OPEN LETTER TO A NEO-ATHEIST,       (7/28/2009)

from Tony Equale

Dear Larry,

             I’ve decided to call you a neo-atheist.   Let me tell you why.  I was inspired by the the label “neo-conser­vative” applied over the last 30 years to intellectuals in full-tilt recoil from the revolutionary initiatives of the flaming sixties to which they had originally subscribed.  And just like “neo-con,” which has the pejorative connotation of a knee-jerk rejection-reaction, “neo-athe­ism” alludes to a leap of faith and feeling that, precisely because it is born of rejection has cystified itself against thought.  Neo-atheism, in other words, is irrational.

             The normal atheist is rational, the neo-atheist is NOT.  And that irrationality is the clue that you are in a full blown backlash from an earlier irrationality, and one that you cannot or will not integrate it into your present trajectory.  If the original commitment had been mature, you might have modified it, even rejected it, but you would not be, at this point, irrational.  How is your irrationality manifest?  We’ll get to that shortly.

the vulnerable adolescent

             To explain my take on the personal dynamic functioning here, Larry, permit me to present a parallel example.  Here’s one we are all familiar with.  The adolescent male of the species is notoriously vulnerable to the promotions of the military which symbolically offer his budding manhood the reassurances his insecurity demands.  Hence the transhistorical phenomenon of war may be plausibly explained by its aptness as a “rite of passage” for each new generation of tumescent teen­agers, who like the children of Hamlin, follow the piper to their eternally predictable doom.  Every generation knows it.  Every generation fails to avoid it.  There is a normal personal inadequacy ― adolescence ―  often accompanied by an enforced childhood “docility,” that carries a natural sense of impotence. That impotence is promised a resolution in the obedient violence of “manly” war.  

            But notice how “docile obedience” is functional on both sides of the divide.  An imposed (not personally chosen) childhood docility creates the impotence that is promised to be transcended by violence … but since the violence is itself not personally chosen, but performed as a surrogate and in obsequious fear of violent authority, the impotence is regenerated in the very act of its supposed transcendence.  Violence used as an antidote to impotence produces more impotence.  Like an addiction, it often leads to subsequent violence, personal or familial.  Like alcohol, the “solution” produces the need for more “solution” … precisely because it is being used to do something it cannot do.    

            The parallelism with “true believers” like us is more than superficial.  Adolescence is the context in each case.  For the “true believer,” an obedient docility enforced by an implacable hieratic authority rendering all autonomy criminal, generates an impotence that becomes socially fertile (even applauded) by its sublimation in an act of total commitment and self-donation .  But this apparent “achievement,” like the violence of war, is unsatisfying, for the commitment is to an eternal docility, sterile obedience and abdication of autonomy.  If the “solution” is addictively re-applied, as the formation instructs, it turns into an endless surrender to an all consuming cause ― the same or others. 

             The neo-atheist, having once been thus “duped” in his adolescence, needs to declare his ability to resist any such humiliation in the future.  He assumes a posture of total intransigence toward all manifestations of the earlier ideology, but does so with an ironic twist.  He applies the same unquestioning docility and self-surrender to the new “ideology” as he had to his erstwhile beliefs.

            When the ideology is rejected but the addictive self-abdicating dynamic is not, you get the irrationality of which I speak.  The “true-believer” changes the content of his ideology, but retains his character as “true-believer.”  Hence the “neo” sydrome, true of the neo-con as of the neo-atheist.  You can’t talk to them because, like all true believers, they are lost in the throes of a salvific self-surrender.

