A Movement Of Disappointment

As I sit here pondering my new embrace of agnosticism, I am brought to contemplate events of past and present.

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.


~ by timberwraith on April 12, 2012.

9 Responses to “A Movement Of Disappointment”

  1. […] a few posts recently about falling out of atheism and into agnosticism. Her latest post describes the many ways in which the New Atheist movement in particular ends up being a disappointment. Some parts that really stuck out to me: My atheism was a reaction to the injustices I saw […]

  2. Very well said! You’ve mentioned this on your blog before but I feel the need to reiterate here: it’s really alarming to spot the similarities in the rhetoric of the militant atheists and the militant theists! That Dawkins thinks that there’s anything useful (or original) to find in mocking those with differing beliefs is actually quite terrifying.
    Who knows? Maybe, within our lifetime, we’ll be witness to an Atheist Crusade. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
    Thanks for the early morning read. It’s always a pleasure reading your stuff!

  3. From the little bit I have read, I think my biggest fears about new atheism becoming a dangerously powerful regressive movement are focused upon Europe, mainly because Europe is so much more secular than the US. There is a growing surge of Islamophobic nativism in Europe and I could easily see new atheists in those countries being swept up in the wave of hatred that is building there.

    In the US, atheists are so small in number that I’m not sure what the future holds. New atheism is certainly contributing toward the growing fear of Islam. As a political movement, I suspect that new atheism’s hateful rhetoric toward all religion will serve to marginalize the movement over time. There are many more religious people here in the states than Europe and consequently, there is a limit to how effective an anti-religion movement can be. In the long run, I suspect the US public will dismiss them as assholes, ignore them, and move on.

    Lets put this into perspective. Although you’ll hear new atheists say otherwise, the rally in DC wasn’t terribly impressive. The previous rally, held a decade ago, garnered only a few thousand people and the March 2012 rally brought 10 to 30 thousand people to the capitol (estimates vary, depending upon the source). That’s certainly a significant increase, especially considering that it rained during this year’s rally. Nevertheless, when you contrast this with previous marches on the capitol, the numbers were pitiful. I attended pro-choice rallies in the late 80s and early 90s which drew around half a million people. The Million Man March drew 400,000 to 800,000 people. The Promise Keeper’s rally in 1997 drew even more than the Million Man March. I counter-protested the Promise Keeper rally. It was immense–to the point of being frightening. The religious right can mobilize a lot of people. They’ve got the funds, the numbers, and the infrastructure to do so.

    For US atheists, this points out a major problem: if new atheists are going to be insulting and hateful, and atheist numbers are pitifully small, the religious majority and politicians are going to largely ignore the movement… except to use its rhetoric to stir up anti-secular sentiments. The power of the religious right in the US is immense, and they have the numbers to prove it. Plus, what good does it do to meet the hatred of the religious right with the hatred of the secular left? Fighting hatred with more hatred isn’t going to solve much. In the end, you’ll be left with hateful people, regardless of who comes out on top, if anybody. Consequently, another approach is warranted.

    Canada, I’m not certain about. I don’t really hear much news about the state of secularism and religious prejudices up North.

  4. Dear Timberwraith,

    Have you considered that religion and faith may not be the same thing?
    Organized religion strives to put something (them) between us and God.
    Many churches try to tell you what to believe and how to exercise that belief. I personally, belong to a small Methodist church, but do not consider myself a Methodist. I go there because I like the people. They are my church family. The pastor is a personal friend of mine, and knows in his heart, I am not really a Methodist, in the sense that I buy into all their church dogma and tenets. Even so, I’m frequently called upon to preach and do “kiddie sermons.” My own spiritual description of myself is “a person of faith.” I know there are many paths up the mountain to God, and that the path you choose, or are led to is not nearly as important as the destination.

    I pray that some day, you will find your own path.


  5. Gene, I suspect we are in complete agreement.

    Here’s how I see it. Faith and spirituality can and do exist independently of religion. Religion takes the phenomena of faith and spirituality and intertwines them with meaningful symbolism, cultural mores, rules, traditions, and formal study. Religion also provides (ideally) a ready-made community in which people can share the experience of faith and spirituality. Unfortunately, like so many social institutions, religion can become riddled with games of power and control. In my opinion, that is where faith and spirituality can become twisted into something hurtful. Religion, like any other social institution, can accomplish great things and terrible things. It varies from era to era and religion to religion.

    I’ve said for years that my church can be found in a forest or on a mountainside. Nature is the source of my spirituality. The brick and mortar institutions of religion do not speak to me.

    In the article, I was using the word faith in a less precise way, where the words religion and faith are mostly synonymous. I probably should use greater precision in the future.

    Here’s an article that describes my personal take on faith. (It’s the last installment of a five part series–a heck of a lot of reading, actually.)

    Thanks for stopping by again and thanks for your prayers. I think I’ve found a good bit of the path you speak of, but then again, such explorations are often a lifelong journey, no?

