A Growing Religiosity Among Atheists?

Shadow to Light has published another of its pieces on the view that the author, Michael, believes that ‘New Atheism’ is hypocritical. To do this, Michael has to imply certain premises. As they’re implied, I can’t be certain, but here is what I think the premises are: New Atheism is necessarily anti-religious, New Atheism presents “religious” ideas (as you’ll see, ‘religion’ is poorly defined here), New Atheists are necessarily advocates of ‘scientism’ or Ontological Materialism – thus any moral claim they make is religiously founded. There may be more. Inspired by my conversation with xPrae, and the advice of John Zande and Arkenaten, I have decided to not invest huge amounts of energy into the discussion at Shadow to Light, but instead to invest a little energy so that I can present them as well as possible, but actually have the discussion with an audience that is receptive. (That’s you, by the way.)

I may change my style soon, so that what you read isn’t just an adapted comment (probably just stealing from Makagutu over on Random Thoughts, or of the Sensuous Curmudgeon). However, I think the comment I adapted here is addressing the issue quite clearly.

My initial comment was seven criticisms, which equates to approximately one dismantling of Michael’s argument per written paragraph. To word that differently, I took issue with every single idea he presented. That’s not a good sign. Below are my seven criticisms, as well as a some extra points that came out of the discussion in the comments. It involves some direct questions and challenges to Michael, but I invite all readers to attempt answers if they feel strong enough to do so.


(1) The equivocation in the opening paragraph is hard to swallow for a number of reasons. The jumps are from atheism to political ideas (although, no mention of which ideas), from political ideas to zealous, dogmatic political ideology, and from there to Soviet Communism. Not only are some of these jumps unsupported, others are in direct conflict with the ideas of secularism; arguably the closest political idea to atheism, although still not a fair jump to make. Secularism includes religious liberty on the individual level. Soviet Communism did not.


(2) As for your criticism of the word “evil”, that seems fair enough. I am very uncomfortable using the word “evil” in objective terms. Although I believe one can tell the difference between something that is morally good and morally bad, I think of “evil” as a strictly emotional word. I’m not alone among atheists in that, but I am also not representative. (This is important in understanding one cannot criticise ‘atheism’ as some sort of monolith of ethical and political ideas.) However, the deeper implication you seem to be making is that if one is an atheist one cannot reliably tell the difference between good and bad (morally). That, I think, is untrue. I think we can have human discussion on what is good and what is bad and we can have philosophical ideas that inform moral decisions and I think different philosophies can be said to be better or worse than others. The strawman argument that morality doesn’t fall within ‘scientism’ is irrelevant; there is no onus on atheists to be advocates or scientism or ontological materialism (etc).

As far as the strength of human discussion goes to develop ethics, what about the possibility of an individual who believes morally repugnant things? Surely, just dismissing it as ‘repugnant’ isn’t part of a rational discussion. Kevin, in the comments, asked how a rational discussion to developing ethics might play out when talking to a person who believes in the rights of dominion of men over women, in eugenics and the survival of the fittest. To which, I have an answer.

To say that men are superior to women is a claim that demands some sort of evidence. Thus, you can dismiss it until the evidence based discussion for such superiority can be brought forward: ‘that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.’ It is not a part of a rational discussion. Survival of the fittest favours the elite; the top minority; the intelligentsia; the high level athletes. If we’re generous and say such a position favours the top 20%, why would the bottom 80% ever accept the underpinning principle as a brute ethical fact? To run by such an ethic probably involves the ‘elite’ taking control via tyranny, which is a direct contravention of the rational discussion I am advocating. As for eugenics, there is a greater problem: essentialism. To rationally identify what a defect is, one must be able to rationally articulate the concept of an idealised human. In the context of evolution in particular, this is simply impossible. Without the idealised ‘essentialist’ human, one cannot differentiate between a defect and a variation.

All of these are problems with the arguments themselves, and they seem to be pretty fatal in the context of a rational discussion. This hasn’t even begun to address how these ideas would fair in the open economy of ideas against discussion of empathy, compassion, wellbeing and liberty. I think the challenge Kevin presented confuses the possibility of dissenting voices with an ill-intending tyranny.

It is worth applying this method of thinking to American slavery. There is certainly rhetoric surrounding the idea that Americans were saving the ignorant black man from a savage and barbaric existence. If this rhetoric mapped onto reality well, then slavery may have been a good thing. The problem is that black people are not ignorant, existence in Africa was not necessarily barbaric or savage and slavery was incredibly difficult to consider “saving” the African people in any real sense. An open conversation could have revealed these facts very quickly. The defence of slavery would have failed on the intellectual market place of ideas, even before it ever had to compete against argument of compassion and liberty.

Slavery, which is the common example of morally relativistic societies on account of its existence in the Bible, may have been considered ‘good’ on the back of the initial assumptions, but it was defended through tyrannically excluding black people from the discussion and from education. Not even moral relativism can vindicate the slave owners who suppressed open, free and rational discussion.

