Kyle Kulinsky sat down with Glenn Greenwald to talk about us atheists. They’re both atheists, but are outside of movement atheism, so it’s good to see an intelligent perspective from a different point of view.
This is not a transcript. I’ll paraphrase a few of the points made in the discussion that I thought were interesting.
Atheists aren’t splitting hairs over fine doctrinal points. Greenwald gives the example of people who agree on a large collection of important issues: they’re all for feminism, for instance, but one person says they’re interested in promoting the superiority of the white race. These are not minor points of doctrine. The standard comparison of the Judean People’s Front to the People’s Front of Judea is misleading and an effort to diminish the significance of the differences.
Atheists trivialize their own unbelief. Without using the term, he talks about the dictionary atheist problem — people who basically run away from the consequences of their ideas by minimize those beliefs by saying that they have no implications.
Sam Harris is representative of a lot of the problems in atheism. His example is a comment by Sam Harris that Dick Cheney may be evil, but there are tens of millions of Muslims who are worse.
New Atheists are engaging in rank tribalism. See Ashley Miller.
A secular American is in no position to lead a reformation of Islam, so their role is limited in protesting against Islam; they will instead be providing justifications for the actions of their own country. They are propping up American imperialism. All forms of fundamentalism and extremism are dangerous, and certainly you should oppose religious dogma, but focusing on the demonization of one religion plays into the hands of the neocons.
He compares the New Atheist treatment of Muslims to how white supremacists treat Jews — taking bits of their holy book out of context to make sweeping judgments about an entire people.
The efforts to claim that the violence perpetrated by Muslims is driven by irrational faith denies people agency: they are often taking actions driven by a rational determination that this is the only way to end oppression. Trying to find a mechanism of causation is not an effort to justify the action.
It’s also unfair to characterize all atheists by the example of a few prominent leaders who are basically opposing both a progressive agenda and organized religion. Followers of Dawkins and Harris can also be advocates of progressive values, which can be confusing.
There’s a great discussion of the Sam Harris two-step shuffle around the 50 minute mark — how he’ll claim to be a brave bold intellectual who is one of the few willing to consider the unthinkable (torture or profiling, for instance), and then immediately backs off when criticized to a more rational position, while simultaneously claiming that his critic was lying.
In the last 15 minutes, he talks about Snowden, and how it felt to be handed an archive of secret, sensitive documents describing the perfidious actions of the US government.
It’s an interesting conversation, and one I largely agree with. I think what appeals about it is that these are two people who put progressive values first, and secondarily see religion as frequently opposing those values, instead of making the rejection of religion primary, which then makes the occasional embrace of illiberal ideas by our side acceptable.