Is atheism the new fundamentalism

STANDPUNKT / 042: The New Atheism - a "Church of Fundamentalists"? (MIZ)

MIZ - materials and information currently
Political magazine for non-denominationalists and atheists - No. 4/07

New Atheism - a "Church of Fundamentalists"?
Why the popular accusations of mainstream reviews bypass the cause of the new atheists

From Christina Stefan

Ever since militant atheist publications have found considerable sales on the religiously animated public market and thus flank the likewise booming political self-organization of the "godless" with theory and arguments, the term "new atheism" has been circulating in the media world. Its most prominent figures - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michel Onfray, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett - would, according to the accusations that regularly accompany the new catchphrase, differ from their previous colleagues through militancy, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, missionary zeal and dogmatism. The criticism of religion - and thus it occupies a unique position within all journalistic criticism genres - is still required the virtue of respectful tolerance and moderation.


That faithful authors such as Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, author of the Dawkins Illusion, or David Klinghoffer from the conservative think tank Discovery Channel [1] would approach the concerns of the New Atheists with skepticism or even hostility, it was clear. But even in the liberal, traditionally church-critical mainstream press, the "radical" godless, especially Richard Dawkins, who is analyzed and panned as pars pro toto in most reviews, often encounter skeptical incomprehension or angry rejection. The New Atheists' criticism of specific political endeavors in religious circles (stem cell research, abortion, family policy, euthanasia, etc.) and their declared desire for emancipation are also considered legitimate by many of their opponents, especially in the USA. [2] Nevertheless: The basic tenor of the reviews is shaped by the conviction that the New Atheists throw too many innocent children with the unloved bath and are - apart from argumentative stringency - too extremist, too obsessed with the subject of religion and its social significance really to be able to meet.

As the mirror In May 2007 the most comprehensive report on the new atheism in German-speaking countries was printed under the title "God is to blame for everything! The crusade of the new atheists" [3], the attentive observer of the "secular scene" could find little new. For example, Gary Wolf attacked in the technology magazine Wired in the autumn of the previous year in a very polemical and less tolerant cover story the polemics and low tolerance of the religious opponents. [4] Robert Misik of the taz After he had praised the great merits of religion in left reforms and the influence of newly discovered "religious musicality" on cultural theorists such as Zizek, Agamben and Badiou, [5] blew his American colleague's horn in an earlier article. Speaking of Dawkins "and his co-conspirators", he was pleased to note the use of fighting terms such as "atheist brigade" in the New York Timesin which columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, lamented their "aggressive militancy" and feared that the atheist armament could trigger a revival of the Christian right - as if this were a long way off without the New Atheists. [6] Also the magazine Newsweek devotes itself extensively to the "new naysayers" [7] and in the British Times there are concerned comments from "atheistic heretics" such as Magnus Linklater, [8] who line up to defend the high virtue of tolerance and religious freedom. Prominent intellectuals such as literary theorist Terry Eagleton [9] and philosopher Michael Ruse, [10] evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr and Francis Collins, head of the "Human Genome Project", [11] join the canon of the self-proclaimed savior of religious freedom, spirituality and individualism and also question the scientific fairness of the New Atheists. Especially Eagleton's extensive (stylistically brilliant, by the way!) Criticism of Dawkins Delusional God is a much acclaimed review in later articles on New Atheism.

In November of this year, New Atheism also had two major appearances on public television; once the "attack of the wicked" was on the agenda People at Maischberger, [12] shortly thereafter Richard Dawkins was a guest of Johannes B. Kerner. [13] While Maischberger tried to work out the need for a separation between criticism of the church and criticism of faith ("it is not religion that is dangerous, but what the churches make of it"), but also the advocates of the opposite thesis, such as the sociologist and church critic Horst Herrmann ("Church criticism alone does not do enough. You have to start criticism of religion, criticism of faith, criticism of God") did not trigger outrage, Dawkins was immediately confronted with a multi-headed phalanx of representatives of the club of fundamentalism and tried in vain to distinguish between to demonstrate evidence-based passionate belief and fundamentalism.

