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Why “Atheism +” gets a B-

Graham Veale
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Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris imply that religious faith is the root of all evil. That sets  a simple goal for New Atheists – remove religious faith from politics, the academy and the public square, and the world will be set to rights. Their civilized and urbane demand for the end of religious freedom has animated many atheists and launched a myriad of blogs, forums and conferences. It might also contain the seeds of New Atheism’s first schism.

The icons of new atheism tend to be old, privileged white guys- not the best image for a movement advertising the need for radical change. Furthermore, some feminist writers and bloggers did not receive the welcome they expected from the wider new atheist community. One stated that she did not “feel safe in this community”; another received abusive and threatening messages when she had the temerity to suggest that it is a little uncomfortable to be propositioned by strangers in elevators.

Their perception was that New Atheism was a boys club that lacked a coherent social agenda. So, “Atheism +” was born. Let the reader understand: “Atheism +” does not wish to prescribe what other atheists should believe and it does not reject the New Atheism. Furthermore, we must not confuse “Atheism +” with “Atheism 2:0”. The latter rejects religious worldviews and doctrine but wants to keep ritual and tradition. That’s like asking for sugar-free chocolate or liver without the vitamins.

What is distinctive about “Atheism+”? Well, what it says on the tin. Its participants wish to build on New Atheism; hence the “plus”. They are

  • Atheists plus we care about social justice,
  • Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
  • Atheists plus we protest racism,
  • Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
  • Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

We grant “Atheism +” a ‘B-’ grade because its founders realise they cannot build the future by tearing down tradition. New Atheism alone cannot  cure prejudice and discrimination.  The ‘plus’ sign indicates that something is missing from the vision of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. So, planting new roots in feminism, “Atheism +” pursues social inclusion and an end to elitism.

However, these newer new atheists need to clarify their relationship with the older New Atheism. “Atheism+” has a moral agenda, so it needs a robust justification for its moral vision. Specifically, if “Atheism +” is to prescribe how others must behave, it must provide convincing grounds for objective morality. Dawkins’ and Harris’ crude scientism won’t help them. For Dawkins morality is a blessed mistake, a means of gene propagation. There is no objective good or right in his world.

Harris thinks that we can build morality on the fact that rational beings would  prefer not to live in a world of endless, purposeless suffering. They would prefer to create a world in which sentient beings flourish. But how should we define “flourishing”? By the amount of satisfaction that people have? By the pleasure that they feel? Or is it the virtues that they cultivate? There seems to be no way to measure and compare these values.

Harris faces deeper problems: he can’t derive obligations and duties from our preferences. In fact, he suggests that we abandon the concept of duty. How, then, can anyone prescribe what others ought to do? Furthermore, evil is deeply chaotic and self-destructive. The preferences of other rational beings will matter not a whit to an evil person in a universe of no moral purpose. Finally, Harris cannot give an account of the moral value of the individual human. So should we trample on the rights of the few to maximize the flourishing of the many?

While their quest for political tolerance is admirable, we also have to ask if “Atheism +” is only interested in giving secularists freedom from religion. Crucially, “Atheism +” needs to provide rational grounds for religious freedom. This is significantly more than the freedom to one’s own private opinion under one’s own roof. Religious freedom includes the right to express our religious views in public life, to live out our life in accordance with the truth, to meet with others in acts of worship and to raise our family in our faith.

Religious freedom does not imply that any one religion is true or that all religion is good for society. It simply acknowledges that humans are religious by nature and should be allowed to pursue religious truth without harassment. The problem is that the New Atheists can give no grounds for religious freedom. If religion is a delusion, we have no moral or intellectual right to indulge it. If a religious upbringing is as abusive as paedophilia, then society has a duty to protect children from it.

Religious persecution will be one of the greatest problems of the twenty-first century. The New Atheists have no answer if their solution to religious conflict is to eliminate religion. What will “Atheism +” have to say? So far, they have not addressed this issue in depth. When that changes, and when it clarifies its relationship to scientism, this new movement might be worth listening to. Until then, we can only give it marks for effort.