Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists are often criticised for failing to understand that being religious is not about beliefs – but about cultural practice and social participation. Yet criticising New Atheists for their “false beliefs” makes precisely the same mistake and reduces this culture to its propositional statements and knowledge claims. In fact, people are brought together and tied together by their different kinds of non-religious positions, and to criticise one of these cultures, the New Atheism, on the grounds that it does not appreciate that religion is a team sport is to miss the point that atheism, too, is a team sport.
Obsessing about how coherent the arguments of New Atheists are – rather than noticing how popular the movement is; the emotional feelings of recognition that some readers have in response to it; how people discuss New Atheism with each other and use it to help articulate shared non-religious positions – is to do precisely what critics would have the New Atheists stop doing. You don’t have to share the New Atheists’ beliefs to treat their culture with some respect – and be interested not in whether its claims are correct but in why people are drawn to it and what is underlying the anti-theist prejudices that are sometimes expressed in these claims. The notion that cultural and social investments are more important than beliefs is fine, but it has to cut both ways.