Removing the “New” from Religion and Atheism

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 11.38.41 AMDuring the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Lawrence Krauss, who is a physicist and relative newcomer to the New Atheism camp, debated Peter Rollins, who has become known as a leading thinker in Emerging or postmodern Christianity. Their debate was billed as “New Atheism” versus “New Religion,” although neither man sat well with the title his side had been given.

I have seen Krauss in other debates, particularly in Unbelieversthe recently released movie featuring him and Richard Dawkins arguing with a host of religious conservatives, primarily Christian and Muslim. What I found amusing in this particular debate, however, is that Krauss didn’t quite know what to do with Rollins. They had too much common ground. Rollins argued three things about New Atheism. First, he claimed that it can and has become for many an identity source just like religion, meaning that it is not functionally different from the religious traditions it decries. Second, he suggested that the direct attacks against fundamentalism serve to strengthen rather than weaken it. Lastly, he proposed that atheism does not have the “capital” to serve as a viable alternative to religion.

In terms of its function, it is undeniably true that atheism can become as much of an unthinking identity as religious tradition, but it should be unpacked a little bit. Rollins argues his case by suggesting that fundamentalism is not the problem, but the solution to a problem. It is this deeper problem that can be seen in fundamentalism and atheism alike, although I would add that the historical and fantastical accretions of religion make it a more hospitable location for dogmatism than atheism. In any case, while Rollins doesn’t specify what the deeper problem is, it can obviously take many forms in economic or social deprivation (or a defense for economic and social privilege), but almost always in a skewed sense of identity that needs reconciliation. I have spoken with people for whom atheism is clearly an identity, having shifted from a negation of religious belief to a positive affirmation of an absence of religion as a dogmatic stance.

In this case, it would be difficult not to agree with those Christians and Muslims who argue that New Atheism, or simply atheism, has developed into a position akin in many ways to religious tradition, which means that it can become unthinking. Krauss is much less able to recognize this position than is Rollins, because Krauss appears to be a clear and logical thinker. He doesn’t and doesn’t need to bank on an atheist identity. Consequently, while he acknowledged that atheism for some can become a positive identity, something more than “not-skiing” as a sport, he doesn’t understand it as a common, albeit illogical, approach. It is ridiculous to Krauss that an intellectual stance or what amounts to subjecting religious wisdom to scientific scrutiny could become a dogmatic stance, because it is clear that it shouldn’t. Indeed, it violates the principles of a scientific approach to form a dogmatic stance about it. In fact, it’s logically impossible to establish a dogma around a fundamental openness to new evidence. However, it is entirely possible to rest on such a stance based on what recent scientific thinkers have said about religion, namely that it is patently false. Without possessing the ability or will to question the truth of particular situations, one can easily and freely adopt the stance that all religion is false and religious folks are imbeciles, just as many religious folk are convinced that atheists are willfully ignoring God or are influenced by the devil.

Rollins, on the other hand, understands the paradox that even a belief in nothing, or the negation of belief in something, can become itself something. In a slightly different form, this has been one of the primary points of his critique of Christianity. According to Rollins, most Christians already know that the claims they make are untrue on some level. Consequently, when they are criticized from the outside for the ridiculousness of their claims about prayer or God’s will, etc., Rollins recognizes that, contrary to curing them of their illogic, it will often drive folks further into their irreconcilable positions. As a recent example, the Friendly Atheist was incredulous that the missionary doctor who received treatment for Ebola from an experimental drug spent most of his time in his first speech on release giving thanks to God for saving him rather than the drug and the doctors who nursed him back to health. However, the doctor no doubt didn’t refuse the experimental drug when offered so that God could do the work of healing. He simply holds two contradictory positions: one, that God healed him; and two, that modern medicine saved him. The first position makes no sense unless God likes the two white missionaries more than all those who have died from Ebola in the most recent outbreak. The second position makes enormously more sense: the missionaries received proper medical care and lived, others did not and died. Paul Farmer talks about this from a practical perspective in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

To put it another way, religious believers cannot fully accept the world scientifically until they address its incompatibility with their belief, but the only way to address the fallacy of their belief would be to fully adopt an open and questioning stance, a scientific stance. What many atheists are unwilling to admit is that this is much more than an intellectual shift. It carries tremendous social and psychological baggage, and it is predicated on sufficient cultural capital, on social, political, and/or economic stability. Rollins thus realizes, I believe, that directly exposing the contradictions of particularly conservative religion is inefficient at best, which was revealed by his third point against New Atheism, that it lacks the cultural capital to provide religious folks with an alternative. This point, too, is fundamentally inconceivable to Krauss and the like, who cannot grasp that the lies we tell ourselves rival the power of truths about the universe, even when the latter are demonstrably true and the former are not.

In terms of a paradigm shift, then, Rollins’ position is perhaps more viable. It is true that he has an economic interest in maintaining ambiguous ties with Christianity because liberal or postmodern Christians are primarily the folks that come to hear him. To the outsider, of which Krauss provided a quintessential example in this debate, Rollins’ circumlocutions seem unintelligible. His is the language of the existentialist, the language of deconstruction, but it is also storytelling, narratives that Christians are familiar with. If he could succeed in recasting Christianity not around dogmatic principles about the world and the afterlife, but around breaking down those principles and questioning our dogmatic assumptions about the world, the fundamental and unthinking ways that religion allows folks to operate in would be shifted. Religion would not provide a safe haven for rigid belief and unthinking behavior. It is certainly not to say that it would eliminate it. The very fact that atheism can provide that same haven for unthinking should be an indication that institutionalization, not the content of an institution, is all that suffices to become dogmatic.