Re-Made in America: Remembering the New Atheism (2006-2011)
UPDATE: Apologies are due to Greta Christina who was in fact ranked by an atheist website as one of the top ten popular atheist bloggers. rjh
Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”
- The Missouri boy in Connecticut
HO remembers their Huckleberry Finn? In chapter 19, Huck, Tom and Jim, afloat on the Mississippi River, meet up with two grifters, the Duke and the Dauphin, who claim to be exiled European royalty.
Their scam is going from town to town performing makeshift “scenes” from Shakespeare’s plays, then escaping with their lives when the rube public hear declamations like this:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
After spending a few hours with the scoundrels, Huck reflects,
It didn’t take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn’t no kings nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble.
But (in one of the great mysteries of the book) Huck continues to aid and abet, pastes their playbills on buildings in towns along the river, enjoys swapping tales with them on the raft, and even saves their skin when they have a close shave.
The Duke and the Dauphin are Mark Twain’s contribution to a a literary stereotype that goes back to plays like Our American Cousin (an English drama of 1858) that pit a pampered and brainless British aristocracy against the dull, stammering but basically honest Yankee (Lord Dundreary and Asa Trenchard, respectively, in the play): Americans are naive, optimistic, uncultured, energetic and gullible; the British are cunning, cynical, indolent and intellectually dissipated. America is a good place to make a buck by selling wares that His Majesty’s subjects either can’t afford or simply don’t have much use for.
Things like atheism. I recently cited the statistics for religion in Britain. If you are the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is not an encouraging thing to note that only about 36% of Britons claim to be religious and a higher number claim not to believe in God.
Compare these to statistics for atheism in America. The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found that 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion (“nones”), of which only 1.6% explicitly describes itself as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%). If you are an atheist-front organization, also not an encouraging picture, no matter how you fiddle the stats to make “No religious preference” or “Sorry, really in a hurry” survey-takers into atheists. Nones further have to be adjusted for mothers whose safety clasp just failed on their child-seat doing a drive-by after school pickup, and shoppers standing in line at the exchange counter on December 26th.
If I were an atheist strategy specialist there is at least one biblical story I would need to believe was literally true: the saga of David and Goliath. I’d want to know how a very little movement can bring down a cultural behemoth like American religion by throwing a few stones.
This led me to reflect on how the new atheism arrived in America and who is in charge of pasting the playbills on the storefronts.
OT to deny the contribution of several authors to the “movement”–Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens–I think it’s safe to say that the style of the new atheism extrudes from the work of Richard Dawkins. The paradigmatic shift from detente to full scale assault against religion as an undifferentiated mass of human error and superstitious thinking belongs to him: Why should we live with ideas that we find absurd and repugnant, or indulge people who fantasize the truth of their beliefs into norms that other people ought to follow? Gloves off, me hearties: Error should be resisted, countered, argued against, corrected, defeated–not coddled.
And what is the truth? Science is the truth.
The God Delusion (2006) and the wave of comment it created is now yesterday’s news. To remind myself of how I felt in 2006 while reading it, I talked myself (under the influence of several spirituous incentives) into re-reading it, and, much to my surprise, I liked it better the second time around–as a book rather than a best selling icon. It was a better book than Daniel Dennett’s really very sloppy Breaking the Spell, which I reviewed soon after it appeared in 2007. But then I forced myself to re-read a few of the reviews I had archived over the past several years, and this one by Murrough O’Brien from The Independent flagged itself. Just after pointing out Dawkins’s abuse of Bertrand Russell’s famous “Teapot Argument,” O’Brien notes.
Some of [Dawkins's] arguments are old atheistic chestnuts, and how merrily they crack in the roasting pan. The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God “argument”. Dawkins squirts this sachet of puerile pap (most of us had outgrown it before hitting double figures) over the whole book, to inadvertently comic effect. He writes: “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” The short response to that is a simple “Why?” The long one goes something like this: the question “Who made God?”only makes sense if one assumes that the Divine nature is subject to a kind of inverted evolutionary process by which the complex is preceded by the still more complex, but why on earth should we assume this? Why should God be subject to any version of a biological theorem? Why not the laws of physics, or of chemistry?
