Overton: Disowning New Atheism

BY JON OVERTON | MARCH 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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I used to enjoy the fun little rants by the so-called New Atheists about how religion is the most horrible thing ever.

No, seriously — that is their message, and that’s putting it mildly.

“New Atheism recognizes religion for what it is — a set of unfounded superstitions that have been the greatest hindrance to human progress that ever existed on this planet,” Victor Stenger, a particle physicist and prominent atheist, wrote as part of a recent debate with the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci.

Stenger lays out New Atheism in such a way that highlights the philosophy’s major flaws: It’s an extraordinarily arrogant and over-the-top belief system, well-suited for people who want to feel superior.

So what the heck is New Atheism? It’s not an organized or coherent belief system, it’s a more belligerent form of atheism that says religion should be criticized with rational arguments whenever possible.

As Richard Dawkins, a biologist and probably the most prominent New Atheist said about religious people, “Mock them. Ridicule them. In public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits.”

For some time, I idolized people like Stenger, Dawkins, the late writer Christopher Hitchens, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, and many of the other leading thinkers who made up the New Atheists. I saw them as gutsy, honest, and direct.

But I ultimately realized that the bombastic, arrogant, take-no-prisoners mentality of the prominent New Atheists accomplished nothing.

Calling people idiots, throwing often misinterpreted scientific evidence at them, and building up straw-man arguments has been the typical strategy for prominent New Atheists.

It’s very easy to pick out every bad thing ever recounted in religious texts, but do mainstream Christians or Jews condone genocide just because God supposedly told the Israelites to wipe out every last man, woman, and child in Jericho? Obviously not. But that is exactly how the New Atheists argue.

This isn’t going to persuade people that their faith is fundamentally flawed. It’s just a way to feel superior and smart while condescendingly dismissing anyone who disagrees with you.

The New Atheists aren’t looking for a solution. They’re not trying to understand what religion does for people, figure out how it works, or even to effectively persuade religious people that they’re wrong. They’re only interested in calling people stupid, so they can feel smart and perhaps make a buck or two in the process.

They’ve often claimed they’re being logical, that they’re only convinced by the evidence, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, that’s nice. Cool story, bro.

Hitchens pretended all religious people are fundamentalists. Sam Harris twists neuroscience to draw ridiculous, deterministic conclusions about human behavior (particularly that free will doesn’t exist at all). Dawkins once admitted that he never read the Koran before continuing with one of his trademark Islamophobic diatribes.

Harris, Stenger, Dawkins, and Hitchens are/were extremely intelligent people and have been great public speakers and writers, but their rabid dogma makes them eerily similar to the fundamentalists they so thoroughly detest.

If you’re looking for an honest discussion of the role religion plays in society, you won’t get it from the New Atheists.

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