New Atheism and Its Discontents – Ben Sevart

I don’t like saying I’m an atheist to people who aren’t. It feels like I’m saying they’re wrong about the world in the most profound and consequential way possible. It feels like I’m implicating myself in a whole stream of atheism—dubbed New Atheism—that prizes confrontation, polemics, and bigotry over the universal respect for humanity its adherents claim is so hindered by religion. To be clear, I am an atheist, but I reject New Atheism. Maybe I am wrong; maybe I have been conditioned by my particular experience; maybe New Atheism is valuable, and I should start shouting back at the street preachers who occasionally inhabit Library Mall here in Madison. Does this theory add up?

Perhaps I can chalk up my lack of hostility towards religion to an upbringing without it, especially without the oppressive forms of religion (of any tradition) that feature so heavily in the narratives of some militant ‘converts’ to atheism. Familiarity does breed contempt, but this cannot explain New Atheism, since the power and influence of organized religion in the Anglosphere only decreased throughout the period before New Atheism and after its decline.

Perhaps it is my gender. I do not face, and could never face, those particularized forms of legal and social violence against women that permeate some religious societies (again, of any tradition). Yet I find this unconvincing too, since the leading New Atheists—the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett—are male as well. There are female New Atheists too, but there was also Phyllis Schlafly.

Perhaps it is my age, as I experienced neither the Moral Majority, nor 9/11, nor Creationism in public schools, nor the worst of the moral panic around homosexuality and AIDS. My age means that while Pat Robertson still thumps his Bible on television, he does not run for President; it means too that the President, despite his insipid Bible photo-ops, clearly cares no more for religion than a fish does for a bicycle. However, this is not a counterargument but my point exactly.

Whatever value New Atheism once had (and I do not concede much) is gone. Times have changed. Religion is simply no longer as important a force for conflict and oppression as to warrant such vigorous opposition. The Global War on Terror, once seemingly the fruition of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations between Islam and the (Christian) West, has devolved into pragmatic geopolitical rivalries between state actors and their bumbling proxies. Meanwhile, the spectre of Christian theocracy, articulated so starkly by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, loses some relevance when the major achievements of a Republican administration in control of all branches of government for two years were a trade war, a tax cut, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.

As these examples show, it is nation-state violence, global capitalism, and climate change that worry me. What is the role of religion? It is my sincere hope that religion (1) allows for broader international peace and cooperation, as Interfaith movements from the fight against Apartheid to the dismantling of Jim Crow demonstrate; (2) reminds people that there is meaning and value outside of things that can be bought and sold, that we are not Homo economicus but Homo sapiens; (3) mobilizes people against the logic of unlimited resource extraction and exploitation that threatens the planet we all share.

New Atheism misdiagnoses problems, alienates potential allies, and sets up for failure the frankly tiny minority of committed atheists. These are the reasons why I reject it. Is there a strain or idea within your faith tradition that you have struggled with? If so, what is it, and why?

6 thoughts on “New Atheism and Its Discontents – Ben Sevart”

  1. Hello, Ben! This was a very interesting read. I will admit, I did not know that there were different strains of atheism, and such distinctions between New Atheists and atheists such as yourself. Don’t worry about coming across the wrong way – through this article, at least, you expressed a respect for religion that prevents you from ever being associated with New Atheists who express confrontational and bigoted attitudes. Interestingly enough, you actually expressed more religious values than some people who call themselves religious. For example, I’ve met Christians who do not believe in climate change, who attempt to justify various wars overseas, and who blindly support capitalism and all of its harmful flaws without so much as a critical glance. Their views, though supposedly supported by religion, end up causing more harm then good, in my opinion. For me, it’s hard to imagine a revolutionary figure like Jesus Christ defending a minimum wage that’s not liveable, or supporting oil companies over climate change initiatives. Whereas someone like you and your peers, people who encourage interfaith collaboration, respect, and changes in the various global systems that perpetuate endless harm, actually do better at upholding the foundations of most religions: respect for life, community, and the environment around us. I hope that more people adopt attitudes of interfaith respect and communication, and we can achieve the goals you laid out!

  2. Hi Ben,

    I think the biggest struggle I have had with my religion is the separation of ‘The Church’ and Catholicism. In other words, the institutionalization of Catholicism, for-profit priests and sexual abuse within the church is not a sign of my religion. To me being Catholic is separated from the institutionalized version of Catholicism. That struggle took me long to over come. I think to most people viewing how I live my life they would say I am not very Catholic. But the reality is, I just interpret my faith in a way different from many other Catholics.

  3. I have many thoughts and less time. Here I go:

    Your post enthralled me for several reasons: 1) I spent some time as an atheist and, at another point, a New Athiest 2) I agree with the goals you set out and consider them to align with my own religious and political principles 3) I fundamentally disagree with your central thesis.

