New attacks on New Atheists (and one defense)

I have neither the heart nor the time to reprise or analyze the latest salvo of attacks on New Atheists, so I’ll just list them here (with a brief quote from each) if you’re interested. These have, in fact, all appeared in the last few days, so something is afoot.

As a palliative, there’s one defense by Michael Luciano.

The damnation of St. Christopher“: Michael Wolff rips apart Christopher Hitchens in British GQ Magazine.

And in a sense it ends up making the case against him. Hitchens was really not a contrarian – at least not a contrarian in the sense of someone with eccentric, lonely opinions, often held for no other reason than that no one else holds them – but rather doctrinal and partisan. What’s more, he mostly gave offence where no offence would really be taken – or where he could be guaranteed a phalanx of defenders. Mother Teresa was one of his theoretically courageous targets – except who cares about Mother Teresa?

His God book followed Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Atheism was already a bestselling view. The God book is also a particular sleight of hand. It makes a persuasive case against a deserving target, so you might forget that virtually the entirety of the Hitchens-reading audience is comprised of nonbelievers – nonbelievers who have not even had to have a crisis of faith.

I don’t think so!

It’s easy to attack to Christopher Hitchens now that he’s not around to defend himself“:  The title of this Telegraph piece implies that Andrew M. Brown (no, not the goddy Andrew Brown) will defend Hitchens against Wolff, but he actually agrees with Wolff’s assessment:

Anyone who saw Hitchens in real life, perhaps at one of the public speaking events at which he flourished, will know what Wolff means about the writer’s “external” life. After the God is Great book and his transformation into professional atheist, Hitchens turned into a combination of revivalist preacher and pop star. Wolff describes him falling out of limousines and always, drunkenly, taking on lesser opponents. When I was in my twenties, I loved his early collections of essays and “minority reports”, but went off him once he’d become a massive celebrity: he no longer seemed so cool. (Perhaps it was just that I’d got older, too.)

Wolff is not immune to the overwhelming appeal of Hitchens, which was particularly to other male writers. He had abundant charisma, and seemed most alive when projecting this in performance. As Wolff says, “His greatest effort always seemed to be to live in public, with the effort itself being more important than the nature of the opinions or controversy that got him there.” In his writing and in his life he lived as he wanted – or seemed to – without fear of the consequences. Most of us would like to live like that, and that’s why we find Hitchens so appealing.

Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus“: In the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald defends his earlier Guardian attack on and his email exchange with Sam Harris. He quotes Harris at length to support his views, and concludes:

As I noted before, a long-time British journalist friend of mine wrote to me shortly before I began writing at the Guardian to warn me of a particular strain plaguing the British liberal intellectual class; he wrote: “nothing delights British former lefties more than an opportunity to defend power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle.” That – “defending power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle” – is precisely what describes the political work of Harris and friends. It fuels the sustained anti-Muslim demonization campaign of the west and justifies (often explicitly) the policies of violence, militarism, and suppression aimed at them. It’s not as vulgar as the rantings of Pam Geller or as crude as the bloodthirsty theories of Alan Dershowitz, but it’s coming from a similar place and advancing the same cause.

I welcome, and value, aggressive critiques of faith and religion, including from Sam Harris and some of these others New Atheists whose views I’m criticizing here. But many terms can be used to accurately describe the practice of depicting Islam and Muslims as the supreme threat to all that is good in the world. “Rational”, “intellectual” and “well-intentioned” are most definitely not among them.

New Atheists are Muslim bashers, not rational thinkers“: Nathan Lean defends his characterization of New Athiests as Islamophobes at PolyMic (see his earlier Salon piece here).

More scrupulously and objectively, Gallup polling data conducted over the course of six years in more than 35 Muslim-majority countries shows a different picture, revealing that women are increasingly empowered, literate, and afforded the same rights as men. In addition to the polling data, the recent revolutions are further indication that Luciano’s tired notion of Muslims who hate freedom is unfounded (Of course, the election of Islamist governments must mean for Luciano that Muslims don’t really love democracy because they chose — you know, the non-American kind).

Lastly, one must wonder what is the purpose of the New Atheist narrative? Dawkins, in proselytizing fashion, tells us in the preface to his book The God Delusion that he intends his book for religious readers and that he hopes they will become atheists after reading it. Surely, though, clubbing people like seals and sneering at their supposed stupidity won’t accomplish that. That is the problem with the New Atheists. The aggression is counterproductive and damages the reputations of atheists writ large, just as Muslim extremists or extremists of any religious faith damage the reputations of their co-faithful. All fanatics are a problem, and the New Atheists, by virtue of their disproportionate and unyielding fixation on Muslims and Islam, and their embrace of American militancy in Muslim-majority countries, are fanatics. It’s too bad that their masquerade as rational thinkers has fooled otherwise intelligent people like Luciano.