The complete "indictment" of the critics of the New Atheists, whose individual points are in each case a partial statement of the other and which in its entirety ultimately amounts to the thesis that the New Atheism is intolerant, militant, ideological and therefore fundamentalist, essentially consists of the following extensively dealt with allegations.

Scientific-naturalistic "Puritanism"

The New Atheists with their naturalistic-rationally founded understanding of the world (there are a striking number of natural scientists among them) would not really do justice to the object of criticism with their instruments and would prefer to throw themselves on a caricature of religious ideas instead of seriously grappling with modern theology is a popular objection. Terry Eagleton, for example, criticizes in a much-quoted bon mot: "Imagine someone who talks about biology and who only knows the subject from the Book of British Birds then you have a rough idea of ​​what it is like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. "Rationalists like Dawkins, according to Eagleton, are not equipped to understand what they are attacking. Stanley Fish, another commentator on the New York Times, who adopts the New Atheism, even puts forward the bold thesis that all parameters of a naturalistic-evolutionary argument are only valid within the same and automatically lose their coherence as soon as they are applied to another - here the religious - thought structure, which is why the rational New atheists don't even come to a meaningful conclusion regarding the irrational Religion could come. [14] Finally, Michael Ruse speaks of scientific puritanism in Dawkins' worldview; the dogmatics is that of extremists, a point that Gary Wolf also agrees with: the New Atheists only care about "correct teaching", he scoffs, and in their favor they would even sacrifice a practical and sensible policy.

Concern about the "purity of teaching" is definitely a characteristic of religious and ideological fundamentalism, the only question that arises is whether the New Atheists are really only interested in this correct teaching as an end in itself or whether it is rather the side effects that can emanate from indifferent liberals, regardless of whether they are religious or not, as well as intellectual coherence are their concerns. Misik explains the rhetoric of the New Atheists wrongly only through the "hard bandages with which the religious opposing side acted so far", but a large part of the criticism is aimed at the theoretical basis of these "hard bandages", on the foundation of religions and not only on their practice. So it's not one fundamentalist Criticism, but one Criticism of the foundations, even if, in the course of liberal theology and obscuring exegesis, many have long since ceased to recognize it as authentic.

Who would actually attest puritanism or even fundamentalism to an airline if it adheres exclusively to the currently valid technical safety standards when performing the safety checks on its aircraft? Who would call for "other truths" like Fish? Now it could be countered that an aircraft is technology is, consequently it can only be examined with the parameters of the technology can; but literature, for example, does not do justice to this set of instruments. But the New Atheists' procedure is not that simple. Dawkins would hardly want to have the phenomenon of "prayer" examined solely on the basis of the orthopedic effects of the position of the hand and knee. Even if he constructed an analogy in the history of ideas to a biological process with memetics, the approach of the New Atheists to processes in the history of ideas is by no means characterized by a "materialistic-physical" crowbar method. You don't do justice to ideas with the microscope and you can't do a novel with a tape measure. But the world that is described in the history of ideas must also be able to withstand the knowledge about our real world, especially if its followers register relevance for this real world. In order to be able to formulate a "divine will" or "divine plan" of whatever kind, a subject would first have to be demonstrably able to plan and want (according to previous scientific knowledge this is only possible on the basis of complex neurological processes) and also these Plans and wishes would have to fit meaningfully into the knowledge about our universe. Scientific parameters and scientific ethos, the call for evidence and proof, are by no means, as some like to claim, parts of an ideology; rather, they are - even if they can and must vary depending on the object of investigation - the only way to distinguish right from wrong can. (This must not be confused with a total rejection of the world of the imaginary, otherwise the manifesto of evolutionary humanism would hardly say: "Who science, philosophy and art owns no religion. ")

The Canadian journalist Dan Gardner brings it best in his brilliant plea For "Those fanatical atheists" in a nutshell, "But what is the core of Dawkins 'radical message? Well, it goes something like this:' If you claim something is true, then I'll examine the evidence to support your claim ; If you have no evidence, then I will not accept what you say is true and will consider you a foolish and gullible person for believing in it. ' That's it. That's the whole crazy, fanatical package. " [15]

