Rethinking secularism:

So you want to be a new atheist

posted by Kathryn Lofton

saved by atheismIt is, by now, old hat to say that atheism is just another literalism, defined less by the content of its complaint than by the style of its conveyance. Writing of Richard Dawkins, literary critic Terry Eagleton remarked that he had more in common with American TV evangelists than the refereed scientists to whom he claimed frequent recourse. This is then to correct the caricaturist’s image of the atheist—new or old—as a nihilist. Atheism has long been described, as Julian Baggini has explained, as “by its very nature negative” and dependent “for its existence on the religious beliefs it rejects.” While the reliance on comparative religions is indisputable, the presumed inherent negativity of atheism needs some definitional fine-tuning. If the screeds, tracts, speeches and, today, documentary films demonstrate anything, it is that atheists are not bleak existentialists. They are and have been variously colored in their impulses, ranging from sweet naturalists and happy materialists to rabid idealists and polemical ideologues. Atheists are not mere merchants of the negative, but are posited—by themselves, by their fans—as knights of deliverance. As one reviewer in the Atlantic wrote, “For a man who is frequently labeled a misanthrope, Christopher Hitchens has an unexpected faith in humankind.”

If you want to be a New Atheist, first and foremost, you need to possess an unrelenting desire to help. The desire may seem at times cruel, but you have to start focusing on a higher good: the goal here is to get the cannibals to put down their wafer and wine glass. It’s not for your wellness, but for the good of mankind. As Georgetown University professor John Haught wrote in his diagnosis of the New Atheists, “To know with such certitude that religion is evil, one must first have already surrendered one’s heart and mind to what is unconditionally good.” The New Atheists may wrap themselves in torn one-liners and haggard scientism, but beneath their cynical swaddle there lies a charming Perfectionism. Charming insofar as it is usually in the body of admittedly sinning and struggling men—if you want to be a New Atheist, you’re going to be a man—so the Perfectionist tendencies will be transporting you from a particularly devilish here to a right-minded necessary there. “Religion must die,” Maher argues, “for mankind to live.” Their descriptions of religion may be flat-footed, but it’s all for an endgame that surpasses their previous personal struggles. They are not converting you to their model lives (every New Atheist will happily tell you of wayward days with hookers or Hezekiah), nor to their model educations (every New Atheist parlays a populist revolution). Rather, they are converting you—as swiftly as possible, as dramatically as possible—to their ontology of the now. Apocalypse is coming, and although the New Atheists name the source and form of this apocalypse differently, if you want to be a New Atheist, you had better pull on your Oneida pants and start shoveling in an Adventist diet, because these are some millennial folk. “The irony of religion,” Maher remarks at the end of Religulous, “is because of its power to divert man to destructive forces the world actually could come to an end.”

Like millennial believers everywhere, New Atheists don’t possess much interest in the historicity of their promises and prophesies. You won’t see New Atheists entering the atheist historical fray, positing, for instance, whether the tradition to which they are contributors began in ancient Greece or the eighteenth-century. Although atheist materials have multiplied in recent years, key debates in its historiography remain unsettled since its history is, save for some critical exceptions, relatively unstudied. Was the first atheist work Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature, or was it Lucretius’s De rerum natura, written the first century before the Common Era? Does atheism require the early modern classificatory tiptoes of the eighteenth-century, or can we label it whenever and wherever someone questions the location of the divine relative to man, and suggests maybe a doubting relationship is better than a devoted one? For the purposes of ongoing scholarship (not only on the atheist, but also on the related subjects of the secular and the invention of religion) let us bracket the necessary complexities of that archival conversation and say that whatever came before in the annals of atheism, in the last ten years the stance has pullulated. Due, in no small part, to the oddity of its prominence, this stance has been quickly cauterized under a categorical collective.

To gather anyone under any label—here, the New Atheist—is a violent turn, forcing coherence into a thinker’s resolutely individuating ways. And there are real differences among the New Atheists, since among them we count a physicist, an evolutionary biologist, a pundit, a graduate student in neuroscience, and a philosopher, each geographically and institutionally far flung. Their formal reception underlines the perceived and real differences of content in their productions. I think it is safe to say that there is a reason Richard Dawkins received the attentions of Terry Eagleton and Marilynne Robinson while Sam Harris did not, and there is a reason that Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon has received some reviews in academic journals, whereas nary a one has taken up Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. This is not to suggest a divide between acceptably geeky texts and popularizing, pandering ones; rather, it is to emphasize that these texts have been written by a set of observers with an array of licensure and accreditation commensurate, then, to the postulated audiences of their writing and the methodologies of their proofs. To dispense henceforth with any subtlety on that matter is not to dispense with subtlety—in the end, the differences among New Atheists are as intriguing as those among the fundamentalist dissenters in early-twentieth century America. But we’re dealing with a product that seeks to entertain and not equivocate, so let’s release our stuffy differentiations and join in the collapsing fun.

