As science advanced over time, the God hypothesis became increasingly less necessary as a way to explain the occurrence of natural events. This caused religiosity to decline, especially among educated people. As secular states developed and freedom of expression emerged as a human right, criticism of religion — both by philosophers and scientists — became widespread.
In this sense, the so-called New Atheists movement — led by Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens — is not new. It was, however, started because of the way the power of religion started to be utilized — the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for blind faith in the concept of a rewarding afterlife.
The New Atheists present a modern supporting framework for individuals who are able to overcome the frightening concept of eternal punishment, which is often presented to them during a religious childhood. The movement also helps people realize that adages like “anything is possible” or “God works in mysterious ways” are merely shortcuts, ways of avoiding more intellectual explanations. Many books written by New Atheists provide excellent guidance out of the mazes and away from the traps of faith in its pure form.
However, despite recent attempts such as Dawkins’ “The Magic of Reality” and Harris’ “Free Will,” the New Atheists don’t have the same level of success they used to with laying the foundations of a fulfilling atheist life.
As it turns out, the pursuit of happiness is a journey far more complex than understanding the way the brain works. Throughout history, besides supernatural affairs, many aspects related to the self and life in society were taken care of by religion. It often provided valuable answers in the individual and collective realms, including the practice of meditation and the act of gathering to celebrate a common purpose.
As technology becomes increasingly powerful in a highly interconnected world and cultures clash on an unprecedented scale, it becomes too dangerous to leave guidance on these complicated topics to people who base their rationale on dogmas and supposedly sacred books from the ages of tribalism, dreams and entities that are indistinguishable from imaginary friends.
This gap has been recognized. We can see the emergence of interesting movements, such as secular humanism. Thinkers such as Alain de Botton are starting to approach the topic. Unfortunately, there is not yet a solid, structured proposal, and the average atheist is in great part left to find his way through life alone, having to learn and test alternatives by himself.
This is partly because the territory of the mind is largely unknown, and an honest, confident answer cannot be formulated yet. It is promising that New Atheists treat the topic carefully, but we need more people — newer atheists — to start thinking and acting toward that goal. Because, as the cliché goes, life is too short — a fact we atheists are very aware of.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 25 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]