When New Atheism was born, it served a real and noble purpose. Though open criticism of religion wasn’t unheard of, it was still uncommon enough to be shocking to many people to see anyone publicly calling attention to the dark underbelly of religion – to the privileged status it holds as considered off the table for criticism or the unfounded conflation of piety with morality. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, we could no longer afford to deny the connection between religious fundamentalism and deadly extremism. We could not have an honest conversation about our national security or shared values without acknowledging the damage religion can cause or the risks it poses. Back then, breaking the taboos that protected institutional religious privilege wasn’t just an edgy claim to notoriety; it was a moral imperative.
Another meaningful contribution of New Atheism was to show doubters and non-believers on an unprecedented scale that we weren’t alone. While many of us had remained closeted for years, either from societal or familial pressure or for want of the means to articulate our doubts, the onset of movement atheism all at once gave us the words to express our ideas and the comfort of knowing there were millions of others out there just like us. Books like Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell resonated not only because they made such compelling arguments against the existence of god and the toxicity of organized religion, but because they expressed to the world the observations and objections so many of the rest of us had been seeing and thinking but could not articulate (at least not as succinctly or powerfully. I will never forget the first time I read The God Delusion, the first so-called “atheist” book I had ever read; I must have leapt up and shouted “Yes! That’s it! That’s EXACTLY IT!” a hundred times). We sought out like-minded thinkers in online spaces and formed virtual communities, and some were even emboldened to reclaim their identities within their own communities. We were, if not free of the stigma of atheism, at least no longer solitary in it, and perhaps for the first time we had the numbers and resources to fight it.
That was a long time ago now. For many of us who have been involved in any meaningful way with this movement (such as it is) since more or less the beginning of New Atheism, the bloom is off the rose. Just as certain films and novels that struck us as revolutionary in high school look trite and shallow in the cold light of adulthood, the scriptural counter-apologetics, witticisms about gullible theists, and preening pronouncements about our preference for difficult truths over comforting lies that seemed so clever and cutting-edge 15 years ago are now hackneyed and tired. The problem, as I see it, is that too many New Atheists never matured beyond that initial rebellious phase. They conflate seeing through the god hypothesis with following evidence. They confuse gratuitous insensitivity with being iconoclasts. Besotted with their own perceived wit and what they see as their command of rhetoric, they mistake their atheism for intellectualism.
For my part I was never really interested in the “does god exist or not” discussion, for as David A. Sptiz said, “it is scarcely necessary to disprove what has never been proved.” For a long time my primary focus was on pointing out the disparity between what religion claims – about the rewards of faith, for example – and the reality of the world we live in, not as a means to debunk the existence of god but to expose the ways in which those disparities lead to the rationalization of and indifference to human suffering. I still think exposing this failure of compassion is worthwhile and necessary, but I am no longer naive enough to think that anti-theist activism is a sufficient remedy for what ails humanity, nor that religion is the cause of all that ails us.
Growing up involves self-reflection and discovery. As each person takes a separate path, we arrive at certain destinations at different times, and bypass others altogether. People who are just now questioning or abandoning their religious faith have different questions and needs than people who left years ago or never had it to begin with, which are different still based on whether someone was a casual believer or a fundamentalist, Christian or Muslim, how religious her community is, and so on. It makes sense that much of what made New Atheism appealing to people who were already atheist (more or less) 15 years ago is appealing today to people who are only just now coming into their atheism. In this context the counter-apologetics, self-affirmations, and taboo-smashing still have great value at an individual level. Still, it is a phase that one would expect most to outgrow as they move along their journey, not a place to remain stuck forever, like an aging football captain still repeating the story of his state championship-winning touchdown 30 years later.
I hitched my own wagon to this movement in hopes of creating a world in which ancient superstitions hold no sway over civil laws; where people think critically and make decisions based on objective truths; where minds are changed based on evidence; and where “because my religion says so” is no longer an acceptable justification for hatred or for depriving anyone of their dignity or basic human rights. It has been a sad, disillusioning journey to discover that these are not universal values amongst atheists, many of whom have no more regard for evidence or morality than the theists they hold in such contempt and who seem all too happy to replace religious justifications for hate and bigotry with other, non-divine but equally flawed reasons. If the atheist “movement” cannot live up to its own professed ideals of applying the lens of reason and evidence to the world around us – and most especially to our own selves – it will rightly be discarded, and those of us who still wish to fight for change will do so under another mantle.