One-sidedness and destructiveness in content and form

The god Dawkins criticized, according to Eagleton, is a "vulgar caricature" of genuine religious images of God, and Ruse also senses intellectual imbalance: he wishes the New Atheists would take Christianity as seriously as they expected Christianity to do with Darwinism. Negative criticism should be formulated less insultingly and militantly, positive effects and values ​​of religion should be admitted and, above all, "one's own cause" should not be defined mainly by criticizing the cause of others, but by emphasizing the advantages of the humanistic aspects of atheism. Greg Epstein, the "Humanist Chaplain" of Harvard University, who is also gladly hailed as a representative of a "New Humanism", if not even a (in this case positively meant) "Church of the Non-Believers" and the secular help in life with rituals similar to religion offers, complains to Newsweekthat the New Atheists did not emphasize the constructive aspects of atheism enough and were too interested in polemics, [16] while Misik (Eagleton and later Friedrich Wilhelm Graf in the South German, [17] and Tristram Hunt in Guardian [18] second), who sees the supposedly great influence of (Christian) religiosity on progressive-liberal politics and theory as criminally neglected by the New Atheists.

It cannot be denied that a "new wind" is blowing in the entire movement of atheism and that criticism of religion is becoming fresher, more disrespectful and more combative, but whoever looks at works of "old atheism" will recognize that It has never been possible to formulate criticism of God and the house of God in such a way that no believer feels incommoded by it. The New Atheists bring their theses "to the point". To some, this may appear to be an inadequate shortening, even a distortion. Especially for those whose image of God is obscured by vagueness, contemporary exegesis, selective emphasis on the religious good news (while at the same time excluding the threatening message associated with almost every religion) and who can no longer recognize in Dawkins' much-quoted short portrait of the God of the Old Testament [19], that he thus summarizes entire Bible chapters, which - and this diligent work the New Atheists do as well as their enlightened ancestors - can of course be proven point by point. In the end, one does not have to come to the result of the New Atheists in order to dispense with the accusation of one-sided polemics: It is completely sufficient to understand that one is doing this with an analysis that has already been carried out (and argumentatively verifiable at any time) and the resulting evaluation has to do to accept the legitimacy of the clear words, even if one does not share the conclusion.

Fundamentalism includes clear partisanship, but the latter is by no means only to be found where one is dealing with fundamentalists. The test is easier than you think: For example, in the case of a phenomenon whose inhumanity there is consensus, who would accuse its critics of fundamentalism if they only emphasized the reprehensible, harmful aspects in clear words? Who would recognize the sometimes relentlessly clear language of Jesus as an indication of his "militant fundamentalism"? (This can be discussed, but not because of the language, but because of the rigor of the content.)

Unrealistic political goals, lack of diplomacy, intention to split

Gary Wolf complains that Dawkins agrees with Christian fundamentalists that teaching the theory of evolution logically leads to atheism. By consistently rejecting any belief, he sees any allies pissed off - namely, liberal believers and faith-tolerant atheists - and sensible social and political cooperation destroyed. Instead, an unrealistic radicalization of those who love peace is intended: "They not only condemn belief in God, they also condemn respect for belief in God."

It has an irritating effect on many, this relatively sharp criticism of the New Atheists not only of religious loyalists or extremists and the power apparatus of the major churches, but also of moderate, liberal believers who, in the opinion of the New Atheists, although themselves with a rather harmless variant of religiosity equipped to help spread the "virus" of fundamentalism with all its devastating manifestations through their commitment to the irrational (which inevitably accompanies every religious creed). And the trust of non-believers in the ethical quality of (in our case) Christian values, the "belief in faith" (Daniel Dennett), is considered wrong and dangerous. Of all the strategies of the New Atheists, this approach, which is perceived as unnecessary division and unjust exclusion, meets with the greatest lack of understanding and certainly contributes significantly to the fact that this atheism is so often reviewed as "radical", "fundamentalist" and "dogmatic".

