There are a seemingly infinite number of ways a person can define him or herself in relation to the spiritual world. Regardless of your views on religion, the supernatural and the metaphysical, there is likely a word to describe you – believer, agnostic, atheist, deist, spiritual, and all manner of subcategories in between. A tragedy is buried here, though, and it’s the fact that people must identify as one of these or another in the first place.
As religiosity around the world falls, atheist voices are becoming more prominent. Even in America, the most religious industrialized nation, commentators like Bill Maher and Sam Harris enjoy big audiences and a respectable amount of TV airtime.
In most ways, this is an exciting development. Atheists have long been forced into the closet and openly discriminated against. They still can’t win major elections. Breaking down these barriers is important. But with the ascent of atheist heroes like Harris and Christopher Hitchens has come a torrent of criticism, and not just from offended Christians. Serious scholars accuse this cadre of antireligious intellectuals – dubbed “New Atheists” by the media – of stoking discrimination against Muslims and helping to prop up a neoliberal agenda of Western imperialism.
Unfortunately, if atheism has a public face, it is the face of New Atheists. This is problematic not so much because these men – and they are almost all men – aren’t appropriate representatives, but because atheism should have no designated representatives in the first place. Such entities are for religious and political systems, of which atheism is neither.
Without any irony at all, religious critics often dismiss atheism as “just another religion.” They have some right to do so if atheism takes the form of a belief system built upon the writings and lectures of Harris, Hitchens and others. But that isn’t what atheism is. As atheists.org clarifies, “Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.” That distinction may sound subtle, but it’s crucial. Belief and disbelief are two sides of a coin; a lack of belief doesn’t involve the coin at all.
Not only should atheists not have a leader, grouping atheists together in the first place is somewhat dubious. The rise in atheist conventions, atheist support groups, and even atheist churches can be partially explained because many people recovering from a religious upbringing would like to meet with people who’ve had similar experiences. But apart from a lobby or two to defend against the encroachment of religion in public life and stand up for discriminated atheists, there seems to be little value, and potentially quite a lot of danger, in atheist organization. Atheism is not a system; it has no texts, does not offer solutions and is hardly even a hobby, although some people do make a living on it. Whether a person is an atheist or not says nothing about their values, political stance, or morality – even if people who identify as atheist are, on average, more intelligent and compassionate than other groups.
For humanists, apathetic atheists, skeptics, and the rational in general, spiritual questions might or might not be of interest, but they hardly need to be debated with the hot-headedness that prominent atheists debate the religious. Society’s biggest questions ought to be: How do we deliver food and medicine to the hungry and sick? How do we end war? How do we cultivate a life of leisure and happiness for as much of the world as possible? These are real-world issues that people can influence to some degree, and they are entirely irreligious. They are questions of science and social planning; they require rational analysis to solve.
New Atheists would likely agree, more or less, with that assessment. This is why many of them fight in the first place. The more religious a society is, the less interested it seems to be in addressing real-world issues. Because religion is still such a loud and powerful voice, it needs equally vehement opposition so we can remove it from the public sphere and get on with tackling what’s really important. To them, the existence of terror factions like the Islamic State and intolerance groups like the American Family Association demonstrates the need for a counter-voice.
No doubt about it – problems like unequal civil rights, climate inaction, ISIS, overpopulation, AIDS and more are exacerbated by religious leaders and thinkers who dismiss the issues or, more frighteningly, are anxious to hasten the end of the world. Religion often stands in the way of meaningful moral, political and scientific solutions. If atheism acts as a canceling force to those religious voices, so much the better, but it has nothing to say beyond acknowledging that religion should be left out of the equation.
Harris once said, somewhat infamously, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.” He is at war with religion itself. This is a fine campaign for a person to wage, and Harris has a great deal of interesting things to say about alternatives to mainstream religion like spirituality and meditation. But on the geopolitical and environmental levels, tackling religion is not a solution in and of itself. One of Harris’s best moments is a TED talk emphasizing how science and philosophy enable us to morally address social problems. Criticism of religion is inherently embedded in such an argument, but the term “atheist” need never be used. While many atheists endorse reason and critical thinking, atheism is not synonymous with them.
To use a word reviled by fundamentalists, societies evolve. Over time, religion will naturally be replaced by modes of thinking which more satisfyingly address the biological, emotional and mental needs of human beings. Religion isn’t on the downswing in the industrialized world because of writers like Hitchens and Harris; it’s on the downswing because we know more about the real world than ever and can at least pretend to be making strides toward a better quality of life. Religious extremism takes hold in places like the Middle East that are held back by imperial meddling, bombing campaigns, terror squads and oil-backed dictatorships. If we worked to alleviate those grievances instead of causing them, religious extremism would rapidly lose its luster there, too.
By nature of its existing only within the religious sphere, whatever other traits atheism takes on as it becomes a movement will only be found in an altogether corrupted school of thinking. Squashing religion is well and good, but it’s hardly enough. These goals maybe closely aligned, but the energy and focus should not be on proselytizing atheism but on making sure science and reason are the tools we use to approach global, social and environmental problems.