Monday, March 28, 2011

As the Four Horsemen Leave Town, an Atheist Cleans Up Their Mess

Atheist author and professor Michael Ruse and Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau have recently voiced something I have thought for some time. My theistic journey is 42 years old. I've had both theist and atheist philosophy professors. The atheist ones I had at NIU and NU were, for by far the most part, welcoming of me and tolerant of my theistic views. Not only did they not attack my character and call me an idiot but they encouraged me in my studies. I have been influenced by them.

Then, recently, along came the so-called "New Atheists." What the heck is going on here?! Ruse and Berlinerblau help us out with essays that are both brilliant and funny. I actually smiled several times while reading them. Here are bullets from both. And, even though I personally think the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Ruse) have been through town but are now riding into the sunset, they've left some philosophical messes that need cleaning up. I find myself doing that in my philosophy classes. And BTW it's not only me, but atheists like Ruse are cleaning up too.

Ruse, "New Atheism: A Disaster Comparable to the Tea Party"
  • Ruse is not a "card-carrying atheist," but "I truly am a nonbeliever." When he left Christianity he vowed not to join another religion, "even a secular version like humanism."
  • Although he is a nonbeliever, traditional religion does not contribute to his nonbelief. Ruse's nonbelief is not a reaction to religion.
  • The strongest influence on his thinking was "Thomas Kuhn, especially his insistence that scientific thinking is deeply and necessarily metaphorical (something he thought was equivalent to his claims about paradigms)." Now, in me, the juices are flowing. I did my NU dissertation on metaphor theory and drew heavily on Kuhn. I argued, among other things, that current metaphor theory (metaphor is not an "elliptical simile") in its views of metaphor are similar to Kuhnian paradigm theory.
  •   Ruse thinks the problem of evil "is beyond solution." And it cannot be analyzed or understood by science. I agree with sentence 2.
  • "I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party."
  • The New Atheists have not done their homework. Ruse: "I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science.  That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework.  Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking."
  • "What is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism. The least curious of them all is Christopher Hitchens."
  • The central insight of the New Atheists is: "Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut (about which more anon)." The NH's have breathed life into those chapters in logic texts that explain things like ad hominem abusive.
  • "The New Atheists are a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America. American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership. In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism."
  • "New Atheism is the least intellectually rigorous form of atheism out there, much in the way Tea Party platforms are like the Non-Thinking Man’s form of libertarianism or anti-federalism." (Note: I have spent virtually no time studying the Tea Party movement. I have nothing meaningful to say either for or against it. As for intellectualy rigorous forms of atheism, they are out there. Check any philosophy of religion text used in a university. The one I use will do for starters.),
  • The New Atheists talk of secularism. But, as Berlinerblau points out, "The roots of the political ideology of secularism, as any graduate student in the field can tell you, are profoundly and unambiguously Christian. Without Christianity it is awfully hard to imagine how ideas like separation of Church and State and disestablishment could have come to fruition in the late 18th century. The New Atheists seem unaware of all this or incapable of acknowledging it and that’s because their dogma forces them at every turn to discredit anything produced within religious systems of thought. Of course, if you read some of the scholarly works cited above you will learn that atheism too is a product of religious thought. But I fear this may be too much for the New Atheists to digest in one sitting."
  • The NH's have "Unbelievable Amounts of White Dudes." "The New Atheist Movement has pulled off the impressive feat of being less diverse than the Tea Party." Come on - that is really funny no matter what side of this discussion you are on!

  • Berlinerblau, while he thinks Bill Maher's "Real Time is quite good," writes of Maher's "smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual." "Maher’s gratuitous assault on the Quran and Islam epitomizes everything that people hate about New Atheism. Not least of which is the know-nothing approach to religious critique. Maher’s source in advancing his critique of Islam and its sacred text? Bernard Lewis? John Esposito? Ira Lapidus? Abdullahi An-Na’im? None of the above. The authority he cited was Sam Harris." Now that...  is funny. Just think about it. Think, e.g., of Harvard using Sam Harris in a course on Islam.
  • I find this funnier. On: "The Whole Tolerance Thing: Had the New Atheists read their Locke it might have struck them that tolerance is a secular virtue too. I mention this because I spend a lot of time addressing liberal religious audiences (liberal in the theological sense, though they are often politically liberal as well). These would be the same religious moderates that the New Atheists never cease to excoriate. In Harris’ memorable words: “the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.”" Here is someone who simply does not understand... 
  • "I have learned that they generally view the New Atheists as being every bit as loony, ignorant, and mean-spirited as the religious conservatives" they rant against. 
  • The NH's have accomplished nothing politically. "Say what you will about the Tea Party, but they get themselves elected to office. As for the New Atheists, they sell books and write op-ed pieces, but what have they accomplished politically? A few weeks back I pointed to a study that showed that not one (!) of the 535 members of the House and Senate self-described as an atheist.
  • Now watch this... and again, very, very funny. "New Atheism is not a functioning political movement. The grassroots infrastructure is nearly non-existent. The numbers are a source of constant debate, but in any case quite low. In his “Bright Manifesto” of 2004, Professor Dennett spoke of 27 million would-be Brights who were—don’t make us come back there!—poised for political action. That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more." (I've yet to personally meet a really bright "Bright." Just calling oneself a "Bright" does not make one bright. But I've met atheists, haven't I? Yes. But the professor/scholar ones I've met want nothing to do with the "Bright" movement, just as Ruse disclaims it. An atheist can be bright. Ruse argues that the "Brights" are not so bright. And just think of the psychology of self-referential brightness. Is this not the logical implication of calling religious people idiots?)
  • So what is "New Atheism" anyway? I think it's getting old. But it's left a mess, and I do clean-up work in my classes. Berlinerblau writes: "I prefer to see New Atheism as a lucrative media platform, an agitation collective that permits a few dozen cross-promoting writers (and is there anything more amusing than One of Four Horseman giving a collegial shout out to the other Three Horseman?) to sell books and build professional networks." Note how something can be funny and true at the same time. 
  • One more (as I see it) truth from Berlinerblau: "I have never debated a New Atheist. Most of the scholars of atheism and secularism with whom I converse haven’t debated them either. For whatever it’s worth, New Atheists seem a lot happier debating religious fundamentalists than anyone else." Which is why my atheist professors dialogued with me, listened to me, explained their ideas to me, questioned things within their own admittedly inconsistent worldview, and thereby impacted me.