A big whine from Newsweek

As atheists become more visible and vocal, the mainstream media, aware of who butters their bread, digs in its heels.  This often takes the form of critiques of the New Atheists, decrying them for being “militant,” “shrill,” and “intolerant.”  Athough these epithets are annoying, I see big-media attention to atheism as a kind of victory.  Attention is being paid.

That’s why I have mixed feelings about Lisa Miller’s latest column in Newsweek.  Miller, the magazine’s religion editor, has been a consistent critic of New Atheism and, what’s worse, a fan of Karen Armstrong, showing a fatal susceptibility to wooly-headed apologetics.

This week, Miller tells us that she’s tired of atheist arguments against God, dismissing a debate betweeen Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilkins as “two middle-aged white men talking. ” (Really! Imagine how Miller’s hackles would rise if someone characterized a debate between Margaret Downey and Ann Coulter as “two middle-aged white women talking.”)  But before explaining why she wants to “move on” from such debates, Miller gets in a gratuitous lick at the NAs:

Three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities. Together they’ve sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification.

Um. . . is it civil to impute to Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens such base motives? (Likewise, is it civil to denigrate them as “middle-aged white men”? ) And how on earth does selling so many books prove that these guys did it for the money?  I’m sure that Harris, for one, had no idea how well The End of Faith would sell.  My best guess is that the main reason these guys wrote their books is that they wanted to spread their ideas. If an atheist used this kind of argument, she’d be immediately chastised for being shrill and militant.

But what apparently galls Miller the most is about the Three Horsemen is this:

But this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs . . . The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let’s move on.

What can this mean but that the atheists have won?  For here Miller tacitly admits that there are no “rational proofs” of God.  So when she says that we should move on, does she mean that we can all agree there’s no rational basis for faith? Not on your life.  She thinks that we’ve simply taken the wrong tack: we need to look at faith as poets rather than scientists.

There are other voices out there, and other, possibly more productive ways to frame a conversation about the benefits and potential dangers of religious faith. In 2003 the historian and poet Jennifer Hecht wrote Doubt: A History, an exhaustive survey of atheism. She advises readers to investigate questions of belief like a poet, rather than like a scientist. “It is easier to force yourself to be clear,” she writes, “if you avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.” Hecht is as much of an atheist as Hitchens and Harris, she says, but she approaches questions about the usefulness of religion with an appreciation of what she calls “paradox and mystery and cosmic crunch.”

When you hear stuff like this, you know that the goal posts have suddenly shifted.  In this case they’ve moved from the truth of religion to its “benefits and dangers.”  Well, at least Miller admits that you can get some of those benefits by secular means:

This week Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein comes out with Good Without God, a book arguing that people can have everything religion offers—community, transcendence, and, above all, morality—without the supernatural. This seems to me self-evident, yet the larger point is important. We need urgently to talk about these things: ethics, progress, education, science, democracy, tolerance, and justice—and to understand the reasons why religion can (but does not always) hamper their flourishing.

I may be wrong, but haven’t the NAs, especially Sam Harris, been talking about this all along?  Harris devotes a fair chunk of his book to the human needs that religion meets, and how they can be met by secular activities like meditation.  Dawkins has devoted his pen — and some of his ill-gotten gains! — to showing how we can be good without God.  And Hitchens has detailed the numerous ways that faith hinders democracy, tolerance, and justice. What, then, is “the larger point” that we’ve all missed?

Perhaps Miller could devote a few words to explaining why you don’t need faith to be moral, a position that doesn’t seem so “self-evident” to many Americans.  Now that would be doing her readers a service! Instead, she feeds them intellectual pablum.  But where is the religion editor who does otherwise?

30 Comments

  1. Posted October 25, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    It really is kind of boring, because the rational and empirical arguments were won long ago.

    So I can see why she wants to move beyond, it’s just that to do so properly would require a general admission that “god” is just a sad little superstition.

    Unfortunately, most religion wants that conclusion not to even be on the table as a possibility, or at least not in the public square. Which is why the same dreary arguments keep being made by those who insist that it should be in the public square.

    She shouldn’t bother, really, because atheists are easily enough ignored, and are by the majority of the religious.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. Robert
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I thought there were 4 Horsemen! What happened to Dennett?

    If there’s only 3, then they should be called the Axis of Atheism.

  3. newenglandbob
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Miller tells us that she’s tired of atheist arguments against God…

    When one loses the arguments again and again like she does, it is not surprising that she is tired of them.

    Richard Dawkins is NOT a middle aged white man. He is 67. He is an old white man.

    But this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it;

    No, there are many out there who have had their say; in books, on television, on the internet, radio, magazines…

    Just because her tiny closed mind doesn’t want to see/hear it, does not mean it doesn’t exist.

    • Posted October 25, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      Get with the times, mate. 🙂

      Middle age starts at about 50 these days. Old age starts at about 75 or 80. And these figures are going up all the time. In Bismark’s day, 65 was old … but, thanks to modern medicine, dentistry, etc., that’s no longer the case, at least for middle class people in Western countries. This is something that science and technology have done for us that religion never managed to do.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted October 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Russel, I know, not being that far behind Richard myself.

