The A word

I’ve noticed a number of articles in popular journalistic outlets on the “New Atheism” or the “New Atheists” which is (or are) conceived as a “movement.” Usually, these pieces take a critical perspective, even pointing to the “violent extremism” within this alleged movement. In contrast, a new article, which is supportive of “New Atheism,” argues that

It’s time for atheists to move past theoretical questions about the existence of God and onto more practical pursuits – like how to fight for justice.

The atheist community is quickly coming up against the limits of debating whether God is real. The New Atheist movement made a splash in the early 2000s with its brash assertion that the existence of God was a hypothesis that can be examined, debated and critically analyzed like any other, and rejected if the evidence is found wanting. Its critiques, targeting both the feverish imaginings of fundamentalism and the stale platitudes of conventional piety, were as cleansing and welcome as a cool breeze in a stuffy room…

As the atheist community becomes larger and more diverse, attracting a broader range of people from different backgrounds, this is a natural direction for our activism to take. It’s also a step that both atheists and people who care about social justice should applaud, because our alliance makes both causes stronger. Our opposition is largely the same: the socially conservative faction, bolstered by religion.

That’s why the more that the atheist community moves beyond purely philosophical debates to embrace the practical pursuit of justice, the more we can establish a reputation for ourselves as a force for good in the world.

From a distance, and from a speculative position on the matter, I wonder over this argument because it takes for granted the general orientation of the critics of a “New Atheism,” which find it to be homologous to organized religion (i.e., as just another religion, albeit without god). Hence, a few responses:

(1) As long as a variety of medieval monotheisms promote killing in the name of god, I’d say that posing “theoretical questions” [sic] about god’s existence is a “practical” contribution to the “fight for justice,” just as empirically debunking the belief in white or masculine supremacy is a necessary component of anti-racist and feminist politics.

(2) This imagined “New Atheist” movement (rooted in the imagination of people like the author of this piece quoted above) usually boils down to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whose books are apparently on the march.

The real movement is known by a simpler name: modernity.

(3) On the assumption that “New Atheism” or atheists in general are a “community” or “movement,” one must make a case that it/they actually comprise a “group.” So, for instance, three ways of categorizing an atheist group identity are possible:

Category A:
Is there an atheist catechism?
Is there something like an atheist conversion ritual?
Is there an atheist baptism?
Is there an atheist confirmation?
Is there an atheist bible?
Is there an atheist synod?
Do atheists carry identification cards?

Category B:
If the “hard” identifiers in category A aren’t appropriate, perhaps atheists are more like a “subculture”; similar to goths or hipsters, do atheists have an identifiable appearance (vampirish for goths; artistic tattoos, robust beards, and knit caps worn in any weather for hipsters) or lifestyle (The Cure on CDs for goths; Carsick Cars on vinyl for hipsters)? Do atheists follow particular bands? Is there an atheist fashionable “look” (“nogodcore” or “reasoncore”)? Do atheists tend to live in urban areas or are they “back to the land” folk? Do atheists tend to shop at Whole Foods or Kroger?

Category C:
Perhaps atheism is closer to a “preference,” one in a series of likes and dislikes an individual might hold (e.g., “I like unfiltered Camels and microbrews”; “I dislike modern dance and action films”).

If an atheist “group” can’t be defined by the “hard” identifiers from category A or the progressively more “soft” identifiers from categories B and C, what exactly is the sociological basis for the “groupness” of atheists?

Critics and proponents of the “New Atheism” would do well to sort out this question of “groupness” before assuming the existence of such a chimerical animal.

(4) To those who would point to the positive role religion plays in “progressive politics” (such as the Civil Rights Movement of yore), I would suggest some parsing. There are elements of Christianity in the USA that are associated with liberal and/or left wing politics. The difference is that liberal Christianity lends its religious resources to secular ends. In contrast, conservative American Christianists seek to destroy secularism (and modernity in general) and to institute their own particular brand of theocratic government.

One comment

  1. ollytozer

    Couldn’t agree more, I’d also say the term ‘atheism’ in general is now redundant. Atheists do not define themselves by their lack of belief. Just like one doesn’t define themselves as an ‘a-toothfairyist’ on an ‘a-unicornist’.

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