Why New Atheism is supposedly worse than the Old

UPDATE: Over at No Cross No Crescent (a website on the new Skeptic Ink network), the author further takes apart the claim that atheists must offer a substitute for religion. One of the interesting statistics on offer is that 88% of those who identify with no religion in particular are NOT looking for a religion that would be right for them.  In other words, they’re satisfied with being a “none.” Only 10% are looking for a “right” religion.


The other evening I was having dinner with a friend, who is an atheist but bears some sympathy for religion. (He admitted, though, that thanks in part to this website, his sympathy was waning, especially with respect to religion’s compatibility with science.)

But he had one complaint about New Atheism, a complaint that we hear often. It goes something like this:

“Yes, yes, New Atheists attack the evidence supporting religious belief, but of course atheists have been doing that for centuries. The real problem with New Atheism is that while it attacks religion, it fails to provide a substitute. Religion fulfills fundamental needs in people, and unless New Atheists can suggest other, non-theistic ways to meet those needs, it will not be successful.”

I’m putting this up to gather reader response to this common criticism, but I have four responses of my own.

1. Who says New Atheism isn’t successful? The category of “nones” (people who profess no religious belief) is increasing faster, proportionately, than any established religion, and it is indisputable that people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, through their speeches and writings, have diverted many people from their paths of faith.  The claim that “Old Atheism” was successful but “New Atheism” is not is simply unsubstantiated.

2.  Dispelling false beliefs is in itself a good regardless of whether one suggests other ways to meet the needs buttressed by those beliefs. I recall that Steve Gould once said—perhaps with about what he saw as pervasive gradualism in the paleontology community—that getting rid of false but widely-accepted views represents progress in itself, for such views impede progress toward truth.

3.  Some atheists do indeed concern themselves with the problem of replacing the needs of faith with secular alternatives. Alain de Botton has famously done this, though his solutions (secular cathedrals and the like) seem fatuous.  A more successful approach has been suggested by philosopher Philip Kitcher, who sees the sense of community engendered by faith as something essential. He argues that secular “alternative” communities are more common in Europe than in America, and suggests that this is why America remains far more religious than Europe.

4.  While Kitcher is on the right path, I think that there’s a more important reason why religion remains strong in many places, and this involves more than the need for a sense of community. It involves personal insecurity fostered by the nature of one’s society. As I’ve written in many places, including a paper published in Evolution (free online here), sociological studies increasingly show that religion is stronger in societies that are more dysfunctional—that is, societies in which people are subject to poor medical care, high crime rates, high drug use, high infant morality, corruption in the government, and substantial income inequality.

And the evidence is that this correlation is causal: social dysfunction makes people more religious simply because they turn to sky fathers when they can’t get security in their lives from their governments or societies.

For a reference to the newest studies supporting this thesis, see Nigel Barber’s essay in PuffHo: “Why atheism will replace religion.” In it he refers to two recent papers (references below, one study unpublished) supporting the “social insecurity” hypothesis for religion. I’ll be writing about the first in the near future.

So the substitute for religion may not be “atheist cathedrals” or places where we can meet and discuss Hume every Sunday, but simply societies that make people more secure. Granted, that solution is much harder to implement.

At any rate, how many of you have heard this criticism of New Atheism? And, if so, how do you meet the complaint that “we’re ineffective because we don’t provide substitutes for religion.”

Apropos, my attention was just called to a new BBC program by Richard Dawkins that addresses this very complaint. I’ll post about it in a few hours.


Barber, N. (2011). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.

Barber, N. (under review). Country religiosity declines as material security increases. International Perspectives in Psychology.


  1. MadScientist
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Who needs a replacement?

    Hey Doc, you know what the trouble with you is? When you removed that fibrous cyst, you didn’t offer any sort of replacement. Now my old doctor – when he’d do something like that he’d offer me some warts or maybe a bit of appendicitis or a tad of liver cirrhosis.

  2. Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Replace religion with mathematics. You know it’s the logical approach.

  3. Posted October 24, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    This is a really interesting short video about how all religion began and why it’s so appealing to people, check it out. http://youtu.be/H4VgdwrIFYs

  4. neil344
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Darn. When I was six someone told me there was no tooth fairy and never offered me a substitute. Bummer.

