First, the bad news—so that you won’t be left fuming after you get both pieces of news. The two “pieces” are pieces of journalism that just appeared. I’ll post a much better piece in a few hours.
For some time now, Salon has been publishing pieces excoriating New Atheism, its Horsemen, and other atheists. I’m not sure why this site does that, but it’s definitely been noticed. And Salon’s most recent article on atheism, “What Hitchens got wrong: Abolishing religion won’t fix anything,” by journalist Sean McElwee, continues the tradition. It’s dreadful, and fails on four counts: it is gratuitous (a postmortem attack on Hitchens—do we need another one?), it says nothing new, it is mean-spirited, and many of its claims are wrong. Because of that, I won’t dissect it in detail, but we need to see what kind of attacks keep on coming. Here are its main points (indented quotes are from McElwee):
1. New Atheists think that all suffering comes from religion.
The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:
1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality
2. Religion is irrational
3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering
That syllogism is obviously wrong, even logically, and we all know it. But who among atheists has said religion causes all human suffering? Name one person! Our contention is, of course, that it causes a great deal of human suffering, but that some suffering will remain even when religion is gone. That’s because some humans are malicious or uncaring, because there are inequities in society, and because some “evil” is simply the workings of nature. But who can deny that nonreligious societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?
2. Hitchens was a hypocrite because he supported a war promulgated by a religious American president. I kid you not:
But then [in the 2003 Gulf War] Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens.
How many times is Hitchens going to be excoriated for this? Granted, I disagreed with that war, and with Hitchens’s stand, but it’s not the only stand he ever took. Must we agree with every opinion of people we admire? At any rate, there’s no point in dragging Hitchens around the block for this once again. And the fact that Bush was religious was irrelevant given Hitchens’s feelings about the Kurds.
3. The problems associated with militant Islam come from politics, not religion. This contention is so common that it should be given a name. Here’s McElwee’s version:
Is not the best explanation for the Thirty Years’ War more likely political than religious? Might it be better to see jihad as a response to Western colonialism and the upending of Islamic society, rather than the product of religious extremism? The goal of the “New Atheists” is to eliminate centuries of history that Europeans are happy to erase, and render the current conflict as one of reason versus faith rather than what is, exploiter and exploited.
Bernard Lewis writes,
“For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.”
I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives?
First of all, eliminating religion won’t fix the problems of the Middle East, though it will certainly help. Those problems stem not only from dysfunctional theocratic governments, but also from oppressive dictators (viz., Assad), from institutionalized corruption, and so on. Those factors often have nothing to do with Western oppression.
But such problems also stem from the issue that Hitchens always singled out as critical in making a society dysfunctional: the economic disempowerment of women. That, of course, is embedded in Muslim doctrine. My own view is that we should argue against religion directly, for one can convert believers and those on the fence; but ultimately one must also try to create a more just and caring world, for it is people’s lack of security and their own dysfunctional situation that sustains religion belief. And working on both fronts has a salubrious feedback effect, for religion both creates and derives from dysfunctional societies. Hitchens, of course, recognized that (I believe he used Marx’s famous “opium of the people” quote), and was doing his bit to oppose dictatorship and foster equality whenever he could.
But the main problem here is that most Islamic violence is directed not at colonialist oppressors, but at other Muslims (e.g., Sunni vs. Shia). Or against Islamic women. Or it comes from a religiously-motivated hatred of Jews: another religious problem. Yes, colonialism plays some role, but if you read Lawrence Wright’s absorbing book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (highly recommended, and it won a Pulitzer Prize), you’ll see that the origins of Al-Qaeda and its predecessor the Muslim Brotherhood trace back not to colonialism by Western powers, but to resentment of the “secular” government of Egypt and the desire to spread Islam throughout the world. I wish more people who play the “it’s-all-politics” card would read that book!
In fact, McElwee goes further, arguing that:
4. No war was ever about religion; they were all “political.”
Religion has a tendency to reflect political and economic realities. Hitchens, in fact, has made ample use of this Marxist analysis, questioning religious experts whether it was Constantine or the truth of Christ’s words that were largely responsible for its breakneck spread. Constantine was, and his proclivities shaped the church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not decided exclusively by decades of intense debate; the whimsy of Constantine and political maneuvering between by Arius and Athanasius had a significant influence on the outcome.
