Tag Archives: Harris

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).

 

Abolishing religion won’t fix anything

So here’s the post that started it all. I post it here unedited, but again note that I think the syllogism is poorly written. “New Atheists” don’t impute all suffering to religion. But I think that they impute far more violence than is due. This saves them from the task of actually trying to understand the underlying socio-economic circumstances that engender the fundamentalism and violence.

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.

During the first Gulf War, Christopher Hitchens famously schooled Charlton Heston, asking him to name the countries surrounding Iraq, the place he was so eager to invade. A flummoxed Heston sputtered, naming a few random Middle Eastern countries (including, rather humorously, the island nation of Cyprus).

But then Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens. To co-opt Steven Weinberg, “Good men will naturally oppose bad wars and bad will naturally support them. To make a good man support a bad war, for that, you need an irrational fear of religion.”

Somehow the man who denounced Kissinger’s war crimes now supported Bush’s — both wars, of course, supported by the scantest of logic. The man who so eloquently chronicled the corruption of the Clinton administration became the shill of his successor.

Ruber Cornwell wrote of Hitchens in The Independent,

At that point [during the Gulf War], Hitchens, still the left-wing radical, opposed he conflict against Saddam Hussein. By contrast, George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq couldn’t come soon enough for him. The great catalyst for change was, of course, 9/11. Appalled by what he saw as the left’s self-flagellation over the terrorist attacks, and the argument that America had brought the disaster on itself, Hitchens became arguably the most eloquent advocate in Washington of the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He quit The Nation, made friends with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and, in foreign policy at least, was indistinguishable from the neocons… The fact that the terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists also sealed – if sealing were needed – Hitchens’ belief that religion, and the “absolute certainty” of its followers was nothing but trouble.

For something so dreadfully asinine to be written about a man as well-traveled and well-read would be almost obscene if it were not true. But after 9/11, Hitchens stopped seeing the world in terms of geopolitics but rather saw it, like the Neocons in the Bush administration, as a war between the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East.

Religion has a tendency to reflect political and economic realities. Hitchens, in fact, has made ample use of this Marxist analysis, questioning religious experts whether it was Constantine or the truth of Christ’s words that were largely responsible for its breakneck spread. Constantine was, and his proclivities shaped the church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not decided exclusively by decades of intense debate; the whimsy of Constantine and political maneuvering between by Arius and Athanasius had a significant influence on the outcome.

But if Hitchens is right, as he is, then why not take the observation to its logical conclusion? Is not the best explanation for the Thirty Years’ War more likely political than religious? Might it be better to see jihad as a response to Western colonialism and the upending of Islamic society, rather than the product of religious extremism? The goal of the “New Atheists” is to eliminate centuries of history that Europeans are happy to erase, and render the current conflict as one of reason versus faith rather than what is, exploiter and exploited.

Bernard Lewis writes,

For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.

I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives? If religion motivated 9/11, what motivated Bill Clinton to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and leave millions of Sudanese people without access to medicine?

Liberals who once believed that the key to understanding hate and violence is deprivation now have embraced the idea that religion is the culprit. Religion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things. It can also motivate acts of social justice and injustice, but broad popular movements of the sort generally indicate a manipulation of religion, rather than studied reflections on religious doctrine. Shall we blame Jesus, who advocated “turning the other cheek,” for Scott Philip Roeder, or more plausibly his schizophrenia?

Of course, I’m entirely aware of the problems in modern American Christianity. I havewritten an essay excoriating what I see as the false Christianity. But any critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion. For instance, it would hardly be the theologian’s job to point out that, according toThe Economist, “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis. A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated.” I’m sure scientists are well aware of the problem and working to rectify it. Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed. Terry Eagleton writes,

Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

The impulse to destroy religion will ultimately fail. Religion is little different from Continental philosophy or literature (which may explain the hatred of Lacan and Derrida among Analytic philosophers). It is an attempt to explain the deprivations of being human and what it means to live a good life. Banish Christ and Muhammad and you may end up with religions surrounding the works of Zizek and Sloterdijk (there is already a Journal of Zizek Studies, maybe soon a seminary?). Humans will always try to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and science will never be able to tell them what it is. This, ultimately is the meaning of religion, and “secular religions” like philosophy and literature are little different in this sense than theology. Certainly German philosophy was distorted by madmen just as Christianity has been in the past, but atheists fool themselves if they try to differentiate the two.

As a poorly-practicing Christian who reads enough science to be functional at dinner parties, I would like to suggest a truce — one originally proposed by the Catholic church and promoted by the eminent Stephen J. Gould. Science, the study of the natural world, and religion, the inquiry into the meaning of life (or metaphysics, more broadly) constitute non-overlapping magisteria. Neither can invalidate the theories of the other, if such theories are properly within their realm. Any theologian or scientist who steps out of their realm to speculate upon the other is free to do so, but must do so with an adequate understanding of the other’s realm.

Religion (either secular or theological) does not poison all of society and science should not be feared, but rather embraced. Both can bring humanity to new heights of empathy, imagination and progress. To quote the greatest American reformer, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems. But abolishing religion is not only unfeasible, it would ultimately leave us no closer to truth, love or peace. Rather, we need to embrace the deep philosophical and spiritual questions that arise from our shared existence and work toward a world without deprivation. That will require empathy and multiculturalism, not demagoguery.