Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Atheism 2.0 is a Downgrade

There's an interesting twenty minute TEDTalk (a YouTube channel very worth subscribing to, if you're not already) by Alain de Botton that was just posted today. In the talk, de Botton argues for a new kind of atheism - a version 2.0 - that he envisions as being not just friendlier to religion, but even borrowing some of the ideas and tactics from religion.

As an atheist who is so fascinated by religion that I'm currently pursuing a degree in Religious Studies, I can sympathize with some of what Alain has to say. Like Stephen Fry states in V for Vendetta, I don't have to be a Muslim to find the poetry in the Quran moving, or its pictures beautiful. Nor do I need to be a Christian or Jew to appreciate some of the wisdom that is found in the bible (however rare it may be). Good things ought to be praised regardless of their source and bad things ought to be condemned regardless of their source.

However, the insinuation de Botton makes at the very beginning, that 'Atheism 1.0' - found in some unnamed but easily guessed atheists of North Oxford - is unappreciative of the artistic side of religion genuinely baffles me. Richard Dawkins, who I'm starting to believe is one of the most misunderstood atheists in history, has admitted on several occasions that William Butler Yeats, an outspokenly religious poet, is one of his favorite poets, and similar nods have been made to Michelangelo, da Vinci, and so forth. Dawkins has written in defense of Jesus and even worn an "Atheists for Jesus" tshirt, as can be seen in the article. So just who are these atheists who want to trash everything religious without exception?

But it's not the compliments to religion that bug me about Alain's lecture, it's what he wants to take from them for use in atheism. He minces no words about the merit he sees in religious propaganda, and he advises that atheists utilize the same tactics of repetition, sermons, art, and so on. The problem I have with this is that, while it's undoubtedly effective (propaganda usually is), it's still ethically questionable. I have no issue with an atheist who incorporates their atheism into music and art, but doing so specifically in order to indoctrinate others is unethical, whether we're indoctrinating people with atheism or even with something good, like science understanding.

Alain notes that the difference between a sermon and a lecture is that a sermon wants to "change your life" while a lecture simply delivers information. This is the big difference between propaganda and education. Atheists are not in the business of changing lives in the sense that we indoctrinate people to believe as we do. That is absolutely not what being a freethinker means. Speaking for myself, as an atheist all I want to do is provide information, put an option out there and inspire thinking in ways that may not have occurred to someone before. What they do with that information is their responsibility, as it needs to be.

Atheism doesn't need a slick image or appealing mantras. The solution proposed by Mr. de Botton will get us closer to a religion of atheism, which is the last thing we need, as it will validate the absurd delusions of all those theists who accuse us of having more faith than they do. I also don't care to have any doctrines or tactics added to atheism to comprise any sort of manifesto. Atheism is fine just the way it is, as the lack of belief in god(s). To me, the beauty of this is that individual atheists are free to hold their own opinions and still remain atheists. I know atheists who think religion is good for society, I know some who think it is the bane of any society, I know others who practice religious rituals for personal enjoyment, and I know still others who seem to despise anything and everything related to religion.

In the Q&A, Alain is asked a question about conversing with believers. Using the example of a religious person who talks about prayer, he claims that the appropriate response for Atheism 2.0 is to politely ignore the comment. Having spoken with many other atheists about such topics, I know that there are many who let little comments like "god bless you" and "I'll be praying for you" slide by just as de Botton wishes. However, this is not always the appropriate response, nor should it be a firm expectation on atheists. I am more insulted when someone won't be honest with me or when they won't even grant me the forum of discussion than when they disagree with me. This is just one example of how Alain's version 2.0 is a downgrade, not just to atheists, but perhaps even to believers who interact with atheists.

To conclude, then, what little of benefit de Botton's Atheism 2.0 has can already be found in many atheists of the 1.0 variety, I would argue. The rest of his suggestions seem like a disaster waiting to happen. Alain's talk reminds me of something I heard on the Godless Bitches podcast a week ago. A girl had written a statement to the male atheist community, informing them that she liked their company, didn't find anything sexist in their behavior, and wanted them to keep on keepin' on. One of the hosts of the podcast rightly pointed out that the statement comes across as saying, "I'm not one of those annoying atheist feminist girls - I'm in the boys' club!" Atheism 2.0 comes across in a similar way: "I'm not one of those annoying atheists - I'm in the pro-religion club!" Do we really need a whole new version, approach, or philosophy of atheism for that though? Or can't we just individually show others that, as with theists, atheists come in many different varieties.


  1. In some ways I've already reached my 'Atheism 2.0'. I used to be a lot more negative about religion for about 2 years after I left Christianity. I'm even reading books by Christian theologians in order to get a better handle on the more scholarly discourse that exists (gasp).

  2. I thought atheism 2.0 was the point of getting harsher on religion not becoming more tolerant..