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Growing criticism by atheists of the New Atheism movement

We seem to be witnessing a broad reaction against the New Atheism movement by atheists as well as religious believers, whether undermining the idea of a long-standing conflict between science and religion, or taking a critical view of their political agenda. James Ryerson recently examined three new books (including my own) in the New York Times Book Review – a small sample of a growing body of work.

Many of today’s “New Atheists” reprise a nineteenth century argument about the “warfare of science with theology” (to use the title of one of the most well-known books of this genre by A.D. White published in the 1870s). There is a great deal of evidence that this cliché has little historical validity. For example, R. L. Numbers & K. Kampourakis question the idea that religion has obstructed scientific progress: many of the early pioneers of natural science were deeply religious; Copernicus’ theory was not immediately rejected by the Catholic Church (Copernicus held minor orders in the church and a cardinal wrote the introduction); and certain theologically based concepts like “natural law” were crucial for the development of science in the west. While some religious positions conflict with science (Ryerson’s example is “Intelligent Design”), there is little evidence to support a grotesquely over-generalized “conflict myth” regarding the larger story of the interaction of science and religion. If religion and science are not inevitably at war, there is no reason to think that science can serve as a pillar for an atheistic worldview. My own work is less historically oriented; instead it points to several places where those who try to use cognitive science to undermine religion are not necessarily either logically or empirically convincing in their arguments. There is no reason to think that science is necessarily or inevitably on the atheists’ side.

The New Atheism movement is receiving a powerful attack from another side as well — the politics implicit in their worldview. Two books published this year exemplify this critique, in which militant atheism is seen as an anti-progressive “secular fundamentalism.” C.J. Werleman, in The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, himself formerly a militant atheist, describes the New Atheists’ uncritical devotion to science, their childish understanding of religion, their extreme Islamophobia, and intolerance of cultural diversity. All of this provides a rationalization for American imperialism vis-à-vis the Muslim world. Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism shows that atheism is not just the denial of belief in God but is itself a system of belief in a “secular ideology” with a particular cultural and political agenda, an agenda powered by a simplistic view of science and a rationalistic utopianism that “exhibits some totalitarian tendencies with respect to the use of power.” If religion no longer binds society together and undergirds morality, state power must take over. These, and other critics, argue that the “New Atheists” are a major source for the Islamophobia that plagues our nation right now and their ideology can easily be used as the basis for a hyper-individualistic, every man (the gender reference is intended) for himself politics in which the poor and less fortunate are cast aside and forgotten.

Undermining the New Atheism offers no necessary support for religion. There certainly are thoughtful atheists with a nuanced understanding of religion to whom these critiques, including my own, do not apply. The books referred to here do not demonstrate, or even claim, that atheism is false. But they add up to a conclusion that science and rationality are not necessarily on the side of atheism and that atheists cannot simply assert that science and rationality belong uniquely to them. Accepting this should eliminate some of the bitter sloganeering on both sides of the current atheism-theism discussion and so possibly make it more complex and more fruitful.

Featured image: Apples. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Gerald Moore

    A rant by a “Professor of Religion?” Why should anyone take this guy seriously? Smart persons are good at defending ideas regardless of their veracity. They are adept at defending their beliefs. This guy defends his pet theory tenaciously to the point of not considering alternative explanations for the events in question, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence.

    This is a perfect example of someone engaged in advocacy of their beliefs to the point of cherry picking and distorting reality through a process called motivated reasoning.

    Of course there is “a great deal of “‘evidence””” religion hasn’t obstructed science. There is if you’re a professor of religion searching for like minded people writing opinions that align with your own. Writings of religious apologists abound.

    No your compilation of cherry picked opinions of book authors does not “add up to a conclusion” about science and atheism. You have simply scoured the vast literature looking for people who are also trying to support our previously held conclusion. This article is an example of an argument from biased authorities. Theologians who have invested huge resources developing their expertise and defending their livelihoods.

  2. S. N. Smith (@smithottawa)

    Not one mention of Islam’s contribution to science and many of those Muslim scientists were deeply religious and derived their ideas from the Quran.

  3. Ian Cooper

    There’s no such thing as “New Atheism”. Also, atheism is not a movement, nor does it have a worldview: it’s merely a statement of disbelief.

    I realize people of faith are desperate to find some way to undermine atheism, but it’s never going to tear itself down the way you’re hoping it will, because it’s not a monolith – it’s just individuals all saying, in many different ways, that we don’t believe in your gods.

  4. vfilipch

    There is no “growing criticism by atheists of the New Atheism movement” because there is no such movement. This “movement” is an invention of all kinds of religious apologists and all “criticism” is all done by them. And author of this article is just parroting their ridiculous ideas like, for example, assigning ideological contents to atheism.

