Not long ago, I gave an interview in which I said that my biggest problem with so-called New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins is that they give atheism a bad name. Almost immediately, I was bombarded on social media by atheist fans of the two men who were incensed that I would pontificate about a community to which I did not belong.
That, in and of itself, wasnt surprising. As a scholar of religions, Im used to receiving comments like this from the communities I study. What surprised me is how many of these comments appeared to take for granted that in criticizing New Atheism I was criticizing atheism itself, as though the two are one and the same. That seems an increasingly common mistake these days, with the media and the bestseller lists dominated by New Atheist voices denouncing religion as innately backward, obscurantist, irrational and dangerous, and condemning those who disagree as religious apologists.
To be sure, there is plenty to criticize in any religion and no ideology religious or otherwise should be immune from criticism. But when Richard Dawkins describes religion as one of the worlds great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus, or when Sam Harris proudly declares, If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion, it should be perfectly obvious to all that these men do not speak for the majority of atheists. On the contrary, polls show that only a small fraction of atheists in the U.S. share such extreme opposition to religious faith.
In fact, not only is the New Atheism not representative of atheism. It isnt even mere atheism (and it certainly is not new). What Harris, Dawkins and their ilk are preaching is a polemic that has been around since the 18thcentury one properly termed, anti-theism.
The earliest known English record of the term anti-theist dates back to 1788, but the first citation of the word can be found in the 1833 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as one opposed to belief in the existence of a god (italics mine). In other words, while an atheist believes there is no god and so follows no religion, an anti-theist opposes the very idea of religious belief, often viewing religion as an insidious force that must be rooted from society forcibly if necessary.
The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the icons of the New Atheist movement, understood this difference well. Im not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist, he wrote in his Letters to a Young Contrarian. I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.
Anti-theism is a relatively new phenomenon. But atheism is as old as theism itself. For wherever we find belief in gods we find those who reject such beliefs. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz thought he could trace atheism all the way back to Neanderthal communities. Atheism is certainly evident in some of the earliest Vedic writings from the Indian subcontinent. The Rig Veda, composed sometime around 1500 B.C., openly questions belief in a divine creator:
But, after all, who knows, and who can say Whence it all came, and how creation happened? The gods themselves are later than creation, So who knows truly whence it has arisen?
How far back one traces the concept of atheism depends on how one defines the word. The term atheist is derived from the Greek a-theos, meaning without gods, and was originally a pejorative for those whose actions were deemed impious or immoral. To the Greeks, an atheist didnt necessarily reject the existence of the gods. He merely acted as though the gods did not exist or were unaware of his actions. Unfortunately, this historical connection between lack of belief and lack of morals is one that still plagues atheism today, despite studies showing atheists to be, as a whole, less prejudiced, less willing to condone violence, and more tolerant of sexual, ethnic and cultural differences than many faith communities.
In the modern world, however, atheism has become more difficult to define for the simple reason that it comes in as many forms as theism does. An atheist may explicitly reject the existence of a god or gods (this is sometimes called positive atheism), or he may simply consider gods existence to be irrelevant in explaining the nature of the universe (negative atheism). Many atheists might just as easily describe themselves as agnostic, following in the footsteps of the famed English writer Aldous Huxley who rejected the idea of a personal deity yet still sought some measure of spiritual fulfillment. Some atheists are empiricists, arguing that our sensory experience should be our sole source of knowledge; others are materialists or physicalists, assuming that nothing can exist beyond the material realm both reject metaphysics as a viable tool in understanding the nature of being.
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Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and New Atheists arent new, arent even atheists