Christopher Hitchens died two years ago today, so either obliviously (most likely) or with malice (not impossible), Salon has to run one of their New Atheist bashing pieces. It’s gotten ridiculously predictable. Their rule seems to be to find someone who simultaneously hates atheism, and doesn’t know a goddamn thing about it except for some fragmentary bits of third hand quotes they heard somewhere, and then let them babble.
This time, it’s Richard Rodriguez, illustrated with a photo of Richard Dawkins so that we might bother to read it. Come on, Salon, at least try: if the guy’s words are interesting enough to be worth an article, why are you splashing a photo of someone he dislikes front and center?
I could tell it was going to be awful from the first question.
So let’s start talking about “Darling” and we’ll get into some other things from there. You open and close this book with trips to the Middle Eastern desert taken after September 11. The social and physical aspects of the desert seem very important to you, for the origins of the three monotheistic religions. So I wonder if human history would have been different if the God of the Axial age had emerged not from theses parched deserts, but say, from a dark German forest or something.
Well, I think obviously we would have a different experience of nature. And maybe a different notion of what God expects from us; this is said as a believer, I should stress. It seems to me that a God who would reveal himself to Abraham in a place of such desolation is at least reminding us that our place on this Earth is temporary, and this is a place – a landscape – that reminds us of just how empty it is. The word desert comes from the notion of deserted; something was here and now it’s gone. What’s gone, of course, is the ocean; this was the bottom of the ocean. And this is a place of such rigor and difficulty that one stands in nature with an adversarial relationship.
So a softer, more sentimental God would have revealed himself on a lakeshore or in a forest. That would have been a very different experience. One of the things I’m asking of people, believers and unbelievers, is that we come to terms with place. The Semitic god has always been acknowledged to have broken through time. The eternal breakthrough of time at a specific moment. But we don’t talk about places much, partially because it is such a difficult thing to imagine that we are being called, by God, in a place of death.
Why do you assume that there is a god to appear? Maybe instead you should flip that around: this happens to be a myth conjured up by people who weren’t living in a lush tropical paradise. Rather than this nonsense about a desert god, talk about a desert people.
But even there, this guy is talking nonsense. Once upon a time, many millions of years ago, the Middle East was under water — before people existed. This fact has nothing to do with the origins of the term, nor did the people there historically have any awareness of their geological history (even now, there are many Christians and Jews and Muslims who would deny it).
I also have to wonder about this persistent myth of the parched desert, barren, empty, and desolate. The Abrahamic faiths rose out of a pastoral people; they raised sheep and goats. The land of the Tigris and Euphrates was a well-watered flood plain, and the Hebrews invaded Palestine, with its coastal plains where olives and fruit trees grew, with areas forested with cedars, and fertile valleys with lovely streams and cool shady forests. They were well aware of the bordering true deserts, but we’re taking about a place with a Mediterranean climate — where perhaps the desolate desert was a place with mythic resonance to them.
So here you have people talking amongst each other, playing up the frightful horrors of the desert, and bragging about how tough and mighty their ancestors were to have lived through it, and this myth is now perpetuated by every believer in the Abrahamic faiths on the planet. I think it’s like the idea of persecution in the Roman arena — mostly legend, with next to nothing to connect it to reality.
Furthermore, deserts are actually complex, interesting places. They may be inimical to us damp, squishy apes who like our swimming pools, but “empty” is the wrong word to use for them.
You want a desolation, look at the parking lot at a WalMart superstore. There’s hell on earth; I’d hate to meet the god conjured up by the people who dwell there.
But let’s cut to the chase: where’s this nugget of anti-atheism to justify Salon publishing this tripe?
You write about the “New Atheism” emerging from England, catching on here. How is it new and why does it seem like a dead end to you?
It seems to me that the New Atheism — particularly its recent gaudy English manifestations — has a distinctly neo-colonial aspect. (As Cary Grant remarked: Americans are suckers for the accent!) On the one hand, the New Atheist, with his plummy Oxbridge tones, tries to convince Americans that God is dead at a time when London is alive with Hinduism and Islam. (The empiric nightmare: The colonials have turned on their masters and transformed the imperial city with their prayers and their growing families, even while Europe disappears into materialistic sterility.) Christopher Hitchens, most notably, before his death titled his atheist handbook as a deliberate affront to Islam: “God Is Not Great.” At the same time, he traveled the airwaves of America urging us to war in Iraq — and to maintain borders that the Foreign Office had drawn in the sand. With his atheism, he became a darling of the left. With his advocacy of the Iraq misadventure, he became a darling of the right.
That’s it? Pathetic. And Salon, why are you taking the most shallow point in his interview and making the title all about it?
He’s heard of Dawkins and Hitchens…well, good for him. What about the other big proponents of the New Atheism, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris? No plummy accents there. Or Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Or as I try to remind everyone, Susan Jacoby or Annie Laurie Gaylor, who were talking up freethought years before Dawkins’ spectacular book, or David Silverman or David Niose or Hemant Mehta or me, even? You simply cannot define atheism by one live Brit and one dead one, even if your weird premise is that we’re atheists because we like their accents.
I’ve noticed often that anti-atheists look at us and try to define us by our leadership, which doesn’t exist…so they appoint one, containing whichever people are a convenient fit to whatever thesis they’re trying to advance. News to believers everywhere (and to some misguided atheists as well): there is no hierarchy, no atheist pope, no atheist bishops, and if someone tried to declare themselves head of all atheism, 90% of all atheists would immediately announce their rejection and tear them down. We have no holy book — there are atheists who dislike The God Delusion and God is Not Great, and even those of us who like them feel free to criticize bits and pieces, as well as the authors.
You can also knock individuals for their politics — I detest Hitchens’ and Harris’s conservative and militaristic ideas — but there aren’t any politics that define atheism as a whole. Most (but not all!) of us are politically progressive and looking to broaden the appeal of rational unbelief, so it’s very strange to see some outsider trying to pin membership in the New Atheism on Hitchens’ politics. Or his accent.
But then, consistency and reason aren’t things we should expect from someone described as “gay, deeply Catholic”. It seems to be a too frequent combination that leads only to muddled thinking.
OK, Salon, you are now on notice. The latest edition to the front page? An article praising the simple lifestyle of the nunnery, illustrated with that photo on the right. Yeah, because attractive young women with carefully applied makeup personify Catholic austerity so well.