A More Coherent Treatment of New Atheism

by

The fledgling 21st century has seen a startling number of critiques of religion and faith in American culture. This phenomenon has been dubbed “new atheism,” and its presence has changed the popular conversation about religion in the USA. This paper lays the groundwork for a theoretical understanding of the new atheist phenomenon by positing that new atheism is a distinctly postmodern movement. Additionally, it is distinguished by the willingness of its proponents to use popular culture to challenge religious moderates.

To understand new atheism as postmodern, it is helpful to first establish historical atheism as overtly modern. Then new atheism can be established in its postmodern context along with its chief cultural rival, seeker religion. Once the milieu has been established, the new popular discourse on religion can be examined. This preliminary work is intended to open further lines of inquiry, including the impact of the popular culture debate on various religious groups.

Atheism: A Modern Phenomenon

The first atheists, in the contemporary sense of the word, were Spanish expatriate Jews, living in Holland.1 In Spain, they had been Marranos, and upon encountering conventional Judaism, they were shocked.2 The atheists were only a small portion of this population, most of whom successfully transitioned into the conventional Jewish society.

…initially their reaction was similar to that of people today who find the “beliefs” of religion arbitrary and incredible because they have not fully participated in its transformative rites. The abstruse laws of diet and purification must have seemed barbaric and meaningless to the Marrano sophisticates, who found it difficult to accept the rabbis’ explanations because they were used to thinking things out rationally for themselves.3

Armstrong is, herself, reacting to the new atheists, but here she plays the role of a professor of religious history. The key word of the quote is rationally. Before the modern period, rationality was not shunned, but neither was it seen as particularly important. The process of secularization, beginning with and helping to define the modern period, allowed, for the first time, a portion of one’s life to be separated from religion. Perhaps the most concise and useful definition of secularization is provided by Steve Bruce.

In brief, I see secularization as a social condition manifest in (a) the declining importance of religion for the operation of non-religious roles and institutions such as those of the state and the economy; (b) a decline in the social understanding of religious roles and institutions; and (c) a decline in the extent to which people engage in religious practices, display beliefs of a religious kind, and conduct other aspects of their lives in a manner informed by such beliefs.4

This process was not significantly developed at the turn of the seventeenth century when some Marranos turned atheistic, but it had begun. An increased separation between religious and secular life had artificially developed for the Marranos in Spain, because they were forced to keep their religion a secret. Such obvious signs as dietary restrictions had to be abandoned, leaving the Marranos, by and large, to become essentially Deistic. It is interesting to note that the religious lives of the Marranos in some ways mirror that of the Protestants; there was a decreased emphasis on ritual, and an increased emphasis on reading the holy text. Their hidden faith held the Marranos together, instead of the community rituals that are associated with conventional Judaism. This similarity is indicative of the early modern nature of both Protestantism and the Marrano experience, both atheistic and religious.

In the premodern world, religion was fully integrated with the other aspects of life, both social and individual; only with modernity did secular life and religious life first begin to separate as secularization began.5 The protestant reformation increased the emphasis placed on the individual’s belief or faith in God. Even then, however, European thinkers reasoned their way toward God; Newton considered God essential to his comprehensive mechanical theory, and, like other thinkers of the time, argued that the best way to understand God was through reason and empiricism.6 These reasoned arguments were often very ethnocentric, as with Pascal’s wager, wherein he assumes the presence of only one basic religious philosophy (Christianity). At this time atheism was still almost unknown. Despite smatterings of atheists as far back as the 16th century, at the turn of the 18th century, “atheists” were still more akin to heretics than nonbelievers.7 Spinoza remained the only prominent nonbeliever, and even he was a believer in the pantheistic god.

