Nine wishes for 2009 #2: A NEW new atheism

Most of this article was written on Monday but I’ve only just got around to finishing it.

I enjoyed the Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People enormously and 2009 will, by all accounts, be a bit of a party for atheists. Starting in January we have the Atheist Bus Campaign and then throughout the year people will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. And yet, and yet…

If there was one thing that bugged me about the Carol Service, it was the level of reverence that Richard Dawkins was given by some of the performers, most notably Robin Ince. I suppose it would have been impolite to actually criticise the guy while he was waiting in the wings and the truth is he has provided a much needed corrective to the religious narrative over the past decade (and more). But he remains a deeply divisive figure, alienating almost as much as he engages. His call to arms and for agnostics to get off the fence leaves many ducking for cover.

The real problem atheists have is one of taxonomy. Atheism is just what is says on the tin – a lack of belief in God. To try and make it out to be anything more is frankly ludicrous and falls foul of the very naturalistic fallacy that people like Dawkins warn against. Secularism doesn’t help much either, although it still puzzles me why this has become such a swear word with the adherents of organised religion. That leaves rationalism – which is rather cold and too often veers towards positivism – and humanism – which is warm and fuzzy and often suspiciously so. Joining the British Humanist Association is on my to do list. My reason for not having done so already is rooted in me receiving an unsolicited copy of their newsletter a few years ago which had a bizarre article about a “humanist picnic” at which humanist families spent an afternoon bemoaning about how terrible religion is (I can think of more fun ways of passing the day, such as jabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon) and urging me to buy humanist Christmas cards with all the crosses replaced with aitches.

I have been assured that they have come on a lot since then (although asking people to donate money so their Chief Executive can brand herself doesn’t exactly convince – can’t I donate money to prevent her from doing so?), but living caricatures of the humourless “militant atheist” are never that far from the surface. I adore New Humanist magazine for example, but the letters page is full of freaks. Then again, the letters pages of all publications are full of freaks – consisting as they do of blog trolls who lack the wherewithall to find the “on” switch of their PCs – but at least they aren’t always “our” freaks.

In this respect, finding a new voice for atheist comedy – which Robin Ince seems to have taken on as a personal mission – is a positive development. Laughing at ourselves is an absolute must for 2009 – something which, as I noted previously, is often sadly lacking.

One group we could do with hearing a little from is ex-Catholics. It has to be said that it doesn’t say much for a religion that creates so many of its most fervant critics. I mean, when the Pope says something stupid, I’m happy to join in the chorus of disapproval, but much of the anti-Catholic stuff out there borders on The Da Vinci Code in terms of paranoia (not that I’m obsessed with God Trumps, but the Catholicism one is a case in point). I’m always impressed at the way Catholics tend to choose the bits of their religion that they like and ignore the rest, as if it is some metaphysical branch of Woolies (RIP) – my favourites are the Catholics who are fine about having sex before marriage but think it is a sin to use a condom – but profound mass-hypocrisy does rather undermine the claims that it is simultaneously a vast conspiracy against mankind.

Fundamentally, we need a rational, reasonable voice out there to counter the rational, reasonable theist nonsense out there, of which Madeleine Bunting provides us with an excellent example today. Her claim that Darwin has been “hijacked” by atheists on the basis that he was probably agnostic is a crime of intellectual pygmyism, but one which many Guardian readers will have nodded sagely to today. But it is a ludicrous argument, similar to the sneering by Christian groups who thought it was hilarious that the Atheist Bus Campaign uses the less-than-forthright slogan “there’s probably no God” while ignoring the fact that the Alpha Course adverts which inspired it use the even less assertive slogan “if there was a God, what would you ask him?”

Yes, Darwin almost certainly sat on the fence when it came to the question of whether God existed or not, but to the extent that he believed in any God at all he was a deist. In other words, while he might have conceded the possibility of God, he was clear that there was no activist God playing a role in worldly affairs. Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism. Attempts have been made to square the circle – I spent many wasted hours researching panentheism for my undergraduate dissertation – but all of them reduce God to, at best, a “not dead yet” cameo role in the creation.

