New Atheism, as a movement, spends a not-insignificant amount of time pointing out the evils done in the name of religion. We get criticised a lot for being constantly negative, for opposing certain religious practices with such fervour - as though we have no higher goal than to see religion consigned to the pages of history. Certainly, there are practices that we really do want to see the end of; things that have no place in modern society. And the sheer number of ways religion fosters intolerant, violent acts makes it pretty clear that religion is, as some have said, the root of all evil, right? Wrong.
Religious people tend to counter the many examples of religious bigotry in two ways. First, they point out the good people do in the name of religion; and, while religious charities sometimes tend to do a lot of harm at the same time as they’re doing good (for example, missionaries who give medical aid but insist that people not use contraceptives, even in impoverished, AIDS-rife areas of Africa) the selflessness, generosity and general goodwill they provide is invaluable. The other counter, however, is to claim various examples of evil done by atheists; the primary ones being Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Some examples can be debunked in simple matters of fact - Hitler was not an atheist, and his anti-Semitism was born out of hundreds of years of Christian bigotry towards the Jews. Indeed, the whole idea of Aryanism is predicated on a creationist worldview, in which God created perfect, angelic people whose bloodlines were subsequently polluted by lesser people.
But the others are less simple. Mao and Stalin are branded as atheistic tyrants as well. In reality, both abolished religion as a means of creating a power vacuum of sorts - without a God to worship, it was much easier to make their followers worship them, thus granting them all sorts of power. That said, the fact that they didn’t style themselves explicitly as gods or conduits to god - as any number of cult leaders do – probably does indicate that they were atheistic.
The thing is, when you want to criticise what Stalin and Mao did, the fact that they were atheists is at best a side-issue. While everything from the crusades to the Holocaust to the modern Jihad phenomenon are explicitly justified by religious teachings, the same can’t be said for the crimes of communism - not least because there are no teachings of atheism. You do of course need to be fairly selective in cherry-picking which bits of a religion you follow if you want to justify these things – but the raw material is there if you want to use it. There is no centralised dogma of atheism - all it really specifies is a lack of a belief.
Think of it this way - Christians attributing the crimes of Stalin and Mao to their atheism is like a Scientologist attributing every atrocity of the 20th century to out-of-control thetans. Sure - none of the people involved were Scientologists, but that does not demonstrate that their lack of thetan control was the defining factor.
The less-strident claim is that it’s not so much atheism - as in, not something taught by atheists - but more a lack of religion; as though these people would have resisted the urge to power if they’d had religious morals instilled into them. I think the amount of evil sanctioned and committed by religion over the years makes such a blanket statement pretty obviously incorrect, though.
So, if not atheism, if not a lack of religious morals, then what? What drove these men to do these horrific things? The short answer is - unbridled greed and lust for power, justified by various totalitarian, fascist doctrines. These base desires of human nature - greed, jealousy, fear - are in us all, and people tend to find an ethos that will justify whatever it is they already want to do, rather than tailor their actions to what their ethos tells them to.
Religion is not the root of all evil, by any stretch of the imagination. Humans are the root of all evil - religion, like all totalitarian regimes, is just a symptom of that. It is one of many - but the reason we spend so much time dealing with it is because it holds such privilege.
Firstly, its place in society is buttressed by a number of institutions. In most countries, churches are given the same tax-free status as charities, even if their funds are not used for charitable purposes…so unlike any other philosophy, they are taxpayer-funded. They’re also frequently granted exemptions from laws such as anti-discrimination laws (Ted Baillieu recently forced through legislation to allow churches and religious groups – even those that administer government-funded projects – to discriminate against pretty much anyone they want) which reflects their general status as a ‘special case’ within society, something effectively above the law. Most pertinently, in Australia at least, religion is integrated into our school system, indoctrinating children at an age when they cannot possibly judge the truth of what they’re being taught.
Secondly, the internal logic of most religions has evolved quite a few useful tricks over the millennia. It’s hard to realise a belief system is wrong when part of that belief system discourages questioning. When that belief system calls faith – belief in the absence of, or in spite of, evidence – a virtue. When it helps transmute the idea of tolerance from “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we can’t be civil” to “Any idea is as good as another, so you can’t attack our beliefs for being ‘wrong’”. When it has pre-made counterarguments for anything that seems to prove it wrong – God moves in mysterious ways, God has a plan we can’t understand, God is just testing your faith. Basically – it’s really hard for new evidence to dislodge a belief that holds that doctrine and tradition should be held above new evidence.
But religion is still just one manifestation of what New Atheism is trying to combat. Like I said, though, New Atheism doesn’t have a set dogma of any kind. It is extremely common for members to hold certain views - for example, New Atheism is strongly correlated with democratic, liberal values, with a strong sense of social equality and justice, with open-mindedness on sexuality and gender politics, and above all a lot of value placed on science and rationality. But it really doesn’t specify any of those things, and to a certain extent it can’t and shouldn’t.
At the end of the day, though, that makes it just a transitional body. A loose coalition more than a movement, really. The thing is, although most of us have more or less the same goals in mind, there’s no one term that encompasses it all. Rationalism sort of takes care of the ‘facts of the world’ and the ‘how to get things done’ part, but it doesn’t really have the connotations of morality. And the morality is hugely important - but then, Humanism (which is probably the closest approximation) deals only with the morality and not so much with the facts. There’s no reason why you can’t have an ideology that both describes how the world works and gives moral guidance, but there really isn’t a good enough one yet.
Prominent New Atheists, from your Dawkins and your Harris right down to your McCreight and your Rad, are trying to fight the huge beast of irrationality. It is a ravenous monster that feeds off the animalistic emotions of human beings, that whispers into your ear to seduce you into feeding it more. It lies to you about what you should value and how you should get it. It draws you in like a Siren, it has an unendingly ravenous maw like Charybdis, and it has many heads like Scylla - but religion is just one of those heads. Once that’s dealt with, things like racism, homophobia, consumerism and anti-intellectualism will still need to be dealt with (though it’s worth noting that many New Atheists are also part of movements that are beginning to tackle such problems now).
As I’ve pointed out before, atheists are trying to do a lot of things, and ridding the world of religion isn’t really one of them - it’s just that religion tends to get in the way of our real goals a lot. What we’re doing, we don’t really have a word for yet. Maybe I’ll come up with one. But one thing’s for sure - atheism is just the beginning.
(Part Two here)