The New Atheists and the Tea Party: Comparable Disasters?

I have always had a high regard for the opinions and ideas of Michael Ruse, even as I have on occasion disagreed with them. But I must note that I was positively gobsmacked (to employ an appropriate Britishism) by his recent Brainstorm assertion that the New Atheists constitute a “disaster comparable to the Tea Party.” Michael, Michael, Michael: Do you really believe this?

The Tea Party has an array of specific public-policy objectives, all of them to my mind immensely hurtful to the public weal, including but not limited to reducing if not eliminating public funding for foreign aid, slashing women’s reproductive rights, gutting public education and public broadcasting, rejecting efforts to fight global heating or to defend the environment more generally, refusing to support renewable energy and rolling back anything even remotely approaching national health care … the latter being, as I recall, an issue that Michael passionately supports.

The Tea Party really does constitute a disaster-in-the-making, its only saving grace being the prospect that by the kind of over-reaching currently evident in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the stage will be set for an electoral repudiation of such right-wing craziness in 2012.

The New Atheists, with whom I cheerfully and gratefully align myself, have no specific public-policy goals, except perhaps the will-o’the-wisp of delegitimizing the typically unspoken assumption—especially in the United States—that religion must never be questioned, not only as a public good but something that is necessarily true and to which all good people must necessarily subscribe. Theirs is an intellectual struggle, an effort to provide a voice to the large number of previously closeted nonbelievers who felt isolated in their atheism.

The Tea Party, by contrast, provides no such unique service. Prior to its instantiation, there was no shortage of right-wing political organizations, many of them immensely powerful. Prior to the Tea Party, ultra conservatives had plenty of places to turn. Prior to the New Atheists, atheists did not. Even now, the New Atheists do not offer much of an organizational framework; the Tea Party does. The New Atheists do not propose to make the rich richer while withdrawing government assistance from the poor; the Tea Party does. The Tea Party promises to free Americans from a non-existent government plot to deprive them of their fundamental freedoms. The New Atheists struggle to free Americans (and others) from the all-too-existent strangle-hold of organized and largely unquestioned religion.

The Tea Party is “all about” right-wing politics. The most prominent New Atheists are of left-liberal persuasion, but there is nothing in atheism that necessarily makes it more convivial to the political left. (Admittedly, right-wing atheists are relatively rare, with a few notable exceptions, such as Ayn Rand.)

If the Tea Party succeeds—Darwin forbid!—the United States will be dramatically changed, for the worse. A true disaster. If the New Atheists succeed, unbelief will be increasingly legitimate and willing to speak its name. Minds will be opened, and many will find themselves liberated to express views previously forbidden. Hardly a disaster … unless you believe, Michael, that people are unable or unwilling to do the right thing in the absence of religious belief.

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