New Atheism’s Simplistic Political World View

Sam HarrisLast week, Usaid Siddiqui wrote an amazing article over at Aljazeera America, New Atheism’s Astonishing Hypocrisy Toward Islam. It focused on Sam Harris, of course. Harris has claimed that the murder of the three Muslims in Chapel Hill had nothing to do with the murderer’s atheism. And he might be right. But Siddiqui went on to discuss other cases like the French man who was recently convicted of shooting at a mosque for explicitly atheistic reasons. But more important, he talked about the way that the explicitly atheistic Chinese government is oppressing religious minorities.

The response by New Atheists to these things is actually quite reasonable: it is far more complicated than just a question of their atheism. I totally agree! The problem — hypocrisy, as Siddiqui correctly noted — is that such complex sociological and political explanations don’t ever seem to occur when New Atheists talk about violence coming from Muslims. In those cases, Sam Harris can grab some awful passage from the Quran and say, “See?!” And the New Atheists except this as proof rather than pushing him aside and noting that he’s just a bigot.

Another aspect of this is to claim that such atheists don’t really get it. And this speaks to another troubling aspect of New Atheism: its inbred character. That’s right: the nice upper middle class white people who can afford to go to Skepticon aren’t violent! Yeah, that tends to be the way. The thing about having power is that the violence that your lifestyle depends upon is farmed out to other people — or drones. Sam Harris may get to write articles defending torture and casual murder from the sky, but he knows he will never have to do it himself.

Christopher HitchensWhat’s more, this idea that atheists who go around physically attacking Muslims are not true New Atheists is a standard rhetorical fallacy: No True Scotsman. And it is one that I hear all the time from Christians. But I accept irrationality from Christians — after all, they’re Christians. But how is it that the “I don’t believe anything I don’t have proof for” crowd should so easily fall into this trap? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. We all know why: the New Atheists are no more rational than anyone else, they just think they are.

It all reminds me of David Brook’s entire career. He thinks the only reason the poor are in a bad state is because they don’t act like the rich people who he hangs out with. And that’s what we get from the New Atheists: a lot of tired “us versus them” thinking mascaraing as clear-eyed rational debate. And it isn’t. It’s just age old hatreds.

If Christopher Hitchens hadn’t died, there would be three main figure in the New Atheist community — the other two being Harris and Richard Dawkins. And they are more known for their anti-Muslim beliefs than anything positive about atheism. Most people are to be forgiven that the primary belief of atheism is a hatred of Muslims. I don’t like this, given that I am a traditional (or old) atheist. In addition, this kind of thinking tilts decidedly to the political right. It still amazes me that atheism — long associated with humanism — has largely be co-opted by neoconservatives.

But what do I know? I’m just one of those stupid liberals who want to make everything complicated. I’m like Obama who sees the Iranian regime in the context of history and politics, and doesn’t realize — like Christopher Hitchens — that it is all due to Islam and that our only choice is to bomb them into submission. This is the state of New Atheism: simplistic answers to complex political questions. But they all believe in evolution! And that strikes me as a rather low bar, given that they share that fact with Pope Francis.

6 thoughts on “New Atheism’s Simplistic Political World View

  1. Let’s say an atheistic, empirical-evidence-based assessment tells us that while Islam was the most tolerant religion for centuries, it doesn’t fit it the modern world and should be abolished through bombs and such.

    Since when does that work to stamp out folk traditions? You pretty much have to wipe out everyone who believes in them, so we’re talking about genocide of billions.

    Since when do bombs work for friggin’ anything? A high-tech military can stop another country’s high-tech military. That’s about it. Bombs don’t address anything else.

    You’d think that after the colossal human tragedy of Iraq War II, atheists would stop regarding Hitchens’s maniacal pimping for violence as rational. It didn’t work, the Muslim world didn’t stop believing in God and worship the market instead. OK, experiment failed, huge damage to actual people, upturn in terrorist recruiting. The hypothesis was faulty, right?

    These atheists who make a shrine out of “science” are missing the point. Science isn’t about one dogma versus another. (Well, it often is, but that’s not what we love it for.) Science is about proving hypotheses wrong.

    Rant coming: we’ve been violently overthrowing governments for a century-plus now, and what’s the data? The gains are moderate at best and the blowback is ferocious. Stopping high-tech military murder with equivalent high-tech military is good, it stops murder. Helping other countries demolished by military expenditures has benefits for everyone, that’s been tested and shows encouraging data.

