Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why We Still Need Atheism

The New Atheists gave blasphemy a bad name. But strong criticism of religion is still necessary, because many false religious dogmas have terrible real-world effects.

In high school, I identified strongly as an atheist. During those years, Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens put out god is not Great (God deliberately lowercase in the hopes of irritating the faithful). I thought these men were sharp and erudite debunkers of unreasoned belief, champions of a scientific, rational mindset that reflected reality. Over the years, I soured on them. Not because I found Jesus, but because what had once looked to me like witty demolition of bad ideas came to seem much more like being an asshole. My understanding of the world became more sophisticated and I realized Dawkins and Hitchens (I had never cared for Sam Harris, the third most well-known “New Atheist”) were wrong about a lot of stuff. At their worst they were bigoted and ignorant, possessing the very qualities that they deplored in the religious. This made them hypocrites and sapped the force from their critiques. 

I also realized that at the core of rationality lay open-mindedness and self-doubt—neither of which was a quality obviously possessed by Dawkins or Hitchens. When Hitchens said, “I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion,” I eventually realized that he was making exactly the kind of dogmatic, evidence-free claim that he attacked religious believers for.  In this case, when a crusader for “rationality” turns out to be highly irrational, they become comical rather than inspiring.

I never stopped being an atheist, but religion itself ceased to preoccupy me. For the New Atheists, religion was the most important negative force in the world. To Sam Harris, Islam was the “motherlode of bad ideas,” and to Hitchens, religion poisoned “everything.” In fact, Hitchens acknowledged that he was not even so much an “atheist” as an “anti-theist,” more preoccupied with proving that religious belief is harmful than showing it to be false. Over time, I realized that it was hard to support the argument that all religious belief is actively harmful and sinister in its social consequences. We have published Christian socialist writing in this magazine that I have found valuable, and there is a lot I like about both liberation theology and Pope Francis. (The current pope is one of the world’s most trenchant critics of capitalism.) Can it really be said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose courageous opposition to racism, capitalism, and the genocidal Vietnam war was rooted in his Christianity, would have done more good if he’d been an atheist? Much of the opposition to the Reagan administration’s support for Central American death squads came from religious groups—the Washington Post reported in 1985 that “to an extraordinary degree, the nation’s churches and synagogues have become the focal point for opposition to President Reagan’s policies on Nicaragua and El Salvador—a grass-roots opposition with passion and political commitment not seen since the Vietnam war.” Compare this record to Hitchens’ support for the criminal Iraq war, and it is difficult to sustain the feelings of moral superiority that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris exuded. 

Over time, perhaps in part because of the success of the New Atheists, having strident atheistic public intellectuals also began to seem less necessary. While the Bush administration was theocratic, with the president declaring that God told him to invade Iraq. Barack Obamaonly went to church when he absolutely had to. Donald Trump pretended briefly that the Bible was his favorite book, before eventually admitting that he considers The Art of the Deal superior. (My suspicion, as a professional Trump biographer who has extensively researched his life, is that Trump has not actually read a book cover-to-cover since childhood.) With some aspects of religion’s role in public life appearing to diminish, controversies over creationism in school and embryonic stem cell research subsiding, and the next generation of Americans being less religious, it was less clear why one would need to talk about atheism, even if one did not believe in God. Indeed, the once-vibrant community of atheist and “skeptic” blogs shriveled over time, with online discussions about politics taking the place of online discussions about religion.

In many ways, this development was healthy. Many young secular types came to understand that economic deprivation, sexism, racism, environmental destruction, militarism, and transphobia were more pressing evils than the “delusion” of a divine creator. A movement to halt the climate catastrophe must necessarily incorporate religious believers, and there is good reason to put off entering into a debate with them over the question of whether Jesus could have ridden a dinosaur

And yet: even though I have spent much less of my time arguing about God in the last ten years, and I think that is healthy, I increasingly feel as if—and I am not alone in this—atheism needs to make a comeback. The religious right in the United States was not, in fact, defeated. In fact, religious conservatives now dominate the Supreme Court, and have recently successfully revoked one of women’s core constitutional rights. Their movement is on the march, and they have a very clear, terrifying agenda that Democrats have proven themselves totally incapable of effectively countering. As journalist Elle Hardy has documented, while young Americans may not be especially religiously faithful, around the world, evangelical Pentecostalism is attracting astonishing numbers of converts, and with it pushing a toxic and often apocalyptic brand of hard-right politics. 

