Why I am not a New Atheist

Since this comes up now and then I thought I’d put up a quick and short post why I am not a “New Atheist.”

I am an atheist. But I have two major disagreements with the New Atheist tendency. One of them is descriptive and the other is prescriptive.

For the past fifteen years or so I have been strongly convinced that the cognitive anthropology of religion has a lot to say in explaining why most people have historically been religious. The thesis, outlined in books such as In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained, is that humans have strong innate cognitive dispositions which often synthesize together to produce intuitions that dispose them toward belief in the supernatural.

In contrast, a caricature of the New Atheist position would be that religion was written down in a book, and is a meme copied into human brains. As such, it is a meme which can be undone with enough social and cultural suasion. New Atheists, like the village atheists of yore, seem to think one can argue others out of their religiosity.

Fundamentally I do not think this is correct. Nor do I think that religious beliefs have much to do with logic or reason. Religion is a complex phenomenon which is rooted in supernatural intuitions and then evolves further in a cultural context, with some possible functional utility as a group-marker.

Second, I do not think religion is the “root of all evil”, and so see no need to convert the world to atheism. Obviously, the horror of Communism illustrates that removing supernatural religion does not remove the human impulse to atrocity.

More recently, I have been convinced that truth and knowledge is a minor value to most humans, including elites. Lying is pretty ubiquitous, and most people are rather satisfied with big lies girding social norms and conventions. One may try to avoid “living by lies” in private, but actually promoting this viewpoint in public is ridiculously self-destructive. Most people could care less about the truth,* while elites simply manipulate facts to buttress their social positions and engage in control.

In other words, the New Atheists seem to think that it’s a worthy to aim to enlighten humanity toward views which they believe align with reality.

At this point, I care about converting the common man to a true understanding of reality as much as I care about a cow grokking trigonometry. I don’t.

Note: I am not anti-New Atheist either! I think they play a role in the ecology of ideas. Also, I don’t really care if people get their feelings hurt. I hurt feelings all the time. To paraphrase George Constantza, you get a few New Atheists running around, and I’m not looking so bad.

* This includes journalists and scientists. And by “care,” I mean in revealed preferences. Not what people claim privately.

New Atheism is dead, long live New Atheism

Scott Alexander asks How Did New Atheism Fail So Badly? It’s in response to an obnoxiously fact-free Baffler rant. I think what Scott is alluding to here is the lack of fashionability of “New Atheism.”

But in the American context, I do think that New Atheism arose is a particular time and context, George W. Bush’s America, and has declined in salience in another one, where standard-bearer of the Republican party is a cultural Christian at best. The previous President, Barack Obama, was a liberal Christian who admitted that he believed in evolution more than angels.

Today a larger fraction of Millennials are irreligious than they are Evangelical Protestants. The proportion of Americans who said they had “No religion” in 2000 was 8%. Today it is 18%.

Addendum: I think some of Scott’s commenters are correct that the rise to prominence of Islam as something that good liberals need to defend in public, no matter their private contempt for the religion (which they share with me candidly of course), also makes New Atheism kind of less attractive.