How the New Atheists Hijacked Secularism After 9/11

Of note:

In the English-speaking world today, it is very common for the words “atheism” and “secularism” to be used interchangeably. This is unfortunate because far from being synonyms, the two terms have very different intellectual lineages and refer to very different things. The confusion, as we shall see, has been debilitating for those who yearn for secular governance (among whom are atheists and believers alike).

The most recent knotting of “secularism” and “atheism” can be explained by reference to the history, technology, and intellectuals of the new millennium. Historically, the attacks of 9/11 forced many writers to ponder religious extremism with new urgency. Technologically, this was the moment that digital media was coming into its own. Each passing year of the 21st century exponentially magnified the ability of new social movements to spread their message, mobilize members, and grow their ranks.

Which brings us to the new class of atheist intellectuals that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. These figures were outraged by the violence of militant Islam. They were also stunned by the growing political stature of conservative Christian political movements in the United States. One important voice was the independent scholar Susan Jacoby. Her 2004 book—notice the subtitle—Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was among a slew of texts that casually tied the knot mentioned above.

Then there were the New Atheists, i.e., Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The so-called “Four Horsemen” published fierce smackdowns of religion—and not just the Fundamentalist variants. In the early aughts, they quickly became digital media sensations. Their books not only sold millions of physical copies around the world, but energized a growing nonbelief community on the internet.

Two themes emerge in New Atheist interventions. First, much of their prose was devoted to proving how senseless, illogical, and violent all forms of religion were. Second, they embraced science as an alternative to faith. Their training in fields like evolutionary biology (Dawkins), neuroscience (Harris), and cognitive science (Dennett) made them worthy ambassadors of one of secularism’s core principles. Namely, the idea that public policy decisions should be based on science, rationality, and data.

Curiously, the New Atheists seldom reflected on political secularism and its many variants. When they did, they showed themselves to be proponents of what is known as “separationism.” As Dawkins approvingly observed in The God Delusion: “The [American] founders most certainly were secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics.”

The accuracy of that statement notwithstanding, the New Atheists portrayed their activism as defending aggrieved secular people everywhere. “I think it’s us, plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st,” exclaimed Christopher Hitchens, “who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy.” Joining the fight were countless other nonbelievers, many with digital platforms and training in STEM disciplines.

The result of this intervention, now 20 years on, is that a good deal of the conversation about secularism has been dominated by New Atheist views. This is unfortunate because accusations of Islamophobia, sexism, transphobia, and even a general drift to the alt-right have dogged followers of The Four Horsemen. Yet it is their unyielding animus towards people of faith that has elicited the most anger among religious people across the spectrum. Situated on that spectrum are religious moderates and religious minorities who have traditionally been proponents of secular governance.

The dividend of this all is that, for many, the word “secularism” has become linked with forms of extreme atheism that are hostile to all forms of religion.

How different this is from classical definitions of secularism which center on how a government is to interact with the religious groups under its jurisdiction. In this more traditional understanding, secularism isn’t about metaphysics or anti-metaphysics or God or gods. It’s about how a state is to judiciously govern a polity of diverse believers and, increasingly, non-believers.

Then again, there is no Vatican of secularism. No institution exists which retains the power to decide who is, and who is not, a secularist. If some atheists call themselves secularists, I think there is a moral imperative to respect that self-designation. Media outlets routinely draw this connection, as do conservative religious activists. Accordingly, the equation that prevails in public discourse is “all atheists are secularists,” and vice versa.

For me, the New Atheist embrace of secularism raises an interesting theoretical question: Is there such a thing as a non-secular atheist? I mention this because extreme atheists sometimes advocate ideas that undermine the very secular principles they claimed to be championing.

Toleration has been a staple of secular discourse since the Enlightenment. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris viewed “the very ideal of religious tolerance,” as “one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss.” The impression that the New Atheists—and hence secularists—were deeply intolerant was widespread among their critics. It led many to wonder what they might do if their “secular” state came into being.

The sharpest contradiction between New Atheism and political secularism had to do with basic beliefs about religion’s legitimacy. Hitchens’ catchphrase in his 2007 polemic, God is Not Great, was “religion poisons everything.” He warned his readers that “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction.” Harris averred that religious moderates were every bit as dangerous as a suicide bomber. Moderate religious faith, he insisted, posed a “threat” to our survival.

Few observers of the New Atheists, pro or con, believe that their true intent was to eliminate religion. Yet their rhetoric, performative as it may have been, strongly intimated that goal. This put these champions of secularism in a rather tense relation with the political secularism they claimed to be defending.

The latter has always accorded religion a legitimate place within the social body. Political secularism takes the existence of religion as a given. If there were no religion, there would be no need for secularism!

True, there is no Vatican of Secularism. But there are ways for social scientists to define their terms precisely. Given the New Atheists’ rejection of so many secular principles, they might conceivably be referred to as “non-secular atheists.”

What must be stressed, though, is that their position is extreme among atheists. Most non-believers are not bent on the liquidation of religion even in their rhetoric. They request something entirely different from the secular state. And what they request is basically what religious moderates and religious minorities request as well. All seek freedom from a religion that is not their own.

The secular state is tasked with balancing its citizens’ competing desires for freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The New Atheists had a very different conception of secular governance in mind. That conception disillusioned and even frightened the vast religious mainstream–the very constituency whose support is essential for secularism to persevere in a liberal democracy.

Source: How the New Atheists Hijacked Secularism After 9/11

The cost of unbelief – The Economist


ACROSS the world, people who reject all religious belief or profess secular humanism are facing ever worse discrimination and persecution, but the existence and legitimacy of such ideas is becoming more widely known and accepted. That is the rather subtle conclusion of the latest report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, an umbrella body for secularist groups in 40 countries, which in 2012 began making annual surveys of how freedom of thought and conscience are faring worldwide.

