Aug 14, 2012

Atheism after New Atheism

What happens after New Atheism?

As a group, the New Atheists took a lot of their impetus, their energy and vitriol, from the historical moment of 9/11. That historical moment is passing, though. Likewise, there seems to be a sense that New Atheism is increasingly passe. The abrasive rhetoric and aggravation of culture wars can only play for so long. Where does the "conversation" go after Religulous?

Perhaps in another direction entirely.

Two writers, one in Harpers and one in the Chronicle of Higher Education, are suggesting that new schools of atheist thought have emerged -- or, perhaps, congealed -- that aren't interested in debunking religion, but understanding it. They've abandoned the antagonistic and essentially political project of New Atheism. Instead, they're pursuing something more nuanced.

Christopher R. Beha, a self-described "disappointed disbeliever," in Harpers:
"The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead."
Tom Bartlett, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"[Y]ou have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific."
It's not entirely clear that Bartlett and  Beha are talking about the same cultural thing, and I'm not entirely convinced the various people and projects described in the two pieces qualify as a movement or as movements.

But, add in Chris Stedman's attempts to integrate atheists into interfaith work and his forthcoming book, Faitheist, "The story of a former Evangelical Christian turned openly gay atheist who now works to bridge the divide between atheists and the religious," and one does sense perhaps the beginnings of atheism after New Atheism.