I was somewhat taken aback recently when I found myself on a list of “kinder, gentler atheists”–most of them women–compiled by a religious historian attempting to distinguish between socially acceptable atheism and the presumably mean, hard-line atheism expounded by such demonic figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. This nasty versus nice dichotomy is wholly an invention of believers who are under the mistaken impression that atheism is a religion in need of a good schism.
The list of “kinder” atheists was compiled for USA Today by Stephen Prothero, an On Faith panelist and professor of religion at Boston University and author of “Religious Literacy” (2007), a lively and incisive account of Americans’ ignorance about religion in general and their own religious history. Pleased as I was to find myself on a list in the company of such other spirited atheists as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the witty, recently published “36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction,” and Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of “Doubt: A History” (2003), it is nevertheless slightly insulting to find your name used not only to place female atheists in a special category but as a foil for a mythical enemy known as the New Atheists. The latter consist, in Prothero’s view, mainly of Angry White Men who believe that all religious people are stupid and that “the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison.”
I don’t mean to pick on Prothero, whom I greatly respect as a scholar of religion (this must be the sort of observation that he considers kinder and gentler), but his piece is a perfect example of all of the distortions of atheism cherished by anti-atheists.
Myth No. 1: The “new atheism” is a phenomenon that differs radically not only from atheism as it has existed since antiquity but from the views held by forerunners of modern atheism, including deists and Enlightenment rationalists, like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who played such a critical role in the founding of this nation. Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. It is this lack of deference, more than anything else, that has outraged religious believers–particularly those on the right–in America. Most have confused their constitutional right to believe whatever they want with the idea that the beliefs themselves must be inherently worthy of respect.
Myth No. 2: Atheists think all religious believers are stupid. It is true that Dennett coined the unfortunate term “Brights” to describe atheists–which does imply that he considers believers dimwitted. But I disagree with Dennett on this point, and so do a good many atheists I know (some of whom didn’t even make the “kinder, gentler” list). I am quite prepared to concede that there are a fair number of intellectually challenged atheists, and I have no interest in arguing about whether the proportion of dunces is higher among the religious. As for the intelligence of religious believers, I doubt that many educated atheists would consider Aquinas, Abelard, or, for that matter, Prothero stupid. What we do think is that their ideas are wrong and irreconcilable with the laws of nature.
One point, however, is indisputable: there is a strong correlation between simplistic fundamentalist beliefs, relying on a literal interpretation of sacred texts, and lack of education. As the level of education rises, the number of people who believe in materially impossible tales such as the creation of the universe in six days; the literal resurrection of the dead; and the Virgin Birth diminishes. That is why fundamentalists have been tireless in their efforts to inject religious teaching into public schools. So it is generally true (although there are of course many exceptions) that the less people have learned about science, history, and different belief systems, the more likely they are to cling to a rigid form of faith.
Nevertheless, education and intelligence are hardly identical. Holders of doctoral degrees, whether in philosophy or biology, are less likely than high school dropouts to believe in the supernatural, but plenty of people with more than 16 years of formal education are quite susceptible to a wide variety of non-supernatural but equally muttonish notions dressed as lamb. One need only consider the number of grownup atheists who are still as entranced as 15-year-olds with the sophomoric Ayn Rand, whose basic philosophy, as expressed in her turgid novels, is that the only proper relation of one human being toward another is “hands off.” History is filled with atheists who have embraced every crackpot notion from eugenics to the desirability of eternal life facilitated not by God but by science. Of course, there have also been a great many religious believers who find that their godly philosophy include racial superiority and the inferiority of the poor. (Let’s not forget the most recent example of a stupid Christian politician, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who thinks that free school lunches encourage the poor and stupid to reproduce.)
What ultimately distinguishes atheists from religious believers, however, is that no intelligent atheist can ever claim that his or her ideas constitute absolute truth.
Myth No. 3: This brings us to the most common false stereotype about atheism–that it is a religion and, furthermore, that “atheist fundamentalism” is as intolerant as conventional religious fundamentalism. Prothero uses the revealing word “genuflection” to describe the supposed attitude of atheists toward the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Other critics of atheism have described these writings as “sacred texts” for atheists. I hate to break it to the anti-atheists, but another crucial distinction between us and them is that we have no sacred, authoritative texts. Dawkins gave me a very generous quote for the jacket of the British edition of “The Age of American Unreason,” in spite of the fact that I have often written (and wrote in this particular book) that I do not agree with him or with Harris about the dangers of “moderate” religion to the body politic. Dawkins is not the Pope, science is not God, and all of these purportedly gentler women in the ranks of atheists are not handmaidens of the Lord. (I should add that Prothero did provide a separate list of “kinder, gentler” male atheists, whose chief qualification seemed to be that they had all struggled to free themselves from unquestioning faith. As someone who, as far back as I can remember–certainly from around age 12–never accepted what I was taught in Catholic school and suffered no pangs of conscience when I realized that I did not believe in God or in any religion, I probably qualify as a “hard” rather than a “soft” atheist.)