  5. Gabrielle Guichard
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    When I hear someone saying that people need X or Y, what I hear is contempt. They are saying “other weak people need it (religion for example) but I don’t. I’m strong and clever.”

    • Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      And that is wrong why?

      • Gabrielle Guichard
        Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

        How do you know who needs what? Do you enjoy it when someone tells you “I know what you think”? It reminds me of the wealthy that came home when I was young (and our family the poorest of the town) to give us what they thought we needed. Contempt is worse than poverty.

        • Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

          If you need religion but I don’t, that means, as you said, that you’re weak and I’m strong. If I’ve got money and you don’t, that just means I’m rich and you’re poor. If you’re weak and poor, then you may deserve the pity of someone strong and rich, but only if you’re miserable about it.

          BUT … if you’re *proud* of being weak and poor, and think that *because* you’re weak and poor that makes you *better* than me, then yes, you deserve nothing more than my unbridled contempt. ESPECIALLY when you refuse my offer of helping you become less poor and less weak by my honest attempt to balance out the world.

          In the case of riches there’s already a horrendous gap between rich and poor, and if everyone had that attitude it’s only going to get worse. Poverty and weakness are pointless and nasty.

  6. Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    So it sounds like most people have already offered up the explanation that we don’t need to give a substitute. What an absurd criticism.

    I think Dawkins offered it a long time ago: SLEEP IN ON SUNDAYS.

    I also feel like this criticism makes it sound like the religious community is the ultimate type of community, and totally discredits every other community. The somewhat-ambiguous gay community offered more support, friendship, and events than any religion could. Furthermore, most religious communities were not that great at supporting: they avoided questions, explicitly defined an out-group and in-group, and offer a “solution” to people’s search for spirituality. There is literally nothing appealing about the religious community.

    God forbid (literally) we find communities to join that already do better humanity?

  7. albo
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Re: New Atheists.

    Here’s the problem. The “New Atheists” are Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the “Old Atheists” Andy Williams and Pat Boone and Bing Crosby.

    The boring, established order is alarmed by the new and more “out there.” So they clutch some pearls and break some LPs in disgust. It’s a cycle as old as Thog complaining that the two-sided hand axe used by Gog was upsetting the flint knapping orthodoxy.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Well… if the old “established” order includes Mark Twain, the one word I would never use for it is “boring.” :)

  8. Karakur
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the substitute would be something that causes dopamine to be released the way it must be when they bask in the love of their god.

    • Mike W
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      A puppy.

      • Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

        Heathen! Blasphemy! Heretic!

        A kitten is the preferred instrument for enhancing dopamine production.

        Besides — who ever heard of worshipping a dog?


        • Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

          Anubis. Just like the old Bast.


          • Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

            Yeah, but who would be silly enough to actually worship a jackal when you’ve got cats?

            Besides — Anubis was the protector of the underworld, not unlike Charon. Maybe you would be wise to stay in his good graces, but only because you had to.


        • Mike W
          Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          The religious tend to see them as witches’ familiars, so I’m really trying to ensure the survival of kittens.

  9. Pray Hard
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    I find it preposterous that atheists/atheism and or scientists/science are somehow supposed to provide an alternative to religious belief, something to fill the emptiness. Why? Who said it is our responsibility to spoon feed the masses feel-good Pablum? And, I find it even more preposterous that we would fall for such a gimmicky demand and even think of attempting to provide such a delusion. What atheism and or science demand (in my opinion), as opposed to religious faith, is breaking away from the Pablum bowl and developing a much, much larger, quantitatively and qualitatively, view of reality, to let go of superstition, to learn difficult concepts, to give up wanting and demanding that other people provide our reality to us, to be able to sit in the question, the unknowing, without fidgeting and wringing our hands in whiny angst, craving the easy answer, to get out of that old, soft, comfortable chair that also imprisons us.

    I used to be a religious nut, not evangelical, just a nut, and I know what these people crave. Only superstition can ease that craving for answers that one is too lazy to search for rationally. So, what they need from us, if we feel that we simply must provide something for the pitiful Eloi, is not some prepackaged Soma variant, but the mental skills and education to explore a new path fearlessly.

