Heather Hastie: “Is New Atheism a cult?

September 19, 2015 • 8:45 am

I wanted to direct you to a nice post on reader Heather Hastie’s site, Heather’s Homilies. The post is called “Is New Atheism a Cult?“, and I believe it’s a rule that when an article’s title is a yes-or-no question, the answer is “no.” And indeed, that’s the conclusion Heather reaches after considering Neil Godfrey’s rather intemperate rantings against New Atheists and his strong approbation for a book by He Who Shall Not Be Named. The links to the relevant accusations are in her post.

Rather than post an excerpt—as you should read her piece for yourself—I’ll just put up one of her graphics, for Heather’s really good at finding relevant illustrations. I love this one,had never heard it, and my trolling of the Internet suggests that it’s real:

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 8.07.10 AM

78 thoughts on “Heather Hastie: “Is New Atheism a cult?

    1. oh jesus I thought I was the only one that actually read that epic tome. My favorite blow milk through my nose moment was when he quotes Sam Harris and then in his next paragraph accuses Harris of holding a position Harris directly contradicted in the quote!

      1. This happens so often with so many writers. Richard Carrier is a constant victim of this kind of stupidity. I wish there were a term for it.

    2. Well, that’s disappointing, because Hedges’ book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America is a truly excellent book. I’d say it’s required reading, along with Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming for understanding the threat of christofascism to all of us.

      1. Even when Hedges is on the right side, he is often given to sweeping overgeneralizations and stereotypes based on what presses his buttons.

        On the one hand, I think he was treated quite badly by Christopher Hitchens in their Berkeley debate (I was there in person- Hitchens was drunk as a skunk at the start of the debate and NOT in best form!).
        But Hedges’ year-later book on New Atheism engaged in broad assertions that seemed to based solely on his two debates- one with Harris and one with Hitchens. Hedges gave no evidence of having done extensive reading of atheist literature.

        A recent article by Hedges on the Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper” has the same problems. Hedges projects all kinds of ultra right-wing messages into the film that while a possible reading would lie in the freedom of the audience to apply the film as they might. Indeed, the virtue of the film is its openness to many different interpretations and its freedom from didacticism- its leaving the audience breathing room to read it as they wish like a Rorshach inkblot text. Hedges’ claim that the film is a piece of fascist propaganda is utterly false.

        He is engaging in the same style of faulty thinking on the Eastwood movie as he did with the New Atheism.

    1. Minchin has a few marvelous evolution songs, as well as the world’s funniest and sharpest ‘woo’ song (look for ‘Storm’ on youtube). He is brilliant.

      1. Thanks, corrie, for mentioning ‘Storm’. I just watched the animated version on YouTube. I think I’ve seen this a few years back. I remember the bit about Scooby-Doo.

        ‘Storm’ strikes me as being a variation on the theme of ‘Faith vs. Fact’.

  1. How many gods and goddesses have been postulated?? Must be at least hundreds. Each one “disproves” the others. Atheists can just sit back, relax, and watch the show.

    1. To keep in tune with the Tim Minchin aspect of this thread, I quote ( from memory) a stanza of “Thank You God”:

      “Fuck me, Sam! What are the odds,
      That in history’s endless parade of gods,
      That it just so happens that the one you believe in
      Is the actual God and he “digs” on healing?”

  2. It is my impression that atheists can be found all over the political spectrum. It seems that most of those on the very far left attack the New Atheists because for the former their political motivations override their atheistic beliefs. That is, they are primarily concerned with what they perceive as the oppression of the Islamic world by the United States. Thus, for them critiques of Islam as a religion and belief system give aid and comfort to those who wish to discriminate and even destroy people who are Moslems. By extension, criticisms of other religions, such as Christianity, could somehow diminish the effort against the real enemy: capitalism and U.S. imperialism.

    Even though many New Atheists are politically liberal (moderately on the left of the political spectrum) and most likely have grave concerns about U.S. foreign policy (particularly during the Bush-Cheney years) as well as the madness of the Republican party, those on the far left, as those on the far right, demand ideological purity. So, they conjure up fantasies that New Atheists are a cult with the goal of suppressing the rights of theists to believe what they want. Rather, New Atheists simply say that they themselves do not want to be discriminated against and want religion out of the public square. And it’s for these principles that New Atheists will not remain silent. Their very varied political opinions are irrelevant to their atheistic beliefs. Those who adhere to ideological purity simply cannot understand this.

