The proliferation of atheist writings in the last few years has in turn provoked a reaction by defenders of religion and also an examination of what has caused the upsurge in antireligious ideas.
A recent and thought-provoking example of the latter is the adaptation of Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral thesis in his book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement,” (Oxford University Press).
LeDrew is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Uppsala University, Sweden.
In his introduction he explained that his examination is about what he termed the “New Atheism,” that is, the antireligious group of writers and thinkers epitomized by persons such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
LeDrew said that in his view New Atheism “is a secular fundamentalism, a modern utopian ideology that is also an active movement for social transformation.”
Thus, while at first glance the New Atheism is a critique of what it considers to be irrational superstitions it is ultimately about power and authority. It is also, LeDrew added, a reaction to what is perceived as a threat posed by “a swirling concoction of religious ignorance, epistemic relativism, identity politics, and cultural pluralism.”
LeDrew also said that he does not agree with the assumption that New Atheism is liberal and progressive, but instead it has a deeply conservative dimension.
This then is why he considers it as a sort of fundamentalism in that it is a reaction not only to religious fundamentalism and radical Islam, but is also provoked by the postmodern forces of pluralism and relativism.
It is, he commented, “a critique of all epistemological and ethical belief systems that are perceived to conflict with the hegemony of scientific rationality.”
Evolution and progress
Another of LeDrew’s arguments is that for a group that purports to be of Darwinian inspiration it is not faithful to the idea of evolution as something that has no inherent concept of progress, but only adaptation and differentiation. Darwin, he insisted, did not propose a teleological concept of linear progress in history.
This belief in progress owes more to the influence of ideas that arose at the time of the Enlightenment, LeDrew explained in a chapter on the development of atheism. Enlightenment principles such as emancipation through reason, the primacy of the individual, scientific rationality and the notion of progress have played a significant part in the formulation of atheism.
Several chapters of the book are dedicated to the historical development of atheism and to a description of the varying tendencies within it. New Atheism, for example, is known for its confrontational approach, as opposed to other atheists who favour a more accommodating position towards religion.
A number of those within the secular humanist school of thought also argue for a more nuanced approach, not wishing to alienate religious believers who accept science and evolution.
A myth of modernity
In his conclusions LeDrew argued that we are witnessing a revolutionary moment in the history of atheism, a radical break from its traditional association with socialism and social justice movements.
In fact, at one point in the book LeDrew even went so far as referring to a “totalitarian and neoconservative streak” within the ranks of New Atheism.
On some issues, such as the economy and foreign relations, LeDrew observed, there is commonality between the Christian Right and the atheist right. But within atheism there is also the libertarian strand, that denies any unifying tendencies and has as its ideal only self-determination.
Turning to the methods used to propagate its ideas LeDrew referred to what he termed as the evangelical approach of New Atheism. This, he said, has led to a defense of ideological boundaries that emphasize a distinction from mainstream society. It is also a movement marked by internal tensions regarding both goals and strategies.
New Atheism is also markedly middle class and affluent. LeDrew commented that the British bus ads with the slogan of “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” rests on the assumption that without religion we would be free of concerns. This, he noted, “assumes a certain level of comfort and security that most of the people in the world do not share.”
Moreover, by casting religion as culpable for the ills of our contemporary world and asserting that science is the only legitimate source of authority and progress, New Atheism falls into the camp of a legitimating myth of modernity.
Among social scientists, LeDrew observed, there is disagreement regarding the degree of secularization. “but there is no foreseeable human future where religion has vanished.”
New Atheism, he continued, is simply a secular eschatology in which humanity is redeemed by science after having overcome superstition. In this it is similar to the preachers who predict the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of a utopia.
LeDrew’s book provides some interesting and challenging arguments, only some of which are mentioned in this article. Religion does indeed face serious challenges, particularly organized religion, but New Atheism has some serious issues of its own regarding its nature and the solutions it proposes.