      I also know that things do not start up as quickly each morning 🙂

      My own mother is still going at 89 and I have other relatives in their 90s.

      Old of the mind and old of the body can be very different for any individual.

    • Posted October 26, 2009 at 4:19 am | Permalink

      I was going to say that Sam Harris was too young to be “middle aged”, but he was born in 1967, so he (barely) qualifies.

      Unfortunately for him, he’s also white and male, and we know how those guys are.

      Ray (mostly white, male, and middle-aged)

  4. Posted October 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Lisa Miller gets to write a column for Newsweek, which also suggests she “may be in this for more than just our edification.” Cha-ching! Obviously she is insincere and does not really mean what she says. It is just fame and fortune that she craves.

    Brian

  5. Benjamin O'Donnell
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    “Richard Dawkins is NOT a middle aged white man. He is 67. He is an old white man.”

    Yes, but he *looks* middle-aged. Mark t up to his baby-face and all that bicycling around Oxford.

  6. Tim Harris
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Miller might actually read some poetry, too, instead of quoting pitiful guff about ‘paradox, mystery and cosmic crunch’, guff that has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry and that I cannot begin to imagine any good poet as having written.

  7. Posted October 25, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Just to put in a plug for Hecht’s book, it is very good, even if she is against using the “A” word.

  8. Thanny
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I suspect she omitted Dennett because what he writes is too spot on with what she pretends to be advocating (vis-a-vis the purported benefits of religion divorced from belief), so her criticism sounded too oblivious for even her own feeble brain to compartmentalize away.

  9. Posted October 25, 2009 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Everyone knows that if you want to make money writing a book you don’t write one about atheism. For buckaroos one needs to produce the mindless, pathologically optimistic drivel of Rick Warren. Then drench the pages in 1 cup of dreck sauce combined with 3 teaspoons of tawdry juice extracted from the squawking mouth of a raging simpleton.

  10. tomh
    Posted October 25, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    “Together they’ve sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification.”

    She says this like it’s a bad thing. Samuel Johnson laid down the parameters of authorship long ago, when he said, “Only a blockhead writes for anything but money.”

  11. santitafarella
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Coyne’s critique of the Newsweek writer is fair.

    One thing that New Atheists should digest, however, is that their option (atheism) is a live one for intellectuals, and as such it will come under much more scrutiny than weaker worldviews. Materialism is a formidable opponent. Secular liberals and agnostics reluctant to embrace atheism full-on (that is, people like me) will continue to prod and pry and look for some air for escape from the full materialist conclusions. Some of those moves will be ugly (like the Newsweek writer’s broadsides). Some will have more validity. But the very fact that atheism is being attacked is a sign of its power, and the respect that people have for it. It’s not that you are being picked on, as atheists. It’s more like you’re a horse, and people are looking closely at your teeth, trying to decide whether to buy you or not.

    So winnie and be nice. Speak your mind, but consider the possibility that honey wins more bees than vinegar. You’ve got a strong case with or without the harsh rhetoric and defensiveness.

    —Santi

    • mk
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      Be nice or we will simply reject reality! Just brilliant.

      Truth is, use of honey has done nothing… NOTHING… to win more bees. Being harsh when necessary is, well, necessary sometimes. Vinegar mixed with a little honey actually attracts more than you think.

    • Jer
      Posted October 26, 2009 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand what’s wrong with materialism and naturalism that you need to prod and poke to “escape from the full materialist conclusions”. Seriously – I don’t mean this to be offensive or anything – but what exactly is wrong with the conclusion “this is the world we have and this is the life we have – we’d better make the most of it”?[*] That’s the endgame summary of a material, natural universe and frankly I think people who reject it out of hand haven’t sat to contemplate just how wonderful the idea actually is.

      A materialist rejects the idea that this beautiful, wonderful, amazing universe is merely a stepping stone onto something bigger and more wonderful. That this life is only useful as a stepping stone to some eternal afterlife and therefore not intrinsically worthwhile in and of itself. Frankly I’m of the opinion that if more people were a bit more materialist and a bit less “spiritual” then perhaps there wouldn’t be quite so much suffering in the world. Because no one would have the excuse to say “well, he’ll be better off in the next life” or “it must all be part of the Divine Plan” or “he must have pissed of God(s) something fierce” or whatever other excuse “spiritual” people tend to use to ignore or minimize in their own mind the suffering and pain of others in the world today.

      [*] or in the words of the poet: “This is the world we live in, and these are the hands we’re given.
      Use them and let’s start trying to make it a place worth living in.” That’s a materialist sentiment in a pure form and it’s beautiful.

    • MadScientist
      Posted October 27, 2009 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      As Noel Coward put it:

      “Life is what you make of it”,
      As someone once observed,
      A phrase which sounds a trifle glib …

      What’s to fear about materialism? Unless of course you equate it to plain old greed, which is what many religions preach while they fleece the sheep. Don’t you like to be in charge of your own destiny – to be able to decide if you’ll be good or bad – or do you prefer to be a glove puppet impaled on a cosmic fist?

