Salon Writer Wonders Why the New Atheists Don’t Criticize the Kind of Faith That Doesn’t Exist April 26, 2015

Salon Writer Wonders Why the New Atheists Don’t Criticize the Kind of Faith That Doesn’t Exist

Tip for the freelance writers out there: Salon will take anything you submit as long as it slams atheists and runs over a thousand words. That must be true, because I don’t know how else to explain how this awful piece by Peter Birkenhead got published.

His entire argument is that the New Atheists — whom he compares to religious zealots — get too much attention even though they attack a straw man version of religion:


The New Atheists’ favorite rhetorical strategy is to assign the very real faults of pseudo-religion to authentic traditions that are committed to the very opposite of those flaws, and to accuse those traditions of failing at an endeavor they are not engaged in: the answering of scientific questions. The strategy is designed to reinforce the idea that religion is a reaction to the limits of intelligence, rather than what it is: a reaction to the limits of consciousness.

“Authentic religion” might sound like a problematic notion. But while the many, many hucksters of religion, the peddlers of “Prosperity Gospels,” “Secrets” and childhood martyrdom, are cynical purveyors of cherry-picked, bastardized, egocentric dogma, the great, doctrine-averse, deeply doubtful religious thinkers of history were not. They in fact emphasized transcendence of the ego as the key to enlightenment.

Birkenhead seems to think the bulk of religious people are just “[grappling] with profound questions.” He ignores the fact that, in practice, religion involves bad ideas and serious consequences. All of that deserves to be criticized. The whole piece centers around this fictional version of religion that exists only in his head.

For example, he says atheists unfairly accuse religion of failing to answer scientific questions. Even though that’s exactly what they’re doing. Religions make scientific claims. They claim prayer can heal you, God can perform miracles, and you never truly die. All of this is contrary to science. You can’t believe in both miracles and the laws of physics. Something’s gotta give. And when science battles religion, science wins every time.

More importantly, religious beliefs leave a tangible mark on the world, often for the worse. Prominent atheists go after people whose faith compels them to fight against equal rights for LGBT people, make life worse for women, and block scientific progress. These aren’t just “inauthentic” beliefs held by a handful of people. Tens of millions of Americans fall into this category.

Why do we pay more attention to those groups rather than ones that simply grapple with tough questions? Because they’re more harmful and you have to prioritize.

Notice that Birkenhead includes no links to examples of what he’s talking about. That’s because those examples don’t exist in any significant number.

The New Atheists see no distinction between those who find comfort in religious answers and those who grapple with religious questions. They refuse to define religion as anything other than the pseudo-religion favored by TV evangelists and radical ayatollahs, by those who see things in as limited a way as they do…

Again, that’s bullshit. Of course there’s religion beyond Pat Robertson and Muslim extremists, and those forms of faith, while not fatal, are still harmful. The New Atheists, like all atheists, call out faulty reasoning and bad ideas wherever they are. The problem with religion isn’t that there are Scientologists out there. It’s that most faiths convince people to look to “holy books” for guidance, put faith in God instead of themselves, and fear the fallout if you ever begin to have doubts.

By the way, Daniel Dennett is considered one of the New Atheists, and his books very explicitly point out the problems with faith as a whole. He’s certainly not picking on specific preachers or practices. So you have to wonder which New Atheist books Birkenhead has even bothered to pick up, because he’s completely mischaracterizing them.

(Image via Stuart Rankin on Flickr)

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