Atheism, New Atheism, and accommodationism
In the last post, I discussed my impressions of the current political situation in the United States. In this post, I will cover a bit of my own history, and how I, along with the entire atheist movement was influenced by the writings of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Stenger, who became the vanguard of the “New Atheists.” I’ll talk a bit about the schism that has developed within the atheist movement that threatens what could be the only way out of the situation I discussed in the last post.
To begin with, before atheists and Humanists can do anything about anything, we first have to stop squabbling among ourselves, decide who we really are, what we really want, and how, exactly to go about it. The currently overwhelming opposition we’re facing, both from the religionists and the corporatists is directed, coherent, purposed, and focused. We must be the same, and we are nowhere near being there.
Indeed, we are far better off than we would have been prior to 2004 (the publication of “End of Faith,”) in that we are much better aware of our numbers, and are far more organized, but we are also deeply divided as to how we should deal with the religious, and like the Tea Party, we are squabbling over the wrong enemy. The various Tea Party groups disagree over how to attack the government, when the government isn’t the problem, just as we are squabbling over how to deal with the religious when the religious aren’t the problem! The real problem is the Corporatocracy that’s responsible for creating the divisions between most Americans in the first place.
Unfortunately, we can’t blame them for the divisions between atheists, we did that to ourselves, and we can fix it ourselves by re-focusing on the true problem, not the artificial one we have created. Before I discuss that, perhaps I should take a few minutes and explain what I’m talking about, for those of you who aren’t aware of the deep schism in the current atheist community.
I think my attitude towards religious faith was fairly typical of many of us, prior to the publication of EOF. I made a conscious decision, as a fairly young person, that there was no compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural and certainly none for the existence of the Christian god in particular. For me, this wasn’t a “feeling,” or “belief,” but a cognitive decision based upon a careful appraisal of available information gleaned from both religious and non-religious sources. I agreed with Clarence Darrow, who said: “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” That was over 45 years ago, and nothing I’ve learned since has changed my position in the slightest.
I grew up in the 50’s, when we were all taught to respect each others religious beliefs, no matter how silly they seemed, because, we were told, “faith” was something that was beyond questioning, something that could not be challenged nor denigrated under any circumstances, and, like politics, was outside the realm of things that were eligible for debate. I still wonder how the Jewish kids in class felt when they had to sit with bowed heads while the rest of us recited the Lord ’s Prayer in class each morning, led by a government employee.
I never though much about religion in the years after that, I allowed both of my kids to be baptized in my parent’s church, the one I grew up in, because I saw no harm in it, and I participated in various religious rituals when called upon to do so, which was as seldom as I could possibly make it. In the 70’s, I joined the Masons, as a means to perhaps finally develop a relationship with my father, and even rose through the chairs to become Master of my Lodge in 1983. The Masons, of course, is a quasi-religious organization, but that didn’t bother me much, as I, agreeing with Thomas Jefferson, felt it neither picked my pocket nor broke my leg. By the way, the “G” in the Masonic symbol doesn’t stand for God, it stands for geometry, and I could deal with that just fine.
I left Connecticut in 1992, moving here to Wilmington, into a different world as far as religion was concerned. I don’t recall ever being asked in Connecticut what church I belonged to, but here, it was a common beginning to almost every conversation I had. I was already an atheist in AA, not a comfortable position to begin with, and it was made even less so when the beginning of many conversations was also the end when I would answer the question saying I just wasn’t a religious person. Still, I made as few waves as possible, as I was trying to start a business, establish some roots, and build relationships outside of the normal means that most people use to do that in this culture.
I became increasingly unhappy over the degree of what I considered willful ignorance among the people here, especially over matters concerning evolutionary science, or any kind of science, for that matter. I knew their beliefs were derived from religion, but I still felt they were rather harmless. I wrote a couple of letters-to-the-editor, which led to some polite correspondence with some creationists, bringing the fact home to me that these people really and truly believed the earth was less then ten-thousand years old. I saw that they not only took this nonsense in Genesis seriously, they were actually acting upon it!