Michael Luciano is PolyMic‘s politic’s editor, who wrote a good piece criticizing Lean’s Salon article, “How not to argue against the New Atheists“. An excerpt:

But the most egregious offense that Lean commits is a sin of omission. In attacking Dawkins et al. for their criticisms of Islam, Lean completely ignores the question of whether their critiques actually have any merit – and with good reason. It does not take a sociologist to know that the more a country’s laws are influenced by religion, the more oppressive they tend to be. And as Nolan Kraszkiewicz points out, religiosity and bigotry tend to go hand in hand.

Lean does not engage the New Atheists’ claims about Islam’s track record because he knows that’s a losing battle. When it comes to women’s rights, gay rights, free speech, and matters of social equality in general, the predominantly Islamic Middle East is a wasteland of religious conformism and misogyny. Not surprisingly countries with majority Muslim populations regularly bring up the bottom in surveys measuring women’s rights. Regarding gay rights, there is no such thing. Speech is not free, but limited, and woe unto those in Muslim-dominated countries who blaspheme the Old Time Religion.

Is this because Islam is morally “inferior” to say, Christianity? Hardly. For about 1,000 years the fervent followers of Christ ruled Europe during a time appropriately called the Dark Ages. It was a time of ignorance, fear, oppression, misogyny, misery, and holy wars. That time is over, not because Christianity got better, but because it became less powerful and influential. If there is to be any hope for human rights for all in countries dominated by Islam, that religion too will have to become less powerful and influential.

Critics of the New Atheists are free to take issue with their tone, but to dismiss them without addressing the substance of their arguments constitutes an implicit admission that they just might have a point.

41 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    sub

    • ladyatheist
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      what does that mean?

      • gbjames
        Posted April 4, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

        Subscribe. If you want follow up email, you need to submit some kind of comment.

  2. Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Those who attack the New Atheists in this way remind me of the type of people that Paul Krugman calls “Very Serious People”. (albeit in a different arena).

    I don’t take them seriously.

  3. Sastra
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Oh jeez. Well, I’ll pick this one:

    Dawkins, in proselytizing fashion, tells us in the preface to his book The God Delusion that he intends his book for religious readers and that he hopes they will become atheists after reading it. Surely, though, clubbing people like seals and sneering at their supposed stupidity won’t accomplish that. That is the problem with the New Atheists. The aggression is counterproductive and damages the reputations of atheists writ large…

    There is a difference between “proselytizing” –attempting to convert to a faith — and making a rational persuasive argument on empirical grounds. Are people so wedded to being right about their religion that they can all be assumed to have lost any interest in whether or not it is true? Is there really no religious audience for the book?

    And I’d love to see where in The God Delusion Dawkins clubs his religious readers like seals and sneers at their stupidity. I think the most virulent passage is the one where he recites at length all the sins of the Old Testament God — and this part is usually accepted as uncontroversial by the Christian critics.

    No, they WANT Dawkins’ declaration that “you’re wrong” to be translated into “you’re stupid.” That way they don’t have to deal with any of his actual arguments. They can pretend he doesn’t want them to, he just wants to make them cry.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      True. Most people don’t like to be shown that they have been wrong, or even worse, silly. Even if the revelation is done politely.

      Even this website with its generally high caliber commentors has multiple demonstrations of this in just about every thread. The first response to any perception of “you’re wrong about that” is often aggression.

      When religion is the issue that just ups the ante.

    • Marcoli
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Ditto that, and well said.

  4. Cliff Melick
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “Michael Wolff rips apart Christopher Hitchens in British GQ Magazine.”

    Sure, wait until the man can’t scribe a reply, you coward!

    • Posted April 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Additionally, the portions of the essays given here (no time to click thru just now) are 100% ad hom. “I grew out of liking Hitchens.” “Hitchens cowardly waited until after Dawkins to publish.”

      Powerful arguments. Not.
      /1980s

  5. Kevin
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism — George Bernard Shaw.

    The power of accurate observation about the existence of god and religion is always called “militant” — Kevin

  6. Jonathan Smith
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    On behalf of Christopher. “Why don’t you all just fuck off?”

  7. darrelle
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    With a little care one could write a standard canned response to all these rants against New Atheists. 90% or more are so similar. It becomes tiresome and boring to reply to each one individually.

    These people are so hypocritical. That so many non atheists accept these screeds without noting the hypocrisy makes it seem as if the attitude that atheists are not deserving of the same respect as “normal” human beings is quite common.

    This type of overreaction by the ingroup towards even slight criticisms of the concepts that identify them and bind them together, by outsiders, is still so common. We have a long way to go.

  8. Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on myatheistlife and commented:
    I guess there is a theme today….

  9. Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    It’s Glenn Greenwald, not Michael.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks.