    As I’ve commented before, in the United States at least, those on the far left are a very small and embittered minority. As the last Republican debate demonstrated, the real danger to New Atheists and a tolerant society comes from the religiously drenched far right.

    1. At the risk of seeming nit-picky, I just have to say, that the twice-mentioned term “atheistic beliefs” doesn’t really make any sense. Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god/gods; nothing more, nothing less. This, there are no “atheistic beliefs”, just like there are no “non-stamp-collecting” beliefs.

      1. To say that it is very unlikely that gods exist is a belief. This is what atheists believe in. Regardless of what you assert about the existence or non-existence of gods, you believe in something.

          1. I suppose we are picking nits here, but this is a dictionary definition of belief:

            “Belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty.”

            Atheists assert that there is no evidence that gods exist. This is a “state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case.” Hence, atheists have beliefs. You are using the term “belief” in the narrow sense as an act of faith without evidence. I am using the word in the more expansive sense as described by the dictionary definition.

            1. You forget that we have never, ever seen religious magic work. But more than that, in nature the null hypothesis is nonexistence. We don’t ‘believe’ gods do not exist any more than we don’t ‘believe’ Nessie or unicorns does. Skeptics ask for the evidence that would take a state of knowing (of no evidence) to a new state.

              Then again you can go further and ask how much evidence would satisfy the usual quality of rejecting a magic claim. If you simply go by a binomial “yes/no” test of individual events, a simple method demands ~ 3000 events.

              Well, there has been over 3000 claims of gods. (I hear there has been over 30 000 christian sects alone, each claiming slightly different ‘gods’ and slightly different ‘histories’.) And 0 observations that would reject the “no” hypothesis.

              As a matter of fact, we know that there are no ‘gods’ much, much better than we know there is no Nessie.

              1. I’m not sure where you’re going with your comment, but apparently you are not happy with atheists saying that they don’t believe in gods. Unfortunately, we are involved with the ambiguity of language and how the same word can be interpreted differently depending on the context it is used.

                As I mentioned above, I used the word belief in the everyday sense as described by the dictionary. Those who attack atheists for having beliefs in the narrow sense of faith without evidence are willfully distorting what atheists accept as the case. If you want to use some convoluted alternative to the word belief to avoid confusion, that is fine. Nevertheless, there is nothing incorrect to saying that atheists have beliefs in the sense of thinking something is the case. In this use of the term, we all have tens of thousands of beliefs on many thousands of topics. And many of these beliefs are negative ones such as “I do not believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real detective living on Baker Street in London during the Victorian era.”

              2. I believe you are wrong: It doesn’t require some /convoluted/ alternative to avoid using “belief(s)”: Atheists have (take your pick): “opinions”, “views”, “convictions”, “judgments”, “conclusions”, … And it is wise to avoid using it as a precaution against quote mining.


              3. Was about to post pretty much what Ant just did, including the more precise alternatives to and caveat against using “belief.”

                I like “conclusions” myself.

              4. I agree completely. As far as the actual function of knowing anything goes, knowing there is no god is fully valid.
                That one can’t prove a negative or see everywhere in the universe is irrelevant.
                Every and all claims to do with a god or gods has been shown to be false.
                Every extrapolation or fancy, only ever a state of mind, and or with reasonable explanation as to how and why.
                Neurosurgeon goes to heaven and comes back, jeebus, this in it self is proof enough of the absurdity of it all. But absurdity is not the issue, knowledge is.

                There is no god. I know for a fact that there is no god. As far as facts and an empirical comprehension of the world go it is obviously true and I stand by it and have for a long time.

                I have had the most remarkable mental states, including NDE’s, fortunately I also have a moderate understanding of anatomy and physiology so don’t need to invoke woo to try and understand them..

                But even so God and gods?
                Look around, the mish mash of absurdity in all the wackiness around the various beliefs should all just cancel out. It’s ridiculous.

                Having said that I’ll say this

                I know that there is no god. That’s a fact.

        1. Based on the lack of evidence for the existence of gods in general, or of any god in particular, we do not accept the concept of god as having any bearing on our thoughts or actions.

          OK, a bit convoluted, but I’m trying to come up with something analogous to the pithy retort “I don’t believe in evolution-I understand why evolution is true.”