Enlightenment thought maintained a similar level of religiosity to that of the millennia before it, but the nature of understanding changed. Instead of understanding the world through the lens provided by a priest, like a medieval person might have, or the lens provided by a holy text, as an early modern person might have, the truly modern person at the time of the enlightenment understood the world through the lens of reason. It is this cultural worldview that fosters atheism, at least in a context where religion maintains a great deal of power.8 Science, although now often associated with atheism, was a bastion of religious thought at the time. God, like everything else, was now viewed through the lens of reason, and so the western understanding of the ultimate power changed from an intervening personality to a far-off engineer, best understood by investigating nature. It is not difficult to see how this perspective forms the basis for later western thought.

Atheism may have reached its modern pinnacle much later, in the early 20th century, when thinkers like Nietzsche, Russell, and Sartre advocated atheism. Their atheism was more fully developed, but also tended toward the nihilistic, perhaps because these men spent a significant portion of their lives observing two world wars. This was a time when atheism was fiercely advocated in academic circles by serious thinkers, and very little was written for the general public in promotion of atheism or against religion, except, perhaps, in extreme cases of religiosity. In the 21st century, however, there has been a shift in how atheism approaches religion.
Postmodern Phenomena: New Atheism and Seeker Religion

Just as atheism was a product of the modern era, new atheism is a product of the postmodern age. It was not, however, an immediate consequence of the social changes that define the transition from the modern to the postmodern period. The new atheism was not sparked until the publication of Sam Harris’ book “The End of Faith,” in 2004. A more immediate religious reaction to the postmodern period was seeker religion.

Stewart M. Hoover discusses seeker religion in his article “The Cross at Willow Creek: Seeker Religion and the Contemporary Marketplace.” He claims that seeker religion grew in tandem with facets of postmodernity like an emphasis on individuals and, in particular, the growing options available for media consumption.9

After discussing the diversification of media options, Hoover writes “In a way which connects with (but is not necessarily caused by) these trends in the media, religion is becoming more diverse, fractured, and personal.”10 This is his description of seeker religion as originally proposed by Wade Clark Roof. “According to Roof, baby-boom religiosity is coming to be dominated by an emphasis on seeking more than on belief or belonging. The focus is on developing a religious faith that is unique to the individual person and oriented toward their own needs and interests.”11

This perspective can be seen in both the fundamentalist and more liberal rebuttals to the new atheistic arguments, save for one crucial element. In the debate between American Christians and the new atheists, both sides heavily emphasize belief. It is likely that Roof and Hoover intend “belief” to be understood as particular shared religious beliefs, or dogmas, but a somewhat different definition of belief is used in the popular culture clash between atheists and the religious. Both sides consider the very presence of a religious belief (regardless of any specifics) to be of utmost importance. In order to prevent confusion about the multiple definitions of “belief,” the term will be used here in the manner proposed by Roof and Hoover: particular religious dogmas. To refer to the presence of any religious belief, it is useful to apply a term used by both sides of this debate: “faith.”

In his critical response to new atheism, Haught gives an overview of the term “faith” as presented by both atheists and theologians. “The main difference is that the new atheists think of faith as an intellectually erroneous attempt at something like scientific understanding whereas theology thinks of faith as a state of self surrender in which one’s whole being, and not just the intellect, is experienced as being carried away into a dimension of reality that is much deeper and more real than anything that could be grasped by science and reason.”12 He gives the atheistic perspective more explicitly as well: “…the definition of faith that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens all embrace is ‘belief without evidence.’ They think of faith as a set of hypotheses — such as the God hypothesis or the soul hypothesis — that lack sufficient scientific or empirical evidence for reasonable people to accept.”13 Though Haught argues against the new atheists, his representation of their views on faith is not unfair. Despite the differences Haught emphasizes, the common factor in both perspectives is the idea that faith is an irrational belief. For the atheists, that is sufficient to define the term; for the theologians, that is only the first step toward understanding faith.

