Is my characterization of New Atheism a straw man?

I backed away from it a tad when I published my first piece, mainly because the criticism was so vehement. I noted that the syllogism with which I started may have been strong and probably doesn’t represent all thinking on this issue. Well, I think it does again. Partly because I had lunch with a friend who re-assured me that I was not crazy, and party because of a new tendency in intellectual debates to basically say something, but hedge just enough to not come out and say it. But your audience figures it out.

So, on the NA. There are two ways to go about my political critique: a strong and weak. The weak argument is that that New Atheists tend to downplay political and economic tensions and overemphasize religious ones. This seems to me almost axiomatic, and can be seen most clearly by looking at how they talk about the Middle East. The second is that NA have a weirdly Utopian and summarized in the deliciously revealing Steven Weinberg quote, oft-cited by NA, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” This, I think is our fundamental disagreement. It stems from a very silly but very Western middle-class mindset, which I have seen too many times to count. It’s the idea that there is a way that we can structure society in a way that makes everyone happy. You see it on the Beltway, it’s the heart of Reaganism (cut taxes for the rich, grow the economy for the middle class, no one loses) and it’s why Obama is fucking up so dreadfully. You also see it in a lot of wealthy philosophers, like Wittgenstein, who want to ignore class conflict and instead look to the weakness of language. And the NA have embraced it roundly. Instead of seeing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as one over land and resources, it’s about that damned religion! 9/11 wasn’t retribution for centuries of intervention in the Middle East, it’s that damned religion!

I used to think that the goal here was to obfuscate power structures. That’s the result, but the motivation is more benign: to portray the world as getting better, with religion being the main problem. Why? Because then you deny the fact that liberal capitalism isn’t quite as awesome as we thought. Want proof that this is the goal? Read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels. It’s basically a defense of free trade and liberal capitalism (and a shitload of Kant).

Okay, so, back to the original syllogism. I said,

Religion has once again become the “opiate of the people.” But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.

It is rather disturbing trend in a country whose greatest reformer was a Reverend — Dick Gregory has said, “Ten thousand years from now, the only reason a history book will mention the United States is to note where Martin Luther King Jr. was born” — to believe that religion is the root of all evil. And yet this is what the “New Atheism” (an anti-theist movement led originally by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late — and great — Christopher Hitchens) movement  asserts.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc  — mistaking a cause for its effect.

I added,

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems.

So first off, I’m a polemicist, so I allow myself rhetorical and literary flourishes (for instance, I say the fundamentalists have “weaponized Christianity”) intended to make my writing more enjoyable. If the malaise of our day is to cloak one’s argument in qualifiers to protect oneself, I prefer to go a step further to provoke latent conflict. This is because I believe that our society tries to hide conflicts I would much rather have out in the open.

Is my syllogism true? It’s worth noting a few things. First, when a NA does a debate or writes a book, they are prioritizing attacking religion over anything else they could be doing (say fighting deprivation). That means they attach important significance to the consequences of religion. If they thought economics were the problem, they might spend more time talking about it. Second, let’s look at the propositions:

Hitches debated against the proposition, “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.”
Grayling debated for the proposition, “The world would be better off without religion.”
Dawkins debated for the proposition, “This House Believes Religion has no place in the 21st Century”
Sam Harris debated the proposition, “Religion and Politics: The End of the World?”

A few caveats are probably necessary. For instance, much like I don’t choose the titles for my pieces, these men (I don’t know of any women that are super prominent in the NA movement, for good reason) probably don’t choose the titles for the debates. Sometimes they want to amend them. But they are willing to stand by them. The titles are meant to be provocative, certainly, but I think they indicate that the NA are happy to stand by the ideas I’ve attributed to them.

Final note: On the term “New Atheist.” It’s not meant to really describe every atheist, merely a zeitgeist in the atheist movement (I’m well aware these men do not agree on everything, but they are similar enough to note their common ground).


One thought on “Is my characterization of New Atheism a straw man?

  1. Pingback: An ultimately unpersuasive response to my new atheism argument | Sean McElwee

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