Sam McElwee and the Salon Do Not Get the New Atheist


While I was recuperating, I read Sam McElwee’s piece on Hitchens and the New Atheists and saw a lot of problems in what he was bashing.

So here is my critique.

Religion has once again become the “opiate of the people.” But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.

No it does not. No atheist thinks that way. We just think that there are some conflicts exacerbated by belief. That belief is used as a form of leverage in some conflicts. So while the Irish Debt Crisis (and kudos to them for leaving the Bailout) has little to do with religion, the sectarianism of Northern Ireland does.

There are many conflicts where the lines are drawn on faith.

It is rather disturbing trend in a country whose greatest reformer was a Reverend — Dick Gregory has said, “Ten thousand years from now, the only reason a history book will mention the United States is to note where Martin Luther King Jr. was born” — to believe that religion is the root of all evil. And yet this is what the “New Atheism” (an anti-theist movement led originally by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late — and great — Christopher Hitchens) movement  asserts.

Martin Luther King’s religion had little to do with his message of equality any more than Gandhi’s Hinduism or indeed Nehru and Ambedkar’s atheism did in their messages of equality.

In fact Ambedkar’s Atheism made him a staunch opponent of the caste system which he sought to tear down.

If Martin Luther King’s message had come from anyone else who wasn’t a priest, it would still have been valid. There was no divine hand in his speech, merely the humanist idea that all men are equal.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

I am considered a new atheist yet I know that no one would think in such a simplistic way about religion.

A cause of suffering is irrationality. Religion is “A” cause not “The” cause.

I mean what irrationality is involved in a cyclone? What irrationality is involved in an earthquake? What irrationality was involved in the greed of those who bartered our economic security for a fast profit? These were things out of the control of people or indeed incredibly rational and indeed selfish decisions that have caused suffering for millions.

The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc  — mistaking a cause for its effect.

Except let us look at 1.2 billion people in India who have just seen opposition to the legalisation of Gay Sex and it’s recriminalisation with a large amount of religious support.

We can look at the conflict in the Middle East in Israel where colonial poitics created a conflict driven by religious differences. We can look at the Jihadis of various conflicts. What about the IRA? What about the pro-lifers and their plans to destroy basic Obstetrics and Gynaecological care?

No I am afraid that religion may not be the cause of these things but it certainly has made these problems a lot worse. It may not be the fire but it is the petrol.

But then Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens. To co-opt Steven Weinberg, “Good men will naturally oppose bad wars and bad will naturally support them. To make a good man support a bad war, for that, you need an irrational fear of religion.”

I am puzzled. Genuinely am. Do you think all New Atheists agree with Hitchens? I don’t know who told you this but Hitchens is not the Pope of Atheism and Dawkins is not our God Emperor.

We are not organised. We may have organisations but most of us don’t blindly agree with Hitchens. I myself did not like his stance on the War in Iraq. Many atheists did not wish for war.

Religion has a tendency to reflect political and economic realities. Hitchens, in fact, has made ample use of this Marxist analysis, questioning religious experts whether it was Constantine or the truth of Christ’s words that were largely responsible for its breakneck spread. Constantine was, and his proclivities shaped the church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not decided exclusively by decades of intense debate; the whimsy of Constantine and political maneuvering between by Arius and Athanasius had a significant influence on the outcome.

But if Hitchens is right, as he is, then why not take the observation to its logical conclusion? Is not the best explanation for the Thirty Years’ War more likely political than religious? Might it be better to see jihad as a response to Western colonialism and the upending of Islamic society, rather than the product of religious extremism? The goal of the “New Atheists” is to eliminate centuries of history that Europeans are happy to erase, and render the current conflict as one of reason versus faith rather than what is, exploiter and exploited.

But it is this political utilisation of religion that makes it dangerous. The political utilisation of Islam has resulted in our current fight against fundamentalist Islam. The political utilisation of Christianity has lead to the incredibly distrust and hate in Scotland along sectarian lines and the more violent version in Ireland.

For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.

Actually for vast numbers of Middle Easterners we encouraged governments that were fundamentalist because we required their oil and this fed money into their coffers. We also created the hydra that is Al-Qaeda and now seek to slay it. We created Pakistan. We created the distrust that fuelled the Jihad there. We then wound it up and set it lose on Afghanistan. Brave we called them. These angry men with angry thoughts spread their hate under our blessing because if fought the Russians. It spread into places like Chechnya and Somalia.

Then the Jihad returned the hate we gave them with interest.

Do you think the Muslims of the world thought this way? Do you think they hate McDonalds? Or Starbucks? No. They hate the stupid striped caricature of Uncle Sam. The Great Satan that hides in it’s Military Bases in Saudi Arabia. That supports Israel no matter what. No that’s just as stupid.

They are normal people with normal lives and normal thoughts. What has happened is Wahabbi Islam’s growing power in the Middle East. By calling progressives “Fake” or “Not Real” the Wahabbi’s position themselves as the core of Islam. The fundamentals. Despite the joke being that the fundamentals of Islam are just 5 pillars. The rest are additions.

So the middle ground thinks that they cannot ignore their faith. So they send their kids to these Wahabbis. No Real Muslim Suffers the Infidel Great Satan and it’s the corollary of the True Scotsman. You don’t stop being Scottish if you don’t put honey on your porridge and you don’t stop being Muslim if you are a liberal.

The second problem is our conversation with Muslims has rarely been through the people or the voice of the sensible. It has always been through someone who is angry and with a propensity to make decisions based out of ignorance and violence. Partly because we ignored the common man until that angry man did something to force us to talk to him. We refused to speak to the wardens so now we must deal with the lunatic.