In common with lots of other reports on the subject, it noted that many countries still prescribe draconian penalties for religious dissent, through laws that bar blasphemy against the prevailing religions or “apostasy” from Islam. Some 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy, and in 12 of those countries it is punishable by death. In Pakistan, the death sentence can be imposed for blasphemy, for which the threshold is very low. In all, 55 countries (including several Western ones) had laws against blasphemy; the perceived offence could lead to prison terms in 39 countries and execution in six.

Aside from all that ghastliness, the report detected a new trend, a “marked increase” in the specific targeting of atheists and humanists, which was a kind of back-handed acknowledgement of the reality that such beliefs existed and were spreading. Saudi Arabia had enacted a new law equating atheism with terrorism. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak had branded “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as deviant. And in Egypt, the youth ministry had launched an organised campaign against non-belief among the young, designed to spread awareness of the “dangers of atheism” and the “threat to society” that it posed. Dreadful as it was, this trend could be a negative side-effect of a “different, positive, parallel trend”—the fact that atheism and humanism were being recognised as cohesive world-views.

I asked one of the best-known professed atheists to have emerged from the Muslim world, the exiled Egyptian blogger Mikael Nabil Sanad, what he thought of the report’s conclusions. And Mr Nabil, who was not involved in the report, offered a very similar point about his native country. On the one hand, despite the overthrow last year of an Islamist regime, repression of all minorities, including atheists, is as bad as ever. But, he says, acceptance by society of atheism as a tenable position is growing. Mr Nabil, who recently moved to Washington, DC, told me that in 2008, when he renounced his Coptic Christian background and declared himself an atheist, “it was completely shocking to society”. Now, he says, “society accepts it” as a possibility. For example, there have been television debates between Christians, Muslims and atheists. Last year, a group of Egyptian atheists made some proposals to a committee that was reviewing the constitution; the very fact that such proposals could be aired and reported marked progress in a country where officialdom generally assumed that everybody was Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

Having spent much of 2011 in prison, where he was tortured and went on hunger strike, and then studied for two years in Germany, Mr Nabil says it is unsafe for him to return to Egypt because blasphemy charges have been laid against him. He now hoped to write a book about his experiences and campaign for change in his homeland, where despite the authorities’ best efforts, social media and private communications were still buzzing with discordant and dissident opinions, including atheist ones. There is a broader point there. The fact that dissident religious and anti-religious ideas are being persecuted ever more severely does not mean that the persecutors will prevail.

Instead of atheism, Canadian clergy choose alternative views of God

Douglas Todd summarizes the survey, provoked by United Church minister Gretta Vosper, a self-proclaimed atheist:

Admittedly, the survey captures only the views of United Church clergy, who tend to the liberal side of the theological spectrum. But I suspect they illustrate the main ways most people in Canada think about God:

PanentheismThis was the most common view among active United Church of Canada clergy.

Fifty-one per cent of active UC clergy agreed with the statement: “I believe in the existence of god/God, and that God/god is greater than the universe, includes and interpenetrates it.”

Bott believes this statement illustrates the core tenet of panentheism, an emerging form of theism that is often referred to as “natural theology.” Bott acknowledged he counts himself in this group, citing American Marjorie Suchocki among his favourite theologians.

Recognizing panentheism is a term that combines “pantheism” with “theism,” Bott said he understands it to mean “that God participates with all that exists. When changes happen in creation, changes happen in God. I see God in a dance with creation.”

Classic theism: Thirty-four per cent of active UC clergy hold this classic theistic belief in God.

They agreed with the statement: “I believe in one god/God as the creator and ruler of the universe, and further believe that God/god reveals godself/Godself through supernatural revelation.”

Classic theism is “what most people think of when they think of God,” said noted Bible scholar Marcus Borg. It is generally believed such a Supreme Being can supernaturally, unilaterally “intervene” in the world.

Deism: Deism was popular in 19th-century among European intellectuals. It basically teaches that God created the laws of the natural universe, like a clockmaker makes a clock, and then stood back and let it tick away.

Only 2.3 per cent of active United Church clergy supported the deistic statement: “I believe in the existence of God/god on the evidence of reason and nature only, and reject supernatural revelation.”

God only as a metaphor: Some people think God is at least partly a metaphor for love, truth or beauty.

But just 2.1 per cent of active United Church clergy agreed with the statement: “God is solely a metaphor for what is good in the human condition.”

The finding suggests that, while many think God is an ineffable entity only understood through metaphors, United Church clergy don’t therefore buy that God is not real.

Agnosticism: Only 1.2 per cent of active United Church clergy chose the agnostic option — that they “neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of God/god, as it can be neither known nor proven.”

Atheism: Fewer than one in 100 active United Church clergy were atheists. Only 0.7 per cent agreed: “I do not believe in the existence of God/gods.”

Together these results provides evidence that Vosper is much more rare in the United Church of Canada than she suggests.

It’s why many say that, while there is nothing wrong with “not believing in God/gods,” it’s another thing to proclaim atheism while being paid as a Christian minister.

Nevertheless, Vosper has brought in lawyers to fight the confidential review of her ordination that’s underway in the Toronto region of the United Church. So far, her lawyers have failed to stop it.

The United Church is an extremely tolerant organization when it comes to clergy’s spiritual beliefs. So anything can happen yet.

But if Vosper ends up losing her public platform as a clergywoman in a Christian denomination, she will also lose much of her novelty value to journalists.

She will become just another one of the 4.5 million Canadians who are atheists.

Source: Instead of atheism, Canadian clergy choose alternative views of God | Vancouver Sun