New Atheism (7): The next generation—The Neo-New Atheists, part 1

[This is the seventh article in a series on New Atheism. Read parts 1234, 5, and 6.]

I’d like to conclude this series, over these last two posts, by looking at a version of atheism that I think could be a more serious challenge when and if New Atheism fades away, and to flag how I think this should inform our rhetoric towards New Atheism.

Atheism comes in many forms, despite ‘New Atheism’ dominating the disbelieving spotlight at this point in time. One of the things that marks out New Atheism from many other versions is the sheer hostility New Atheists have to God and to organized religion. Not all atheists share that. There are atheists who will say something along the lines of “I wish God existed, but I think the evidence is against it”. Whereas New Atheists tend to explain away all the good associated with religious belief and blame as much evil as possible upon religion, other atheists give a more balanced assessment, and some even acknowledge that religious people are often more a force for good in their community than their atheist counterparts (for example, Matthew Parris on Africa).

This latter group will then go on to say that that difference in effect is not actually evidence of God’s existence, merely that many human beings seem to have a need for religious faith in order to be able to function well. Not all atheists are even convinced by New Atheism’s ‘empiricism is the only path to truth’ position. There are a lot of atheist philosophers out there, and few of them are sold on New Atheism’s unreconstructed empiricism. Atheism comes in different flavours, and it’s worth keeping that in mind, so that one doesn’t simply apply the responses to New Atheism when faced with an atheist who, possibly, doesn’t really share many of their views.

These final two posts look at a kind of atheism that isn’t quite New Atheism, but does share some traits with it—which is why I think of it as ‘Neo-New Atheism’. It interests me as I think it is free of most of the limitations that are endemic to vanilla New Atheism, and could, if it could produce something more mainstream, make atheism a genuine possibility for a large number of people.

I need to say upfront that the guys I’m looking at are not mainstream in any real sense, nor are they ever going to be. I’ve picked them because they are examples that I know—people whose work I really enjoy, but who I’m sure will leave many readers quite cold. I’m not trying to make you like what I like, just showing how these guys are able to present a popular-level atheism that lacks the particular weaknesses of straight New Atheism. The guys I have in mind are: Douglas Adams, of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series and script editor of Dr Who for a season; Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series of novels; the recent reboot of Dr Who under Russel T Davies; and Joss Whedon of Firefly/Serenity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel fame. While Whedon appears to have been the closest of the three to get something mainstream—he reputedly repaired the script for the original Toy Story, which has struck a chord with many people for a decade and a half now, and is directing the upcoming Avengers movie—none of them are likely, in my view, to ever produce anything of genuine mainstream appeal (especially Adams: he’s dead). They are all the territory of ‘geeks’.

Nonetheless, I think this set illustrates the kind of qualities that atheism can display, and if it could do so in a package with more popular appeal (i.e. not absurdist sci-fi, flat worlds on the backs of giant turtles, or stories of cheerleaders and vampires), could be something a wide range of people might find credible.

All four, from what I can see, share New Atheism’s hostility towards God and religion. Davies wrote The Second Coming. Whedon has called God ‘the sky bully’ and, in my view Jasmine from Angel is his view of God, while The Operative from Serenity and the Preacher from Buffy are attempts to portray religious believers (and anyone who has seen those will know that ‘hostile’ doesn’t begin to describe such a portrayal of God and religious faith). For Pratchett, we’ll just submit his recent novel Nation into evidence for his hostility to Christianity. Adams seemed to be less hostile but still quite dismissive, coining the quote, “Isn’t it enough to see that the garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” and so giving the world the tedious New Atheist rhetorical ploy that belief in God is the same as belief in fairies. All these men also seem to hold science in a great deal of respect, and so tend to fall into the group that, like New Atheism, sees a straight “Are you a person of science or a religious believer?” kind of division.

But the similarities end there for the most part. This group lacks New Atheism’s inhumanity.

None of this group of writers tends towards Hawking’s comparison of fear of death with a fear of the dark. Joss Whedon regularly addresses death in his works and treats it as something far more significant than a light being turned off. The death of characters that the viewers love and that are loved by other characters in the show is a regular feature of Whedon’s writing. Davies bowed out of Dr Who by portraying the Doctor as seeing his regeneration to a new body and personality as the death of ‘him’, and so finished his stint on the show by having the Doctor effectively die and be raised as someone else. Davies by no means treated the Doctor’s fear of his own imminent ‘death’ as something to dismiss as a fear of the dark. Pratchett’s stories have involved death so much that Death has become a character in his own right. Even Adams, with his story of the destruction of the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass that was obsolete anyway treats death with a certain degree of pathos.

In Whedon’s portrayal of the death of Wesley in Angel we see a character who has become the very embodiment of the tough-minded man who does what needs to be done with a minimum of sentimentality. Faced with the almost certain prospect of his death in a day’s time, he doesn’t go off to do something to ‘complete’ his life—he stays at his desk, because no final conversation, perfect glass of scotch, act of sexual immorality, or charitable good work or the like is needed to give his life meaning. He does a normal day’s work instead. But even he, when he is dying, seeks comfort from having someone pretend to be his deceased love, even though he knows it is a complete illusion. It is a view of the gravity of facing one’s death that is about as radically opposed to Hawking’s sneering comment as you can get. And yet, it is still firmly atheist, for (I’d argue) Wesley’s grabbing of a comforting illusion of his dead love is meant to be an analogy of how people seek reassurance in religion in death. Whedon doesn’t budge on the idea that religion is an illusion that people grab because they’re weak. His point is that even strong people are weak when faced with their own death, and there’s no shame in finding whatever comfort you can when you look death in the eye, even if you know that comfort isn’t true. It’s still depressing and bleak (after all, it is atheism) but it does have a far more human face. Religion is still a fairy tale as with Hawking, but it is not due to a fear of the dark but a fear of something that really should terrify human beings.

So here’s the first thing—not all forms of atheism compare a person dying with a computer breaking, or fear of death with a fear of darkness. New Atheism does do that, by and large, and deserves a right shellacking for it. But there are forms of atheism around that are more human, and get that there is a huge difference between darkness and death, broken computers and dead people, and that the death of a human being is A Big Deal. If one of those forms of atheism goes more mainstream it will better reflect people’s experience of being human, and so is likely to be more persuasive to more people than New Atheism can ever be.

I’ll finish in the next final post by looking at how these writers address meaning (and morality), community, and natural science empiricism, before concluding with a quick reflection on why this matters to what we do now.

[This article is part of an 8-part series: read parts 1234567, and 8.]

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