          I’m pretty sure that most people contributing to this website use the term “believe” as shorthand for “accept on the basis of no or insufficient evidence.”

      2. “This, there are no “atheistic beliefs”

        Not true. Any negative belief can be expressed as a positive belief. No logical difference between the two.

          1. That’s a cute zinger to throw out to a theist, but you sacrifice accuracy in the name of humor and the desire to win. It’s not analogous.

            To be an atheist means that one believes that there isn’t sufficient reason to believe that there is a god.

            This is a positive belief.

            1. Again, no. It appears that you prefer and enjoy injecting the word “believes” in there, for it then bolsters your position, but it’s not required. It is more accurate and correct to say that the atheist simply rejects the wild, fantastical, baseless claims of the theist. Or to re-write your example: “To be an atheist means that one holds the position that there isn’t sufficient reason to believe that there is a god.” Will change mind for evidence, however there is none, thus, not a belief.

              A belief is a positive move. It is saying: “I believe that so & so is true”.

              Not accepting a baseless assertion from another human being is NOT A BELIEF.

              1. “Not accepting a baseless assertion from another human being is NOT A BELIEF.”

                You seem to believe that.

                Of course, that means that your rejection of my assertion is a belief. 😉

              2. so . . . does this mean that I can’t channel the Monkees covering Neil Diamond in the shower???

              3. Beliefs are propositional: “I believe that X”. “I believe that there is a God.” “I believe that there is no God.” Same logical form.

                “That” is sometimes left out for brevity; also “in” is sometimes used as a variation, e.g. “I believe in God” => “I believe that God exists.” (Of course, “I believe in you” is not synonymous with “I believe that you exist”. Such is the complexity of language.)

  3. A cult? A thought this was a fundamentalist religion. I want my money back.

    There is of course the classic distinction between a cult and a religion: in a cult there’s a hierarchy, with someone at the top who knows it’s a fraud. In a religion, that person dead.

        1. w/o? I liked it better without the “is”, gives it a little bit of the sound like it was uttered by some old fisherman or something… folk wisdom.

  4. Comfort has made more explicit the motivation fbehind his attack on the new atheists–racism, classism, and sexism.

    He seems to imply that the only way to save drug-addicted inner city minorities is through Jesus. Therefore, don’t attack religion.

    He’s quite a piece of work for a professor at a medical school.

    “I *do* think, however, that the whole evangelical atheism project has a strong element of white privilege. Its leaders are all rich white guys with little or no experience in, say, inner cities. Visit the inner city of Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, or any other major city with a poor, violent, drug-riddled core on a Saturday night and a Sunday morning, and you’ll see that religion has a powerful, positive role in those communities.”

    1. I am not sure who you are talking about and I assume you disagree.

      Religion may be useful in those abhorrent circumstances. But only as toxic band-aid.

      A better solution would be decent living standards, reasonable education, reasonable possibilities for a life, not ‘pie in the sky when you die’ crap.

      To say nothing of the role religion plays in the institutional structure of these things.

      But, I think we all know that, here at least.

  5. Well you don’t fight an actual fire with fire, you fight it by cutting off it’s fuel supply. Politically if we work towards a just, equitable sustainable society where the majority of the people have their needs met and have at least an opportunity to fulfill their desires then religion, or at least its more virulent forms, will slowly wither away. I offer as evidence the experience of Western Europe and Japan. Not utopias certainly but a damn sight further along than we are.

    The dichotomy should not be between right and left or liberal or conservative, but between rational and irrational. Alas, there is no party of reason, so we should be prepared to argue with our friends as well as our enemies.

    1. Indeed. Most politics seems to be about pure ideology. The sense of people weighing empirical evidence is almost absent. Evidence, whenever it does come up, is merely a kind of tool deployed in the service of an ideology, a club to bang your enemies over the head with.

    2. In the spirit of foregoing instances of pedantry here, I offer my contribution–you can indeed fight fire with fire (backfires).


      More importantly, I completely agree with the rest of your post. Well said!

  6. No. Of course it depends on how one defines cult. Google say… “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” and… “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.”

    Since New Atheism is neither a religion, a person or a thing, unless a POV is a thing, it cannot be a cult… in my view… 😉

    1. He is indeed, and the poster above is completely consistent with what he says (performs actually) in public. See his beat poem “Storm”. It’s a classic.

      Or any of his songs. They are great.

