Thursday, February 9, 2012

Dissecting "How atheism became a religion in all but name"

A dissection ofHow atheism became a religion in all but nameby Frank Furedi.

I was only going to quote mine this for the lulz, but once again I got carried away. Here goes:
It was only a matter of time before someone proposed an ‘atheist temple’, given the religious-like zealotry and dogma of the New Atheists.
Freaking Alain de Botton…

OK, just real quick on this: He didn’t exactly propose an ‘atheist temple.’ He proposed creating great architectural works, like the religious institutions have, but via secular means. It’s an effort to not have these great works only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture.” From that point of view, I agree. Now I haven’t read his book so I can’t attest to the rest of his viewpoint. I’ll back away from that topic slowly now...
There was a time when it was very dangerous not to believe in God. In ancient Athens, Socrates was hounded and eventually executed for questioning the city-state’s gods. Throughout most of history, to be ‘godless’ was considered a form of moral decadence deserving punishment. In the seventeenth century, even John Locke, the great liberal philosopher who promoted the idea of religious toleration, regarded atheism as intolerable. He said atheists should not be tolerated because ‘promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist’.
What’s his point here? It would seem that his point is that he advocating Locke’s position that atheism is intolerable. Not very ‘humanist’ of him. Actually, what is Furedi’s deal? He is a humanist.
Paradoxically, today, when atheism enjoys unprecedented respectability, it is being turned into a new cause. Over the past decade, books celebrating atheism and denouncing belief in God have frequently appeared on bestseller lists. In Western societies, intellectual and cultural life has been very responsive to the arguments of the so-called New Atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, who have discussed at length the moral failings of organised religion. Their outlook is widely endorsed in popular culture. Dan Brown’s mega bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, recycles the dominant cultural narrative that depicts organised religion as complicit in institutional abuse, moral corruption and dishonesty. (emphasis added)
Because it has been and continues to be! Do we even need to spend time outlining this yet again? Ask nearly any atheist, even many of the ‘New Atheists’, if they would care what other people believed IF it was benign and did not cause adverse effects in individuals and groups. ‘Atheist activism’ would be pretty limited if the Catholic Church was not complicit in the active rape of children and the continued conspiracy of cover-ups. Not to mention purposely spreading obscenely incorrect information on contraceptives and reproductive health. There are Fundamentalists the world over of all religions preaching real intolerance and bigotry towards anyone not in the cast of their personal god. Then there are the people that, ya know, kill people for their religion. It kinda puts a damper on things when that happens. OK, so you would still have skeptics debunking woo such as homeopathy and ghosts, but seriously…how awful are THOSE people? /dismissive wank
Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral highground. But what is often overlooked is that the growing cultural affirmation of atheism has been paralleled by a big transformation in its meaning.
It is important to note that, historically, atheism was not a standalone philosophy. Atheism does not constitute a worldview. It simply signifies non-belief in God or gods. This rejection of the idea of a god could be based on scepticism towards the notion of a higher being, an unwillingness to follow dogma, or a commitment to rationality and science. But whatever the motive, atheism reflected an attitude towards one specific issue, not a perspective on the world. Most atheists defined themselves through an assertive identity, whether they called themselves democrats, liberals, socialists, anarchists, fascists, communists, freethinkers or rationalists. For most serious atheists, their disbelief in god was a relatively insignificant part of their self-identity.
All true. The change occurred in the past decade with the rise of fundamentalism and extremism in religion that is a tinderbox of anti-intellectualism, intolerance, and violence. In any event, while I self-identify as an atheist I would hardly introduce myself as such. Not out of fear or any other aversion but I would pick a half dozen other things, if not more, to describe myself before “atheist.” At least when I’m offline. Even if I did primarily self-identify as an what?
Today, in contrast, atheism takes itself very seriously indeed. With their zealous denunciation of religion, the so-called New Atheists often resemble medieval moral crusaders. They argue that the influence of religion should be fought wherever it rears its ugly head. Although they demand that religion should be countered by rational arguments, their own claims often verge on the irrational and hysterical. Of course, there has always been an honourable atheist tradition of irreverence and irreligious contempt for dogma. But today’s New Atheism often expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own. In a simplistic manner it equates religion with fanaticism and fundamentalism. What is striking about its denunciation of fundamentalism is that it is frequently made in the dogmatic, polemical style of those it claims to oppose. The black-and-white world of theological dogma is reproduced in the zealous polemic of the atheist moraliser. (emphasis added)
Let’s see. we have an appeal to emotion in the first emphasized point and false equivalency, in the second. Also…boring. These inflated and false critiques are just getting old.
Of course, the language used by atheist moral crusaders avoids the theological vocabulary of the religious. Instead, it prefers a more scientific-sounding narrative, demonising religion through the idea of medicalisation. In this vein, Richard Dawkins has described religion as a form of child abuse in his book, The God Delusion, and in other writings. He claims that instructing children about hell damages them for life. He claims that ‘religions abuse the minds of children’ and says ‘we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them’.
The claim that religion scars children for life is symptomatic of the tendency of New Atheists to express themselves through the language of victimhood and therapeutic culture. Time and again, they use the idiom of therapy to pathologise religion. Their use of terms such as ‘toxic faith’ and ‘religious virus’ are symptomatic of their medicalisation of strong religious commitment. It has even been suggested that people who have too much faith may be suffering from a condition called ‘religious addiction’. Father Leo Booth, in his book When God Becomes a Drug, warns of becoming ‘addicted to the certainty, sureness or sense of security that our faith provides’. John Bradshaw, one of the leading advocates of the American co-dependence movement, has produced a self-help video titled ‘Religious Addiction’. ‘These tapes describe how co-dependency can set up for religious addiction, and how extrinsic religion fosters co-dependency’, notes the blurb advertising the video.
Personally, I am aghast at Furedi’s dismissiveness of actual psychological problems in some religious belief. Not all religious belief results in psychological disorder. It is an absurd claim and I have only heard some atheists say this. Not all atheists are rational, by the way. As Furedi himself claims above, atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods. It does not equate rationalism. Some are. Some are not. What he is doing is building up a small group of atheist to represent the whole as well as a subset of the many justified critiques of religion to paint it as some massive portion of ‘atheist activism.’ *cough* straw man *cough*

