In Militant Atheism, I introduced this topic by sharing that moderate atheists don’t particularly care for the more militant version of themselves. There are a host of reasons why this is, and the reasons are genuinely valid.
If we have a look at views of renowned and well-respected atheist peers of the militant atheists we’re discussing, we may be a little surprised. I’ve selected only a few to share with you, the reader, but I think after you finish reading what these atheists think about atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and others like them, you’ll probably feel as I do.
Militant atheism is over the top. It has overshot its mark and become a raging, rude, ignorant way of looking at those who are different from ourselves. It’s as intolerant as one can get. The atheist writers below are being very down to earth and in their honesty they offer lots of insight for the more militant among them to consider. After all, when one’s own kind reject their approach and arguments, how can one not take notice and give the matter reasonable consideration?
Hedges argues that Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett have a lot in common with the religious fundamentalists whom they mock and attack. He actually calls their thought a form of fundamentalism and accuses them of holding an arrogant certitude, of being anti-intellectual in the sense of not really being interested in other ways of thinking, of holding that their own worldview is true and the only one that matters and therefore being dismissive of other worldviews, and of being utopian thinkers.
While (Chris) Hedges does not tip his own hand regarding his religious identity, in the book he comes across as a broad humanist, or even a humanist in the classical sense of the term.
In May of 2007, Chris Hedges debated Sam Harris in Los Angeles and Christopher Hitchens in San Francisco. I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which has also been released under the title When Atheism Becomes Religion, is his fierce refutation of the projects of Harris, Dawkins, et al.
Next is atheist, Dan Neil, who wrote an LA Times article about the books of the new militant atheists:
“I do appreciate the company, and the ammunition in these books, and the occasional exchanged glance of solidarity in the bookstore. But I’m just slightly alarmed. The new atheism is pretty hard-core, militantly insisting we challenge religiosity wherever we meet it, or else enable its darker extremist tendencies. In other words, the new atheism is on a quest for conversion. Having insisted on tolerance of our non-faith, Dawkins and Harris’ take-no-prisoners orthodoxy would have us be intolerant of others’ faith. Oh boy, just when I was beginning to enjoy being an atheist.”
Alistair McGrath, a former atheist now turned Christian, has a lot to say that is worthwhile:
“The dogmatism of the work has attracted wide criticism from the secularist community. Many who might be expected to support Dawkins are trying to distance themselves from what they see as an embarrassment. Aware of the moral obligation of a critic of religion to deal with this phenomenon at its best and most persuasive, many atheists have been disturbed by Dawkins’s crude stereotypes and seemingly pathological hostility towards religion. In fact, The God Delusion might turn out to be a monumental own goal – persuading people that atheism is just as intolerant as the worst that religion can offer.”
Alister McGrath is professor of theology at Oxford University. His new book The Dawkins Delusion?, co-authored by Joanna Collicutt McGrath, is published by SPCK at £7.99.
What follows here is an intriguing introduction to Paul C. Vitz, a former atheist and now a prof of psychology at New York University. He has some interesting opinions on militant new atheism which may shed some light for us on this newest arm of fundamentalism:
The former atheist, Paul C. Vitz, a professor of psychology at New York University, advances the position that militant atheists need to look closely at themselves. Vitz asserts: “In short the theory that God is a projection of our own needs is a familiar modern position and is, for example, presented in countless university courses. But the psychological concepts used so effectively to interpret religion by those who reject God are double edged swords that can also, indeed easily, be used to explain their unbelief.” For years, militant atheists thought they had the monopoly on truth and therefore virtue. As such, they persisted in mocking monotheists by portraying them as neurotics. This point can’t be stressed enough.
Yet, Vitz looks behind the accusations and convincingly argues that a good many (not all) secular fundamentalists hate God because of their own troubled upbringings. In fact, the psychological source of their militancy stems from the absence of a loving father in the home. When one looks at famous atheists and their families, a grim picture emerges. Vitz looks at what he calls the “dead father” syndrome. Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche, for example, lost his father at a very young age. Sadly, so too did many evangelical atheists. David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Schopenhaeur could be added to that list. The biographical evidence is frightening. Is this just a mere coincidence?
