by Denyse O'Leary
When I was young (the Middle Stone Age, if you must know), the average atheist came in two flavours:
1. The atheist bore. After he announced that he KNEW that there is no God and that he could PROVE his case in a MERE three hours, ... he somehow mysteriously stopped receiving desirable invitations to dinner. That, he maintained, was just another typical example of the random flux of the universe.
2. The private atheist. Typically, he had lost his faith as a result of horrendous wartime experiences. He never wanted to discuss the details, and seldom joined an organization that needed a postage meter. He would gladly help shingle the church roof but did not pray with the congregation. People usually included him in gatherings. He was wounded, but never - in principle - a mere bore. After all, he had realized a fundamental social fact: People who do not want religion rammed down their throat do not want irreligion rammed down it either.
These people were often attracted by materialism (the belief that matter is all there is). But it was never clear whether they were really materialists or just didn't believe in God. The distinction is critical. Buddhists don't believe in God either, but they are generally non-materialists. They do believe that the soul is immortal and that you cannot escape the consequences of your actions, in the next life if not this one.
So, as we will see, there is a significant difference between materialist and non-materialist atheists. And materialist atheists hate non-materialist atheists almost as much as they hate Christians.
Recently, however, the social landscape around atheism in the Western world has changed a bit. Materialist atheists in particular have attempted to institutionalize their beliefs as a sort of Church of Atheism.
As Gary Wolf explains in Wired,
MY FRIENDS, I MUST ASK YOU AN IMPORTANT QUESTION TODAY: Where do you stand on God?
It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.
This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists.
[ ... ]
The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.
Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith.
The new Church of the Non-Believers, as Wolf terms it, is in part a response to the intelligent design controversy. But in a larger sense it is a response to the persistent failure of evidence for materialism over a large number of areas, including the ones staked by the intelligent design advocates. Not surprisingly, therefore, the materialist atheists are full of hostility to the evidence presented by others, see dark political plots everywhere, and very much want to limit or circumscribe all non-materialist perspectives in some way. They are also a strikingly incurious lot, prone to dogmatism and to accepting foolish theories of human behaviour.
And they are full, chock full, of angst. As Richard Bernstein explains in the International Herald Tribune,
To atheists like Weinberg, Dawkins and Harris and their many avid readers, it is clearly disappointing that in America, unlike in most of Europe, rationalist, scientific ideas have not become the norm. Harris gloomily recites poll figures on this point: 53 percent of Americans, he says, believe in creationism, which to scientists is like believing that the sun revolves around the Earth. In what he sees as an illustration of mass self-delusion, 80 percent of the survivors of the Katrina disaster claim that the hurricane and flood strengthened their faith in God Ã¢â‚¬â€ rather than serving as powerful evidence, as it does for Harris, that God does not exist.
So, if you survived Katrina but do not see it as Harris does, there is clearly something wrong with you. Jane Lampman observes in the Christian Science Monitor:
While critics point out that religion is a genuine reflection of people's experience and will always exist, Mr. Harris suggests it could be equated with slavery, which once was widely acceptable, but eventually was looked upon with horror.
But she is quick to reassure us that, nonetheless, the atheist churches wish to be known for their tolerance of other faiths.
Well, let's have a look at the new Church of (materialist) Atheism and its prospects in an increasingly anti-materialist age
Series on the Anti-God Crusade:
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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