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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Schism Within: Distinguishing Between Militant “Hard” Atheism and Humanistic “Soft” Atheism

Since writing my book, An Atheist Defends Religion, two increasingly differentiated expressions of atheism have become apparent: (1) vociferous, militant “hard” atheism, what Daniel Burke of Religious News Service called “Atheism 2.0” to distinguish it from the "classical" atheism that had its origins in nineteenth-century Europe; and (2) more tolerant and humanistic “soft” atheism that is on display in my book, which Burke identified as “Atheism 3.0.” His description:

The old atheists said there was no God. The so-called "New Atheists" said there was no God, and they were vocally vicious about it. Now the new "New Atheists," call it Atheism 3.0, say there's still no God, but maybe religion isn't all that bad.

Classical Western atheism (the 1.0 version) was developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whose ideology was essentially a response to the theological perception of God in the West. The more recent Atheism 2.0. is found in the work of four vociferous religious antagonists: the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the academic Sam Harris, the scientist Richard Dawkins, and the journalist Christopher Hitchens, which is largely a response to contemporary Islamic and Christian fundamentalism.

Books by these “militant” atheists have highlighted the destructive legacy of fundamentalist religion. In this blog, I focus on the other end of the ideological spectrum: the deleterious effects of extremist atheism and how militant unbelievers misuse science in an effort to challenge the validity of religion as a meaningful paradigm for understanding the world. In this blog, a moderate atheist takes a critical look at militant atheism.

“Militant” Atheism 2.0

Militant atheists’ bias is revealed by their argument that in religion we find all that is malevolent in humankind. Religion is perceived as being false and dangerous. To aggressive atheists, the only legitimate response to religious faith is an unremitting assault on its credence using the tools of reason and science. Certainly as a response to Islamic and Christian extremism, atheists have some legitimate points to present. But by including the rest of the religious world in their condemnation and by arguing for the elimination of all religion, they are essentially a mirror image of their fundamentalist enemy.

According to militant atheists, to understand religion we need look no further than to its extremists, literalists, deviants, inquisitors and terrorists - as if these fringe elements represent all religionists. These uncompromising atheists not only reject God, they reject religion as a cultural institution and seek to extirpate it from society. They consider religion the “root of all evil” (Dawkins) and that only when religion is eradicated “will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world” (Harris).

These angry atheists present an extremist perspective that of necessity excludes any ambiguity or openness to opposing views. My book An Atheist Defends Religion is an attempt to expose the extremism in the militant atheists' arguments, the same “fundamentalist” qualities exhibited by the religionists they so strenuously oppose. Indeed, fundamentalist atheists are in the thrall of an infallible belief based on the deity of Natural Selection as revealed to the prophet Darwin, proselytized by the apostles Dawkins and Gould, and disseminated to devout disciples like Harris and Dennett who preach conversion and salvation to the unenlightened masses.

Crusading atheists fanatically adhere to an inerrant orthodoxy -- just like the religions they so vehemently vilify. Self-righteous atheists even write evangelical manifestos in which they assert their moral superiority -- just like the religions they so stridently censure. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary theory just as religious fundamentalists misuse the Bible -- for their own ends.

Sanctimonious atheists have created an us-versus-them, good-versus-evil world replete with a polemical jihad against infidels (that would be unbelievers’ unbelievers). When asked to identify just one positive thing, however minor, that religion has contributed to humanity, Dawkins was defiant and uncompromising: “I really can’t think of anything.” Militant atheists prove that religion does not have a monopoly on dogmatism, absolutist fervor and idolatry.

Let me point out that militant atheists are not wrong to disbelieve in God; that is, after all, their choice. But they are certainly wrong to repudiate religion as a force for good in human history. And they are clearly wrong to base their animus on what amounts to little more than a caricature of “religion” -- a religion that is, ironically, unrecognizable to everyone except atheists. By turning a-theism (a personal belief in the absence of God) into anti-theism (a public effort to negate religion as a cultural force), they are taking their creed way beyond its original meaning.