There is a deeper question: why does Kevin think his interpretation of morality, which itself is the result of human conversations sparked by a specific Book, is so much better?


(3) I also don’t think the ‘puritan’, anti-theist, ‘Gnu’ Atheist character, which bows to some sort of ‘high priests’ in the pursuit of some mystical utopia, you present is representative. Utopia is a political idea and ‘high priests’ are contrary to many atheists’ underlying values of scepticism and rationality. There is also a difference between treating a person as a high priest and incidentally agreeing with someone. I’ve never seen someone sincerely say something akin to “of course he’s right, he’s Richard Dawkins, for crying out loud!” I, for one, often disagree with Coyne not just on content but also on presentation. Perhaps you could help me out, though. When I first came to Shadow to Light, I asked you to define “New Atheism” and I was told by a commenter that it should be clear by context. I still haven’t found it clear. Could you give me a brief explanation and perhaps an evaluation of whether you think I fit.

It is possible that you are talking in entirely tautological terms: New Atheists are ones that construct (unfounded and implicit) tenets from atheism and treat those religiously. Accusing that group, real or imagined, of being religious in nature is tautological. Although that seems clearly your definition to me, from some contexts, the fact it appears you feel you are addressing ‘atheism’ on a large scale at the same time undermines that. New Atheism (as defined by me just now) represents no one I know personally or online. And a majority of the people I know are atheists (welcome to the UK’s generation Y). If you are talking about New Atheism as I described it, then you are talking about a tiny subset of atheists defined by an entirely irrational relationship to atheism at large.


(4) The Extreme Feminist Atheism vs Hedonist Atheism is a somewhat misrepresented conflict. The real problem there is perhaps better expressed distinct from atheism, as questions not even pertaining to religion best are. But even if we look at it only within atheism, it is better described as ‘regressive left’ atheists vs progressive atheists (which still leaves a great number of atheists in the void between these views). Only looking at this problem within atheism blinds one to the fact this is a much wider discussion.

The regressive leftists are those who think the possibility of causing offence curtails liberties and freedoms, and so wants to censor people and ideas that could be thought of as offensive. The progressives are those who want to expand liberties to people and societies, I suppose with the implicit expectation that people will be mature enough to not be offended. The area of conflict is not just in the hyper-sensitive feminism, but also how we discuss the issues of Jihadism and Islamism.


(5) Sam Harris has explicitly not developed 10 Commandments or anything like it. I say “explicitly” because he, like Hitchens, rejects the idea that morality could even be reduced to ‘commands’ and believes there must be something deeper. The clarity with which I support Harris in this is waning a little, but I basically still think (philosophically, not scientifically) that morality must relate back to wellbeing in some way.


(6) I’m struggling with your conception of what a religion is. Nowhere is this more clear to me than when you describe advocating vegetarianism as being a religious move. I don’t see the spiritual or deistic element to this. Not all philosophy is religion. Not all confident people are dogmatic. Not all dogma is religion. There are good environmental, health and ethical reasons to be vegetarian or vegan and pointing that out (especially from the stance of a ‘philosopher’ who wrote a book an ethics) is not “religious”. (Even if it is dogmatic, which is another discussion.) Given that our choice of diet impacts on many of our common commodities, imploring people to manage it better makes perfect sense.

Michael has gone on to define ‘religion’ as any idea that is considered superior and worthy of convincing others of. As I have discussed before, I agree that dogmatic superiority is a concept to be very wary of. However, one does have to explain how they can tell the difference between someone saying ‘this is the best idea we have at the moment’ and ‘this is an infallible idea’. The ‘best idea we have at the moment’ is worthy of sharing, along with how it was discovered or is discoverable. The ‘infallible idea’ isn’t worthy of much more than the scorn Michael is applying. However, I’m not sure Michael has successfully identified the difference between the ‘best idea we have at the moment’ and an ‘infallible idea’.


(7) I would outright reject sex defined by political correctness, hyper-sensitive regressive feminism and ‘regressive leftism’. I’d much rather sex defined by progressive ideas of consent, security and the appropriateness of sometimes asking people to mind their own damned business.

10 thoughts on “A Growing Religiosity Among Atheists?”

  1. I find your willingness to engage idiots inspiring (and exhausting). The claims made by your target are bizarre at best. The claim that morality cannot exist without religion is especially suspicious. I assume said person is a Christian (who else would make such fatuous arguments?) and even were we to accept the argument that the world is only around 6000 years old, two thirds of that time would have occurred before Christianity and one third before Judaism. Yet, the concept of evil predates both of these. How could that be with no religion there to support it? Oh, the apologist claims, there were religions around, not just the two mentioned. But were those not “false religions,” we might ask? Why would false religions provide some of the same benefits of the “one true religion?”

