Friday, September 30, 2016

Criticism of the "New Atheists"

A recent article on had criticism of the "New Atheist" authors, and Christopher Hitchens in particular:

How the New Atheist Movement Blew a Big Opportunity to Bring Acceptance to Non-Believers

The author, Donald McCarthy, is an atheist but considers the New Atheists to be a "crushing disappointment".  He says that the atheist authors, especially Hitchens and Sam Harris, were so obsessed with Islam that they formed informal alliances with U.S. neoconservative politicians.  In the process of opposing Islam, they supported the pro-Iraq War movement, along with many supporters who were fundamentalist Christians.  McCarthy says that the atheists, particularly Hitchens, should have been more concerned with fundamentalists in the U.S. rather than supporting the war in the Middle East.

McCarthy praises the American Humanist Association for its support for separation of church and state and for its arguments that life can be good without God.

Atheists and humanists should be making arguments against religious dogma. We should try to be convincing to our opponents, rather than advocate force by military arms.  Support for the Iraq War was always ethically debatable, and it was never clear that it should have been directed against the Islamic religion as opposed to specific governments or organization, some of which are Islamic.  The best contribution that humanist groups can make is to debate and debunk the religious principles that cause young people to volunteer for movements like ISIS.  Our arguments lose any ethical foundation if we say that overthrowing fundamentalist governments by force is acceptable, except as the absolute last resort for self defense.  (It isn't clear to me that ISIS has reached this threshold, even though they are fundamentalist Islamist and a violent group.)

It is tempting to argue that humanitarian aid is a justification for military force, for example that there are so many deaths in Syria that the U.S. should be involved to prevent civilian deaths.  But pursuing foreign policy based on humanitarian or altruistic motives is not effective in the long term, as recent efforts have shown.  There is only a humanitarian justification if there is a prosocial agreement, not an altruistic one.  The distinction between altruistic and prosocial motives is that a prosocial group is capable and willing to form a beneficial government or social organization that will provide a long-term improvement in the society.  The effort to set up a representative government in Afghanistan may still be valuable and prosocial.  On the other hand, overthrowing the Syrian government by force without any alternative to take over doesn't look promising.  

But there is a bigger problem with the atheist efforts throughout history that is related to the points that McCarthy raises.  Atheist movements has often been associated with a few individual charismatic speakers, including Richard Dawkins, David Silverman, and Hitchens, but also including Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll and many others.  These individuals criticize established religions. Atheist movements have been less interested in building organizations.  There are atheist and humanist organizations, but they tend to be specifically concerned with opposing religion rather than trying to replace it.  One of the goals of modern humanist, secular humanist, ethical culture, and other related groups is to set up social groups that have more to do with living a good life for ordinary citizens.  This is a prosocial effort that will lead to long-term improvements in society.  These kinds of organizations can replace religious organizations.  

There is room in the atheist movement for all these types of organizations.  It is unfortunate that the movement started by the "New Atheist" authors is still mostly known for opposition to religions, particularly Islam, rather than for developing improvements in secular society and government.     


Zenobia van Dongen said...

Donald McCarthy is a jihadist mole who is trying to turn atheism into a tool of Islamic imperialism and make the world safe for Sharia law. He thinks atheists should stop criticizing islam and criticize Christianity instead. But instead of saying Christianity he says “fundamentalism in America”, as if all fundamentalists in America were Christians. A lot of fundamentalism in America is Mohammedan fundamentalism, in the form of Muslim Brotherhood organizations like CAIR, ISNA, Muslim Students’ Association, etc. these Islamist front groups are trying to turn the US into a base for worldwide jihad.
At the same time McCarthy makes every effort to identify atheist critique of Islam with military invasion of Muslim-majority countries. He does this by making Christopher Hitchens the sole representative of atheism, although Hitchens’ support for the neoconservative invasion of Iraq was an exception among atheists, not the rule.

Bill Creasy said...

Do you have references to articles that McCarthy wrote that support these extremist interpretations? It is a long way to go from his saying that he is disappointed with atheism, to saying that he is a "jihadist mole"! We shouldn't react to any kind of criticism by trolling and demonizing the critics.