Claim: “I’m an atheist but … “

Andrew Brown is at it again, when faced with the God claim, both he and I have reached the same conclusion (no God), but beyond that there are a few things that he sometimes writes that I cannot go along with, but that’s fine, it is what I expect, atheists are a bit of a mixed bunch. The fact that we have reached the same conclusion on one specific topic need not imply that we agree on anything else at all. Anyway, within his latest article, he writes about his response to an interview he conducted with Philosopher and ‘new atheist’ Daniel Dennett.

Now lets pause for a tic, what was that term “New Atheist” what exactly does that mean? (OK, most of you know, but not everybody does).

New Atheism is the term used to describe the ideas promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett) who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” Yes indeed, I agree – the promotion of ideas that are simply not true deserve to be criticised and so when confronted with such claims that they should not be given a free pass. Does it really matter? I’d argue that it does because bad ideas that are left unfettered will often result in bad behaviour such as homophobia, intolerance, misogyny, and sadly even violence.

Clearly Mr Brown disagrees, and that is the primary message of his article, but I also get the impression that he does not quite get it, or as he puts it by describing his conversation with Danial Dennett …

…I won’t try to deconvert anyone …

… I said something to the effect that new atheism seems to me to reproduce all the habits that made religion obnoxious, like heresy hunting. He asked what I meant, and I gave the example of “atheists but”, a species of which he is particularly disdainful. They are the people who will say to him and his fellow zealots “I am an atheist, but I don’t go along with your campaign.” I’m one of them.

It comes across at first glance as reasonable and ultra tolerant, and in many ways I’m sympathetic with his motivations on this, but alas there are a few flaws here as well…

  • Nobody is attempting to dictate “truth”, there is no official party line for any to sway from, non-belief is just that, the rejection of god claims that have no evidence, it is not an alternative dogma, so no it is not all about “heresy hunting”
  • He does recognise that there are things in religion that are obnoxious, but is apparently quite happy to let that continue and not be challenged. Does he not want to see a better more enlightened and rational world?, where is his empathy for his fellow man?, why is he content to leave people to wallow in superstition?. I’m not suggesting that we should be thrusting non-belief upon believers or picketing outside religious churches, but rather challenging and criticising ideas that rise up in the public square. When such ideas demand special privilege, should we simply bow to that? 

New Atheism is not thrusting  “truth” upon those who prefer religion, but rather is about laying out the facts so that those that wish to do so can see that there are better more rational alternatives.

Debunking the key Myth

Tempting as it might be to stop there, I can’t because there is one key claim that Mr Brown makes that is simply not factually correct, I just have to say something because it is a rather important point that cannot pass unchallenged, he writes…

“New atheism won’t tolerate the freedom to believe in God.”

Nope, that is complete and utter … fiction (yes I was indeed tempted to write another word there). A very basic principle, a fundamental human right, is freedom of thought. People can and should be free to believe whatever they wish, even if it is obvious to everybody else that the belief is nonsense. The very core of new atheism embraces this principle … in fact so does old atheism, there is no monopoly here. What new atheism means is that “belief” does not get a free pass, and while bad ideas will be challenged with criticism and rational arguments, if people don’t want to debate and prefer to be left in peace to practise their belief in whatever way they wish, then as long as they don’t harm themselves or start inflicting it on others, then that’s fine.

Does Mr Brown really think that new atheism is opposed to a rather basic human right? I’d like to hope that he is not that ignorant, and that perhaps he is simply stirring things up to provoke a reaction … which I must admit if that is indeed true, then he had succeeded in doing exactly that with me, and I’m not alone, I can see literally thousands of comments under his article, so perhaps he just earned this weeks pay cheque. Then  again, I have to admit that I just might be wrong, he really might be that stupid.

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