New Atheism, Meet Existential Risk Studies

Mar 22, 2016

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By Phil Torres

While the New Atheist movement isn’t, and has never been, a monolithic phenomenon, its primary motivating idea can be reduced to a single statement, namely that religion is not merely wrong, but dangerous. In fact, religion is dangerous precisely because it’s wrong: it commands believers to act according to “moral” precepts and guidelines that are ultimately based on private revelations had by ancient prophets claiming special access to the supernatural. Put differently, religion is our very best instance of institutionalized bad epistemology, and this is what makes it unreasonable to accept. And when its doctrinal systems are put into practice, they often compromise our well-being and prosperity.

Copious evidence substantiates this contention. On the one hand, history is overflowing with bloody conflicts driven by antagonistic religious dogmas held by fanatics who cared more about the otherworldly than the worldly. And, as the 2014 Global Terrorism Index affirms, religious extremism constitutes the primary driver of terrorism around the world today. Even more, numerous empirical studies have shown that, to quote the sociologist Phil Zuckerman, secular people are “markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian” than religious people. And the most secularized countries tend to be the happiest, the most peaceable (according to the Global Peace Index), and, as reported by the Economist’s think tank several years ago, the “best places to be born.” While Christopher Hitchens’ declaration that “religion poisons everything” might be somewhat exaggerated, religious belief is consistently associated with diminished levels of human flourishing.

But I believe that the New Atheist’s position is even more compelling than the New Atheists themselves have previously realized. Concomitant with the rise of the New Atheist movement about a decade ago, another field took shape in some of the top universities around the world, most notably Oxford and Cambridge. This field, called existential risk studies (or existential riskology), grew out of the innovative work of thinkers like John Leslie, Sir Martin Rees, Richard Posner, and Nick Bostrom. Its focus is a special kind of tragedy known as an existential risk, or a catastrophe resulting in either our extinction or a state of permanent and severe deprivation.

While humanity has always been haunted by a small number of improbable threats to our survival, such as asteroid/comet impacts, supervolcanoes, and pandemics (call these our “cosmic risk background”), advanced technologies are introducing a constellation of brand-new existential risks that humanity has never before encountered—and therefore has no track record of surviving. These risks stem largely from technologies like nuclear weapons, biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and even artificial superintelligence, which a growing number of scholars identify as the greatest (known) threat to the long-term survival of humanity. Add to this the ongoing slow-motion catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss that threaten our planetary spaceship with environmental ruination. While these two risks could genuinely bring about our extinction, they’re probably best described as “conflict multipliers” that will nontrivially raise the probability of other risk scenarios being realized, as state and non-state actors compete for land and dwindling resources.

Taking all of this into account, many riskologists believe that the probability of an existential catastrophe occurring in the foreseeable future is unsettlingly high. For example, last year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock (a metaphorical clock according to which midnight represents doom) from five minutes before midnight to a mere three minutes. And in January, Bulletin board members (including 2015 Humanist of the Year Lawrence Krauss) held a press conference to announce that despite the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, the hands of the clock would not move from their perilous position in 2016. As a point of reference, the furthest away from midnight that we’ve been since the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 is seventeen minutes, at the close of the Cold War. And only once before, at the height of the Cold War, has the hand been closer than it currently is today.


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