Damon Linker doesn’t like the New Atheism because it is “illiberal”, and so he writes a screed in the New Republic — one that is poorly thought out and guilty of the crimes he accuses atheists of, while exercising his distaste for the godless, and nothing more.
The problems begin with his opening gambit: he’s outraged that Richard Dawkins dares to regard religious indoctrination as a form of child abuse. As has been typical for complaints of this sort, Linker doesn’t bother to address the substance of the argument, since that is apparently too difficult for him — is, for instance, telling a child that they will go to hell if they get a blood transfusion a damaging psychological act or is it not? — and instead makes the lazy and fallacious leap to the claim that Richard Dawkins wants Christian parents arrested.
Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion–to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state–is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism.
This is the premise upon which Linker builds his argument that the New Atheists are illiberal: because Richard Dawkins has not called for a fatwah against religious parents, but Linker thinks he should, all New Atheists belong to an intolerant tradition of bad atheists. It’s a curious situation when someone can refuse to demand the imprisonment of his opponents and therefore be accused of authoritarian intolerance.
Here’s a revelation for Mr Linker: perhaps Dr Dawkins, and others of us New Atheists, are refusing to take affairs to that conclusion because they are practicing members of a tradition that values personal liberty and is reluctant to impose personal beliefs on other individuals. That would break his thesis, however; far easier to imply that the New Atheists are illiberal villains whose actual actions are a charade to hide their ultimate aims. Perhaps I should rebut Mr Linker by claiming that the “logical conclusion” to his contempt for the New Atheists is that he must desire the most illiberal goal of silencing them; that’s as reasonable as the inference he’s making.
The New Atheists have pointed out a problem. We are members of a liberal democracy, a political institution that requires a well-informed and engaged citizenry to function well. Yet at the same time, we have people who propagate ignorance, who drill false ideas into the heads of their children, who do active, intentional harm to the intellectual development of young people. And further, these people are working hard to compromise the quality of education for all Americans, driven by their religious ideologies to make sure that no challenging ideas are ever discussed in the classroom. This is child abuse. That there are competing liberal values of parental autonomy is not something that we have denied or failed to recognize — but apparently, pointing out a real and genuine problem is “illiberal”. I had no idea that denial and ignorance were liberal values.
The “logical conclusion” I draw from the continuing practice of child abuse by religious parents is not to make laws that punish those parents — it’s to fight for better education, to refuse to allow sectarian nonsense to be promulgated in our public schools, to encourage more critical thinking by citizens of all ages, and to use my public soapbox and my right to free speech to openly berate the credulous morons who frighten their children with hellfire if they open their eyes to the beautiful reality of our world. I’ll also use it to chew out narrow-minded apologists for inanity who invent false dichotomies, such as that the only two possibilities in a liberal democracy are to pretend that damaging conflicts don’t exist, or to start shipping dissidents off to the gulag.
Speaking of facile dichotomies, Linker continues the practice in the rest of his diatribe. After smugly informing the New Atheists that they aren’t “New” (something we have also complained about; this is an inappropriate term invented by the media, not something these atheists have chosen), he traces everything to two, and only two, philosophical traditions. There are the thoughtful atheists, the liberal atheists, who have their roots in pre-Socratic Greece, and are marked by a recognition that no one can absolutely disprove the existence of gods, and by tentativeness. Then there are the radical, political, ideological atheists who came into flower in the violence of the French Revolution, and in philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche — that is, not liberal. And of course, when there are only two choices, and when you’ve already made a commitment to ignore any intellectual diversity within either strand, and when you’ve plainly set up one as the good guys and the other as the bad guys, it’s no problem to simply shoehorn anyone you don’t like into the ranks of the bad guys and tar them with the sins of your favorite evil fanatic.
And most importantly, by turning it all into an argument about which of these two simplistic caricatures your opponent belongs to, you can avoid the actual arguments at the heart of the problem: is there a god? Does he give private instructions to individuals on how to act? Should we justify and promote claims that are so clearly in contradiction to empirical reality? Can we have a civil society that so readily confuses piety with morality? Let’s just ignore these and other substantive questions and accuse atheists of wanting to imprison Christians.
Perhaps, instead of demonizing the New Atheists with his simple-minded and inflexible vision of a history infused with unchangeable philosophical traditions, Mr Linker ought to recognize that the New Atheists are obviously politically diverse, that atheism seems to cross political boundaries, and that the proponents have the ability to blend the ideas of our culture into new combinations. From my perspective, what I see is a number of people who have grown up in a Western liberal tradition and have combined that with an increasing recognition that science has made fundamental dogmas of the religious traditions untenable — we aren’t members of a lineage that demands violence and bloodshed and enforcement of intellectual ideas at all, but we are members of an increasingly strong rationalist ideal that refuses to blithely accept patent nonsense because a man in antique robes says so.
If you want to define the heart of the New Atheism, it isn’t illiberalism. It’s simply that willingness to openly and boldly and with some smug confidence state that the old dogmas are bullshit. There is nothing in that that is antithetical to liberalism. If Linker wanted to make a case that it conflicts with conservatism, he’d have a case.
I have to bring up one more blatant example of the incoherence of Linker’s essay, a single paragraph that exemplifies the nonsense he’s promoting.
In describing their atheism as illiberal, I do not mean to imply that the new atheists are closet totalitarians. On the contrary, all of them understand themselves to be contributing to the defense of freedom against its most potent enemies, at home and abroad. Yet the fact remains that the atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens is a brutally intolerant, proselytizing faith, out to rack up conversions. Consider, for example, the sloppiness displayed by all of the authors in discussing their political aims. Do they seek to defend the secular politics favored by the American Constitutional framers? Or do they have the much more radical goal of producing a secular society–a society in which the American people, as a whole and individually, have abandoned religion? The former is a liberal goal, the latter an illiberal one; and it is inexcusable that each book leaves readers guessing which objective its author favors.
That first sentence is painfully disingenuous. His opening was all about implying that the “logical conclusion” of Dawkins’ beliefs was criminalization of Christian parents; he describes the New Atheists as “brutally intolerant”; he’s going to close his essay by calling the New Atheists a “cause for concern”, as if they are a danger to the Republic, and suggests that they promise to be “destructive” in a “war of attrition” between absolutists; his whole frackin’ essay is a tirade against those bad atheists following in the tradition of violent revolutionaries like the Hebertists and Marx. Tossing in a tepid disclaimer is not convincing.
Then there’s that accusation of sloppiness in discussing politics, followed by the bizarre question about whether Richard Dawkins is going to defend the American Constitution. While I know that Dawkins greatly admires the secular ideals of the Constitution, he does happen to be British, and as far as I know, there are no plans afoot to lobby for major changes in the US Constitution that would allow a foreign national to be appointed Dictator of America. Shouldn’t it be obvious that Dawkins cannot and does not have political aims in the US?
And once you’ve realized that, shouldn’t your recognize that just perhaps the others may have goals other than political ones, too? I think the current aims of the New Atheists are social: we need to raise the profile of atheists as legitimate members of our culture, we need to provide rallying points for the many atheists in those liberal Western democracies worldwide, we need to encourage greater skepticism about the bogus claims and invalid pretenses to authority of religious leaders. The New Atheists with science backgrounds are also clearly pushing an agenda of promoting secular education and a deeper pursuit of scientific knowledge. Isn’t that enough?
Working towards a secular society that has abandoned religion is most definitely not an illiberal goal if it is to be accomplished by education, persuasion, open discussion, public criticism, and for christ’s sake, by publishing books. This is what the New Atheists have done and plan to continue doing, and Linker finds this objectionable. Now that is an illiberal attitude. The actions of the New Atheists have consisted of speaking and writing their minds, and in defense of liberality, Mr Linker is now in the position of condemning the publication of books.
And that is the ultimate irony of his complaint. Not only is he opposing the free dissemination of ideas he dislikes, but it is inexcusable that his essay leaves readers guessing what objective its author favors. I presume that means we’re free to emulate him and assign the most reprehensible and illiberal aims to his sloppy arguments.