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Are the "New Atheists" too extreme?

Updated on November 3, 2010

The Four Horsemen

Religious criticism has taken on a new form in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America. Long tolerant or non-aggressive towards people of faith, some atheists are now taking a more proactive role in talking about their non-belief. The leaders of this "New Atheism" movement are usually said to be Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. These four are called "The Four Horsemen," stealing a term from the Book of Revelation and based on a discussion that they had in 2007.

Pulling no punches, Harris, Dawkins, and the others lash out at religion because of the many negative activities carried on by its adherents. While they sometimes reluctantly admit that religion can have positive effects (in his God is not Great book, for example, Hitchens relates the story of a Muslim cab driver who returned a large amount of money Hitchens' wife left in the cab because he felt it was his religious duty to do so; Sam Harris admits that religious faith can lead people to do good things in his The End of Faith), they are unflinching in their attacks on religion and feel that the world would be a better place if it were gone entirely. To them, the good that religious faith sometimes does just isn't worth the bad that it can also bring.

Here are some representative quotes from the Four Horsemen:

"According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency." -- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." -- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

"The stamp of the lowly origin is to be found in our appendix, in the now needless coat of hair that we still grow (and then shed) after five months in the womb, in our easily worn-out knees, our vestigial tails, and the many caprices of our urinogential arrangements. Why do people keep saying, 'God is in the details'? He isn't in ours, unless his yokel creationist fans wish to take credit for his clumsiness, failure, and incompetence." -- Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Too aggressive?

The so-called New Atheists are sometimes said to be too aggressive, too militant, in their tactics. Many people, religious and even some fellow atheists, charge that the leaders of the New Atheist movement are nothing more than bullies preaching the same intolerance that they decry in religious belief. To be fair, however, when we speak of "militant atheism," no one would think that this means the same as "militant Islam" or even "militant Christianity." Richard Dawkins has this to say to people who complain about the New Atheist hostility:

"I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement." (The God Delusion)

Dawkins has a point.  Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths will no doubt be united in distaste for the harsh words of the New Atheists but the bottom line is that's all they are: words.  Nobody ever killed anyone because they were an atheist; no one ever bombed a building or burned someone at the stake because of what they didn't believe.  The same thing can't be said about the most aggressive religious folks.

Theists are aggressive, too

It's hard to take complaints of aggression against the New Atheists too seriously, when taking into account the aggression levels of those who claim that theirs is a loving and forgiving religion (Christianity) or that theirs is a religion of peace (Islam). Since there are as many different interpretations of "scripture" as there are people who preach it, we'll go directly to the source, as it were, for examples of the aggressive nature of theists.

Here are just a few examples of how loving and peaceful religion can be from the most influential "holy" book:

Worshiping Jesus means turning against your own family: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Matthew 10:34-37

Entire cities will suffer for "not repenting" : "Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you." Matthew 11:20-22

Anyone rejecting the word of God's human representatives should be killed: "Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must be put to death." Deuteronomy 17:12

Gays should be killed: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives." Leviticus 20:13

Anyone who cares to open the Bible and actually read it will not find it lacking in commandments to kill people over matters both big and small, commandments from the very same God who said "Thou shalt not kill." It is a fact that the only reason atheists, gays, and women who are not found to be virgins on their wedding night aren't being killed by Christians and Jews today is that they have learned to ignore large portions of their supposedly inerrant and infallible texts.

Even leaving aside the above, the fate that awaits nonbelievers when they die is to be roasted alive in the pits of hell for all eternity. Nearly every Christian believes that nice little "fact" and they can somehow reconcile that with the idea of a kind and just, loving Father. It's hard for me to fault the New Atheists when the worst that they say about believers is they're wasting their time believing in an imaginary friend and that religion sometimes makes people fly planes into skyscrapers (because, well, it does), while theists frequently take pride in the idea that people who don't take seriously the words of ancient and barbaric tribes will burn in hell for all eternity.

Which side is more aggressive in their condemnation of the other?


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    • Paladin_ profile image

      Paladin_ 5 years ago from Michigan, USA

      Another excellent hub, cecil. I look forward to reading more on this subject!

    • emmaspeaks profile image

      emmaspeaks 5 years ago from Kansas City

      Excellent hub. Voted up. Thanks for speaking up for us. I wish there were more like you. I do my part and I know a lot of us do, too, so thanks again.

    • profile image

      AKA Winston 6 years ago

      When the nutcases were passing around poisionous snakes and chug-a-lugging poisons in their own churches, I cared less what they did. But ever since the Moral Majority, fundamentalism has attempted to influence the world outside its pews.

      When Reagan and Bush both have fundamentalist preachers come to the White House, it is no longer safe to sit back.

      The idiocy of irrational belief based on the legends of primitive men has to stop now.

    • TahoeDoc profile image

      TahoeDoc 6 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

      Love, love, love Sam Harris. He has a way of unapologetically and logically breaking the whole thing down. I need to read his books again. In fact, I do whenever I need a dose of sanity. I have 3 copies of "Letter to a Christian Nation" that are circulating about among my friends.

      I love the quotes you picked out too - great!

      No, I think it's time for atheists/non-believers to stop appeasing everyone. As Harris points out, when people with 4th century superstition have 21st century weapons, we need to stop the craziness or we will all pay.

    • profile image

      gobangla 6 years ago

      People attack atheists all the time. They shouldn't be so surprised when some get upset and attack back.

    • Titen-Sxull profile image

      Titen-Sxull 6 years ago from back in the lab again

      The Bible is one of the worst books ever written morally speaking. Most frightening of all is the current resurgence of Fundamentalists who believe the book to be entirely true.

      I think its good that atheists are trying out different tactics, anything is better than staying silent while religion continues on unchallenged.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      I enjoy reading Dawkins and Harris.

      I think that it is impossible to be absolutely certain whether God exists, or does not exist, so, in that sense, I feel that Dawkins, for example, is too strong in his rejection of anything 'unusual' that anyone else believes or has experienced.

      However, I don't consider him 'aggressive'.

      And are they really 'lashing out', or are they just responding to the overly strong arguments of some of the 'Believers', with whom they disagree?

    • profile image

      Baileybear 7 years ago

      religion has been intertwined in politics for years, for example, preventing science being taught in schools in case it might expose the unscientific nature of religious texts. Belief is a powerful force - look how many wars are because of religious conflict - even the hubpages forums get very heated!

    • blark profile image

      blark 7 years ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

      Finally, I Hub Hop to a hub that isn't about couches or blenders or digital cameras!

      This is a well written and thoughtful hub. I enjoyed reading it, and particularly enjoyed the quote by Richard Dawkins about the God of the Old Testament; a most accurate representation.