on new atheism

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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56 Responses

  1. I think in the past I’ve referred to the ‘new atheists’ as militant or evangelical atheists. They are just satisfied with being atheists themselves, they see it as their mission to persuade everyone else to believe (or not believe) the same way.

    My biggestbeef is the way they have become the ‘defenders of science’. Admittedly it’s the fault of the ID folks who are pushing for religious intrustion into science, but that doesn’t mean atheists are the defenders of science by default.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      They’re people who like telling other people how to live. I suspect that if they felt that Evangelical Christianity was the best way to do that, they’d use Evangelical Christianity. When they found that Trotsky was not, in fact, the best way to do that, they quickly became former Trotskyites. If the New Atheism turns out to not be as good a tool as they had thought, they’ll abandon that after a couple of years in denial too.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        And you evidence for that is?????Report

          • Avatar Travis says:

            “They’re people who like telling other people how to live.”

            Ridiculous, unsupported nonsense. Projecting much?

            It’s the religious groups in this country who want to impose civil laws based on what their mythological magic sky being allegedly told some guy in the Levant.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              I was refering to the new atheist hawks.

              My schtick is actually to tell people to leave me (and to leave others) alone. I suppose that there is an interpretation of that that is just me “telling people how to live” but there is a difference between pushing little old ladies into the way of buses and pushing them out of the way of buses and saying “YOU’RE PUSHING AROUND OLD LADIES NO MATTER HOW YOU SLICE IT!” is… well. It lacks nuance.

              “It’s the religious groups in this country who want to impose civil laws based on what their mythological magic sky being allegedly told some guy in the Levant.”

              Or that they can’t smoke in a bar (what about The Children) or pay for other people’s heath care (what about The Children) or make sure that the biology text books in Oklahoma don’t have stickers on the front (The Children) or that we need to subsidize college educations or make sure that 22 year olds make more than the minimum wage or that people who want to braid hair have minimum licensing.

              Dude. There are tons of people out there who want to tell you how to live. You’re probably just not noticing the ones who are saying everybody should do stuff that you agree that everybody should do.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                I think there is a difference between telling other people how to live their private lives and public policy. Nobody should be pushing their religion on others but I am okay with a traffic signal telling me to stop. Not smoking in a confined space like an airplane is different from stifling somebody’s speech.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                “I think there is a difference between telling other people how to live their private lives and public policy.”

                Dude, so do the Christians.

                The main overlap I see between the new atheists and the christians is that they both seem to believe that “private lives” is about yay big —-> .Report

              • Avatar Travis says:

                Yes, biology textbooks bought and paid for with taxpayer dollars should not have stickers on the front intimating that what’s inside is an evil atheist plot to destroy Christianity, rather than a basic science textbook explaining the facts of how the living world works.

                You can’t smoke in a bar because you’ll contribute to the disease and premature death of those around you, including those who work in the bar. You don’t have a right to harm other people. This requires a balancing test, certainly. On balance, your right to not have to get up and walk out the front door to have a cancer stick is less important than someone else’s right to not die of lung cancer.

                We need to subsidize college educations because… honestly, do I need to explain that our global competitiveness and leadership in science, technology and creative arts depends on a highly educated populace with the technical and critical thinking skills provided by a college education?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                See? You can justify every single one of your positions using rationality and reason while Christians are just forcing their views into the law willy-nilly.

                Would you say that people who don’t agree with you on the efficacy of public education with regards to the theory of evolution, the right of people to own a bar that allows people to smoke, or the need for friggin’ everybody to get a degree in the liberal arts would be bad people, fundamentally?

                How would you describe them? “Selfish”?Report

              • Avatar Travis says:

                The views of people who reject evolution do not belong in a public school science classroom, because evolution is established science. If you’ve read Kitzmiller v. Dover (decided by a George W. Bush-appointed judge, BTW) you wouldn’t have to ask that question.

                Those who disagree with science are free to attend a religious school which teaches their religious doctrine.

