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Analysis: Can “Communitarian Atheism” Really Work?

Ex-Muslim journalist Zeeshan Aleem, fearing that we are caught between theocracy and social breakdown, sees it as a possible answer

Zeeshan Aleem, an American journalist raised as a Muslim — but now an atheist — views his country as caught between “the twin crises of creeping theocracy and the death of conventional religion.” He seeks a new kind of atheism — communitarian atheism — as part of a solution:

Zeeshan Aleem

A rapidly increasing share of Americans are detaching from religious communities that provide purpose and forums for moral contemplation, and not necessarily finding anything in their stead. They’re dropping out of church and survey data suggests they’re disproportionately like to be checked out from civic life. Their trajectory tracks with a broader decades-long trend of secular life defined by plunging social trust, faith in institutions, and participation in civil society.

My belief is that an energetic, organized atheist movement — which I propose calling “communitarian atheism” — would provide an effective way to guard against the twin crises of intensifying religious extremism on one end, and the atomizing social consequences of a plunge in conventional religiosity on the other.

Zeeshan Aleem, “Why America needs a new kind of atheism right now” at MSNBC (August 1, 2022)

He thus hopes that “Atheists who consciously believe in their worldview have a particularly urgent interest in helping to lead a legal and political movement to protect against theocracy.”

If theocracy is taking over, it is doing so at a snail’s pace in winter, so Aleem will have plenty of time to further develop his ideas. In the wake of ”the slow death of mainstream organized religion,” he proposes to learn from religion: “By putting together study groups, communities for secular meditation, and elucidating the meaning and joys of atheism without spewing venom toward all religion, atheists can build spaces for religion-skeptical people to find purpose, think about ethics, form community and consider more carefully how to build a better society.”

Aleem’s proposal raises a couple of questions. First off, he proposes to use the methods by which currently declining religions form mature believers in order to form mature atheists. He does not address the possibility that the traditional methods are themselves one cause of the current decline. Why does he assume that their helpfulness is self-evident?

And then, what’s this caveat against “spewing venom toward all religion”? If his prospective converts are likely to do that, his project may have deeper vulnerabilities than he realizes. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Aleem talks about the joy he felt on becoming an atheist:

Losing my religion was an unexpected moment of ecstasy. I no longer blamed myself for not understanding the emptiness I had felt when praying to a god. I also finally felt comfortable interrogating Islam as a vehicle for social conservatism and patriarchy.

Zeeshan Aleem, “Why America needs a new kind of atheism right now” at MSNBC (August 1, 2022)

His description of his experience strikingly parallels that of Somali-born writer and commentator Ayaan Hirsi Ali who also left Islam for atheism. In Infidel (2007) and elsewhere, Hirsi Ali similarly portrays her adoption of atheism in the Netherlands as a form of liberation. Hirsi Ali had suffered FGM and forced marriage — understood as part of her religion — and then ended up living in the United States, where atheism is fashionable among the intellectual elite. Aleem’s concerns, though genuinely felt, sound more philosophical than Hirsi Ali’s.

Aleem was in for a surprise when he explored the New Atheist movement that flourished in the last two decades but has since subsided:

On one hand, I agreed with and learned from some of the New Atheist critique of religion as a force for stifling critical thought and purveying social traditionalism. On the other hand, I found that the New Atheists caricatured religion, and neglected to consider all the nuances of religious belief and the positive role it could play in people’s lives.

Zeeshan Aleem, “Why America needs a new kind of atheism right now” at MSNBC (August 1, 2022)

He ended up drifting back: “As I got older I found myself circling back to the spiritual world, although in an idiosyncratically atheistic manner.” This included mindfulness meditation, chanting Hebrew, and Quaker meetings (he had attended a Quaker school). Political activism didn’t provide the deeper connection to the nature of things that he felt he needed either. His verdict: “Atheism opened up my world. But it didn’t hold it together.”

At this point, we might ask, why was New Atheism the “godlessness that failed?

Psychiatrist Scott Alexander has thought a lot about that. Here’s what he wrote in 2019:

Post-2006 atheists were brasher and more political. They were less interested in arguing with religious people about the minutiae of carbon-dating; they were more interested in posting about how stupid carbon-dating denalists were, on their own social media feeds, read entirely by other atheists. The concept of the Internet as magical place where you could change other people’s minds had given way to the Internet as magical place where you could complain to like-minded friends about how ignorant other people were…

New Atheism, for the first time, started to have celebrities. Richard Dawkins, of course, and the Four Horsemen, but also random bloggers like PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan. These were the days when bloggers filled auditoria and travelled in high-altitude balloons. Every day they would tell you the latest reason to be outraged about religion, and every day you would discuss it on social media and comment sections and get appropriately angry.

Scott Alexander, “New atheism: the godlessness that failed ” at Slate Star Codex (October 30, 2019)

Most potential converts wouldn’t find the daily outrage fun or meaningful. Eventually, Dr. Alexander says, most New Atheists drifted into social justice activism instead.

But can atheism be a unifying principle? For very long? Or will the actual bond within the group continue to be “spewing venom toward all religion” until adherents find something more constructive to do?

That raises a critical question: Is “communitarian atheism” even possible? Founders of religions proclaim that they have found Something; founders of atheist movements claim that they have found, in essence, Nothing. Nothing is behind it all! Is Nothing a unifying force?

You may also wish to read: Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down. If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Analysis: Can “Communitarian Atheism” Really Work?