Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.