Opinion

Why self-respecting atheists should ditch the New Atheists

A little humility never hurt anyone

I grew up in a conservative small town, where there was the strong belief that evangelical Protestantism was the only route to the good life, and that I was going to be tortured for eternity for not signing up. It's no surprise, then, that I was often attracted to the "anti-theist" diatribes of Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, otherwise known as the New Atheists.

But time changes all things. Though still far from religious, I no longer accept the more extreme narratives of the New Atheists, the certainty of their religious claims, and their historical view of religion. The atheist community would be well advised to chill out.

Let's start with the overweening certainty of the New Atheists. That there is no God is a fact so obvious it scarcely needs to be pondered, writes Sam Harris. Dawkins is a bit more careful, saying there is "no well-demonstrated reason to believe in God" in his documentary The Root of All Evil. When pressed, Dawkins admits affirmative disbelief can't be proved, but places himself at a 6.9 out of 7 on the scale of atheism.

The problem is that Dawkins and his compadres rarely turn their jaundiced eye on themselves. Science itself rests on a foundation much more logically suspect than they tend to admit.

Science is based on simple induction, which is to say observing a particular phenomenon many times, and concluding it is always like that. The "induction problem," as David Hume discovered, is that there is no way to rigorously prove the next instance of the phenomenon won't be different. No matter how impressive the logical and theoretical superstructure atop these observations, there is no escape from what amounts to a massive example of begging the question.

Compare this problem to mathematical induction. That is a form of logical proof, since it contains a step demonstrating that one instance of a phenomenon logically implies the next one.

The induction problem crops in all experiences. Belief in induction, however unjustified, is simply impossible to avoid.

Richard Rorty dealt with this conundrum by tossing the whole of metaphysics in the trash. And still, maintaining an essentially atheistic viewpoint is still eminently reasonable, as Julian Sanchez demonstrates. I merely submit that the screechy fire-and-brimstone certainty that pervades so much modern atheist discourse is not justified by its logical underpinnings.

The New Atheists' historical account of religion is far more dubious. Christopher Hitchens says that religion is merely implicated in everything bad, while Harris attempts to establish a direct causation. These arguments are historically slanted. Dawkins, meanwhile, often berates religious "Bronze Age myths" that hold civilization back. That's not even the right age!

A sketch of a more realistic view: human beings have constantly fought and killed each other from our earliest days, and we developed various religious forms as societies became more complex. Scholars such as Francis Fukuyama argue that mass religions were a key factor in the development of the modern state, because they allowed the creation of mutual-aid networks much larger than tribal societies based on descent from a common ancestor.

Religion did not invent crusading violence nor racism, though it has eagerly participated in both. It is a part of the deeply flawed human experience, partly good and partly bad.

In decrying the New Atheists' "comically simplistic view of religion," Reza Aslan points out that questions of identity and ideology are central to how religions are interpreted. Most people do not have detailed knowledge of their religious texts, which have many highly divergent sections. Instead, believers pick and choose bits to fit the times:

[R]eligions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe. [New York]

Of course, it is true that many religious leaders today are vicious and unhinged. Many religious institutions have committed grave abuses in the distant and recent past. There is nothing wrong with condemning these atrocities. But that does not excuse the rank anti-Muslim bigotry of Maher or Harris, who straightforwardly invoke collective guilt to pin the sins of ISIS on all Muslims.

I suggest a return to gentle decency of Carl Sagan, a man who was highly skeptical of religious claims, but did not seize the majesty of science to pummel his opponents. For him, perhaps the most important scientific discovery in history — that of the incomprehensible size of the universe — was not reason to call Pat Robertson an idiot, but an awesome insight that "underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another."

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