Without question, it sounds relaxed and sympathetic when one is able to break away from strict camp thinking and, regardless of the ideological label, to ally with those who have similar values ​​and political goals as oneself. The opposite of this can ossify and appear puritanical. It is therefore understandable (and no doubt springs from the best, most honorable intentions) that the consistent division of the New Atheists into "naturalism on the one hand" and "supernaturalism on the other" as a theoretical hair-splitting and practical ossification in favor of "pure doctrine" is counted. Nevertheless, the arguments against such a worldview relativism cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Dan Gardner put it aptly: "The first problem for moderate believers comes from those who like their faith hot. They agree that God exists and that He is fooling around in the world. They consent to this book being His holy commandments contains.So how do you respond when religious fanatics say ... "

And Michael Schmidt-Salomon also warns, for good reasons, against considering this "somehow humanism" of liberal believers and non-believers who are friendly to faith as too unproblematic: Firstly, it obscures the view of what Christianity (and other institutionalized religions) have meant over many centuries and what it still means today in its pure, fundamentalist, Enlightenment not tamed variants in large parts of the world and, secondly, through its ideological appropriation of humanist traditions, it blurs the sharp contradictions that exist between a consistently humanist position and religious belief. The twins "Humanism light" and "Christianity light", born from the marriage of "Christianity" and "Enlightenment Humanism", are not only theoretically on wooden feet, but are also impotent with regard to their ethical consequences. The problem, according to Schmidt-Salomon: "In a crisis situation they are at risk of reassuming the authoritarian character traits of their religious 'father', namely Christianity, which was untamed in the Enlightenment." [20] The latter in particular should alarm the defenders of tolerance!

Missionary zeal and dictatorship of needs

What is really new and striking about New Atheism is its socially far-reaching program: the declared socio-political intention of the authors (promoting the public visibility of atheists and promoting clear partiality among the majority of the undecided), the campaigns that accompany the theoretical works and the explicit willingness to deny the religions the respect that is often demanded and, unfortunately, that has been established as a convention for too long. The role of the Internet for their own cause is therefore always emphasized by Dawkins and Co. in interviews, even if of course the other stages of mass communication publicity (TV, press, etc.) are also used.

One of the most unfriendly accusations put forward is therefore that the New Atheists are not only too radical in their rejection of "false believers", but that their efforts and publications are the result of a fanatical zeal for mission. Understandably, this is not well received, as people who want to "educate" others in their own way, who even have an image of the "right person", collide with basic values ​​such as free self-determination and individualism. The demand of the New Atheists not only to speak for themselves, but also to want to convince others, as well as their conviction that religion is fundamentally dispensable for humans, is perceived as appropriating and as ignorance, even dominance, of the less rational needs of others. For example, Meinrad Walter asks himself in a program on SWR2 why people speak so often in the "we-form" when it comes to individual needs. "How exactly does Michel Onfray know what I need? With 'we' the wicked repeat the mistake of appropriation, which religion has already made often enough. "[21] The New Atheism is primarily aimed at the intellect and overcomes the human need to believe, which is natural from an anthropological point of view away when he proclaims a single right path for everyone (keyword: leading culture).

Anyone who is on a missionary journey these days runs the risk of being ridiculous. Improving the world is uncool, and preaching is even more so. In this respect, the declared program of the New Atheists of wanting to convince people offers a lot of irritation, and that is a good thing. The offer of the one who asks people to "follow him" should be checked thoroughly, there were already more than enough false and devastating saviors. But is it right to speak of mission at all here? Mission is rightly an unpopular term and this is not only due to the bloodthirsty history that adheres to it, but also to the fact that mission content mostly consisted of proclaiming unquestionable truths to groups of people who did not have the opportunity in their civilizational or personal development to oppose the preaching. It goes without saying that this is morally highly questionable. However, the New Atheists do not surprise backwoodsmen or small children, but rather provoke a public discourse that in some places has not yet taken place and in many places has not taken place recently. Instead of sitting it out, they formulate a conflict that inevitably results from different positions (which will not go away if the silence is kept!), A conflict that they did not trigger themselves. The message is not "we have the truth and therefore have to you Submit yourselves to us ", but" we have an opinion and arguments for it and we speak them out, even if you do not like them. "