                I didn’t know that public subsidization of higher education = “friggin’ everybody gets a degree in the liberal arts.” Could you provide some evidence for that assertion? I wasn’t aware that “friggin’ everybody” went to college, much less got a degree in the liberal arts – as if there’s something wrong with getting a degree in the liberal arts.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I don’t know. I suspect that it’s not the job of the government to ensure that Lysenko gets taught rather than Creationism.

                I certainly suspect that it shouldn’t be your job to make sure that people in a different state entirely (I assume you aren’t in Oklahoma) teach their kids Lysenko.

                No matter how you justify telling other people how to live to yourself.Report

              • Avatar Travis says:

                Then we fundamentally disagree on the role of the public school system – which is to give children the knowledge they need to succeed in life in a modern society.

                Teaching children that a bunch of discredited Stalinist lies are scientific truths pretty much does the opposite of that.

                Whether you like it or not, evolution is the basis of all modern life science. We need to understand life science in order to make informed decisions about resource management, land development, habitat disruption, chemical applications and basically everything else. We are animals and our future as a species is inextricably tied to the future of Earth’s ecosystem, including the species we share it with. If you’re going to suggest otherwise, there’s no point in taking this debate further.

                Then again, I suspect you would support abolition of the public school system entirely – I mean, if it’s wrong to subsidize higher education, it must be wrong to subsidize primary education too, right?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I’m a huge supporter of “local control” for school districts. I understand if parents want to outsource the raising of their children to government workers from age 4ish through 17ish. That’s totally cool. I just think that they ought to have the main voice in what gets taught.

                You know how you feel about what I think your children should be taught in school? That’s how I feel about your opinion of what my children (or whatever) should be taught in school.Report

              • Avatar Travis says:

                So if a school district wanted to teach its kids that pi equals 3, that would be OK with you?

                If a school district wanted to teach its kids that African-Americans are an inferior race who deserve to be enslaved, that would be OK?

                If a school district wanted to teach its kids that the Sun revolves around the Earth, that would be OK?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                No, it wouldn’t.

                The world is full of stuff I disapprove of, though.

                The fact that I disapprove is not superceded by my knowledge that I don’t have the right to tell those parents that they *MUST* teach Lysenko to their children.

                Anymore than I have the right to change the culture in Iraq.

                I mean, if we want to go all “full circle” and talk about people who want to tell other people how to live.Report

              • Avatar Travis says:

                Hey, maybe you can move to Iraq and convince the people there that science should be left up to a majority vote and all of your other bizarre libertarian fantasies.

                Back here in the United States, thankfully, a significant majority of Americans support the idea that public schools should teach modern scientific knowledge – that pi equals 3.14159…, that racial groups do not substantively differ in intelligence or humanity, that the Earth revolves around the Sun and that living organisms evolve over time through changes in their genetic code.

                If you want to send yourself back to the Dark Ages, be my guest. But you’re not going to drag the rest of us with you.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Yeah, yeah. “Love it or leave it”.

                If you hate the 10th Amendment so much, why don’t you move to a country that teaches Lysenko?

                See? How much did that move stuff forward?

                “If you want to send yourself back to the Dark Ages, be my guest. But you’re not going to drag the rest of us with you.”

                It’s more that I suspect that allowing local control will not, in fact, result in a dark age and allowing this school district to teach say, Darwin, while others are teaching Lysenko will have more upside than having a central government dictate that Lysenko is what good citizens ought to be taught.Report

              • From Jaybird:

                I’m a huge supporter of “local control” for school districts. I understand if parents want to outsource the raising of their children to government workers from age 4ish through 17ish. That’s totally cool. I just think that they ought to have the main voice in what gets taught.

                If parents are going to decide on the curriculum then they should teach their kids at home. While I’m no fan of evolution being some kind of equivelant of the Lord’s Prayer for atheists, ID in public schools is just ridiculous. That’s what happens when you put curriculum in the hands of local jurisdiction.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I’d rather deal with the problems of Lysenko being taught here and Darwin being taught there and ID being taught over there than with the problems of universal Lysenkoism.

