On the Contrary: defining “New Atheism”

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?”

David Hume

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.”

Allallt

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 (rationalismempiricism) 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

Humanism, Wikipedia

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.

 

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37 thoughts on “On the Contrary: defining “New Atheism””

  1. Atheist used to be a pejorative by Romans, to refer to those who don’t believe in the Roman gods. For instance the Romans considered christian as atheists since they rejected the roman pantheon. In that line “New” Atheism could be understood as the movement which rejects the god of monotheism.

    1. Do you think I could write it in a book, build establishments from which people read my book and make questioning those people a crime? I heard it’s all the pedagogical rage.

  2. I think the usage by our critics is not usually meant in this light. They use it as a pejorative term. Look at the references to NA by Debilis and others and you see their meaning is not what you allude to here.

    1. Because there simply is no sense in which they mean it, other than as a pejorative, I thought I’d try to add some flesh to the bones.
      I’m kind of waiting to a theist to challenge me on this. I feel they won’t. I’ve never gotten the impression people know what they mean by NA.

      1. I gave up waiting for theists to respond. Even posts that I have addressed to them, it is mostly atheists who respond and one occasional theist who c/p bible verses or Koran.
        I will keep an eye on the responses

  3. There is nothing rational about atheism, consequently atheists are strangers to reason and do not have the ability to make rational arguments.

    Your quote from Epicurus is an example of an atheist using absurdity to prove his claim that God does not exist.

    Atheism, in fact is a 100% faith-based belief whose fundamental dogma is the ridiculous notion that everything happened all by itself.

    That is because atheism cannot be proven and neither can the notion that everything happened all by itself.

    1. Go back to your hole, troll – or at least bring some solid arguments to the table in lieu of refutations without foundation or backing.

      1. Tyro,

        Children call people names when they are upset. So do atheists.

        You just proved my point that atheists are irrational. Thank you.

        But let me explain in only three sentences why Euripides’ argument against God is absurd.

        Euripides blames God for the evil that men do and then winks God out of existence.

        Blaming and imagining disagreeable people out of existence is what children do.

        Like you, Euripides proves that atheists are irrational.

      2. SoM will do just about anything to not defend his own position, not acknowledge your position, not support his accusations and not bend when it is demonstrated that his accusations don’t actually relate to our positions.

        SoM will take a narrow, side-view, strawman, interpretation of your argument, then accuse you of being wither angry or a child… and then call you irrational.

        My advice is to not engage.

        1. Allt,

          It’s exactly the opposite.

          Reason is a particular way of systematic thinking, not the ability to articulate well, a personal opinion.

          Rudimentary reason is based on stating one or two related facts that result in a true conclusion. For example, here is the proof that atheism is a 100% faith-based belief:

          1. Atheism cannot be proven
          2. Faith is the belief in that which cannot be proven.
          3. Therefore, atheism is a faith-based belief.

          And above, I demonstrated why Epicurus’ quote is ridiculous.

          One cannot claim to be reasonable and at the same time claim to be an atheist.

          If you want more examples I am very happy to oblige.

        2. Alla,

          I have thus far proven that atheism is a 100% faith-based belief and that Epicurus’ reason for God not existing is ridiculous.

          How can you ask me for more reasoning when you are not even able to respond to the complete devastation I’ve presented you thus far?

          Alla your response to the complete devastation of your ideas has been the sound of one hand clapping.

          You don’t respond because you can’t respond.

          I respond because I can, and because it is my pleasure to do so.

        3. 1a faith is the establishment of confidence in a claim which is disproportionate to the evidence

          2a (from 1a) something which does not make a claim cannot be faith based

          3a atheism is the abstinence from making a particular claim

          4a (from 3a) atheism does not make a claim

          5 atheism cannot be faith based

          -or-

          1b faith is pretending to know something one does not know

          2b (from 1b) something cannot be faith based without a pretense to knowledge

          3b atheism does not pretend to know anything

          4b (from 3b) atheism is without a pretense to knowledge

          5 atheism cannot be faith based

        4. Alla,

          Atheism claims that God does not exist, therefore it must be able to offer proof or some sort of reasoning that substantiates that belief.

          Since science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, the atheists commits another act of irrationality when he demands scientific proof for the existence of God.

          And faith is the belief in that which cannot be proven.

          I pulled that definition directly from a dictionary.

        5. Alla,

          “A” in the front of a word means “not” or “without.”

          For example, atypical, means “not” typical.

          So if atheists no longer believe that God does not exist, then you guys need to change your title.

          Atheism means the opposite of theism.

          Theists believe that God exists. Therefore atheists believe God does “not” exist.

        6. Atheism – either not having a belief in god or without a belief in god.
          The belief that there are no gods is not an identical claim.

      3. You just contradicted yourself. The opposite of theism isn’t belief in lack of god, it’s lack of belief in god. The difference is subtle, but very important.

    2. That’s a common misconception. Atheism is typically not a belief in the nonexistence of deities, which is indeed unprovable, but rather the belief that deities are unlikely to exist (easily proven) combined with the choice to live as though they don’t exist, which it the logical choice given the information available.

      1. Tyro,

        The end result of not believing in God and the belief that God may not exist is the same.

        That’s because the belief in God demands certain action and lifestyle choices.

        Atheism and agnosticism make no moral, cultural or lifestyle demands.

        So the difference between theism and atheism could not be more profound.

        1. Alla,

          You are what you are, and an atheist is an atheist.

          Playing word games is sophistry and proves that not only can’t you stand up for your beliefs but you demand that very thing from others who believe in God.

          Such is a pernicious form of elitism.

  4. ‘Our own sense of justice’… That’s an interesting term. Because there isn’t a universal idea of justice, it differs from culture to culture and even person to person.

    What makes your notion of ‘justice’ more valid than anyone else’s? Is capital punishment just? How about losing a hand for stealing? Or depriving someone of their liberty for not paying tax? There will be different opinions on all these punishments.

    If there is no God then ‘justice’ becomes arbitrary and questionable. The law becomes nothing more than one group of humans forcing another group to live in a certain way with no real authority to do so.

    1. You haven’t thought carefully about what rational thought on these issues would entail. Justice is about rehabilitation, protection and retribution. People who want to live in a culture of fear and retribution and perpetuate poverty… that is a culture of cutting off hands.
      But that’s not the point, the point is attempting to put some flesh on the bones of the term New Atheism, which many use as a pejorative.

    2. Abi,

      Plato, the world’s first political philosopher gave a great treatment of justice in his tour de force, “The Republic,”

      Tyranny, the only form of government instituted by atheist regimes defines justice as the advantage of the strong.

      Since atheism reduces all belief to personal opinion, government can only be instituted by those powerful enough to impose their opinions on everyone else.

      On the other hand, Christian Western Civilization rose to unparalleled heights because Christians define justice and receiving what one deserves.

      Christian justice is natural law which means it applies to everyone.

      1. What about Cyrus the Great in 539 BC? He advocated universal rights, and it was recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder.
        By 27 BC the message had made it to Rome, and they recognised the expectations of people to be treated a certain way (and how they treat each other). That was what got called Natural Rights.

        1. Alla,

          Since natural law is discernible by reason, certain of its principles may appear in any culture in any time period.

          Consequently, your citation of Cyrus the Great only serves to prove my point about the legitimacy of natural law as a universal, objective set of morals and disproves Abi’s point that morals are simply a matter of opinion.

        2. Exactly.

          The source of personal opinion is personal bias which is governed by personal psychological make up.

          Part of our Western Heritage is the tradition of systematic thinking which makes possible the pursuit of truth over the will to power.

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