And that’s the problem. Let’s look at the UK. Anjem Choudhary and Abu Hamza were considered Islamic Voices. No they aren’t, they are Islamic voices in the same way that the God Hates Fags lot are a major voice of Christianity.

I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives? If religion motivated 9/11, what motivated Bill Clinton to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and leave millions of Sudanese people without access to medicine?

Er… Drone Strikes are happening in an area of Pakistan called the NWFP. It is a lawless area in that it is nominally under Pakistan control but in reality is administered by tribal elders. Lahore may make laws but the NWFP tribes chose to follow them or not. It is a Mad Max world.

People are annoyed because the Pakistani government has a long history of collusion with fundamentalists due to their Jihadis being integral to fighting India. And these are coming back to haunt them through attacks on people and the fact that the Pakistani NWFP is used as a staging ground for the Taliban.

Of course, I’m entirely aware of the problems in modern American Christianity. I have written an essay excoriating what I see as the false Christianity. But any critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion. For instance, it would hardly be the theologian’s job to point out that, according to The Economist, “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis. A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated.” I’m sure scientists are well aware of the problem and working to rectify it. Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed. Terry Eagleton writes,

Which is no different from “No True Scotsman” that I was pointing out.

And I am afraid you don’t seem to understand. It’s not the actions of the church that are the problem so much as the fact that there are Christians who don’t believe any more. Hitchens and Dawkins and indeed myself exist because we stopped believing in our faiths. We didn’t reject god because Priests were touching up kids but because we don’t think there exists a magical entity that cares about gay marriage.

Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Because the first year theology student learns a sanitised version of religion. The genteel Christianity of vicars and tea rather than the fire of the Inquisition.

And you may say “they were not honest to True Christianity” but that’s the same argument that Islamic Fundies make.

The impulse to destroy religion will ultimately fail. Religion is little different from Continental philosophy or literature (which may explain the hatred of Lacan and Derrida among Analytic philosophers). It is an attempt to explain the deprivations of being human and what it means to live a good life. Banish Christ and Muhammad and you may end up with religions surrounding the works of Zizek and Sloterdijk (there is already a Journal of Zizek Studies, maybe soon a seminary?). Humans will always try to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and science will never be able to tell them what it is. This, ultimately is the meaning of religion, and “secular religions” like philosophy and literature are little different in this sense than theology. Certainly German philosophy was distorted by madmen just as Christianity has been in the past, but atheists fool themselves if they try to differentiate the two.

Sure and you can find meaning and purpose without invoking a magical sky wizard who tells you to brain Elton John with a rock. Fairies do not make my garden more beautiful and gods do not explain the world or how it functions. If you think the invocation of a god is an equal and opposite to literature and indeed philosophy then you really cannot understand how instructions from a 2000 year old bunch of Jews, Greeks and Romans can be considered irrelevant to the way modern society works and indeed how our understanding of the world has changed.

As a poorly-practicing Christian who reads enough science to be functional at dinner parties, I would like to suggest a truce — one originally proposed by the Catholic church and promoted by the eminent Stephen J. Gould. Science, the study of the natural world, and religion, the inquiry into the meaning of life (or metaphysics, more broadly) constitute non-overlapping magisteria. Neither can invalidate the theories of the other, if such theories are properly within their realm. Any theologian or scientist who steps out of their realm to speculate upon the other is free to do so, but must do so with an adequate understanding of the other’s realm.

Bollocks. That is hiding your gods behind the next wall of ignorance. When once the gods existed in the dark beyond the flame now they exist beyond the flame of science. Hiding behind the next theorem and dancing further and further into irrelevance until there is no place left to hide.

If the wall behind which the gods hide has been pushed back for 20,000 years then why must we assume the next wall will change?

The other realm? What the realm of magic and fairies? Must I consider the realms of Naraka to be reals and beyond the ken of mortal science? That I can summon Demons and Rakshasa? That somewhere Vishnu dreams on the Eternal Snake?

No there is no other realm, the other realm is just something we created to hide your gods. Your angels and demons. Your saviours and messiahs. Your things that go bump in the night. It is the place where bogeymen hide and where the monster under your bed goes when you shine the torch.

Religion (either secular or theological) does not poison all of society and science should not be feared, but rather embraced. Both can bring humanity to new heights of empathy, imagination and progress. To quote the greatest American reformer, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

Religion interprets?

Pray tell me what do the 4000 to 6000 year old beliefs of Hinduism have to say about the interpretation of sending a man to the moon? What interpretation has religion provided us of the Internet? What words of the Bible can be twisted and quote mined to explain how our world works?

No I am afraid we just claim that religious people are wise. When what it should be is that “Religion is respected inordinately and we consider religious people to be wise and relevant to the discussion despite all common sense. A person who follows the moral code of 3000 year old slavers or even 5000 year old horsemen is not relevant to a modern understanding of how the world works.

And the values of religion? I quote Stephen Fry when I point out that Christianity supported slavery and the defence of that was that people at the time didn’t know any better. And so he responds with “Then what good are you?”

The values of religion are not good. Many off the values of religion have been tempered by humanity and humane involvements rather than by fundamentalist adherence.

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems. But abolishing religion is not only unfeasible, it would ultimately leave us no closer to truth, love or peace. Rather, we need to embrace the deep philosophical and spiritual questions that arise from our shared existence and work toward a world without deprivation. That will require empathy and multiculturalism, not demagoguery.

No No It won’t. It will however eliminate the problems caused by religion and reduce some of the problems exacerbated by it.

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