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The Second Wave of the New Atheism:
A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship and Religious Studies




This Manifesto was initiated in the summer of 2015 by Hector Avalos and André Gagné. Those who wish to contact the authors and add their signature, please contact Hector Avalos at HectorAvalos@aol.com and/or André Gagné at gagne.andre@hotmail.com.



See Also: The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship



By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

André Gagné
Concordia University
Montreal, Canada
January 2016


BACKGROUND

The New Atheism is a name given to a movement represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom wrote best-selling books that were highly critical of religion.[1]

Although the New Atheism does not eschew the classical arguments against the existence of God, its focus is primarily on the immorality and harmful consequences of religious thinking itself. For some, the New Atheism is not merely atheistic, but also anti-theistic.[2]

Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.

However, many secular and religious critics of the New Atheism have charged the New Atheism with a number of flaws. One is a lack of expertise in scriptural and religious studies that has led Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens to make pronouncements that are rightly viewed as simplistic or inaccurate in some cases.

This situation has led to the perception that the New Atheism has no experts in scriptural and religious studies that could challenge religious counterparts with as much or more expertise. Others have conflated all New Atheists as followers of a neoliberal or capitalist ideology. Still others note that all the representatives of the New Atheism are white males.

Accordingly, there is a need to identify a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Such a need was discussed briefly in Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), but it received no elaboration.[3]

The First Wave focused on the problems that religious thinking can cause. Since religion was the focus of the First Wave, then a Second Wave seeks to rethink how self-identified atheist scholars of religion and scripture approach the issues that the First Wave raised.

The recent uprising of terror attacks across the globe from groups like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and others, is also one of the reasons why scholars of religion and scriptural studies who identify with a Second Wave of New Atheists should speak out against the catastrophic effects of religious violence and ideology.

The authors of this statement, Hector Avalos and André Gagné, thought it useful to identify the main characteristics of what can be called a Second Wave of the New Atheism. Our hope is that other secular scholars who have similar ideas might join us or help us to clarify the nature and purpose of scriptural scholarship and the study of religion as it relates to current global events in the coming decades.

A MANIFESTO FOR SECULAR SCRIPTURAL SCHOLARSHIP AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES

Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.” We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:

- Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);

- Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;[4]

- Uphold and defend freedom of expression;

- Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;

- Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;

- Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;

- Recognize that most of biblical scholarship is still largely part of an ecclesial- academic complex that renders it very distinct from other areas of the humanities and social sciences, especially insofar as it seeks to protect and preserve religion as a valuable feature of human existence;

- Aim to expose the bibliolatry that still lies at the core of biblical studies insofar as most biblical scholars believe the Bible should be a vital part of modern cultures or bears superior ethical values;

- Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;

- Acknowledge that the traditional scriptural canons are an artificial theological construct, and encourages scriptural scholarship to study all texts considered authoritative or sacred by ancient religions;

- Call attention to the ethical advances or positive features of texts in the ancient Near East that have not received due attention;

- Seek to make scriptural and religious studies relevant by encouraging scholars of sacred scriptures and religions to engage in public discussions and/or use cyber-media to educate the public about issues such as the role of religion in violence and the use of sacred scriptures to oppose gay rights, contraception, gender equality, and other social and human rights issues that should be adjudicated on non-religious grounds;

- Encourage secular scholars of religion and sacred scriptures to help establish policies that are based on reason and democratic values instead of religion; they should be the guardians of a strict separation between religion and state;

- View cooperation with scientists as a necessary strategy to challenge those who use sacred scriptures to deny the existence of evolution or anthropogenic climate change, among other general scientific conclusions;

- Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;

- Affirm that religious obscurantism can only be countered through education;

- Insist on critical education that focuses on a historical and social understanding and development of religion; that is, teaching and education that is fact-based instead of faith-based; people should know ABOUT religions and religious texts, not in the sense of maintaining the value of any religious tradition, but to develop critical thinking about religions;

- Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.