  5. Jack Magee

    There is no “growing criticism” these are the usual suspects with the same delusions and misrepresentations that they had years ago. C.J. Werleman has been shown time and again to simply misrepresent the targets of his criticism and go on nonsensical political rants that have nothing to do with anything anyone really thinks. This of course has little to do with philosophy of science and everything to do with the far-left politics that these critics subscribe to. What I can certainly believe is that it’s getting louder in their echo chamber. These are people who believe that religion has little to do with the wars in the Middle East, that it’s all politics, specifically, a reaction to “bad” Western policy. Therefore, they must be slandered and stopped at any cost. Anyone who simply views both sides of the debate, and actually looks at what the targets of these books are saying will see I am not far off from the truth. Good luck with that!

  6. Luis Rodriguez

    I must warn you about this new wave of apologists in the social media pretending to be secular social analysts writing impartial reports about
    many subjects including the one related to atheism and religion.
    The author of this article is one of those religious apologists who makes very derogatory remarks against atheism and at the same time pretends to show there is no real problem between science and religion.
    The dishonesty of the author goes as far as to depict the so called “new atheism” as a group of extremists and describes new atheists in
    a serious conflict with the so called “regular atheists”.
    This article has so many flaws and dishonest statements it will be too long to debunk each one.
    It is simply just one more religious attack on atheism and is done with a great deal of dishonesty.

  7. Mini Diaz

    There is nothing good about defending any supremacist ideology conjured up by pre bronze age ignorance…
    wonder why Mr. Jones is…

  8. Carlos

    I’m an atheist. New Atheists are an embarrassment. Religion is not inherently wrong; fundamentalism is, and New Atheists are creation-level fundamentalists.

  9. George Wolf

    There is a dangerous misrepresentation of morality in this article.
    Every human society ever discovered has made rules for itself, regardless of the religion it supposedly professed. We know from things like the Code of Hammurabi that this is be no means something as recent as the “ten commandments.” If it were otherwise, those “rule-less” societies would have quickly torn themselves apart.
    Further, unless the animals we live with behave morally, they would be too dangerous to be around. It appears that morality is derived from empathy, not a rule book. Empathy can be accounted for biologically not only in ourselves but in any vertebrates that live in groups. We can see in what Jane Goodall reported about chimpanzees and Jane Fosey’s notes on wild gorillas. We can see it in YouTube videos of parrots feeding the family dog, or of an old goat leading around a blind horse. I note that creatures as diverse as dogs and parrots learn the rules of the households they live in — even to the point of helping to enforce them! I don’t think they’re capable of reading biblical “morality rules” — unless Mr. Jones has discovered something really different.
    As far as I can tell, religion’s “rules” are actually a ploy to make something more important than empathy. It has allowed slavery, stoning to death of people that didn’t practice sex the way that the community wanted, and the slaughter of people for religious reasons.
    I therefore conclude that at its base religion is itself deeply immoral.

  10. Jack Magee

    Beg your pardon, I’d like to have everyone know that the fact that mine and vfilipch’s comment starts off with the exact same intro statement has to be pure coincidence because I posted soon after this blog opened and there were no comments on it and theirs comes before mine, must have been approved at the same time. This is people saying what everyone is thinking in real time my friends. Cheers.

  11. Human


    The first rule of the movement is that there is no movement.

  12. Steve Greene

    Carlos writes, “I’m an atheist. New Atheists are an embarrassment. Religion is not inherently wrong; fundamentalism is, and New Atheists are creation-level fundamentalists.”

    Proving that even some atheists have drunk the religion Kool-Aid, since they haven’t even got the level of figuring out the elementary principle that since religion is based on making things up that don’t have anything to do with reality (that’s why it’s called “faith”) makes religion inherently wrong. And trying to pretend atheists are religious like fundamentalist Christians are religious is the height, or depth rather, of absurdity.

  13. StupidAtheist.com

    “There certainly are thoughtful atheists with a nuanced understanding of religion to whom these critiques, including my own, do not apply.”

    Good save, Brother Jones.

    You’ve just described the majority of atheists I’ve had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with…

  14. James W. Jones

    I’m glad my blog stirred such passionate responses. However, most of the comments do not refer to things that I actually said. The blog’s purpose was to reflect on a review of my book and two others in the New York Times by James Ryerson and to mention a couple other books on a theme similar to Ryerson’s. Most of what is said here actually alludes to points made in the books Ryerson and I mention. These books, and not my own position, are the object of most of the comments

    My point was not in any way to defend religion. It is a logical fallacy that I have no desire to commit to claim that undermining one position automatically demonstrates the veracity of its opposite and I explicitly rejected that in the text. One does not have to be a religious person to critique certain types of atheism. One of my points was that many criticisms of atheism today are being authored by atheists. Offering some criticisms of contemporary atheism does not entail the truth of anything religious. Both can be mistaken and probably are at that high level of generality (“theism” and “atheism”).