If I may speak for more than just myself I would say that the central point of the recent Atheist (capital “A”) movement is a) for atheists to not be seen as immoral and dangerous people and b) for the political fight against the active, sustained and planned infiltration of religion into the governmental/public sphere.
The New Atheism is very selective about who it targets. So although it claims to challenge irrationalism and anti-scientific prejudice, it tends to confine its anger to the dogma of the three Abrahamic religions. So it rightly criticises creationism and ‘intelligent design’, yet it rarely challenges the mystifications of deep environmentalist thinking, such as Gaia theory, or the numerous varieties of Eastern mysticism that are so fashionable in Hollywood. Since the New Atheism is culturally wedded to the contemporary therapeutic imagination, it is not surprising that it has adopted a double standard towards spiritualism.
First, it is well established that atheism occurs in significantly higher numbers in developed, so-called ‘First World’ nations. The dominant religions that people in these countries are raised in, exposed to, and deal with are the ‘Big 3’ Abrahamic religions. I know I don’t feel comfortable criitiqing Hinduism since I know very little about it. As an American, I also have my hands full with the Fundie Christians. Hinduism, et al simply doesn’t affect me. Second, comparatively, is there a greater danger from people believing that ‘others’ are damned, evil sinners versus Gaia theory? Again, he is using the false equivalency fallacy when comparing these religions. This paragraph is telling if you look into Furedi, his research and his writing for Spiked. A common theme is anti-environmentalism and anti-psychological distress and victimhood.
Historically, atheism has sometimes co-existed with opportunism towards religious and spiritual belief. The French philosopher Voltaire hated religious fanaticism but nevertheless believed that religion was useful for pacifying the masses. In a similar vein, in the nineteenth century, the French social theorists Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte believed that social stability required them to invent a new religion. Invariably, such attempts to construct a secular religion are really about trying to endow human experience with meaning.
This is a weird point for a self-proclaimed Marxist and Humanist to make. Regardless no one, not even Alain de Botton, is actually trying to establish a ‘secular religion.’ It is another intentional misrepresentation and false analogy.
It was inevitable that sooner or later the New Atheist crusade would mutate into a quasi-religion. Alain de Botton’s recently published Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is an attempt to absorb into atheism the current therapeutic and spiritual fads that influence Western elite culture. De Botton has proposed building temples for atheists through the UK. ‘It’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals’, he says. Unlike the New Atheists, De Botton does not adopt an aggressive approach towards religion, which means his attitude does at least contrast to that of Dawkins or Harris.
Not surprisingly, many New Atheists have strongly criticised the idea of an atheist temple. The explicit formulation of ‘religion for atheists’ is abhorrent to those who have made a religion out of their disbelief. But for all that, in all but name the New Atheism has transformed itself not only into a secular religion but into an intensely intolerant and dogmatic secular religion.
Again, false analogy. Someone doesn’t understand the definition of religion and continues to raise the false specter of ‘secular intolerance and dogma.’ Let’s see:

