Apostasy squared: “New Atheism” considered harmful

Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience posts this list of recommended reading for atheists. The list, which prominently features Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, with a little Russell thrown in and Dennett conspicuously absent, is supposed to give readers “a basic handle on the intellectual foundations of atheism”. This is the New Atheism, the strange mixture of half-understood science, naive philosophy, and adolescent rage beloved of fourteen-year-old boys and others who might as well be. It evolved gradually over the last forty to fifty years and has recently been taking the world by storm. I date the New Atheism’s ascendancy from 2006, when Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published and became an instant bestseller. The rise of the Internet (particularly blogs and social media) is also crucial because it allowed fans of the New Atheism to organize—which was difficult in the past due to geographic spreading and the fact that many of these people are not very well-adjusted socially.

The central figures of this movement are Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, the Tufts philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, and the late political writer Christopher Hitchens. Each one brings his own distinctive style to the table. Dawkins began as a pretty good popular science writer with a chip on his shoulder about religion. It wasn’t until The God Delusion that he went full-blown cultural critic. God only knows (excuse the expression) if he’s done anything scientific in recent years. As far as I know he’s currently a full-time atheist.

Harris combines a mild-mannered demeanour with moments of bugfuck insanity, particularly when the subject turns to Islam and conflicts in the Middle East. This is a topic to which we’ll return. Hitchens was a drunken cryptofascist asshole who appears to have been roped into the movement largely by accident; most of his writing is about politics and touches religion only obliquely.

By far the most tolerable of the four is Daniel Dennett. This is probably because he’s the only one who has an agenda more sophisticated than the grown-up equivalent of telling the younger kids there ain’t no Santa Claus (Dennett has confessed to playing along on one occasion when he was mistaken for the jolly old elf). His book Consciousness Explained is an enlightening read about consciousness and the self. He is probably the least-read of the four; his books require a little more heavy lifting and he is less prone to sloganeering.

I’ve been a bit glib in the above summary. Partly this is my own frustration coming out, partly it’s a transparent attempt to bate the New Atheist fans into responding, but mostly it’s affectionate prodding. Although I would not consider myself a New Atheist (and I’m skeptical of the term “atheist” in general), I did at one time and I understand the thought process that leads people into this movement. I get why people pick up Richard Dawkins and fall in love with him, and I feel a certain amount of kinship with them. This is tempered by a desire to kick them in the ass until they read a goddamn book1, which would solve a lot of their problems.

Why are they so angry?

I should take a moment to stress that I am exclusively concerned with a certain type of atheism that has become immensely popular and vocal with the rise of the Internet: the angry ones, the ones who will self-identify as “militant atheists” or “strong atheists”, the ones who start bus campaigns. The New Atheists. This is the tradition I passed through in my adolescence, and this is the kind of atheism I believe is bad for the soul. I have no quarrel with atheism per se (though I think the issue is a great deal more complicated than we’ve been led to believe). I’m only concerned with the exploitation of the weak and the smuggling of neoconservative values into atheist discourse.

One of the things that people outside this whole discussion can’t get their heads around is how it’s possible to get worked up about something you don’t believe in. Most of us go about our day without thinking about God one way or the other. We might have a specific religion, we might be atheists, or we might have some nebulous “spirituality”, but we don’t really have any considered opinion about the structure of the universe and how, if at all, a god would fit into that structure. For most people, especially in the British-influenced parts of the Western hemisphere, it’s just not that big a deal. That’s why we have institutions like the United Church of Canada. They don’t have a theology, they have a bake sale.

In my experience there are three types of New Atheists: first, there are the ones who came from extremely religious traditions, generally the schism-happy megachurch protestantism of the southern US. Second, there are those who, like me, came from traditions like the UCC where atheism is just a step away anyway. It is fashionable for these types to overstate the influence that their religion had over them when they were religious. Third, there are those who were raised atheistically from the beginning.

It does not take any great insight to figure these people out. The ex-fundies have shifted their enthusiasm in a different direction. Identifying as an atheist in the strongest sense possible restores the sense of identity and group membership that is lost when you break away from the megachurch. The UCC folks have the opposite dynamic: like a horny young man in his first romantic relationship after years of social isolation, they go overboard in their affections the first time they find a partner that’s even remotely suitable. The second-generation atheists don’t believe and never have, and probably wonder what all this religion stuff is about, anyway.