If you want to be a New Atheist, you are worried a lot. You are worried about the Bible and the Koran, about Talibans and new Inquisitions, about Jerry Falwell and, even more insidiously, Mother Teresa. You’re worried about the candy-covered comforts of hegemony dressed as salvation and you’re worried about mystical communion alone on a countryside ramble. You are worried about belief and practice and leadership and laity. “From the perspective of the new atheists, religion is all one entity,” a New Yorker review of Hitchens explained, and “those who would apologize for any of its forms […] are helping to sustain the whole.” But the form that worries the New Atheists most isn’t the makings of religion, but what it in turn makes. If you want to be a New Atheist, you have to be worried about the progeny. Like antebellum Protestants staring at the high walls of a hilltop convent school or homophobes advocating Prop 8, your worry is that Those People Have Your Children. Textbooks and curriculum, prayer circles and promise rings: the problem is less that adults adhere to such idiocy, but that they abduct our most precious natural resource, and then shove it back into the world reprogrammed. The problem is that we’ve abdicated our Progressive promises to fuse ethics and public education, allowing a certain pluralism to seep into our child-rearing and pedagogical philosophies. Difference is for hippies, the New Atheists say; what we need now is some sensible positivism. Don’t worry about capitalism—it is. Don’t worry about nationalism or science—they will be. These totalizing discourses contribute to the New Atheist’s dream of a reasonable public sphere with ordered laboratory tactics demarcating its every policy move. If unimpeded, science and capitalism work with predictable clarity and world-resolving peace, the New Atheists say; if unimpeded, religion elects morons to the presidency. As with homophobia and nativism, New Atheist antagonism to the religious is framed positively as a protective maneuver toward the little lost lambs, the children and citizens who haven’t had the time or money to think. “Being without faith,” Maher offers in a rare moment of reflexivity, “is a luxury of people fortunate enough to have a fortunate life.” The New Atheists transpose their fortune onto you: you, too, can be freer than you are, if only you’ll relinquish the belief that restraint does you any material good.

Not every New Atheist is a libertarian, but left to their own devices the whole lot would happily remove as many non-S&M ties that bind as possible. Dividing between what they know, and what they know nobody can know, the New Atheists argue that their new ideologies of truth might be more benign than theological ones, that the loss of religious faith in the modern period is a good thing, that the Holocaust is a sign that everything after has to be checked and checked again by doubters rather than believers. “I sell uncertainty,” Maher explains, cleanly. “I preach the gospel of I don’t know.” The good news of his knowing not to know—not to know, that is, despite his knowing of what it is to know—includes a patterned set of replies to the religious by the New Atheists. First, the compassionate reply: “It’s only natural.” Second, the materialist revelation: “It’s manmade.” And third, the medical intervention: “You’re sick from it.” If you want to be a New Atheist, you begin your reading of the religious with an expansively evolutionary sympathy. Of course you’re religious, they remark, it’s been around forever, and it seems nearly biological in its inevitability. Noting the persistence of beliefs makes you seem game, and historical—two things that will win you points from those who suspect you’re just a rabble rouser. You, the New Atheist, should nod with understanding. It is, after all, a very convincing mode, a restful spot on the developmental chart, like the bad posture of Homo neanderthalensis. Who would want to sit up straight when slouching is so much more, well, natural?

At some point you have to leave the Bronze Age, the New Atheists press, and realize that every slouch is caressed by something invented by other men to cradle you into political and personal submission. Remember: the manmade is manipulation. It tugs at your primal fears, and boxes you in like bike helmets, seat belts, and safety locks. We may, as David Hume long ago diagnosed, have a natural tendency to be bewitched, but such “solace,” Maher explains, “comes at a terrible cost.” Stand up, and be a man. Let go of manmade things, and relinquish the psychopathology that restricts you. What is religion? The New Atheists reply, with clarion diagnostic consistency: Religion is something that sells you something invisible so you may feel that which you cannot find elsewhere. It is something for which there is insufficient evidence. It is something people do because they have always done it, not because they know how to think about it. Religion is irrational, it is emotional, and it is instinctual. Religion is entrapment (the New Atheists say, explicitly). Religion enslaves you with its wiles, then forgets to remove the handcuffs. It is a mountebank fortune teller reading entrails, not a trustworthy captain consulting his compass. It massages and preys and toys and plays and screws you over, time and again, with a promise it won’t keep because of its irrationality and its whimsy. Religion is, by the definition of these New Atheists, a know-at-all with no knowledge. It makes “a virtue out of not thinking.” After reading a lot of New Atheist screeds on the subject, religion seems to be a lot like everything these virile pundits want most not to be. It sounds, actually, a lot like a girl.  And while no New Atheist would deny the possibility of female rationality, they would deny that anyone religious could evade emasculation before religion’s mountebank authorities and its invented gods.