I am among the atheists who think this kind of blatant, in-your-face crusade will fail. It certainly makes a point, but it’s precisely the wrong point. It includes such luminaries as Chris Hitchens who has said, “I think religion is sinister, dangerous and ridiculous. I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt.” When asked why he feels compelled to be so blunt, Hitchens responds: “I believe it’s more honest, brave, and courageous simply to state your own position.” In short, I have found most militant atheists to be shallow thinkers who delude themselves into thinking they are courageous free-thinkers, when in fact they are all followers of a dogmatic creed.

Another militant atheist-follower, PZ Myers, says that the more outrageous the message the better. Myers even unrealistically calls for the end of religion. That’s like saying, “capitalism is bad - so let’s toss it into the trash in its entirety.” That is the immature thinking of a high school junior. But then, Myers admits that his message is directed to high school students. “Edgy is what young people like. They want to cut through the nonsense right away and want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I’m sorry but the old school of atheism is really, really boring.”

Engaging in a civil debate and addressing issues in rational manner -- since when did that go out of style? Myers neglects the fact that high school students don’t need more MySpace friends; what they need is leadership, something that militant atheists like Myers are incapable of providing. (And I would not expect much more from a man whose blog is subtitled, “random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.” As school kids would say, “Gross.”)

The Misanthropic Principle

My definition of a militant atheist is someone who denies the beliefs held by people who are happier than he is. That is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Surveys indicate that religious people are happier overall than non-religious people. And I believe that militant atheists are resentful that religious people are generally happy people -- to the extent that such happiness is contingent on what atheists consider superstition and ignorance. Militant atheists would love nothing more than to “cure” religious people of their “false” happiness. To that point, I am astonished by this statement by Christopher Hitchens, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”

But I don’t think militant atheists are unhappy merely because they deny God; I also think they deny God because they’re unhappy. As proof, one need look no further than Hitchens to find a correlation between atheism and a cranky, crotchety, crabby personality. Indeed, some of the most famous atheists were also notable pessimists: Bertrand Russell, Freud, Nietzsche, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw, Schopenhauer (Studies in Pessimism), H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, and Miguel de Unamuno, whose magnum opus was The Tragic Sense of Life.

By disdaining and disparaging the core beliefs of the vast majority of people, extremist atheists reveal they are contemptuous and cynical. The head of one atheist group, Ellen Johnson, has tried putting a positive spin on it by saying, “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people.” But I read it differently: Militant atheists are lonely and alienated people. How else can we explain the profane remarks that routinely emanate from many atheists? It’s almost as if anti-Christianity has become a new form of bigotry.

It should be clear that atheists are not motivated by a love for their fellow human beings. In fact, I would go further and say that militant atheists are motivated by misanthropy. Their strident, arrogant and belligerent posture reveals a palpable contempt for humanity. Extremist atheists derive a perverse satisfaction from negating the dominant beliefs that have provided comfort and meaning to people throughout history and across all cultures.

The militant atheist version of the Golden Rule might go like this: “Do unto others as you have had done unto you.” Because atheists anxiously face the mysterium tremendum of existence without any hope for redemption or immortality, they figure everyone should. Because strident unbelievers are denied the consolations and affirmations of religion, they want to make sure that everyone is.

Scientism: The Abuse of Science

Militant atheists are scientific materialists who believe that science will someday explain all of reality and that there is no need to resort to “supernatural” agents. They denounce religion as “superstition” and continue to think that humanity will one day “outgrow” it. According to their scientific creed, everything ultimately “reduces” to the quarks and leptons of physics. And if one’s individual life has any meaning at all, it is based on what the person brings to it. Facing the travails of living and dying without the consolations of religious “delusion” is a hardship, they admit, but is preferable to living an inauthentic life.

In my book An Atheist Defends Religion, I criticize not science, but scientism -- the effort to make science into a competing ideology to religion. I question not the veracity of science, but the ability of science to answer the most pressing human concerns -- specifically, our need for transcendent meaning. Put another way: I accept the reality of science totally, but I am not sure that science reveals the totality of reality -- or ever will.

