The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World

March 19, 2010

Last week, in my first blog post, I wrote that there are major problems with how Americans view the relationship between politics, morality, religion and belief. In that piece, I focused mostly on the shortcomings of the typical liberal response to the relationship between religion and politics, barely touching on other secularist responses. This week, I'd like to outline the problems I have with one well-known response to the typical liberal camp: the pure atheists. While these atheists have aired many quality arguments against religious belief, and pushed dialogue on religion and its relation to politics, there are too many shortcomings to form an approach based on atheism.

Starting in 2005, American public was hit with a fresh wave of secular thought criticizing organized religion and religious faith. It started with Sam Harris’ 2004 book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” Soon after, Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion,” 2006) and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” 2007) published books similarly critical of religion. Moreover, in 2006, Harris penned a rejoinder to his book, “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Religious critique of this kind wasn’t contained to bookshelves, either -- the Web exploded with blogs, podcasts, and self-made YouTube videos. Perhaps the most prominent Web-based atheist is the biologist P.Z. Myers, who runs one of the most-read atheist blogs, Pharyngula.  

Many have called these authors and their followers the “New Atheists” -- practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief. These atheists were not content to disbelieve and go on with their lives; they also wanted to let religious beliefs know they were wrong (though it should be added it is not like these men broke into homes; they sold books and wrote blog posts).

But this new, bold assault on religion did bring many secularists out of the woodwork. What made the wave somewhat unique was a call by men such as Dawkins and Myers to organize around atheism and sharp rhetoric. A year after his book was published, Dawkins launched the Out Campaign. Lamenting that too few atheists were public about their disbelief, Dawkins started the operation in an effort to have atheists stand out and become visible as atheists, loud and proud. Dawkins even designed pins and t-shirts with the scarlet letter “A,” a symbol of someone’s atheism, to be worn in public. P.Z. Myers jumped on board with the movement, arguing at the Beyond Belief Conference in 2007 it was imperative for atheists to out themselves as such.

There has been, as one would expect, bountiful criticism of the arguments found in the “New Atheist” books, and the philosophical merits of atheism. Aside from that, it is generally agreed that some good did come from these books in that they pushed important issues to the public. However, an issue that received less focus was a more strategic one: the fact that many atheists were defining their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism. Oddly enough, Harris picked up on this observation. In 2007, he gave a talk called "The Problem With Atheism" at the Atheist Alliance International conference, describing some tactical problems with formulating a movement based on atheism. Pulling from his observations and my own, what exactly are the problems with the atheistic approach to the world?

First: what is atheism? By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes “God definitely doesn’t exist” or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first problem with atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.

This brings us to the second problem: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer. As the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has noted, the larger predicament we face is uncritical adherence to ideology -- a problem that spans more than just religion. From birthers to Tea Partiers, from climate change deniers to conspiracy theorists, there is a lot of unhinged thinking out there. The approach must be more comprehensive.

The third problem with atheism is the tendency of adherents toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief, thinking that anyone who believes in God or other religious claims is stupid. In fact, neither of these men believes all religious people are stupid, as they have both written and spoken about how a large problem humanity faces is that very smart people can cordon off certain beliefs -- for example accepting all the benefits of the modern life sciences but rejecting the what underwrites it, the theory of evolution.

However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer). This attitude has trickled down, as well: for their followers, too often pride has led to arrogance -- and not arrogance about the specific position on religion, but general intellectual arrogance at that. There is not enough room or time here for an exhaustive sampling, and a quick visit to Myers’ blog, or YouTube to watch some clips from Hitchens or Dawkins would give you a better insight, but consider some of the following: Hitchens has charged that Christianity is a “wicked cult”; Dawkins has said that “it is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane”; and Myers has publicly desecrated a communion wafer and called the WWII Pope Pius XII a "sniveling rat bastard."  And these are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Dawkins has called for even sharper rhetoric (note: the first post is a Jerry Coyne story; scroll the comment 16 for Dawkins' input). While these statements might be true, aren’t there more sophisticated, thoughtful, and inviting ways to put them? Do these statements make discussion attractive to other parties? Does it allow for progressive discourse?

This brings us to the fourth problem: the purely atheist view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together. It is seemingly as divisive as seeing the world as a Catholic and nothing else. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found -- and kindled -- more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing mostly or even entirely on theism divides us too cleanly on religious affiliation. Defining oneself as an atheist gives off the impression to those who do not define themselves as atheists that you have nothing in common. There are many good things included in religion (to be sure, they are found elsewhere and many are a product of the evolution of human nature) that cut to the core of human experience -- community, fellowship, awe and wonder, a desire to transcend yourself and do collective good. To stand opposed to all religion is to give off the impression you deny these. As Harris noted in his talk:

“Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at a moment like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment -- with peaks and valleys and local attractors -- and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.”

In short, the atheist approach does not serve to unite a broad group of people together for progressive dialogue or progressive change.

The fifth problem with atheism is that people have the tendency to see the atheist approach as “against” and not “for.” Of course, one cannot debunk or be against anything without really being for something. We are seemingly only able to critique if we have something to weigh the critiqued belief against. When Hitchens rips apart a religious idea, he is surely tearing something down -- but he is doing so because he values evidence, reason, critical thinking, science, democracy, and more. Yet the term atheism doesn’t tell others the reasons for critique.

We need to move beyond atheism. I am not arguing we ought to avoid admitting who we are (I am an atheist). I am also not arguing all atheists want to organize their lives around atheism. But many do, and given what I have said, it seems to be a mistake. Instead, it would seem smarter to look at the world more comprehensively (1).

One place where these atheists have gotten it right is in pushing for religious belief to undergo the same scrutiny all other beliefs do -- the argument that unfounded moral and ethical beliefs should receive critique similar to that for unfounded scientific or historical beliefs. So while one can believe and act with a free conscience, their beliefs are not free from scrutiny. As we have seen, not all secularists line up on that, and it is worth noting how valuable this contribution is. But it doesn't make atheism the desired approach.

To be sure, this is not an exhaustive account of the atheist approach, but I think it provides enough material to at least question whether any atheist approach is worthwhile.


1. Of course, we can’t just snap our fingers and make labels disappear. We do need to use words of some sort. I have argued elsewhere that humanist, freethinker, secularist, and skeptic -- which all tend toward atheism but are not explicit in their denial and are more comprehensive -- seem much better words to me. But still, we’re stuck on labels. The truth is, it is near impossible to tell someone the enormity of our beliefs with one word. It is even hard to imagine a single word defining our beliefs about such broad topics as religion or politics. We see atheists and Christians and Democrats and Republicans at war, but they are not. Those two sides agree on more than they let on. But even if we need to have labels, that doesn’t make all labels equal -- and I would surely rank atheist below any of the labels listed above.