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Today, in contrast, atheism takes itself very seriously indeed. With their zealous denunciation of religion, the so-called New Atheists often resemble medieval moral crusaders. They argue that the influence of religion should be fought wherever it rears its ugly head. Although they demand that religion should be countered by rational arguments, their own claims often verge on the irrational and hysterical. Of course, there has always been an honourable atheist tradition of irreverence and irreligious contempt for dogma. But today’s New Atheism often expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own. In a simplistic manner it equates religion with fanaticism and fundamentalism. What is striking about its denunciation of fundamentalism is that it is frequently made in the dogmatic, polemical style of those it claims to oppose. The black-and-white world of theological dogma is reproduced in the zealous polemic of the atheist moraliser…
…The New Atheism is very selective about who it targets. So although it claims to challenge irrationalism and anti-scientific prejudice, it tends to confine its anger to the dogma of the three Abrahamic religions. So it rightly criticises creationism and ‘intelligent design’, yet it rarely challenges the mystifications of deep environmentalist thinking, such as Gaia theory, or the numerous varieties of Eastern mysticism that are so fashionable in Hollywood. Since the New Atheism is culturally wedded to the contemporary therapeutic imagination, it is not surprising that it has adopted a double standard towards spiritualism.
Historically, atheism has sometimes co-existed with opportunism towards religious and spiritual belief. The French philosopher Voltaire hated religious fanaticism but nevertheless believed that religion was useful for pacifying the masses. In a similar vein, in the nineteenth century, the French social theorists Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte believed that social stability required them to invent a new religion. Invariably, such attempts to construct a secular religion are really about trying to endow human experience with meaning.
It was inevitable that sooner or later the New Atheist crusade would mutate into a quasi-religion. Alain de Botton’s recently published Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is an attempt to absorb into atheism the current therapeutic and spiritual fads that influence Western elite culture. De Botton has proposed building temples for atheists through the UK. ‘It’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals’, he says. Unlike the New Atheists, De Botton does not adopt an aggressive approach towards religion, which means his attitude does at least contrast to that of Dawkins or Harris.