    1. Atheism. I considered myself an atheist in late middle school and into high school. By my Junior year of high school, I considered myself to be a New Atheist. It was a simple dichotomy for me: religion versus science. I was on the side of science, so religion was clearly opposed to my ideology. However, I read some books. A lot of books. Mostly Russian books. Without sounding too much like a street profit in Library Mall, I began to see the underlying structures to institutions. I realized that my original faith: Catholicism, had serious issues historically and contemporarily. However, I simultaneously came to realize that the scientific institutions I respected also had some serious problems. My worldview became incredibly unstable and “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” to quote the most overquoted Yeates poem. Over the past four years, I have done some serious introspection. I agree with you that New Atheism is problematic in the same way that the Spanish Inquisition was problematic. Both were fundamentally intolerant institutions working to spread their ideology over others. However, I also now reject atheism due to its lack of a center. I feel strongly that morality is necessary and that religion is the single best form of morality humanity has. I thought for a while that it could be achieved through art, but art is so multifarious that it also, essentially, lacks a center. Sorry, Oscar Wilde.

    2. You set out goals for modern religion. Hope, humanity, and anti-exploitation. These are all admirable goals and wonderful things to advocate for. However, I do not believe that they are the focus on historical or modern religion. I think that religions should advocate for these things, but it is not the central concern of religion. Religion is about morals. The articles you mention are policies. Morals inform policies, but religion as an institution is not responsible for policy.

    3. “Religion is simply no longer as important a force for conflict and oppression as to warrant such vigorous opposition.” Here is where I find your argument to be derailed. I think that religion is still incredibly powerful and can, at times, warrant vigorous opposition. Again, I do not agree that religion should be attacked as something which should be banished from the earth. Nothing warrants that. Maybe Fascism. Alas, I do not want to point out the conflicts in other parts of the world where religious turmoil is so prevalent. Those examples are overused and lose the point. In the United States, it is easy to sit back and say that religion has no effect on our lives. I can live my whole life without seeing the inside of a church or mosque. I can ignore religion entirely. However, that is only true on the surface. Thinking historically, the United States is founded upon Christian principles. Our culture, society, and institutions are fundamentally shaped by religions for better or for worse. I think that it would be incredibly ignorant to say that religion is not at the heart of many conflicts that are still prevalent today. Fundamental ideas of the market economy, the organization of our government, and our daily practices and rituals are all shaped by religion. To ignore the roots of our daily situations is to ignore ourselves. I believe that the world is shaped by religion and that it always has been and always will be. One cannot ignore religion. Religion might not be the open discussion as much, but it is the underlying principle for every discussion we have. When the United States was colonized by Europe, the religious debates and conflict did not cease, they just moved. When Nietzsche pronounced: God is dead and we have killed him, he was not referring to the death of religion. No, he was referring to a surface level that was now going to be covered up like Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias: “boundless and bare.” With, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” but always there and always the foundation of our discourses.

  4. Hi Ben!
    It’s really interesting to me that you struggled with belonging to an institution of “no faith” in the same way that people often struggle with the institutions that are built around their faiths. Like what Ethan said, I don’t necessarily agree with what you say about, “Religion is simply no longer as important a force for conflict and oppression as to warrant such vigorous opposition.” I think the problem with New Atheism (as an outsider, who is obviously not as familiar with it as you are) seems to be that it can’t see nuance. Religion is still used as a tool of oppression. But it is also used as a tool for building peace, coexistence, and and all of the other good things that most religious people want it to be. Maybe some of the criticisms atheists make of religion can be valid, even if their response to those criticisms isn’t. In other words, you don’t have to discount all of the claims made by New Atheists about the corruption of religion in order to discount the movement for having an extreme and non productive response to those criticisms.

    I big thing within my religion that I have struggled with growing up is the idea of matrilineal Judaism.

    1. Oops the end got cut off. Matrinial Judaism is the idea that you “inherit” your Judaism through your mother. So basically because my mom converted to Judaism after I was born, and because she had a reform conversion rather than an orthodox one, lots of more traditional/Orthodox Jews don’t consider me Jewish, including members of my own branch of Conservative Judaism. So I usually don’t tell Jews that my mom is a convert until they know me better and know how connected I am to my religion, and how much I know about it, etc. Basically, I always kind of feel like I have to prove myself to people who assume I’m “not really Jewish.” And then at the same time they would accept someone random like Kate Middleton as a Jew without question because she has some Jewish ancestor on her mom’s side.

  5. Hi Ben,

    Although I have never considered myself a New Atheist, I have a significant amount of respect for several of the authors you’ve mentioned. I loved them before ever knowing their position as horsemen in a new “militant” form of atheism. This allowed me to take away something very different from their ‘anti-religious’ work. I viewed it as more of an attack against political correctness and the taboo of talking about religion. Ironically, I think most of the authors would love something akin to an interfaith program where you are confronted by tough questions, opposing or different views, and forced to reflect upon what YOU believe in. However, I understand where you are coming from when you say you don’t like telling people you are an atheist because it feels aggressive, and I guess in my case it actually is. I was raised semi-religiously and independently sought it out as I got older and eventually became super involved with my church. So when people ask why I am no longer religious, putting together the church play, or taking part in Bible study I am forced to say the truth which is I found moral and logically problems with my religion and religion in general, and since abandoning it, I have created a life much more satisfying and purposeful.

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