New Atheism is a popular topic of late. Propelled by celebrity authors, documentaries, websites, bestsellers, and social networks, the new atheism (versus the old) is decked out in the trappings of the Information Age, with marketing campaigns geared to hip youth, and coffee klatches for the oldsters. New Atheism has dusted off a page from religious evangelism.
For religion it is — every bit as dogmatic and fundamentalist as its purported targets. Atheism’s arguments are otherwise familiar, and many of its points valid as philosophy and cultural critique. But what makes New Atheism different is its probable popularity boost from the September 11, 2001 backlash to other fundamentalisms, namely Muslim and Christian.
Because it is engaged in Anglo-American culture (it doesn’t thrive elsewhere), New Atheism mimics and mocks the concerns of that irony of modernity: the most powerful nations in science and technology are the most predominantly religious in the Western biblical sense. No wonder 9/11 makes New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens despise Islam — and its religious counterparts, fundamentalist Christians. Without these soft targets, however, there is only the discontent and thoughtless masses slogging away at narrow lives of consumption and spectacle, presumably good subjects for missionary work.
New Atheism is another panacea for human discontent — get rid of this or that or the other thing and the world will be perfect, neither modern nor post-modern.
Biologist Richard Dawkins, the chief patron of New Atheism, states in his The Blind Watchmaker:
Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
This is not a new claim. Thomas Henry Huxley stated the same thing a few years after Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origins of Species: “Teleology, as commonly understood,” he wrote, “received its deathblow at Mr. Darwin’s hand.”
Perhaps the “commonly understood” part referred to Christians in general, but few theologians or scientists since then have accepted the notion of a deathblow. Instead, most have seen Darwin’s work as a prompt to deeper and more universal thinking, accepting the mechanics of scientific explanation as dutifully explicated knowledge about nature. Whether out of humility or personality, Darwin himself never made such a claim, either.
Dawkins has written that he converted from his childhood religion to atheism by reading Darwin. But whatever Dawkins means by an “intellectually fulfilled atheist” cannot mean Darwin except in his personal life. The statement assumes that atheism could exist philosophically before Darwin, but not be provable before “science” — that it could not exist intellectually without Darwin, without “science.” By analogy, proofs of the existence of God could exist with Anselm or Aquinas or Paley, but they lacked being “intellectually fulfilled” because they lacked the element of absolute proof that science supposedly carries. Thus science is seen as a necessity to truth, indeed as truth itself. With Darwin, science becomes a new dogma akin not to philosophy or natural philosophy or even theology but to the authority of revelation — a new fundamentalism.
Philosophy has always claimed logic and reason to make its arguments palatable. Scriptural religion, in contrast, has relied on “revelation.” Acceptance of a creed becomes a cultural phenomenon, a social and cultural process. Dawkins himself, back in the 1970’s, wanted to call this process a “meme” but he ignored sociological processes that have already described this phenomenon without reverting to what sounds like a virus or cancer. But New Atheism is not immune to memes, or, rather, wants to infect or inoculate (depending on your point of view) others with a new one. As the ancient Roman naturalist Lucretius knew long ago: “No fact is so obvious that it does not at first produce wonder, nor so wonderful that it does not eventually yield to belief.”
Belief, as in religion. In that basket, we can place New Atheism.
One of the major shortcomings of Dawkins is that he does not place any currents of thought into a context, as if religion, science, atheism, etc., all spring full grown from some vacuum. But everything has a cultural and social context, even an anthropological and psychological one, let alone an intellectual history. For example, in his popular The God Delusion, Dawkins does not mention Nietzsche at all. One would think that the prophetic voice announcing the death of God would catch the author’s attention as a further supporter of atheism to accompany the claim that Darwin was.
But perhaps Dawkins would not want to do this after all. Yes, Nietzsche employs all the polemic style of atheism. But Nietzsche, and not Dawkins, extends the logic of Darwin to its implications for society and power, implications which are inimical to humanity. Following Nietzsche, the individual must not merely understand the genealogy of power but strive toward a holistic transcendence, a philosophical disengagement, in order to achieve self-fulfillment. Granted that Nietzsche entangled will to power with eogism, materialism, and atheism. But he is the first to extend the logic of contemporary science and atheism to its inevitable conclusion, namely that the theory of progress latent in science and evolution theory continue and strengthen an ideology of cultural suppression.
New Atheism wants science to reign as independent, free, and transcendent dogma. But science is, especially now, the handmaiden of the State, of the powerful. Whatever science produces today will be technologized and used against humanity. This is the ominous lesson Nietzsche tried tortuously (and not entirely successfully) to approximate in his late writings. The theory of progress celebrated by the ruling classes of 19th century state and society (and throughout history, for that matter) was self-congratulatory egoism. Progress, technology, and conquest would henceforth be the new weapons of societal control, not conventional religion, which no longer held the modern mind and heart. The ideology of science which informs and energizes the powerful was now to be the death of God. Old atheism was a protest against whoever happened to be in power, though too weak save to change the personnel, not the paradigm.
The new priests are today the captains of industry and finance, the war leaders and their enormous armies and weapons. For to get to this point in history, the capacities of science, technology, and the disciplines that abet them have had to reach a fruition one may call “modernity.” New Atheism differs from the old one in deliberately turning a blind eye to the separation of these interwoven sectors of cultures and societies. Worse, New Atheism deflects attention from the true sources of evils in the world, which New Atheism not only glosses over but strengthens.