             The neo-atheist’s rejection is expressed in global and categorical terms.  He finds himself with absolutely nothing to say, because all distinctions have been blurred, melted together in the heat of the passion for rejection.  Nothing is specified except for one supreme and exclusively relevant item: religious duping.   And anything even remotely reminiscent of it is immediately perceived as a threat to its re-establishment.

 the irrationality

             This has reached such proportions, that the ordinary human phenomenon that we call “sacred” is summarily dismissed as absurd, and deceiving.  The fact that this phenomenon has no necessary connection with “religion” does not deter the neo, as he accuses the use of the very word and concept of being some kind of “sleight-of-hand,” a neo-duping of the apparently still-vulnerable adolescent.  Is this rational?  … are we to say that the duty to protect our children is NOT a sacred responsibility? … that the obligation to be faithful and supportive to one’s life-partner is not a sacred promise? … that our compliance with law, justice, the honoring of contracts, keeping our pledged word are not sacred responsibilities we take on?  This insistence on the inadmissability of the word and category “sacred” is irrational.

            The sense of the sacred is a psychic and social fact, how you explain it is an interpretation.  Anyone can validly deny that he/she has any sense of the sacred.  Implausible as it may be, who is to gainsay someone’s testimony about their own psychic state?  But to extrapolate from that and claim that a sense of the sacred is not a pervasive, almost universal, human phenomenon, is entirely invalid, and intellectually dishonest.  (And if the original claim is an intentional dissimulation, it’s a lie, besides).  Such a denial of fact suggests that the loss of rational control is already at a pathological level.  For a normal, rational “atheist,” proposing a non-religious or non-theist explanation for the sense of the sacred would be sufficient and necessary to ground his/her position.  The neo-atheist cannot do that.  He must dismiss it out of hand.

             What’s opposed to all this irrationality?  Thought, reason, intelligent analysis, researched discussion.  The solution to the impotence / surrender syndrome ― like the solution to the impotence / violence, or the impotence / alcohol syndrome ― is the direct, not surrogate, transcendence over impotence and abdication of autonomy by personal confrontation and appropriation.  It means no longer running away in fear from the words and categories of the former entrapment.  It means no more surrogates.  It means the direct assertion of personal control over all the significant aspects of one’s life, including those aspects over which one had no control at one point in time.

             “Running away” is a clear sign that the neo has no control over the categories of his original enslavement.  The paradox here is tragic.  For what it really indicates is that the neo is still helpless before them.  The neo is in fact still so dominated by the earlier ideology that he cannot allow himself even to look at it for fear of once again capitulating to its siren power.  He has never thought it through.  This is made abundantly clear in the fact that the “neo” presents no rational arguments for his “atheism” except to declare unthinking loyalty to its icons.  For him, the fact that Hitchens or Dawkins, or Harris or Dennet or Weinberg have a “position” is sufficient.  As with his former religious commitment, he doesn’t have to “know” or understand … it’s sufficient that the authorities “know.”  He simply goes along in obedient docility.  As with his earlier religious commitments, he has never thought through his atheism either.  He doesn’t even know what these people are actually saying and why.

speaking honestly

            What has been implicit in my remarks and I want to emphasize is that I am not challenging the atheist’s right to, or even the undeniable rationality of, his atheism.  I more than respect the atheist.  I personally feel the atheist, because he rejects the supernatural theist “God” of recent tradition, is in many ways closer to reality than most “believers.”  Like the atheist, I also reject that particular idea of “God.”  I believe it is absurd and I offer arguments and alternatives in An Unknown God.

             I am not arguing against the “neo’s” atheism, I am attacking his “neo-ism,” i.e., the fact that he has erected his rejection into another unthinking abdication of reason, thought, feeling and understanding.  I attack it in the name not of a “God,” whose features are no longer credible, but of our humanity which does not need more de fide “dogmas” or true believers who refuse to think and talk … we need more dialog, thought, reason ― those essential elements of fertile and pacific interchange among people of all persuasions that make human society life-sus­taining and not a series of endless wars and senseless slaughter. 

             Larry, I suspect very strongly that your inability to confront and control these issues means that subconsciously they are still in the driver’s seat for you … potentially ready to re-engage your commitment ― irrationally of course ― when you’re not watching.  In this regard, I also fear that your antipathy toward my position stems as much from a powerful subconscious irrational loyalty to “Catholic truths” and the traditional authorities as from any “atheism” that you have conspicuously failed to plumb and articulate.  And, Larry, please believe me when I say this, but I am much more afraid of the former in you than the latter.