    Puppet governments harm the people living under them and the puppeteers both; I can’t think of an example that flaunts this.

    • Even Hitchens hedged on what ought to be done. They all love to imply some kind of class of civilizations, but most of them aren’t willing to come out and say that they are for war. That’s part of the problem. They want to maintain their hate but without being held responsible for it. So they don’t have to look at Iraq and learn any lessons from it. It’s an inbred, privileged group that doesn’t deserve the level of attention I pay it. The reason I do is because I agree with them on many things. But even apart from the politics: if you take atheism seriously, you really ought to understand theism fairly well. And most atheists are clueless about it. I call liberals on it when they trivialize conservative arguments; I see no reason why I shouldn’t do it when atheist do the same thing.

      • It’s unbelievable. One of the colossal tragedies of our time, and absolutely nobody will take responsibility for it. It’s actually being blamed on the Iraqis themselves; that crazy sectarianism and the Kurds, nobody could have known these savages would respond so. Now a handful of violent lunatics are terrorizing everyone in the region and our response isn’t anything resembling ownership but “will they behead us in Omaha?”

        This is what happens when you enshrine market forces and defame government for 30+ years. Government gets things wrong, by definition; that’s what democracy is for, to adjust the experiment. Now “the market” and the military are sacrosanct, so, whenever they get anything wrong, well, it must be the government’s fault. Essentially, the elites blaming voters for horrific decisions by the elite.

        There are charming and funny atheists, you know! The Atheists of Minnesota group doesn’t pimp for war and sponsors a minor-league baseball game every year. Last year’s game had a between-innings contest where two fans raced from base to base, each base representing an atheist axiom. “They’re at first! They have to jump into Jello, representing life emerging from the primordial ooze!” After the contestants rounded third, they looked confused. The P.A. announcer shouted, “did you think there was a reward? It’s an atheist race! There’s no reward at the end!”

        • Who would have thought that the perpetual war of 1984 would come to pass because the people demanded it? We never learn anything.

          I know there are funny atheists. I just think that the New Atheists have so soiled atheism, that we are probably better off giving up the word and just using “humanist.” Ultimately, that is a better word for me anyway. I don’t like being labeled by the fact that I don’t believe in something that only children ought to believe in. Did you hear that Iceland is building a Norse temple? That’s what I think when I see Christians. It amazes me that people believe this stuff is literally true. Certainly the Icelanders don’t believe in it. And that’s what’s so great (or horrible): even people who believe in the Norse gods know it isn’t literally true. But most Americans still think there was this guy and he was the son of God and he rose on the third day. These people drive me crazy!

          • Well, Icelanders are their own thing. One in five of them will publish a book in their lifetimes, they are super well-educated, and they have to consult experts on invisible underground gnomes before they do stuff like laying pipeline, because: invisible gnomes. Don’t wanna step on the toes of gnomes.

            I’d vastly have more tolerance for Christianity if I observed it giving comfort to anyone. The Christians I’ve known who died were just as scared of dying as anyone else. So what’s the point? If an intolerant, small-minded worldview doesn’t help ease the terror of dying, I don’t see the value in it.

            These mantras tell adherents that they are good people, they are worthwhile. I’m an atheist, I’m smarter and better than dopes. I’m religious, I’m smarter and better than dopes. We are social animals who define ourselves by the connections we make, while also gauging our worth by debasing others who eat fruit from lower-hanging tree branches.

            The idea that being an atheist elevates one to some level of immediate coolness doesn’t work for me, no more than the notion of being born-again does. Why not accept being a flawed failure? Most of us are, it’s not all that bad. I could probably type ten more paragraphs on this, but I won’t.

  2. @JMF – I think if these religions had more theological depth, it might help people more. But Christianity, for example, is so clearly mythical — just as much as the Greek or Norse myths. I don’t see what people are supposed to get out of it. If you are good, God will reward you with an eternity of happiness? That’s in no way different from Santa Claus or the Great Pumpkin.

    Other than attacking the most primitive kind of religious thought, I don’t know what New Atheism brings to the debate. Most Christian universalists would agree with the NA critique of fundamentalists, and they would do it with a great deal less pretense.

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