Amy Roth makes me sad with her perspective on the history of involvement with skepticism and atheism. How do you destroy a movement? By making enemies of the people who care about it.
Then Richard Dawkins made fun of Rebecca in the comment section of another blog. Literally within moments of that happening all of the women on Skepchick who were active writers at the time (most of them long gone now) became targets of an online hate campaign. It literally happened so fast that I didn’t have time to process it. One day I was a Dawkins and SGU fan who was dedicated to making the world better by encouraging more people to get involved with organized skepticism, atheism and critical thinking and then the next day I told I was part of a clique of radical feminists who should be raped and killed.
Atheism as a movement suffers from some serious internal contradictions. Atheism is largely an intellectual position, but the movement has aspirations to become popular and common, so it has to appeal to a broad base. Unfortunately, rational evaluation of an idea is rarely the key to popularity. You need to associate this one idea with something deeper, more universal, and more applicable to every day life. Morality. Humanity. History. Community. There are a thousand ways we could make reason and evidence-based decision making a part of our lives.
But you aren’t allowed. A significant fraction of atheists have looked at a dictionary and decided that atheism means denial of gods and absolutely nothing more. We have a noisy contingent that denies any consideration of broader meaning. But how did you come to this conclusi…HUSH! But doesn’t the absence of higher beings mean we…QUIET! Doesn’t this mean the human community is even more…ZIP IT! But there are deep implicati…SHUT UP! I AM AN ATHEIST BECAUSE THE DICTIONARY SAYS SO, AND IT DOESN’T SAY I HAVE TO DO NOTHIN’!
Then we have atheist scientists, our intellectual leaders, who spit upon philosophy.
They also look down upon those ‘soft’ sciences, sociology and psychology (well, except maybe evolutionary psychology, the quack discipline that is used to justify stereotypes with pseudoscience), and regard as the ideal model the make up of the National Academy of Sciences. They’re Top Men, they must know what they’re doing.
But if we’re not going to reason the population into rejecting religion and joining the community of rational thought, how are we going to expand the movement? And trust me, every atheist organization is very big on polls and numbers that go up.
That’s easy. Look at Donald Trump. The easy way to grow an intellectual movement in an anti-intellectual country is the appeal to jingo, to authoritarianism, to prejudice. We’ve been cheerfully doing that since the terrorist attacks of 2001. And it works! At least, it works in the sense that it’s a short-cut to recruit more people who are happy to call themselves atheists.
And that’s what we’ve got. We’ve got Slippery Sam Harris cooly talking about torture and nuclear bombings and racial profiling, all with a molecule-thin veneer of deniability to allow him to deny, while drawing in fans who have no problem with racism and war. We had Christopher Hitchens who…let me tell you about a recent argument over Hitchens. It shows how little reality matters to so many of our fellow atheists.
I mentioned that Hitchens was a belligerent neocon who supported modern wars of destruction in Islamic countries — that he thought Muslim civilian casualties were worth it in the effort to eradicate the Muslim radicals. If you’re at all familiar with his writing, you know this is an uncontroversial interpretation of his views, and if he were still alive, he’d probably tell you of course, while sneering at you for asking such a stupid question.
Read Richard Seymour, or Norman Finkelstein, or George Packer on Hitchens — they’ve got lots of direct quotes. Or read Hitchens himself. He was never embarrassed by his support of George W. Bush and the ugly, futile war in Iraq.
But in the bizarre ongoing canonization of Saint Hitchens, pointing out the hideous qualities of some of his most prominent views is unforgivable. The very militaristic proposals that make Hitchens popular with militant anti-Muslim atheists must be denied…by those same atheists. It’s enough to make your head spin.
So I pointed to a talk I attended, in which Hitchens raved about the need to pursue more war until he Jihadists all surrendered, by the methods currently employed by the US military. This was in response to this question from the audience:
You suggest that we should fight islam, we should try to limit fundamentalist Islam, that’s a serious problem…[Hitchens interrupts for a bit]…how actually does bombing and killing Muslims lessen their numbers or limit their fervor?
That distracting interruption was key; without it, the question is clear. We want to stop fundamentalist Islam, but how does bombing Muslim populations accomplish that?
Clever polemicist that he was, Hitchens distorted that to mock the question:
The numbers of those bombed will decline. Yes, but the question is about how we reduce a specific subpopulation by indiscriminate bombing of the whole population. Hitchens doesn’t care. He has an opportunity to riff on the machismo of war.
When the side of Jihad said, can we take these casualties? When they worry, have we alienated the people? … They will get to the stage where they realise they have made a mistake, all the evidence in Iraq is that al-Qaeda have already discredited and disgraced themselves, and it’s a matter now of just hunting down and killing them, which I think is a pleasure and a duty.
This, somehow, is cited as proof that I lied when I said Hitchens goal was wholesale war to cow Muslim nations into submission. Because he was clearly talking only about killing Jihadists or al-Qaeda members, not Muslims in general. Those bombs must be really smart, that they only target people with certain ideological views. Or perhaps they pictured Christopher Hitchens, boldly strolling through Fallujah, Luger in hand, executing bearded fanatics one by one.
So we now have an atheism that cheerfully denies reality to declare that Christopher Hitchens was practically a pacifist, because it’s so important to defeat Islam. We have an atheism where it is acceptable to rail against feminism, because feminists should be raped and killed. We have an atheism that sees racism and sexism as an irrelevant sideshow to the important business of getting “In God We Trust” off our money. We have an atheism that uses the mutilation of women in foreign countries as a tool to shame Western women who ask for equality. We have an atheism that sees science-denying, anti-government radically conservative organizations as fertile recruiting grounds. We have an atheism that worships revered authorities and ostracizes anyone who dares to question them, who notices that they are flawed human beings rather than unblemished idols.
But the number of atheists in America is slowly going up, the polls show. Winning! Huuge numbers, huuge. Leading in the polls. People love us.
I don’t think the Donald learned his schtick from us, or vice versa, but it sure looks like we’re riding the same authoritarian/populist bandwagon.