Monday, August 12, 2013

What is the "new atheism" about?

Recently, the famous Noam Chomsky has taken on the famous Richard Dawkins, a person widely recognized to be a leader of the aggressive 'new atheism' - here is an excerpt from Chomsky on this topic:

...  I haven't been thrilled by the atheist movement. First, who is the audience? Is it religious extremists? Say right-wing evangelical Christians like George Bush (as you rightly point out)? Or is it very prominent Rabbis in Israel who call for visiting the judgment of Amalek on all Palestinians (total destruction, down to their animals)? Or is it the radical Islamic fundamentalists who have been Washington's most valued allies in the Middle East for 75 years (note that Bush's current trip to the Middle East celebrates two events: the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 75th anniversary of establishment of US-Saudi relations, each of which merits more comment)? If those are the intended audiences, the effort is plainly a waste of time. Is the audience atheists? Again a waste of time. Is it the grieving mother who consoles herself by thinking that she will see her dying child again in heaven? If so, only the most morally depraved will deliver solemn lectures to her about the falsity of her beliefs. Is it those who have religious affiliations and beliefs, but don't have to be reminded of what they knew as teenagers about the genocidal character of the Bible, the fact that biblical accounts are not literal truths, or that religion has often been the banner under which hideous crimes were carried out (the Crusades, for example)? Plainly not.

" The message is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds. Who, in fact, is the audience?

" Furthermore, if it is to be even minimally serious, the "new atheism" should focus its concerns on the ***virulent secular religions of state worship***, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim -- arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I've discussed elsewhere. In brief, to be minimally serious the "new atheism" should begin by looking in the mirror.

Without going on, I haven't found it thrilling, though condemnation of dangerous beliefs and great crimes is always in order.

So what exactly is the new atheism about?  I certainly can't speak for Richard Dawkins and, while I like many (not all) of the things he says, I have no intention of defending him here.  He can take care of himself.  There are no real leaders of atheism, because atheists as a group are inherently incapable of being lead.  Atheists, for the most part, are freethinkers and don't have anything remotely resembling a unified agenda.  The only thing they all agree on is their shared disbelief in a deity.  Because they form their own ideas and question even the prominent atheists, like Dawkins, they resist being told what to think and what to do.  At least not in the sense of blindly following some authority figure.  When a group of atheists gets together, you can count on constant bickering, back-stabbing, ad hominem insults, and hateful remarks directed at each other.  A herd of cats is docile and subservient compared with a group of atheists.  It's a handicap in defending ourselves that we get along so poorly, I suppose.

Chomsky apparently thinks, like many believers, that atheists are mostly trying to convert others to atheism.  The challenge facing the 'new atheism' is not to convert believers to atheism, at least not for all atheists.  What we confront collectively is an aggressive move by many religions to merge government and religion - to create a theocracy.  Despite revisionist historical claims by christians, the US is not a christian nation - it was established as a secular nation, with a wall of separation between church and state.  The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution because it was deemed important by the founders to prevent tyranny of the majority (If two wolves and a lamb are together, guess which one gets voted to be dinner!), including the majority christians. 
Atheists are widely despised in the US, as several recent polls have shown.  There's a lot about atheism that's not understood by the believer majority - there are many myths that perpetuate discrimination against atheists.  In the US today, it's easier to come out of the homosexual closet than it is to come out as an atheist (e.g., Barney Frank).  Families and friends turn their backs on you, you could be fired from your job, you're essentially unelectable as a public official, you can receive death threats, various forms of discrimination, etc.

We atheists are asked often "Why are you so aggressive?  Why not just let people practice whatever religion they wish and keep your ideas to yourself?"   I think most atheists would be just fine with that ... if believers would stop their aggressive proselytizing and pushing their agenda into local, state, and federal government. 
If you find comfort in your beliefs, we have no issue with that, even though we see it as a form of the placebo effect - if it works for you, great!  However, the christian majority has gone so far as to claim we're inhibiting their religious freedom when we protest their intrusion into politics, legislation, and public education!  The only 'freedom' we atheists are inhibiting is the nonexistent 'right' to impose your religious ideas on everyone!

'Aggressive' atheists frequently are accused of intellectual snobbery, because they criticize believers for not being rational in their beliefs, or because they ridicule those beliefs.  Believer claims can be so absurd, it's difficult not to make fun of them.  And there does indeed seem to be a strong correlation between IQ and an absence of belief in a deity (For instance, unlike the general population of the US, only a minority of scientists are religious.).  But the ridicule and the criticism from atheists is aimed at the beliefs, not the people.  I realize that for many believers, their beliefs are inextricably linked to who they think themselves to be, so I can understand that criticizing their beliefs can be offensive to them.  But there's no legal or moral protection for one's beliefs - they're all open to criticism, parody, satire, and other forms of ridicule.  If you're offended by that, that's your choice and your problem, because there's no constitutional right to not be offended.  Constitutional freedom of speech is not limited to that speech you find to be non-offensive.  We'll shut up when believers do.

Many atheists, including me, are aggressive in supporting freedom and liberty for all, not just the majority.  We're fine if you want to accept as reality some dusty old myths from the late Bronze Age.  We're fine if you want to buy into fairy tales told by some guy who had figured out a way to parlay religion into an endless supply of women for himself.  We think you have the right to believe entirely as you wish ... provided you don't push your beliefs on us, either by proselytizing or by enacting legislation that establishes your beliefs on everyone, and especially not at the threat of violence.  Do those things and we'll push back appropriately.  Many of us are committed to not letting you force your beliefs on us, and so we fight such things aggressively.  And I'm not about to apologize to anyone about that.
We don't understand how otherwise intelligent people accept mythology as reality, with no credible evidence to support those myths.  People who allow themselves to accept doctrine solely on faith (in the absence of credible evidence) are a bit scary to us.  After all, religious persecution of agnostics and atheists has a long, bloody history.  When 'moderates' fail to protest, in the strongest possible terms, violence committed in the name of religion, that's a worrisome issue for us.  I hope you can understand that.

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