Scholars who share these views may not identify themselves as any sort of New Atheists or as part of any Second Wave of the New Atheism. Indeed, some of the following signatories do not necessarily apply those labels to themselves. When the co-authors say that “a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists...” they are affirming the existence of people who already think this way, but may not have identified as such explicitly up to now."

However, we invite all scholars who share these views to join us in expressing, or putting into practice, any or all of the ideas and goals that we have outlined here.

Signatories

Kenneth Atkinson, Professor of History. University of Northern Iowa Department of History, University of Northern, Iowa, (Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA)

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa, USA)

Carol Delaney, Associate Professor, Emerita, Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University (Stanford, California, USA)

André Gagné, Associate Professor, Departments of Religion and Theological Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Canada)

Jaco Gericke, Associate research professor in the subject group Theology and Philosophy, School of Basic Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, North-West University (Vaal Campus, South Africa)

James Linville, Faculty, Department of Religious Studies, University of Lethbridge (Lethbridge, Canada).



Notes

[1] According to Victor Stenger (The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason [Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009], p. ii), who describes himself as a New Atheist, the New Atheism was motivated primarily by 9/11 and began with “a series of six best-selling books that took a harder line against religion than had been the custom among secularists.” Harris (The End of Faith, p. 323) states that he “began writing this book on September 12, 2001,” which clearly shows the link between 9/11 and the rise of the New Atheism. On the New Atheism among ethnic minorities, see Hector Avalos, ‘The Hidden Enlightenment: Humanism among US Latinos’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 20 (2012), pp. 3-14.

[2] When speaking of the atrocities in the Bible, Christopher Hitchens stated “...it helps make the case for ‘anti-theism.’ By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it” (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [New York: Hachette, 2007], p. 102).

[3] Jaco Gericke (“A Fourth Paradigm?: Some Thoughts on Atheism in Old Testament Scholarship,” Old Testament Essays 25/3 [2012]: 518-533) speaks of the emergence of a Fourth Paradigm in Old Testament scholarship that is essentially atheistic. This Manifesto extends to all scriptural and religious studies, not just the Old Testament.

[4] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 60.





Comments (16)


It seems that it might be useful for the scholars here to engage with William Cavanaugh's very convincing The Myth of Religious Violence, which argues that religion is a problematic category of analysis and no more prone to incite violence than ideologies such as nationalism, and that the idea of religious violence is itself part of a larger ideological framework that has promoted and legitimated violence.
#1 - Tracy Lemos - 01/07/2016 - 14:43



Dear Tracy,
I have addressed some of Cavanaugh's arguments at length in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005). Those arguments did not change much in his The Myth of Religious Violence (2009), which is not convincing at all for some of us who work in the area of religious violence.

I find Cavanaugh's efforts to deny religious causation for violence to be based on poor readings (or lack of readings) in the primary sources for some of the historical examples he cites (e.g. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre). His main argument has other philosophical problems in determining causation and in defining what he means by "religion."

So, I also would recommend looking at scholarship on religion and violence that addresses directly the claim that there is no such thing as religious violence or the claim that we are somehow misidentifying as "religious" what are really political or economic factors when explaining violence.

See further:
Hector Avalos, “Religion and Scarcity: A New Theory for the Role of Religion in Violence,” in Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 554-570.

-“Explaining Religious Violence: Retrospects and Prospects,” in Andrew Murphy, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2011), pp. 137-146.

