The atheist liberation movement of recent years has featured efforts to explain away the global prevalence of religion as totally the result of social forces that perhaps got imprinted into humanity’s evolutionary biology.
The tables are turned in a new book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement” (Oxford University Press). Journalists: It’s heady stuff to be a hook for news treatment, but worth the effort.
The book analyzes atheistic causes in North America over the past century, including its internal schisms and contradictions. The work is based on Canadian author Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral dissertation at York University in Ontario and post-doctoral study in Sweden at Uppsala University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.
Religion newswriters are well aware that those aggressive “New Atheists” sometimes suggest faith is not just stupid but morally evil or a sort of mental illness, such that parents should be forbidden to infect their own children with it. Journalists may be surprised to learn that for LeDrew and others, this sort of anti-religion thinking is outdated and “utterly out of sync with contemporary social science.”
Social scientists long embraced the “secularization thesis,” according to which religion will inevitably decline as modern science advances. But now, says LeDrew, many acknowledge that scenario was “a product of ideology” rather than empirical fact. Thus, the New Atheism could be seen as a promotional effort to defend against “a perceived failure of secularism in practice in late modern society.”
LeDrew finds it “amazing” that so many sociologists have examined religion but few have given similar scrutiny to “the secular movement” that consists of “a loose network of organizations dedicated to atheism, rationalism, secularism and/or humanism.” When examined closely, he sees the New Atheism as “secular fundamentalism, a modern utopian ideology” that’s “essentially political.”
Beginning a century ago, atheism fused itself with the theory of evolution and “moved from simple negation of religious beliefs” to affirmation of “scientific rationality and the legitimacy of the institutions and methodology of modern science -- and thus from religious criticism to a complete ideological system.” The aim is to transform society through “the ideology of scientism and the establishment of its cultural authority” in line with its “Darwinistic master narrative.” (He defines scientism as belief “that science is the only legitimate form of knowledge,” encompassing all of human behavior, social institutions and values.)
The New Atheism is “absolutist,” he asserts, and “ultimately about power.” It wants to eradicate any “challenges to scientific authority,” whether from supposedly “pre-modern” religions or “post-modern” social science. In his view, this movement is neither “liberal” nor “progressive,” and in actuality is fostering a growing political right wing.
To LeDrew, current atheism is much more than a mere critique of religious faith or absence of belief. It “ignores the reservoirs of knowledge offered by the social sciences, which add complexities to our understanding of religion that the New Atheists prefer to ignore, indulging in the kind of willful ignorance that they disparage religion for promoting.” Therefore, it’s “an ideology,” defined as “a schematic or rigid framework of preconceived ideas that shape, and thus distort, understanding.” It must exclude social scientists’ thinking about religion and obscure “social reality.”
Whew. Now let’s contact Dawkins-Dennett-Harris and company to offer them for equal time.