Saturday, April 07, 2007
The New Atheist Illusion
macht has an interesting (though speculative) analysis of some of the possible motivations underlying the so-called "New Atheists" (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) He writes:

And so the "new atheist" wish-fulfillment looks something like this. What they desire, what they wish for, is to get rid of religion. And so they tell themselves that it would be very nice if there were this thing called Reason that could trample over everything, bringing truth wherever it goes; and it would also be very nice if this thing called Reason were the exact opposite of the very essence of religion. Wouldn't it be nice if Reason could get rid of religion? But as Freud remarked: "but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be." That is the (new) atheist illusion.

Read the full post here.


posted by Mike Clawson at 12:39 AM | Permalink |


At 4/07/2007 04:48:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

Mike, how can I send you a private message by email?


At 4/07/2007 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Macht

Have you read Westphal's Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism? Judging by your Library Thing book list, I think you might like it.


At 4/07/2007 10:44:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Westphal has been on my reading list since college but pastoral reading keeps getting in the way. I wasn't aware of that particular book though. Thanks for the recommendation.


At 4/07/2007 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

You can email me at


Obviously you'll need to replace the parenthesis with the . and @ I just don't want the spambots to find my address. :)


At 4/08/2007 08:26:00 AM, Blogger Macht

Here is an article by Westphal that gives a good idea of what the book is about.


At 4/10/2007 07:08:00 PM, Blogger Richard Wade

Who came up with this term, “New Atheists” anyway? It sounds like a journalist’s cute idea to sell magazines. The problem with the term is that like “new computer operating system,” or “new Ford Explorer” it implies an overall change replacing all the “Old Atheists,” whatever the heck they are.

Macht, your article makes no attempt to differentiate between those atheists who agree and those who disagree with your so-called New Atheists,” and I assure you there are plenty who disagree. What is actually new about what Harris or Dawkins say? There have long been atheists who call for the end of religion, and there have long been those who like myself only call for the end of the widespread slander, shunning, abuse and violence against atheists. Keep your beliefs; just don’t use them to justify bigotry against us.

As a psychotherapist I consider psychoanalyzing to be a basically vicious thing to do, and I avoid doing it if at all possible. Also I don’t know what your background is in psychology but the invoking of Freud is, well, quaint. The bulk of his ideas went into the dust bin of history decades ago. The reason is, ironically, that his theories had to be taken on faith. They didn’t stand up to empirical testing.

To characterize the more rabid anti-theists as being typical atheists amounts to a straw man argument. Your article implies this blanket characterization by not mentioning the many atheists who don’t share all of Harris’s and Dawkins’ opinions. The only effect I can see it will have is to stir up even more fear and loathing of atheists in general among the less informed of your readers. Thanks a helluva lot.


At 4/10/2007 09:10:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson


I agree that "New Atheist" is not a very good term, and I definitely agree that we need some other term that distinguishes between "those atheists" and the majority who, like yourself, simply want greater respect for atheists in the public sphere. However, as we've seen on that "thread which shall not be named" on Hemant's blog, it's easier said than done to come up with a descriptor for "those atheists" that everyone will accept.

(I still think "anti-theist" captures it just about right, but apparently that's not acceptable to "those atheists" either.)

Anyhow, I'll let macht reply to the rest of your critiques of his article himself. That is, if he manages to find his way back here. I don't pretend that my blog is very high on anyone's to-read list. ;-)


At 4/10/2007 11:11:00 PM, Blogger Richard Wade

Mike, I would have posted my remarks on Macht's site, but for some reason to use Google/Blogger I have to create a new account every time, even though it's the same name and password. Your site lets me do that, but his does not.

As for the anti-theists like those you alluded to, I have some choice names referring to the lowest end of the digestive tract that would not be suitable for this forum. We'll never find a descriptor that everyone will accept because it will either be falsely flattering or harshly accurate, depending on which side one is on.

As I have said before, the only blanket statement that you can say about atheists is that they are even more disparate than theists, because they can be so exasperatingly independent. (self included) One of them says getting atheists to agree on something is like herding cats. Like any other category of people, some are wise, foolish, smart, dumb, sweet, bitter, loving, hateful, generous, selfish, engaging, aloof, inclusive, forbidding, and all the middle grounds in all those scales.


At 4/11/2007 08:14:00 AM, Blogger Macht

Hmmmm.... I'm not sure what problems you are having with commenting at my blog. I'll look into it.