The new new atheism would be self-confident, not too concerned about what people think and far more concerned about how people act (yes, the two are related but no, the two are not causal). It wouldn’t tolerate the sort of argument advanced by Bunting above, but it would at the same time accept that a lack of religion by itself can never be a substitute for an ethical system. Ethical systems needn’t come from religion – indeed at some point I may find time to write about how the much-vaunted “golden rule” predates religion and is in many ways hindered by it. But ethics and morality are a) important and b) not informed by atheism per se. The answers are not easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for them.


  1. Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism.

    No, it isn’t! If evolution actually defines theism out of existence, then it isn’t a valid scientific theory. If it refutes theism, then it does it empirically, and not ‘by definition’. I’m afraid this indicates a lack of understanding of how science works.

    There are plenty of people around (including most Catholics, as it happens) who find no inconsistency in both believing in God and acknowledging that evolution provides the best explanatory framework for the development of species.

    The problem is that atheists describe, and then attempt to destroy, an anthropomorphic version of theism that very few theists actually recognise. True there are creationists out there who inhabit a world that is cut off from most intellectual life, but there are far fewer than you might think.

  2. How about simply accepting that there is much of merit in religions and recognising that the fact that they can be found in every civilisation suggests that they offer something of value to people in general. Atheism and the rest are so negative, as is the imbecilic Dawkins, who you rightly criticise.

    From this general recognition that there seems to be some merit in religion and various related belief systems such as buddhism as a guide to life you can build a general sense of what is right and wrong but crucially you don’t need to believe in a god to adopt generally ‘good’ ways of living.

    The bottom line is: don’t rule anything in and don’t rule anything out. Keep it fuzzy and just be happy.

    I’m a member of the Church of England – as non-committal as you like but with a basic set of standards which most people would struggle to be offended by.

  3. “Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism.”

    Nothing in evolution provides an answer to the initial creation of life or the creation of the Universe. It certainly refutes the idea that God created man in his own image but that’s not the beginning and end of theism.

  4. Mary, I accept your criticism of scientific terminological clumsiness but don’t recognise anything else.

    I chose my words deliberately carefully when I said that evolution refutes theism. I wasn’t talking about the deism that Hywel is emphasising. There are lots of other theological models that are not inconsistent with Darwinism and panentheism (while silly) offers a lot of Christians a get-out-of-jail-free card. I’m not particularly interested in whether believers in the Divine see no inconsistency – it doesn’t mean there isn’t any, just that they prefer to look the other way. That’s fine, and they are perfectly welcome to do it, but it doesn’t make them right.

    As for anthropomorphism, well, the Bible is the source for that (Gen 1:26). Indeed, Christianity itself goes further than the other semitic religions by having God literally incarnate in the form of a man. It daubs its temples with images of God in a man-like image.

    This isn’t about fundamentalists and creationists who insist that every word in the Bible is literally true. You simply cannot be a Christian and refute the Nicene Creed, which has anthopomorphism at its very heart. I accept many modern Christians (who should perhaps more accurately be described as post-Christians) essentially do, but that is their problem, not the atheists struggling to keep up with a belief system that shifts from year to year, from person to person.

    If a Catholic chooses to believe that transubstantiation, say, should only be read figuratively, that is their choice. But why should anyone respect and argument that doesn’t even cohere to its own internal logic, let alone anything else?

    wit and wisdom: What you appear to be arguing for is a soggy post-modernist moral relativism. No thanks. That way madness lies. Nor do I accept your description of Dawkins as “imbecilic.” While I take issue with some of his, particularly later, writing and am sceptical about the veneration that some people hold him by, 90% of his work is brilliant. Read the Blind Watchmaker (or River Out of Eden if you’re feeling lazy) before telling me he is an “imbecile.”

