John Gray asks what scares the New Atheists — and I tried to think of what scares me before I read it. And the answer is…
I’m in a comfortable position of privilege, so I can say that personally, there isn’t much I’m afraid of. It’s simply the wrong question to ask about the New Atheists, especially so of the relatively wealthy and popular ones, like Dawkins or Harris. I’m pretty sure none of them are trembling in fear of much of anything. Now if Gray had asked, “What are the New Atheists angry about,” then he might have something to write about. Greta Christina has a list.
So I then read the article. The long article. I anticipated some potential surprises, since it was an odd thesis, and surely he had some evidence and some reason to think that we atheists were driven by fear. I was disappointed.
First thing he does is recite a litany of scientist’s sins. It’s true that for the last few centuries, scientists have attempted to make scientific rationalizations for racism and sexism, and have literally committed crimes because they categorized some subsets of humanity as less than human. Eugenics was a moral catastrophe. We certainly recognize that now.
But somehow, in the minds of religious apologists, the racist convulsions of 20th century Europe are all the fault of those danged atheist scientists, so Gray starts his article with a list of bad, bad people, like Darwin and Haeckel and Huxley, who all endorsed a racial taxonomy for human beings. But he has a curious blind spot: he only names scientists. That Western culture as a whole was a sickening gemisch of colonialism, exploitation, racism, and sexism is a simple truth. The question ought to be whether the scientists of the time were worse than the general populace; did science and atheism contribute to moderating their views?
The answer to that is complex and messy, because while many of them might have been less virulent in their attitudes, they were also influential — there’s nothing racists love better than a scientist coming along and giving some supposedly objective justification for their bigotry. That these scientists had a relatively bloodless rationale for racism does not let them off the hook, but were they as awful as, for instance, the clerics of the time? And I think the answer is no. While there were also priests who actively campaigned against slavery and colonialism, the scientists Gray is chewing out also had more liberal views than the average man on the street. Darwin accepted the consensus of the day that there were coherent racial groupings of humans, but he was also an abolitionist with nothing but sympathetic personal opinions of people of other races. Haeckel was rather dogmatic in most of his racial views, but he was also a dedicated pacifist, and there was some nuance to his ideas. This article by Richards on Haeckel’s anti-semitism is enlightening (pdf).
Haeckel’s racial theories might lead one incautiously to presume that he was also an anti-Semite. That is certainly the belief of a number of scholars, most prominently of Gasman and Weikart. On its face, though, the indictment seems improbable, since
the most rabid anti-Semites during Haeckel’s time were conservative Christians, for example, the Berlin court-preacher Adolf Stöcker (1835-1909). Given Haeckel’s extreme anti-religious views, it is unlikely that he would be allied with such Christian apologists; and he loathed Stöcker in particular.
Now there’s an interesting point. While Gray is wagging his finger chidingly at Haeckel, what does he have to say about the court-preacher Stöcker? Nothing. Apparently Haeckel was operating in a cultural vacuum, and only his words mattered…at a time when theologians weren’t just arguing for the objective reality of races, but were actively advocating the extermination of races.
There is a perfectly good explanation for why Gray neglects to mention them, however. People like Darwin and Huxley and Haeckel left a positive legacy; we remember them for their productive contributions to knowledge, which makes their failings (and they were humans, we all have failings) stand out in contrast. The majority of the religious advocates of the era left us nothing particularly memorable, useful, or interesting, except in exceptional instances, the viciousness of their hatred. It’s a kind of selective memory. The tabloids and church sermons, which were enormously influential among the general public, are ignored, except by particularly diligent historians (that is, not John Gray), while the science abides, marred as it is, and gets referred to frequently by modern scientists. We don’t forget the past, errors and all, while religious thinking is eminently forgettable.
Yikes. I’ve only gotten through the first quarter of his essay, and it’s a mess of bad history and religious blindness. It’s not going to get better. Gray maunders on, rambling over tired stereotypes and antique objections to atheism that I’ve heard a thousand times before, always with more vigor than Gray can muster. Jebus, but he’s a boring writer.
But after that long introduction, he does admit to the premise in his title. There was the possibility that the question, “what scares the New Atheists?”, was entirely an invention of the editors, but nope. It’s Gray’s idea.
The predominant varieties of atheist thinking, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed to show that the secular west is the model for a universal civilisation. The missionary atheism of the present time is a replay of this theme; but the west is in retreat today, and beneath the fervour with which this atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic.
I…what? I’ve been wrestling for years with people who insist that atheism has nothing at all to do with liberal values. The American Atheists organization is courting madly reactionary conservatives at CPAC! Yet somehow John Gray thinks atheists are all unblinkingly liberal? To the extent that they’re panicking over an imaginary collapse of Western values?
For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.
Oh, I wish.
But that is his thesis, bolstered by nothing but blustering punditry. It’s shallow and wrong and presented at mind-numbing length. He presents conclusions that I might agree with — because they’re often obvious — as if atheists are completely unaware of them and ought to be surprised and dismayed. “Hey, look, scientific racists! I bet you never heard of them before, so checkmate, atheists!” His examples are often really terrible; not because science never make mistakes, but because his examples are cases of biases that have been falsified by science. Scientific racism is the refuge of cranks and pretentious panderers, not legitimate scientists in relevant fields. Racism is a poor example for denying the power of science because science actually does support egalitarian, liberal values on that subject.
That does not imply that science and atheism are infallible guides to good social values. Again, we’ve frequently seen science twisted into propaganda to support tyranny, as Gray points out.
In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values. When organised as a movement and backed by the power of the state, atheist ideologies have been an integral part of despotic regimes that also claimed to be based in science, such as the former Soviet Union. Many rival moralities and political systems – most of them, to date, illiberal – have attempted to assert a basis in science. All have been fraudulent and ephemeral. Yet the attempt continues in atheist movements today, which claim that liberal values can be scientifically validated and are therefore humanly universal.
This is discombobulating. Apparently I, as among the most vociferously liberal New Atheists around, have been the King of Atheism all this time. Yet Gray doesn’t cite me even once, preferring to quote more conservative New Atheists as evidence that atheism is intrinsically liberal. I know, that makes no sense, but as the essay demonstrates, Gray has no sense at all of any of the ongoing arguments within the atheist community and is just yelling at Imaginary Atheists.
And if I were King of the Atheists (I’m not, relax, and John Gray: don’t write another essay condemning my leadership, because I’m just a guy with a blog), I wouldn’t support the argument he’s making. I’ve been saying the opposite: movement atheism, as currently formulated, has serious problems precisely because it refuses to incorporate any position on human values at all. It’s in the awkward state of trying to be all things to all people, a blank slate on which Libertarian atheists can scribble selfish manifestos, or Humanist atheists can state their altruistic values. I’ve been arguing not that atheism leads inevitably to liberalism, but that if we don’t make any commitment at all to any progressive ideas, we’re only going to descend into chaos and purposelessness.
Or I suppose movement atheism could endorse Randian libertarianism wholesale, and avoid the curse of chaos and purposelessness, and instead march purposefully forward into a dystopian future. Atheism alone does allow for a lot of alternatives.
But one thing I bet all the conservative and liberal atheists could agree on: John Gray is full of shit.