New Atheism values intellectual honesty
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 16:04
Over the last 40 years, Gallup polls as well as other surveys on American attitudes have consistently concluded that the most despised minority in America is one in which people refer to themselves as atheists or agnostics.
Despite the negative connotation associated with non-religious ideologies, atheists and agnostics are among the largest and fastest growing population in the United States, according to a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center. The recent growth and interest in non-religious philosophies can be seen in the prominent success of bestsellers like God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
These authors, along with the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett and neuroscientist Sam Harris, have quickly become the leading freethinkers within the New Atheism movement.
Although loosely defined, New Atheism has been characterized as the growing belief that religion should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influences arise.
Earlier this semester, I attended an event held on campus where the distinguished theologian William Lane Craig came to talk with students about faith and reason. During the discussion, Craig characterized the New Atheism movement as being unsophisticated and “primarily emotionally driven.” I could somewhat agree with Craig’s sweeping generalization that New Atheists such as myself are often enthusiastic and passionate. However, I take objection with the characterization that it is our dominate motivation for inquiry.
A 2010 Pew study concluded atheists and agnostics to be the highest scoring group in a survey of religious knowledge. The enthusiastic or “emotional” nature of New Atheists surely results from the continuous misrepresentation and intolerance of atheists as a group.
Periods of instability and inconsistency in American politics have typically led to cultural backtracking and the desire for safe social practices. Plagued by these habitual tendencies, previous secular movements have had difficulty inspiring the masses. However, the works of New Atheists have helped to invigorate a disenfranchised minority to come out as atheist, agnostic, anti-theist, secular humanist or any other form of non-religious affiliation. Unfortunately, for many, these decisions risk the possibility of being ostracized by one’s friends or family members.
Recently, I traveled with a group of secular students to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the first ever “Reason Rally.” The rally was intended to promote secular values and help grow the atheist community. During the event, Nate Phelps, the (estranged) son of the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, spoke to an audience of an estimated 20,000 atheists. During his speech, he explained his difficulties growing up and eventually coming to terms with his decision to leave his family and renounce his faith. Certainly, Phelps’ situation is quite unusual and does not represent the majority, but he does illustrate the difficulties coming to terms with an ideology that does not fit the status-quo.
The decision to declare one’s self as an atheist today means recognizing an inability to personally rationalize the possibility of an omnipotent being, and that it is more important to become intellectually honest than to continue to lie to yourselves and others. The New Atheist movement has helped challenge the negative stigma that has been attached to atheism and inspire a sense of pride and community for the most publicly criticized minority within the U.S.