  10. revelator60
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Jerry writes that “something is afoot” in terms of New Atheist bashing. I have to agree. Witness for example the almost entirely negative reviews Anthony Grayling’s book has received in the press. I wonder if we’re going through some particularly hateful period in the media. The attacks on Hitchens are to some extent expected, since whenever a famous public figure dies, there’s often a period of respectful mourning followed by posthumous criticism and a (hopefully brief) dip in reputation. As for Greenwald and the odious Lean, their attacks seem to be a desperate move by the far Left to seek new enemies. Let’s hope their efforts fail.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      It’s too bad because Greenwald generally does good work and brings important issues to light. I don’t know why he would seek new enemies – he has plenty already.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted April 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think he’s seeking new enemies. That would be the kind of statement you couldn’t make on a witness stand because it pretends to know the subject’s state of mind. What in Greenwald’s statement suggest he wants new enemies?

        Greenwald said exactly why he was criticizing Harris. It is because he sees Harris’ attacks on Islam as providing ammunition to help the military powers behind the global war on terror justify themselves. Greenwald has the same enemy as ever here: the power that has used 9/11 and fear of Muslim terror to expand and entrench itself, and to assault our civil liberties.

        I think he’s terribly wrong about Harris, but at least he clearly reveals his logic in the passage Jerry quoted above.

        There is a kind of symmetrically opposed usefulness of the term “Islamophobia” by bad actors.

        Greenwald sees Islamophobia as a cover for rampant state power in the west. He sees Islamophobia as a real phenomenon that exaggerates the negative aspects of Islam in order to justify military slaughter and relaxation of civil liberties.

        At least Greenwald distinguishes Sam Harris from the odious Pamela Gellar of “Atlas Shrugs”. But I think he’s misunderstanding where Harris is coming from. It was a tactical error on Harris’ part to make the comment that only the fascists were talking sense on Islam. I think he saw that as a rhetorical flourish to light a fire under the left. What he seemed to mean was that liberals were not bold enough in criticizing the anti-liberal currents in the Islamic world. Sadly it was too easy for people trying to defend Islam to quote mine that to smear Sam, and it’s sad that Greenwald has aided and abetted that.

        For Harris, “Islamophobia” is used as a cover by Muslims to sanitize their oppressive and primitive ideologies. He sees Islamophobia as a fabricated way to discredit legitimate criticism of Islam.

        I think Greenwald and Harris are both right here. There is real paranoid Islamophobia, and it helps justify application of state and military power. It also helps Islam discredit its legitimate detractors. So it is used as both Greenwald and Harris say it is, by both sides of the battle of civilizations.

        There is legitimate criticism of Islam, and Harris does that. Perhaps where Harris got on Greenwald’s bad side was in seeming to defend torture. I haven’t looked closely enough at Sam’s discussion of torture to know whether he’s been misquoted and misunderstood here too. I suspect he has been. I really can’t agree with anyone who defends torture, though I agree with Sam on about everything else imaginable.

        • Gato Precambriano
          Posted April 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

          For Harris, “Islamophobia” is used as a cover by Muslims to sanitize their oppressive and primitive ideologies. He sees Islamophobia as a fabricated way to discredit legitimate criticism of Islam.

          Unfortunatelly it’s worst. Harris literally said that “There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.””. It’s equivalent to say that there is no such thing as “anti-semitism”, because some use it as a term of propaganda designed to protect Israel from criticism.

    • Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      HuffPo has a positive review, perhaps surprisingly.

      /@

      • revelator60
        Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        That’s encouraging to hear, and thank you for the link. I just read the review, and it’s pretty well done. The author, Andrew Doyle, is definitely sympathetic to New Atheist concerns–if you click on his name, you’ll see that his past articles include a defense of Hitchens and a fine piece called “Richard Dawkins and the Myth of the Angry Atheist.” It’s good to know HuffPo is letting more unbelievers into the building.

  11. Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I used to be a reader of Greenwald, and I found his quote mining jeremiad against Harris more than a little depressing.

    It’s really a fight about policing our dialogue, about what kind of things can’t be said, what subjects can’t be broached. I am really hoping Greenwald’s side doesn’t win.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Me, too.

      Especially since Greenwald has previously attacked the policing of dialog in the media, in the case of major US news organizations selectively using the word “torture”.

  12. Peter Stanley
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure Woolf has a point to his piece at all – I think he’s just being a little bit ‘incendiary’

  13. Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    And still God/dess/es stubbornly refuse to exist.

  14. Taz
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    That – “defending power while pretending it is a brave stance in defence of a left liberal principle” – is precisely what describes the political work of Harris and friends.

    Greenwald seems to think that the only power worth worrying about is Western military might. The fact is, most oppression of the weak in the Middle East is due to their own governments and Islam, which work together. People like Harris are doing far more to fight that abuse of power than Greenwald and his ilk.

    • Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s an important point, and it’s a shame as I don’t think Greenwald and Harris are really on different “sides” per se, it’s just that Greenwald is so focused on Western military aggression that he sees criticism of Islam as at best unseemly, bordering on racism. As I wrote:

      An important point that Sam Harris often makes, and one that should subsume these conversations but seems to get lost in them instead, is one he makes yet again in his response to Greenwald:

      Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine. And, again, I have always emphasized that its primary victims are innocent Muslims—especially women and girls.

      It’s not Westerners who primarily suffer under medieval Islamic doctrines, it’s Muslims. And if we find ourselves forced into a mode of conversation in which we can’t talk about that, it would be a real shame.

      • Mark
        Posted April 5, 2013 at 1:26 am | Permalink

        I think there are entirely valid criticisms to be made of some of Sam Harris’s statements as well as the ways he chooses to deliver them.

        For instance, Sam Harris agreed to appear on the O’Reilly Factor to declare that Islam is an inherently violent religion (and O’Reilly actually came out as the moderate on that exchange). He has advocated ethnic profiling. And even taking his fascism quote in full context, he is claiming that fascists “speak most sensibly” in Europe about the threat Islam poses.

        It’s hard to see how these statements help “innocent Muslims.” If your job is to reach out to “innocent Muslims,” aren’t there more appropriate venues for your message than Fox News? And I don’t think describing someone like Geert Wilders as “sensible” is helpful in advancing the civil rights of “innocent Muslims” in places where there is a history of discrimination against minorities.

  15. kelskye
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    “Critics of the New Atheists are free to take issue with their tone, but to dismiss them without addressing the substance of their arguments constitutes an implicit admission that they just might have a point.”
    Yep, this.

  16. Marella
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    “Wolff describes him falling out of limousines and always, drunkenly, taking on lesser opponents.”

    This was hardly his fault, there were no greater opponents to take on.

    • Achrachno
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      :-)

    • bric
      Posted April 5, 2013 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      Was Mr Wolff not available? Having seen a few C Hitchens bashing pieces recently I can’t help wondering if there is a posthumous memoir on the way that is less than gracious to his former colleagues, and they are getting their strikes in first.

  17. Diane G.
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    sub

  18. Patrick
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    “For about 1,000 years the fervent followers of Christ ruled Europe during a time appropriately called the Dark Ages. It was a time of ignorance, fear, oppression, misogyny, misery, and holy wars.”

    On pages 340-341 of his book “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science” (Duxford 2009) James Hannam points to the importance of the belief in God as a motivation for the pursuit of science in the Middle Ages:

    “The metaphysical cornerstone of modern science is often overlooked. We take it for granted and we do not worry about why people began studying nature in the first place. Today you can enhance the credentials of any outlandish theory you like by labelling it “scientific”, as advertisers and quacks well appreciate. But back in the Middle Ages, science did not enjoy the automatic authority that it has today.

    To understand why science was attractive even before it could demonstrate its remarkable success in explaining the universe, it is necessary to look at things from a medieval point of view. The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinizing. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle’s contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of medieval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of modern science. Sir Isaac Newton explicitely stated that he was investigating God’s creation, which was a religious duty because nature reflects the creativity of its maker.”

    In the following thread I argue, referring to recent scholarly contributions, how Christianity laid the foundation of achievements such as modern science or the human rights:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2013/03/a-debt-to-christianity/

    • Posted April 5, 2013 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Hmm… 

      James Hannam’s book is a good read but presents a distorted view of the medieval period and the development of science that suits his Catholic agenda

      Charles Freeman, “Why God’s Philosophers did not deserve to be shortlisted for the Royal Society prize

      (No so much a book review as a condensed history of scientific thought – or “natural philosophy” – from the Greeks to Galileo Galilei. I say “condensed” … it’s a pretty long article, but well worth the effort.)

      Christianity didn’t lay the foundations of science; smart people who were Christians did. The faith may have been their motivation, but it contributed nothing to their method.

      /@

      • gr8hands
        Posted April 5, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        Why do people make the mistake of believing/writing that science started with the Greeks?

  19. Posted April 5, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    “Depressing” is the right word. There are certainly things that reasonable people might disagree with Sam Harris about (indeed, NAs don’t agree with each other on everything). But to see an online blast that so deliberately distorts and misrepresents things Sam has said and written — depressing is the right word. These articles are nothing but hatchet jobs intended to destroy NA credibility with people who have neither the time nor desire to look into what they have really said.

    A measured and calm response to an infuriating set of articles on your part, Jerry.

    P.S: How I wish Hitch were still here to respond to this BS! In an attack by media thugs you want a street fighter, and Hitch definitely was that. I still remember the time Hitch told Sean Hannity that if you gave Jerry Falwell an enema you could bury him in a matchbox. (ROFL)


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