The Two Faces of New Atheism

If one were to name the most intriguing recent development in America’s religious life, it would have to be the unprecedented rise of disbelief, or what many have dubbed “the New Atheism.” The tendency in the media has been either to hail this phenomenon as the latest cultural fad or to dismiss it as a secular equivalent of religious fundamentalism. In reality, it is neither of these. The New Atheism is a complex movement that has the potential both to inspire positive change and, sometimes, to promote intolerance.

The New Atheism’s Positive Contributions

At their best, the New Atheists foster a renewed sense of respect for science, spur on social progress, and empower the growing but reviled nontheistic minority to find its voice in America’s public square.

Public support for science is notoriously low in the United States, especially when it comes to culturally controversial topics such as the origin of life and humanity, embryonic stem-cell research, and global climate change. Unlike most developed nations, where the theory of evolution enjoys wide support, only 4 in 10 Americans accept the scientific account of human origins, according to a recent Gallup poll. At this difficult time for science education in America—as it faces the ire of religious fundamentalists and its message gets distorted by promoters of quackery of all kinds—atheists and agnostics remain science’s staunchest allies. Most of America’s elite scientists hold no religious beliefs, compared to only a fraction of the general population.

Regardless of what one thinks of Richard Dawkins’ take on religion, few individuals have done more to raise awareness of the importance of science. A former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, Dawkins exemplifies the best in science writing for a popular audience. His books, most notably The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable, combine clarity with passion to explain the evolutionary process in terms that make it both intriguing and accessible.

Dawkins’ success as a science writer stems as much from his expertise in biology and literary talent as from his refusal to confine science to the realm of dry facts. He approaches science poetically, demonstrating that it can enrich our lives and aid us in a search for meaning and purpose. “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear,” Dawkins explains.

It is this belief in the power of science to open our eyes to the awe-inspiring splendor and mystery of the Cosmos and its contents that drives Dawkins’ passion for evolutionary biology and his criticism of religion. As he puts it, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” Certainly, atheists like Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and the late Carl Sagan do not hold a monopoly on science education. Religious believers, too, can represent science with integrity and success.

Geneticist Francis Collins and biologist Ken Miller are the most prominent examples of how one can be passionate about both science and faith. And yet, atheists seem to have a special affinity for science, perhaps because in the absence of God and divine revelation they see it as our only source of objective knowledge and the only hope we have of surviving and flourishing in an indifferent and often hostile world.

Related to the New Atheists’ support for scientific progress is their advocacy of progressive values. The social and political implications of the New Atheism are often overlooked because disbelief does not presuppose a particular political ideology. Even among the so-called “four horsemen” of the New Atheism (Dawkins, journalist Christopher Hitchens, author Sam Harris, and philosopher Daniel Dennett), there is little consensus on social and political matters.

Hitchens in particular tends to embrace political views that are unpopular within the atheist camp. A consistent supporter of the Iraq War, he has expressed opposition to physician-assisted suicide and some hesitation in regard to women’s reproductive rights. On the whole, however, atheists are among the most liberal segments of the U.S. population, and their spokespersons often advocate progressive values along with a naturalistic worldview.

In last year’s massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that only 14% of atheists and 15% of agnostics self-identified as politically conservative, compared to the national average of 37%. In contrast, 50% of atheists described themselves as liberal, a percentage matched only by Unitarians and Buddhists. More than any other group, atheists and agnostics tended to express support for gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, stricter environmental regulations, and less government interference in promoting morality. Of course, American nonbelievers are also the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state. All of these positions frequently find reflection in the New Atheist books, documentaries, and blogs.

The truth is that a progressive president and a progressive political agenda would not be possible in the United States without the votes of the relatively small but fast-growing secular minority. In the 2008 presidential election, unaffiliated Americans accounted for 12% of the electorate (up 3% since 2000), and they voted for Barack Obama by a three-to-one margin, giving him the edge over John McCain. The only two groups that gave Obama more support were black Protestants and Jews. In a situation when mainline Protestant denominations experience a decline, nonbelievers are becoming a major constituency in progressive politics, and their role is likely to increase in the years to come.

One further contribution of the New Atheists is that for the first time in American history, disbelief has become a legitimate cultural alternative. Ironically, it took a devout president, George W. Bush, to galvanize American nonbelievers and turn atheist manifestos into national bestsellers. When President Obama acknowledged nonbelievers in his inaugural address, he recognized a group of people who had previously been invisible in American politics.

Of course atheists remain a distrusted and despised minority, and it will take time for politicians to begin to acknowledge personal disbelief publicly, but for the first time, led by a group of articulate spokespersons, nonbelievers seem to have found their identity and public voice. This cultural development should be celebrated by all progressives, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of belief.