  6. I recently saw an atheist dismiss the GREAT amount of oppression that scientists have been guilty of (especially medicine, the amount of torture- often racial based- that led to our knowledge of medicine is sickening) with a sardonic “tragic” while insisting it had value, despite saying that religion had to be destroyed for hurting people the same ways. I feel like that’s a giant part of atheism’s problem- everything’s problem- it erases the horrifying crap in its history or sees it as “not that bad”.

    I can grasp atheism, but I really hate it when atheists fall into Christo-centrism. I see atheists dismiss God by saying “but deities must be evil because they let all this happen!” and I really don’t think they have that much power. I do not like the thought of an omnipotent being, especially an omniscient one.

    I have a great distrust of organized religion- but I distrust pretty much any organization. I’d like not to be so cynical, but I keep getting disappointed. Charities, activist organizations, governments, I think even student clubs all end up having serious problems.

  7. Yeah, there’s a combination of ignorance and denial around the ways in which science has been less than humane. I’m worried by the sense of infallibility that some atheists have surrounding science. Without understanding science’s sorted history, I suspect that people will be far more likely to fall into accepting future abuses of science without questioning if something might be awry.

    Something that I keep on pointing out to the science-loving atheists I know is that research and journals all require a fair amount of money to survive. Who is providing that funding? How does that guide what is researched? How does that guide who gets to do research? Which perspectives wind up falling by the wayside because they are not popular enough to suit the political whims of those who provide funding?

    The wealthy have most of the wealth and they control much of the government. Is it too illogical to question how they both directly and indirectly control the course of scientific research? Is it too much to question how the various demographic privileges of those who control the flow of money, and those who conduct the research might influence the course of science? It certainly has in the past, as is evidence by science’s history of abuse.

    As for Christo-centrism: yeah,that’s a problem, too. I see big, brand name atheists looking at Christianity, making a bunch of generalizations about the entire world’s religions and then dismissing everything. I also see a bunch of Western-centric people looking at Islam, making judgements via a lens of Western, Christianized culture, and then foisting these generalizations off on all of the world’s religions.

    It’s funny, in a sense, you have current day atheists inadvertently continuing the tradition of foisting Christianity’s view of religion upon the rest of the world. Only now, they are using Christianity in an attempt to disband religion, rather than spread a particular religion. At its heart, it’s still Western imperialism doing what it does best: telling the world how it should run itself… especially if a country is inhabited by brown skinned people. The skeletons of centuries of racism and colonialism are rattling in new atheists’ closets. Unfortunately, their ears are not yet attuned to recognizing such sounds.

    And then, there’s the deafening disinterest I see in exploring the ways in which Western colonialism/imperialism created the tensions between East and West that lead to 9/11. It’s easier to oversimplify and blame these tensions on religion, when looking deeper into the history behind these tensions might reveal your own country’s less-than-humane role in world affairs.

  8. Very rich post, timberwraith!. Religion–or spirituality, for that matter–should by preference be viewed from inside out rather than from outside in, meaning that those who are drawn to these regions do so from inward urges not by responding to the “allurements” offered by organizations. “Organization” inevitably will contain elements alien to the intuitively felt magnetism of something transcending. Anything beyond what science can describe is invariably inner–and therefore invisible. People then, in trying to see it, project it out onto the world, and what they find to be the best mirror is a highly personal matter. Those who would presume to tell me what it’s like inside me, and what I should see or not see, by that very attempt inform me that they don’t know what they’re talking about. — Also found your response to Gene very meaningful.

    • Sorry it has taken so long for me to respond to you. I just started a new job and consequently, I have been away from my blog for a bit.

      Arsen said:

      Those who would presume to tell me what it’s like inside me, and what I should see or not see, by that very attempt inform me that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

      Tell me about it. This is one of the huge problems that I see with a social movement that centers the idea that all meaning and understanding in the world must be derived from science. It completely de-centers personal experience and places “true” understanding of the world into the hands of a small group of people deemed to be a kind of wise and knowing elite. No person’s experience of the world matters as much as the words of this elite group of people. Just as placing control of knowledge and wisdom into the hands of a priesthood takes power out of the hands of the individual and creates a dangerous hierarchy, how is doing something similar with scientists much better?

      These protests are met with cries of “Peer reviewed studies shall be our boon! Professional publications and the rigors of the academy shall purify the wisdom of this august body!” Forgive me if I suspect that peer reviewed journals and the academy are hardly immune to the ever present failings of humanity and the larger struggle for power that infects all human institutions.

      Plus, I can’t count the number of times a person has challenged the sexism, racism, classism, and various other kinds of hierarchy in atheist spaces and then were smacked down by a facile request for “scientific proof” that their experience of oppression was real. If you use science as a convenient excuse to ignore the ways in which you are hurting others, you are no better than a religious person who denies the pain of others by employing a few convenient lines from the bible.

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