                Even if that means that we give parents a voice in their local curriculae.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I’m guessing that you wouldn’t be impressed by the evidence that comes to the top of my head… specifically the essays written by the new atheist hawks regarding the need to abolish Islam (like Christianity and theism, for that matter) and their support for vigorous intervention in other cultures…

          Could you give me an example of something you’d accept as evidence because I’m guessing you’re going to “no true scotsman” anything I give you.Report

          • Avatar Travis says:

            Link the specific essays and provide studies or polls which show wide approval or acceptance of those specific agendas among the atheist community. That would be evidence.

            Just because some big-name person writes something doesn’t mean all – or even most – atheists agree with them.

            Atheism isn’t a religion and we don’t have a pope or a creed or a Bible or someone who excommunicates us if we disagree with someone else.

            I’m sure I could find many essays written by religious thinkers that say gays and lesbians should be jailed, forcibly re-educated or executed.

            Does that mean all religious people agree with them?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Among the atheist community? I was talking about the atheist hawks.

              I’m not going to say much of anything about the atheist community as a whole, because it is fairly diverse. It contains post-theists who are post-theist due to rational reasons, post-theists who are post-theist due to irrational reasons, post-theists who are post-theist due to apathetic reasons, folks who were raised to be atheists, anti-Christians who still say shit like “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual”, and all sorts of folks.

              I was talking about New Atheist Hawks.

              “Just because some big-name person writes something doesn’t mean all – or even most – atheists agree with them.”

              Of course not. They’re not like Catholics, after all.

              “Atheism isn’t a religion and we don’t have a pope or a creed or a Bible or someone who excommunicates us if we disagree with someone else. ”

              There are people out there who come up with heirarchies, though. “Oh, he’s not a good atheist” is something that, I shit you not, I have heard said unironically.

              “I’m sure I could find many essays written by religious thinkers that say gays and lesbians should be jailed, forcibly re-educated or executed.

              Does that mean all religious people agree with them?
              I’m sure I could find many essays written by religious thinkers that say gays and lesbians should be jailed, forcibly re-educated or executed. Does that mean all religious people agree with them?”

              Not at all.

              But if I was talking about the 700 Club types, you’d have a good idea of the type of folk I’d be talking about despite the fair claim that each of these people is a beautiful and unique snowflake.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                So Robert Wright asserts that “New Atheists” (a self-serving label) are hawks. And we’re supposed to accept as the defense against the obvious fact that he is extrapolating some New Atheists’ predilections across an unspecified range of them the following: “We’re not saying New Atheists are hawks; we’re saying New Atheist Hawks are hawks!” Just pure gibberish.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Would you like me to say that Robert Wright is making a sweeping generalization that has obvious counter-examples, enough for any reasonable person to say that he’s wrong and New Atheists are not hawks any more they are doves?

                Consider it said.Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            I’m a non- denominational Atheist. I don’t go to the meetings on Sundays or even on our high holidays so I may be out of the loop.

            There is no foreign policy position for Atheism. Trying to get Atheists to agree is akin to betting a bunch of libertarians to agree or herding cats.

            Who are these Atheist Hawks aside from Hitchens???Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Hitchens, like PZ Myers, has people who tend to quote him in any given situation. I’ve argued with folks who think that Islam is something that needs to be replaced with a more progressive post-theism.

              Now, are these people representative of atheism as a whole? No, of course not. Very little is representative of atheism as a whole apart from the lack of theism (materialism isn’t as prevalent as I’d like, sadly).Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    The “new atheism” isn’t hawkish or any other political term. It is an outspoken group of writers/ thinkers who are saying things about religion that many have felt but haven’t had a wide public stage. Hitchens is quite a blow hard on any topic. And I would agree the demonisation of religion is way over the top. But none of that is hawkish in any way the term is used presently.

    I don’t see any drive to convince others to be Atheist. There is a drive to be open about Atheism, to explain and find a space in the public discussion of belief. Atheist’s are not handing out flyers, knocking on doors and getting tax breaks for their buildings.Report

  3. Avatar Travis says:

    Wright’s sweeping generalization is patently absurd. Dawkins != all atheists.

    It’s like saying “Christianity is homophobic” because Pat Robertson’s a homophobe.

    I like P.Z. Myers’ response.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/wrong_from_the_title_on.phpReport

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      He’s talking about the New Atheists.Report

      • Avatar Travis says:

        “New Atheists” is a stupid neologism.