Fortunately, all religious dogma has a major weak spot, in that it is unable to stand up to rational scrutiny. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, produced a rather brutal takedown of the Bible, showing that the arguments for its literal truth simply could not be supported (a project continued in the New Atheist era by the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible). In serious debate between secular philosophers and theologians, theologians generally do not do well. The most effective existing defense of religious faith is in the work of Karen Armstrong, author of The Case for God. But Armstrong essentially admits that religious beliefs are not literally true, and instead defends the value of mythology and storytelling. I think she succeeds in showing that there is some value in stories, but nowhere in her “case for God” does she provide a convincing argument that there is a God. Her argument for God is something like an argument for telling children to believe in Santa. She thinks the truth of the matter is beside the point, because “religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally” and “the story of the lost paradise was a myth, not a factual account of a historical event.” The creation story “was emphatically not intended as a literal account of the physical origins of life.” This has led at least one Christian critic of her work to conclude that Armstrong is “practically an atheist,” because the conclusion of her work seems to be that almost none of theology can be taken seriously as fact, and is valuable mainly because it is comforting: 

Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role of logos. Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.

Personally, I am not sure if it is valuable to have a tool for living “peacefully” with the “injustice and cruelty of life.” It’s in part because I am almost completely certain that there is no afterlife, and I do not think there is a divine judge who will ensure justice is done to evildoers in the next life, that I consider it so necessary to work to make this world less cruel. This gets to the heart of why I think it’s necessary to have beliefs grounded (as much as possible) in rational thought. There can be serious negative consequences that come from preferring comforting delusions. 

Consider what Vladimir Putin has said while menacing the world with nuclear weapons: “The aggressor will have to understand that retaliation is inevitable, that it will be destroyed and that we, as victims of aggression, as martyrs, will go to heaven. They will simply die because they won’t even have time to repent.” In an exchange on Russian state television, when one host said that the “the outcome that all this will end with a nuclear strike seems more probable to me than the other course of events,” the other replied “but we will go to heaven, and they will simply croak.” If there is no heaven, if this is all you get, then it may be less easy to comfort oneself with the prospect of obliteration. 

While it may seem cruel to tell someone who is consoled by the idea of an afterlife that there is no reason to believe one exists (and I certainly wouldn’t advocate going around doing it to the families of sick people), whether one believes in an afterlife or not can affect how one acts in the world. I would argue that this belief can, in fact, devalue life, because if death transports one to a beautiful realm of endless peace, it becomes less obvious why death is terrible. And if it is less obvious why death is terrible, then things that cause mass death may be less objectionable. Putin’s rhetoric uses the afterlife to make peace with an absolutely calamitous outcome that could involve billions of gruesome deaths. The deaths are not really deaths at all. The more wonderful the afterlife seems, the less one may feel compelled to stick around here on Earth.

To me, the actual case for an afterlife is nonexistent, and in fact absurd. (Do chickens have an afterlife? Do the great apes? If not, why does our species get one and every other species doesn’t? Can there be any answer to this that does not depend on simply swallowing dogma?) The arguments for the truth of religion have always struck me as wholly unconvincing (for a rundown of the case for and against, see J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism). Not only can I not believe in God, miracles, prayer, and the afterlife, but I have a hard time understanding how anyone else can once they start applying meaningful scrutiny to their beliefs. 

I don’t personally object to people believing in silly things, but I do think that we need to cultivate a kind of healthy skepticism that causes us to demand that belief systems justify themselves. Perhaps there is no danger in the fact that many people my age seem to believe in astrology and UFOs, but I worry that if people can’t apply the kind of critical thinking tools that immediately expose astrology and UFOs as bunk, they are not going to be able to tell truth from bullshit more generally, and will more easily fall prey to demagogues in the political sphere. Learning to believe things because we have reasons to believe them, and to double-check whether what we believe is actually sensible, is important. 

Importantly, just because you’re an “atheist” or “rationalist,” does not mean you are actually rational or that your beliefs are grounded in scientific evidence. In fact, one of the most zealous crusaders for “facts” and “logic” are peddlers of smears, errors, and hyperbole. (See, e.g., Steven Pinker, Ben Shapiro.) In fact, there is a great danger in self-identifying as a “rationalist” because there is a danger it will imbue you with an unwarranted self-confidence. I always liked the label “skeptic” more, because skepticism sounds a bit more humble and cautious. The skeptic is trying to apply scrutiny to every belief to make sure it’s justified, and tries to be careful about what they believe. If we need a new effort to scrutinize theological claims, then, it needs to learn the correct lessons from the history of New Atheism. Atheists today should not be arrogant and unkind. They should have preoccupations beyond atheism, and not adopt a simplistic monocausal view that treats theism as uniquely poisonous and thereby overlooks the dangers of nationalism. We need to apply the methods of scientific inquiry without “scientism,” i.e., the treatment of science as a body of unquestionable eternal truths. The worst thing the New Atheists did was replicate the flaws of fundamentalist religion through absolute certitude and an impatience with alternate points of view. I am certainly someone who believes that bad ideas need to be aggressively debunked, and I have little patience for, to take one example, religiously-grounded arguments against abortion rights. But I also think one reason people fall for ludicrous nonsense like QAnon is that they are not taught the kind of rigorous critical thinking skills that help them subject propaganda, whether from the church or the state, to proper scrutiny. I do hope for a world in which there is no need for atheists to publicly make the case against theology, because every person will be equipped with the kind of skeptical mentality that will cause indefensible theological claims to crumble and fail to attract converts.

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