“The New Atheists,” Ronald Aronson’s cover story for the June 25 issue, drew so much mail, of such variety, we have only now been able to digest it all. Here are some of the highlights. –The Editors
The writings of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens against God and religion are nothing new. But as a Roman Catholic priest, I agree with them about one thing: the in-your-face religion practiced by some is equally repellent.
REV. JAMES A. SUMMITT
I object to the term “new atheists.” Originally, the only ones who used the term were religious conservatives who wished to portray atheism as akin to a trendy fad likely to pass away on its own that should be ignored. I also object on the grounds that it’s simply not true–the “new atheists” who are writing these books have been atheists for many decades. There’s nothing new about it.
Ronald Aronson makes an important suggestion: nontheists who believe in separation of church and state can work with like-minded theists. That is exactly what is happening on Capitol Hill. The first Congressional lobbying organization representing the interests of the tens of millions of nontheists, the Secular Coalition for America, works with religious church-state-separation groups. We have implemented Aronson’s idea that such a group ought to “reorient American thinking about atheists and atheism.” The SCA has also made great strides in informing the public that we, too, are patriotic, ethical and, yes, moral.
LORI LIPMAN BROWN
Director, Secular Coalition for America
Silver Spring, Md.
We need to differentiate between strident “atheist fundamentalists,” who attack all religion, and humanists, who see religion as varied and are eager to work with moderate and progressive Catholics, Protestants, Jews and others with whom they share many values and concerns, such as saving our nation and our planet from the myriad threats facing us.
You don’t have to be an atheist or agnostic to feel marginalized by the overwhelming Christian focus of American culture. Aronson’s final paragraph, where he recognized the need for education about religion and secularism (“the touchiest question of all”), struck me most deeply. If every high school student were required to take such a course, it would go a long way toward awakening tolerance.
The ideas of the new atheists are a rehash of the Enlightenment critique, about 200 years late. The whole notion of “religion” smacks of a particular moment of Eurocentric thought–look at how badly Buddhism fits into that container. The sociological critique that belief systems invest ties between people with meaning and thus make social life possible is lost on these authors, as is the postcolonial notion that science and rationality can be a colonial imposition.
Yes, fundamentalist clinging to the literal reality of myths must be dispelled (although I’d throw both Marxism and the selfish gene in there as well), but it is difficult to take seriously people who discuss the present manifestations of religion without considering some of the global political and economic changes of the past thirty years. The goal has to be to develop communities that are going to struggle to change the world, and some of the cosmologies labeled as “religion” are likely to prove useful in that context. We need a complex strategy of sacralizing what is important (equitable ties between people, a new relationship with the nonhuman world) while being tolerant of what is not so important, and always keeping space open for critique.
We want justice, but the world is unjust. It’s hard to live in a world that promises us no justice. This makes faith in ultimate justice and a God who can deliver it pretty compelling. The “new atheists” need to be reminded of something Marx wrote 150 years ago: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
I am tired of the self-congratulatory happiness with the modern world that most antireligious authors display. Their books are invariably written by successful males with ample inner and financial resources–the “winners” of our market-driven liberal world. I admire these men, but I am tired of their expectation that everyone should be able to celebrate the strengths and be immune to the drawbacks of our modern society. Modernity works for those who have ample family resources, who are entrepreneurial and independent. For those who need some help and support from a caring society, modernity often fails. Blindness to the inability of modern society to meet human needs will ensure that people continue to turn to traditional religions to meet those needs–for community, for meaning, for support, for moral strength. Demanding that everyone be happy with science and an individualistic, market-driven, opportunity society will not result in the demise of organized religion. A compassionate and data-driven concern for understanding and meeting human needs would certainly be more helpful.
Ronald Aronson writes, “Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions.” Many of us have rejected religion because it clearly does not effectively answer life’s questions. Why must these be answered? I would argue that we need to deal with questions that cannot be answered. What we don’t need is another elaborate construct that pretends to answer them.
East Hampton, N.Y.
As an atheist I do not need or want a secular philosophy to substitute for religion. I don’t want any substitute for religion. I hold myself responsible for ethics, morality or whatever makes a responsible person. Any organized substitute inevitably turns into a power structure run by a few whose values may not be mine.
JEAN KEMPER HOFFMAN
I appreciate Matthew Casner’s objection to the term “new atheists.” When I first used it [“Faith No More,” BookForum, Oct./Nov. 2005], I had two themes in mind. First, ours is the first generation of modern unbelievers to have abandoned talking about a march of progress that projects the victory of Enlightenment reason and the demise of religion. Atheism/agnosticism/secularism is not being helped along by history and has to stand on its own. Second, I applied the term not to Sam Harris, the only one of the four authors I discussed there, but to two far more congenial writers (Julian Baggini and Erik Wielenberg), who like myself are less concerned with combating religion than presenting a positive case for disbelief. But despite Casner’s qualification, Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (as well as Victor Stenger, author of God: The Failed Hypothesis) are “new” because their audience is not the small atheist subculture; they have broken through to the mainstream, smashing the taboo on criticizing religion publicly. This is a remarkable achievement.
Thanks to Lori Lipman Brown for calling our attention to the SCA, and especially for noting that it already does some of what I am advocating. Working with religious groups on behalf of the First Amendment is urgently important as Democrats vie with one another to stress their religious faith rather than defend the separation of church and state. I am calling for more: a reorientation among liberal religionists and secularists–yes, believers and atheists–toward each other. We are up against a profoundly antidemocratic tendency. Our common enemy, as the Rev. James Summitt points out, is the kind of fundamentalist-tinged religion that insists that appeals to God should trump constitutional freedoms and democratic deliberation.
To change today’s climate, we need to explore beyond tactical alliances between religious and secular Americans, forging new understandings based on mutual respect and, yes, shared values. Nation readers, both believers and freethinkers, should have no difficulty agreeing: the mutual respect many of us have gained from working with each other politically for a generation should be deepened and made explicit. As Edd Doerr and Steven Sherman wisely indicate, today’s essential issues and movements must connect secularists with people of a religious culture if they are to be successful. This might include the commitment to actually learn about each other’s common and different traditions. I agree with Amy Melton that we secularists and believers of the left can model a new kind of behavior about living with diverse religious/secular differences and commonalities. We will do this by being genuinely “new atheists” and “new believers”–confident in our outlooks, willing to share our doubts, contemporary in our willingness to adapt to new knowledge and in our awareness that divergences of worldviews are inevitable.
Carmela Federico eloquently voices the fact that in our society there are good reasons people turn to religion, and critics of religion who read The Nation should never stop thinking about the human needs that go unmet in our society. Clayton Morgareidge says this in his clear and simple demand for justice and by using Marx’s still-ringing words. To Carmela and Clayton, and to Steven’s good words about creating communities of struggle, I can only say, Amen.
Once we reach this level of analysis it’s time to answer my critics who bristle at my calling for a secular philosophy that answers life’s vital questions. Of course, all of them certainly have their own nonreligious answers. What Jean Kemper Hoffman and Leonard Frank claim to dislike is anything elaborate or organized, but I challenge them to avoid these traps the minute they begin to explain their own nonreligious worldview to their friends or family or children. My own effort to do so, the “new atheist” book Living Without God, is nearly completed and about to go to press. It will present a contemporary secular worldview–an atheist popular philosophy. I hope it stimulates discussion, and that in response other secularists will spell out their own outlooks.