But then the real punch, trilitorally speaking, of The God Delusion was panache. Dawkins was an extrovert and spellbinder compared to Dennett, with his Darwinesque looks, and the singularly incoherent Harris, whose work Scott Atran, a serious researcher and cognitivist, called playacting at science and politically pernicious while also getting basic anthropological theories backwards, like his famous wowser concerning the work of Franz Boas.
The real success story of the new atheism is that it was bought and sold after being intellectually panned by almost all the cognoscenti who weren’t atheist activists. In fact, as the circle closed around a tightly knit cadre of God-opposers, opposing God became virtually the sole criterion for what, in their parochial view, counted for anthropology, archaeology, sociology and the study of religion–about which all of the four (check the footnotes) were blissfully ignorant.
And I mean that in the most damning sense. Virtually all of the credible reviews alleged it of Dawkins, and the others didn’t fare much better outside the atheist camp. The reflexive answer was to accuse anyone who opposed the unscientific, malformed, and totally ignorant premises of these books of being “faitheists” and to say that dispute would be treated as treason against the higher purposes for which the books had been written.
If that didn’t stick, sane voices were denounced as jealous voices, as though reputable scholars wished they had written historical and philosophical travesty under their own names.
The repetitive accusation against Dawkins–that he was attacking a straw man, a sort of tertia res religiosa that did not exist–became the new framing device for every critique of new atheist tactics: its critics (despite manifold evidence to the contrary) were attacking a form of atheism that did not exist. Sensible, if complex views like those of John Gray on the origin of humanitarian impulses, were conveniently set aside in favour of a new recipe for a scientific-evolutionary morality that floats above historical causality: Wrote Atran,
There is an irony of history that completely escapes Harris and other new atheists in their evangelical quest for a global morality rooted in scientific truth. As philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics convincingly argues, it is universal forms of monotheism, such as Christianity and Islam, that merged Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation that originated the inclusive concept of Humanity in the first place….Harris’s own messianic moral absolutism, based on devotion to “truth,” leads to some rather nutty proposals that defy common sense and are justified by made-up history that is patently untrue.
So much for Harris’s pop-psychology, or rather MRI-enhanced pop-psychology. Dawkins and Dennett were serious academics working out-of-field but who seem honestly to have believed that the methodologies developed in other disciplines were easily mastered and just as easily dismissed–a cavalier attitude toward critique that bordered on Dominican hubris at best and anti-intellectualism at the deep end.
Always guided by the nature of the game, Hitchens, the only true intellectual and by far the best-read of the group, was in it for the ride. All four looked as though they had powered their way through their task by reading the Cliff’s Notes to Thomas Aquinas and David Hume, and in some cases not even those carefully enough.
From any objective reading of the serious reviews, their mission to God’s kingdom was an epic fail in terms of what they brought home from the journey. It was all finished, critically speaking, in 2006 when Terry Eagleton said,
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace, or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
Dawkins’s precedence in ignoring the opposition by denying they constituted serious opposition became a trademark of the movement he put into place. But despite the discounted value of the books as credible intellectual proposals, there were plenty of people prepared to spread the mission stateside, where Dawkins’s accent, his unabashed science-thumping and his wares were more valuable than in Blighty, where people had been giving up on God (in droves) for decades without his help.
What hath anti-God wrought: The new atheism, which was really an American phenomenon, like Spam.
One can’t simply blame Richard Dawkins for creating the kind of poster-pasters his leadership had produced in Gotchaland. He didn’t ordain them, exactly. That would be like blaming Jesus for founding the church. Is a rock star guilty of the excesses of his fans? Of course not.
But it is undeniable that new atheism would never have congealed, to the extent it ever congealed, if American neo-Darwinist soldiers and a few strays hadn’t taken on the fight. Dawkins, as Garry Wolff commented in 2006, was very old news in England when he decided to try plowing the fundamentalist pastures of America. And soldiers there were, just waiting for the right fight and marching orders. And a good thing too: Dawkins himself came off relatively unsullied by these battles, while his American promoters didn’t mind a little mud.
Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a biology professor at Chicago. His only book, Why Evolution is True (2009), is his contribution to the anti-intelligent design debate and carries endorsements from Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker and others in the atheist-neo-Darwinist klatch. Dawkins reviewed the book for Atheist News in 2009. Hardly anyone would fault Coyne for his attempts to combat the anti-evolution fever that grips the establishment that is failed American science education. I for one think Jerry Coyne has struck a blow for rationality and common sense by writing this lucid book. It’s a shame therefore that Coyne buys into the Dawkins incompatibility model that makes religion the sworn enemy of science and science the salvation of the race. It is frankly embarassing, after two hundred years of the scientific study of religion, to hear a scientist saying things like this:
In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.
Just a flash: While leprauchauns didn’t copy the books that were turned into the books that led to the science Dr Coyne eventually studied, monks and rabbis did. Why does the perfectly reasonable opposition to religious craziness have to descend to this caricaturing of the history of religion? And some information: the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the most venerable in the nation–after which the Chicago School of Religionswissenschaft got its name (and turned Europeans green with envy at its methods)–one notably lacking in Irish elves–is located at 1025 E. 58th Street. Any number of evolution-accepting scholars–including Martin Riesebrodt would be happy to have a chat and set you straight. Of course, if you really believe that a degree in biology trumps every other discipline, then why bother?
P Z Myers. Winner of the 2009 “Humanist of the Year Award,” a lapse of judgement for which the American Humanist Association will burn like cotton floss in a non-existent hell for their abuse of the word humanist,
P Z Myers is cut from the same neo-Darwinist fabric as Dr Coyne, but without the credentials. That means he is anti-intelligent design, pro-evolution, and happy to be known as the Don Rickles of the Dawkins theatre troupe. He’s the purveyor of the award-winning science blog Pharyngula where he specializes in calling people who don’t agree with him stupid and moronic.
To his credit, Myers has published no book of popular or scientific merit though if his rep holds up as the sun goes down on new atheism he does have a collection of his favourite anecdotes and outrages coming out in 2012. But this does not stop him from being the voice to which most of the young neo-atheists pay heed. I was reminded last year, after being told by P Z that I needed to be more respectful to the cause, that he deserves to be called Dr Myers. I had asked why someone who teaches in a university could not distinguish between free speech and inciteful behaviour–like that associated with Koran-burning Florida yahoo Terry Jones.
Myers, who describes himself as a moral nihilist, writes like this:
There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion. Webster Cook smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn’t eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it. This isn’t the stupid part yet. He walked off with a cracker that was put in his mouth, and people in the church fought with him to get it back. …. It is just a cracker! So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls.
So, God love him, P Z Myers got the chance to kick the pope in the balls by spearing a consecrated host (eucharist is the name of the sacrament you fucking ex-Lutheran moron–whoops, just resorting to idiom) and a few other factotums. For this he is famous. And humanist of the year.
But let me just say this about the evolutionary, neo-Darwinist, religion sucks, anti-intelligent design phalanx of new atheism: If ever atheism got dumber and less impressive, it is in the work of this dissolute insult- monger. If there were ever an occasion for a serious scholar like Dawkins to say, this is over the top, P Z Myers is that opportunity. So far–nothing. The clowns are now the whole circus.
Greta Christina. I’m not sure whether Greta is a headlight, because there can only be two and she will see any reference to three as some sort of weird sexual joke. That’s the problem. She sees everything as a weird sexual joke. Ranked as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers, Christina exemplifies in her work the increasing influence of LGBTQ trend toward identifying atheism and humanism with victimization and social marginalization. She can be amusing, but needs to take on some serious issues, such as why radical feminism and lesbianism are often perceived to be anti science when new atheism is purely devoted to an evolutionary model that, frankly, is not friendly to special pleading for biological exceptionalism based on sex. Didn’t understand that sentence? You need to.
Mark Twain just needed Huck and Tom to paste the handbills to the walls. Dawkins has a small retinue of Americans who will do him favours and not ask for money.
Ophelia Benson, host of Butterflies and Wheels, has turned her once-interesting website (I used to contribute regularly) into a chat room for neo-atheist spleen. I still regard her as a fair-broker who needs to rise above the temptation to turn the whole kit and kaboodle over to the grousers who loiter around her kitchen table. I mean campfire.