Battles were erupting in school boards all over the country as Christians were trying to force creationism, and it’s offspring “Intelligent” design to be taught alongside real science. Of course, all such efforts were squelched by the courts, or by the threat of legal action, but the outgrowth of their efforts were fruitful in that even today, in spite of the law, if evolution is taught at all, it’s covered in a perfunctory manner, not as the foundation of Biology, which it is.
I became involved in these battles, but the real game-changer for me was the publication of “End of Faith” by Sam Harris in late 2004. In questioning and debating creationism, I had been, for the first time, challenging a religious belief, something I had considered a strong taboo for years, and Sam Harris not only encouraged challenging religious belief, he consider such challenges absolutely essential for the survival of civilization.
The first part of Sam’s major premise in EOF, simply stated, was that the social acceptance of belief in nonsense without evidence, or in the face of insurmountable contrary evidence, was the greatest challenge faced by mankind, and he wasn’t just thinking about Islam, either. His second major point was that the so-called “moderates” in any religious group were every bit as dangerous, if not more so than the extremists, because being more numerous, they perpetuated the social acceptance of religious belief. Without the moderates to provide this base of social acceptance, the extremists wouldn’t have a religion to hide behind, whether Moslem or Christian.
Books by Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Victor Stenger quickly followed, all published by major publishing houses, as Sam’s had been. In the past, works with an atheist theme had always been published by minor specialty houses, and received only minor notice, but these books sold in the millions of copies, establishing a market for non-theist works, and for the first time, catching the attention of popular theist writers.
These weren’t purely philosophical works apologetically professing a mildly atheistic position, these were strident calls for challenge and change with titles like the aforementioned “End of Faith,” along with “The God Delusion,” “Breaking the Spell,” God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything,” and “God, the Failed Hypothesis.” These books were read by millions, and led many to question religious belief, and, more importantly, for the first time in this country, to question respect for it! Atheist’s aren’t joiners, for the most part, but the ranks of non-theist organizations like “The Freedom From Religion Foundation,” American Atheists,” and others swelled with those who wanted to do something about the problems pointed out by these “New Atheists,” as they were called in the November 2006 issue of “Wired” magazine.
Let me pause here for a bit of definition. Being an “Atheist,” even a “New Atheist,” does not require, nor does it imply an absolute certitude concerning the non-existence of the supernatural. We leave certitude to the religious, and are content with definitions such as that expressed by Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion:” “Very low probability, but short of zero…. I cannot know for certain but I think that God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there;” or that by Isaac Asimov: “…No, I’m not sure, but I’m sure enough that I don’t waste any more time thinking about it!”
The New Atheists write mainly from a scientific prospective, feeling that the “God hypothesis” is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the real world and can therefore be tested by scientific means. Previous writers, such as the noted Evolutionary Biologist, Stephen J. Gould, considered science and religion as belonging to separate “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA), and science should be restricted to the empirical realm, including theories developed to describe observations, while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.
New Atheism contends that religion does not consider itself a mere philosophy, as Gould would have us believe, but it deals with truth statements about reality that are, indeed, scientifically testable. Religious claims, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, the existence of the soul and an afterlife, and the power of prayer are all truth claims in the real world. Even morals, which involve human behavior, are an observable phenomenon that can be studied; in fact there is a substantial body of research on the evolutionary origins of ethics and morals. Nowhere, the New Atheists argue is it necessary to introduce God or the supernatural to understand reality. Many New Atheists argue that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” when evidence should be present and is not.
Although these positions were not “new,” atheists had been writing on these subjects throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, this was the first time these views had been mainstreamed by being published in best-selling books from major publishers, and they drew a lot of heat from both the religious and the atheist community. The criticism from the religious side amounted to “how dare they?” Seems they could tolerate a little non-belief as long as it was in the closet, out of sight, and didn’t openly take issue with the foundations of religious belief. Somewhat ironic, considering the often-bloody history of religious enforcement of their own belief systems on sometimes reluctant populations, and the zeal with which they advance their own dogma.
