This month in Wired there is an article called “The Church of The Non-Believers.” Written by Gary Wolf, he seeks out the people he believes are making the most cogent arguments for atheism. He speaks with people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett. Unfortunately it is a piece that speaks more too bigotry cloaked in scientific rhetoric. The core of the “new atheist”, and I am not sure how new this really is, is more than simply that there is no God. People have been shouting this for more than a few centuries with varying results, admittedly most often unpleasant. Where it gets destructive is they are saying that any religion or belief system that is not based on scientific principles should be extinguished for the good of the world. Since they also believe that religion is for the weak-minded and that people with high intelligence are atheists, it’s a pretty comfortable position. It gets reduced schoolyard retort: “The reason you don’t agree with me because you are stupid. Since you are stupid I can dismiss what you have to say.”
Richard Dawkins says in the article “I think we’re (atheists) in the same position that the gay movement was in a few decades ago. There was a need for people to come out.” A primary difference here being that the objective of the gay movement was not to eradicate all other forms of sexual freedom, but to have the right to enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else. What struck me in reading the article is that to call yourself a new atheist you have to be aggressively and explicitly intolerant of anything someone else believes. To me this puts them squarely in the same camp has Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, The Taliban, and people that assault women outside of planned parenthood clinics. Dawkins even suggests that society has a right to intervene when parents subject their children to “manifest falsehoods.” This was some of the same logic that we used in the US when we tried to eradicate Native American culture and speech in the US. Cultural genocide has been a far more effective practice over the years than the highly visible form we most often read about. Both science and religion can claim more that a little shame in this area.
When I read it, it looks more like the beginning of a moral panic phenomena than anything else. A moral panic is essentially the social bogeyman. They often occur around controversial topics that are seen as some threat to social order. Moral panics also tend to invoke danger to children by some forces either unseen or difficult to target (just as Dawkins feels children should be saved from the parents that subscribe to some form of religion). The internet is a current moral panic. To hear the media tell it, there’s a horde of pedophiles stalking our children with every click they make of a mouse button. Before this, there was the phenomenon of satanic ritual abuse, something with little or no foundation. If you don’t remember this particular moral panic, in which a number of innocent people found themselves in prison, there was a wave of belief in a large highly organized and secret cult of Satan worshipers in the country operating out of places like daycare centers. Prior to this there were moral panics in regards to hippies… and Jews… and television… and radio… and movies. You get the idea, it’s a long list.
Is this in fact the beginning of an unusual form of moral panic that is actually anti religious? The timing and elements would seem to be right. We have a largely unseen enemy, terrorism in the name of religious fundamentalism. There’s absolutely nothing effective the vast majority of the population can do anything about. So we have our faceless bogeyman that the government is putting to use. The version of the belief systems we’re hearing about her generally alien and frightening to most people. Is this fear of Islamic extremists going to translate into a backlash of religion in general? The new atheists are certainly hoping so, and seem eager for the fall so the world can be remade in a nice orderly system of data points that need no debate, or art or daydreaming or inspiration. A world without magic (which makes them strange bedfellows with the religious right freaking out over Harry Potter), inspiration from the unknown, scary stores about goblins and elves and grumpy other-worldly creatures. No more snipe-hunts, no more SETI, nothing but hard core western medicine. The religious or simply imaginative people of the world can be shuttled to some scrublands while the rationalists do the right things. The new atheists don’t have to believe in religion, like other bigots they are already constructing a world that looks like hell to the rest of us.
Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.