Faith in Progress: Evolutionism and the New Atheism

Stephen LeDrew


The New Atheism is an intellectual current and cultural movement led by the writings of Richard Dawkins (2006), Sam Harris (2004), Daniel Dennett (2006), and Christopher Hitchens (2007). It is concerned with an aggressive and bombastic criticism of all religions (but primarily monotheism) as anti-scientific and outdated belief systems that limit the potential of social progress and threaten the very survival of Western civilization. They argue instead in favor of a scientific worldview, the only protection against the violence wrought by religious conflicts. Books by these authors were phenomenal bestsellers and instigated a wave of public debate about religion and its place in the modern world. While the term “New Atheism” is sometimes considered synonymous with a group of four main thinkers, it is also used to describe a large and diffuse network of organizations and informal associations that together constitute

S. LeDrew (*)

Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL, Canada

© The Author(s) 2017

F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59948-9_10

a nascent social movement (e.g. Guenther et al. 2013). In this chapter, I treat the New Atheism as an intellectual movement for which the works of these authors serve as a canon, while there are many other thinkers and organizations that espouse the same basic beliefs. These include University of Minnesota biologist PZ Myers (author of the science blog Pharyngula), physicist Victor Stenger (2008, 2009), and A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher and public intellectual.

Scholarly interest in the New Atheism began with critical analysis of the beliefs it promotes (e.g. Amarasingam 2010; Eagleton 2009; LeDrew 2012; Plantinga 2011). It has become a focal point of discussion on such issues as secularization and the rise of the religious “nones”, the growing group of people in the West who claim no religious affiliation (e.g. Baker and Smith 2009a, b; Bullivant and Lee 2012; Lim et al. 2010; Vargas 2012). Though the New Atheism has now been around for some time and the initial explosion of activity has settled somewhat, it continues to influence public discourse on religion and politics. It is particularly significant in terms of its influence on an associated social movement, which is drawing the attention of scholars interested in the dynamics and politics of identity construction (e.g. Cimino and Smith 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014; Guenther 2014; Guenther et al. 2013; LeDrew 2013, 2015; Smith 2011, 2013; Zuckerman 2008, 2011).

While research on the ‘nones’ and the atheist movement is moving in new directions, it is important to continue to develop our understanding of the New Atheism and its cultural significance, as it has surely played an important role in shaping and reflecting the beliefs of many members of these groups. The chapter therefore fits within this book’s theme of “Practicing Culture”, though it also addresses that of “Configuring Power”, since the beliefs in question pertain to the legitimation of scientific authority and the social structure of Western late capitalism. Taking a critical approach, I want to argue that the New Atheism, ostensibly a rejection of forms of belief and practice typically understood as “religion”, in fact mirrors some of religion’s substantive and functional characteristics in its defense of its own belief system, which includes a politicized vision of social progress driven by science. Specifically, I will discuss two major concepts: “cosmization” and “sacralisation”, drawing on Berger (1967) and Durkheim (1995), respectively. While normally applied in research on religion, these concepts are important analytical tools in understanding some “secular” forms of belief and practice—in this case, scientism, and more specifically, evolutionism, which are the major tenets of New Atheist thought. I thus argue that while scholarship in this field has predominantly adopted an approach derived from literature on social movements, our understanding is enriched by introducing theoretical perspectives from the sociology of religion.

This framing is a smaller-scale version of the theoretical pluralism cited in Kurasawas introduction to this volume as a foundational principle of critical sociology. For the purposes of the arguments advanced below, theoretical pluralism refers to bringing theories and concepts from different fields together in ways that may not be obvious, but nonetheless are necessary to arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the subject matter. Most importantly, my approach to the New Atheism is grounded in critical sociology’s normative critique of structures of inequality. In my case, this involves cultural structures of meaning and authority that are constructed and maintained through public discourse as well as community engagement and activism. The New Atheism, I argue, is in essence an ideological defense of the Western liberal-capitalist social order and its characteristic structural inequalities. My project is to illustrate how this ideology is not only advanced through the structure of social movement organizations but gains considerable traction from explicitly and implicitly drawing on the sacralizing processes of religion.

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