Two atheists - John Gray and Alain de Botton - and two agnostics - Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I - meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do math and people are afraid of math.I think the answer to this question is that it's a symptom of insecurity. Any group that believes it must crush dissenters is a group which lacks confidence in their own belief system. They fear disagreement because they fear that they've committed themselves and their lives to a noetic structure that simply cannot withstand scrutiny and rational analysis. Rather than give up their beliefs they seek to shield them from challenge. We see this today both in the Muslim world and among atheists.
De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists' temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.
This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.
“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts," wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. "You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy." Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.
There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, "You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die."
De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality. "To say something along the lines of 'I'm an atheist; I think religions are not all bad' has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?"
Appleyard goes on to analyze the "New Atheism":
First, a definition. By "neo-atheism", I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.Because deep down they suspect their life has been invested in an error, they feel it all slipping away and they're desperate to convince themselves that they've been right all along. The more voices on their own side who raise questions about their beliefs the more their confidence is shaken. They cannot tolerate a discordant note lest the whole fragile edifice of atheism topple over. Heretics must be reviled and excommunicated as an example to others who might stray from the consensus orthodoxy. As Appleyard says in his closing sentence:
Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist - indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, "Render unto Caesar" - and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.
The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.
The neo-atheist cause has been gathering strength for roughly two decades and recently exploded into very public view. Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, was in the headlines for making a speech at the Vatican warning of the dangers of secular fundamentalism, which aims to prevent religions from having a public voice or role. Warsi, a Muslim, subdivides propagators of this anti-religious impulse into two categories. First, there are the well-meaning liberal elite, who want to suppress religion in order not to cause offence to anybody. Second, there is the "perverse kind of secular" believer, who wants to "wipe religion from the public sphere" on principle.
“Why," she asks me, "are the followers of reason so unreasonable?"
There are many roads to truth, but cultish intolerance is not one of them.There's much more in Appleyard's essay. Check it out at the link.