I identified as an atheist for quite a while—long enough that I can no longer remember precisely when I first embraced the identity. This era lasted approximately two decades. My atheism was a reaction to the injustices I saw perpetrated by dominant forms of religion. During these two decades, my critiques focused upon the human flaws of prejudice, hierarchy, and authoritarianism which interlaced so many religions (quite similar to my critiques of many secular institutions, actually). I didn’t care about others’ faith so long as their beliefs excluded these three social ills. Abuse of power and the spreading of oppression were the horrors that offended me.
I have happily welcomed Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim friends into my life. As long as one’s beliefs respected the lives of others and one’s faith brought a sense of peace, I took no issue. Although I could not personally believe in such things, their belief was fine by me.
My sense of fear and dislike centered mostly upon Christianity, which has served as a source of oppression for religious minorities, women, and queer people in the US. I admit to being quite distrustful toward the religion—to the point of hating it at times—but after meeting Quakers and various other Christians of a leftist persuasion, I relaxed my animosities as my knowledge of the faith grew more nuanced.
I’ve even personally toyed with spirituality over the years. Although I’ve not embraced a belief in deities, I’ve tried my best to engender a deep sense of connection with nature and people. Yes, I’ve had experiences of woo and weirdness, and believe it or not, I actually value those experiences (there goes my last few hard-core materialist readers). I’m not certain what to make of these experiences, but the sense of lasting connection they have engendered has been extremely important in my life. You could call me a kind of Pagan who remains neutral on the existence of deities. Although Pagans’ spiritual embrace of the gender binary is sometimes off-putting, I find these folks to be generally awesome. I’ll happily share coffee and laughter with a Pagan any day.
So, what I’m trying to say is this: in spite of having an uneasy relationship with some forms of religion, I’ve never viewed religion as THE ENEMY. Many variants of religion are terrible because they hurt and oppress people, and many variants are beautiful because of the sense of peace and connectedness they bring into people’s lives. I’ve witnessed the beauty that spirituality and religion bring into the lives of people I know. Happily, I have also discovered a window of understanding into these experiences as a consequence of my own godless experiments with spirituality.
So far, so good.
Then, along comes 9/11, the Bush administration, and a sudden upswing in the power of conservative Christians. In response, we have the genesis of a wave of mistrust, fear, and hatred of all forms of religion that starts to grow within a large segment of the secular left. Because of the previous oppressive influences of traditional Christianity, this animosity has always been present in the left, but after the events of the early 2000s, the bubble of animosity starts growing to immense proportions. Then, several books are written which declare all religions to be irrational, dangerous, and worthless. The expanding fear, mistrust, and hatred in the secular left is then harnessed as an organizing tool by these authors, and thus, the new atheist movement is born.
I have not been swept up in this storm tide of irreligious animosity. I think of the many kind, open minded, and intelligent religious/spiritual people I have known, and I fail to see the ugly specter that new atheism has made of people’s religious impulses. Some forms of religion are indeed harmful, but to declare all forms as horrid, worthless enterprises is to form an ugly stereotype of religion and religious people. This is nothing more than an all-encompassing religious intolerance. Not surprisingly, the words of those who populate this movement reflect the negativity of these stereotypes. Their goal is not to foster a spirit of pluralism. Rather, the intent is to shame others into conforming to a template of being that excludes religion and spirituality. If you wander outside of the confines of this template you are a deluded fool, playing with barbarism and irrationality. Your beliefs place you squarely in the midst of a stupid and dangerous mode of being.
In spite of the rancor, I’ve spent several years delving into new atheist discussions and I’ve seen a particular mantra repeated in many places: “We are criticizing the person’s beliefs rather than the person.” On one level, this assertion comes from a place of ignorance, and on another level, it is a self-serving lie. Ask anyone who has experienced a deeply held form of spirituality or religion, and they will tell you that this experience runs down to the core of their being. Religion and spirituality are more than a mere set of ideas and beliefs: they are a way of being. And so, when you criticize a person’s religion/spirituality, you are also criticizing a way of being that is deeply incorporated into the person’s persona. The place where belief and spirituality begin and the person ends is a boundary that can scarcely be drawn.
Hence, when you leave civility behind and you ridicule a person’s spirituality, you are showing contempt for something that is deeply incorporated into their sense of self and their sense of connection with the world. You are no longer merely criticizing ideas, but rather, you are attacking the person themselves. Thus, you are leaving the realm of discussing beliefs and entering the realm of bigotry.
Here is an excerpt from Richard Dawkin’s speech at the Reason Rally:
So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!
Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.
When I first read these words, I was completely unsurprised because Dawkins said this in April of 2009:
Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.
You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it.
As you can see, this isn’t an unfortunate loss of temper for Dawkins. Endorsing mockery, ridicule, and contempt at a rally in the US capitol is more than a momentary lapse of reason.
This is hardly a novel approach in new atheist realms. If you spend any time on new atheist blogs and comment threads, you can see Dawkins’ recommended mode of discourse play out on a daily basis. In the weeks following the rally, I have searched new atheist spaces for a critique of Dawkin’s “advice” and what I have encountered has been rationalizations in some venues and a deafening silence in others. This is more than the misdeeds of a few bad apples. This is endemic to the movement itself.
These common place bouts of intolerance and bigotry drive me away from the new atheist movement. If this is the way new atheists wish to engage religion and spirituality, then the movement is only a few steps shy of becoming a hate group. This saddens me, because this movement could be so much more than it is. This could be a truly progressive movement which encourages not only the acceptance and understanding of non-belief, but also a movement that encourages the acceptance and understanding of all philosophical and religious minorities. Instead, the excitement and energy of the moment are being squandered in a celebration of petty insults and aspirations of religious conformity. New atheism has distorted the social insights of secularism into a negative form of religion, replete with tribalism, dogma, and leaders who spew exclusivist drivel.
I am angered when I think of the haphazard denigration of the many kind, progressive spiritual people in my life—people who interact with others in a far more humane and rational way than many new atheists do. Consequently, I hope this movement will mature as time passes and finds a place of constructive engagement with religious and spiritual oppression. Should it fail to mature, it is my sincerest hope that it founders under its own dysfunction.
May calmer, more humane voices prevail.