Saturday, October 01, 2016

A different take on criticism of the "New Atheists"

By Mathew Goldstein

People who make a career of speaking and writing on current events may express opinions on a wide range of topics.  Being concerned with what is happening beyond the borders of one's own country is not a vice and focusing exclusively on what happens in one's own country is not a virtue.  Hopefully people who advocate on current affairs will make an effort to be well read and informed on whatever topic they discuss, but few people are experts on every topic that they discuss. Sometimes their advocacy may consistently fit within a particular group's consensus view, such as a leftist group view, or a libertarian group view, or a centrist group view, or a rightist group view.  Sometimes an individual's advocacy may not consistently fit within any one group's consensus.  Regardless, their advocacy is their own, they do not represent anyone else.  This is true of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others.  People who publicly self-identify as atheists do not uniquely forfeit their right to speak or write on other subjects.

Some years ago, Christopher Hitchens concluded the world would be better without Saddam Hussein ruling Iraq.  He also said that people who denied that waterboarding was torture were clearly wrong.  His views were not consistently within a consensus of the right or left. However aggravated some people may be about his sometimes straying from the consensus on the left, his advocacy was not for the purpose of siding with "fundamentalists in the U.S." who are not a monolith and who did not all share Hitchens' views on the invasion of Iraq.  Many Democrats voted for the resolution that authorized potential military action in 2002.  John Kerry gave a January 23, 2003 speech to Georgetown University where he said "Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator; leading an oppressive regime he presents a particularly grievous threat because he is so consistently prone to miscalculation. So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real."  In early 1998 Hillary Clinton said "The Iraqi leader was "without conscience," having used weapons of mass destruction on "his own people," she told reporters, referring to poison gas attacks on Kurds a decade earlier, "We are facing an extraordinary threat from this man. Something will have to be done."  In December 2003 Hillary Clinton said "I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote" and was one that "I stand by." After new evidenced emerged that Saddam Hussein had been bluffing regarding possessing weapons of mass destruction, some people switched their position on that invasion after the fact.

Articles in the monthly WASH have sometimes ventured into discussions on what is happening outside of our country. One WASH member has invited the DC area atheist group to showings of various films in liberal churches that criticize Israel.  One of the films featured a women who also claims that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were carried out by the CIA.  I have not seen any of those films, but I suspect that they are one sided propaganda which appears to be commonly relied upon among some critics of Israel.  Black Lives Matters, for example, has asserted that Israel has committed genocide against the Palestinian population, which even if it were true is not a reason for police shootings in Arkansas or Louisiana.  But while they are wrong about Israel committing genocide, and they harm their own credibility by indulging in such hyperbole, there is longstanding evidence for racial disparities in the U.S. and there are also similar disparities between different groups of people in other countries.  If WASH is going engage in such topics then we lack integrity if we simultaneously shut down conversations on international affairs that fall outside a narrow range or insist that any atheists who take positions outside of a narrow range are tainting secularism.  The people who are actually tainting secularism are those who want to engage in such discussion while restricting the range of views that are expressed to those that promote their own views.

It is a problem that people wrongly and unfairly associate Christopher Hitchens' views on various other topics, or Sam Harris' views on various other topics, or Richard Dawkins' views on various other topics, with "New Atheism".  It doesn't help that some of the criticisms leveled against some of the New Atheists are more hyperbole and slander than reasonable or thoughtful criticism.  People who, five years after Mr. Hitchens has died, continue to spill ink asserting that Christopher Hitchens tainted the New Atheism with his other advocacy are conflating apples with oranges.  He could do no such thing since each different topic stands on its own and is addressed on its own merits independently.  The problem here resides on the side of those who persistently make this odd complaint.  Some people are intolerant of particular opinions.  Such people may then reject everything that a person advocated or did in their life because they sincerely disagree with some things that one person advocated or did.  That narrow-minded stereotyping is what we should be criticizing.

The view that all religions are mistaken, yet some religions are better than others in practice, or even in content, can be a difficult position to publicly espouse because it may be deemed to be insulting by the people who self-identify with the religions being targeted for criticism.  If the people who self-identify with the religions being criticized are numerous and intolerant then their hearing such an argument is likely to upset them, which will generate controversy, and that result in turn will upset other people, who will blame the messenger.  But the disliked messenger is not the problem because the message is untidy.  Sometimes to resolve a problem we need to be willing to confront it head on.  If a problem is fear of heights then exposing yourself to heights is a necessary step to overcome that fear.  If a problem is an intolerance of criticism then we are not going to make things better by shutting down discussion to appease the intolerance.

Sam Harris in particular, among others, has adopted this position.  He says that beliefs matter and therefore details that vary between religions and within religions also matter.  The beliefs promoted by some religions are relatively harmless, or they harm some of the believers and not others, while different beliefs promoted by other religions are more insidious. Obviously, religion is grounded in beliefs, which are not genders, ethnicities, races, or the like.  It is a fact (not a diversionary tactic) that some people, when they hear criticisms focused on the details associated with particular religions, or comparisons among religions that do not reach similar conclusions about all religions, assume that they are listening to a bigot promoting bigotry.  That is a form of prematurely cutting off discussion, it is anti-intellectual, it is a mistake.  Arguments need to evaluated on their merits and not on how closely they conform with our preferences or our pre-commitments.

People are capable of changing their beliefs.  People are not synonymous with their beliefs and we do ourselves no good by elevating some beliefs to a status of being exempt from criticism.  The liberal idea is that people are entitled to civic equality before the law regardless of their religious beliefs, it is not that particular religions as currently practiced are individually exempt from public criticism.  I once joined a discussion that others had initiated about Scientology, with some people being critical.  I sided with the critics.  I was promptly challenged on why I was singling out that one religion.  My reply was that it is in some substantial ways worse than other religions. As liberals and secularists living on a religious planet we undercut ourselves when we refuse to acknowledge that there are differences between and within religions which potentially have significant implications.

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