The New Atheists Are Not Atheists Enough
New Atheists are a diverse group. Philosophers, scientists, “public intellectuals” such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris cornered much of the commercial non-fiction publishing market in the early 2000s by writing about the intellectual and moral virtues of to be an atheist. Ironically, many of them are revered in some circles as prophets – media-savvy prophets with a few million Twitter followers.
Yet the new atheism is a controversial movement.
Many new atheists, including Dennett or Dawkins, have been criticized for being too radical. The expression “militant atheist” comes up often. The general concern is that they have little patience or compassion for religious people and the reasons they choose religion.
A second wave of new atheism in the 2010s, championed by philosophers Philip Kitcher or Alain de Botton, sometimes wittily referred to as “atheism 2.0”, is more tolerant. It is atheism with a human face, and its proponents try to engage with religious people on an equal footing and with compassion.
I want to criticize the new atheists – whether they are 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 – in the opposite direction: they are not atheist enough. They offer an alternative to religion that inherits some of the most important characteristics of religion. In short, they inspire us all to have an unconditional attitude towards a cause or a project. They all want us to see ourselves as small cogs in a giant machine.
Here’s Dennett’s advice in a recent interview: “Find something bigger than yourself and dedicate your life to it.” Kitcher’s work on the ethical and other “projects” that people substitute for religious belief can be seen as a sophisticated elaboration of the same idea. Religion is something bigger than us and religious devote their lives to it. Dennett and Kitcher simply replace religion with something else, while leaving our quest for “something greater” intact. In doing so, this new atheist position deviates only superficially from the general attitude towards religion.
Why is it a problem? Because while we all change throughout our lives, the religion or something “bigger” we dedicate our lives to doesn’t change most often. Eventually, there will be a disconnect between who you are and what you dedicate your life to – whether it’s religious doctrine or a new atheist’s “something bigger”.
We are very good at hiding this mismatch. In fact, we are too good. We categorically deny any possibility that we can ever change. Recent empirical findings show that we all tend to think that we will have the same values in five or ten years as we do now. But what happens in real life is that our values change drastically and constantly.
The freedom to change
So what happens when we change, while the “project” to which we dedicate our life remains the same? As we know from cognitive dissonance research, we then spend a great deal of our mental energy hiding this gaping contradiction from ourselves. And most of the time, we do it successfully, but we have almost no mental energy left to do anything else. Certainly not enough energy, for example, to resist everyday temptations – for example to turn off the TV or say no to the next glass of wine. Constantly and actively having to hide major cracks in ourselves is not exactly the recipe for a happy and emotionally fulfilled life.
The new atheism, or at least its more radical versions, has been criticized for misinterpreting why religious people are religious. Just because a rational argument convinced them doesn’t mean a supreme being should exist. Very few people believe anything because of rational arguments – especially when it comes to tricky things. The general idea is that religious people are religious because it fulfills an emotional need they have. The problem is that new atheists — both radicals and the most emotionally sensitive 2.0 atheists — ignore the emotional complications that come with how people change over the course of their lives.
What should we do then? Is there a real, not merely superficial, alternative to both religion and the “something bigger” that new atheists talk about? I suggest that there is a very simple alternative: we should try to avoid imposing a straitjacket on our ever-changing selves – through religious doctrines or through any of those “projects” that new atheists talk about. . We must accept and cherish our freedom to change.
For new atheists, freedom plays a very limited role. You are free to choose what you dedicate your life to, but once you have done that, your life is on a fixed path – no more free decisions. The “projects” of the new atheists, like religious doctrines, impose unreasonably severe constraints on our inner freedom.
The opposite of religion is not slavishly following “something greater” as the new atheists suggest. The opposite of religion is freedom.