See also: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-response-to-professor-paul-allen.html
#2 - Hector Avalos - 01/07/2016 - 15:46



The discussion of religion as a phenomenon in history is certainly important but I would rather people did not march into the discussion under banners of religious or sectarian or anti-religious belief. I think that ascertainment of facts requires openness to different points of view, as Mill argues in On Liberty and further that we can defend our basic beliefs in historical or sociological discussion only if we to some extent forget them. If I have B, my basic belief, as a premise of my arguments p, always in mind, as I discuss F, a fact about which there is controversy, then I must either mention B - this is my premise - or not do so. In the first case I risk futility because B is very likely rejected on the other side of the controversy, in the second case I am not quite honest about the reasons for saying what I say or claiming what I claim.
It"s fine to bear the rival basic belief, BB, in mind and to draw attention to any facts with which it cannot be reconciled. But this procedure imposes a duty to attempt to sympathise somewhat with BB and to think of it 'charitably' rather than polemically, otherwise there is a constant risk that sheer dislike will cause unfairness and misrepresentation, as it often does with individuals with whom we don't get on.
So I don't really want the discussion of the Bible and its interpretation, or of the general history of religion, to be disputed between angry armies of Muslims, Anglicans, atheists and the rest, banging their drums.
#3 - Martin Hughes - 01/07/2016 - 22:04



Signed.
#4 - Raphael Lataster - 01/09/2016 - 09:37



The Manifesto now has a permanent link that is being updated with additional signatories here: http://secondwavemanifesto.weebly.com/
#5 - Hector Avalos - 01/10/2016 - 11:10



This piece betrays the anti-Islamic bias of the New Atheists. All of the examples of terrorists are Muslim. Not a word of the terrorism and exploitation of Muslim countries by US/UK/Israel/France etc.

And this foolishness: “Another main feature of the New Atheism is a secular apocalyptic outlook born out of the events of September 11, 2001. A secular apocalyptic outlook refers to the view that religion has the potential to destroy humanity and our entire biosphere.”

Yes, humans have the potential to destroy humanity, though probably not the whole biosphere. But why single out religion as the primary danger? Why not communism, or capitalism, or greed, or excess testosterone? All of these things, just as much as religion, could contribute to the destruction.

As a long time atheist, though raised religious, I think you are going astray in modeling this manifesto on the new atheists islamophobia and apocalyptic outlook. They are not just anti-theist but anti-religion. One can easily dismiss gods and angels, but dismissing the importance and value of a social practice that has pervaded every society that we know of is incredibly arrogant.

I applaud you folks for studying religion with a strictly skeptical attitude and recognize there has been too little of that. But I suspect that few of you dismiss the value of religion, or you wouldn’t be studying it. Your manifesto makes many important points. But I think you are making a mistake in hitching your cart to the new atheists.
#6 - paxton marshall - 01/11/2016 - 03:55



It's worth noting that a growing number in our infidel dugout are balking at the "new atheist" label:

http://www.stupidatheist.com/2016/01/12/the-new-atheists-arent/

...for what it's worth...
#7 - J. Gravelle - 01/13/2016 - 14:32



So who is going to monitor these secular scholars with regards to whether or not they get out of line due to bigotry?

Secularism is not infallible

Secularism does not make one know everything there is to know about scholarship

If faith based arguments are to be ignored because of emotion then anti-faith arguments should be given the same treatment, but how does your secular inner circle monitor bias?
#8 - cornell - 01/13/2016 - 17:00



Those bullet points are all great. But why bother tying them to the New Atheists? (Other than a marketing benefit) The New Atheists, besides not being trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures, have an awful lot of baggage attached to them. More than the couple of points you mention.

It boils down to this highly questionable claim: "religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet." Rather than argue about how true that claim is, what does it have to do with your bullet points? And doesn't it highly limit the number of people willing to sign on to the manifesto?

My opinion is that advancing the bullet points is vastly more important than hitching your wagon to the New Atheist brand.
#9 - Mark Erickson - 01/18/2016 - 16:42



Dear Paxton Marshall,
Thank you for your comments, and here I will address only a couple of your objections to our Manifesto. Dr. André Gagné, who co-wrote the Manifesto with me, has read this response and agrees with it.

Let me start with this sentence in our Manifesto because you are attributing far more agreement with, and “hitching” to the cart of, the New Atheism than is actually in the text: “Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.”

