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Monday, October 23, 2006

On the New Atheists

In a feature in Wired titled "Battle of the New Atheism," Gary Wolf writes about "the challenge posed by the New Atheists":
We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil.
I'm not sure if that accurately describes the positions of the 'New Atheists' Wolf refers to -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett -- but it's certainly one that I don't hold. I'm an atheist for the simple reason that I have never seen any evidence to prove that God exists, just as I've never seen any reason to believe in the FSM or flying fairies or moons made of cheese. But if there is something I hold sacred, it's individual freedom. And that freedom includes the right to believe in whatever you want, as long as you don't impinge upon the freedom of others with your beliefs.

Thus, I see no reason to object if you believe in Jesus or Allah or Krishna or Mogambo, as long as your beliefs don't have, to use jargon, negative externalities. Indeed, it is the negative externalities I would object to, not religious belief per se. So while I'd condemn the Vatican's opposition to condoms and birth control, and the oppression of women carried out under the name of Islam, or the rubbish the Hindutva brigade regularly rolls out, I would certainly not demand that people stop believing in Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. Any atheist taking a "for-atheism-or-against-atheism" stance risks driving moderates away.

Wolf quotes Glen Slade, an atheist, offering a counterpoint to this. Slade says:
Moderates give a power base to extremists. A lot of Catholics use condoms, a lot of Catholics are divorced, and a lot don't have a particular opinion about whether you are homosexual. But when the Pope stands up and says, 'This is what Catholics believe,' he still gets credit for speaking for more than a billion people.
That's a valid point, of course, and that phenomenon extends across religions. But I'd still hold that attacking the externalities while respecting people's rights to believe in whatever religion they want is the practical way to go.

Dawkins and Dennett are two of my favourite modern thinkers, by the way, and I heartily recommend all their books. The two on the subject of God and atheism that Wolf's article refers to are Dawkins's The God Delusion and Dennett's Breaking the Spell. And though I've linked to it before, let me again recommend that you read this excellent interview of Douglas Adams, in which Adams explains why he is "a radical atheist."

(Wired link via email from reader Aki Kumar.)

Update: Rishi Iyengar points me to this excellent essay by Dawkins from a few years ago: Snake Oil and Holy Water.
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