Scientism is the atheistic community’s version of fundamentalism; it assumes that only science can describe and understand the world, and that only the material or natural world is real. Militant unbelievers attempt a polemical subterfuge by drawing an association between atheism and science, whereby they claim atheism is justified by a natural science evaluation of theistic belief.

In truth, science is intrinsically agnostic towards religion; it neither confirms nor denies the existence of God. Scientism, however, is inherently atheistic. And when militant atheists commandeer the “verifiable evidence” orientation of science to justify their unbelief, they are debasing science. When atheists make science into a competing ideology, they are exploiting science. Such an effort infuses science with a bias aimed to refute religion and uphold atheism -- a distortion not compatible with the values-neutral mission of science.

It is not science that is incompatible with religion, but scientism that is so strongly opposed to theism. Thus scientism is little more than atheism masquerading as science. And the height of scientism is the belief that science actually proves God does not exist. In this regard, note the subtitle to militant atheist Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis - “How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.” In his book Stenger argues, “By this moment in time science has advanced sufficiently to be able to make a definitive statement on the existence or nonexistence of God.” And his “scientific” conclusion: God is impossible.

Very few religious people actually oppose the progression of science. What they object to is militant atheists’ presentation of science as inherently anti-religious. To the extent that militant atheists misuse science in a way that denies the divine, religious people see in science the contradiction of their most cherished beliefs. Most scientists are respectful of religious sentiments, but many, such as Dawkins and Myers, exhibit outright contempt. Telling people that their deepest beliefs are wrong and, worse, silly, does not endear scientists among the majority of religionists. When prominent atheist-scientists claim religion is a “delusion” that “poisons everything” and is the “root of all evil,” it is easy to understand why religious people feel that science threatens their beliefs.

By establishing an oppositional relationship between religious meaning and scientific understanding, militant atheists do not engender a conciliatory climate. Rather, to the extent that atheists antagonistically position science against religion, they actually produce the opposite effect to the one intended: Religious people’s confidence in science is undermined; science becomes the “enemy.” The fundamental irony that results from pitting science against religion is that it serves to harden the extremists on the other side of the debate -- an outcome we see playing out in American classrooms and courtrooms, in the mass media and the public square.

The Emergence of Atheism 3.0

In recent years, the skeptical scene has been dominated by militant atheists who argue that religious faith is synonymous with the most perverse behavior. More recently, a new contingent of nonbelievers, which includes this writer, has emerged arguing that there's no reason to belittle faith or push religion out of the public square. In An Atheist Defends Religion, I assert that while the debates over God's existence have reached an insolvable impasse, we can still affirm the multiple values of religion.

One secular blogger announced upon hearing about Atheism 3.0, “Wow! This is indeed interesting, and good news. Maybe now both sides can get back to discussing the issue with civility instead of the rancor and belligerence that has passed for ‘discussion’ in prior years. Hopefully, we can now actually engage in substantive arguments rather than hurling insults.” Greg Epstein, Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplin, is also among the new-new atheists who preach accommodation: “When the goal is to erase religion,” he said, “rather than embracing human beings, we all lose.”

In my personal belief system, I do not embrace any form of a Transcendent Spiritual Reality (my generic term that incorporates Western as well as Eastern notions of a God-like entity). I hold a naturalistic view of the world. I truly love science and strongly value the scientific method. However, I am forever grappling with what I call the Modernist Paradox: Religion does not satisfy me because I do not believe it is true; science is true, but it lacks substantive meaning. Indeed, I aspire to believe in something more meaningful than Nobel-physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s dictum that “Life can perfectly well emerge from the laws of physics plus accidents.”

We are often labeled “sympathetic atheists” because we do not prima facie despise or repudiate religion. We express a kinder, gentler form of atheism. We “soft” atheists are unbelievers not by deliberation but by default -- we just have not discovered God and probably never will find God. We are atheists not by conviction, but the lack of conviction: We just do not believe God exists.

Being an atheist is not something that I or anyone else rationally chooses. I did not think through all the competing belief systems and select unbelief. It is just something that I am. I must admit, however, that the more I understand the world as revealed by science, the more I find the materialist and reductionist explanation for our human destiny terribly devoid of depth, value and meaning. This offends not my religious sensibility (of which I have none), but my existential vanity -- the strongly held personal view that my life counts in the scheme of things. Thus, I am an atheist who is sympathetic to religious aspirations. And while moderate atheists may have little use for organized religion, we are still capable of acknowledging the positive contributions of religion to civilization.

Moderate atheists accept that faith provides meaning and purpose for a multitude of believers, inspires people to tend to each other and build communities, gives them a sense of union with a transcendent power, and provides numerous health and wellness benefits. Moreover, we recognize that religion’s historic misdeeds may make for provocative headlines, but the everyday good works of billions of believers is the real history of religion, one that parallels the growth and prosperity of humankind.

Religious people have responded quite favorably to Atheism 3.0. That alone is enough to make militant atheists detest us. One prominent atheist even called me a “traitor” to the atheist cause. But maybe that is reason enough to believe that we are on the right track.

At this juncture my question is: Where is militant atheists’ much-touted reason in all this? The lunatic fringe that has taken root in extremist atheism is so far beyond rational thinking that one wonders how atheists might be capable of engineering a post-religion world ruled by reason. We sympathetic atheists rely on tolerance for differing views in the public square, rather than the desire to eliminate all competing views.

By now we should understand why religion is so integral to human nature and culture. Religion incorporates many expressions of mental health, from community-building to enduring values, from moral behavior to a transcendent sense of purpose. Religion helps people cope with many of life’s greatest questions, dilemmas and problems. One has to ask, therefore, what militant atheists are thinking when they propose to eliminate religion from the lives of 250 million Americans. Religion is so deeply integrated into the activity of every devout person, it is such a vital unifying meaning-system, that eliminating religion would seem to be impossible and undesirable, if not an act of great cruelty.

The Danger of Extremism

If you pay attention to the headlines, you could be excused for believing that science and religion are mutually exclusive and incompatible. In truth, that characterization applies only to a minority of people, the extremists on either side of the debate. But since extremists are usually the most vociferous, theirs tend to be the only voices we hear. Because extremists are the ones writing books and giving speeches, it is easy to think that this conflict reflects the sentiment of the majority of Americans. But it is a manifestation mainly between religious fundamentalists on one end of the spectrum and militant atheists on the other end.

Physicist Freeman Dyson said of the extremists: “The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect.” Thus the battle under way is not between religion and science, but between religious and secular extremists -- hardened adherents who believe they hold the exclusive truth.

The enduring lesson of this blog is that we should not desire the end of religion or atheism, but the end of ideological dogmatism. Fortunately for the well-being of humanity, the vast majority of people are not comfortable with the fanaticism that infects both sides of the argument. We seek a spiritual and practical center where the best of the religious and secular positions can be preserved. We want to be receptive to the ideals espoused by religion at the same time we embrace the tenets and teachings of science.

In the midst of this ongoing argument, it is not surprising that for many religionists “science” is met with hostility because it is presented in a way that contradicts core religious meaning. But positioning science against religion, as militant atheists do, does not diminish the power of religion. It merely serves to intensify the fundamentalist’s antipathy to science.

It is not the particular belief that is detrimental, but the rigidity and tenacity with which that belief is held. Most Americans have no problem with any moderate ideology. We are a receptive and welcoming society. America is remarkably hospitable to both religion and science, suggesting that there is little real contradiction between the two. It is only when science is used to justify one or another extremist belief or religion is politicized by one or another extremist position that conflict is engendered.

It is unfortunate that in the seemingly interminable debate between religion and science, the discipline with the most to lose in this competition is science, for two reasons. First, science is the realm least accessible to most Americans. Second, science does not go to the heart of a person’s identity the way religion does. Consequently, in a conflict where people are pressured to embrace one realm and repudiate the other, science is usually the discipline that is sacrificed.

Because of my love of science, I find this outcome terribly unfortunate. But to the extent that militant atheists misappropriate science for their own ends, science will continue to suffer from a pervasive public relations problem.


Blogger No Superstition said...

One should not be a believer in Atheism. One should have sufficient reasons why he or she would not believe in God or any supernatural being or any supreme intelligence. In my opinion, a scientific man should not believe in anything. He should accept something on the basis of available logic and should be ready to change his ideas when a better logic is in sight. The concept of a supernatural being was perfectly logical when we did not know the process of birth of organisms, the reason of the apparent annual motion of the whole set of sky around us or even the reason of thunderbolts. It was a good attempt to explain natural events. This is always welcome. This is the process of development of science. Wasn't Newton of the opinion that light was composed of particles of different colours that he could 'prove' experimentally by separating the seven colours with the help of prism? Should we call him a fool? No. he was a great scientist. Science never speaks the final word. It is always engaged in binding out the better form of truth. In that sense, the ancient men who tried to explain natural phenomena in terms of some unknown omnipotent being, were scientists as well. But we now know the better form of truth. We should not now subjugate ourselves to the propagators of Spiritualism or that of a supreme intelligence or an "Intelligent Designer". We should accept the facts that has so far been discovered by science and should be ready to accept when someone comes up with a better evidence. The problem with a religion is that it is reluctant to accept anything contradicts it old opinions. This is due to the fact that religion is a business of those people who want to make positions in the society by posing themselves as the agents of a supernatural being.

April 2, 2010 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger Sgt Pauper said...

Excellent views. This is what I've been waiting to read, after having believed in, baffled and disgusted by the irrational extremism on both sides.
You can count on one more adherent to this flock of new unbelievers!!

May 18, 2010 at 2:04 AM  
Blogger Pista Gyerek said...


It's unfortunate that you've based your Atheism 3.0 on the notion that sweet, harmless religion is under attack by vicious hordes of militant atheists. This fantasy may be your way of appealing to religious people, but it does a real disservice to sincere nonbelievers.

As one of the atheists you so revile, I take exception to being told I'm motivated by misanthropy. In fact, the atheists I know (as well as the writers whose work you dismiss) are more sympathetic to religious believers than you let on. We share their need for meaning and direction in an indifferent universe. We share their motivation to help others. We share their outrage at injustice.

However, it can't be denied that we recognize the way religion also appeals to some of their negative attributes: it exploits their loneliness, their paranoia, their credulity, and their need for easy answers in a difficult world. Many people are being deceived into believing religious claims in the same way we would find abhorrent if the claims were being made by a politican or corporation.

I live in the USA, where scripture is regularly used to uphold discriminatory laws about gay people; where the religious advocate giving full human rights to embryonic stem-cells instead of allowing them to be used in potentially life-saving research; where the debate on evolution that was settled a hundred years ago still rages in courts and classrooms; and where religious people get to claim they're being persecuted if anyone points out how seeped in religiosity our nation is. Whom did you accuse of a palpable contempt for humanity, Bruce?

It's unfortunate that you think we should be more concerned about the way religious people feel about science rather than the responsible way to teach and conduct it. And it's comical that you feel well within your rights to revile atheists in the most bigoted way imaginable, then turn around and pat yourself on the back for being "sympathetic" and "tolerant."


May 24, 2010 at 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I finished reading the book An Atheist Defends Religion a couple of days ago. If Bruce Sheiman loves science as he says he does, he needs to read more of it, because the chapter on Science (No. 11) contains several serious errors, as if he has been getting his science from Intelligent Design works. In the first place, the objection based on the second law of thermodynamics is invalid, as many books have pointed out, because it applies to closed systems, and the earth is an open system, receiving energy from the sun. In the second place, his claim that science depends on random events, CARL (Chance + Accidents + Randomness + Luck), is a serious misunderstanding. In evolution, CARL is filtered through natural selection, which is not random.

September 26, 2010 at 5:43 PM  

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