Note that this sentence qualifies and restricts our explicit agreement with the New Atheism to one premise, and that is the potential of religious belief to incite violence leading to the destruction of our planet.

Therefore, our Manifesto ought not be construed to mean that we agree with the New Atheism on every other issue. Some of the signatories may agree beyond that statement, and some may not.

At the same time, the Manifesto ackowledges a valuable service performed by the New Atheists in calling new attention to the role of religion in violence, especially as there are many scholars denying that role. We don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging that contribution to the intellectual history of atheism.

The New Atheist books became best sellers for a good reason. They struck a chord with a wide audience after 9/11. They encouraged far more people to identify as atheists than ever before.

In addition, the New Atheists are activists. They don’t just write for the academy, but also to educate those outside of it. Many of the signatories of our Manifesto deem activism to be important, as well.

RE: “This piece betrays the anti-Islamic bias of the New Atheists. All of the examples of terrorists are Muslim. Not a word of the terrorism and exploitation of Muslim countries by US/UK/Israel/France etc.”

Manifestos are not treatises, but summaries. Our Manifesto identified specific groups that were actors in current events at the time we wrote and published it. We also added the phrase “and others” to encompass any other religious group, even if it is non-Muslim.

Note that our Manifesto makes an effort to identify specific groups (ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab), and not entire ethnic or religious groups (Islam, Christianity, Syrians) as instigators of violence.

I have no problem including Christian terrorist groups like the KKK or certain Christian Identity churches.

The Manifesto is actually more cautious than your far more generalizing characterizations. You refer to the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and France as though those entire countries are responsible for the acts you mention. Why not mention the specific people in those countries who actually are responsible for those actions to which you object?

You allowed yourself the privilege to use “etc.” to cover all other relevant groups, just we used the phrase “and others.”

Otherwise, and by your logic, you could be characterized as anti-American, anti-United Kingdom, anti-Israel, and anti-French bias because there is not a word about China or Russia and their exploitation Muslims in their own countries and outside of their borders.

But we understand what you mean by “etc.,” and so you should allow us the same privilege without having to list every possible perpetrator of religious violence we can name.

Anyone familiar with my writings knows that I have also stood up in my community when Muslims were threatened. See: http://amestrib.com/opinion/hector-avalos-speak-darul-arqum
#10 - Hector Avalos - 01/26/2016 - 08:35



Dear Paxton Marshall,

RE: “Yes, humans have the potential to destroy humanity, though probably not the whole biosphere. But why single out religion as the primary danger? Why not communism, or capitalism, or greed, or excess testosterone? All of these things, just as much as religion, could contribute to the destruction.”

Again, Manifestos are summaries, not treatises. I explain the ethical differences between religious and non-religioius violence in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005).

Even if all the things you mention can contribue to the destruction of our planet,they cannot be viewed as ethically equivalent to religious violence which can generate conflicts over resources that cannot be proven to exist at all.

You also seem to believe that “communism” and “capitalism” come only in non-religious forms, and so your objections rest partly on false dichotomies.

If you subscribe to the notion that we are now in the anthropocene epoch, wherein human actions have already changed, and can further change our biosphere, then it is perfectly reasonable to explore how religius thinking can lead to the destrucion of our biosphere.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons to purposely bring about the apocalypse is certainly one way to do it, and scholarship has shown that ISIS has an apocalyptic view of history. See William Mcants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (2015).

Some climate change denialists, who have the power to formulate government policy on pollution and toxic emissions, use the Bible to justify their beliefs. John Shimkus, a self-described Christian, is one example: http://www.politico.com/story/2010/11/shimkus-cites-genesis-on-climate-044958

That is not to say that other actions, religious or secular, cannot contribute to such destruction, but our Manifesto is meant to focus on the areas of our expertise, which is religious and scriptural studies.

RE: “But I suspect that few of you dismiss the value of religion, or you wouldn’t be studying it.”

