A Plea for a More Progressive Atheism

It has been 12 years since the New Atheism explosion – a renewed conversation regarding atheism, secularism, and the ‘godless’ – commonly associated with the ‘Four Horsemen’: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Publications from these writers, such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is not Great, became hugely popular and energised the atheist debate and questions surrounding faith and rationality. The Four Horsemen’s critique of religion wasn’t limited to faith however: religion itself was treated almost as a disease, an evil that needed to be forcefully pulled from society. The common conclusion was that understanding the scientific method would simply eradicate the role of religion in society – a simplistic understanding of the category of ‘religion’, to say the least.

This afternoon, Richard Dawkins took to Twitter to share a blurb he has written for a recent publication on Islamophobia:

I found this worrying to say the least, and my frustration has compelled me to write this post (which I will try to keep brief for everyone’s sake). Dawkins simplisticly draws a line in the sand between ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’, where Muslims are people and Islam is an “obnoxious ideology.” This is a confusing and harmful statement.

In the academic study of religion, there has been a shift towards the notion of ‘lived’ or ‘vernacular’ religion – where religion isn’t viewed as simply something people believe, but something people do (works from Leonard Primiano and Graham Harvey on this subject are extremely useful and insightful). This not only encompasses ‘traditional’ rituals but everyday activities: the way in which religion in ingrained in everyday life, and even extends to activities that could be considered secular. For Muslims worshipping at a Mosque, or fasting during Ramadan, Islam is something they do, it is life, and above all it is significant. Yes there is faith, but there is also culture, activities, communities, politics, and much more. Religion and people, and Islam and Muslims as a result, are intertwined in a complex way that cannot be simply deconstructed as brazenly as Dawkins’ attempt. His argument that ‘Muslims themselves are the main victims of Islam’ is absurd and frankly patronising. Such tweets aren’t new to Dawkins… here’s one from 2018:

It’s most definitely your cultural upbringing, Richard.

This leads me to my concern with New Atheism and the overall contemporary atheist landscape: superiority and smugness. The implication that other cultures simply “don’t know any better”, that if they could see their faith or rituals from the perspective of these (typically Western, white, and male) writers, they would be cured. It results in an extremely concerning case of superiority, and in my experience has bred hostility in the ‘Faith Vs Atheism’ debate, where reasonable conversation is replaced by ferocious arguments on online forums (for example).

In the interest of full disclosure, I consider myself to be a humanist (as a sociologist of religion I approach my studies of religious communities with a methodologically agnostic approach to questions of metaphysics). I have distanced myself from the term ‘atheist’, and rarely (if ever) describe myself as such. This is in no small part due to the theological nature of the term ‘atheism’, and the fact that I think it is much more affirming to define oneself by something they believe, not something that they don’t (AC Grayling’s Against All Gods makes this case well). But I have concerns about contemporary atheism. The way in which a sense of superiority, while emphasizing ownership of ‘rational thought’, can lead to racism and xenophobia – and could even lead to radicalization (ironically something New Atheism is deeply critical of religion for facilitating).

As a ‘godless’ person, I find it dismaying. I suppose writing this post is supposed to be more cathartic for me than communicating ideas with others, but atheism could be so much better. It is often presented as progressive, forward-thinking, rational, and advanced. But much of the evidence suggests otherwise. If atheist communities want to enrich the world, it has to involve being part of the world. It can’t simply attempt stand to the side with snide remarks, and suggest that religious groups and communities that enrich our culture should simply conform. Our shared world is a diverse and rich environment. With an alarming rise in Islamophobic abuse towards Muslims in contemporary society, Dawkins’ recent statements are not simply worrying – they’re dangerous.

However, Frankie Boyle said it better than me:

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