I wasn't talking about all atheists and I tried to be clear that I was only talking about the "new atheists" and "people like Harris and Dawkins." I made statements like that throughout the post, so I'm not sure why anybody would think I was talking about all atheists (except for the title of the post, perhaps). And after that post, I tried to make it even more clear who I was talking about. I don't know how much you've read my blog, but whenever I'm complaining about atheism it is almost always about the "new atheists." See, for example, this post. Furthermore, I was hoping that people would pick up on the fact that I was using one atheist - Freud - in order to show what was wrong with these "new atheists." I'm aware that the "bulk of his ideas went into the dust bin of history," but I think the concepts of his that I used in my post are valid. (By this I DON'T mean they are necessarily used by modern psychoanalysts, I just mean they can be useful concepts to help us see what is going on with the "new atheists.")

(BTW, if I remember correctly, the term "new atheism" became popular with a Wired article that was written last fall.)


At 4/12/2007 04:25:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

Macht, I read your article three times and couldn't find anything that I could identify as a qualifier that distinguishes between those atheists who agree and those who disagree with Harris and Dawkins on the points you stress. But let it go. I know that you didn't intend to portray a blanket characterization. I don't want to be too picky or touchy about it.

Having read it three times I also found the whole debate about being entirely rational based vs. influenced by experience a very odd controversy to spend much time on. I don't really get it. Of course my opinions are embedded in the matrix of my experience, my time of life, my country and culture. I make no apologies or denial of it. I don't see how that expands or reduces the validity of my point of view. If Harris actually insists that his atheism is independent of all that and floats in some rarified realm of pure reason, then why is a mystery to me. I am as we all are a product of myriad things that have come together in this place and time. Well, whatever. I'm true to my own views and principles and owe no allegiance to some authors just because they are articulate.

I can see now why you used Freud, but the irony of his being an atheist was lost even on me. What annoyed me about trying to work with the last of his dedicated followers was their unquestioning belief in him like a charismatic prophet or guru. When I suggested that his ideas should be put to the test in controlled experiments they responded with indignation and my invitation to leave the temple.

Thanks for that clue about the Wired article, and thanks for your visits over at Friendly Atheist. I appreciate your input.


At 4/12/2007 05:43:00 AM, Blogger Macht

Well, if you read it one more time, I think you'll see that every single time (except in the title to the post and except when I'm quoting somebody else) that I use the word "atheist" I have the word "new" right in front of it. (And the only reason I didn't put it in the title was for aesthetic reasons - "The God Delusion" vs. "The Atheist Illusion.")

(I just re-read the paragraph I just wrote and I think it may read like I'm being condescending or impatient with you, but I assure you I didn't mean it in either of those ways. Maybe you are right to say "let it go.")

Dawkins (and Harris too, perhaps, but don't quote me on it) makes an argument something like this: 1) What religion you are depends largely on where you live. 2) Science, however, is international. 3) Therefore we should to our questions. I was arguing that 1 is true but this is irrelevant (since the same thing can be said about Dawkins brand of atheism). And I provided a link to a book that says 2 is probably not true (or at least not as simple as Dawkins would like it to be for his argument to work). And therefore 3 is false (and, in fact, I would say it is a false dichotomy, but I don't think I said that in my post).

I do think that Harris and Dawkins hold to a sort of "acultural" view of modernization/secularization where Reason, as it encounters religions, traditions, cultures, etc. will somehow "modernize" them (see what I wrote here). And because of this view and because they view themselves as "rationalists," this means that their views are not really the product of any culture or tradition, but rather the product of Reason as it progresses and strips cultures and traditions of all those things that aren't rational. So they think their views are not so much the product of their experience or their culture but rather the product of Reason.


At 4/12/2007 08:34:00 PM, Blogger Richard Wade

I didn't take your first paragraph as condescending or impatient. I appreciate your sensitivity in most of your writing. I also agree with most of your points about Harris and Dawkins, and that is why I wanted to stress that many atheists wish to distance themselves from some of their assertions.

The only objection I had to your article was and is the first thing I said, that the term "New Atheist" in our "new and improved" obsessed culture means the new whole thing that has completely replaced the old whole thing. In the minds of most people who know little about atheists it means they are all now like this unlike the way they all used to be. "New" is not a sufficient qualifier to make a clear understanding that there are still millions of atheists who don't fall into that category.

What I would like to see is when you write about the "New Atheists," (and I still think it's a dumb term for other reasons) please make at least one clear declarative sentence stating that there are many atheists who don't share many of the stances that Harris and Dawkins take, and that the term "New" is not the all-encompassing term that it sounds like in our consumer oriented culture. There. (whew)

Thank you for taking the time in this dialogue. I feel that you, Mike and I are really working toward the same goal; chipping away at opposite sides of a huge mountain of enmity and misunderstanding.


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