Friday, December 19, 2008

Criticism of the "new" atheists

Lisa B. asked for it so: My cousin turned me on to this podcast. It comes from a program called "Unwelcome Guests"--gotta to love that name. The first one is Christopher Hedges (guy who wrote War a force that gives us meaning), but I haven't listened to the second one.

Hedges nails what I find uncomfortable about the new atheists (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and, though to a lesser degree, Dawkins). And he helps explain why I can't completely write off religion even though I do not believe in it and it tends to drive me crazy. To summarize my favorite criticisms of the new atheists:

*both the new atheists and right wing christians believe in collective salvation/ moral progress which is dangerous
*both believe in a utopia (which literally means "no place"; hence there ain't one)
*both condemn vigorously those that do not agree with them
*christians misuse the bible while these new atheists misuse Darwinism
*both want to make education about indoctrination
*both have a fundamentalist mindset

*new atheists forget some lessons worth keeping from religion. For example, "the wisdom of sin" as Hedges' explains we forget that we are always self-motivated and always imperfect.

I do, however, wonder about equating these two groups when one, the far right, is so much more mainstream and thereby has so much more power. Hedges addresses this but not adequately enough. One could argue that atheists or humanists are less accepted than any religion, race, or sexual orientation. Maybe I'm wrong but I know of more openly gay politicians than atheists.

I'd really be interested to hear what others think--SigNo? Lisa? Middlebrow? HappyHeretic? (even though I already know through email that HappyHeretic wasn't too happy about Hedges' criticisms)


Dr Write said...

I would have to hear the exact reasoning, but I think each group's idea of "collective salvation" would be so different that I'm not sure they can be gathered under the same name. Atheists idea of "salvation" is a function of rational discourse, scientific reasoning, right? The other rests on faith, which can be of the "questioning" variety as long as everyone reaches the same conclusion (we all believe in "god" and we will all be saved).
I guess the dogma of the new atheism would be we have to accept the fact that god doesn't exist. But it seems to me that there is no place for skepticism in religion, whereas atheism is founded on it. I agree that atheism can become it's own dogma, but I think one could apply the same argument to that as to the distinction between religious institutions and faith.
In the end, I just don't think that atheism is as bad as religion. For one, we can practice atheism at home in our pajamas. Which is one thing it has going for it. And we can do it alone, whereas faith seems to necessitate a group. Unless you're a hermit, in which case I'm all for it.
That's my ten cents, which is probably worth less than one.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the supposed New Atheists have more power than one would apprehend by listening to USA political rhetoric. I believe the less vocal chorus of secularists play an already important role in the world. Slavoj Zizek's essay comes to mind:

citing the post WWII atheistic forces that shaped modern Europe.

Moreover, the cabal of Bush neocons like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and various academics behind them are not a religious bunch, but their whole raison d'ĂȘtre is progress through war.

Atheism probably has more power with a nuanced approach. The Dawkins types are just grandstanding.

Counterintuitive said...

If I understood Hedges correctly, he would readily admit to the differences in collective salvation between the two groups, but he is distressed by any group which believes we can avoid human frailty and that, instead, asserts that we are moving towards some sort of utopian moral progress. Hedges argues that many of the modern wars (of course Nazism) are founded on "rational" principles from the Enlightenment.

He further explains this in an interview on Salon ( where he argues that the Nazi's created a "cult of science" and that there is a similar thing going on with new atheists.

Interestingly his first book on these issues was *American Fascists*, where he likens the christian right to nazism. Researching the far right got him interested in the "new" atheists. And this is where he'd surely agree with Will--Hedges found that some of these new atheists were partners in supporting hard-line policies against Muslims: Sam Harris' suggestion that we consider a nuclear first strike on Arabs and both Harris' and Hitchen's support of torture and preemptive war; the hawkish left if you will.

Also, my sense is that he isn't talking about "atheism" in general or not believing in god, but only about the so-called new breed of atheists like Harris and Hitchens.

Lisa B. said...

Nice conversation you've got going here. I read that Salon interview with Hedges--I think that idea of the "cult of science" is a very interesting one--it really is just religion by other means. I also read a discussion amongst some Hedges haters on a science blog I googled upon.

I think Hedges distrusts fundamentalism. And Hitchens (I don't know Harris and only know Dawkins second hand) is a blowhard and a bully--as bad as any religious fundamentalist. I find him absolutely infuriating. I really have a hard time not despising him, frankly, so take that with a grain of salt.

I have to disagree with Dr. Write that there is no room for skepticism in religion. Or maybe I will just say that there is room for skepticism--or doubt--in *faith.* Faith without doubt is nothing. Faith is an assertion of hope against nothing. I still find value in spiritual and even religious discourse for this reason.

