“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.