Can we dispose of the four horsemen?


A comic panel showing the four horsemen on horses. Dawkins: We held a calm, rational debate and came to the consensus that we should initiate doomsday!! For we are the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse! The world as you know it ends this day!

Source: Virus Comix. This is from circa 2008, and you can judge for yourself how well it has aged.

“The Four Horsemen of Atheism” is first and foremost, a marketing term. The term was coined almost exactly a decade ago, in 2007, in order for the horsemen to sell recordings of themselves.  From there, the term had runaway success.

It appears that the reason that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens were chosen (instead of other well-known atheists) is that they were all best-selling authors of atheist books in 2007. It also arose from media coverage, such as the famous 2006 Wired article, which coined the term “New Atheists”, and interviewed Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. (Hitchens hadn’t published his book until 2007.)

But for me, it was never the books which were important, it was the blogs. I started reading Pharyngula in late 2006. I only ever read one of the books, and I read it in 2008 and didn’t care for it. To me, it has always seemed odd how much we venerate book authors. There are other media outside of books, after all! What about bloggers, journalists, youtubers, podcasters, and artists? Or for that matter, any more recent authors?


Since the very beginning, in 2006, we’ve been constantly talking about the four horsemen. We’ve been watching all their output, watching their media coverage, arguing over whether the latest thing they said is good or bad. Even after Hitchens died, and Dennett has long disappeared from public view, we still spend a lot of time talking about the remaining horsemen.

The problem isn’t just that the horsemen are bad. The very framing is bad. Why do we even need to argue over these particular people? What makes them so special? Why do those of us who are upset with Dawkins and Harris need to repeatedly disassociate ourselves from them, instead of just dissociating ourselves once, and then we’re done?

Of course, the answer is that they are popular. Funny that. Argument from popularity is a well-known fallacy, but here we are.

What “popularity” means is that we’re constantly arguing with the fans of the four horsemen. It means that some of us used to be fans too, and we are arguing with our past selves. It means that we’re mistaken for fans.  It means that they are “topic setters”. If you want to talk about stuff that everyone else is talking about, a good place to start is with the latest tweets of a celebrity atheist. Popularity is self-perpetuating–we talk about them because they are popular, and they are popular because we talk about them.


While many other people followed a “disillusioned fan” trajectory, I was never a fan of any of them. I was lukewarm on all four.  What follows is not a comprehensive list of grievances (I recommend RationalWiki for that sort of thing), but an explanation of my own perception of them.

Hitchens was universally regarded as a witty asshole. I don’t know much about him, except that he supported the Iraq war. He died in 2011, so I’d like to take the opportunity to never talk about him again.

Dennett is largely inoffensive, but to me represents a lot of what’s wrong with the four horsemen. Dennett just isn’t important in the atheist world. His designation as one of the four horsemen just goes to show how arbitrary it really was. Here’s an old white guy, he wrote a book. Horseman of the apocalypse!!

For a long time, the only thing I knew about Dennett was that he gave this TED talk about dangerous memes. It involves taking meme theory way too seriously, to the point of incoherence, and comparing religion to a parasite. Since that’s all I had to go by, I had little respect for Dennett.  He’s probably alright though.

Dawkins is the horseman that I regard most positively. As mentioned earlier, I did read one book, and that was The God Delusion. It was basically a vulgarization of arguments about God, in the same way that Dawkins wrote vulgarizations of evolutionary biology. That’s not something I myself cared for, but I can appreciate the importance. Atheists didn’t need more scholarly rigor, we needed wider social acceptance.  The Out Campaign, the scarlet letter A, that was Dawkins too.

The problem with Dawkins is that he’s so hit or miss. The longer we listen to him, the more often we come across comments of his that are just wrong, and sometimes offensive. Many people became disillusioned with Dawkins in 2011, when his “Dear Muslima” comment was widely publicized. It seems like Dawkins wanted to say “#firstworldproblems”, but completely misjudged the situation.  (He did eventually apologize.)

But for some reason, the Dawkins gaffe I always remember is when he coined “Neville Chamberlain atheists”, in The God Delusion. It’s a bit subtle, but it’s a Hitler analogy that implicitly places religion in the role of Nazis. Another gaffe was “Brights”, an alternative term for atheists that fizzled immediately. And then there was the time he publicly wondered if reading Harry Potter might negatively affect our rationality. There are like a dozen other gaffes rattling around in my memory. Dawkins has just been wrong about so many things, for me it wasn’t really a surprise when he started being wrong about feminism too.

Harris is the one horseman where my views have changed substantially over time. I started out lukewarm on Harris, but now I think he’s the worst. Like Dawkins, he’s hit or miss, only he doesn’t have any hits, and almost all the misses speak to his bigoted worldview.