Obviously, there were prominent atheist thinkers who didn’t loose their fathers at an early age. Thomas Hobbs, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d’Alembert, Baron d’Holbach, Ludwig Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud and H.G. Wells all spring to the author’s mind. Still, when one takes a closer look at the biographical evidence, as Vitz does, we find more disturbing patterns.
All of these renowned secularists came from homes with weak or abusive fathers. Again, is this just purely coincidental? As the reader ploughs through the defective father hypothesis, one wonders how famous Jewish and Christian intellectuals were raised. Do they have any family secrets? Surprise, surprise: we find that 21 of the prominent theistic thinkers came from relatively healthy backgrounds!
History tells us that political atheism tends to be extremely dangerous. Both Hitler and Stalin hated Judeo-Christian values with a vengeance. And it should come as no surprise that both leaders were severely beaten by their fathers. Curiously, a good many of their fawning disciples came from fatherless backgrounds too. Consider for one moment the many ways in which pathetic German men worshipped Hitler. How many of them saw him as a substitute role model after having lost their own fathers in WWI?
Rabbi Daniel Lapin states that: “In only the twentieth-century, atheism in both its forms of facism and communism, has been responsible for killing far more humans than all the religious wars of the first nineteen centuries.” Alas, an intellectual arrogance surrounds militant atheists. Books like Faith of the Fatherless – The Psychology of Atheism, however, serve as an important counterweight to the many pro-atheist arguments preached by some evangelical secularists on campuses across the West.
Atheist author, Frank Schaeffer, and his take on New Atheism.
“The New Atheists have been so shrill in their attempts to put what they regard as religious Dims in their place that even some other atheists find them abrasive. These critics of the New Atheists might be called New New Atheists. They too have come forward to proclaim atheism, yet to denounce the New Atheists in a way that to me is reminiscent of the church splits that my evangelical/Calvinist missionary parents (Francis and Edith Schaeffer who founded the ministry of L’Abri in Switzerland) went through.
We became members of ever “purer” churches through one “separation” after another, until the “True Church” more or less boiled down to just our family! In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, French philosopher André Comte-Sponville tries to present a “humanitarian foundation” for the life of unbelief. Comte-Sponville says that his “way of being an atheist,” was influenced by the Catholicism of his youth. He acknowledges the positive aspects of faith.
And then there is Ronald Aronson, a philosopher teaching at Wayne State University and contributor to Religion Dispatches, who first laid out a critique of the New Atheists in a review of their books in the Nation published in June 2007.
“Where does the work of the New Atheists leave us?” he asked. “Living without God means turning toward something.” Then in his book Living Without God, Aronson fleshed out his critique. He writes, “Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism, and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something.” It might also mean that we should look for a less drastic alternative to fundamentalist faith in God than a fundamentalist faith in no God.
The New Atheists and the religious fundamentalists have been looking through the wrong end of the same worn-out telescope. It strikes me that the idea–dare I say the fundamental truth — of paradox has been left out of the current atheist vs. religion debate.
At its best faith in God is about thanksgiving, shared suffering, loss, pain, generosity, and love. The best religious people and the best secular people learn to ignore our chosen (or inherited) religions’ nastier teachings (be those found in the Bible or in the “science” of eugenics and white racial superiority) in order to preserve the spirit of our faiths, be it a faith in secular humanism, science, God or in all of the above.
It’s the tediously consistent fundamentalists, religious or atheist, who become monsters. They are so sure that they have the truth that they dare claim that only those members of “my” religion will be saved. This is the path to madness and, if history is any guide, to violence. Certainty kills.
This essay first appeared on Religion Dispatches. Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism)
When asked about new atheists, atheist author, Julian Baggini, shared some of the following snippets:
“In any case, my opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.”
“The new atheism, however, is characterised by its attacks on religion. In any case, my opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted.”
“This anti-theism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.”
“For these reasons, I am not happy about the public rhetoric of the new atheism, which has the most powerful effect on how people perceive people like me. Anyone committed to the proper use of reason and evidence should use both to see that this rhetoric matters, whether they like it or not, and modify their approach accordingly.”
- Militant Atheism (lifeofafemalebiblewarrior.wordpress.com)
- Atheism = Theism (perfectdivine.com)
- Misunderstanding Atheism, the Atheist Movement, and Secularism (atheistrev.com)
- Militant Atheists? (subjunctivemorality.wordpress.com)