What do “new atheists” have in common with the fundamentalist Christians of the radical right whom they despise?
Both depend on extremist and simplistic views of right and wrong, creating starkly defined roles of “us” and “them.” Both have visions of a great utopia, where only those who have the right beliefs will be saved. And the two groups are cartoonish versions of day-to-day moderate atheists and Christians. It’s ironic that these new, very vocal and fundamentalist atheists spend so much time arguing against religious beliefs when their own views are just as misguided, fantastical and harmful — just as religious, in a word — as those they claim are the source of all the world’s problems.
Let me be clear that most individual atheists and individual Christians are not the problem. Atheism and religion aren’t inherently problematic. It is when those worldviews are taken to extremes — as “new atheist” leaders Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have done — that the real damage begins.
In his book “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” Chris Hedges points out that the real problem isn’t religion or atheism, it is the false belief that the morality of humanity is collectively progressing. Whether it is purely by scientific knowledge or through being perfect Christians saved at the second coming of Christ, the new atheists and radical right fundamentalist Christians believe we should be marching toward a perfect world made up only of people who have achieved the height of moral perfection.
Such a vision for the future is delusional. All of human history shows we are not entirely rational beings. Using the religious term “sin” applies here, as much as many of us flinch at the word. Another way of describing “sin” is recognizing that humans are not God. We are sinners. We are flawed. That fact is undisputed among all the major religions, though Christian fundamentalists and the new atheists believe we can get rid of our flaws if we only follow the right rules.
The new atheists rail against religion because they say religious people put their faith in that which cannot be proven using reason and rationality. And of course that is true, it’s the very nature of religious faith — it goes beyond reason or rationality.
The new atheists hide from the fact that there are aspects of humanity that go beyond rationality, such as the sense of the infinite or the sacred. Feelings of love or loss. It’s easier for the new atheists to pretend a perfectly rational morality is possible. In the same way, it’s easier for fundamentalist, radical right Christians to believe that only people of their faith will avoid damnation and eternal Hellfire. Fundamentalism in either form dismisses all other ways of thinking as invalid.
If this thinking were merely philosophical or religious obstinacy, it wouldn’t be problematic. The danger is these closed-minded and ignorant extremist views tend to be used to support bigotry and even violent belief systems. The people who hold them also have well-funded public roles from which they promote their views. Just as fundamentalist Christians misuse science to try and claim the world was actually created in six days, the public voices of the new atheists are using scientific racism — “the use of scientific, or ostensibly scientific, findings and methods to support or validate racist attitudes and worldviews” — to justify torture and war.
In particular, the new atheists, just like the radical right’s Christian fundamentalists, are using their public forums as political weapons. Regular atheists or nontheists may be glad to have their views normalized in the public sphere, and that is a welcomed step in the growth of humanity. However, the very vocal anti-religious preachers of the New Atheist movement take it too far. They remove rationality from their speeches and discussions, spouting uninformed diatribes against entire swaths of humanity defending the use of violence and oppression.
We must be wary of any worldview that insists it is the only way and if those believers also insist those who think the wrong way must convert to their “correct” belief system. The fact is, religious faith does not conflict with reason unless it tries to claim scientific truths. Similarly, a worldview based on rationality and scientific evidence should not need to deny transcendence.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.