Recently I came across two articles that came from very different viewpoints, but raised some similar issues. It certainly made me think about how religious and anti-religious movements and ideas can have a lot more in common than you might think.
An atheist is “done” with “new atheism”
From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How “new atheism” slid into the alt-right. From the middle of last year comes this negative assessment of some aspects of modern atheism, from philosopher, columnist and atheist Phil Torres. In summary, Phil has two main objections to trends he sees in the “new atheism”.
Torres is highly critical of some behavioural trends he has seen in new atheism in America.
Some statements on different IQs of different races by Sam Harris, and a drift toward white supremacist views are noted and criticised by Torres.
And he notes many examples of misogynist and sexist views expressed by many new atheists:
- The new atheist “movement” is quite male dominated, and some spokespeople have used unattractive ways of explaining this.
- There have been many criticisms of feminism, often unreasonable and extreme, Torres believes.
- He also briefly alludes to allegations of misogyny, rape and unwelcome behaviour towards women at atheist conferences and gatherings
Torres bemoans the tendency to extreme language, especially in discussion, where defamatory language against opponents sometimes replaces argument against ideas.
Torres says that some of these behaviours have led to an exodus of women from the “movement”.
Torres finds all sorts of evidence that many modern atheists are not as rational as they claim, and are rather somewhat anti-intellectual.
Torres, as a philosopher himself, gives examples of poor philosophy, basically poor thinking. Some new atheists don’t recognise the skills required to do philosophy well, and so denigrate the discipline and philosophers.
Unwillingness to follow the evidence and admit mistakes
The essence of rational behaviour is surely following where the evidence leads, even to unwanted conclusions, and not allowing previous opinions to prevent this. Yet Torres argues, giving examples, many new atheists seem unwilling to recognise and admit errors of fact and bad behaviour in fellow atheists. He accuses alt-right atheist Milo Yiannopoulos of ignoring facts and presenting blatant untruths as if they were true.
Unjustified critiques of religion
While Torres, as an atheist, is no friend to religion, he points out that some critiques of religion, especially of Islam, are not justified by the evidence, and are strategically unhelpful.
Too close to the alt-right
Torres obviously believes that moderate ethics and politics are more reasonable than right wing approaches. He therefore criticises prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Milo Yiannopoulos for right wing views which he believes lead to some of the other excesses he has criticised.
Christian group protests ‘toxic evangelicalism’
Then more recently I saw the headline Christian group plans ‘revival’ to protest ‘toxic evangelicalism’ by Jack Jenkins in Religious News Service. At least a few of the criticisms would be familiar to Torres.
The planned protest is being organised, and/or publicised, by Shane Claiborne, a well known christian activist who has protested US wars and harsh treatment of immigrants, among other things. It will take the form of an old-style “revival”, complete with large tent, to be held in Lynchburg, Virginia in the US, the home of Liberty University, a conservative christian university headed up by well-known right wing christian Jerry Falwell Jr.
Claiborne, and his group Red Letter Christians are critical of Falwell and conservative evangelical christianity generally, on several grounds.
Shane speaks out against “the distorted Christian nationalism that many white evangelical leaders have become known for”, which he believes tends to place patriotism above loyalty to Jesus. Claiborne says Liberty students say they want their school “to be known for its love for Jesus (rather) than its love for Trump.”
Support for war
War is seen as a particularly evil aspect of nationalism. Jesus taught non-violence – love for enemies and turning the other cheek when attacked or provoked.
Social justice and care for the poor
One of Claiborne’s strongest criticisms of Falwell is for his apparent lack of interest, and even opposition to, several justice issues clearly mentioned in the Bible:
- unwillingness to protect the vulnerable, as Jesus urges on us in a parable in Matthew 25:31-46;
- lack of concern for the poor and an apparent bias towards the rich, again contrary to Biblical teaching, by Jesus, his brother James, and the apostle Paul.
