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The New Atheists: Arrogant, Rigid and Charmless

John on January 6, 2007 at 11:04 pm

That’s not what I’m saying, that’s what Sam Shulman is saying in a Wall Street Journal commentary piece on the new atheists. Then again, when it comes to the self-anointed atheists leadership, I’d have to agree Mr. Shulman is pretty much on target:

What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote–both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

I’ve been told by atheists that they feel the same irritation when the suggestions is made that they all march in lockstep with Dawkins. I noted an LA Times story on that topic about a week ago.

Shulman suggests the new atheists have become an unattractive example of the dangers of fundamentalism:

For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it.


Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background–Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon–who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more “open-minded” homes–rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.

I’m not a teacher, but I’d say we’ve seen some of that unsympathetic rigidity here at VS (and to be fair we’ve also had some very reasonable and polite atheists drop by and make good points).

The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves–a remarkably incurious elite.

So long as one recognizes he’s not talking about all atheists, I think Mr. Shulman makes excellent points. The whole thing is worth reading.

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