  7. Thanks so much to those of you who have commented on my website. Currently, I am unable to get into my website administration to release new commenters from moderation. Sorry!

    1. Heather, some were wondering which Reddit groups were #1 and #2 on the most toxic list to which you referred. I found this graph that might help to answer the question but I’m afraid my eyes are not great and I can make out the fine print. Perhaps someone else can decipher the fine print. It’s a graph on Bigotry on Reddit, where Atheism is placed as #3 which I think is absurd:

      1. I can’t read it either, and when I expand it, it becomes too blurry. I gathered from the article that #1 is Reddit itself, and #4 is sex. In the article it mentions that Reddit considers parenting, people who obsess over makeup, and criticism of sports stars to be the biggest problem. They make reference to people who come to Reddit just to attack others on certain circumstances, which appears to be a sideswipe at the Chomsky/Harris debate. In that at least half were attacking NAs, not NAs themselves.

        1. Oh, and I can get into my website again. There are now a lot more comments, including one from Neil Godfrey/Vridar.

          Thanks for your patience.

              1. I’ve since caught up to date, almost, with your post; your replies to Godfrey have been excellent.

                (Boy, he moves right in and makes himself at home, doesn’t he?)

              2. I think he’s written more than me, though he’s not the only one. Someone else has written probably three or four times what I originally wrote, not for the first time.

  8. According to Wikipedia, HWSNBNamed recently compared Sam Harris to Sarah Palin.
    This reminds me of Chris Hedges comparison of Hitchens to Ann Coulter (heard in person by moi a year after their debate).

    Honestly, doesn’t Harris ability to put together a coherent sentence and use English words correctly count for anything??

    1. You’d think so. If that’s the way you think of Harris, at least choose someone who’s equally intelligent, like Cruz, Jindal or Carson. The problem is that despite their intelligence, they’re also all suffering majorly from cognitive dissonance when it comes to religion.

    2. It’s interesting how often this happens. We’ve gone to a point where we simply can’t disagree with someone or think they are wrong, but we have to destroy any pretence to intellectual credibility that person has.

      I, personally, tend to find most of what Sam Harris writes as either trivial or wrong-headed, but that’s not to say he shouldn’t be engaged on those grounds. Julian Baggini’s new book on free will does this; taking Harris to task for what he says, but taking what Harris says seriously nonetheless. Too many people just think it enough to dismiss him, which doesn’t do anything to advance the conversation.

  9. It’s interesting how many people want to treat the critics of religion as a religion itself rather than face up to the criticisms being made. On a philosophy group I’m on, one person recently dismissed the new atheism as an “emotional commitment to a socio-political program”, then spent time defending the rationality of believing in the immaculate conception.

    You just can’t with with religious people…

    1. Were the people in the group discussing the alleged rationality of belief in the immaculate conception from an objective philosophical point or as a self justification of their own beliefs? It sounds like the latter but I’m curious.

      I would say New Atheism does have a component of a socio political movement, which is a good thing. The nature of commitment and the nature of emotional content in beliefs and commitments are good philosophical discussion points too, however, to dismiss it as only, or merely that, is an error, as you indicate.

      I disagree completely with your assessment of Sam Harris. Wrong headed on some things I can appreciate (although I mostly agree with him), but trivial?

      Anyway, as you say, disagreement should be more the grounds for discussion rather than dismissal.

      Immaculate conception? Makes you wonder.

      1. The topic was something the new atheists said, then a Catholic came in to rant about the “so-called reason” of the new atheists. It was then I pressed him on his belief in the immaculate conception. His answer is that it’s rational because God can violate nature without it being a problem, what with being omnipotent and all.

  10. I am puzzled if you ncountered this. Dawkins seems to be very over the top about a kid playing with electronics. Apparently using the word ‘inventing’ (it may not match the grown up legal definition) really bugs him.


    (true this link is from Gawker, a smug bunch of trendy lefties in their own, so keep that in mind)

    1. As so often, Dawkins doesn’t express himself well on Twitter, despite being so eloquent in books.

      I looked through Dawkins’ tweets on the subject and there’s a helluva mish-mash. There’s some controversy that the kid may have arranged for all this to happen in order to get attention and money for his education, and that’s what was being discussed. He made lots of his comments conditional and apologized when he made mistakes too.

      Gawker has made a selection to make Dawkins look as bad as possible.

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