Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The (New?) Atheist movement, a personal perspective

This post is a basic outline of what I'm talking about after influence by your comments. I'd love some more responses, with focus on variety of responses. So if you think you have an odd or heretical point of view please do give it here. Part of why I'm doing this is to try and work out my own beliefs, if I work that out after listening to an echo-chamber it wont be as good as listening to a diversity of ideas. The first post is on my blog at http://bit.ly/82xC4j and on facebook at http://bit.ly/7PMVWz.

The word atheist strictly means purely and simply one who does not accept the existence of any gods, however there is a lot a baggage that for one reason or another gets lumped under this heading. If you simply say someone is an atheist then that tells you nothing about their politics or view of the world except that it contains no gods. However the term New Atheist has a very different ring, a New Atheist puts posters up on buses and writes books about how religion is bad, a New Atheist is angry and scowly and calls you stupid. Non of these things are implied by atheist, what's the difference?

I would like to suggest that many atheists have found that the world-view they have is consistent with many other atheists, it is largely materialistic and rejects all teachings of organised religion, and that they have decided that they would very much like to change the world around them in this light. Atheists (especially after the invention of the internet) have started to lump together in order to advance a social or political goal (not party political, political like environmentalism rather than republicanism). I think part of this is a reaction to the genuinely bad treatment of atheists in many places, mainly I'm thinking of bible-belt USA, but the middle east and many other places too. But moreover I think there is a very real sense in which atheism and the rejection of what organised does in our lives is real for some. So I would like to suggest that the self-identified atheist movement is not automatically a misnomer. Though many disagree, even those doing things that others would label part of the atheist movement, it might be easier to replace atheist with secular below, but "atheist movement" gets slightly more hits than "secular movement" on google so I'll follow standard wikipedia procedure and go with "atheist movement" for better or worse.

For a start, it's important to make clear what is meant by an atheist movement. One comment I got said that a 'movement' involves having a leadership and a set form of beliefs that the whole movement agrees on, if we use this definition then there is most defiantly no such thing. There is no cult of Dawkins or anything of the kind and almost all atheists would find such a notion appalling. But I would like to suggest that it is useful to define “movement” in a far more loose grass-roots sense, in the sense that there is an environmental movement. There is no leadership to environmentalists worldwide, there are many ad hoc groups to organise them, but the bulk of the eco movement doesn't look like Greenpeace, in the same way there is not set form of beliefs. Some environmentalists will say that being an environmentalist means turning your thermostat down and offsetting the carbon from your travel, some think it means destroying power plants, some thing it must lead to vegetarianism etc etc. I'd like to propose that atheism is a self-defined movement of many people trying to do many different things using a common name.

I would suggest there is such a thing as an atheist movement, but only in the loosest of senses, it seems more like many overlapping movements all rather uncomfortably under one umbrella rather than a single monolithic structure. This makes it rather hard to define, and leads naturally to a whole bunch of infighting (of which more later). But just so there is some idea of what I'm talking about, the atheist movement is the promotion in public of atheism or rational secularism more generally or of the rights of atheists. This rather broader label goes beyond anything implied by the word atheism, however I do feel justified using the term atheist movement, because this is a self-identified label used by many people doing such things.

This takes many strands and I'd like to quickly run down some things campaigned for by various people that I will lump under this heading. None of these things are mandatory, for every person who finds promoting this to be a fundamental part of the movement there will be others who think it is utterly abhorrent, or just not interesting.

