Tag Archives: New Atheism

An ultimately unpersuasive response to my new atheism argument

Salon has posted a riposte to my piece. I (unsurprisingly) find it unpersuasive. Here are some thoughts. Luciano argues that,

While creationism is certainly quackery, I take issue with the idea that it is not a religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief by definition. It is the idea that god created the universe and animals in their current form less than 10,000 years ago. This may not be McElwee’s belief, but it is certainly the belief of Ham and millions of other Christians. If McElwee truly believes that young earth creationism is not a religious belief, I challenge him to produce a scientist who rejects the creation account in Genesis, but is nonetheless a young earth creationist.

I think the problem here is that Luciano thinks a statement can either be religious or scientific. I would disagree with him that creationism is religious in the same way I imagine he would disagree (rightly) with me if I said that Lysenkoism was scientific. Religion becomes quackery when it tries to make assertions about the repeatable, observable functioning of the natural world (i.e. a scientific claim).

Luciano notes, “Second, the ‘modern man’ is actually more moral than his predecessors.” I bring this up only because it was only recently that I predicted we would hear this line more often from the new atheist crowd (I address the use of the term NA in a footnote). That’s because NA is not in fact a defense of non-religion, but rather western imperialism. It is the new “Oreintalism” and like the old Oreintalism, it has only the scantest knowledge of the tradition it attacks.

He argues next,

However, the reality is that religion conveys no more wisdom on people than say, Aesop’s fables. But in fairness to Aesop, no one has ever cited his works as justification for irrational hatred and violence. The idea that religion is the only thing keeping people from moral nihilism is easily debunked by the fact that there are millions of people who reject religion yet lead moral lives.

Luciano does not realize that he has given religion the highest of praise! Here is the story of Kassie Neou, a human rights advocate from a Cambodia, during his time in a KR prison cell, as relayed by Samantha Power in A Problem From Hell:  

Captured nonetheless, Neou was tortured five times and spent six months in a KR prison with thirty-six other inmates. Of the thirty-seven who were bound together with iron clasps, only Neou’s hope of survival was rewarded. The young guards executed the others but spared him because they had gown fond of the Aesop’s fables he told them as bedtime stories.

This is the profound impact that a simple story can have on even the most deprived and violent individuals. It is no surprise that Christ, Buddha and Muhammad make ample use of metaphor, parable and analogy. I would argue that the truth’s within Nietzsche, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Christ are at least as important as the truths found in Darwin and Gould, even if the former cannot be tested in any way other than being lived.

Luciano expounds on the violence point by ending his piece with the Weinberg quote I have regularly lampooned: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is the sentiment of an educated. white. man. If I persuade my readers of nothing else, I hope to persuade them that the utter humiliation and degradation of deprivation is a far more powerful impetus to evil than belief in the metaphysical. This has been my argument from the beginning, and I stand by it. Religious extremism, and to a large extent, religion itself, is a reaction to the broader political and economic forces within society.

Note: So apparently calling an atheist a “new atheist” is a slur: “First, I have never heard anyone refer to himself as a “New Atheist.” As far as I can tell, it is most commonly intended as a smear by believers and accommodationists – those who believe there is a common ground to be had between religion and science.” It then falls to me to develop a neologism. I think “evangelical atheist” will suffice.*

* I jest of course, “new atheist” is here to stay. It stuck in a way “bright” didn’t and it describes an important zeitgeist. It has been used by neutral sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and atheists themselves.


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).