Back in mid-September I did a post called ‘Is New Atheism a Cult?’ The discussion is still going on – so far there are 336 comments. A few days ago a link was posted there by a commenter to an Alternet article by Guardian journalist Jeff Sparrow called ‘We Can Save Atheism From the New Atheists Like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris‘. It’s garnered a lot of interesting discussion. I finally got around to adding my two cents worth today, and the comment quickly became rather long, so I’ve decided to make a post out of it. So, here’s what I think:
The article starts off with the erudite comment, “Why are the New Atheists such jerks?”
Great start Mr Sparrow. Thus, I respond with an equally erudite, “When are you going to grow up?”
My main issue with Sparrow is that a lot of what he says is unfair stereotyping or misrepresents the views of those he’s criticizing. And he’s often just plain nasty. For example:
So how did a movement ostensibly full of progressives end up so identified with writers who sound less and less like incarnations of pure reason and more and more like your Islamophobic uncle after he chugs his sixth pint?
For goodness sake. It’s just juvenile, schoolyard stuff. It’s not clever, it’s childish.
Initially he moves into an attack on Dawkins and his tweets around the Ahmed Mohamed saga, the 14 year old boy arrested in Texas for taking a bomb (actually an electronic clock he’d pulled apart and put back together) to school.
Dawkins has never quite mastered the art of the Tweet. 140 characters is just not enough for him. I imagine him typing what he wants to say, then having to delete half of it, and by the time he does that it no longer says what he thinks it says. And, of course, there are always plenty of people around to attack him if he makes the slightest misstep.
Anyway, he got it wrong with clock-gate, but what Sparrow fails to mention, presumably because it wouldn’t fit his narrative that Dawkins is a racist Islamophobe, is that Dawkins initial tweets were very supportive of the boy, and completely on his side. It’s only when it turned out that he, like many, felt like they had been fooled by Mohamed’s expression of what happened that he changed his tune. The tweet Sparrow implies was Dawkins first came 2-3 days into the saga.
Next he has a go at Sam Harris. He has one good point, which I’ll get to, but telling his readers that his favourite comment from blogger PZ Myers about Harris is, “Sam Harris [is] full of paranoid, racist shit,” is just plain ignorant. Even if it were true that Harris is paranoid and racist, and he isn’t, that’s really not the sort of comment a decent journalist should be celebrating in my opinion. Seriously, what a jerk!
However, I have to agree with him that Harris was wrong when he said in his latest podcast that GOP primary candidate Ben Carson understood the Middle East better than Noam Chomsky. While I disagree with Chomsky’s analysis, he clearly knows the topic much, much, much better than Carson. Carson’s knowledge of the Middle East is an embarrassment in someone who wants to be president. I note that Harris has updated his podcast since he said that, with special reference to what he said about Carson, and I haven’t listened to that yet. I’m interested in what he has to say, and will reserve my final judgment until then. I’m not quite sure how he can get around the comment though.
Sparrow is of the opinion that it’s no big deal being an atheist these days. It used to take “considerable courage” to proclaim one’s atheism, but nowadays New Atheists are, he says, “insiders.” While it’s true that for many it’s no “big deal,” it’s not true that atheism is so commonplace there’s no stigma attached to it. The attitude toward atheists in the United States is so bad that I’ve written about it several times, and my comments are supported by statistics from such reputable organisations as Gallup and Pew. He dismisses the experiences of atheists in the US with:
Even in America, something of an anomaly on these matters, religious presidential candidates direct their evangelical huckstering at Smallville, USA and not the sophisticates of the big cities.
This is just not accurate. Every presidential candidate, religious or not, has to parade his Christian credentials to have any hope of winning the election. “God bless you and God bless America” is something every candidate and president says with alarming frequency. In fact, in most states demonstrated religiosity is a requirement for any public office.
In Great Britain where Sparrow writes from, and where being an atheist is not generally frowned upon, we hear constantly of atheist speakers being uninvited, or of attempts being made to uninvite them. Atheist and former Muslim Maryam Namazie has been a frequent victim. Just in the last week, after failing to get Namazie uninvited from a speaking engagement at Goldsmith University, the university’s Islamic society instead did all they could to disrupt her talk.
Sparrow makes the comment:
As a philosophical tendency, the New Atheists were popularisers rather than innovators, using advances in biology and neuroscience to illustrate pretty well-worn arguments against religion. Indeed, in some crucial ways, they represent an intellectual step backward from a left that had recognised atheism as necessary but scarcely sufficient.
He notes here, with a bit of spite thrown in for good measure, that New Atheists have a “tendency … to illustrate … arguments against religion.” Well, yes we do. So what? Why should we not express our opinion about the subject, and who is he to tell us what we can and can’t talk and write about anyway? He attacks us further, making his point using a Marx quote:
Marx dismissed those who trumpeted their disbelief to children as “assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogeyman”.
