In a recent attack on me by a local blogger I was labelled a “New Atheist.” I had never thought of myself that way. After all, like me my atheism is actually quite old. And I prefer to get by with the minimum of ideological labelling anyway – given the ease with which labels are misinterpreted.
However, the term “New Atheism” is being used a lot lately and it’s interesting to ask why. Is there a new atheist ideology? Not that I can see. No, I think the label is being used not to describe ideology but more the style of the current debates around religion. Atheists are now more likely to enter into these discussions. They are more willing to criticise religious beliefs and dogma. They are more likely to criticise the actions of fundamentalist religious believers.
They are more willing to call a spade a spade. And they are more willing to demand the right to have and express such opinions.
In particular they are rejecting the idea that religion has a special immunity from criticism – a “go home free” card. Perhaps that is the “new” feature of today’s atheism.
This insistence on freedom of expression may be a reaction to religious terrorism – especially after the 2001 atrocities in the USA. I think this is only part of the reason. We are also responding to attacks by fundamentalist religion on science and science teaching. After all, creationist/intelligent design proponents have been particularly militant in recent years.
I think people are also reacting to the judgemental imposition of religious “morality “– especially as time after time this has been exposed as hypocritical.
Then there is the derogatory smearing that has been going on. How often have we been exposed to the charge that atheism is “arrogant”? That we are “fools” or “morons.” Or that atheists either have no morality, or cannot justify their morality. What about the minister of religion who charged that atheists do not grieve for the loss of loved ones – that atheists have “little to say at the open grave, other than “get over it, pal”?”
When we aren’t being labelled in such derogatory ways our beliefs and rights are often ignored. New Zealand’s National Statement on Religious Diversity ignores the rights of the non-religious. There are attempts in some countries to legislate a special place for religion, and protect it from criticism. Even at the international level religious groups manipulate human rights bodies to deny the freedom of expression to those who attempt to criticise religious acts which violate human rights.
The claim of a special role for religion, a special immunity from criticism has a corollary. That is that critics of religion must keep quiet, abide by rules imposed by religion and effectively enter into debate with one hand tied behind their backs. Because of course, religion does not abide by these rules, or grant the atheists, the same rights.
So, I think this “New Atheism” label is just an acknowledgement that people are fed up with this special place religion has claimed for itself. We want a level playing field where people cannot hide behind their ‘special’ beliefs.
Level playing field in everyone’s interest
This willingness to call a spade a spade is proving popular. Criticism of religious hypocrisy has become more acceptable judging by book sales.
And this criticism is being noticed by religious people. While many are reacting with the usual ‘straw men’ tactic, others are ‘playing the man, rather than the ball.’ They attempt to discredit the “New Atheists” by describing them as disrespectful, shrill, angry, dogmatic or fundamentalist.
On the other hand there are religious spokespeople who acknowledge that there may be some truth in many of the arguments used by these “New Atheists.” Or that, whatever the truth of their arguments, atheists have as much right as any other group to participate in society and social discourse.
In the end, it is this last approach which will do the most to ensure a place for religion in a modern rational pluralistic society.
militant atheists video (6 min 27 sec)