Integral to the myth of atheism as a religion is the false proposition that atheists claim to “know” there is no God. Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th-century orator dubbed the “Great Agnostic,” put it succinctly in 1885 when asked a question by a Philadelphia reporter who was trying to get him to denounce atheists. “Don’t you think the belief of the Agnostic is more satisfactory to the believer than that of the Atheist?” the reporter asked. Ingersoll replied, “There is no difference. The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: “I do not know, but I do not believe that there is any god. The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a god: but we know that he does not know. He simply believes. He cannot know. The Atheist cannot know that God does not exist.”
Today, as in the past, atheists can say only that on the basis of the available evidence, we don’t think an omnipotent deity has anything to do with either the ultimate origins of the universe or the ethical dilemmas that human beings confront every day. Indeed, we do not “know” how the first particle of matter came into being any more than believers “know” how God came into being. We admit this. They don’t.
Myth No. 4: Atheists believe that science explains everything. No. We believe that science offers the best possibilities for explaining what we do not yet understand. Science–in contrast to religion–is a method of thought and exploration, not a set of conclusions based on unchallengeable assumptions. Science is always open to the possibility that its conclusions may be proved wrong by new evidence based on new experimentation and observation. Monotheistic religion’s bedrock assumption is the existence of a god who always was and always will be. Atheists (at least those with a scintilla of scientific knowledge) would never claim that the universe always was and always will be.
Myth No. 5: Atheists deny the possibility of “transcendent” experience. They can’t see beyond the material world. This stereotype is partially true, but it all depends on what you mean by transcendent. If the concept is understood, as it is by many religious believers, as an experience that goes beyond and defies the usual limits of nature–including time, space, and the flesh-and-blood essence of human beings, then atheists do not accept the transcendent. But if the word is understood as something that pushes us beyond our everyday experience–that enables us to scale previously unknown heights of love, creativity, or wonder at what other members of our species have created, how could any man or woman of reason deny the possibility? We simply believe that such experience lie within, not outside of, nature.
As an atheist, I highly doubt that my subjective experience differs qualitatively from that of a religious believer who thrills to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Michaelangelo’s David, Leonardo’s Adoration of The Magi, or, for that matter, the immensity of a night sky. I do not have to believe in God, or any supernatural entity larger than myself, to feel overwhelming awe upon holding a newborn baby or upon experiencing the reciprocal, passionate love that comes rarely–the kind of love, as Nietzsche observed, that “compels me to speak as though I were Two.” But I do interpret these experiences differently from a believer, because I do not ascribe any mystical or supernatural character to them. Such transcendent experiences do not make us greater than ourselves; they help us realize our best selves–the best of which our species is capable.
I see very little difference between the religious believer’s insistence on the existence of an immortal soul and the insistence of some secular philosophers and psychologists on the existence of a consciousness or a mind that is, in some inexplicable way, independent of our physical corpus. I do not consider the fruits of our love and labor–which will outlast our finite existence–less valuable because they depend on functioning neurons and because the neurons that produced them will eventually die. This insistence on an independent consciousness, mind, soul, or spirit is a product of human limitation and human arrogance. Because we are the most intelligent animals on the planet, we can imagine our own extinction. We hate that knowledge–atheists and religious believers alike–so we invent a variety of non-material concepts to explain away the inevitable end of a consciousness that depends entirely on our physical being.
Speaking only for myself, I find that awareness of my inevitable extinction enhances rather than diminishes my life. This awareness makes me want to leave something behind, if only a piece of scholarship that will be useful to some seeker of knowledge in a library of the future. I will admit that I am deeply disturbed by the possibility that libraries may become extinct, although the digital world offers a kind of eternal life that neither an atheist nor a religious believer could have predicted when I was a child. The novelist Milan Kundera has written about a number of developments the Creator never imagined–among them surgery and humans’ relationship with their dogs. To that I would add the internet. The digital world, because it is a product of human intelligence, is a part of the nature (for better and for worse) of which men and women also comprise a finite part. To fill our portion of the universe with the best achievements possible, through our love and our work, is purpose enough for a lifetime and requires no transcendence of nature and no afterlife.
As I begin this new twice-weekly column, I invite readers to suggest subjects they would like to read about and talk about. I’m going to be dealing with everything from politics to baseball (the miserable saga of my New York Mets is yet another reason for me to be glad I don’t have a deity to blame), so all ideas are welcome.