“The New Atheists” is a term applied to a collection of contemporary writers, polemicists, scientists and intellectuals who cite the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the catalyst for their fervent public criticism of religion and unreason.
Many accuse the New Atheists of being too militant. Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and prominent atheist, has called them “atheist fundamentalists”. Others have also accused them of being just as dogmatic in their beliefs as the religious extremists they abhor.
Many have argued, and I agree, that the 9/11 attacks, and many other terrorist attacks with apparent religious motivations, were nothing more than political attacks in religious garb.
But does this let religion off the hook? Would the 9/11 hijackers have had the nerve to do what they did without the promise of a paradisiacal afterlife?
What the New Atheists, and most nonbelievers, argue against is not religion alone, but irrationality in general. Mainstream religion just happens to be their most popular target.
And why shouldn’t it be? Sure, there are plenty of other incarnations of irrationality to rally against (i.e. homeopathy, astrology.etc.) But when you compare the amount of astrologers accused of molesting their clients to the amount of priests accused of molesting their underage congregants, it’s hard to justify attacking astrologers with the same rhetorical zeal.
I might not always agree with the aggressive tone taken by some public atheists. But I understand it. As a nonbeliever, it’s frustrating to see human progress retarded in the name of a largely incoherent two-thousand-year-old book I don’t believe in.
Stem-cell research, AIDS prevention, and gay rights, to name a few, have all been halted or delayed in the name of religion, and that’s just in my lifetime.
I’m not allotted enough space in this newspaper for a complete list of religious impediments to human progress.
The fact that I speak my mind about religious extremism does not mean I am intolerant of religious people. I respect my fellow human beings, religious and otherwise; but it doesn’t mean I have to respect what I consider ridiculous, irrational and sometimes dangerous ideas.
I recognize that most religious people are well-intentioned and my brush is not so broad as to regard all Muslims as terrorists or all Christians as Quran-burning jingoists.
And I do feel for the religious moderate. I imagine they’re frustrated when horrible acts of violence are committed against their wishes in the name of their religion. The problem though, like it or not, is that justifications for such acts can be found in their holy books.
The understanding by religious moderates that certain passages of the bible are simply allegorical does not prevent someone else taking the same passages literally.
And unfortunately, since the bible didn’t come with instructions on interpretation, one would not be wrong in doing so.
What the New Atheists want is nothing new at all. They don’t want violence or revolution; they want conversation.
Their tone may be abrasive, but necessarily so. Atheists are a small, underrepresented minority, so it’s no surprise that they use strong words – and importantly, only words – to get the attention of those who refuse listen, and it seems to be working.