New Atheist bashing is all the rage these days. The gloating tone at Salon over New Atheist Sam Harris’ humiliation by Noam Chomsky in their recent exchange over the correct understanding of something that doesn’t exist referred to in my last post is but one of many examples. In fact, New Atheists aren’t really new, and neither is New Atheist bashing. Thumb through some of the more high brow magazines of the 1920’s, for example, and chances are you’ll run across an article describing the then current crop of atheists as aggressive, ignorant, clannish, self-righteous and, in short, prone to all the familiar maladies that supposedly also afflict the New Atheists of today. And just as we see today, the more “laid back” atheists were gleefully piling on then as now. They included H. L. Mencken, probably the most famous atheist of the time, who deplored aggressive atheism in his recently republished autobiographical trilogy. Unfortunately he’s no longer around to explain the difference between “aggressive” atheism, and his own practice of heaping scorn and ridicule on the more backward believers. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Mencken was by nature a conservative. He abhorred any manifestation of the “Uplift,” a term which in those days meant more or less the same thing as “progressive” today.
I think the difference between these two species of atheists has something to do with the degree to which they resent belonging to an outgroup. Distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups comes naturally to our species. This particular predisposition is ostensibly not as beneficial now as it was during the period over which it evolved. A host of pejorative terms have been invented to describe its more destructive manifestations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc., all of which really describe the same phenomenon. Those among us who harbor no irrational hatreds of this sort must be rare indeed. One often finds it present in its more virulent forms in precisely those individuals who consider themselves immune to it. Atheists are different, and that’s really all it takes to become identified as an outgroup,
Apparently some atheists don’t feel themselves particularly inconvenienced by this form of “othering,” especially in societies that have benefited to some extent from the European Enlightenment. Others take it more seriously, and fight back using the same tactics that have been directed against them. They “other” their enemies and seek to aggressively exploit human moral emotions to gain the upper hand. That is exactly what has been done quite successfully at one time or another by many outgroups, including women, blacks, and quite spectacularly lately, gays. New Atheists are merely those who embrace such tactics in the atheist community.
I can’t really blame my fellow atheists for this form of activism. One doesn’t choose to be an atheist. If one doesn’t believe in God, then other than in George Orwell’s nightmare world of “1984,” one can’t be “cured” into becoming a Christian or a Moslem, any more than a gay can be “cured” into becoming heterosexual, or a black “cured” into becoming white. However, for reasons having to do with the ideological climate in the world today that are much too complicated to address in a short blog post, New Atheists are facing a great deal more resistance than members of some of society’s other outgroups. This resistance is coming, not just from religious believers, but from their “natural” allies on the ideological left.
Noam Chomsky’s scornful treatment of Sam Harris, accompanied by the sneers of the leftist editors of Salon, is a typical example of this phenomenon. Such leaders as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens are the public “face” of the New Atheist movement, and as a consequence are often singled out in this way. Of course they have their faults, and I’ve criticized the first two myself on this blog and elsewhere. However, many of the recent attacks, especially from the ideological left, are neither well-reasoned nor, at least in terms of my own subjective moral emotions, even fair. Often they conform to hackneyed formulas; the New Atheists are unsophisticated, they don’t understand what they’re talking about, they are bigoted, they are harming people who depend on religious beliefs to give “meaning” to their lives, etc.
A typical example, which was also apparently inspired by the Harris/Chomsky exchange, recently turned up at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon. Entitled “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements,” it was ostensibly Pigliucci’s announcement that, after being a longtime member and supporter, he now wishes to “disengage” from the club. As one might expect, he came down squarely in favor of Chomsky, who is apparently one of his heroes. That came as no surprise to me, as fawning appraisals of Blank Slate kingpins Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have also appeared at the site. It had me wondering who will be rehabilitated next. Charles Manson? Jack the Ripper? Pigliucci piques himself on his superior intellect which, we are often reminded, is informed by both science and a deep reading of philosophy. In spite that, he seems completely innocent of any knowledge that the Blank Slate debacle ever happened, or of Lewontin’s and Gould’s highly effective role in propping it up for so many years, using such “scientific” methods as bullying, vilification and mobbing of anyone who disagreed with them, including, among others, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Dawkins. Evidence of such applications of “science” are easily accessible to anyone who makes even a minimal effort to check the source material, such as Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes.
No matter, Pigliucci apparently imagines that the Blank Slate was just a figment of Steven Pinker’s fevered imagination. With such qualifications as a detector of “fools,” he sagely nods his head as he informs us that Chomsky “doesn’t suffer fools (like Harris) gladly.” With a sigh of ennui, he goes on, “And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.” The rest of the New Atheist worthies come in for similar treatment. By all means, read the article. You’ll notice that, like virtually every other New Atheist basher, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, Pigliucci never gets around to mentioning what these “naïve” criticisms of religion actually are, far less to responding to or discussing them.
It’s not hard to find Dawkins’ “naïve” criticisms of religion. They’re easily available to anyone who takes the trouble to look through the first few chapters of his The God Delusion. In fact, most of them have been around at least since Jean Meslier wrote them down in his Testament almost 300 years ago. Religious believers have been notably unsuccessful in answering them in the ensuing centuries. No doubt they might seem naïve if you happen to believe in the ephemeral and hazy versions of God concocted by the likes of David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong. They’ve put that non-objective, non-subjective, insubstantial God so high up on the shelf that it can’t be touched by atheists or anyone else. The problem is that that’s not the God that most people believe in. Dawkins can hardly be faulted for directing his criticisms at the God they do believe in. If his arguments against that God are really so naïve, what can possibly be the harm in actually answering them?
As noted above, New Atheist bashing is probably inevitable given the current ideological fashions. However, I suggest that those happy few who are still capable of thinking for themselves think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. In the first place, it is not irrational for atheists to feel aggrieved at being “othered,” any more than it is for any other ostracized minority. Perhaps more importantly, the question of whether religious beliefs are true or not matters. Today one actually hears so-called “progressive” atheists arguing that religious beliefs should not be questioned, because it risks robbing the “little people” of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Apparently the goal is to cultivate delusions that will get them from cradle to grave with as little existential Angst as possible. It would be too shocking for them to know the truth. Beyond the obvious arrogance of such an attitude, I fail to see how it is doing anyone a favor. People supply their own “meaning of life,” depending on their perceptions of reality. Blocking the path to truth and promoting potentially pathological delusions in place of reality seems more a betrayal than a “service” to me. To the extent that anyone cares to take my own subjective moral emotions seriously, I can only say that I find substituting bland religious truisms for a chance to experience the stunning wonder, beauty and improbability of human existence less a “benefit” than an exquisite form of cruelty.