Tony Equale


  1. theotheri says:

    It strikes me that your analysis of the impotence/surrender syndrome as it applies ex-religious and adolescents applies equally to most terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause.
    But who is Larry? I have looked for the date 7/28/09 but don’t see any post for that date. Am I missing something? Or is this the public side of a private/public dialogue?

    I made a post on my own blog ( “A Letter to God” today (8/13/09)and thought that at least half of what I said was influenced by your writings. The other half, of course, was influenced by that anonymous person at the Dead Letter Office. I even found myself able to use the word “God” with a certain compassion and little need to jump through hoops, although “God” these days is no longer my favourite term for describing the ineffable. Or sacred, as you put it. As I said, in some ways the term we use is not always critical. The important thing is that we embrace the joy and discipline and sheer amazement of love. And then we will know. Even if we don’t know we know.

    But then, that is the way I see it. I don’t hold you – of anyone at the Dead Letter Office – for what I think. And I am very apt to be thinking something else in the future. I certainly have in the past.


    • tonyequale says:

      Terry, thanks for your comment.

      Larry is an ex-priest friend with whom I’ve had some less-than-satisfying conversations lately. There is no earlier posting in this series , but there’s a second one coming this sunday. I think you will recognize the theme.

      Larry broke off the conversation so I felt I had no other choice than to communicate in an “open letter.”

      I agree. The impotence / addiction syndrome functions in many different areas. Adolescents everywhere are vulnerable to that sort of thing. And I don’t like sounding so harsh, but when it’s a matter of such importance … and something to which one has dedicated his/her entire youth, summary dismissal seems an immature reaction. Also I think highly of “atheism” and I don’t like seeing it get short shrift. So I offer my letter for what it’s worth.

      I saw your “letter from God” and I, too was moved. Thank you for sharing that. Love is the absolute heart of the matter. We can’t imagine God, but then, we realize we don’t have to. To love and be open to love puts us in the center of an expanding paroxysm that started 15 billion years ago and will not be contained … we’re still rushing outward from the excitement.

      Thanks again, Tony

  2. Chris Lawrence says:

    Interesting. Am I right in thinking you have have used ‘neo-atheist’ to identify the category of those whose atheism is new to them, rather than the category of those whose atheism is based on or amplified by contemporary rather than earlier thought?

    I guess the parallel ‘neo-con’ could cover the political equivalents of both, though. I had assumed the ‘neo’ part referred to the conservative revival of the 1990s+. But you could be right that the ‘neo-con’ movement was particularly energised when a number those who felt their previous gods had failed them enjoyed a collective Damascus moment.

    Chris Lawrence
    thinking makes it so

    • tonyequale says:

      Thanks for your comment. Being an old guy (I am 70) I remember well the raging ’60’s and some of the icons that were leaders and had a conversion-reaction. I think particularly of Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn, one of the leaders of the anti-war movement and in the forefront for civil rights, … became the quintessential neo-conservative, he went so far as to work hand in glove with the Reagan efforts to destabilize Nicaragua in the ’80’s creating the IRD (Institute for Religion and Democracy) which attacked liberation theology and Christian base communities that were the ideological support for the Sandnistas in Nicaragua and the insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala. His credentials as a conservative were confirmed when he converted to Catholicism and became a Roman Catholic priest.
      From there the term came to be applied more broadly and shifted to mean “arch” conservatives, as I heard Cheney, Rumsfeld and company referred to as neo-cons … the sense becoming the aggressive resurgence o0f conservatism.
      So in deference to my age and era I use it in the orginal sense … since I define it explicitly, it serves to explain the significance of neo-atheist, which was my only intention after all.
      The “neo” is elaborately characterized as an irrational rejection. I try to distinguish it from “normal” atheism, which I see as rational.

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