  • a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (Random House Dictionary)
  • belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny. (World English Dictionary)
Nope. Still a false analogy.
As a humanist, I am distressed by the corruption of the idea of atheism. Genuine humanists are critical of the influence of creationism and of religious fanaticism. Yet while attempts to reverse the separation of church and state are always a cause for concern, the real challenge facing humanists today does not emanate from organised religion. Rather, it is now often secular movements that promote the idea that human beings are powerless, vulnerable and victims of their circumstances. So instead of the religious belief in original sin, today we are confronted with the therapeutic claim that children are easily damaged and scarred for life. All the old religious sins have been recast in a secular, medical form. People are no longer condemned for lust but rather are treated for sex addiction. Gluttony has been reinvented as obesity. And envy and avarice have been rebranded as illnesses brought about by our ‘addictive consumer society’.
The real question confronting us is not the status of any god but the status that we assign to humanity. And the most powerful threat to the realisation of the human potential today comes, not from religion, but from the moral disorientation of Western secular culture.
As an atheist and a humanist I am distressed by someone who calls themselves a humanist dismissing the very real problems with the core of religious belief and justifications for religious critique. Again, he is using this hatchet job of an article to promote his anti-therapeutic political beliefs. Are we to return to the good ol’ days of instead treating people for addictions so they are simply condemned? We, as a society (not even a secular vs. religious divide) really are too quick to assign a disorder to everything; however this does not result in a total reversal where we should be dismissing disorders and addictions. Regardless of that tangent, Furedi is attempting to assign blame to atheists, specifically ‘New Atheism’ for this? Even if his point was valid regarding an overly therapeutic culture how is this New Atheism’s or even secularism’s fault?

Once again, atheists are under attack from fear-based arguments like this one. This doesn’t make us victims because we can fight back. We can counter these arguments and stand up for ourselves and others. Furedi’s overly simplistic and political reasons for claiming New Atheism results in victim’s culture and an intolerant and dogmatic secular religion is really just simply pathetic. He also cites nothing! One claim after another is a “because I said that’s what they say” style attack. Hell, I’ll hyperlink to something when I criticize it. His argument is full of various fallacies to create one large appeal to emotion and scare people about some evil secular religion emerging to eradicate Western civilization. The very thing he claims to hate, if you look into his work. Creating fear.

Some people are validly victims of religious indoctrination, intolerance and abuse. Dismissing this is blind, foolhardy, and inexplicable.

Sidenote: To get a feel for’s I suggest you read the ‘related articles’ at the bottom of the original article linked at the top of this post.
For more posts from me on the subject of falsely portraying atheism and antitheism please see: