Here’s another provocative article from the New Humanist titled “Holy Communion”, a critique of two of the “New Atheists”. It has an incredibly offensive illustration to go with it, but the article isn’t quite that bad. It’s not that good, either.
First, I have to confess: I’m not a humanist. I’m just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I’m not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid. Still, I sympathize with the aims of secular humanism and I’m willing to work alongside them, just as I’m willing to work with reasonable Christians and Muslims — I’m just not ever going to be one of them, and I’m not going to hold fire and abstain from criticizing them.
And this article has much to criticize. It begins with an explanation that the New Atheism isn’t new and has been around for centuries, something we’d all agree on — I’ve never been keen on the term myself. I think it traces back to a Gary Wolf article in Wired that labeled Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett as the leaders of this movement, an article I didn’t care for. Richard Norman in the New Humanist puts a new twist on it, though: it’s the same old atheism and “we need to beware of fighting old battles in a world which has moved on”. It has? Maybe from the perspective of Europe it has, but here in America, the world has moved backwards.
Further evidence of a skewed perspective comes in the next paragraph: “What kick-started the New Atheism was, of course, the attack on the Twin Towers.” Complete nonsense, especially after we’ve just been told that the New Atheism traces its heritage back to the 18th century. We proponents of atheism have our roots in ideas established well before 9/11; I don’t know anyone who was confronted by a terrorist attack and decided now was the time to make an intellectual break from prior religious traditions. And the only “of course” is the events that happened afterwards: an electorate that consoled itself with religious platitudes and rushed to favor any pious politician willing to wallop a bible. The “New Atheism” did not arise out of revulsion to Islamic extremism, but as a counter to growing public irrationality. The reason it has taken off to such a degree in America is because this is where that irrationality has been most firmly rooted and so prominently displayed. Remember, this is the country where Pat Robertson was considered a viable presidential candidate…in 1988. If you want to find the source that kick-started the New Atheism, you’re going to have to look well before 2001.
The article then tries to identify a second development that triggered the atheist surge, and pins it on creationism. That’s a little closer to the mark. Again, this is old stuff; there has been no sudden resurgence of creationism in the US, merely a long series of flare-ups that have been plaguing the country since the Scopes trial, exacerbated by the reluctance of proponents of science to tangle with the root cause, religion. I entered middle school at the time of Epperson v. Arkansas, I entered grad school to the tune of McLean v. Arkansas, I got to follow Ewards v. Aguillard while finishing up my thesis. Isn’t it about time we got mad at this incessant idiocy from the ignorant religious apologists of our country?
Norman finally gets around to expressing his complaint against the New Atheists: they over-generalize. They damn religion without considering the breadth of religious experience, ignoring the fact that there are virtues to religion, or that certain religious beliefs may not be subject to their peculiar disdain. He singles out Hitchens and Dawkins, but I’ll narrow it further to just Dawkins; Norman finds these quotes objectionable.
I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called ‘extremist’ faith. The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.
Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that, but it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children … that unquestioning faith is a virtue.
I don’t think Norman would like me at all, because I find both quotes too moderate. I’m not worried that moderate religion might lead to extremism, I find moderate religion itself to be too credulous, too lacking in intellectual rigor, too obeisant to the dull, dumb stupidity of “faith” to be an institution we should encourage. Even if it could be shown that being a calm Methodist can’t ever lead to becoming a bomb-throwing radical (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many religions were shown to be more soporific than inflammatory), it doesn’t mean we should excuse these mainstream, temperate religions from criticism. Norman has been led seriously astray by his premise that the New Atheists are fired up against Islamic terrorism — personally, I’m fired up by the fact that religions have been spending millennia hammering the brains of thinking human beings into a dopey stupefaction like that of domesticated sheep.
Norman’s rebuttal is to equivocate about the meaning of “faith”. Reach deep into the reservoir of the dictionary, plumb the ambiguities of the English language, and sure, you can pretend that holding a religious belief is equivalent to accepting evolutionary theory. You just have to ignore the reliance on evidence and reason, and the willingness to revise ideas on the basis of new evidence, that is the hallmark of the provisional, critical acceptance of a science — a set of values that are absent in religion. The scientific view is not that one must accept the truth of evolution to be a scientist — it’s that one has to follow the evidence whereever it may lead, to whatever conclusion best fits reality. We do not accept evolution because we personally enjoy the notion that we are the lucky products of undirected chance in an uncaring universe, but because that somewhat chilling answer is where the facts lead us.
Norman rebuts Hitchens by arguing against what he calls the “headcount argument”, that familiar line where proponents of one side or another tally up the number of historical fatalities or atrocities perpetrated by the other side, and declares victory on the basis of the other’s propensity for murder. I agree entirely with Norman on this: it’s a bad argument. Human beings have always done the full measure of both good and evil, and we can’t blame it simplistically on their religious beliefs, especially since for the bulk of human history every one was religious to some degree. I am confident that if we could magically erase all religion from the Middle East, for example, and turn every Muslim, Jew, and Christian in that region to a rational atheist, they’d still be killing each other. We’d remove some particularly silly obstacles to reconciliation (who’d care about the religious significance of the Dome of the Rock any more?), but there’d still be plenty of historical and political and economic and social causes for war. Religion is a pretext that sharpens boundaries, nothing more.
But this does not excuse religion. I mean, science is a method that promises to improve our understanding of the natural world, and is constantly producing results: deeper knowledge of basic mechanisms, and material outcomes that create iPods and spaceships and microwave ovens and vaccines. It works, and it demonstrates its success within the terms of its domain. Religion claims to be a method that maps the human heart, that produces stability and contentment and soul-fulfilling reverence, and leads to immortality in an afterlife where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. It fails in its own terms. None of what it promises can be demonstrated, and the plethora of different religions all make different and often contradictory promises. It certainly doesn’t seem to be promoting peace, love, and understanding, and those conflicting claims are often barriers to reconciliation.
I don’t condemn religion because it causes extremism or evil actions. I condemn it because it is so bloodily and thrice-damned ineffectual at doing what it claims to do. Religion is an incompetent guiding philosophy, unifying principle, source of solace and wisdom, whatever screwy virtue you want to imagine it represents. All it seems to excel at is driving people to make excuses for its failures.
Norman concludes in a strange, and I think conflicted, way, asking everyone to put aside their differences on religion to work together. Besides being insipid, I disagree.
We have problems enough in the world. The threats of climate change, global poverty, war and repression and intolerance can never be countered unless we are prepared to work together on the basis of a shared humanity. Simplistic generalisations about religion don’t help. In Dawkins’s terminology, that means working with the “moderates” to counter the “extremists”, but it’s actually more complicated than that. Some of our allies against creationism may be deeply prejudiced against gays. Some of the best people working to combat global poverty may be Catholic anti-abortionists. Some of the Muslim allies we need to counter Islamist violence may have deeply sexist attitudes to women. It all demonstrates what a deeply contradictory phenomenon religion is. But we know that. And if religion is so contradictory, that’s probably because human beings are a deeply contradictory species.
Here’s a better idea: work together on common causes without silencing our disagreements. Norman even points out that Dawkins joined with the Bishop of Oxford to protest the promulgation of faith-based schools in Britain — does anyone think for an instant that that means Dawkins suddenly found transubstantiation to be a reasonable hypothesis? Of course not. I’ve seen Norman’s line of reasoning a lot, and it makes this false presupposition that the atheists are incapable of working together with their fellow human beings because they also find fault with their flawed religious beliefs. We can do both! Watch us — where we find common goals, we will work together without a pang of regret; and where we disagree, we will forcefully argue. That’s the way our world works. Get used to it.
It’s a useful attitude to take. Unlike Mr Norman, we can work with someone against creationism without feeling compelled to avoid confronting their anti-gay bigotry. We can join with someone to combat Islamic extremism without overlooking moderate Islamic sexism. Perhaps Norman didn’t intend this, but I read his conclusion and see a set of excuses for ignoring injustices; if I were a woman, for instance, I’d be bothered that he’s saying we have to prioritize and fight intolerance, among other things, yet one of the things he’s saying we ought be willing to set aside is disagreement over how Islam treats women. This is not how I want to face the problems of the world, with a selective filter that allows me to minimize issues as long as they are defended by the pretext that an imaginary man in the sky says it must be so.
Right now, I’m in Washington D.C. to work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I am completely behind their goals, and think they are an eminently commendable organization. Yet many of the people in this organization (including the head!) are religious to varying degrees! Does this mean I must moderate my contempt for religion? Hell, no. If the Rev. Barry Lynn asks me what I think about his religion, don’t expect me to get all mealy-mouthed. But we’re here for a different job, one where atheists and believers can agree, and I don’t expect a battle over that irrelevant issue. That’s how we work together.
At the same time that I can cooperate with AU, I can still urge everyone to throw off the shackles of their superstition, however. And I will, as will Dawkins, and Hitchens, and Harris, and the growing polity of outspoken atheists. I can also hope that many of the self-identifying Humanists will found common cause with us on that.