Atheism: a dogma of its own?

The Four Horsemen review – whatever happened to ‘New Atheism’?

The “Four Horsemen” is a reference to four iconic (English speaking) protagonists of atheism who rose to prominence in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who all went on to write additional books following the 2004 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, giving rise to the “new Atheism” meme. This is them at their only publicised meeting together in 2007 that is commemorated in The Four Horsemen book reviewed in the linked article.

l to r: Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins, Harris

First a wee disclaimer. I became an atheist in my mid teens, late 1960s- early 70s, long before I’d ever heard of any of these gentlemen. I was raised a Roman Catholic, and brought up with Holy Communion, Holy Confession, Holy water, holy this that and the other, bobbing up and down in the pews, pictures of the pope and Virgin Mary on the walls, muttering prayers and fingering rosary beads. I bought into all this, and cannot really explain why I lost the faith. It was a matter of erosion over a few years, not a sudden, logical revelation. Perhaps it was out of sheer boredom and repetition. Perhaps it was because I noticed Catholics didn’t get on any better, nor had better rationalisations for the world than anyone else. Perhaps it was because science and rationality interested me – though many famous catholic scientists have managed to reconcile rationality and religious faith. At any rate, it was cemented by the many cheerful atheists I met at university, virtually all scientists.

So, I lost my faith before I went to uni, but my apostasy was cemented by my experience there. My older brother, a math graduate, never did. We don’t discuss it at all, probably because his wife is even more devout than he is. The first of the Four Horsemen I ever read was at uni, and that was Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, some time after it was first published in 1976. Dennett, I didn’t come across till some time after 1995, when he published Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Dawkins had already given me brilliant additional arguments to bolster and defend my existing atheism. Hitchen’s and Harris’s writings I am not too familiar with.

The point I am trying to make is that I was atheist long before the Four Horsemen came along, long before “New Atheism” became their sobriquet, and that there is nothing new about atheism. (To be fair, Dennett just went along for one ride, he was never part of the later cavalry charges.) It’s not that atheists never before successfully argued against religion, it’s the notion that after 9/11, atheism became a new movement that needed a new name. The criticism of it is that the protagonists are seen as increasingly dogmatic and hostile to religious believers, and especially to Muslims.

Perhaps the main difference between traditional atheists like me and the New Atheists, is that we tend not to dabble in evangelical atheism – candidly, I confess to having been a protagonist of atheism on subscribed message board, in some cases taking to religious fundies on their own boards, though this was in the prehistorical days before the public free-for-all that is Twitter – while they go out and proselytise like any preacher, delightfully giving interviews to the media whenever possible.

On to the sardonic review (I have no reason to suppose the Guardian reviewer, Steven Poole, is prejudiced against people of any or no beliefs, and make no assumptions about his own possession or lack of them).

New Atheism’s arguments were never very sophisticated or historically informed. You will find in this conversation no acknowledgment of the progress made by medieval Islamic civilisation in medicine and mathematics – which is why, among other things, we have the word “algebra”. The Horsemen assume that religion has always been an impediment to science, dismissing famous religious scientists – such as Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who first proposed the big bang hypothesis, not to mention Isaac Newton et al – as inexplicable outliers. At one point Harris complains about a leading geneticist who is also a Christian. This guy seems to think, Harris spits incredulously, “that on Sunday you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus because you’re in the presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist”. Harris offers no reason why he can’t, except that the combination is incompatible with his own narrow-mindedness.

For these men, rationality is all on “our” side and evidence-free faith is all on “their” side. But faith is very much a movable feast: Hitchens himself, in his sad late persona as a useful idiot for the Bush-Cheney regime in the mid-2000s, notably kept insisting – in the face of no evidence – that Saddam Hussein had possessed a working nuclear-weapons programme, which proved that it had been right all along to invade Iraq.

I believe it’s a reasonable argument to make that atheism can descend into becoming a dogma, if one abandons scepticism and acquires blind faith in one’s position. We see this happening in politics today all over the world, but it isn’t exactly a new development – it’s probably as old as politics itself. The New Atheists are certainly sceptical of religion, and rightly so, but post 9/11, less so of the policies of rightwing governments, and especially of their actions against Islamic countries.

Poole doesn’t just call out Hitchens and Harris, he criticises Dawkins as well in this light.

Dawkins became a leading social-media troll, with tweets such as this from last summer: “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ Or is that just my cultural upbringing?”

Yes, it probably is. Carillons give me a headache. Not a fan of Twitter myself, and think that if you want to style yourself as a philosopher, best to avoid it. If you dabble in the same pool as President Trump, you will not come up smelling of roses. Now, Dawkins has written many excellent books on evolution and how it support atheism, but here he’s descending into crass propaganda without much thought. I respect his prior work, but when Poole remarks, “[Dawkins] has a bright future ahead of him leaving pointless online comments below newspaper articles”, he has a point.

Dawkins gives the impression that he’s not against the great Christian scholars, architects and artists, but is not willing to give Islamic scholars, architects and artists any credit whatsoever. I suppose the Taj Mahal is an aberration. Touch of hypocrisy, maybe?

And here is an another issue – the entanglement of some of the Four Horsemen with the alt-right. “Alt” means not specifically Christian, but secular.

The intellectual path followed by Harris is most balefully illustrative of the poisonous seeds that were always present in New Atheism. At one point here, the men admire themselves for their willingness to consider truths that might be politically dangerous. For instance, Hitchens says, if the notorious hypothesis of the 1994 book by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve – that black people are genetically inferior in intelligence to white people – were true, it shouldn’t be ignored. Luckily, Hitchens hastens to add, that example is not viable. Later on, however, Harris brings up the argument again. “If there were reliable differences in intelligence between races or genders,” he begins, before Hitchens cuts him off dismissively. “But I don’t think any of us here do think that that’s the case.”

Hitchens might have been too generous. In 2018, Harris caused a storm by inviting Murray on to his podcast for a weirdly uncritical two-hour conversation. Murray, Harris claimed, had been the victim of a terrible “academic injustice” for the way in which his notions about the inherent cognitive inferiority of some “races” had been rejected by the scientific establishment. (Lest you worry about Murray, be reassured that he is still a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is funded by the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers.)

The alt-right is not known for its devotion to reason and rationality either. It may be little more than a backlash against what it sees as political correctness: moderation in foreign policy, support of economical deprived people, fairness for racial and sexual minorities, respect for and preservation of the environment, affordable health care. It’s hawkish against Islam and supportive of war against Islamic nations as well as terrorists. However, parroting phrases like “It stands to reason that…!” is always a very weak substitute for actually producing and substantiating reasons with evidence.

The irony is that the alt-right extremes of New Atheism begin to share many of the domestic and foreign policy goals of America’s indigenous Christian far right. It might even be said that on some issues, they read from the same Common Book of Prayer.

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