Support for Donald Trump
Falwell has been a strong supporter of Donald Trump, despite his documented weaknesses, that you might expect to arouse a conservative christian’s ire. Some of Trump’s statements have been widely perceived as tolerant of white supremacism and racism, and demeaning to women.
But Claiborne and the others plan their “revival” won’t target Falwell directly. He said: “We’re not there to vilify Jerry Falwell (Jr.), we’re there to lift up Jesus — and that itself is the critique of toxic evangelicalism.” Their target is far wider than Falwell personally, but “the state of evangelicalism in America”.
The commonalities are obvious
Both Torres and Claiborne see the movements or ideas they are committed to being overtaken by forces and ideas they regard as negative – principally a distorted nationalism and shades of misogyny, racism and white supremacy. While I imagine they are polar opposites in their beliefs about God and Jesus, they share many ethical values. Which I find interesting.
Where to from here?
I don’t know what Shane Claiborne will do next after his “revival”. I imagine he will continue as an activist, speaker and writer, and I don’t suppose he will stop at the one protest. We shall see.
But Phil Torres has suggested a few ways forward for concerned atheists in Beyond “new atheism”: Where do people alienated by the movement’s obnoxious tendencies go from here? (It is reassuring to note that he received thousands of expressions of support for his first article.)
Join an organisation that values science, facts, and moral thoughtfulness
He suggests the community at Effective Altruism, but there would be many others, both atheist and christian.
It is easy, perhaps a universal human trait, to be more confident of our opinions than the facts warrant, so Torres urges avoiding being too confident. However while I think this is wise advice, it can leave us paralysed to take effective action on important issues.
I think the right balance is to be practically confident enough to act while still accepting we are not certain (see Logical truth and psychological truth.
Too often we generalise, especially when engaged in debate with those we strongly disagree with. We tend to oversimplify and demonise our opponents.
Christians are surely as prone to this as atheists. But discussion would be more pleasant and more fruitful if we could be more charitable.
Most of us, apparently, are very selective in what we read and where we get our news. We like tohave our beliefs reinforced, not challenged.
Torres advocates greater curiosity about alternative ideas, and greater recognition that others’ experience may truly be very different to our own.
Put epistemology before ideology
Torres says: “This means caring more about the truth, as best we know it, than one’s prejudices and preferred beliefs.”
This dictum can be scary for christians, many of whom have been taught to have faith in their dogma, even against the apparent evidence, on the basis that their dogma is more likely to be true. These christians do care about truth, but they need to work out how to pursue truth when they believe it can come through revelation, intuition and authority as well as experience and evidence.
Having said that, it seems to Torres, and to me, that many atheists are little different, holding certain dogmas with faith-like certitude.
Torres believes too much atheism is addressing less important issues, when it should be facing up to major global challenges such as climate change, species extinction, and so on.
I can’t help feeling christians could do well to follow this advice. Our ethical concerns sometimes seem curiously truncated.
Be morally thoughtful
Torres suggests we shouldn’t just value education and being smart, but should see “empathy, sympathetic concern and the sense of justice (or fairness) as our ‘core moral dispositions’.”
He says: “Perhaps the formation of a newer atheist movement that both talks the talk and walks the walk will turn me, once more, in to the optimist that I want to be.”
Again, I can see this as a christian value too – in fact more as a christian value, because christians seem to have a stronger logical basis for objective ethics than atheists can have.
Perhaps we may see, in some quarters at least, greater cooperation between thoughtful atheists and progressive christians. I can agree with most all that Torres puts forward as his way ahead. I simply don’t accept his apparent view that religion inevitably is part of the problem. Like Claiborne, I think it is toxic religion that causes the problems, not genuinely following Jesus.
This is not to minimise the differences in belief. I believe Torres is sadly mistaken in his atheism, just as I presume he would think the same about me. Our differences are substantial and important, crucial even.
But if we all want to live in a civil and thoughtful society, jointly combatting some of these excesses seems to be helpful.
What do you think?
Photo: White supremacists clash with police in Charlottesville, USA (Wikimedia Commons)