The neoconservative magazine National Review has used the recent decision by San Francisco radio station KPFA to disinvite Richard Dawkins from an interview to publish an article by Elliot Kaufman that takes aim at atheists. It consists essentially of two points. Firstly it argues that ‘the left’ has ‘expelled’ the New Atheists like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens because of their “insufficient deference to Islam” and secondly that their arguments against god’s existence are wrong. Kaufman even goes on to say that ‘the left’s’ dislike of Islamophobia has morphed into a defense of Islamic radicalism and thus have joined “a long line of left-wing apologists for murderous anti-Western regimes”. (Thanks to reader Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write for alerting me to this article.)
I know of no atheists who are demanding more deference to Islam. Islam is as bad a religion as any, in that its adherents can use it to justify attacking others. As we have seen, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians can and do behave similarly, and different times and different places bring the evils of different religions into the spotlight. What many of us are concerned about are not criticisms of Islam but criticisms that blur the line between criticisms of the religion and attacks on Muslims as people. We have criticized Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (especially the latter two) for intemperate remarks that have been used as fodder by anti-Muslim bigots to stir up hatred and even violence against Muslims. The fact that groups like ISIS and al Qaeda use Islam as their justification for their actions is no more relevant than that the Lord’s Army uses Christianity for its atrocities or that militant Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish religious groups invoke the same kind of religious justifications for their own intolerance. What it shows is that religion has the ability to convince people to commit horrible acts while feeling that they are doing something noble.
There is much to criticize about those three that have little to do with their views on Islam. Hitchens had been a cheerleader of the wars initiated by Bush-Cheney in the Middle East and Asia. Remember his statement about bombing Afghanistan OUT of the Stone Age? Ha! Ha! Typical Hitchens wit! I am sure that 16 years later, the Afghans still at the receiving end of bombardment and living among the ensuing rubble are wiping away tears of laughter when they recall his words. Harris has taken a whole host of awful positions on torture, US imperialism, and racial profiling. (Cue Harris’s supporters saying that I am deliberately misinterpreting his views by taking them out of context.) Dawkins is not nearly as bad but has made glib remarks that have denigrated feminist concerns and the transgender community and then dug in his heels when it was pointed out. So there are plenty of reasons for atheists to distance themselves from that trio that have nothing to do with demanding “deference to Islam”. Atheists and ‘the left’ can and should criticize other atheists who take reprehensible stances.
Kaufman then goes on to argue that the New Atheist criticisms of god’s existence are wrong-headed, bringing up as support David Bentley Hart, the master of vague theological theorizing. Kaufman says:
Truth be told, New Atheism was always fundamentally unserious. It does not even try to address the theistic arguments for the existence of God.
Battering a fundamentalist straw-man with an equally fundamentalist materialism, New Atheism is one big category error. Over and over, its progenitors demand material proof for the existence of God, as if He were just another type of thing — a teacup, or perhaps an especially powerful computer.
This confusion leads the New Atheists to favor the rather elementary infinite-regress argument: If God created everything, then who created God? But as the theologian David Bentley Hart replies:
[God is] not a ‘supreme being,’ not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates. . . . Only a complete failure to grasp the most basic philosophical terms of the conversation could prompt this strange inversion of logic, by which the argument from infinite regress—traditionally and correctly regarded as the most powerful objection to pure materialism—is now treated as an irrefutable argument against belief in God.
Sophisticated theologians love to accuse atheists of committing a category error as if that is a slam-dunk argument. But simply asserting that his god is not a thing is not an argument. If it is not an entity, then what is it? Is it merely an idea, a meme, a creation of the mind that has no agency? If so, I would agree. But these apologists, after saying their god is not a thing in order to avoid providing any evidence for it because they cannot, then turn around and treat it like a thing that has agency.
I discussed a few years ago Hart’s arguments about how we are attacking the wrong kind of god (see here and here and here) and why I don’t find them at all convincing. Hart is a master of theology-speak, writing stuff like this:
The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
So Hart’s god is supposedly not a thing but is instead “an absolute plenitude of actuality” and “the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates”. That certainly clears things up!
These sophisticated theologians realize that they cannot provide any evidence for their god so they argue that their god is the kind of being that does not require evidence. How convenient! But they do not come right out and say that their god is just a mental construct either. So what is it exactly? They basically dress up the old ‘god as the prime mover argument ‘ and then use wooly language like an “absolute plenitude of actuality” to avoid the problem of infinite regress, the ‘Then who created god?’ problem and to avoid awkward questions of how their god acts in the world.