The Real Enemy: Why Old Atheists, New Atheists, Religious Liberals & Others Should be Allies

The rise of the New Atheism has been accompanied by a rise in conflicts between various groups, that I think should be working together. Take the Old Atheists (and agnostics), for example. Please, take them… This is a group that I am well-acquainted with, as a professional scholar. These often academically minded atheists choose to be secular, do not criticize religion, and often find the behavior and positions of New Atheists to be regrettable. The problem is that the New Atheists are simply misunderstood. As I have demonstrated in my research, one common misconception is that the New Atheist is a ‘strong atheist’ and argues with certainty that God doesn’t exist. A quick perusal of the chapter, ‘Why there almost certainly is no God’, in Dawkins’ God Delusion should make it clear that prominent New Atheists generally find the theistic hypothesis improbable, not impossible.

Similarly, it is often assumed that New Atheists are ‘anti-religion’. This seems absolutely absurd, especially coming from scholars who should know better, when it is considered that many New Atheists actually are religious. Dawkins is increasingly calling himself a ‘cultural Christian’, and by scholarly reckoning, Sam Harris is a Buddhist. Much research by (usually secular) Religious Studies scholars also reveals that many and varied secularists are also religious, not by way of belief (orthodoxy), but by way of practice/ritual/community (orthopraxy). It is clear that the New Atheists are actually targeting a specific type of ‘religion’ for criticism, which may be a common enemy.

I consider the Religious Liberal to be someone like the liberal Christian, who might believe, but is humble enough to realize that his or her religious cousins may also be on to something. A better example might be the typical Buddhist or Eastern religious adherent, who sees all religious folk as perceiving mere aspects of the one truth. I would include here the ‘great Other’, such as the Pagan, the New Ager, the pantheist, and the deist. These people often do not actually hold beliefs about the supernatural, or do not hold them in an inclusive way, which makes them far less likely to become dogmatic, and violent.

So who are the people the Old Atheists and agnostics are too polite – or too cowardly – to criticize? Who are the people the New Atheists are really warning us about? Who are the people whose values are so at odds with Religious Liberals and Others, and who often persecute them? They are one and the same: the religious exclusivist, who becomes the religious extremist. These people see their faith as exclusively true, and have the ultimate justifiable motivation to annihilate all else: belief in, and utter devotion to, the one true God that they sincerely think exists. Even their fellow exclusivists suffer by their actions (read up on the actions of the Islamic State). All too often the religious have no love for the Old Atheists, the Old Atheists aren’t bothered, and the New Atheists… Well, no one likes them, and they don’t like anyone! But for God’s sake! You Old Atheists, Agnostics, New Atheists, Religious Liberals and ‘Others’ need to get together, hash out definitions and terms, finally realize that you’re all on the same team, and focus your efforts against the real enemy: religious extremists, whose origins often lie in religious exclusivism and intolerance. —Raphael Lataster