I suppose that the title of this post will attract some to find out how I, as a Christian, have misrepresented atheistic culture to make it appear like a cult. But the words of the title are not mine. They are the words of one of new atheism's bombastic high priests, Sam Harris.
Apparently, Harris went to some type of atheism seminar called "The Atheist Alliance Conference" (it appears to be some sort of a Billy Graham Crusade for atheists) wherein he gave a talk in which he said something to the effect that atheists exhibit cult-like behavior at times. Apparently, some of the "free-thinkers" at this conference went ballistic about what he said and wrote nasty articles about his sermon. Harris, perhaps fearing that some of the more radical of the faithful might come after him to stone him or burn him at the stake, wrote a blog entry on his blog trying to clarify what he said entitled Response to My Fellow "Atheists" (the quotation marks are in the original title). It contains a rather interesting rant in which he acknowledges that some atheists are very cult-like. Harris says:
"My point, with respect to the term 'atheist' (or any other), is that the use of a label invites a variety of misunderstandings that are harmful to our cause. There are many people in this country who do not believe in God and who understand that there is conflict between science and religion, but who do not feel the slightest inclination to join an atheist group or to label themselves in opposition to religion. These people are 'atheist' by any measure, but you will never meet them at one of our conventions. They have read the writings of the 'new atheists,' sent us letters and emails of support, are quite fond of criticizing religion whenever the opportunity arises, but they have no interest whatsoever in joining a cult of such critics. And there is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety." (Emphasis added.)
It always astounds me when I find myself nodding in agreement with one of the new atheists, and I do find myself nodding in agreement with Harris on this one. There is, indeed, something cult-like about some atheists (note that I said "some" -- it is certainly not true of all atheists, and this article is not intended to accuse each and every atheist of acting cult-like). That, however, is not surprising since atheism -- whether atheists will ever accept the truth of this or not -- is a religion, and every religion develops cults.
Atheism has its beliefs about God (i.e, there is no god or gods) and its beliefs that are part of the core understanding of the world. It has a grand metaphysical story which many of the true believers of atheists defend with all of the ardour of the most firm believer of any faith. Some atheists try to differentiate between religion and atheism on the basis that atheism lacks some of the ritual that religions have. For example, some argue that atheists don't worship anything so it can't be a religion, but that is a side-issue. Of course atheists don't worship a god who isn't there, but it is their faith in their unproven belief that there is no God, god or gods that is the religion. To the extent that atheists order their lives around that principal they are acting religiously. So, while it is true that atheists don't have a place of worship, i.e, there isn't a "church" of atheism, they prove their religious devotion when they go to places where they share their faith such as the discussion boards at the Internet Infidels website.
The belief of atheists that there is no God informs their worldviews from top-to-bottom. Thus, it is no surprise that some of the more extreme adherents to this a-religion will occasionally develop into atheistic cults which are no longer beholden to the original teachings of the atheistic movements' leaders.
Harris certainly shouldn't be surprised that some of his followers have become an atheistic cult. He has encouraged this type of behavior with his brusque style of argument. In an article on Come Let Us Reason entitled Challenging the New Atheists, the author notes that Harris talks about "a kind of 'religion of reason' with a Sabbath and prayer." Using rhetorical flourish, he paints a false picture of religion that blames it for all of the ills of the world while painting peaceful, true atheism as the cure for the multitudes of evils delivered by those pathetic believers in God, a god or gods. He sounds very much like one of those fundamentalist preachers he so decries exhorting his congregation to rigidly follow his narrow reading of the Bible. It's no surprise that despite their claims to be "freethinkers" they respond to their spiritual leader like mind-numbed robots.
Once started, cults that are not ruled with a rigid hand get out of control. Thus, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon can maintain his control over his "flock" because he runs every aspect of their lives. Harris, consistent with his a-theology, can't do that. He has to encourage them to think and some have apparently concluded that Harris is wrong in limiting their rabid attacks on religion to only how far he thinks is appropriate. So, what is Harris left to do but to complain that these heretics are no longer following his lead and acting like those evil religionists? Not much.
Sorry, Mr. Harris, but whether you accept it or not your new atheism is every bit a religion, and every religion develops its zealots. Christianity, at least, has a basis for telling its zealots that they have overstepped the lines. In your "new atheism" religion, all you have is your opinion based on rhetoric and questionable logic which your followers are free to disregard in their own "rational" reflections. When they ultimately follow the logic of your arguments to their logical ends, they will realize that there is no rational warrant to not physically harm people who believe in God, a god or gods because these "religionists" are now and have been the cause of all of the ills and evils in the world. You will then complain (as you are apparently starting to now) that these people are not acting like good atheists but like those evil religionists. And you will be likely right -- they will be acting like the people who have misused religion which has occasionally occurred throughout history. But while Christians can point to the Word of God as revealed in the Bible to point out why the darkness exhibited by those people is an aberration and contrary to the teachings of their religious traditions, the new atheists will only be able to meekly say, "Well, I wouldn't go that far."
Maybe Harris will turn out to be right on another point: To the extent that the new atheism is really a new religion, perhaps religion will be the greatest evil ever foisted upon an unsuspecting world.