New Atheism = The Tea Party: Reflections on Professors Ruse and Barash

When I read Professor Ruse’s recent Brainstorm post equating the Tea Party with the New Atheists I was overcome by feelings of anger, surprise, and resentment.

That’s because he beat me to the punch.

I had been test-marketing the exact same analogy in lectures and in drafts over the past month. With a few caveats (to be discussed below) the equation struck me as plausible and kind of funny in a variety of ways.

In any case, Professor Ruse got there first. To him belongs the glory.

For his efforts, naturally, he was subjected to the predictable snark of New Atheist trolls. For those not familiar with their world-view, let me help you understand their central and timeless insight: Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut (about which more anon).

I was prepared to qualify my assessment of Ruse’s suggestion upon reading a rejoinder by the estimable Professor Barash. Incredulous about the Tea Party metaphor, he sighed: “Michael, Michael, Michael. Do you really believe this?”

Professor Barash goes on to write that he “cheerfully and gratefully aligns” himself with the New Atheists. To which all I can say is: Professor Barash, Professor Barash, Professor Barash. You are too intelligent, too well read, and too sophisticated to align yourself with a movement such as this one.

So permit me to rehearse my concerns about that movement—concerns that lead me to conclude that Professor Ruse is on to something.

“A Danger to the Well-Being of America”: Professor Ruse claims that “the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the well being of America.” I would re-jigger that a bit. I prefer to say that the New Atheists are a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America.

American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership.

In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel

Dumbin’ it Down (Atheism): New Atheism is the least intellectually rigorous form of atheism out there, much in the way Tea Party platforms are like the Non-Thinking Man’s form of libertarianism or anti-federalism.

This is odd because two of its proponents, Professors Dawkins and Dennett, are serious scholars who have produced important scientific and philosophical work. They are, nevertheless, inexplicably unserious about the subject of atheism.

In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.

The least curious of them all is Christopher Hitchens. I criticized his God is Not Great on the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I won’t develop my arguments of his follow-up, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever here. But let me issue a simple challenge for those who think the anthology represents an accurate reading of the development of atheism.

Step one: Read a few major scholarly studies of atheism like Professor Alan Kors’ Atheism in France, 1650-1729: Volume 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, or Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism, or the somewhat graying study of Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.

Step Two: Go back to Hitchens’ anthology and ask yourself this question: Have the texts assembled by Hitchens recounted a narrative of the development of historical atheism anything like the ones you encountered in the aforementioned studies (and a dozen other works I could mention)? I will leave it at that for now. Read the books, and then we’ll talk.

Dumbin it Down’ (Secularism): But the real disaster set in when the New Atheists started speaking in the name of secularism. This created an equation between anti-theism and secularism which is as ungrounded as it is catastrophic.

For years I have been reminding audiences that secularism is not synonymous with atheism. The term “secularism,” as best we can tell, was coined by George Jacob Holyoake in the mid-19th century.

This brave and complex Freethinker (whose own standing as an atheist is a subject of dispute among scholars) went to great pains to disarticulate his proposed “secularism” from atheism.

Of course the concept of the “secular” predates Holyoake by more than a millennia. It is an idea that flowered in the early Modern Christian milieu via Martin Luther and John Locke (who themselves stood on the shoulders of Paul, Augustine, and Ockham).

The roots of the political ideology of secularism, as any graduate student in the field can tell you, are profoundly and unambiguously Christian. Without Christianity it is awfully hard to imagine how ideas like separation of Church and State and disestablishment could have come to fruition in the late 18th century.

The New Atheists seem unaware of all this or incapable of acknowledging it and that’s because their dogma forces them at every turn to discredit anything produced within religious systems of thought.

Of course, if you read some of the scholarly works cited above you will learn that atheism too is a product of religious thought. But I fear this may be too much for the New Atheists to digest in one sitting.

Unbelievable Amounts of White Dudes: This is a pretty self-explanatory point. It just may be, however, that the New Atheist Movement has pulled off the impressive feat of being less diverse than the Tea Party.

Culture of Incivility: Although I was highly critical of Bill Maher’s Religulous I think that his HBO show Real Time is quite good. Mr. Maher is truly funny and quite skilled as an interviewer. (His riff recently on why Civil War re-enactors in the south would want to re-enact a war that they lost is especially poignant).

A few weeks back, however, I watched Maher interview Congressman Keith Ellison and all I could do was cringe. The host went off on a smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual replete with slights on the Quran as “a hate-filled Holy Book.”

Maher’s gratuitous assault on the Quran and Islam epitomizes everything that people hate about New Atheism. Not least of which is the know-nothing approach to religious critique.

Maher’s source in advancing his critique of Islam and its sacred text? Bernard Lewis? John Esposito? Ira Lapidus? Abdullahi An-Na’im? None of the above. The authority he cited was Sam Harris.

As I have written elsewhere, New Atheists, like Fundamentalists, only read “original texts” (kind of like the way Tea Party activists prattle on about the “original intent” of the Constitution). They don’t understand hermeneutics, or the interpretive process, and for this reason they are doomed to saying very silly things about their subject matter.

I myself, incidentally, have written about Quranic interpretation in The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously. Readers are free to scour that chapter for signs of my Uncle Tomism and refusal to be critical of religion.

The Whole Tolerance Thing: Had the New Atheists read their Locke it might have struck them that tolerance is a secular virtue too.

I mention this because I spend a lot of time addressing liberal religious audiences (liberal in the theological sense, though they are often politically liberal as well). These would be the same religious moderates that the New Atheists never cease to excoriate. In Harris’ memorable words: “the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.”

What have I learned from all this time spent with Reform and Conservative Jews, progressive Catholics and Muslims, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ folks, among many others?

I have learned that they generally view the New Atheists as being every bit as loony, ignorant, and mean-spirited as the religious conservatives in their own traditions who are constantly consigning them to eternal damnation (interestingly those conservatives in the Christian denominations are often affiliated with the Tea Party).

Political Accomplishments: Say what you will about the Tea Party, but they get themselves elected to office.

As for the New Atheists, they sell books and write op-ed pieces, but what have they accomplished politically? A few weeks back I pointed to a study that showed that not one (!) of the 535 members of the House and Senate self-described as an atheist.

I disagree, incidentally, with Professor Barash’s claim that the New Atheists have no clear policy agenda. On the contrary, they know exactly what they want as regards Intelligent Design curricula, reproductive freedoms, federally funded scientific research, and gay rights.

The problem is that the New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.

New Atheism is not a functioning political movement. The grassroots infrastructure is nearly non-existent. The numbers are a source of constant debate, but in any case quite low. In his “Bright Manifesto” of 2004, Professor Dennett spoke of 27 million would-be Brights who were—don’t make us come back there!—poised for political action.

That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more.

I prefer to see New Atheism as a lucrative media platform, an agitation collective that permits a few dozen cross-promoting writers (and is there anything more amusing than One of Four Horseman giving a collegial shout out to the other Three Horseman?) to sell books and build professional networks.

Bring it Boys: That’s enough for now. Suffice it to say I have no major disagreements with Professor Ruse’s analogy.

I have never debated a New Atheist. Most of the scholars of atheism and secularism with whom I converse haven’t debated them either. For whatever it’s worth, New Atheists seem a lot happier debating religious fundamentalists than anyone else.

But maybe, for the good of atheism (and secularism), the time has arrived to open up the discussion. If the New Atheists are truly committed to deepening their and our knowledge of this subject I am sure Professor Ruse and countless others would be happy to dialogue with them.

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