Thursday, March 31, 2011

No, “New Atheism” ≠ The Tea Party

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Jacques Berlinerblau
Jacques Berlinerblau

The “New Atheists” certainly are a favorite punching bag for theists, presenting the perfect strawman (rhetorically or otherwise) whenever a given crank wants to valiantly take apart a group that’s made itself notorious for its outspokenness and unrepentant anti-theism. But they’re also frequently attacked by aggrieved non-theists as well, and for the very same offenses they’re accused of committing by the religious … and always with the same unimpressive results.

Jacques Berlinerblau at The Chronicle of Higher Education gives us a good example of this, with his piece following along the same argumentative lines that make attacks by religious anti-atheists so ineffective: replete with the usual strawmen and mischaracterizations, conflations between ideology and adherent*, and even what appears to be appeals to an atheistic version of “sophisticated theology” (you’ll see) … and, of course, that overlying false equivocation that is the very heart of his piece. It strikes me as rather self-defeating when your entire argument is built upon a logical fallacy.

The whole thing is essentially an expounding on an original “New Atheists = Tea Party” comparison made by Michael Ruse and, to a lesser extent, a rebuttal to David Barash’s rejoinder to Ruse’s piece (though Berlinerblau seems to ignore most of Barash’s arguments). And right after he applauds Ruse for coming up with such a ridiculous comparison, he offers us this stereotypical mischaracterization of the “New Atheists”:

For his efforts [in comparing New Atheists to the Tea Party], naturally, [Ruse] was subjected to the predictable snark of New Atheist trolls. For those not familiar with their world-view, let me help you understand their central and timeless insight: 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).

Dammit, I keep telling Covenant members not to leave our ruddy agenda lying around …

Seriously, though, this is a strawman as bad as we’ve come to expect from cranks like Ray Comfort or Ted Haggard, not someone who also claims to be a fellow atheist. Yes, the “New Atheists” are indeed rather vocal, and often unsympathetically so (especially when it comes from such clueless criticism as Berlinerblau’s). But not only is this not a credible argument to use when trying to deride their merit (“they’re mean, ergo, they’re wrong!”), but it illustrates the general lack of distinction between “New Atheism” and “New Atheist” that pervades Berlinerblau’s post. Dismissing an entire ideology based on the supposed offenses of some of those who preach it, especially when these offenses are limited to throwing some pointy words to people who really deserve it, is not going to win you any points. In the end, all it comes to show is that atheism is not a reliable metric for judging one’s capacity for critical thought.

We can also add America-centrism to the list of Ruse’s and Berlinerblau’s fallacies in pertaining to excoriate the (decidedly international) movement of “New Atheism”:

“A Danger to the Well-Being of America”: Professor Ruse claims that “the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the well being of America.” I would re-jigger that a bit. I prefer to say that 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. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel[.]

Reign of terror? Really? She kickstarted the rise of the atheist movement in the US and single-handedly got rid of mandatory prayers in public schools, a stroke of secularism and religious equality that’s hardly been matched since … but because she was reportedly an unpleasant person, she led a “reign of terror”? How many dissidents did she incarcerate? Were there also puppies kicked and babies eaten? (Correction: (03/31/11 5:30 PM) – I just realized I’d misread “reign of error”, sans the ‘t’. Mea culpa.)

Other than that bizarre bit, though, Berlinerblau’s point that “American atheists” suffer from “poor choices and leadership” is no more than baseless tone-trolling. Even if we consider the more prominent “New Atheists” like Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and PZ Myers as the de facto leaders of the American atheist movement (and more than a few would disagree), if the whole point of leadership and representation is to get one’s movement off the ground and into the mainstream, then fewer people have been more astonishingly successful in their roles as leaders than the “New Atheists” have been. In less than a decade and with little more than books, lectures and the occasional ad campaign to their credit, they’ve managed to fire up a sleepy godless base, bring in more nonbelievers by the crapload (a number that’s increasing exponentially every year), and are undeniably responsible for the meteoric rise in self-proclaimed and increasingly outspoken atheists in America. Secular groups are seeing their memberships explode, there are more godless blogs than can be counted, and the social acceptance of atheism, which was at a depressingly low level until the 2000s, has now begun to shift measurably (though it is still far from satisfactory). We even have some outspoken atheists in public office! (So do many other countries, but then, Berlinerblau isn’t mentioning them.)

The whole point in selecting your leadership is in choosing people who will get you and your movement known and accepted. And that’s exactly what those mean ol’ “New Atheists” have done, and at an almost mythical rate, at that. But, no – because they call a spade a spade and a Creationist an ignorant fool, they’re “poor choices” as leaders.

To be quite frank, Berlinerblau, I would rather have a thousand O’Hairs and Dennetts and Harrises take charge of the atheist movement than even only one blind accommodationist like you or Ruse. They get things done. You just stay back and snark at them for being too pushy. That’s just pathetic.

(And I’m not even gonna get started on that spectacularly moronic claim about the “mid-century embrace of American communism”, whatever the hell that’s even supposed to mean.)

Dumbin’ it Down (Atheism): 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.

This is odd because two of its proponents, Professors Dawkins and Dennett, are serious scholars who have produced important scientific and philosophical work. They are, nevertheless, inexplicably unserious about the subject of atheism.

In fact, 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.

This is what I meant by some egregious attempt to construct an atheistic version of the tired old “sophisticated theology” canard: The “New Atheists” aren’t writing extensively enough about the history of atheism, ergo, they’re wrong? That’s the best interpretation of Berlinerblau’s point I can come up with, and it’s just weird. Theists argue that atheists are wrong because they keep ignoring all that fancy historical stuff when debating the existence of God(s), that very central foundation of their entire faith. Now, Berlinerblau is saying much the same, only reversed – that atheists should know more about their own history before preaching godlessness. Or something.

Of course, his variant of the theists’ argument fails just as readily as theirs does, because it’s a perfect example of missing the forest for the trees. Just as it matters not which saints wrote what marvelously complicated analyses of their faith when arguing whether what they say is true or not, it also doesn’t matter that atheists possess an intimate knowledge of the history and details of their own movement when they talk about their lack of belief in God(s) and why it’s irrational to believe in an entity that cannot be seen, touched, heard, felt, measured or perceived in any imaginable way and that doesn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever on the world around us. You don’t even need to know about Richard Dawkins or Pharyngula to be able to claim that divine beings are a baseless fantasy. It might help you frame your arguments more securely, perhaps, but the logic behind them remains intact regardless.

Berlinerblau then goes on to claim that another reason the “New Atheists” are wrong and dumb is because they supposedly conflate atheism with secularism and fail to recognize secularism’s Christian roots:

Dumbin it Down’ (Secularism): But the real disaster set in when the New Atheists started speaking in the name of secularism. This created an equation between anti-theism and secularism which is as ungrounded as it is catastrophic.

For years I have been reminding audiences that secularism is not synonymous with atheism. The term “secularism,” as best we can tell, was coined by George Jacob Holyoake in the mid-19th century.


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.

That’s just pure idiocy, right there. Contrary to Berlinerblau’s protests, no-one (atheists included) is saying that secularism and atheism are the same thing. Seriously, find me a single example of a “New Atheist” declaring them to be one and the same. Yes, atheists may often use both titles to describe their beliefs (most atheists use several; that does not indicate a conflation, but merely different aspects of their socio-ideological beliefs), and they may also assert that both oftentimes go hand-in-hand, but to see them as one and the same is to exhibit an ignorance of the terms’ dictionary definitions that I have not seen from actual secularists. Berlinerblau really does seem to have a hopelessly muddled idea of what atheists actually think.

It’s also ridiculous to claim that “New Atheists” immediately reject anything coming from religion. His point that secularism and atheism arise from Christianity is equal to saying that landfills arise from garbage-filled streets. The fact that Christianity brought about the existence of opposing doctrines and ideologies meant to curtail its stranglehold on politics and society is hardly relevant to anything the “New Atheists” have to say regarding the credibility of religious claims and its increasingly deleterious effects in our modern world. And once more, atheists aren’t actually of the belief that he describes; what nonbeliever has ever denied that Christianity (amongst other faiths) isn’t responsible for the need for secularism (if not atheism itself)?

As if it weren’t yet clear that Berlinerblau’s post ought have been titled “New Atheists = The Tea Partiers”, his next argument is:

Unbelievable Amounts of White Dudes: This is a pretty self-explanatory point. It just may be, however, that the New Atheist Movement has pulled off the impressive feat of being less diverse than the Tea Party.

It’s no secret that the atheist movement in general is a bit of a (white) boy’s club, but that’s a real problem that many in the movement are striving to fix through various means. We know there are many vocal godless women, for one thing, and there are certainly just as many atheists of other social castes within the US. But, once again, attacking “New Atheism” in general because of some failure or other on the part of its event organizers is hardly a credible approach.

