‘New’ Atheism or True Atheism?

We are by now familiar with Atheist stunts: the man who recorded his lack of consent in the baptism register (long after the original ceremony); the bus advertisement announcing, Theres probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. More recently, celebrity Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have urged a citizens arrest of the Pope when he visits the UK, based on his alleged crimes against humanity, including covering up child abuse - although Professor Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, has also claimed that teaching children religion can be a worse form of child abuse: though odious, priestly child abuse may do less lasting damage.

Such campaigns have attracted wide publicity, but it has been pointed out that Pope Benedict has dealt firmly with Church scandals, acting even before his election to tackle the filth of corruption. The bus advert was unintentionally hilarious, drawing attention to a certain lack of Atheist certainty; other campaigns were frankly baffling  why would those who do not believe in baptism wish to be unbaptised? If Atheism offers an escape from religion, why spend so much time obsessing about it? Why indulge in legal campaigns, such as that against Bideford Town Council, to ban prayers before meetings  why worry about prayer when you dont believe in it? Why attempt to banish religious teaching from schools to avoid brainwashing children when such brainwashing did not stop people like Richard Dawkins, Phillip Pullman and the late Douglas Adams, along with thousands of others, from rejecting religion? Perhaps Atheists have borrowed from Proverbs: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
This modern anti-religious revival could be seen as a back-handed compliment to religions staying power, but anyone who has reached an Atheist standpoint through careful philosophical and historical study must know that the Judeo-Christian tradition has pioneered many issues of enlightened concern, including addressing poverty, equality and care for the environment. Moreover, that while intolerant Christianity has left space for Atheism, tolerant Atheism would elbow out Christianity; most recently, Lord Justice Laws, in the case of a Christian counsellor sacked for not wishing to give intimate counselling to homosexuals, ruled that religious belief is subjective, irrational and incommunicable, thus making clear that anyone working in the public sphere must not dissent from secularist freedoms.
However, this freedom does not mean helping people do the right thing, but removing barriers to them doing the wrong thing - and Christianity is seen as one of those barriers. Such freedoms have led to the suffering of the weakest as Western society begins to unravel, making it all the more obvious that caring for the vulnerable is not commonsense but the result of an ethical system that prioritises the weak over the strong.
The old humanist societies used to argue that people didnt need God to behave ethically; has the new Atheism departed from the old ethic? Modern Atheist campaigns for social freedoms, with their prioritising of the strong over the weak, carry more than a whiff of eugenics; but in fact the old ethical Atheism redefined words like compassion to mean their exact opposite, arguing for the killing of the weak because they posed a burden on the strong, thus combining a Nietzschean transvaluation of values with the worst aspects of Darwinism. The old Atheism embraced eugenics and population control, and the old campaigns for eugenics and population control were composed almost exclusively of Atheists; they believed there were simply too many people  that the worst sort of people were over-breeding; that over-population would result in starvation and war; that improving conditions for the poor only added to the problem. In fact, the poor were the problem.
Nevertheless there was a noticeable break between old and new Atheism: a small group of rather eccentric individuals became, in the 1960s, an articulate, highly organised campaign; as Susan Budd notes in her history of the Atheist movement, Varieties of Unbelief (1977), the sudden growth of the British humanist movement was due to a growth of interest in the moral and social issues which lay, at that time, outside the sphere of conventional politics. Such issues included abortion and euthanasia, traditional preoccupations of the Eugenics Society, which in the 1960s began to pursue its aims through a variety of pressure groups. In 1967, after many years of Eugenics Society campaigning, abortion was legalized on compassionate grounds; subsequent attempts at restriction were rebuffed by campaigners presenting it as a womans right; now euthanasia is being presented as a human right, and that campaign has also, at long last, taken off. It would be difficult to find a modern Atheist who did not support divorce, abortion, birth control and euthanasia, but whereas old Atheism made these demands in order to control the quantity and quality of the population, new Atheism emphasizes equality and diversity, supporting the same issues - to which add embryo experimentation and cloning  as freedoms intrinsic to human rights and equality.
Support for such issues is not confined to Atheists; many now see science as a quasi religion, its findings set in stone rather than illuminating the next new horizon of knowledge. Support for Evolution has become almost an act of faith, and anyone who questions aspects of it runs the risk of being denounced as a heretic, even though Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950) taught that evolution could be accepted as an explanation of Mans origins  as I clearly remember being taught by nuns at primary school. Despite Christianitys contribution to science - including Gregor Mendel, a monk who carried out pioneering work in genetics - religion is now caricatured as opposed to science, even as irrational  vide Lord Justice Laws. Charles Darwin is regarded in some quarters as a secular saint (the British Humanist Association has a campaign for Darwin day), despite the fact that he took his inspiration directly from Malthus, popularising the idea of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859); he also opined in The Descent of Man (1871) that [w]ith savagesthe weak in body or mind are soon eliminated We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.  Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind; indeed, he maintained that hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. In Victorian times T. H. Huxley took it upon himself to defend Darwin from religious opposition; now we are overrun with Darwins Bulldogs, while Bishop Wilberforces are few in number; televisions seemingly boundless enthusiasm for science, which itself approaches religious fervour, tends to draw a discreet veil over sciences less positive contributions to human welfare, like concentration camp experiments, environmental pollution, the arms race, and, of course, eugenics and population control.
No doubt the New Atheist would protest that these were aberrations, while insisting that every religious persecutor and exterminator was a true believer. However, by definition, an Atheist rejects all religion  including making a religion out of Darwin, eugenics, population control, or science. He would not attempt to stamp out other peoples beliefs in the name of tolerance, indulging in stunts that undermined his own claim to rational thought. In fact, in Jesus teaching, a true Atheist would not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.
(April 2010. A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Times newspaper.)

© 2012 ANN FARMER