But if there were no religion, there would be no conflict over the Trinity, regardless of the “political maneuvering” involved! Of course not all wars are religious, and there is always a secular element even when religion is involved, but to deny that religious beliefs motivate wars and conflicts is to deny reality.
I sometimes wonder if there is anything that would convince people like McElwee that religious beliefs contribute to violence. Or will they always find a way to construe things as “political”? I see that tactic as close to theology in its refusal to accept reality and its obsession with confabulating explanations when reality shows its unwelcome face. If you waffle hard enough, you can even see the Inquisition as “political”.
5. Atheists and rationalists don’t understand religion, and promulgate a simplistic caricature of it. McElwee quotes the odious Terry Eagleton on this point:
Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed. Terry Eagleton writes,
“Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.”
What McElwee ignores is that many, many atheists were once fervent believers, and understand religion very well. Think of the atheists who were once preachers or fervent Christians: Dan Barker, Jerry DeWitt, Bart Ehrman, John Loftus, Eric MacDonald, and so on. Did those people fail to understand religion? I don’t think so. And many readers of this site have testified to—”witnessed,” as it were—their former deep immersion in religion. (I should also note the recent survey that showed that UK Christians knew less about their faith than did UK atheists.)
And why do you have to be a believer to criticize religion? Do you have to be a Nazi to criticize Nazism, or a segregationist to understand and efface the evils of segregation? It seems to me that being an outsider gives one a certain advantage, at least in seeing and publicizing the harms of religion. Those in the asylum are often blinded to their delusion. And, at any rate, we have a distinguished roll of former religionists who are plenty well equipped “to understand what they castigate.”
That bit of obtuseness leads McElwee to his last inane conclusion:
6. Atheists should shut up about religion because change is best made by the believers themselves. Yes, that’s what he says:
Of course, I’m entirely aware of the problems in modern American Christianity. I have written an essay excoriating what I see as the false Christianity. But any critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion. For instance, it would hardly be the theologian’s job to point out that, according to The Economist, “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis. A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated.” I’m sure scientists are well aware of the problem and working to rectify it. Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed.
This is nonsense. First of all, nearly all pressure to reform churches comes not from religion or church doctrine itself, but from secular movements outside the church that influence believers. I am absolutely convinced, for instance, that some churches’ acceptance of gays and women’s equality comes from social movements outside the church. I also believe that kind of secular pressure is required if any reform is to take place.
But, most important, “insiders” aren’t working to reform the most invidious forms of faith. How many Catholics in the Vatican are undermining its doctrines about sex, divorce, the sinfulness of gays, and the prohibition of birth control? Answer: none that I know of. How many Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran are working to dismantle the pernicious doctrines of Islam? Are we supposed to sit back and let the Vatican fix Catholicism? If so, we’ll wait a long time!
If McElwee lived in Nazi Germany, he’d probably tell us: “Look, Rommel and von Stauffenberg are working to bring down Hitler. Call off the U.S. and British troops, call off the French Resistance, because any critique of Nazism made from the outside can be made more persuasively by members of the Nazi Party.”
The fact is that the “reform” of religion will occur much faster with pressure from nonbelievers, for many forms of faith have no internal motivation for changing. And you don’t have to be a believer to see the harm. If I were offered a plate of dog feces to eat, I wouldn’t be persuaded by the argument, “You can’t know whether it’s bad until you’ve eaten a lot of dog crap.”
McElwee goes on to espouse a form of NOMA, arguing that we need religion to tell us about the meaning of being human and how to live the good life, and, conversely, religion shouldn’t intrude on science. He’s right about the second part but not the first. Religion doesn’t have any more credibility about the meaning of life and the best way to live than do the exertions of secular, humanistic philosophy in telling us how to live. In fact, religion is a substantially worse guide for life, because it relies on faith and fiction rather than reason and facts.
I see I’ve written too much again. But this stuff just keeps coming, and will continue, I suppose, until the memory of Hitchens has faded.