        Atheism simply isn’t going to hide in the closet anymore. Call me a “New Atheist” if you like, it’s not any different than it was before.

        Why is it OK for religious groups to proselytize, recruit and advertise, but as soon as atheists do it there’s something suspect, they’re “new” and different and bad?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I think that the point is that when atheists do it they’re not particularly new, not particularly different, and just as bad.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Not particularly new. So it’s an ironical moniker?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Heh. Touche’.

              Having thought about it some more, I think that the case could well be made that it’s being used interchangably with “uppity”.

              But there is a different undercurrent than atheism used to have. It’s regressing to the mean. Maybe that’s also what is meant by it.Report

        • Why is it OK for religious groups to proselytize, recruit and advertise, but as soon as atheists do it there’s something suspect, they’re “new” and different and bad?

          So you’re saying you like those aspects of Christianity?Report

          • Avatar Travis says:

            Whether I like them or not is immaterial. Those aspects of Christianity are not going to go away. They have the right to free speech, protected by the First Amendment, and I certainly do not believe their ability to proselytize, recruit and advertise should be materially restricted. I generally believe in the marketplace of ideas and, as a journalist, I am a firm believer in the idea that freedom of speech should be nearly inviolable.

            But in the marketplace of ideas, atheism for too long essentially went entirely unrepresented. We didn’t put ourselves in the public square and thus Christianity has often gone unchallenged. The battle to de-Christianize the public schools has gone on for decades, for example, and it’s only recently that the teaching of creationism in science classrooms has been definitively established as unconstitutional.

            If Christian groups are going to continue to exert their influence in the public arena based on the belief that their religious doctrine should be established as civil law, then atheists need to stand up and fight back. We’re now doing so.Report

            • I think it’s completely relevant since you seem to be operating in a two-wrongs-make-a-right scenario.

              It’s the job of scientist and educators to defend the classroom…not atheists.Report

              • Avatar Travis says:

                It’s not simply “defending the classroom.” It’s rejecting any attempt by religious groups to impose their beliefs as civil law or to have their activities funded by the taxpayer dollar.

                Atheists also often play a strong role in rejecting religious-influenced attempts at blocking scientific research.

                Here’s P.Z. Myers ridiculing a Republican-backed bill which sounds nice on the surface – “ban human-animal hybrids” – but which would, in reality, make illegal all sorts of scientific research and experimentation, much of which promises to benefit human life. Like genetically modified pigs that could grow human organs for transplantation.

                http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/why_do_they_hate_the_manimal.phpReport

              • Avatar Travis says:

                “Scientist” and “atheist” happen to overlap far more than in the rest of the population. P.Z. Myers, for example.Report

              • With PZ I tend to think more of an overlap between ‘dick’ and ‘atheist’. Quoting him is like quoting Pat Robertson for the moderate Christian perspective.

                I’m not saying that the instrusion of religion into the classroom shouldn’t be fought…I’m just suggesting that a group with a less partisan agenda should be mounting the defense. When atheists get on board one wonders if they are really pro-science or just anti-religion.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Partisan agenda? Okay, whatever that means…

                In any case, you are here clearly exhibiting exactly the bias against those who believe in no-god that requires them to stand up and be heard in an effort to legitimize their position. If any group is going to be moved to defend science in the classroom, it’s going to be atheists. Why the hell shouldn’t they do it.

                What they shouldn’t do is insist that all children be that there is certainly no god. But they certainly should be just as free to speak out into the adult marketplace as loud as they please that there is no god and here’s why. And if they believe religion poisons everything, they should say that too.Report

              • I think the case against ID is much more convincing coming from scientists and educators than atheists. If those scientists and educators happen to be atheists, good for them. But ‘atheists as defenders of science’ is a joke. It’s mostly ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. They aren’t in the fight nearly as much to keep science pure as they are to keep religion out.Report

  4. Avatar Travis says:

    I should note that Wright’s conclusion about Dawkins is completely wrong. There is no way on Earth you can call Richard Dawkins “right-wing.” Dawkins is a noted opponent of the Iraq war, of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, of religious attitudes toward bioethics and of essentially everything else the American right wing supports.

