Terry Liddle

War on the Heavens: The Rise of the New Atheism

Author: Terry Liddle
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

Although the phrase was coined in 2006 by Wired magazine, the New Atheism has been around a little longer. Sam Harris published his The End of Faith in 2004. Upfront and aggressive, it is vastly different from the stolid offerings of the National Secular Society (founded in 1866), which was always more concerned with the separation of church and state rather than advocating atheism, and those of the British Humanist Association, so wet it drips. It is also vastly different from the revolutionary intellectuals like FA Ridley and self-educated workers who mounted rickety platforms to combine anti-religious propaganda with attacks on capitalism.

The New Atheism is very much science-based and argues that many supernatural claims can be scientifically tested. God, they say, is an hypothesis which has failed.

Among the nineteenth-century thinkers and scientists the religious hate are Marx, Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche. Now the New Atheists have been added to the list of hate objects.

There has been a long history of publishing atheist literature by specialist publishers like the Freethought Publishing Company, GW Foote and Co, the Rationalist Press Association and Watts. The Little Blue Books published by Haldeman-Julius were printed in prolific quantities. But most of this literature was read by people who were already convinced atheists. What the New Atheism has done is to take familiar ideas, brilliantly repackage them, get them published by mainstream publishers and expose them to millions who otherwise would never have seen atheist literature.

The American exponents of the New Atheism are Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger, who combine physics with philosophy. The major British exponents are Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their books God Is Not Great and The God Delusion, published in 2006. All are sophisticated, articulate intellectuals.

Hitchens, while a visiting professor in Liberal Studies at the New School in New York, is better known as a writer and polemicist. He is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and often appears in the American Free Inquiry (celebrating reason and humanity) published by the Council for Secular Humanism. This is a far better publication than the coffee-table New Humanist or the venerable Freethinker, which, despite its nominal independence, is the house journal of the NSS.

Hitchens, a fan of booze and fags, now has cancer of the oesophagus. The religious are contemplating a death-bed conversion. Ironically, this reinforces Hitchens’s disbelief in a god, who if he did exist would be a vicious sadist.

In an interview Andrew Anthony writes:

At heart he’s incurably in love with the dialectic. He cut his teeth on dialectical materialism as a teenage Trotskyist, and it was the analytical method that eventually put paid to any allegiance to the political madness.

Hitchens was a member of the International Socialists, and while their sanity is not in doubt, their political methodology is. They have become apologists for political Islam. Hitchens has entered the camp of imperialism, supporting the war in Iraq. It ill-behoves a person who can support the slaughter of innocent Iraqis to criticise Orwell’s attitude to the arson of churches in the Spanish Revolution. Hitchens genuinely believes radical or jihadist Islam to be an existential threat to civilisation. This is true, but it is no excuse for becoming a camp follower of imperialism. Supporting one tyranny against another does not bring freedom. In the case of Hitchens it undermines his argument against the tyranny of religion.

Richard Dawkins is a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. The strength of his argument for evolutionary science has earned him the nickname Darwin’s Rottweiler. Darwin himself was a closet agnostic awed by his wife’s piety. His meeting with Edward Aveling, who journeyed to Downe House, ended in mutual miscomprehension. He was peeved when Aveling dedicated The Student’s Darwin to him. The copy of the first volume of Capital which Marx sent to Darwin remained unread on his bookshelves.

Dawkins deals with religion as a form of child abuse, and the sadism and sexual perversion of teachers, many of them members of religious orders, in church schools is well known, despite attempts by the hierarchy to hush it up. He tells how he enlisted the help of the therapist Jill Mytton to help children traumatised by religious sects. She herself had been terrified as a little girl by threats of Hellfire in the Exclusive Brethren. He calls them a more than usually more than odious sect. As traditional Christianity declines, with Anglican churches being often near-empty on a Sunday, and with the Catholics being hard put to find recruits for the priesthood, these sects rise to take its place. They are a smaller and nastier version of the original.

Dawkins addresses the old myth that Hitler and Stalin were atheists. Hitler was brought up as a Catholic and suppressed free-thought societies. The leader of the Deutsche Freidenker-Verband, Max Sievers, was beheaded for treason in 1944. Stalin, who trained for the Orthodox priesthood, was an atheist, although this didn’t stop him enlisting the help of the Church during the war. But as Dawkins put it, ‘there is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality’. The Jehovah’s Witnesses complain about Stalin sending them to the Gulag camps as if they were the only victims.

Dawkins mentions Marx only once. Hitchens considers Marx a great and fallible essayist. He writes of the Marxism of his youth and his admiration for Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky.

The New Atheism has the fundamentalists worried. The November 2010 issue of the odious Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine Awake asks: ‘Are Atheists On The March?’ Its idea of what atheists look like is hilarious — short hair, neat beards, with shorts and ties! The Witnesses crowed long and loud when in 2004 the academic Antony Flew moved from Atheism to Deism. Flew was a right-winger and a very arrogant and unpleasant person, yet the NSS and its then President, Barbara Smoker, fawned on him. The local Witnesses have told me that Satan is within me and I am dancing with the Devil! Like I should worry already!? The Witnesses ask: Is belief in a creator intrinsically harmful? Both myself and the New Atheists would answer with a resounding: ‘Yes!’

While the New Atheism provides an arsenal of ammunition to hammer religion, to undermine the foundations of its mythology, it falls short in failing to describe or make an analysis of the ideological role played by religion in sustaining the alienated social relations of bourgeois society. For this one must turn to Marx and to Marxists like FA Ridley, who was President of the National Secular Society and editor of the Freethinker, and John Keracher. Ridley wrote:

Once a Communist order was fully established, the twin foundations of religion, ignorance and fear, would be torn up by the roots. This is what today’s infidels and iconoclasts must do having mastered the proletarian science of the materialist conception of history which provides the intellectual tools for the task. Then will the holy books, hymn sheets and vestments be abandoned to the worms and mice, capitalists driven from the earth and gods from the skies.



Last updated on 9 January 2018