  5. James: Much to agree with here, but I remain unclear on how it is you are hoping the New Atheism is going to change.

    “The new new atheism would be self-confident, not too concerned about what people think and far more concerned about how people act (yes, the two are related but no, the two are not causal). It wouldn’t tolerate the sort of argument advanced by Bunting above, but it would at the same time accept that a lack of religion by itself can never be a substitute for an ethical system.”

    ..sounds very much like the way I see the strand of atheism running through Hitchens, Dawkins, Grayling et al at the moment. I think what you’re really saying is that you’d like Humanism to mature a bit, stop focussing on Not Being A Theistic Religion, and develop some of its own moral thoughts. Which is fair enough, but it’s not really anything to do with atheism. Which you admit in the post. So I suppose I’m just arguing with your title, really.

    Wit and wisdom: The question is not whether there is “much of merit” in religion, but whether any of what it produces of merit is necessarily predicated on the existence of an activist god. Meanwhile, what *does* depend on the various gods of many world religions is the authority to tell women they must cover themselves up, that gay people are an abomination, etc, because those things are far from obvious and wouldn’t have a leg to stand on without a god. It ought to be possible to assert any sensible moral sentiment without recourse the authority of a god.

    Also, given the first three paragraphs of your comment, I am utterly mystified as to what the meaning of your claim to be “a member of the Church of England” is. The C of E may be less of an outfit of nutters and “It’s-just-cultural”-look-the-other-wayers than the Catholic church, but it still has a definite set of beliefs summed up, as James mentioned, in the Nicene creed. I don’t see how this is consistent with your exhortation to “don’t rule anything in and don’t rule anything out. Keep it fuzzy and just be happy.” The latter is an agnostic position, (meaningful) membership of the C of E isn’t.

  6. Not convinced about the CoE and the creed. I met a vicar once who said (and in fact wrote in a book that he published) that he was a Christian because he supported and believed in the teaching of Christ. (Also, FWIW one of the few to admit that the Problem of Evil is a big problem for him.)

  7. There’s something fundamentally unhealthy about being obsessed by God, whether you believe in him or not. And for people who don’t believe in him, many atheists do seem spend an awful lot of time talking about him.

    My feeling is that those people who want to be part of an activist “community” – religious or atheist – should be left to it, and those of us not obsessed by God should let them get on with it and not pay too much attention.

    it’s like if a couple at a dinner party are bickering. Just look at them awkwardly and get on with your conversation.

  8. Joe: The trouble is, it doesn’t matter a damn what vicars say personally, they are aligning themselves to an organisation with a set of beliefs of its own, in much the same way you and I do as members of a political party. No, it doesn’t mean we believe in absolutely everything that the party says or does, but it does mean we share some responsibility for its actions. If someone were being oppressed by, say, a government run by the party but you or I just shrugged it off with a “well, we don’t all believe that, you know”, that would be looked on as pretty shabby. Similarly, religious people ought to take some responsibility for the preachings of the churches they claim membership of.

    Neuroskeptic: Ah yes, that traditional fallback for the apathetic, telling people what it is or isn’t “normal” or “healthy” to be bothered about, and claiming for oneself membership of “the rest of us”. Charming.

    The problem is, this stuff does affect everyone. Faith schools are funded by our – and your – tax money, and religious lobbying often has a significant impact on the law, enabling the religious to exert their moralising over everyone, religious or otherwise. Whilst these things are still the case in a supposedly broadly secular society, then yes, sorry, I am going to be bothered about it.

  9. Andy, I don’t particularly care how narrowly or broadly “Christian” is defined and my point was not to defend or attack any particular view on that question, rather to observe that there is some disagreement among, er, “Christians”. However if I were to take sides, it would be with the thoughtful and reasonable ones, who do tend to be more often excluded by narrower definitions. Even on a question of mere terminology my instinct is not to side with the headbangers.

    Sure this might make it harder to attack Christianity, but I would rather attack specific wrong or evil beliefs of individual believers, rather than a nebulous umbrella concept anyway.

    As for believers taking responsibility for their churches – yes perhaps this would help – on the other hand the laity may often be worse than the clergy. I just wish people would take responsibility for their beliefs.

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