From the atheist side, the New Atheists were criticized as being as dogmatic, intolerant, and being the secular version of the fundamentalists on the religious right. The New Atheist position that there was no “common ground” to be found between science and religion was an impediment to organizations like the National Center for Science Education who worked with moderate mainstream Christian groups to achieve common ends, such as keeping the teaching of creationism out of public school systems. Authors such as Chris Mooney (“Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future”) and Barbara Forrest (Creationism’s Trojan Horse, the Wedge of Intelligent Design”) among many others, criticized New Atheists, especially popular bloggers such as Jerry Coyne and PZ Meyers for alienating moderate Christians, and making it more difficult to work with them.
The term “Accommodationist” came to be used, to refer to those who objected to the position taken by the New Atheists, who saw no advantage in working with the moderate Christians, and feel that atheists should direct their efforts towards the elimination of religion itself, as they see that as the best solution to the problem. The following is a quote from Jerry Coyne:
“There is … a strong negative correlation among countries between acceptance of Darwin and belief in God. Countries with high belief in God, like Turkey and the US, have low acceptance of Darwinism. Countries like France, Sweden, and Denmark, which have high acceptance of Darwin, are not very religious. Too, there is an obvious relationship between learning evolution and losing one’s faith. All of this leads me to believe that the real problem with evolution in this country is not creationists, but religion. You can have religion without creationism, but you never see creationism without religion. I think, then, that we will only win this war by either vanquishing religion or waiting for it to disappear in the US, as it has in Europe. There is real room for a discussion on tactics here, but Mooney and Forrest refuse to engage. They’re just too fond of religion, apparently having what Daniel Dennett calls a “belief in belief.””
And so it goes! Another point Coyne makes is that: “Accommodationists like Forrest and the National Center for Science Education have been using the “let’s-make-nice-to-the-faithful” strategy for several decades. What is the result? … American acceptance of evolution has stayed exactly where it is for 25 years. The strategy is not changing minds.”
It’s interesting to me that the New Atheists are called “militant,” “uncompromising,” and “intolerant” for merely taking a firm stand on scientific principles as we understand them. Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead, or he did not, these are clearly questions that can be addressed by science, and in my mind, insisting that this is so is not an “uncompromising” position, it is simply reality. I make no secret of where I stand on this issue, I believe that we should all be working towards the elimination of belief in the supernatural, and I think the polls clearly show that we’re certainly on that track. In the last seven years since the publication of EOF, the percentage of non-believers has increased from around 5% to nearly 20%, with the largest growth occurring within the under-thirty group. Churches of every denomination are losing membership, and it’s the younger generation that’s fleeing in ever greater numbers. Some polls claim that the percentage of non-believers under thirty may approach 35%, depending upon how the questions are asked.
It’s impossible to quantify the effect the New Atheists have had upon these numbers, were most of these people already non-believers and felt free to “come out of the closet,” or is there some persuasion going on. Personally, having spent a good deal of time on various forums and boards in the last seven years, I think it’s a combination of both. Had Harris, Dawkins, and the rest not written, I don’t think we would have established the large atheist population that we have, and we certainly wouldn’t have put ourselves in the position where we could, if united, become a real force in overcoming the problems we face in this country right now.
In 2008, Chris Hedges, the author I mentioned in the first part of this paper (“Death of the Liberal Class”) wrote a book called “I Don’t Believe in Atheists.” Chris, a self-admitted moderate Christian excoriated both groups of atheists, especially the New Atheists, calling them secular versions of the religious right. However, like the New Atheists he is disgusted with the Christian right, going so far as to call it the most frightening mass movement in American history. Even more disturbing for Hedges, however, is the notion which many atheists and liberal churchgoers share, that as a species, humanity can progress morally. There is nothing in human nature or human history to support that idea, Hedges maintains, nor that the flaws of human nature will ever be overcome.
If Hedges is right, if we can’t progress morally as a species, or overcome the flaws of human nature, we are helpless before the corporate oligarchy that hopes to rule us through fear, intimidation, ignorance, and superstition. I am convinced, however, that Hedges is wrong, and there is yet a way out of the situation we seem to have placed ourselves in. I believe it lies with the replacement of superstition with the principles of Humanism, and a discussion of that will be the subject of the last section of this paper.