That most people should not believe in the existence of gods (many, notably Christopher Hitchens, D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson disagree firmly). Note that one strand of this is the atheism v agnosticism argument, where people claim to have evidence or some other good reason why one should believe that one can know the non-existence of a god to be true. Not many people follow this argument, and those that do only very tentatively. Most self-identified atheists are strictly agnostic (I am) in as much as they dont believe that the non-existence of god is logically guaranteed absolute truth, most however use atheism to mean a belief that the existence of a god is so improbable that it can be regarded as false for all practical purposes. This is generally the area that annoys people the most.
That religious or traditional moral codes should be superseded by a humanist ethical outlook. (Note that many advocates of the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria oppose this and argue that religion should maintain control of morality).
That most people should not believe in superstitions such as astrology (again, many exceptions) this is really an extension of the above idea that lumps superstitions and religions into one pot of unreason.
That evolution should be taught exclusively in science classes, that Intelligent Design etc should not be taught at all, and if they are they should be in comparative religious studies. (This is almost universal). This is not strictly an atheistic issue, however opponents of evolution are exclusively religious so this issue tends very easily to become part of wider atheism or secularism.
That church and state should be separated (notably many theists and church groups join with this) specifically that there should be no religious test for officials, no religious observances funded by taxpayers and that churches should not be tax exempt. This is again not strictly to do with atheism, this is more to do with the rights of atheists, historically connections between the church and state have been used to repress atheist beliefs and damage the rights of atheists. In the UK we have the law effected (especially around assisted dieing and abortion) by the presence of 27 bishops in the house of lords. In the US the Pledge of Allegiance etc are perennial issues.
That more atheists should get elected, and that public opinion about atheism should shift to allow this. Many in American politics hide their acceptance of evolution and beliefs about god more generally to appease the religious right, in the UK the situation is far better, the leader of a major...ish party is openly irreligious (Nick Clegg) and religion is very rarely an election issue.
That pseudo-science, alternative medicine, non-evidence based policies around sex and reproduction etc should be argued down and not receive any public support, and no tax-funding and that real science and evidence based policy should. Again not strictly a matter of atheism, it gets lumped under this heading because there is a definite correlation between atheism and a more rationalist scientific world-view.
That children should get a very board education in comparative religion (again not universal, but very widely agreed). This is about promoting critical analysis of religions which many (primarily Dan Dennet) argue is key to promoting atheism as a world-view into future generations.

This list is by no means exhaustive, many see LGBT rights as a key part in this, others see climate change as a vital issue, others think that reparations for various immoral deeds done in the name of religions of one sort or another to be vital, Christopher Hitchens sees it as his mission as an atheist to make every human on earth hate him before drinking himself to death. There are many causes under this heading. The only real uniting feature of people and actions that are considered part of the atheist movement are

There are many big names in the movement, whose role is often misunderstood. The movement is so varied that no one person leads it in any sense, but I think it might be useful to give an idea of some of the big names and their opinions.

Dan Dennet, philosopher, argues that religion is a product of evolved processes in the brain and later cultural evolution, he suggests that damaging people's faith with forceful arguments and humour is not as harmful as claimed by some and should be encouraged.
Richard Dawkins, biologist, famous for his description of the God of the old testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction” (which was intended as a joke surprisingly). He promotes science and reason, he objects to labelling children with the religion of their parents, comparing the idea of a “Christian child” with a “Marxist child”, he has started the Out Campaign to try and get atheist to declare their beliefs publicly.
Christopher Hitchens, columnist, is obsessed with the problem of suffering. He compares the idea of god with a “celestial North Korea” where every action is monitored and punished. He has tried to argue that everything bad that has ever happened is the fault of religion, that the horrors of communism are the result of religion. He is a deeply unpleasant person.
Greta Chrstina, porn writer and blogger, argues that religious beliefs are dangerous because they are immune to criticism, by proposing something that cannot have any evidence for or against it religions are almost impossible to argue against. She argues that this is dangerous because any bad religious beliefs cannot be opposed in the same way that other beliefs can. She connects her opposition to religion, woo (astrology pseudo-science etc) and her support for gay rights.
A.C. Grayling, philosopher, argues that religious morality is incomparable with our contemporary society and tries to engage the public with a humanist morality as an alternative. He suggests that belief in the existence of god is exactly comparable with belief in fairies.
PZ Myers, biologist, spends most of his time (when he's not experimenting with Cephalopoda) arguing against creationists, he sees opposition to evolution as a real danger to the American education system. His argument is that religion gives people motivation to lie to themselves as creationists do.
Ariane Sherine, comedian, is famous for having founded the Atheist Bus Campaign which raised thousands of pounds in donations to counter adverts from religious groups which talked about hell-fire etc by putting “there's probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life” on the side of hundreds of buses. She recently released the Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a compilation of 45 essays about Christmas promoting a humanist stance on morality etc.
Hemant Mehta, maths teacher, calls himself the friendly atheist. His blog tries to talk about religion and atheism from a deliberately non-confrontational and engaging standpoint whilst being very positive about humanist morals and charity work.