The “misses” I remember are not necessarily the offensive ones, but the ones that show Harris to be a fraud of a scholar. He wrote a whole book about free will, and dismissed compatibilism in a footnote because philosophy is boring amirite? And then he wrote The Moral Landscape which takes a strong stance against the is/ought distinction, but fails to actually defend it. More recently, I’ve looked at what Sam Harris did to get his PhD in neuroscience, and the answer has more to do with paying his way than scholarly output.

The last straw for Sam Harris was in 2012, when he advocated profiling Muslims in airport security. He was dressed down by an actual security expert, and Sam Harris emerged no wiser for it. And I thought, wow Sam Harris really has no relevant expertise, only his opinions of Islam, so why did we think his views were even worthy of consideration?  Why did we ever listen to him in the first place?

Sam Harris isn’t just bad at being right, he’s bad at setting the topic. I hate talking about Sam Harris, even to disagree with him.  He’s that much a pile of garbage. We should argue over the political views of pop stars instead–it would make about as much sense and be more pleasant.

So that’s how I feel about the Four Horsemen of Atheism. They’re atheist pop stars that we’ve been coerced into talking about for over a decade.  I prefer indie.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Daniel Dennett “disappeared from public view” to take part in launching The Clergy Project, a well-reputed combined study of and support group for “pastors” who have lost their theism. We may well hear more from him (and them) in years to come.

    The other two surviving “horsemen” have indeed passed their “gallop into the sunset” times.

  2. says

    It’s not clear how much of a role Daniel Dennett even plays in The Clergy Project, given he’s not mentioned on the Directors/Staff page. Not that I care either way. But I doubt that the reason he’s left the public view is because he’s been spending a decade working on a project that’s about to blow us away.

  3. says

    Wasn’t the idea for the “Horsemen” cooked up by Dawkins’ girlfriend, or something like that? I believe they spent quite a bit of $ trying to sell that idea, with the intent of making it back on book sales. (My memory is fuzzy; that was from reviewing a bunch of tax/budget filings from RDF a few years ago)

  4. says

    @Marcus Ranum,
    I dunno, you tell me. If it cost them money, they probably made it back and then some.

    @Siobhan,
    Sam Harris, is that you?

  5. RationalismRules says

    In this brave new 140-character world where everyone can instantly and effortlessly share their trivial thoughts with the entire human race, I’m sure blogposts and Youtube videos seem like a shit-ton of hard work by comparison, but try researching and writing a book, and then getting it published, and you’ll begin to understand why we (rightly) venerate book authors over bloggers, journalists, youtubers (you’re kidding, right?) and podcasters.

  6. says

    RationalismRules:

    you’ll begin to understand why we (rightly) venerate book authors

    Venerate? No. That’s not remotely rational. Some authors are very good indeed. Many authors are not. How authors feel about the act of, and the work in writing is incredibly varied. I can appreciate the work of people on many levels; no one gets automatic respect and worship for writing in a specific format.

    People are reached through various means, so it’s necessary for all those means to be filled. Insisting on a snobby superiority to books does not help reach all people. I’m a book person myself, and read two to four books a week. I know people that would never, ever work for, in any way. That does not make them lesser, nor does it make them wrong. They prefer and do better with different forms of communication. I would expect a thoughtful, rational person would be more focused on the fact that communication is the key, not the form.

  7. says

    @RationalismRules,
    It’s not a contest over which kind of media are inherently superior to others. Really, it would make the most sense to bring attention to creators who specialize in all kinds of formats. Diversity in format brings in a diversity of audiences.

  8. kestrel says

    It’s fine with me. They’re all probably shitty riders anyway. (Horse snob joke.)

    OK. Seriously. I don’t think you can put anyone on a pedestal and remain satisfied for long. They are all human, all have flaws, etc. For a while the whole idea was an amusing thought but it’s palled over the years. We’re just going to have to forge ahead as best we can, even if we have no heroes. Personally I’m good with that.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Missed this on the first reading: …I’ve looked at what Sam Harris did to get his PhD in neuroscience, and the answer has more to do with paying his way than scholarly output.

    Details &/or links, please?

  10. says

    @kestrel
    Yeah I agree. Honestly Dawkins isn’t even that bad but 10 years of him was way too much.

    @Pierce R. Butler,
    I read this article on Sam Harris. I have more comments on it in my linkspam scheduled for the 10th. Short version: I don’t agree entirely with the critique, but it still looks pretty bad.