    Round and round they go, etc. Evangelicals who claim that Jesus came so that the New Testament could supersede the Old Testament still invoke the Ten Commandments and Genesis from the OT. What’s up with that? Was it superseded or not? And, if parts of the OT are still good, can they point out where Jesus lays that out in detail, please?

    Most of these people are woefully ignorant of their own religion but get props from their homies for aggressively attacking atheists. I wish someone would create a video game for them so they would stop bothering thoughtful people.

    1. Hey, I like video games!
      But, yes, their preference of attacking atheists as opposed to actually understanding the content of criticisms aimed at the their religions is exhausting. But it’s also very revealing: the focus on the side theatre because the actual play has no meaningful and coherent content.

  2. Michael says “this is not an anti-atheism blog nor is it a Christian apologetics blog. This is a blog that keeps a critical eye on the New Atheist movement and focuses on the narrative the New Atheists are trying to spread and entrench. And while the New Atheists are a fringe minority who occupy the extreme ends of the spectrum, they do have allies and sympathetic ears in mainstream media and academia (the major opinion shapers of our culture). So my main reason for posting is to help myself and others to better understand the New Atheist movement and its narrative

    Is this true?

    Well, in a word, no. It’s bullshit from beginning to end.

    Michael lies. He does not even attempt to “better understand” New Atheism nor “better understand” its narrative(s). He already ‘knows’ “that atheism is a subjective opinion and New Atheism comes with a mean-spirited and intolerant agenda.” Yet he presumes such an opinion has no bearing on his supposed desire to “remain knowledgeable and up-to-date about the movement and its arguments.” (All he does is produce vindictive material utilizing confirmation bias.)

    Michael demonstrates on his blog no such pursuit. Quite the opposite, in fact; his goal is very clear in practice: to vilify New Atheism and anyone who promotes it. To accomplish this dishonest goal, he grossly distorts, misrepresents, demonizes, and then intentionally misreads new Atheism, New Atheist authors, and any of its supporters.

    In particular, Michael seems unable to miss an opportunity to bring these formidable tools he mistakes for a ‘critical eye’ to bear on Sam Harris. (That’s why it takes something like you OP here to dismantle and disentangle his false assertions point by point – because Michael relies on dishonesty to further his blog’s agenda).

    Michael presents Harris as some kind of cult leader – as if other gnus would automatically follow each utterance by Harris as if gospel. This is so as simplistically and obviously wrong (for anyone with an internet connection, that is) that it’s not even wrong. Yet Michael demonstrates time and again that, in spite of best efforts by many earnest people, he is immune from correcting his errors (because he knows he hasn’t made any, you see), immune from altering in any way and by no any amount of compelling contrary evidence, his a priori and highly negative assumptions about atheists in the New Atheist movement. He refuses to understand that his negative opinions and misrepresentations might be need of revision if what’s true actually matters (it doesn’t) because he ‘knows’ his subjective opinions are already correct. Why allow reality to interfere with a perfectly good faith-based belief? (Now where have I encountered that kind of thinking before?)

    What does matter is what Michael does with compelling and contrary evidence. This action is quintessentially typical of religious apologetics: ignore it and, if it doesn’t go away, pretend it’s of no consequence, or, if the person continues to stay on target, vilify any atheist who dares try to correct his blog’s mean-spirited and intolerant agenda.

    He especially likes to vilify those who point out his why his accusations are false and does so by a neat trick of mental gymnastics: to conflate those who criticize him not to be against belief in religious fundamentals (anti-theism) but as religions bigots (anti-theists). That’s why he finds and gives comfort to religious sites like the Orthosphere… not that his blog is any different from any other religious apologetics blog.

    Hypocrisy, thy name is Michael, and you reside at Shadow to Light.

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed you’ve been there recently. I like Michael’s disciples, they’ve learned some great tricks. For one, they know that if I post, I’m already wrong and they will expend a huge amount of cognitive energy twisting and contorting to show they already knew that.
      And, if they fail, they say Michael might swoop down and straighten the whole thing out for us. Like Jesus’ second coming. But it always ends with strawmen of the bigot’s (that’s me, by the way) views and a lot of self-congratulating on behalf of the virtuous.

      1. It kind of reminds me of the school ground, where students just start yelling “Ha! Owned!” and “You lost this one” or, my little brother’s infuriating phrase “Wrecked!” before the discussion is over or even, really got going.
        People glob together and simply exclaim that they won.

      2. I don’t mind differences of opinions and interpretations but hat’s not Michael’s blog. It is a directed smear campaign and he’s tried to present himself as intellectually honest when, in fact, he’s as dishonest as one can be. And that’s just the starting position.

        What’s truly disheartening is how so many theists who present themselves as honest then rally to his dishonesty and pretend it’s laudable… not because it is but because it confirms their own bias. This mistake is covered in Thinking 101 and to see so many fall for it but tell me my accusations of credulity are misplaced is very hard on my irony meter.

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