One should not conflate “the value of religion” with “the influence of religion.” I study religion because I see its influence. I, for one, study religion in order to better assess the problems it causes, and how to solve them. I do not study religion because it has any positive value for me otherwise.
#11 - Hector Avalos - 01/26/2016 - 08:36



I was wondering what The New Atheist take is on the research of Bart Ehrman that emphasizes Jesus'humanity over his divinity? For instance, Jesus' cry of dereliction from the cross does not portray Jesus as a divine being calmly expecting resurrection. Also, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane shows Jesus in despair, disagreeing with God's plan and petitioning against his being a part of it, clearly showing Jesus is not one and the same with God. Finally, Jesus identifies with humanity in the way he constructs The Lord's Prayer. Things like this, along with passages that identify Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet, are the things Ehrman suggests the next wave of atheists should be focusing on (and not things like The Christ Myth Theory). Any thoughts on The New Atheists focusing on Jesus' humanity?
#12 - John MacDonald - 02/13/2016 - 00:23



To my previous comment I would like to add something. Jesus is clearly not depicted as a god or The God, but rather as a human prophet (Mark 6:5) with human failings, such as drinking too much alcohol (Matthew 11:19), and even disagreeing with God's plan and his role in God's plan (Mark 14:32-42)
#13 - John MacDonald - 02/16/2016 - 00:19



Dear John MacDonald,
Some of the issues you raise are addressed in my most recent book: The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament
Ethics (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015). See: http://www.amazon.com/The-Bad-Jesus-Ethics-Testament/dp/1909697796
#14 - Hector Avalos - 02/17/2016 - 16:26



Bart Ehrman in his new book writes about Jesus’ death that memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way – for example, because they represent episodes of Jesus’ life that Christians particularly would have wanted to say happened for their own, later benefit (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” This seems to fly in the face of Paul’s claim that Jesus’ atoning death is grounded in scripture. Recall Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).”
#15 - John MacDonald - 03/06/2016 - 17:10



In fact, we don’t even need the Christ-mythicist hypothesis to call into question the historicity of the death of Jesus. A crucified messiah was clearly a “stumbling block” for most Jews (see 1 Cor 1:23), but at least some Jews, like Paul, believed Jesus’ atoning death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled Jewish scripture (see 1 Cor 15: 3-4). The scriptures Paul is referring to here are probably Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and following Matthew 12:40, the account of the relation of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the story of Jonas and the big fish. In his new book, “Jesus Before The Gospels,” Bart Ehrman writes that memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way – for example, because they represent episodes of Jesus’ life that Christians particularly would have wanted to say happened for their own, later benefit (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” Ehrman is trying to rescue the historicity of the crucifixion, but this seems to fly in the face of Paul’s claim that Jesus’ atoning death is grounded in scripture. Recall Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).” In any case, following accepted hermeneutic protocol, since the account of the passion, burial, and resurrection of Christ serves a theological function as scripture fulfillment for the original Christians, there is no reason to think there is any historical core to any of these three reported events, since the original Christians would have had reasons to invent them. Paul Clearly says that “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Cor 15:3-4) So, the crucifixion does not meet the criterion of embarrassment. Just as the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may have invented a story about Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on top of the mountain so that their laws would appear to have impressive authority, so too might the original Christians have invented stories about Jesus’ divinity because they wanted to lend authority to Jesus’ ethical message. Clearly, in the ancient world, people were willing to lay down their lives in support of an ethical cause (e.g., Socrates). That’s not to say we have reason to think the passion/burial/resurrection narratives were “noble lies,” just that the criterion of embarrassment can’t be used here to rescue an historical core. Consequently, we don’t even need the mythicist hypothesis to call into question the historicity of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

On the other hand, if we take your mythicist interpretation that 1 Cor 15:3-4 means Paul DISCOVERED the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus through an allegorical reading of Hebrew scriptures, this still destroys the historicity claims about Jesus’ death.
#16 - John MacDonald - 03/07/2016 - 20:41






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