In-group definition is just part of the reason for the exaggerated anger we see in the New Atheists. It’s no secret that the movement consists mainly of socially maladjusted young men.2 If you will forgive the rhetoric, the New Atheism is basically about hard men of hard science expressing their rage at the humanities because they never got any in high school. We roll our eyes, perhaps rightly, at self-diagnosed Asperger disorder, but the fact that some people even ask that question about themselves is highly significant. This is the core of the New Atheism: heavily entwined with the poor social skills is the desire for things to be as they are represented, a disdain of unwritten rules.3 It is—and I am shockingly not ashamed to say this—phallogocentric. A New Atheist is essentially a failed literary critic, for whom Moby-Dick is a book about whales and only whales.

Literalism and religious conflicts

This explains the disproportionate focus on ultraconservative American protestantism. While the influence that these groups have is alarming, it is important not to overstate the case. The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, is emphasized to a ridiculous degree in New Atheist discourse. They are indeed terrible people, but everyone hates them, not just Richard Dawkins.4 As a reader of atheist blogs and sites, you’d think they were just out of the mainstream. Extremists are represented as authoritative ambassadors for their religion. Violent religious conflicts are represented as if they were all and only about doctrinal differences that the New Atheists have transcended. To listen to Dawkins or Harris, you’d think that if everyone became an atheist tomorrow, these long-standing disputes (Sunnis versus Shiites; Irish Protestants versus Irish Catholics, etc) would abruptly dissolve.

A common trope of New Atheism is that religious moderates are simply bad theologians. The extremists are right about the content of their religion, just wrong about the truth of that content. According to Sam Harris, people like bin Laden do what they do because they “actually believe what they say they believe”. Herein lies the source of the common argument that the New Atheists are just another group of extremists: they subscribe to the same literary theory. Both groups agree that religious texts should be read in more or less the same manner as dishwasher manuals.

Because the New Atheists are so deficient in the humanities, they fail to recognize what role religion actually fills in people’s lives. As Chesterton puts it, it doesn’t matter what you say. It matters what you don’t say because it seems too obvious to need mentioning. Christianity is a set of unspoken attitudes about the world as much as it is a set of beliefs about what happened in the Middle East two thousand years ago. Perhaps the most important part of the Passion story is not the literal events it relates, but the subverbal understanding that this is what sacrifice looks like. The beliefs about metaphysics are, in the average person, absent or crude, and among the academics and priests, so obscure they’re not worth arguing about.

An average Blue militant doesn’t understand all the precise doctrinal differences between his faith and that of the Greens. What he does know is that his cousin was killed in a Green pub bombing. That fact is not going away even if everyone converts to greyscale tomorrow. The example of history is instructive here, but the New Atheists cannot learn from it because they lack the attention span.5

New Atheism considered harmful

Most New Atheists are not bad people. Let me revise that: most New Atheists are not intrinsically and necessarily bad people. They—and I include me circa 2008 in this “they”—are generally young and confused, bursting at the seams with raw intellectual energy and inchoate ideas. It just so happens that the New Atheism as a movement is tailored to their hangups, and so they take up “skeptical” proselytism in large numbers rather than collecting coins or playing badminton. They need to feel mad at something, so it gives them an enemy. They need to feel intellectually superior, so it represents that enemy as irrational by definition. They are sexually repressed and angry about it, so it blames that enemy for their inexperience. And so on.

First the movement speaks to their needs, giving them a framework in which to understand the world that answers their questions and acknowledges their manifest superiority. Having thus softened them up, it then graduates them to the hard stuff. This is when they start reading Christopher Hitchens when he’s not talking about God. They stop chuckling nervously to Pat Condell and start nodding. In this way somebody raised in a mild-mannered vaguely liberal tradition can gradually come to believe that we should expel Muslims from the country like some mediaeval kingdom and that baptizing your infant is morally equivalent to refusing to vaccinate it. After that it’s only a short step to Bell Curve-style racial antics, a step which not a few of them actually make.

The basement-dwelling neckbeards of the New Atheism don’t have an agenda. But the secret masters do: they want to make neoconservatism acceptable to people who ordinarily would not accept it. This is Objectivism redux. And they are succeeding wildly, because although the New Atheism is really all about class, race, and gender, they say it’s all about religion, and as mentioned above the movement is fuelled by quasi-autistic literalism. Atheism as Dawkins et al define it is bad for the soul. We need a way out.