For this paper, faith can be defined as an irrational belief held by the faithful to be a deeper experience than that of having empirical knowledge. New atheist arguments are primarily arguments against faith itself. The primary issue the new atheists take with religion is that it encourages belief without evidence, or faith, a practice that new atheists claim encourages violence and unhappiness. This sort of argument over the value of faith only presents itself in a postmodern society where faith is more important than belief, because postmodern societies utilize the idea of religious tolerance to lubricate social interactions in a religiously pluralistic environment.
The Popular Culture Battleground
After Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, was published, it was followed up by bestsellers by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, all of whom were critical of religion, or at least of its role in contemporary society.14 Although two of these four high-profile “new atheists” are British, their fight against religion has taken place primarily in American media. Numerous atheistic bestsellers catapulted these men onto cable news channels and the lecture circuit. Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris often participate in televised debates.

These authors are arguably of a high social class. All four are white men. All but Harris have doctorates, and Harris is a Neurology PhD candidate. Dawkins is an eminent biologist, who has published several popular science books, Hitchens is an acclaimed writer and columnist, and Dennett is a cognitive philosopher. Perhaps because of class differences and because writing is no longer the dominant informational media in USA culture, the new atheistic authors probably failed to quite reach the popular culture threshold. In Religion and Popular Culture in America Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan quote Nachbar and Lause to define popular culture as “That which is (or has been) accepted or approved of by large groups of people,” and Dell Dechant has established 75 percent of a given population as a useful benchmark for “large groups of people.” 15

If the books, TV appearances and lectures by the new atheists have failed to quite reach popular culture status, then the documentary film Religulous has. Bill Maher, the writer and star of Religulous, has his own TV show on HBO and performs as a stand-up comic. Religulous grossed $13 million, and is the seventh highest grossing documentary in the USA. If Super Size Me and Roger and Me meet the popular culture threshold (both grossed less than Religulous), then Maher’s movie certainly does. If nothing else, the parody of Dawkins and the new atheists by the popular show South Park easily establishes the new atheist movement as an element of popular culture.16

With the exception of The Case For God, most religious responses to the new atheists have failed to gain any significant traction in popular culture.17 The plethora of responses can be divided into two broad categories: theological and non-academic. Theological responses like Armstrong’s, and, to a lesser extent, Haught’s, have managed some penetration into popular culture; their sales were good, and the books were read. Non-academic responses failed to achieve even this level of success in the popular arena. It is difficult to be certain who is reading any particular book, but it is a fair guess that the non-academic responses are being read primarily by the strongly religious. That is, non-academic respondents to new atheism are likely preaching to the choir.

Despite this, the new atheists have not entered popular culture unopposed. Talk show hosts and news anchors have often taken the role of religious apologists when their guests are atheists. In debates there are, of course, two sides, and Religulous can be paired with films like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary that argues that there is something of a secular conspiracy to keep the theory of intelligent design (a religiously-inspired explanation for the diversity of life) out of schools. Once again, Expelled did not boast sales as high as Religulous, but it still met with reasonable box-office success. These are primarily non-academic responses; the theologians appear to have been better received.

The higher impact of the theological respondents, especially Armstrong, is interesting, because they tend to be strongly representative of the seeker religion phenomenon. Armstrong was a Catholic nun before she abandoned religion to study literature. After what she describes as a difficult period, she regained religious faith, though with less focus on dogma and more on the spiritual journey.18 In The Case For God, she chides the new atheists for pretending that the fundamentalists and extremists they argue against are representative of all the faithful. Religion, Armstrong claims, is not about dogma, but about truths that are deeper than empirical knowledge and the religious experience that brings people to gain and maintain faith. This is exactly the kind of personal religion that typifies postmodern seekers.

It does not appear that the prevalence of seeker religion prompted new atheism; it was more likely a reaction to fundamentalism. Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith, the first of the new atheist books, on September 12, 2001.19 The world seemed torn between opposing fundamentalist viewpoints. A portion of the Islamic world was so committed to religious beliefs that they were willing to kill, die, and send their children to kill and die for those beliefs, indicating that religion was of ultimate importance for that group.20 The President of the USA was a born-again Christian who candidly admitted that he believed God spoke to him — and told him how he ought to intercede in the middle east.21 It is easy to imagine how this would appear to those convinced that both these sides were delusional — but we do not have to; the new atheists lay their worries out fairly clearly in their books.