The atheist movement as I see it is very varied. At times it is political secularism, at times evangelical religion out to convert, at times earnest moraliser out to tell right from wrong. This disparity and difference in tactics and goals between people sharing the same label causes a lot of conflict, I'd like to go over some of these really quickly without taking sides in any of them.

Should “we” try to convert people from their old religion or is it ok that people hold beliefs we disagree with without us criticising them?
If “we” are to oppose religious beliefs how should “we” do it, by argument? By ridiculing believers? By suggesting the possibility of alternatives? There are lots of uniformed things said about this argument. A lot of commentators suggest that there are two strands: “new atheists” who want to attack religion and make fun of believers, the examples are always male, and a new sort “atheists 3.0” who are happy and nice and want to live in peace and harmony with everyone, the examples are always female. This is said to be a schism that divides atheism. In reality there are many ways of skinning the same cat and a lot of arguments about how to do it. There is a strong argument that it is useful to have people being aggressive at the front to really oppose serious injustice, indoctrination, discrimination etc. and then a number of friendly people who can actually get people to agree.
To what extent should the atheist movement care about creationists, should we debate with them? Should we try to ban them? If so on what grounds?
To what extent should scientific and rational ways of thinking be promoted at the expense of religion/superstition? Can the two co-exist?
What should be the extent of church state separation? Should we campaign against an act of worship in public schools, the ten commandments in law courts, a prayer at the opening of parliament, god on the money, the queen's role has head of the church.
What is the place of religion in morality? Should we follow SJ Gould and say that morality is the exclusive job of the church, or should we try and replace religious morality with one based on all the moral philosophy of humanity?
A wise person once said “religion is supposed to liberate people, not keep us in the dark ages, the problem is that religion hasn't evolved with the changing times”, to what extent should atheists try and promote change within religions? Promoting tolerant branches of Islam, promoting Christians that accept evolution etc.

One cliché of atheism today is to compare it with with civil rights movement, or the gay rights movement. In both cases a large grass roots movement, with a few charismatic figureheads, attempted to get respect for a group of people who (in the US at least) were victims of very real discrimination.

This post is just some opening thoughts shaped by the comments I've got so far. I dont feel yet that I've got enough of an idea of how action like this is perceived generally to really pass judgement on it or to make firm my relationship to it. So I've got another barrage of questions for you guys to mull.

Who from the list of names above have you heard of, what is your impression of them? What gives you this impression?
Some have suggested that in public atheism comes across as disrespectful of religion. Do you feel that? Why do you think that is?
In the areas of activity I suggested: Do you think any of these goals are praiseworthy? Are any of them harmful or bad? Do you think any of them are inherently atheistic or are they the sort of thing that anybody of any religious belief could support? Do you hear people campaigning about these things in public? Which of these things takes too much attention?
Is this summary fair? What have I not talked about in enough detail? Is anything factually wrong or a misrepresentation?
Where would you like this discussion to go? Are there any aspects of this topic that interest you? If so what are they and how would you like to talk about them?
Do you think of the names of this movement? What impression do you get of the term “New Atheist”? Do you think that the campaigns I mention can fairly be called an atheist movement or is that a misnomer? Should it be given some other name?


  1. Alasdair Ferguson31 December 2009 at 13:43

    Actually I'm an Apatheist it says it all in one neat word an I'm pretty happy with it. As a tolerent person I freely accept that people believe in different things but I personally cannot see the logic of their beliefs as I feel so resolutely about mine. So being an active atheist or New atheist is in my opinion as ridiculous as believing in God, Vishnu, whoever, as if you don't believe in god then you instantly don't care about the exsitance of god. I don't understand why you would then get upset about others beliefs as offensive and actively campaign to try and enforce your beliefs on others.

  2. Thanks for the comments Alasdair. Very interesting. I'll add it to the pile of objections and questions for the next draft. Any more points like this would be very much appreciated.


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