My list

To finish off, I’d like to propose a counter-reading list for atheists looking to broaden their horizons and gain a better understanding of the past centuries of religion. I do not expect or want these books to turn you religious, but I hope that they will deepen your sense of empathy and give you the foundation of a more nuanced, spiritual, and cultured atheism. This seems like a random collection of stuff with no particular order to it. This is because these are all books that I read on my own journey away from the New Atheism. To some extent reading anything in the humanities will help, but I think these books have a particular kick to them.

To someone trained in the habits of thought characteristic of the New Atheism, some of these books may be unpalatable.6 I advise you not to try too hard to formulate objections as you read. By all means write your elaborate takedown of Roger Scruton, but let his ideas marinate in your head for a while first. Do what Bertrand Russell says: approach new ideas as a true believer, play a game of “hypothetical sympathy” while you discover what leads a person to be attracted to these ideas, and only then, when you understand them from an internal point of view, do you start to separate the wheat from the chaff. You may discover that there is less chaff than you thought.

  1. Scruton, Modern Philosophy

    A summary of the last thousand years of Western philosophy. It will introduce you to whole avenues of thought that had not occurred to you before and explain the main points of the most influential philosophical systems, and especially the role that God plays in them. Rehabilitates mediaeval philosophy (the mediaeval period in general is a common New Atheist whipping-boy). A crash course in the humanities for the philistine. Recommended especially because Scruton is a very intelligent writer whose style is especially appealing to the New Atheist-type mindset, even though he represents everything they oppose.

  2. Borges, Labyrinths

    Another writer whose work is appealing to atheists even though he was a fairly conservative Christian. His reality-bending short stories (the most famous of which are collected in translation in this volume) are a good intuitive introduction to several important concepts in the humanities. “Funes the Memorious” and “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” are especially good. Borges was very influential in science fiction, and if atheism could be said to have its own literature, SF would be it.

  3. Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

    An influential and compulsively readable early work of sociology. It provides an introduction to the stock-in-trade of that most maligned of sciences and also explains how the self is not a single monolithic thing, but a much more nebulous collection of narratives and habits that varies by the situation. This is especially useful given my thesis that the New Atheism is largely fuelled by poor social skills.

  4. Vidal, Julian

    One of my complaints about modern atheists is that they’re never quite able to get outside Christianity. They think Christianity is a crock, but they do so from within a worldview entirely framed and defined by Christians. Modern atheism is just a particularly grim and humourless form of protestantism. In this novel Gore Vidal attempts to get outside our tradition by going back to the very beginning and presenting the story of that last quixotic crusader against the ascendant religion. I expect atheist readers will relish this book, and they will learn a lot from it, too.

  5. Davies, Fifth Business

    This is a particularly powerful novel for people who, like me, were raised in a lukewarm religious tradition and later lost the knack. This is a great book—the only great book, perhaps the only possible great book—about the United Church of Canada. This book introduced me to the idea that factual truth is sometimes a red herring; whether the events narrated in the story of the good Samaritan, or Moby-Dick, or even this book actually happened is irrelevant to their cultural import. Trying to disprove religion is like trying to paint mathematics lavender: not just futile, but a fundamental category error.7

  6. Steinbeck, East of Eden

    Perhaps it’s unfair of me to put this on the list, since it’s in many ways such a tiresome read. But it provides the name of this site, and it’s an excellent large-scale religious allegory that does a good job of portraying from the inside why someone might be attracted to Christianity, and how it can comfort the afflicted. I know it’s very long, and some of us can’t read 600 pages containing no digs at paedophile priests. But just read the goddamn thing.

Image credit: Zoe Margolis, CC Attribution 2.0.