And their worries are what make the new atheists different from the atheists of the modern and early postmodern periods. At the surface level, the new atheists are concerned that religion, especially religious dogma, causes violence that is extraordinarily difficult to prevent, since the religious person is willing to die for his or her beliefs. Beyond this, however, the new atheists argue that a societal respect for faith is the only thing preventing whole cultures from turning against perpetrators of religious violence, and the maintenance of respect for faith is contingent upon the huge numbers of moderate and liberal religious faithful. Because the moderates, in a very postmodern fashion, defend the importance of faith itself over specific beliefs, they defend the faith of perpetrators of religious violence. It is for this reason that new atheists criticize religious moderates in the sphere of popular culture — the atheists perceive religious moderates as a shield that extremists hide behind.

Given that seeker religion is predicated on a respect for individual faith regardless of beliefs, and that the new atheists take issue with faith regardless of the tolerance with which it is executed, the two groups appear to be natural adversaries.

Conclusion

Since the postmodern rise of seeker religion and new atheism, popular culture has become the arena for debates about religion and faith in a more direct and critical manner than ever before. Prompted by a perceived dichotomy of fundamentalists, new atheists brought their case against religion into the sphere of popular culture, where seeker religiosity has served as the primary successful disputant of atheistic claims. Though the rise of a new sort of postmodern atheism has been presented along with the religious debate it has sparked in American popular culture, this topic has been explored with only cursory attention to date. There is room for more significant analysis of the causes of new atheism, its impact on religious communities, and the likely future of the movement.

References

Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009.

Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: Secularization in the West. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

deChant, Dell. Religion & Culture in the West: A Primer. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2008.

Forbes, Bruce D.; Mahan, Jeffry H. Religion and Popular Culture in America. Berkely: University of California Press, 2005.

Haught, John F. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens Louisville: KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Harris, Sam. “An Atheist Manifesto.” Truthdig. http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200512_an_atheist_manifesto/

1Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009), 187-189.

2Marranos were a subgroup of Conversos – Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity rather than leave the country. Marranos were those Jews who did not genuinely convert, but secretly maintained their religion. Armstrong, 163.

3Ibid, 188.

4Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3.

5Dell deChant, Religion and Culture in the West: A Primer (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2008), 44-46.

6Armstrong, 203-205.

7Armstrong, 206.

8It is worth noting that “atheism” as a label is meaningful only in the context of religion. This may be part of why new atheism appears to be more prominent in American popular culture than that of more secular nations.

9Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, Religion and Popular Culture in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 141-143.

10Ibid, 143.

11Ibid, 140.

12John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville: KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 12-13.

13Ibid, 13.

14Dawkins’ The God Delusion hardcover was on the NYT Best Seller List for 51 straight weeks, dropping after September 2, 2007, and reaching a zenith of #4 on December 3, 2006. Hitchens’ God is not Great hardcover reached #1 on the NYT Best Seller List on June 3, 2007. Harris’ The End of Faith paperback stayed on the NYT Best Seller List for 33 weeks beginning October 2005.

15Forbes and Mahan, 3-4.

16South Park episodes 1012 and 1013, “Go God Go,” and “Go God Go XII,” originally aired November 1 and 8, 2006.

17As of October 15, 2009, The Case For God had spent three weeks on the NYT Best Seller List.

18Speaker profile, The Lavin Agency. http://www.thelavinagency.com/speaker-karen-armstrong.html

19Rick Hampson, “For Those Touched Most by 9/11, a Turning Point in Faith” USA Today, April 18, 2008.

20Dell deChant, Religion and Culture in the West: A Primer (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2008), 63.

21Ewan MacAskill, “George Bush: ‘God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq’” The Guardian, October 7, 2005

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One Response to “A More Coherent Treatment of New Atheism”

  1. Sebatinsky Says:

    WHAT NO ONE WANTS TO READ THREE THOUSAND WORDS ON NEW ATHEISM AS A POSTMODERN PHENOMENON I HAVE TO SAY I AM SHOCKED.

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