Noam Chomsky, linguist, writer, and political activist, has long admitted—is “admitted” the right word now?—that he’s an atheist. Nevertheless, according to the Ideapod and Attack the System blogs, he has no love for the ideas of New Atheists. These quotes appear to be about ten years old, but I thought they were worth reproducing here.
(Note: the quotes appear identically in two places, but I haven’t been able to ascertain the original source. They might come from a series of videos featuring Chomsky at the University of Wisconsin, but I haven’t had time to go through them all. If the quotes aren’t accurate I’ll simply withdraw my responses.) Here we go:
As an atheist myself, I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment. First, none of the prominent ones are genuine religious scholars, historians of religion, or cultural anthropologists who can, for instance, examine the cultural, historical, literary, or linguistic contexts in which the varying parts of the Bible were written to provide an explanation of why fundamentalist biblical literalists are, well, mistaken and ignorant. There are plenty of genuine scholars of religion whose work examines religious beliefs and sacred texts within their proper framework, such as Robert Price, John Loftus, Daniel Barker, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman, and D.M. Murdoch. These are the skeptics who are worth paying attention to.
Earlier in the quotes (not shown), Chomsky mentions Hitchens, but I’m sure he also has Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in mind. And yes, people like Price and Dan Barker were steeped in religion as erstwhile believers, and have attended seminary or worked as ministers, and so know the Bible, but I contend that one can forcefully criticize the truth claims of religion without such a background. After all, just ask any Christian two questions: “What is the evidence for your beliefs?” and “How do you know that your religion, as opposed to Hinduism, Islam, or Mormonism, is the correct religion?” Any intelligent laymen who isn’t a religious scholar can still take apart those arguments.
Further, explaining the context of how the Bible was written is not going to convince fundamentalists that they’re “mistaken and ignorant”. That may show the rest of us that they are, but we already know that, and that’s not the main goal of New Atheism.
True, scholars like Price, Loftus, and Ehrman have more ammunition than most of us. They may know more than we, for instance, about how there’s no extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of a Jesus person, or that archaeologists find no evidence for the Exodus. But to a large degree this exegesis and historical reconstruction is unnecessary. For the task of New Atheism is different from the task of religious scholars, cultural anthropologists, and so on. The brief of New Atheists is to examine (and thus dispel) the evidence undergirding religious beliefs, and to call attention to the harms of believing in the absence of good evidence. That is, our job is to show that faith of any sort, but especially religious faith, is not a virtue.
The task of the others is narrower: to examine (and dispel when necessary) claims of scripture, to find out who wrote religious scripture and when the Bible, Qur’an, etc. were written, who copied who, and to dissect the historical origins of religious belief. All of that can promote nonbelief, but for most it’s not their explicit aim. If you’re concerned with skepticism, as Chomsky seemed to be, The God Delusion is in fact a more powerful argument for nonbelief than are the narrower (but still often excellent) writings of, say, Bart Ehrman. And, in fact, writers like Loftus and Barker often make arguments that are identical to those of New Atheists like the “four horsemen.” What Chomsky is doing here is raising the Credentials Argument without realizing that it’s largely irrelevant to New Atheists.
He goes on:
Second, they typically conflate atheism with stereotypical liberal or radical left-wing politics when there’s no inherent relationship whatsoever. See Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche, and Mencken.
Note that none of these people were “genuine religious scholars, historians of religion, or cultural anthropologists”!
And no, New Atheists don’t conflate atheism with a political viewpoint; it just happens that most New Atheists are on the Left. I’m not aware of any of the big voices in new atheism deliberately conflating nonbelief with politics in an “intersectional way,” though some, like P. Z. Myers, insist that “proper” atheism must go along with a particular left-wing ideology. For most of the rest of us, atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods and the tenets of religion. And some of us, like me, feel that promoting nonbelief will be speeded up by changing society in progressive ways.
Third, like the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, they come across as narrow-minded and ill-informed bigots whose only purpose is to antagonize religious people.
This old canard doesn’t deserve refutation. Suffice it to say that the writings and talks of New Atheists have indeed changed the minds of thousands of people, and they’ve admitted in in places like Dawkins’s “Converts Corner”. In contrast, I doubt that Chomsky has ever turned a single believer into a nonbeliever! The “antagonism” and “bigot” cards are simply played by those who can’t answer New Atheist arguments, and raising those is unworthy of Chomsky.
NOTE ADDED LATER: It’s possible that up to this point I haven’t been quoting Chomsky, but Keith Preston, whose name is given on this post from Attack the System. (I say this because there’s a line between the quotes above and those below. I haven’t yet been able to check the attribution to Chomsky. If the quotes above are from Preston, consider my refutation that of Preston’s ideas, not Chomsky’s.
Chomsky goes on:
. . . I haven’t been thrilled by the atheist movement. First, who is the audience? Is it religious extremists? Say right-wing evangelical Christians like George Bush (as you rightly point out)? Or is it very prominent Rabbis in Israel who call for visiting the judgment of Amalek on all Palestinians (total destruction, down to their animals)? Or is it the radical Islamic fundamentalists who have been Washington’s most valued allies in the Middle East for 75 years (note that Bush’s current trip to the Middle East celebrates two events: the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 75th anniversary of establishment of US-Saudi relations, each of which merits more comment)? If those are the intended audiences, the effort is plainly a waste of time. Is the audience atheists? Again a waste of time. Is it the grieving mother who consoles herself by thinking that she will see her dying child again in heaven? If so, only the most morally depraved will deliver solemn lectures to her about the falsity of her beliefs. Is it those who have religious affiliations and beliefs, but don’t have to be reminded of what they knew as teenagers about the genocidal character of the Bible, the fact that biblical accounts are not literal truths, or that religion has often been the banner under which hideous crimes were carried out (the Crusades, for example)? Plainly not. The message is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds. Who, in fact, is the audience?
Here Chomsky says, wrongly, that believers already know that the Bible isn’t literally true or that religious scriptures inspired violence (viz., Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong). Chomsky’s wrong. Literalism is the watchword of most Muslims and many Christians: millions of Americans believe in the literal truth of Genesis, the creation story, and Adam and Eve, and the Catholic Church insists that Adam and Eve were the real ancestors of all of us.
The audience for New Atheists is clear: those who are on the fence about religion, young people, and believers who are willing to be open-minded in examining their beliefs. This has been noted repeatedly by New Atheists. And none of us want to hector the “grieving mother”, for crying out loud! I’m surprised that someone of Chomsky’s considerable intelligence could write a paragraph like that.
Furthermore, if it is to be even minimally serious, the “new atheism” should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim — arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. In brief, to be minimally serious the “new atheism” should begin by looking in the mirror.
Without going on, I haven’t found it thrilling, though condemnation of dangerous beliefs and great crimes is always in order.
Here Chomsky is demanding an intersectional atheism aligned with his own political stansd. There is no necessary connection between believing in God and your views of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. What Chomsky is doing here is simply asserting that atheists shouldn’t engage in extend to “state worship.” While there is a psychological connection between, say, the manipulation of people by religion and by the ideologies of Stalinism and Nazism, it’s by no means clear that adhering to U.S. policy, or generally to a government’s agenda, is “secular state worship.”
I needn’t go on; we all know that sometimes Chomsky goes off the rails, blinded by his own “religious” desire to blame America for all the world’s wrongs.
h/t: Nicole Reggia