Here - one cannot emphasize this clearly enough - the New Atheism, like any other worldview, must also be measured by its ethics towards those who think and live differently. The great idea of ​​an enlightened humanism freed from otherworldly authorities, that every person must be able to implement their own idea of ​​real life, becomes a challenge precisely where this idea no longer corresponds to their own ideal. The new atheists must also keep the intellectual possibility open that there could be people and biographies who are better served with religion than without. At first glance, the New Atheism seems narrow-minded and pitiless in this regard, but this impression is deceptive: Nobody should be banned from private, spiritual consolation and calming tablets and the way of rationality should be legally prescribed. Rather, the criticism is aimed at the side effects of the entire trade in spirituality, at the collateral damage that results from the satisfaction of religious needs, and also reveals intellectual inconsistencies.

"Religion" of the unbelievers?

Paradoxically, another accusation has become popular, through which the defenders of the middle way unwittingly agree with the harsh critics of church and religion: the New Atheism runs the risk of becoming a religion itself; his methods and ways of thinking are identical to what they are attacking. Intolerant of those who think differently, puritanical in "their own teaching", missionary to those who think differently, radical in the condemnation of "evil" and world-improving and thus promising salvation in the self-image of one's own offer. In the current issue of New Rundschau For example, the philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach defines the "pious atheist": He is characterized by the fact that he asks "ultimate questions" but no longer allows God to answer these questions. [22] If one ignores the supernatural element of the religious, this reproach is ultimately aimed at ascribing ideological elements to the new atheism as well as abolishing the separation between reason and religion by "elevating" the former to an object of faith and thus at criticism is useful to its advocates for a "tu quoque" charge. ("You believe yourself, but you believe in reason!")

But perhaps it is also more positive associations that contribute to the idea that the New Atheism contains religious components: clear convictions, the courage to take unpopular, outdated positions, the "advertisement" for one's own cause or the ideal of a "better world" ? However that may be, neither passion nor a clear position are the sole diagnostic criteria for the religious. (The message of salvation and sense of mission are more likely!) The fundamental dividing line, as Dawkins never tires of emphasizing, lies between naturalism and supernaturalism, between rationality and irrationality.

Doubt can also be decided

All this criticism and what it amounts to should be taken seriously without overestimating them, because one thing is certain: it can be formally applied to any convincing or even passionate and partisan idea, even if it is sometimes incorrect. Anyone who does not relativize, who reaches the limits of tolerance, who not only criticizes constructively but also harshly condemns, can easily be accused of rigorism unless there is complete agreement on the subject.

This September the first book by an "angry agnostic" was published: John Humphrys In God we doubt. He wrote it, according to the 64-year-old radio and television journalist, who is one of the most recognized in Great Britain, in order to take away the fear of the radical atheists from the believers and the agnostic doubters to feel ashamed of their position. [23] In addition to the "New Atheists", the "New Religiosity" and the "New Humanism", we will perhaps soon read about the "New Agnosticism"? But will we find all the reproaches made against the New Atheists in the reviews of the undoubtedly more popular position of Humphrys? With the current inflation of the concept of fundamentalism, it would be no wonder.

Humphrys, who describes himself as a devout doubter, believes that agnosticism is the only intellectually acceptable attitude, which prompts him primarily to be angry with the staunch critics of the faith rather than those who believe. His mistake in thinking is obvious: He criticizes - not at all agnostic and not at all convincingly doubtful - the positions of New Atheism. That is his right. Probably, when asked how this is compatible with his declared agnosticism, he would answer that these positions are a very secular system of thought, man-made, man-made and thus in principle accessible to the knowledge of other people. And he would probably not be aware that the New Atheists ultimately - at least from their point of view - do nothing else: criticize and reject them man-made Gods (and all resulting social and political consequences for this world). Their sharp reviews in no way concern gods from actually other spheres inaccessible to our knowledge, which to describe - here they would certainly agree with Humphrys - would be as pointless as it would be impossible.

