The new atheists are a diverse bunch. Philosophers, scientists, “public intellectuals” such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris cornered much of the non-fiction trade publishing market in the early 2000s writing about the intellectual and moral virtues of being atheist. Ironically, many of them are revered in some circles like prophets – media-savvy prophets with a couple of million Twitter followers.
Yet, new atheism is a controversial movement.
Many new atheists, including Dennett or Dawkins, have been criticised for being too radical. The phrase “militant atheist” is often thrown about. The general worry is that they have little patience or compassion for religious people and the reasons why they choose religion.
A second wave of new atheism in the 2010s, championed by philosophers Philip Kitcher or Alain de Botton, sometimes wittily referred to as “Atheism 2.0”, is more tolerant. It is atheism with a human face, and its proponents try to engage with religious people on equal footings and with compassion.
I want to criticise new atheists – whether 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 – from the opposite direction: they aren’t atheist enough. They give an alternative to religion that inherits some of the most important features of religion. In short, they all urge us to have an unquestioning attitude towards some cause or project. They all want us to think of ourselves as little cogs in some giant machine.
Here is Dennett’s advice in a recent interview: “Find something bigger than you and devote your life to it.” Kitcher’s work on the ethical and other “projects” people substitute for religious belief can be seen as a sophisticated elaboration of the same idea. Religion is something bigger than us and religious people devote their life to it. Dennett and Kitcher merely replace religion with something else, while leaving our quest for “something bigger” untouched. In doing so, this new atheist position only superficially moves away from the general attitude towards religion.
Why is this a problem? Because while we all change throughout our lives, the religion or whatever “something bigger” we devote our life to most often doesn’t. Eventually there will be a mismatch between who you are and what you are devoting your life to – regardless of whether this is a religious doctrine or some new atheist’s “something bigger”.
We are very good at hiding this mismatch. In fact, we are way too good. We flat out deny any possibility that we might ever change. Recent empirical findings show that we all have a tendency to think that we will hold the same values in five or ten years as we do now. But what happens in real life is that our values change radically and constantly.
The freedom to change
So what happens when we do change, while the “project” we devote our life to remains the same? As we know from research on cognitive dissonance, we then spend much of our mental energy hiding this gaping contradiction from ourselves. And most of the time we do so successfully, but we have hardly any mental energy left to do anything else. Definitely not enough energy, for example, to resist everyday temptations – for example to switch off the TV or say no to the next glass of wine. Having to constantly and actively hide major cracks in ourselves is not exactly a recipe for a happy and emotionally fulfilling life.
New atheism, or at least its more radical versions, has been criticised because it misconstrues why religious people are religious. It’s not because a rational argument convinced them that some supreme being must exist. Very few people believe anything because of rational arguments – especially when it comes to the touchy feely stuff. The general idea is that religious people are religious because this fulfils an emotional need they have. The problem is that the new atheists – both the radical ones and the more emotionally attuned 2.0 atheists – ignore the emotional complications that come with the way people change over their lifetimes.
What should we do then? Is there a genuine, not merely superficial alternative to both religion and the “something bigger” new atheists talk about? I suggest that there is a very simple alternative: we should try to avoid forcing a straight-jacket on our ever-changing self – by religious doctrines or by one of these “projects” the new atheists talk about. We should accept and cherish our freedom to change.
For the new atheists, freedom plays a very limited role. You are free to choose what you devote your life to, but once you’ve done that, your life is on a fixed track – no more free decisions. The new atheists’ “projects”, just as religious doctrines, put unreasonably severe constraints on our inner freedom.
The opposite of religion is not the slavish following of “something bigger” as the new atheists suggest. The opposite of religion is freedom.