  1. Like, a real one. [return]
  2. Demographic studies of religion consistently find that atheists are disproportionately young and male: a Pew study finds that women are more religious than men by several metrics, and analysts confirm that this is consistent with findings over several decades. (Note also what is the top comment at the time of writing: “Women seem to me more gulllible, emotional and to think less logically.”) Atheists are generally younger and male (that’s a summary from an article by Ray and Brown; if anyone is able to find me the full text of the article I’d appreciate it). The American Religious Identification survey found that class is not a factor in atheism, age and gender are (link is to landing page for a PDF). I’m not sure how you’d quantify subclinically poor social skills, but I’m generalizing that from my experience. [return]
  3. This is taken to its most cartoonish form at Less Wrong. LW is a bastion of New Atheism mixed with transhumanist futurism. It’s a community where (on the good side) there are threads for people to ask about all those awkward social situations they’ve never quite understood, and (on the bad side) it’s controversial to say that PUAs are terrible people. I once read an LW commenter who claims to wear an elastic band as a bracelet and snap it every time he laughs in order to train himself out of the time-wasting habit. It’s encouraging to see a place where (among other things) people with poor social skills go to make them better, but it’s also instructive to note just how many of these people there are, and where their beliefs are clustering. Disclosure: I am a reader and very occasional commenter at Less Wrong. [return]
  4. It was Stockwell Day of all people who banned them from Canada. [return]
  5. I know from experience that a New Atheist is incapable of reading, e.g., Augustine without wearing gloves and taking frequent breaks. One of the side-effects of their constipated literalism is that they are unable to judge a person’s words without judging the person; they must know where everyone stands on anything, and anyone who mentions Christianity without indicating what he thinks about it is automatically suspect. This makes the study of the relevant periods of history practically impossible.

    The most obviously relevant civilization is the Byzantine empire, which was in a more or less constant state of nominally religious conflict. But you’ll notice that in all the arguments about how many natures Jesus has, the different doctrinal sides divided along regional lines. Likewise, the Blue and Green circus factions (cited as an especially silly example of quasi-religious tribalism in places like Less Wrong) divided on political, religious, racial, and class lines. If Greens were nothing more than “people who wear green”, it would indeed be trivial to transcend the argument. If instead Greens are “those rich robber barons across town who killed my brother”, then I’m afraid we’ve got a conflict that it’s quite beyond Richard Dawkins to solve. [return]

  6. I can distinctly recall, at the age of 13, checking up on the religious status of all my favourite musicians and downgrading slightly those who are Christians. There is actually a site that aids in this process by listing celebrity atheists so you can more easily heap disproportionate praise on Billy Joel. [return]
  7. Besides, everyone knows mathematics is yellow. [return]

3 thoughts on “Apostasy squared: “New Atheism” considered harmful

  1. While I don’t necessarily believe that there’s such a thing as “New Atheism” (at least how you described it), I feel obliged to point out that the job of any author, regardless of the subject, is to sell books. Do I think that people who write inflammatory books are inflammatory in the privacy of their own homes with friends, or when the camera turns off? No. It’s all a persona to drum up sales and interest. Pundits on TV are a prime example of this.

    But if there are any angry atheists out there, I suspect that their anger isn’t due to repressed memories of a lacking high school experience, but rather from the fact that the dominant theologies on this planet have been militant in regard to atheism. There is a spectrum of militarism in religion, from the fundamentalists to the universal churches you spoke of. It comes as no surprise to me that there is a similar spectrum in atheism. Like anything, (politics, religion, etc) some people are bound to be more “in your face about it” for a variety of reasons.

  2. @Ryan:

    Thanks for commenting. I agree that an author is supposed to sell books, and that the overbearing atheist thing is probably just a literary persona in many cases (Richard Dawkins, for example, attends Anglican Christmas services). But the persona is what attracts a lot of people to the cause, and it ends up taking on a life of its own. We must be careful what we pretend to be, etc.

    There are indeed angry atheists out there, and while not all of it can be chalked up to bad experiences in high school (though some of it certainly can), a good deal of it can be chalked up to bad experiences with and anxiety about women. I find that Susan McClary is a very enlightening read here—she likes to talk about the scientistic traditional musicologists who concern themselves exclusively with the structure of the music they study while ignoring the contribution of any musical or explicitly literary narratives, often resulting in the marginalization of female characters and feminine musical utterances. Science=rationality=masculine, after all, and humanities=emotion=feminine. A lot of the “New Atheism” is an attempt to purge feminine-gendered elements from ourselves because that stuff is girly and gross.


    I would not say that “militant atheism” (what a horrible term!) is akin to religious fundamentalism. There are important differences. Richard Dawkins is for all his flaws still a far better influence on our culture than, say, Pat Robertson. “Militant” atheism and religious fundamentalism do have some rather unpleasant things in common, however.

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