“The new atheists are just as bad as religious fundamentalists.” We’ve all heard it… it’s becoming a tiresome commonplace. To those of us within the atheist community, it’s a baffling statement. Just as bad, really? When have atheists ever lobbied against other people’s rights to marry who they chose? When have atheists ever used violence and terrorism against people who believed differently? (Okay, some arms of secular communism did… but people who say we’re “just as bad” are usually talking about Dawkins, not Stalin.) When have atheists ever suggested that other people don’t have the right to mock and criticize their beliefs, and even threatened retribution against those who “blaspheme”? We just don’t do shit like that. So it’s very odd to hear that we’re “just as bad” as religious fundamentalists.
A commenter on Ophelia Benson’s blog made it clear to me. These accusations come from people who think religion’s chief offense is believing that it is right and all others are wrong. They have bought into the liberal, postmodern idea that it is rude and offensive and foolish to say, “My beliefs are true and yours are false.” That is their main objection to religion, and they assume that that’s everybody’s main objection to religion, and so they’re baffled and offended when an atheist says to a believer, “My beliefs are true and yours are false.”
For any who are so confused, let me set the record straight. “New atheists,” like religious fundamentalists (and evangelicals, and many other religious people) believe that there is a truth about the ultimate nature of the universe. We believe that sentences like “There is a god” are meaningful and may be either true or false: that is, may correspond more or less closely with reality. We also believe that the truth or falsehood of this sentence matters. We believe that people who conduct their lives according to an accurate belief about the ultimate nature of the universe (which includes the existence or non-existence of a god) are better off than people who live by a false belief. On all these principles, we are indeed like religious fundamentalists, evangelicals, et al.
Both atheists and theists may be humble enough to recognize that they could be wrong in their beliefs. They may be humble enough to recognize that their conception of God or the universe is probably incomplete, lacking, errant in some respects. But they will still claim that their beliefs are closer to the truth, and how could they not? The idea of a belief that one does not actually believe is nonsensical. And beliefs about the ultimate nature of the universe do carry some implications about the best kind of life. If one accepts that some beliefs are truer than others, the only sensible course is to try to find your way to the truest beliefs, and to help others find them as well.
So yeah, if your big problem with religious people is that they have the gall to think they’re right and others are wrong, then the new atheists are “just as bad.” That is not, and has never been, my criticism of religion, and I think the other Gnus are with me on that. Hope that clears it up.