That one can come to the exact opposite conclusion as Humphrys out of convinced agnosticism is shown very nicely by Matthew Parris' comment in the Times: "Shout your doubt out loud, my fellow unbelievers". [24] Convinced that he could not know anything about certain things, he did not come to the (paradoxical) conclusion that he had to defend those who claim to do it anyway, but to the exact opposite. Disbelief does not have to lead to mild skepticism: "Disbelief can be passionate. Sometimes it should be too. Agnosticism can be passionate. If our perception lacks certainty, lack of evidence, the external guidance of shining signposts is missing, it does not always have to lead to tiredness, accommodating or Humble silence. Sometimes it should trigger the loud cry, 'Stop. You can't know that. You have no right.' "

Christina Stefan, Studied theater studies, modern German literature and linguistics at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Education "Film, Television and Video" at UCLA Los Angeles. Then various jobs in film and theater; currently freelance editor and publicist.


[1] David Klinghoffer: Prophets of the new atheism, in: Seattle Times, 6.4.2007

[2] According to a recent Gallup survey, the willingness to vote for a homosexual candidate is at 63% significantly higher than that to vote for an atheist (52%) and it is therefore no coincidence that the New Atheists in favor of their To clarify the position, to refer regularly to the "gay pride movement", whose often perceived as "aggressive" advertising for their own cause in a breathtakingly short time from a social climate of repression and a legal state of criminalization to social acceptance and if so not yet completed - legal equality. By analogy with this, American journalists also call the New Atheism movement a kind of "atheist pride movement".

[3] God is to blame for everything, in: Spiegel from May 26, 2007

[4] Gary Wolf: The Church of the Non-Believers, in: Wired, 11/14/2006

[5] Robert Misik: "Faith moves the left", in: taz from November 7, 2006 and "Bad Religion", in: taz from December 27, 2006

[6] Nicholas D. Kristof: A Moddest Proposal for a Truce on Religion, in: New York Times, December 3, 2006

[7] Jerry Adler: The New Naysayers, in: Newsweek 9/11/2006

[8] Magnus Linklater: Like any half-decent atheist, I'm fund of a bit of religion, in: Times of 5.9.2007

[9] Terry Eagleton: Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, in: London Review of Books, October 19, 2006

[10] Michael Ruse: Through a Glass, Darkly, in: American Scientist 11-12 / 2003

[11] Francis Collins is one of the most prominent scholars who advocate the compatibility of science and religion and is the author of the book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

[12] November 13, 2007, ARD

[13] "A question of faith", December 15, 2007, ZDF

[14] Stanley Fish: Atheism and Evidence, in: New York Times, June 17, 2007

[15] Dan Gardner: Those fanatical Atheists, in: Ottawa Citizen, 5.5.2007

[16] Lisa Miller: BeliefWatch: Smackdown, in: Newsweek of June 18, 2007

[17] Friedrich Wilhelm Graf: God as a bloodthirsty monster. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - a biologist hate preacher and a liberal skeptic attack religion in their books, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 9/11/2007

[18] Tristram Hunt: The milquetoast consensus is unnerved by radical faith. By ignoring the influence of religion on preogressive politics, the new atheist orthodoxy reveals itself as stupid and solipsistic, in: Guardian from 12.9.2007

[19] Richard Dawkins writes in God delusion: "The God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant figure in all of literature: He's jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, resentful surveillance fanatic; a vengeful, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, child and peoples murderer , disgusting, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, moody-malicious tyrant. "

[20] Michael Schmidt-Salomon: Somehow we are all humanists, 21 Meinrad Walter: How dead is God? The new atheism and its arguments, SWR 2: broadcast from June 30, 2007

[22] Herbert Schnädelbach: The pious atheist, in: Neue Rundschau 118, issue 2

[23] Catherine Deveney: Faith, hope and clarity, in: Scotsman, 9.9.2007; An excerpt from the book can be found at [accessed September 2, 2007].

[24] Mathew Parris: Shout your doubt out loud, my fellow unbelievers, in: Times of April 21, 2007


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No. 4/07, pp. 6-14, year 36
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published in Schattenblick on April 2nd, 2008