  10. Filippo
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    ” . . . unless New Atheists can suggest other, non-theistic ways to meet those needs, it will not be successful.”

    Suppose “New” Atheists cannot so meet those needs. Before the altar of what religious tradition would one recommend I genuflect?

  11. Miles_Teg
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    So, just what is the difference between the old and new atheism? One of my long time friends (32 years) has been an atheist all that time and I wouldn’t know if he is old or new, or even if he’d know.

    I get the impression that the old atheists were thought to be civil and the new ones really in-your-face, bordering on rude. I know my friend would be “old” by that standard, for while he gives religion and missionaries short shrift he’s always very civil about it.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:14 am | Permalink

      “I know my friend would be “old” by that standard, for while he gives religion and missionaries short shrift he’s always very civil about it.”

      That would seem to describe Paul Kurtz.

  12. Pray Hard
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    This also gets back to the assumption that religion is the default setting for everything, for all of reality. And, believe me, I was raised in this garbage and it is taught as the ONLY thing, you know, the Alpha and Omega thing, whatever. “If you can’t provide a substitute for me, then I’ll have to stick with religion because there is nothing else” Who says? Well, tens of thousands of preachers screech it every Sunday morning. And, after a while, one believes it. Getting away from it is all a matter of growing up emotionally and intellectually and realizing that there is a universe out there that’s not accounted for in the restricted, tiny church box. However, it’s very difficult initially to overcome that huge emotional block of fear and uncertainty that religion “provides” in bulk packages. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’ll burn in Hell for posting this. Just kidding.

  13. Neil Schipper
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    The analogy of religion to a disease has been offered by numerous commenters here in response to the serious substitute question.

    The plausibility of the analogy rests on both religion and disease being undesirable properties of the species.

    More than 99% self-conscious individuals do not want a disabling disease for self or close kin. There is close to zero cost to individuals or the hive to want to cure or prevent the disease.

    Much more than 50% of self-conscious individuals want some variant of religion for self and close kin, and demonstrate this by paying a cost to maintain it.

    So the analogy is weak. It’s tossed out glibly to trivialize the substitute problem.

    Moreover, trivializing the substitute problem allows many, and perhaps most, New Atheists (imprecise though that term may be) to remain in denial about an even larger problem.

    • gbjames
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      The fact that half (or more) of the population doesn’t realize that they are infected by a parasite does not mean that they are parasite-free.

      The substitute “problem” is not a one to be taken seriously, as far as I can see. If you think there is some big problem out there, then it is up to you to articulate what it is because so far letting people get together for social interaction is the best I’ve heard. And that’s a pretty pathetic example of a “larger problem”.

  14. Neff
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    It’s important to establish context when posting a view on an issue like this. I am a 47 year old man with a wife, raising 2 kids. Atheism is rare in my community and level of belief amonung our friends and acquaintances runs the gamut.

    When I speak to other parents it is clear that although many don’t have deep faith and possess great skepticism, they remain in their churches and pass their religion onto their kids because it serves as a “one stop shop” so to speak for ethics education for their kids, a place to contemplate the bigger picture, do charitable works and develop friendships with people outside their circle of kids friends (which is a common trap for parents).

    So yes I think there is a wonderful opportunity for the secular movement, if you can call it that, to provide a replacement. Atheism is having some success but without being able to compete against a churches offering in the areas I mention, parents will simply default to churches and generations of young minds will continue to be indoctrinated into religious belief, mainly out of habit and family tradition.

  15. bpuharic
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Religion is kind of like nicotine…a solution looking for a problem. Religion conditions people to ask certain kinds of questions then provides answers for them. In the same way people feel relaxed after having a cigarette because the nicotine dependency itself creates the need for a smoke (fortunately I’m not a smoker.)

    But if you’re conditioned to ask ‘why am I here’ or ‘why did I get cancer’ or ‘why am I poor’, then when the answer is it’s your fault because of God, you have an answer!

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,050 other followers

%d bloggers like this: