Frank Furedi’s comments on atheism

Frank Furedi posted another screed against atheism, well “so-called New [Atheism]” earlier this month.  It’s not hard to demolish, so I’m not going to deconstruct it line by line, but seriously Mr Furedi, next time try actually providing some examples of what you are talking about instead of emotional arguments.  It’s not like he’s your every-day pundit either, he’s a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in Caterbury, so he should at the very least be able to quantify his arguments.

Instead his article, titled “How atheism became a religion in all but name”, is full of emotive arguments with no supporting evidence.  He makes claims all over the place that atheists do X or Y, or say X or Y, and except for one instance provides no examples to back up his claims.  He also seems to believe that atheists are one massive hive mind, or all ascribe to the same beliefs about the world, or that we all have the same theology… not taking into account that there are many atheists, with many different world views, who loudly argue with each other over things – please see the interwebs as an example.

It is important to note that, historically, atheism was not a standalone philosophy. Atheism does not constitute a worldview. It simply signifies non-belief in God or gods. This rejection of the idea of a god could be based on scepticism towards the notion of a higher being, an unwillingness to follow dogma, or a commitment to rationality and science. But whatever the motive, atheism reflected an attitude towards one specific issue, not a perspective on the world. Most atheists defined themselves through an assertive identity, whether they called themselves democrats, liberals, socialists, anarchists, fascists, communists, freethinkers or rationalists. For most serious atheists, their disbelief in god was a relatively insignificant part of their self-identity.

I hadn’t realised, being an atheist and all, that I was to now have this as the most key part of my identity.  Clearly I’ll have to go and tell all my other atheist friends; the gentle polys, the bisexuals, the queers, the trans*, the lesbians, the gays, the intersex, the asexuals, the Greens supporters, the ALP supporters, the unionists, the mothers, the fathers, the scientists, the comedians, the sick, the healthy, the unemployed, the over employed, the employed, the bored at their jobs, the gamers, the community builders, the disabled, the loud, the quiet, the introverts, the extroverts, the readers, the bakers, the silly, and the serious, that now atheisms is their key identity point.

I don’t even think that PZ Meyers or Richard Dawkins would suggest that their key identifying feature is being atheist.  It may be how some other people identify them, but that doesn’t mean that they self identify that way.  Yes being atheist is now an assertive identity, but so is being religious – of whatever flavour.  And I don’t understand even if someone did identify as being atheist as an assertive identity why that is a bad thing.

They argue that the influence of religion should be fought wherever it rears its ugly head. Although they demand that religion should be countered by rational arguments, their own claims often verge on the irrational and hysterical.

But today’s New Atheism often expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own. In a simplistic manner it equates religion with fanaticism and fundamentalism. What is striking about its denunciation of fundamentalism is that it is frequently made in the dogmatic, polemical style of those it claims to oppose. The black-and-white world of theological dogma is reproduced in the zealous polemic of the atheist moraliser.

Citation needed.  Citation needed all over the place.  Which “New Athiests” are  irrational and hysterical – language I note that is often used to silence women and other minority groups from having a voice – so using oppressive language wins Furedi no points here.

I don’t even pretend to completely grasp what Furedi is actually saying in the second part of this paragraph, though I note he’s still provided no examples to back up his claims.

Of course, the language used by atheist moral crusaders avoids the theological vocabulary of the religious. Instead, it prefers a more scientific-sounding narrative, demonising religion through the idea of medicalisation. In this vein, Richard Dawkins has described religion as a form of child abuse in his book, The God Delusion, and in other writings. He claims that instructing children about hell damages them for life. He claims that ‘religions abuse the minds of children’ and says ‘we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them’.

Ah he’s used an example, well done him.  I’m not for indoctrinating anyone with a set of beliefs and not giving them the choice to consider whether or not those beliefs are real for them.  I grew up a Catholic and luckily avoided the hellfire and brimstone homilies until much later in life – and then it was both scary and funny.  I was creeped out by the idea that god/Jesus was following me around everywhere though, and that I had no privacy ever, and if it wasn’t god, it was one of the angels.  Threatening children with an eternity of hell for being human does cause some of them long-lasting harm.  If any child-abuse is bad, then why is religious fearmongering getting a free kick?

The New Atheism is very selective about who it targets. So although it claims to challenge irrationalism and anti-scientific prejudice, it tends to confine its anger to the dogma of the three Abrahamic religions. So it rightly criticises creationism and ‘intelligent design’, yet it rarely challenges the mystifications of deep environmentalist thinking, such as Gaia theory, or the numerous varieties of Eastern mysticism that are so fashionable in Hollywood. Since the New Atheism is culturally wedded to the contemporary therapeutic imagination, it is not surprising that it has adopted a double standard towards spiritualism.

Oddly enough, most prominent (and white, and male) atheists are based in the UK and the US.  The dominant religions in those two countries are the Abrahamic religions, so they’re big targets to aim at – specifically Christianity.  Despite that, I have seen prominent atheists tackle woo (as Greta Christina calls it), and give it exactly the same treatment.  I’d love to know to whom Furedi actually is referring to when he claims that atheism has a double standard towards spritiualism.  Because every single atheist I read (and I don’t read many), gives no space to woo at all, and has no double standard in relation to it.

Not surprisingly, many New Atheists have strongly criticised the idea of an atheist temple. The explicit formulation of ‘religion for atheists’ is abhorrent to those who have made a religion out of their disbelief. But for all that, in all but name the New Atheism has transformed itself not only into a secular religion but into an intensely intolerant and dogmatic secular religion.

Hint for Furedi – atheism is not a religion.  It is best defined as (definitions from Macquarie Dictionary):

1. the doctrine that there is no god.
2. disbelief in the existence of a god or gods (opposed to theism).
3. godlessness. [Greek atheos without a god + -ism]

Religion is defined as:

1. a belief in a supreme supernatural power or powers thought to control the universe and all living things.
2. a particular formalised system in which this belief has been embodied: the Christian religion.
3. the feeling or the spiritual attitude of those recognising such a controlling power or powers.
4. the manifestation of such feeling in conduct or life.
5. a point or matter of conscience, especially when zealously or obsessively observed: *If she had not been at the same time, a practical woman, loving wife, and devoted mother, she might have made a religion of it –patrick white, 1957.

Please note how the two are different.  Although you may attempt to shoe-horn “New Atheism” into definition 5, I honestly don’t think that it fits – mostly because people are not just one idea/ideal.

As a humanist, I am distressed by the corruption of the idea of atheism. Genuine humanists are critical of the influence of creationism and of religious fanaticism. Yet while attempts to reverse the separation of church and state are always a cause for concern, the real challenge facing humanists today does not emanate from organised religion. Rather, it is now often secular movements that promote the idea that human beings are powerless, vulnerable and victims of their circumstances. So instead of the religious belief in original sin, today we are confronted with the therapeutic claim that children are easily damaged and scarred for life. All the old religious sins have been recast in a secular, medical form. People are no longer condemned for lust but rather are treated for sex addiction. Gluttony has been reinvented as obesity. And envy and avarice have been rebranded as illnesses brought about by our ‘addictive consumer society’.

The real question confronting us is not the status of any god but the status that we assign to humanity. And the most powerful threat to the realisation of the human potential today comes, not from religion, but from the moral disorientation of Western secular culture.

Urm… Mr Furedi please go away and never ever publish anything ever again.  To suggest that secular movements are responsible for Western society’s ills gives religious harms a free pass.  We’ve had centuries of religion in what now makes up the Western world.  We’ve had religious wars because people did not believe in the right god, or go to the right place to worship.  We’ve had inquisitions about who was the right type of religious adherent.  We’ve shunned and excommunicated those who did not practice their religion in quite the right way, or who stood up against injustice in their religious faith.  We’ve debated as to whether people of different coloured skin to our own were our equals or born to be slaves.  We’ve kept slaves, deemed that rape was not a crime, watched the abuse of children (still not a sin apparently), and burnt women at the stake – all in the name of religion.

When religion has stopped being a force in the world that attempt to segregate people, keep others as lesser citizens than themselves, and take away the rights from others, then we can give it a pass for good.  Also arguing that current secular society has problems, and blaming those problems on secular organisations/groups/beliefs also dismisses all the cultural baggage that Western society carries regarding religion and inequality.

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One thought on “Frank Furedi’s comments on atheism”

  1. I can understand why people find some outspoken atheists, particularly Dawkins, irksome and preachy. Because I (mostly) agree with him, I (mostly) find him funny, but I totally understand why he gets up people’s noses. However, he’s one white dude with a truckload of privilege, mostly socking it to other white dudes with similar levels of privilege, and he hardly represents the broader population of people with atheist world views. I agree with you that all the atheists I know fight woo (or oogie boogie, as one of my philosophy lecturers referred to it) in all its forms. Even the ones I find aesthetically attractive. 🙂

    If he wants to take a swipe at some specific claims of some specific atheists, I’m sure there’s plenty of fodder. Dawkins certainly loves his hyperbole. But this article is laughable in its total lack of credibility.

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