The ex-Revd Eric MacDonald touts his website as being devoted to death with dignity. I’m for it; a close colleague and collaborator of mine, Gerald Larue, was one of the founders of the Hemlock Society. Unfortunately MacDonald has become just another horn in the bagpipe blown by Coyne and Myers. His constant theme is that theology is not worth the trouble. That’s an odd enough thesis for an atheist. More troubling is the fact that MacDonald doesn’t seem to know bloody anything about the academic study of religion and pretends that there is no difference between what he read as a young priest (mainly liberal post-Tillichian pap) and what’s being taught to PhD candidates in Religion at Harvard. It’s all ignorant bravado, but unfortunately some people read him, people like…
Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician qua neo-Darwinian atheist who teaches at James Madison University in Virginia. Rosenhouse [sic] essentially does book reviews of things that cross his path and passes judgment on what he doesn’t like, usually anything that rises an inch beyond cultural Judaism. Of Rabbi Alan Lurie’s recent HuffPo piece on religion, Rosenhouse opined,
We’re really not on the same page here. I agree with him about the art, and I’m not sure what he means by ‘the histories,’ but I find nothing to admire in the remaining items on his list. I am not only unimpressed by the world’s various alleged holy texts, but I frankly dislike the whole idea of a holy text. Most religious rituals and practices leave me beyond cold, I think the world’s ‘mystical teachings’ should be discarded in toto, and I think better uses could be found for sacred spaces.
To which I say…Go on. Suggest already. KFCs, meth clinics, museums, failing public libraries, Starbuck’s. You choose. America, as we know, is awash in sacred spaces so the fewer of these antiquities the better. Let’s use the real estate for what we really hold sacred. I sometimes wonder why people whose only contribution to blogdom consists of sentences like “Most religious rituals leave me beyond cold,” find themselves titillating? Can’t he do this on Facebook and get a thousand likes to boot?
S0 many other poster-pasters, but time is up and I hope my case is made.
The new atheism was as American as apple pie, which was invented in fourteenth century England. Just try finding apple pie in twenty-first century England.
HERE is a final question. Why does this matter? Why, more specifically, does it matter to me–why does someone who considers himself an unbeliever care about this subject at all? –So what if the ranters are ranters, that they pay no attention to serious religious studies scholarship, ignore the realities of two hundred years of academic inquiry into the foundations of religious thought and dismiss tons of modern scientific investigation into the nature of religious belief as worthless?
Jason Rosenhouse says, presumably with a straight face and clear conscience, he doesn’t know what “scientism” is. Naturally his question, in the ringaround-the-rosey style of this support group, is enthusiastically echoed by Coyne.
Let me offer my assistance. Scientism is a form of nominalism (q.v.) that collapses important methodological differences and qualities into a single term (“science”) as though the term had an existence apart from the methods that comprise it. Scientism is the belief that “science” is a supervening mode of knowing that can be imposed willy nilly on other disciplines whose methods have had a different organic evolution, yet methods normally just as true to their subject matter as biology or physics, for example, have been to their own. Most of the concrete results in historical studies biblical studies, the history of religion, textual studies (paleography), linguistics and assorted disciplines have been based on methods specific to their objects.
To deny the authority and validity of specific methods without knowing them is just as heinous an offense against reason as a fundamentalist’s rejection of a theory–like evolution–that he doesn’t fully understand. That is what scientism is and what it means and why it must be rejected. As Wittgenstein was finally forced to conclude, the belief that science is the final arbiter of what constitutes truth (or true propositions) is as “glaringly metaphysical” as the premises of traditional philosophy.
The willful ignorance of the new atheists matters because it makes almost impossible the work of serious religion scholars who have no commitment to belief, but who happen to feel that the study of religion belongs to and is inestimably important to the study of history and culture.
In the long run, real science acknowledges failed experiments and the humbling contribution of being wrong as a way of moving toward the right answers. It can’t rest like a medieval pope on its teaching authority. The “scientism” of the new atheists consists in a failed experiment in the misapplication of method. Richard Dawkins has been fond of saying that religion is the trivialization of complexities, a default position favoured by “dims” who just don’t get science. The scientistic worldview favoured by his promoters has relied heavily on the trivialization of appropriate methods for understanding religion. Given the starting point of his argument, there can be no other outcome.
The way forward in any useful critique of religion does not depend on activism disguised as judgement, opinion hiding behind tangential scholarly pursuits, or defenses of science and reason that are inherently unreasonable in themselves.
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