    I do agree with the point made by Ryerson and two books he mentions by historians of science that throughout history, religion and science have not been in perpetual and inevitable conflict. Thus the trope of the chronic “warfare” of science with religion is not well-founded. Given that, my main point was that science does not necessarily support an atheistic viewpoint and it is a mistake to claim that it does. I am not (please note!) saying that science, therefore, supports a religious outlook. Not at all. For example, the findings of cognitive psychology and neuroscience (my own subjects) can be (and have been) interpreted so as to undermine a religious outlook, support a religious outlook, or be neutral in relationship to religion. The last is my position.

    My goal was to clear away some misconceptions (that science and religion are inevitably at war; that science necessarily supports an atheistic philosophy) in the hope of making the theism-atheism discussion more nuanced and thoughtful.

  15. Bill Painter

    The first use of the term ‘New Atheism’ was in this article titled: The Church of the Non-Believers at Wired. The term ‘New Atheism’ was intended as a slur against atheists. Atheists like Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett didn’t coin the term. We should see it as a way for troublemakers to divide atheists.

  16. Nelson Hernandez

    Great nonsense article. Funny how all theist claim that atheist or “new atheist” have a child like understanding of religion. Especially when poll after poll show that atheist as a whole know more about religions that the adherents of those belief systems.

    Also, I haven’t met many atheist who are intolerant of people’s cultures. Only the push of religious belief in social forums. Epic theist fail.

  17. J. M. Flint

    Not very distinguished thinking for a, “Distinguished Professor”. Most you would label as, “New Atheists”, are just not theists (untheists?). The existence of, God, is not even a valid question unless you can parse among the billion+ versions of this entity for which no demonstrable version exists.

    We who are not theists are pissed because of the palpable influence that these organized, toxic, anti-human faiths exert on society. Pick up a newspaper if my point is unclear.

    What one believes is of no concern of mine as long as it does no harm to others. Take a sheet of paper and on one side list all the good things that Abrahamic religions have done for modern civilizations and on the other side the accomplishments of methodical science.

    Ooops, better run down to the campus bookstore for another ream or two.

    Not a theist in an a-temporal sense

  18. northierthanthou

    I do think a lot of the new atheists underestimate the connections between religion and science in religious history. Whether that means religion and science are reconcilable seems a different question. Perhaps the author’s work on cognitive theory speaks more directly to that. For my own part, I worry about the trace of teleology that one finds in a lot of new atheist writing. When people speak of past primitives and the inevitability of a secular future, I reckon that’s a vision of evolution I want nothing to do with.

  19. nikos

    I am a beliver , Greek orthodox christian and believer in evolution etc ,why should i not be ?? and see no inherent conflict between the ‘How’ and the ‘Why’ of life. Nor does the Church .
    I also am depressed at the increasing intolerance shown. Yes religion has often been used wrongly and imposed , but hey secularism is a attitude and belief too, one which i respect but insisting on it is just as ideological as the alternative.
    It does annoy me that no one seems to look at those societies that have experienced official atheism ,such as russia etc over 70-50 years and the suffering , destruction and killing ,that was carried out specifically in its name . The millions killed by Stalin etc.
    No i am not claiming that to be an atheist is to be a killer or to believe in God makes one moral. ,without trying.
    No , i am only saying that there is no Get out of Jail card, either marked ‘religion’ or ‘atheism’ , we all must keep trying and showing mutual respect and failing every day and getting up to keep on trying .
    I do not want to force anything on anybody , hopefully my life will influence or not , but neither do i want a secular atheistic ideology where God is banned, but denial of ,not forced on me as a neutral phenomemon. It is not , it is a belief equal to mind and deserving respect but a belief , respect mine ,i respect yours . We are alk human .

  20. Matijas

    Steve Greene, with all due respect, you don’t have the fundamental understanding and knowledge of the meaning and definition of religion and faith and thus you make a classic atheist strawman.

    Religion is simply a form of worship, therefore, everything and everyone can be a religion and it can be organized or not.

    Definition of faith, as apostol Paul wrote it: “Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld.” (Hebrews 11:1)
    Therefore, true faith is not credulity, that is, a readiness to believe something without sound evidence or just because a person wants it to be so. Genuine faith requires basic or fundamental knowledge, acquaintance with evidence, as well as heartfelt appreciation of what that evidence indicates.

    The so called “New atheism” is a movement, and a toxic and a dangerous one, and that’s why many atheists consider it cringe worthy.
    And no, atheism doesn’t hold some sort of monopoly on science and by itself, is not scientific, it’s merely a worldview, it only hides behind the pretense of science and rationality (which doesn’t mean it isn’t or it is, it just isn’t by default).
    Btw, my mother is an atheist and she is one of the most moral and tolerant human beings and she detests the way modern atheists are behaving.

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