    What does his assertion that the Israel/Palestine conflict wouldn’t exist but for religion have to do with the right or the left side of the spectrum?Report

    • Avatar Travis says:

      Dawkins even supports the abolition of the British monarchy – and he’s supposed to be right-wing? Tosh.Report

      • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

        Travis,

        Wright is saying the foreign policy of the Big Name New Atheists is right-wing. Undoubtedly their social policy would be considered left, but that’s not his point.

        Their FP is right-wing because they have uni-causal explanations. Religion automatically is the source of all the problems, hence the solution means eradicating religion. And since the religion in question is really Islam (per FOREIGN policy), then their recommendations become some variation of destroy Islam. i.e. They buy into the Clash of Civilizations paradigm. Which is a right-wing position. Certainly Hitchens does as does I think Harris. Who I heard once in a discussion with Reza Aslan say everything going wrong in Afghanistan was because of Islam. I mean their poor people everywhere else in the world, not Muslim, and they aren’t terrorists?

        The stupidity of that statement is hard to really to get my head around.

        Same thing with Wright’s quotation of Dawkins’ (politically) ignorant statement that religion is the only thing that causes the Israel-Palestine issue. Um, no.

        Being a very smart natural scientist does not mean one know much about politics and history.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          Hitchens certainly, Harris to some extent as well. The Dawkins statement on I-P was certainly oversimplistic, but I can’t see how it was right-wing. What other examples are being offered?

          One problem with Wright’s methods (again: not a scientist) is that too often for him two make a trend.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            …Basically he (Wright) just desperately wants to tar “New Atheists” with whatever disagreeableness he can get to stick as a warning to “all atheists” to not get too uppity about saying what they believe too loudly.Report

            • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

              Michael,

              I don’t think that’s right. What Wright is arguing is that religions historically act best when they are in social systems that are non-zero sum. In zero-sum situations religions (esp. the Abrahamic ones but not just them) will act aggressively and cause destruction. Hence it’s strategically better to create scenarios that will tend to bring forth the better angels side. He’s not against atheists speaking their mind. What BW is saying is that when guys like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris argue that religion is the source of all our problems that stridency is only going to feed a self-fulfilling prophecy as it will invoke the reactive potentialities of religion by fostering zero-sumness.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Yes, that is all what he is saying in TEoG. But in this quick-hitter, he is clearly trying to tie certain particular public intellectuals of whom he disapproves to a publicly reviled ideology. It’s all about labels in that piece, and furthermore, he doesn’t have the goods. Hitchens is a sometimes neocon, Harris I take it is something of one as well. He is flat-wrong about Dawkins. Who else is he talking about? Similarly to his “design hypothesis” of higher purpose, he has a complex and theoretically interesting theory about why all this might be happening if it were happening, but no phenomenon to point to, or else no way to connect his theory to a phenomenon he wants to connect it to.

                Separately, he does indeed object to atheists speaking their mind. In the diavlog with Horgan you blogged, he specifically says that he objects to the idea that anyone claims with certainty that there is a god, or is not, and says he wants people not to do so. If there is anyone who is militant in this debate, it is he who is in fact a militant agnostic.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                The bit about the warning about getting uppity I inferred from that part of that diavlog, though I admit it was something of a bromide and not really supported.

                I’m actually a huge, huge fan of Robert Wright. I think his work is fascinating, just slightly misguided. And bloggingheads is the bomb. So I regret that indiscretion (even though I still think there is a tiny grain of truth in it).Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Would Leo Strauss (and his intellectual progeny) count?Report

  5. Avatar greginak says:

    Yes I did read the piece. He quotes some people being naïve about the difference between ethnicity and religion. Hawkish to me reads as pro-war, quick and eager to use military force and a belief that armed force is the best solution to problems. I’m not seeing that among the “new atheists.” Just because Hitchens is a hawk does that mean all Atheists are. I’m not sure about the conclusion that Atheists are lefty either. I’ve met plenty of righty Atheists. Atheists by their nature do not have a leader or Pope, so no one person gets to speak for all or even many Atheists.Report

  6. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Christopher Hitchens is no Bertrand Russell.Report