Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and "New Atheists" aren't new, aren't even atheists

EXCLUSIVE: Renowned scholar calls Harris, Dawkins anti-theists, and as dogmatic, fundamentalist as true believers

Published November 21, 2014 12:00PM (EST)

Richard Dawkins, Reza Aslan, Sam Harris         (Comedy Central/Malin Fezehai/HBO/Photo montage by Salon)
Richard Dawkins, Reza Aslan, Sam Harris (Comedy Central/Malin Fezehai/HBO/Photo montage by Salon)

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, wasn’t surprising. As a scholar of religions, I’m 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 world’s 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 isn’t 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 18th century – 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. “I’m 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 didn’t 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 god’s 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.

For a great many atheists, atheism does not merely signify “lack of belief” but is itself a kind of positive worldview, one that “includes numerous beliefs about the world and what is in it,” to quote the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini. Baggini cautions against viewing atheism as a “parasitic rival to theism.” Rather, he agrees with the historian of religions James Thrower, who considers modern atheism to be “a self-contained belief system” – one predicated on a series of propositions about the nature of reality, the source of human morality, the foundation of societal ethics, the question of free will, and so on.

Thrower and others – most notably the historian David Berman – trace the emergence of atheism as a distinct worldview to the end of the Enlightenment era, which, not coincidentally, is also the time that anti-theism first arose. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on skepticism, reason and scientific advancement posed a direct challenge to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. That makes sense when you consider that Christianity was not only the sole religion with which many Enlightenment thinkers had any familiarity. It was an all-encompassing political presence in the lives of most Europeans, which is why the atheism of the Enlightenment was grounded less in denying the existence of God than in trying to liberate humanity from religion’s grip on earthly power.

The great Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were severely critical of institutional religion, viewing it as a destructive force in society. But they did not explicitly reject God’s existence, nor were they opposed to the idea of religious belief. (There were, of course, numerous other Enlightenment figures who professed atheism, such as Jean Meslier and the French philosopher Baron d’Holbach.) On the contrary, they recognized the inherent value of religious belief in fostering social cohesion and maintaining order, and so sought a means of replacing religion as the basis for making moral judgments in European society. It was political transformation they wanted, not religious reform.

Yet in the century that followed the Enlightenment, a stridently militant form of atheism arose that merged the Enlightenment’s criticism of institutional religion with the strict empiricism of the scientific revolution to not only reject belief in God, but to actively oppose it. By the middle of the 19th century, this movement was given its own name – anti-theism – specifically to differentiate it from atheism.

It was around this time that anti-theism reached its peak in the writings of the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx famously viewed religion as the “opium of the people” and sought to eradicate it from society. “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness,” Marx wrote in his celebrated critique of Hegel.

In truth, Marx’s views on religion and atheism were far more complex than these much-abused sound bites project. Nevertheless, Marx’s vision of a religion-less society was spectacularly realized with the establishment of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – two nations that actively promoted “state atheism” by violently suppressing religious expression and persecuting faith communities.

Atheists often respond that atheism should not be held responsible for the actions of these authoritarian regimes, and they are absolutely right. It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils” – as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” – if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?

The excesses of these anti-theist regimes was fueled in no small part by a century of confident predictions that religion was a fast fading phenomenon – that God was, in a word, dead. By the end of the 20th century, however, few were making that claim any longer. The horrors of the first and second world wars not only punctured the promises of secular nationalism in the West. It led to a religious revival, particularly in the United States. In the 1970s, the rise of Islamic terrorism abroad and the insertion of Christian fundamentalism into American politics disabused most thinkers of the notion that religion was about to fade away from modern society. Then 9/11 happened, followed by George W. Bush’s crusade against “evildoers,” and, suddenly, religion was once again recognized as a potent and rising force in the world.

Disenfranchised by what they viewed as an aggressively religious society, personally threatened by a spike in religious violence throughout the world, and spurred by a sense of moral outrage, a certain faction of atheists among an otherwise rational population of people who doubt or deny the existence of God reverted to an extreme and antagonistic form of anti-theism. This is the movement that came to be called New Atheism.

The appeal of New Atheism is that it offered non-believers a muscular and dogmatic form of atheism specifically designed to push back against muscular and dogmatic religious belief. Yet that is also, in my opinion, the main problem with New Atheism. In seeking to replace religion with secularism and faith with science, the New Atheists have, perhaps inadvertently, launched a movement with far too many similarities to the ones they so radically oppose. Indeed, while we typically associate fundamentalism with religiously zealotry, in so far as the term connotes an attempt to “impose a single truth on the plural world” – to use the definition of noted philosopher Jonathan Sacks – then there is little doubt that a similar fundamentalist mind-set has overcome many adherents of this latest iteration of anti-theism.

Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community.

This is precisely what Albert Einstein meant when he warned about “fanatical atheists [who] are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium for the people’ — cannot bear the music of the spheres.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with an anti-theistic worldview, though I personally find it to be rooted in a naive and, dare I say, unscientific understanding of religion – one thoroughly disconnected from the history of religious thought. Every major religion has, at one time or another, been guilty of the crimes that these anti-theists accuse religion of. But do not confuse the dogmatic, polemical, militant anti-theism of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and their ilk with atheism. The former rejects religious claims; the latter is “actively, diametrically and categorically opposed to them.”

One can certainly be both an atheist and an anti-theist. But the point is that the vast majority of atheists – 85 percent according to one poll – are not anti-theists and should not be lumped into the same category as the anti-theist ideologues that inundate the media landscape. (A diverse community being defined by its loudest voices? Imagine that). In fact, let’s stop calling New Atheism, “atheism,” and start calling it what it is: anti-theism.

By Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan is the author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."

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