In his usual pettifogging way, he’s reinforcing the point that New Atheists oppose the ideas of religion. He’s goes on about all the things religion can offer to people, as if that’s something New Atheists deny, and worse, as if that’s a reason not to criticize. He says it again in another way, “By contrast, the New Atheists engage with religion purely as a set of ideas …”.
So three times Sparrow’s buttressed his case that New Atheists attack the idea of religion. He then makes the spurious and intellectually dishonest leap that a lot of critics of New Atheists make – that by attacking the ideas, we’re attacking the people. He writes:
But what happens then? You’re left with no explanation for their devotion other than a susceptibility to fraud. To borrow Dawkins’ title, if God is nothing but an intellectual delusion then the billions of believers are, well, deluded; a collection of feeble saps in need of enlightenment from their intellectual superiors.
This is simply rubbish. Yes, God is a delusion, but that is ABSOLUTELY NOT saying believers are “feeble saps in need of enlightenment from their intellectual superiors.” That is a complete misrepresentation of what most New Atheists think about believers. The fact is, which Sam Harris as a neuroscientist is probably far more aware of than Sparrow, we can all be manipulated, and religion is only one way this can happen. (This YouTube video on the subject is excellent.) He goes on:
That’s the basis for the dickishness that so many people now associate from the New Atheism, a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim.
Seriously? Who’s the dick? If anyone is being arrogant here it’s him. The reason that a whole lot of people have suddenly decided that New Atheists are dicks is a few people, like CJ Werleman, were caught plagiarizing and instead of having the guts to apologize instead started lying about those who caught them, sullying their reputations, and a lot of people were ready to believe them. And Dawkins isn’t very good at Twitter.
And here comes the accusation, which I knew would raise it’s ugly head: that New Atheists hate Muslims. Sparrow has just used considerable ink to criticize us for attacking ideas, which we do, then says we attack people. To him, somehow disagreeing with an idea someone has is attacking them personally. This is intellectually dishonest, and I’m simply not even going to bother with this spurious argument.
He then launches into an attack of Christopher Hitchens. Most of the arguments being made on the ‘Is New Atheism a Cult’ post are around this topic, and there are some good ones on both sides. It’s a pity Sparrow didn’t read these comments about what he wrote before he wrote it. 🙂
Sparrow continues with the ad hominem attack:
You can see how the argument works. If belief in God stems from intellectual inadequacy, then all believers are feebleminded – and the most devout are the most feebleminded of all. All religions are bad but some religions – especially those in the Middle East, by sheer coincidence! – are worse than others.
I find it outrageous that this guy has the gall to put these thoughts that I’ve never had into my (as a proud New Atheist) head. I have never, and most New Atheists have never, suggested that belief in God is a result of “intellectual inadequacy” or that “all believers are feebleminded.” For goodness sake! For a start, I was one of those believers myself until well into adulthood, and since Sparrow insists that as a New Atheist I’m also a “privileged know-it-all,” how did I manage to be both? Does he think I sit at family gatherings looking down on my feeble-minded relatives who’ve nevertheless managed to do a lot better than I have? What kind of people does he think we are?
In a different world, religion might not be necessary. But we’re not in that world yet. In the struggle for social change, the religious will play just as important role as anyone else. If you don’t believe in God, that’s great. But you’re not helping by being a jerk about it.
Who exactly is being a jerk here? I’ve got my faults, but if someone who knows me was asked to name them, they wouldn’t include being a “jerk” towards religious people, or anyone else for that matter.
I’m a liberal. That means, among other things, I want equality of treatment and opportunity for all. One of the biggest problems I have with religion is so many of them have rules that lead to them treating others badly. If you’re a Roman Catholic or a Mormon or a Muslim, for example, but you still treat women or atheists or LGBT people or people of colour as equals, then I have no problem with you. If on the other hand you use your religion as an excuse to treat the people in one of more of those groups as less than your equal, I will speak out.
And when a terrorist yells “Allahu Akbar,” and I put much of the blame on Islamism, that is NOT the same as assigning religion as the primary motive. The problem I see with Wahhabi Islam is that it provides a framework for responding to issues with violence, terror, murder, and suicide. When your religion has violent jihad as a tenet, that is a problem.
What my point is, is that without the belief that killing and dying with the long-term goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate, the response of Islamists to the very serious issues they are facing wouldn’t be murder and suicide. This is what New Atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book is all about (which I haven’t read yet, but you can see the basics here) – how to reform Islam so that the violent jihad response is ameliorated.
Sparrow attacks New Atheists for basically being horrible people – but his article is full of small-mindedness. I get the impression that a lot of the people who attack Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are simply jealous of their success.
Note: Thanks to all the commenters who have already commented on the Sparrow article: Paxton Marshall (who posted it), Yakaru, Ken, and Diane G.