The next bit, though, is devoted entirely to hang-wringing tone-trollery:

Culture of Incivility: Although I was highly critical of Bill Maher’s Religulous I think that his HBO show Real Time is quite good. Mr. Maher is truly funny and quite skilled as an interviewer. (His riff recently on why Civil War re-enactors in the south would want to re-enact a war that they lost is especially poignant).

A few weeks back, however, I watched Maher interview Congressman Keith Ellison and all I could do was cringe. The host went off on a smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual replete with slights on the Quran as “a hate-filled Holy Book.”

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.

As I have written elsewhere, New Atheists, like Fundamentalists, only read “original texts” (kind of like the way Tea Party activists prattle on about the “original intent” of the Constitution). They don’t understand hermeneutics, or the interpretive process, and for this reason they are doomed to saying very silly things about their subject matter.

Appeals to “civility” and ending with a sorta-appeal to the complexity of religion – again with the “sophisticated theology” tack. Does he really expect “New Atheists” to come around to his line of thinking when all he offers is for them to shut up, sit down and ponder all the pretty, complex, but nonetheless silly and untrue interpretations of various sacred texts?

Following this is an appeal to popular opinion:

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.”

What have I learned from all this time spent with Reform and Conservative Jews, progressive Catholics and Muslims, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ folks, among many others?

I have learned that they generally view the New Atheists as being every bit as loony, ignorant, and mean-spirited as the religious conservatives in their own traditions who are constantly consigning them to eternal damnation (interestingly those conservatives in the Christian denominations are often affiliated with the Tea Party).

Is he actually arguing that “New Atheists” should moderate their speech in order to soothe the sensibilities of religious folks? Seriously?

Finally, we arrive at Berlinerblau’s last argument, which is essentially expanding his previous claim about a supposed lack of effective leadership within the atheistic community:

Political Accomplishments: 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.

I disagree, incidentally, with Professor Barash’s claim that the New Atheists have no clear policy agenda. On the contrary, they know exactly what they want as regards Intelligent Design curricula, reproductive freedoms, federally funded scientific research, and gay rights.

The problem is that the New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.


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.

I see what Berlinerblau’s problem is, here. He’s trying to see the atheist movement – at least, the “New Atheist” faction of it – as one big, happy family of united folks all striving for the same goal(s).

That’s a colossal mistake.

It’s often been said that trying to rally atheists for a common cause is much like herding cats, and that is absolutely true. Contrary to what Berlinerblau seems to think, atheists – including “New Atheists” – don’t want the same things. Actually, many of them want very different, even contradicting, things. And almost no-one agrees on a proper way of getting those various things done. That’s because atheism is merely a belief shared by a bunch of people, but those people can just as easily be liberal egalitarian skeptics as they can be homophobic conservative homeopaths. Rejecting God-belief is not the symptom of rational thinking that many would like it to be. It merely means that we eschew one (particularly dominant) form of irrational faith. There are still many others to seize upon, and more than a few atheists do.

But this doesn’t weaken the movement – not really. In fact, while there is no central unity, the fact that atheists are an incredibly varied group is a strength. It indicates that we’re not a bunch of lock-stepping sheep who blithely follow what any chosen leader dictates. It means we have our own grasp on what we want and how to get it, and that absolutely anyone is welcome in the atheist movement, if they find a place to fit in. Even right-wing cretins can be godless.

It’s only natural that “New Atheists”, as a collective, aren’t able to get things done in unison. That’s because they have no united goals. Some are all for gay rights, while others would like to reinstate DADT and further criminalize all kinds of LGBT behavior. Some want to see Intelligent Design/Creationism bullshit be kept out of science classrooms, but others seem quite complacent with letting theists contaminate proper science education under a banner of religious freedom and “civility”. Really, it’s impossible to try and pin any single mindset on the godless collective. It’s foolish to even try. And it’s just plain stupid to take our great diversity and mischaracterize it to mean that “New Atheists” don’t know how to get things done, as Berlinerblau is doing.

The guy really needs to get a clue. And in many diverse ways.

(via Diaphanitas)

* Atheism in itself is merely a belief, but the atheist movement, the collective of nonbelievers and secularists striving to be recognized and accepted, is as much an ideology as any other social movement.
“Sophisticated atheism”?