris, as you all likely know, is a student of neuroscience, and he sees a future in which we might have “mind-reading machines, genuine virtual reality, neural implants, and increasingly refined drugs,” which will challenge the notions of our humanness (220). But for Harris, the study of consciousness itself is most necessary, as it will allow us to make mysticism a “rational enterprise.” It is worth noting that the Dalai Lama has proposed that we stop emphasizing religion and instead seek a spirituality that is informed by science.

Another possibility worth exploring is that proposed by Ursula Goodenough, a Professor of Biology at Washington State University. She has written The Sacred Depths of Nature, which is her proposal for a nontheistic religious naturalism. Basically, Goodenough argues that we need a rendition of cosmology that resonates, that “makes the listener feel religious” (xvi). “Religious emotions” can come to play within “the story of Nature” and a “global ethos that we need to articulate” (xvii). Traditional religions offer visions of wisdom and transcendence, but they also make too many claims that are no longer plausible, for a scientifically astute culture. For Goodenough, religions can be appreciated, but it is also our task to tell the Epic of Evolution:

Humans need stories-grand compelling stories-that help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos. The Epic of Evolution is such a story, beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context. Moreover, responses to this story-what we are calling religious naturalism-can yield deep and abiding spiritual experiences. (174)

Reading these authors, I certainly have come away with renewed hope that we can find ways to understand the “religious impulse.” Christopher Hitchens proposes at the end of God Is Not Great that we need a “renewed Enlightenment” which “will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people.” Instead, thanks to electronic technologies, enlightenment will be “within the compass of the average person” (283). Hitchens’ wish is my wish.


The “New Atheists”: Are They Saying Anything New? — 3 Comments

  1. I often feel like, “I’m sure everyone has heard this before,” or “I’m sure this has been said before,” but yet I say it anyway. I wonder if I offer anything new to the cause. Perhaps more just need to speak out without having to worry about ” that you are speaking out.” Even if the informations is the same, it spreads the word and the cause. Sure there are those elite few like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc… that are really laying out a clear picture. But how many will it hit with so few of the elite. We all need to step up, get educated to fully understand what it is we need to do, and act on it. We are not simply defending the right to not believe in god, but defending science, pursuing truth, etc…

  2. Yeah, I agree. Really we have no choice but to continue to educate the public and to reiterate the values we live by.

    Thanks for stopping by the site! Let us continue to hear from you, Travis.

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