  11. chigau (違う) says

    it is late
    I am weary
    I read “dispose of” and thought of a pit of quick lime…
    .
    .
    sorry…

  12. RationalismRules says

    @Caine @Siggy
    I was not claiming anything about books being superior to other forms of media. Nor was I claiming that all book authors deserve to be venerated (you left off the latter half of my sentence Caine, which completely altered my meaning)

    Siggy’s comment, in the context of the full paragraph, seemed to me to be questioning why book authors are prima facie accorded greater respect than other media practitioners. The point I was attempting to make was that writing a book requires a greater investment of time and effort into the final product than the other forms mentioned, and we recognize this in the respect we accord to authors. Greater investment before payoff also means that the stakes of failure are higher – compared to a blog, for example, which can grow an audience gradually with a series of small investments, a book is a much higher risk. Finally, in our society we tend to accord more respect to those who demonstrate depth of knowledge on particular subjects than to those who have lesser knowledge over a broader range of subjects.

    Of course not every writer deserves to be venerated (Siggy’s term). Of course there are bloggers/podcasters etc. who do. Of course diversity of media is good, not only to reach a diverse audience, but also to serve different purposes. And of course quality is more important than form. But given equivalent quality, why would we not respect the greater effort required to author a book, in the same way that we accord greater respect to the composer of a symphony than to a songwriter?

  13. polishsalami says

    As the years have gone by, I’ve come to this conclusion about the Horsemen: They are what they are.

    They have all been excellent advocates for secularism and the scientific worldview. On the other hand, when they speak on other topics, they are often exposed for their limited expertise on those topics. It should also be remembered that the Horsemen have different opinions about various matters.

    It’s also true that they are/were all wealthy white males. To me, this is the reason for many of their backward ideas.

  14. says

    @RationalismRules
    You’re arguing for the value of books by a particular measure: greater investment of time and effort. But that is not what I value most. Personally, I value low barrier to entry and expressiveness. Other people may value different kinds of things, leading them to other forms of media.

    Valuing media that require the creators to take higher risks? That just seems like a way to value creators who are independently wealthy. I mean, just thinking of it in economic terms, the easiest way to manage risk is with a savings account.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 12 – Thanks for the link: I look forward to your comments on it later.

    FTR: the article raises some important questions about Harris’s dissertation, but I want to see those questions explored by others with more academic/neuroscientific credentials, and less (judging by other posts on that same blog) of a teeth-gnashing animus against “New Atheists”.

  16. RationalismRules says

    @Siggy

    You’re arguing for the value of books by a particular measure: greater investment of time and effort. But that is not what I value most. Personally, I value low barrier to entry and expressiveness.

    No. As I already explained, I am not arguing for one form over another. You are making an assessment of the forms based on personal preference, which is fine and dandy, but it has nothing to do with the respect accorded by society. I am arguing that it is perfectly appropriate for society to accord a higher level of respect to achievements that require greater effort than to those that require lesser effort.

    Valuing media that require the creators to take higher risks? That just seems like a way to value creators who are independently wealthy.

    If your argument were valid then most authors would be independently wealthy, wouldn’t they? Only problem, that simply doesn’t fit the facts.

  17. says

    @Pierce R. Butler,
    I could not find any satisfactory evaluation of the content of Harris’ work, and I myself am not willing to put in the effort.

    @RationalismRules #18,
    We can go through another round of each of us explaining what we really meant, but you’re failing to answer the bigger question: Why should I care what you meant? In the bigger picture, what are you trying to say? That if we were to rewind time, we should create the Horsemen again? That in other social movements we should also strive to create “horsemen” out of book authors?

  18. says

    None of the other social movements I participate in place such a high value on book authors. It’s just atheists, and it’s weird and detrimental.

  19. says

    I think part of the respect for book authors is because they used to have to get past an editor, rather than just put it out there. Same with print newspapers. Even that is disappearing nowadays, with self printing on Amazon.

  20. RationalismRules says

    @Siggy

    In the bigger picture, what are you trying to say?

    I wasn’t making a ‘bigger picture’ argument. I was responding to a specific point.

    But since you ask…
    If you want to stop talking about the Four Horsemen, then stop talking about them.

  21. says

    @RationalismRules,
    Responding to a specific point is fine, you were just so insistent that I thought maybe you were trying to make some larger point. I don’t really need it explained to me why society values books over other media. In general, society does not value books over other media, so why try to explain a thing that isn’t true.

    I have not given the four horsemen serious consideration in a long time, and I want other people to stop giving them consideration too. This is entirely consistent with occasionally talking about them, so I decline your advice.

  22. RationalismRules says

    @Siggy

    I don’t really need it explained to me why society values books over other media.

    Good, because that was not what I was doing. Have I already explained this? (I have an overwhelming sense of déjà vu)

    I can’t compete with this strawman that you appear so determined to vanquish, so I think I’ll leave you to it.

  23. says

    @RationalismRules,
    Yeah, you’ve already said that you meant something different, but failed to explain what was actually different about it, thus the repetition. Really, this argument is unimportant, and I’d rather give you a long walkthrough on how you could be communicating better. But we’d probably just both find that tedious. I suppose you can e-mail me if you feel otherwise.

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