Religion as effeminacy is nothing new. Nor indeed is the accusation that religion is socially sanctioned lunacy. Treating it as a neurological disorder, however, sets the New Atheists within a long tradition of critical misogyny. Under the guise of protecting your children, in the effort to best serve your sweet flock of idiots, if you want to be a New Atheist you have reclaimed a New Virility to counter your post-industrial masculine alienation.  This minstrel virility plays out in demonstrations of protective strength, plowing away at the big two nemeses (Christianity and Islam) in the interest of protecting the little guy. It is also exhibited in grand tours of scientific proof, or plodding expulsions of religious duplicity.  In The End of Faith, Sam Harris sets up a demolition cruise to contest headlining religious artifacts in some sort of obstacle course for logic: the Ten Commandments, creationism and intelligent design, anti-abortion stances, opposition to HPV vaccines, biblical prophesies, and the problem of theodicy. Harris and the other New Atheists establish situations to counter as if to build their own sense of strength. They design tests for which they made the questions and the answers. This is perhaps why Maher’s visit to the Institute for Science and Halacha inspires such wincing. It’s not exactly cheating, but it’s also not exactly fair. Hyperbolizing their efforts to “outsmart God,” Maher sets himself up as the only one seeing the irony. But, like noting that religions are inconsistent with their scriptures, or that money is made from a televangelist’s DVD, the debunker ends up coming off less knowing than megalomaniacal. “You’d think if you had the power to raise the dead, you’d have the power to jump a fence,” Maher remarks. If you want to be a New Atheist, you have to believe that there is no such thing as an easy mark, just an available one.

The fight for satisfying victory may have historical sources. Just as evangelicals co-opted the talk of war, New Atheists wrest it back. “In the bloom of resurgent Christianity,” James Turner summarizes, “these aging doubts sprouted with new vigor.” This is our New World Order, they propose, and you girly believers cannot have it. The contrasts between the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Mark Lilla, and Victor Stenger) and the familiar Old Atheists (Robert Green Ingersoll, H.L. Mencken, Samuel Porter Putnam, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin Underwood) are many, but in one thing they are united. Those Lyceum grandstanders practiced a similar parlance of entertainment and ruthless reasonableness in post-apocalyptic shutters of violence. In the wake of 9/11 (and the Civil War), atheism emerges in part to salve and armor emasculated Reason. If seventeenth and eighteenth century atheists were, in part, responding to revisions of and rebuttals to theological and ecclesiastical portraits of g/God, then nineteenth and twenty-first century incarnations responded to evangelical assertiveness. As James Turner has pointed out, evangelical culture in the nineteenth century played a critical role to provoking the development of a fulmination of unbelief. Robert Green Ingersoll described his late-nineteenth century moment as an “age of investigation, of discovery and thought,” in which the mere appearance of “science” would destroy “the dogmas that misled the mind and waste the energies of man.” But it was not so—religion continued. The “Golden Age of Freethought” debunkers relied upon the promises of Biblical criticism, Comtean positivism, and Progressive social planning to map their new worlds. If you want to be a New Atheist, you have to live in a world where those prophesies of demolished dogmas never came true, and when the evangelicals are still, to your shocked disbelief, still here.

And so, you do what every believer has ever done: you produce. In the nineteenth century, atheists and freethinkers produced grassroots newspapers to provoke a movement: The American Nonconformist, The Freethought Ideal, Freethinker’s Magazine, and The Truth Seeker among scores of others. Publishing presses (like Truth Seeker Company, Freidenker Publishing Company, J.P. Mendum, and Peter Eckler Company) were incorporated and associations were begun. Rarely, however, were such organizational collectives engendered outside of theatrical crowds. The American Humanist Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, the Atheist Alliance, American Atheists, American Secular Union, and National Liberal League never succeeded in drawing sizable membership rolls. If you want to be a New Atheist, you’ve given up on the development of a social movement. Instead, what you’re seeking is to sell a product that convinces your buyers of a substitution for their invisible products. If you are a New Atheist, you want your readers to buy you. In 2007, articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal breathlessly accounted for the New Atheism’s profitability. As Maher advocates repeatedly for what Jesus would and would not approve, as he decides that Puerto Rico would be an unlikely place for the Second Coming, what he really wants is for his voice to inspire your own to be like his. “You do not possess mental powers that I do not,” Maher explains. The worst part about Religulous—the worst part about being a New Atheist—isn’t, in the end, that you are sexist or simple or a little light on the science. The worst part is that if you want to be a New Atheist, you most likely will not be very winning. Would that Maher had convinced us in our comparative tour to consider the beliefs that sustain us and him in our smirks as much as those which prostrate us before false idols and Puerto Rican messiahs.  Would that he had shown us not only why they believe as they do, but how we come to laugh as we do.  “I don’t find this Jew funny,” the man in the mosque rants. “I know comedy. He’s never made me laugh and his show sucks.”  Wondering why myth works, or how scripture saves, seems less funny than desperate.  Would that Maher had sought to answer not merely why faith survives but also how humor functions, and why the man ever thought it would predictably emerge from this Jew.  Between his heckler’s ethnic expectations and Maher’s juvenile bigotry lies not only the territory of religious studies, but also the fodder for a higher form of incisive criticism and tragic hilarity.

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