The Dark Side of the New Atheism

But there is a dark side to the New Atheism, too. Although they put a premium on critical thinking, atheist authors often forget to apply it in their critique of religion. Not satisfied with refuting arguments for God’s existence, they unfairly present religion as at best useless and at worst deadly.

One of the arguments Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens make, for instance, is that one need not be religious to be a moral person. They like to point to the evolutionary origins of our moral sense—or as Dawkins puts it: “the lust to be good”—in order to claim that morality precedes religion and does not require it. While plausible, this argument does not prove that religion has no effect on morality. In fact, study after study has shown that deeply religious people tend to give substantially more to charity and to volunteer more often than their nonreligious counterparts. Regardless of the reason for this trend, it seems obvious that something about religious communities and worship encourages individuals to love their neighbor, to share resources, and to be involved in the community.

Whether atheists like it or not, religion does have an ability to inspire remarkable acts of kindness and generosity, and usually it does so not by scaring people with hellfire, but by appealing to their highest ideals of love, compassion, and justice. Sadly, one would be hard-pressed to find any mention of the positive effects of religion in atheist literature. After reading Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, one comes away thinking that religion literally “poisons everything,” as the subtitle to Hitchens’ book argues, and is “the root of all evil,” a title of Dawkins’ 2006 documentary. There is nothing wrong with intellectual squabbles over God’s existence, but it’s at this point that the New Atheism crosses the line and undermines its own effort to promote critical thinking.

The problem with an exclusively negative approach to religion is twofold. First, while it helps sell books, it risks promoting intolerance and potentially even hatred of religious people. Atheists will point out that they do not fly planes into buildings or murder doctors, as some religious fundamentalists have done. However, it takes one visit to an atheist blog (e.g., RichardDawkins.net or Pharyngula) to learn that many commenters on these sites harbor deep resentments toward religious people, Christians in particular.

Atheist authors and bloggers have an obligation to take precautions against expressions of intolerance; but more importantly, they need to lead by example in drawing a clear distinction between a much-needed intellectual debate over life’s biggest questions and harmful attacks on persons who happen to hold a religious worldview. Atheists do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Having witnessed the atrocities committed by twentieth-century godless regimes, the New Atheists should be at the forefront of advocating freedom of conscience and religious liberty for everyone.

A related problem is that the New Atheist approach to religion burns bridges that could otherwise help further the progressive cause. When atheists criticize religion, they usually focus on the excesses of fundamentalist churches: their intolerant attitudes, extremist behavior, a literalist interpretation of scripture, bizarre eschatological beliefs, and so on. One would think that atheists would find an ally in religious progressives, most of whom equally dislike fundamentalist positions. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Sam Harris in particular has accused religious progressives of being part of the problem by not speaking out harshly enough against the conservatives, and thus legitimating fundamentalist perspectives. I think Harris’ criticism is misguided. Religion Dispatches is a perfect example of a progressive media outlet that challenges the fundamentalist vision of both religion and society. In fact, religious progressivism, far from being the problem, may be the most effective antidote to the dangers of fundamentalism. The answer to radical Islam, for instance, is not atheism, but moderate Islam.

Perhaps the real reason behind Harris’ criticism of religious progressives is that they expose the weakness of atheist arguments against religion. Militant disbelief depends on the excesses of fundamentalists to sustain strong anti-religious sentiment. Progressive believers, on the other hand, demonstrate that faith and reason can coexist peacefully in modern societies; that is something the New Atheists do not want to admit, as it denies them the moral high ground and turns their case against God into an intellectual argument with little social or political significance.

Instead of attacking religious progressives, the New Atheists should seek ways to cooperate with them in order to advance science, reason, and progressive values.

One can cite numerous examples of fruitful cooperation. When science education was under attack in Dover, Pennsylvania, Ken Miller (a devout Catholic) provided key expert testimony in support of evolutionary theory, helping the scientific community win an important legal battle against proponents of Intelligent Design. The famous entomologist and humanist E.O. Wilson, in an effort to raise awareness of the dangers facing Earth’s biodiversity, composed a passionate book entitled The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, in which he called on religious believers to take active part in protecting the environment.

In both cases, dialogue and cooperation between believers and nonbelievers has helped advance the cause of science and social progress. This type of cooperation is the only way forward, and the New Atheists would be wise to embrace it.

Konstantin Petrenko is a doctoral student in Religion, Politics, and Society at Baylor University. His research interests include the interaction of religion and politics in the modern world, church-state relations in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the sociology of religion.