Apparently, I am a New Atheist. In all meaningful timelines, this is true; I am only 25. On the scale of the universe, geology, biology, human culture or even Western Culture, I am new. But I am not sure the ideas I associate with nonbelief in a god are new. Atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods, and I’d be willing to wager that atheism is older than theism. After all, before the first person came up with an idea of ‘a god’ (even if it’s the wrong one), all people must have lacked a belief in one. It would have been unremarkably common.
However, Wikipedia’s page on New Atheism defines it as
“a social and political movement in favour of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.””
The quote at the end it attributed to Simon Hooper for CNN. Am I the only one who notices the intentional pejorative here?
From this definition, it is not difficult to name New Atheists of Old: Epicurus (who died in 270BC–how old can a ‘new’ atheist be?) and David Hume (an 18th Century philosopher) both championed reason as a way of opposing religion. If it were the point of my post, I could probably find another 100.
“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”
However, my real issue with the Wikipedia definition (which is the definition Google picks up if you type “Define: New Atheism” into Google–so this definition isn’t going away) is that is defines “New Atheism” in terms of seeking to challenge theism, instead of championing an idea on its own. I could, therefore, be persuaded to accept defining “New Atheism” merely in terms which restructure the definition above:
“A movement that promotes and uses rational arguments to challenge pseudo-science and dogmatically held beliefs.”
Although I could be persuaded to accept that definition, a definition that justifies its expansion from basic atheism, it is not the definition I’d prefer.
New Atheism, to me, is composed of three positions: critical thinking, secularism and humanism. Critical thinking is not necessarily the position that begets atheism (although, often, it probably is). I’d wager that humanism, the belief that human reason, sense of justice and basic decency supersedes any need for gods (and other needs).
I am not actually a humanist, at least not by dogma. Humanism is (again, using the Wikipedia definition that Google picks up on):
Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated, according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it. Generally, however, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a “human nature“
But that’s not me. I have a more ecocentric position; the wellbeing of the natural world is important to me. In many of humanity’s endeavours we have to consider the trade-off between what we do and the ecological costs. But we only seem to consider the ecological costs that might come back to bite us in the arse: running out of resources, making the planet inhospitable for us and other economic costs. In principle, this narrow view is compatible with humanism (however, it is less common).
More broadly speaking, as I said earlier, humanism asserts that our own sense of justice and reasoning is enough. And with that, I can be assimilated along with the rest of the humanists. I do believe that, although we stumble, we are capable of making a world that maximises the happiness of creatures on the planet, and we can do so through a “rationalist outlook”. More importantly, basic human decency motivates us, no matter how it arose. (I know of a couple of theists who use religion to elevate that human decency in significance, and the Ipsos MORI survey that Richard Dawkins commissioned in 2012 suggests that there are many, many more of the same ilk.)
New Atheism, then, borrows its moral ideas from humanism: “seek to live ethical lives on the basis of reason and humanity” (The British Humanist Association) or “trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead” (Kurt Vonnegut). I don’t see how you can make a pejorative out of that.
A religious government necessarily favours one group of people over others. If you are an Islāmic country, you favour Islāmic definitions of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, marriage and religious freedom. A Christian government necessarily believes its moral ideas and definitions equally come from that religious context. Respectively, they exclude each other. As an aside, I would never move to a Muslim country and try to enforce Christian rights or secular freedoms, but I digress. Secularism is the only way to make sure equality in government. Secularism puts all religions on the same peg: not endorsed by the state. This includes lack of religion; religious buildings will not be banned or scrutinised more closely than other planning applications because a lack of religion is also not to be endorsed by the state. In terms of how to govern, again, critical thinking and human decency can prevail here.
~ In terms of the real issues that face us, like the Malthusian crisis that humanity has spent the last few centuries teetering on the edge of, it is by far human reasoning that solved the problems: the agricultural reform, SpaceX and mining of space. ~
This is New Atheism. It is applying human reasoning to dismantle and reveal untruths, poorly reasoned ideas and outright lies in the pursuit of truth. Although the name “New Atheism” roots itself very much in the religious debate, it extends itself to political discourse, helping find what the evidence actually says and not what the politicians favour; medicine, after all, most of those adverts saying they can cure cancer with a miracle berry or defeat fibromyalgia with a needle are lying; and even morality, helping us figure not only why we want to maximise happiness, but also how to get there.
New Atheism, despite of the way it is said, is not a pejorative.