I should perhaps begin this piece with an explanation of what “New Atheism” actually is, or at least what it is in the common use of the term. The wave of New Atheism seemed to properly reach the shores in the mid 2000’s, following the publication of books such as The God Delusion and God is not Great. As a very young thinker at the time of discovering the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris (to name just a few), the idea of New Atheism appealed to me strongly. It was sharp, venomous to the opposition and the movements “leaders”, so to speak, were charismatic and extremely articulate, and often very humorous and witty. It was, I have discovered on reflection, nothing more than an intellectual fad for myself – it was “cool” to be a New Atheist, it was smart to mock religion and spiritualism. And it is here where we discover what New Atheism actually is: it is, in essence, anti-theism; it is the belief that humanity would be better off without religion, and for this reason we should work as hard as we possibly can to persuade “believers” to step away from their God/s.
Before the accusations begin to fly around, I must make it very clear that I have not, in any way, converted to a religion. I am still an atheist in the traditional sense of the word – I do not believe in a supernatural creator of the universe, but I’m open to persuasion. But I have, since the age of about seventeen, moved away from the New Atheist movement and am now a rigid critic of anti-theism (for reasons I will explain in this piece, obviously).
It is difficult to know where to begin with such a broad subject, and I must confess that I do not intend to project absolutely every single little detail and opinion on this topic in this blog entry, because – to be completely honest – it would take far too long, and would not be suitable for blog format. However, I will underline what I believe to be the strongest and most obvious critical points against New Atheism/anti-theism. I think an obvious starting point would be the claim that religion is evil, and that humanity would be better off without it.
The argument that religion makes people partake in horrific crimes is, undoubtedly, true – I am willing to concede that point to the New Atheists. However, I always feel as though this argument is – and I can’t think of a better word – political, it reminds me of a tedious session of PMQs. When you watch a theist and an anti-theist debate the atrocities of Religion, what tends to happen is a tennis match of historical dates and figures. The anti-theist will, for example, point out that Religion is responsible for the deaths of everybody in the Crusades, and in response the theist will bring up a figure like Joseph Stalin. You could spend all day listing atrocities done in the name, or at least by the followers, of those two particular “worldviews”. If you were to find a Capitalist and a Communist, and then get them to defend their preferred economic systems against the others, you would find that the debate takes the same direction as the example above: “Capitalism kills people” says the Communist, and in response the Capitalist growls “well look at how many people Communism has killed!”, and the debate quickly turns into a mudslinging match of horrifying statistics. This is not to say that these points are irrelevant, obviously questions on human catastrophe are raised in such debates, and of course serious discussion should be had about such events. However, I do not feel as though these points, or style of debating, are constructive in the argument on whether or not humanity would improve without the aid of religion. To begin with, as I have already pointed out, both sides have had a share of ideologically driven murder. Secondly, and I know this is a cliché argument (but I believe it to be true), tarring everything with the brush is never a useful or truthful exercise, in my opinion. It would be like, as a friend put it, “saying all politics is bad because of Nazism existed”. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I do not think the world would be a better place without religion because, unfortunately, people would simply use another powerful form of community to spread their dogma and commit atrocities. Religions are, obviously, powerful belief systems, and like all belief systems, it can be used by awful people to convince others to partake in their evil agenda, in the same way they can use politics or any other ideology.
There is also a lot of criticism concerning truths when it comes to Religion, and this is greatly exaggerated specifically by the anti-theists. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world”. Of course, whether one is right or wrong should always be what leads the debate. But, I strongly believe that a great landscape has remained unseen by both the Atheists (in particular anti-theists) and a lot of the Religious themselves. First of all, I think the debate around the Holy Books and Science is completely irrelevant. Scientific truth of the world is, to be extremely crude, a different type of truth to those portrayed through holy books such as the Bible. I will not burden you with my analysis of the Bible or other Religious texts, but I will express my conclusion from studying such texts: it is irrelevant whether they are scientifically true or not. The moral of the story, as they say, is still constant. One could argue, as Christopher Hitchens did, that it is irrelevant whether or not Socrates actually existed, because it is his message that truly counts, not his existence. Of course, both the Atheists and the Christians will argue that the resurrection of Christ, for example, does count, because whether or not it was true (in the form of historic and scientific truth) will decide the fate of humanity and the universe. I argue against this theory, simply because there is still a deep symbolic truth within the story of the resurrection, but perhaps this is where me and the Christians part ways. In conclusion, we must accept, whether we like it or not, that religion is open to interpretation; and yet again, we find it impossible tar with one singular brush.
I will conclude this blog post with what I believe to be the most important point of them all, and, as far as I can see, this is my ultimate defence of religion. I feel as though the New Atheists lack an understanding of human history and psyche. And I confess this as somebody who once identified as a New Atheist. Even the earliest beings of articulate man could not avoid the religious question, and even the modern being, with all our technological and scientific advancements, can not avoid it . For thousands upon thousands of years, the idea of God and the supernatural has been present within all societies and cultures. I tend to find, but not always, that the New Atheists bat away this historic pattern with the claim that it was simply a pathetic attempt by uneducated ancient peoples to explain the world. This may be true, but it does not explain why they explained things the way they did – each mythological story from our history contains symbolism and an unnecessary amount of detail, in the form of the stories “plot”. In my opinion, there is a imprint branded on our psyche; there is something that makes us believe there is a divine truth or state of being, which is both above the individual and the collective. I have found that we all believe in God, but a lot of people have simply replaced the traditional concept of God with an “ism”. Political ideology is a great example of this. Many people see Socialism, for example, as some kind of divine way of living.
In part, our society, and what I would describe as the human psyche (the inner self), clearly revolves around symbolism, which is very well represented within religion and mythology. Religion, mythology and spirituality are representations of the human psyche; their messages are archetypal, and often multiple randomly selected religions are more closely related to each other, in terms of message, than we expect. One common link between religions is the message that “life is suffering”. We cannot just withdraw the foundations of religion and spiritual symbolism from society and expect the core messages that have been portrayed through them to just levitate by themselves in mid-air. The truth is that we couldn’t do away with spiritual foundations if we wanted to, for mythological and mystical symbolism is entrenched within our brains. Take marriage as a prime example. Most adults within our society, it seems, are married (or at least they once were). Marriage, when you strip it down to its material basics, is nothing but two signatures on a man-made legal document. But, for some reason, we humans see it as more than just ink on paper. We view marriage as a divine declaration of love, as lifetime commitment, as a holy bond between two lovers. We must differentiate here, for I am not saying that this is evidence of the supernatural. But what I am saying is that the idea of there being something higher than just the material, the idea of God, is clearly present within us all on a psychological basis, and for that reason I do not feel comfortable mocking, degrading or heavily punching the idea of God or the paranormal, because I believe it represents far, far more than just stupidity, gullibility or indoctrination.