I think I'm going to read the Hedges book, but first I'm going to read the previous book about the religious right that you mention. A guy who describes both of these phenomena, the fundamentalisms of the religious right and (at least potentially) of the more strident of the new atheists, seems worth taking a second look at, imho.

One other point he made in the Salon interview is that faith was no guarantee of moral probity--that people of moral probity could come from a position of faith or non-faith. I appreciated that idea--and I think this is what makes Hedges valuable, whether you agree or don't with him about atheism--that morality is critical, and it, or its opposite, can come from anyplace on the spectrum of belief and unbelief.

Lisa B. said...

Don't hate me, but I have to add: It's my *assertion* that there's room for doubt in faith. Other people of faith would no doubt disagree. Or, perhaps, you all might disagree.

Dr Write said...

All so interesting!! I guess I have to investigate more. And I will say that the people whose faith I appreciate most come from a tradition of intellectual reflection and doubt.
I am willing to admit that this belief stems from ignorance of the range of faith, but from my perspective, one has to have more faith than doubt in order to believe. More doubt than faith and you tip over into disbelief. At least it is so with me. I don't feel like doubt and faith can co-exist harmoniously. One always wins out. Sure, maybe it goes back and forth, but one has to be greater, otherwise one (I?) would go crazy. So, there can be particles of doubt in faith, but doesn't the greater have to be faith (in order for it to be faith)?
I also am skeptical of the replacing religion with science. However, one thing science has going for it is the scientific method. Yes, postmodernism, etc etc etc, but (maybe I'm blinded by rationalism but)science can be proven, whereas faith is just that: faith. So, call me crazy, but I have to come down on the side of science. This is not to say that science can explain everything or should explain everything, but I have to say I'm glad I live in a time where we understand that disease is not caused by sin or evil spirits. Which is because of science.

HH said...

I posted this as a response on my blog and decided to carry it here. Let me start by asking what you mean by using the term "science." I am not sure we define it the same way.

Hedges, in no way, reflects any part of the "god delusion", "letter to a christian nation", or "god is not great." I own, and have read, all three. I recognize NONE of hedges in the texts that I recall.

Athiesm is the acceptance that god(s) have not been proved. It seems that Hedges draws a great deal from this. None of it accurate in my view.

I read much of hedges writings on mid-east conflicts, and found his writings compelling in that area. His clumsy attacks on athiests are a poor substitute for defending his christianity. For, the defense of atheism, is nothing more than demonstrating theism (deism, pantheism, etc) as false. Once done, the athiest is required to to nothing else to be an athiest.

I will admit that Hitchens goes further by indicating that he is an "anti-theist." Not only is there no god, but (he argues) religion has no redeeming value. In fact, a net negative. This... we can find some common ground on. I can not enjoy Handel's Messiah without understanding that it was an outgrowth of religion. That the fresco's that adorn the Vatican are intertwined with the awe of ignorant savages inspired by tales of miracles, and gods.

I do think, on whole, that if you were to numercially calculate (yes I do believe you could quanitfy it)all the good, neutral, and evil done by religionists becasue of thier beliefs, that religion leaves a net deficit. Thus, we would be better off without myths and the social structures created around them. This is Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens main points of agreement (as I understand them).

Don't even get me started on the piles of pain, bullshit, and silliness that is Joseph Smith's particular legacy. ;)

HH (Trav)

shane said...

I think I dislike the "new atheists" as much as Hedges, though not always for the exact same reasons. Still, I disagree with Hedges about locating the genesis of evil in the human heart. Yes, religion, to me, is merely a symptom and not a source of human misery and oppression, and yes, "evil" has to be battled within ourselves--no question--but it also has to be battled without.

I'll save the rest of my thoughts for the expo!

Clint Gardner said...

I don't have much to add to the conversation, given that I'm not a big fan of zealots of any ilk, but I will note that Hitchens is an un-reformed Marxist: he really does believe in the progress of mankind through collective action and he really does see religion as the opiate of the people.

Lisa B. said...

Funny kind of Marxist, though--they way he renounced the left and made common cause, at least on the Iraq War, with the neo-cons. I think they should take his party card away, if indeed he still carries it!

Clint Gardner said...

Oh I don't know: Tony Blair is considered Labour and he hooked his cart to George Bush's horse too. If anything Marxist's dislike other lefty's the most.

HH said...

I am with Thoerris on Hitchen's views on Iraq, and Marxism (in toto). However, religion is the opiate of the masses. Marx wasn't always wrong. Just usually.

Kind of lookin' forward to ripping Shane a new one this time around. *wink*

HH (Trav)