The original title for this post was “Why I Am Not a New Atheist,” but I found there is so much confusion about that term and what it means that this was more misleading than helpful. I settled on “Why I Am Not An Anti-Theist,” as this gets to the point more directly without the confusion.
No more sacred cows
In fact, I am starting this post defending new atheism. By new atheism, I mean the kind of outspoken atheism represented by the “Four Horsemen”: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. These four have written books which were notable for their unabashed critiques of religion. There are many others who are what I would call professional atheists making a living writing, speaking and podcasting. For their unvarnished candor they have been vilified by the religious and ironically deified by atheists.
The problem is for some time it has been considered impolite to critique religious beliefs. In many Western societies, religious views are considered private and unassailable. The old adage “never bring up politics or religion in polite company,” exists for a reason. People hear critiques about their religious beliefs as attacks against them as a person. Suddenly in the mid 2000s here were atheists who did not keep their irreligious thoughts to themselves. They had the audacity to publicly call out the flaws in religious beliefs and point out their detrimental effect on society. How dare they!
Atheists present a challenge to the faithful. The reason there are so many false stereotypes taught about atheists is that our existence is a threat. The existence of people who have in fact heard the gospel, understood it and still reject it cuts at a core understanding of the world for the believer. This is one of the reasons believers often quote their sacred text to atheists, because they cannot fathom someone could understand it and yet not believe it. It must be a lack of knowledge. “If only they understood the real gospel.“
So, the reaction to new atheism was predictable. The apologists came out in droves to disprove their arguments. And by ad hominem attacks assure the faithful these angry apostates could be safely ignored. The term new atheist was originally derogatory (even from other atheists). Even though there is nothing particularly new about doubt, atheism or the critique of religion. What was new was the lack of deference to religion and a certain level of audacity.
Atheists have long been telling us that we can be good without God.
The new atheism says that we can be better without God.
— Victor Stenger
For being outspoken and giving cover for doubters everywhere to come out of the closet these new atheists are to be commended. The sacred cow of religious ideas being beyond reproach is dead.
But (you knew there would be a but), if we are being honest sometimes they can be assholes. Sometimes they can attack the believer and not the belief and engage in their own ad hominem attacks. Sometimes they can come across as … well … religious in their fervor. In fact, these are the most often cited critiques against new atheism. Much ink has been spilt defending new atheists against these critiques and yet the critiques persist because of a kernel of truth in them.
Worse still, is the wave of followers who came after. To be clear, I consider myself one of these. Social media amplifies the most vocal obnoxious and angry voices amongst us. It is very easy to be hostile on social media and some have made a career of this. Negativity gets rewarded with shares, likes and retweets. I have certainly been guilty of this myself.
This is what I would term anti-theism, which implies an active attempt to convince believers to abandon their faith. There is a tendency on social media for anti-theism to come to prominence which can start to look like trollling the trolls. It can start to look like an anti-evangelism.
Who is trolling whom?
Let me be very clear, as the position I am trying to convey is nuanced. I whole heartedly believe in secularism. Secularism protects the freedom of religion and freedom from religion. I also believe that religion has had many detrimental effects on society particularly when it gains political power. Religion should rightly be criticized.
However, believers themselves do not deserve our scorn. Most believers were born into it. It takes a tremendous amount of self reflection and honesty to overturn ones deeply held beliefs. If you feel like taking on the professional apologists, go for it. But leave the believers who have not asked for a fight alone.
If the goal is a more secular society
Are there times when believers troll atheists? Of course. I am not suggesting we not defend ourselves. I am arguing that ridiculing believers and calling them stupid is not the most effective way of convincing them.
Even when we use very cool rational logic and reason the backfire effect can stop the believer from hearing the evidence. Let me give you an example. I read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith in 2007 years before my deconversion. My motivated reasoning at the time went something like this:
He sounds angry.
Atheists must all be angry.
But I have peace.
It wasn’t until years later, I read Greta Christina’s blog about why atheists have a right to be angry, and realized I agreed with most of what she was saying. I just happened to be open to rational argument at the time.
If you add to the backfire effect, defensiveness from being insulted, the task for the believer to overcome their indoctrination is insurmountable. If we atheists, either out of exasperation or contempt, come across as mocking we are defeating our own purposes.
I am acutely aware that anti-theist arguments would not have worked on me when I was a believer. I am even more acutely aware that my many family members who are still believers would not respond to this style of argumentation. It takes investment in time, patience and, in all likelihood, the relationship, to provide a safe and comfortable space for the believers in our lives to express their doubts.
Why I Am Not an Asshole
Do I really need to expound on this? People deserve respect regardless of their beliefs. People are more important than belief or non-belief.
If you really want to change the world and change peoples’ minds, love people. I think I heard that from somewhere.
This post is a part of the series Communities of Unbelief. I’ll be writing more about communities of unbelief, some I choose not to be a member of, some I identify with and others I have yet to explore.