  12. mconrsullivan
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    sounds pretty desperate. thanks for the excellent commentary.

  13. Anonymouse
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    This is why science works:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8325377.stm

    If Religious ID folks police their own “research”.

  14. someone
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “Only a blockhead writes for anything but money.”

    “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
    It was attributed to him by James Boswell in his biography of Johnson.

    Here’s another:

    “I have two very cogent reasons for not printing any list of subscribers; — one, that I have lost all the names, — the other, that I have spent all the money.”

    * 1781, p. 477, Referring to subscribers to his edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, with Notes (1765)

    So make of his advice what you will.

  15. Posted October 26, 2009 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    You’re so high-minded…I can’t help being massively irritated by nonsense like “Three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it” and “But this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs . . . The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school” – because I’m too literal-minded not to fume at the obvious fact that those three men don’t “dominate the conversation” to anything like the extent that bishops and priests and preachers do; that nobody has “allowed” the three to frame anything, especially since people have been calling them ever-nastier names since the moment The End of Faith was published; and since “the whole thing” is just one “whole thing” out of many and neither Lisa Miller nor anyone else is forced to pay attention to it, so if she feels trapped she can just decide to ignore them.

  16. Posted October 26, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The sequence is messed up! 14 and 15 are dated long after 16-18.

  17. Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Why can’t everyone just stick to their own belief and leave everyone else to their own. Everyone has to be responsible for their own beliefs. If I’m a believer in a particular faith, I shouldn’t try to persuade anyone else to accept my faith. And vice verssa, if I’m an atheist, I shouldn’t try to convince others to become non-believers.

  18. MadScientist
    Posted October 27, 2009 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Ah, more evidence that the religious are impervious to thought. “I always lose these debates so I’m acting like a spoiled brat in the playground and whining like a dog in heat”. Historically when religion came up against civility and intelligence as in this case, religion cranked up its pogroms.

  19. backoffscience
    Posted October 27, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea of criticising religion like poetry, but poetry by which people live. It makes a life like a poem, which is itself quite a poetic idea.

    Everyone knows deep down that the tennets of religions are not scientific facts, but obviously the people who believe them can’t say that, can they? If they did say it, they’d no longer be believers, and you’re not going to convert them just like that.

  20. llewelly
    Posted October 30, 2009 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    And how on earth does selling so many books prove that these guys did it for the money? I’m sure that Harris, for one, had no idea how well The End of Faith would sell. My best guess is that the main reason these guys wrote their books is that they wanted to spread their ideas. If an atheist used this kind of argument, she’d be immediately chastised for being shrill and militant.

    I seem to recall Dawkins has several times expressed astonishment at how well The God Delusion sold. He has also said he raised the idea with his agent a few times, and had it shot down, as being unmarketable in America, before having it accepted.

  21. Posted October 31, 2009 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    When you hear stuff like this, you know that the goal posts have suddenly shifted. In this case they’ve moved from the truth of religion to its “benefits and dangers.”

    Dawkins, for instance, begins talking about the perniciousness of religion on the first page of the God Delsuion. So why is taking him up on it moving the posts?

    I may be wrong, but haven’t the NAs, especially Sam Harris, been talking about this all along? Harris devotes a fair chunk of his book to the human needs that religion meets, and how they can be met by secular activities like meditation. Dawkins has devoted his pen — and some of his ill-gotten gains! — to showing how we can be good without God. And Hitchens has detailed the numerous ways that faith hinders democracy, tolerance, and justice. What, then, is “the larger point” that we’ve all missed?

    That Sam Harris’s discussion of the possible benefits of religion is hugely lame? And that most other NA discussions of this matter–the possible function of religion–avoid any sustained & serious discussion of the best work out there on this issue and instead revert to wishful-thinking that trivializes the role of religion from the get go?

  22. Posted November 1, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what Miller makes of the 65 million sales of LaHaye and Jenkins’ “Left Behind” books.

    But they’re doing God’s work, of course, so they must be guided by higher motives than just making a buck, right?

  23. myminddroppings
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne,

    Looks like the two of us are among the co-accused on the Blog called “Rationalist Judo”.

    Apparantly, this blogger did not like my assessment of Lisa’s earlier article when she gushed about Karen Armstrong’s book.

    Check it out at: A (poor) Case for God.

    I’d love to invite your (and your readers’) review of my recent post titled: Almost nobody truly believes in God.

    • backoffscience
      Posted November 6, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      The blog’s called Back Off Science, and here it is: http://backoffscience.wordpress.com/

      All I was saying was that scientists know religious beliefs are not factual claims, they know religious people can’t say that, and that as a result when they try to get them to say it, its kind of like bullying. While I’m not sure about Lisa herself, her call for a different kind of debate would be better than the clunking together of imovable objects for time eternal.


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