I feel powerful. A silly gang of people stung by the criticisms of the New Atheists met for dinner to grumble about us, and my name came up a few times. It’s kind of like being a superhero and learning that nefarious villains are teaming up to shake their fists at you and make plans to thwart you…only in this case, it’s more like the League of Nitwits, which just sucks all the glory out of it. My nemeses are sadly disappointing.
Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.
John Gray is one of those atheist apologists for religion, who claims that beliefs don’t matter — all that stuff about Jesus being the son of God, requiring your devotion in order for Christians to get into heaven? They don’t really believe that. They just like going to church for the company and the rituals and those comfy pews or something.
He’s quite right, the New Atheists haven’t been picking on Nassim Nicholas Taleb much, but it isn’t because he knows math (really — here we are, a largely science-dominated community, and Appleyard thinks we’re afraid of math? Gimme a break) — in my case, it’s because I never heard of him before. I had to look him up. All I know is that Taleb doesn’t like atheists, and likes religion for a stupid reason.
You’ve written a lot about chance and probability. Do you believe in God?
I’m in favour of religion as a tamer of arrogance. For a Greek Orthodox, the idea of God as creator outside the human is not God in God’s terms. My God isn’t the God of George Bush.
What’s your view of the “new atheists”, people such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris?
They’re charlatans. But see the contradiction: people are sceptical about God, yet gullible when it comes to the stock market.
Yeah, he’s some stock market guru. It seems to me that the only way to really make money in the stock market is by getting paid for telling people how to make money in the stock market; Taleb tells people how to make money in the stock market, which sort of says everything you need to know about him, and also makes his accusation of charlatanry particularly ironic.
Oh, and he also likes Ron Paul. Not impressed.
The final guest at this peculiarly petty dinner party is Alain de Botton. Haven’t we heard enough of the silly de Botton lately? He’s the atheist who has been straining to crawl up religion’s asshole and take its place.
De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.
Right, because that’s exactly what atheists want, a new religion. And now he’s shocked that atheists sneer at his temple, and reject the papacy of Pope de Botton.
To rationalize this pity party, Appleyard tries to define the New Atheism by listing the three legs of our position. Would you be surprised to learn that he gets every one of them wrong? No, you would not, because this is Bryan Appleyard. You would be startled if he got something right.
First, a definition. By “neo-atheism”, I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.
Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist – indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” – and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.
The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.
Heh. His weird misunderstandings say so much about Appleyard, and so little about atheism.
Wrong. Science provides evidence that all religions are wrong or vacuous. The charge of scientism is a common one, but it’s not right: show us a different, better path to knowledge and we’ll embrace it. But the apologists for religion never do that. You’ll also find that we recognize that there are obvious attractions to religion — most of them don’t require a gun to the head to get adherents — but that they get the facts of the universe fundamentally wrong, and building on error is a bad policy.
Wrong. We’re quite aware of the difference between atheism and secularism. I do not teach atheism in the classroom, nor do I encourage teachers to do so; I want a secular educational system. I do not argue that only atheists be allowed to serve in government, but that government only implement secular, non-sectarian, non-religious decisions that are appropriate for a pluralist society. You may notice I’ve got a badge over on the right sidebar to Americans United, a secular but not atheist organization that I whole-heartedly support.
Wrong, but hilarious. Darwin is not proof of the non-existence of gods. He showed how life actually diversified and changed on this planet, and he provided a mechanism that works without divine meddling of any kind. He makes gods superfluous. I love the fact that this kook finds science as threatening and scary as an AK-47, though. It says a lot about him.
Appleyard was so enthused about his new buddies in the We-Hate-New-Atheists movement that he had to get right on the phone and call up his buddy, Jerry Fodor, the philosopher who wrote an anti-Darwinian evolution book and got thoroughly panned everywhere. A new recruit for the League of Nitwits!
Of course he complained about me. And complained dishonestly.
Furthermore, the rise of evolutionary psychology – an analysis of human behaviour based on the tracing of evolved traits – seemed to suggest that the human mind, too, would soon succumb to the logic of neo-atheism.
It was in the midst of this that Fodor and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published What Darwin Got Wrong, a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought which concluded that the theory of natural selection could not be stated coherently. All hell broke loose. Such was the abuse that Fodor vowed never to read a blog again. Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading the book but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.
Fodor now chuckles at the memory. “I said we should write back saying we had no intention of reading his review but we thought it was all wrong anyway.”
No, I haven’t read and won’t be reading the book by Piattelli-Palmarini and Fodor. But that article he’s whining about wasn’t a review of his book at all, and I plainly said so! It was a review of Fodor’s article in New Scientist, and I did read the whole thing. I am impressed that I and the other critics have completely driven him away from blogs; now if we can just scare him away from books, magazines, and television, he can spend the rest of his life happily rocking away in an empty room.
Appleyard closed his meeting of the shocked, traumatized, trembling victims of New Atheist ferocity with the tepid call of the religious apologist:
Religion is not going to go away. It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown. Furthermore, as Hitchens in effect acknowledged and as the neo-atheists demonstrate by their ideological rigidity and savagery, absence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated. People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn’t.
I’m pessimistic that religion will go away in my lifetime, too, but not because it is a valid and reasonable reaction to the world around us. It isn’t. It’s the invisible friend the fearful cling to in the darkness, it’s the lie the desperate tell themselves in denial. But there is a better solution: you can turn on the light, and the invisible friend evaporates, the dangers are all exposed to be dealt with, and the truth emerges. Atheists are the ones who’ve flipped on the light, and found the universe to be not quite as scary as the ignorant claim it to be, and even better, to be full of wonders — wonders that we are part of, that aren’t painted on a fabric of myth.
And it really feels good. Religion can go away, every one of us atheists is testimony to that, and it leaves us better, stronger, and happier. I see no barrier to the complete eradication of religion someday, other than the fearfulness of craven little shadow-huggers like Appleyard.