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Hitchens and New Atheism

The Four Horsemen

I followed a link from Susie’s page to this post by Steve Volk about the deification of Christopher Hitchens and how new atheism gets so many things wrong.  {{rolling eyes}}

I have to agree in one respect about the deification of Hitchens.  I don’t get it either.  Hitchens was in many respects as irrational as the religious right when it came to war in Iraq.  He was a founder of Clinton Derangement Syndrome.  And I’ll never forget George Galloway calling him a “drink soaked former Trotskyite popinjay”.  That’s not an insult people hear everyday (at least since the 19th century), but, oddly, it seemed to fit.

So, no, Hitchens is not my favorite guy.  He seemed a bit too “queen bee” for me. If you were on his sY*( list, he and his little band of followers would devote years to taunting and ridicule in a manner reminiscent of middle school lunch period.

But I do understand why so many people in the New Atheist community have adopted him as their Joan of Arc.  For one thing, Hitchens was not afraid to say he was an atheist and he was one of the few people who had a platform and a megaphone to wear the atheists’ colors and do battle.  Yeah, he was sometimes arrogant and militant about it but if you’ve had religion shoved down your throat involuntarily for decades and you’re not getting anywhere, you need a crusader (so to speak) on your side.  Plus, he had a wicked way with words, so there’s that.

The other thing I think they admire him for is the way he handled his terminal illness.  He looked death in the face and did not go screaming to Jesus.  They liked that about him.  It’s sort of like being a prisoner undergoing torture and not cracking or turning on his friends.  Death got his name, rank and serial number and nothing else.  He might have been a royal pain in the ass to his adversaries but he was courageous to the end.

There is somewhat of a legendary status about the Four Horsemen, ie the four atheist leaders and philosophers who met one day a few years ago and hashed out what New Atheism means.  Those four are Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris.  Four guys.  Yep, we have a problem here but hopefully, women like Cristina Rad and Greta Christina will start to get more attention.  Anyway, the Four Horsemen videos have achieved something of a cult status on YouTube.  Occasionally, they look like they’re taking themselves much too seriously in this video. Hitchens lounges on his chair like some decadent Byronic antihero and sips his drink while the four of them try to figure out what they’re going to do about this responsibility they have had thrust upon them.  What I get out of the videos is that I would much rather have dinner with Dawkins than any of the others.  He seems positive, friendly and youthfully optimistic in these videos. We could talk about evolutionary traces and form and function of protein domains and stuff like that…

Where was I?  Offtrack again, right?

Anyway, enough of Hitch.  If some people want to admire him, so what?  I won’t be one of them but that just goes to show that even among outsiders, er, I’m a bit of an outsider.  I understand that he was a good friend and if some of his friends want to remember him with a statue, well, it’s better than one of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush so why not?

But I do have problems with the Steve Volk’s defense of religion and dismissal of the New Atheists.  For one thing, he doesn’t seem to understand why it is that a lot of kids from religious households don’t get into trouble as teens.  It’s because they aren’t allowed to do anything.  Trust me on this, I’ve been there.  They’re watched all. the. time.  But when they move away from home, they tend to go overboard so there is a conservation of outrageous behavior in the universe after all and probably a nasty equation to go with it.

The idea that atheists’ concept of god as an old bearded man is probably accurate.  Many atheists reject the irrational, jealous, vengeful god as described in the bible.  But they have a much more advanced concept of the universe and the natural world and that is more interesting than any abstract concept of a light filled being to them.  It’s also easier to prove that the universe exists than an abstract omniscient, omnipotent light filled being who also tends to be jealous, vengeful and irrational.  I’m still open to God 2.0, the major revision, but I’m waiting for proof.  No more Vaporware. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But here are the paragraphs that I really have a problem with:

I could go on. But my point here is simply that grievous inaccuracy is never a good strategy in debate or as a matter of persuasion. So I think the new atheists have often hampered their own cause just by being wrong. Tell someone who is receiving these benefits of religion that it “poisons everything” and they are likely to believe you—and the movement you represent—don’t know what you’re talking about.  And beyond that, it seems to me, they’d be right. So yeah, the new atheist movement would be better off acknowledging the nuances of the debate. But nuance, with rare exception, doesn’t seem to be part of the basic new atheism skill set.

Religion contributes to division, the sort “us” versus “them” thinking that leads to war, goes the new atheist battle cry. It’s a clear, black and white argument, they make, visible in the pages of our history books. But that most secular of political movements, communism, produced copious bloodshed and misery and squashed the whole concept of individual liberty in the bargain. So clearly, the human condition, our penchant for selfishness and anger, catches us all—believers and nonbelievers alike. So…what exactly was their point about religion leading to violence, anyway? Because from the vantage point of history it seems abundantly clear that what leads to violence is being human.

Maybe Volk should have a talk with the women of Arizona or Texas or Mississippi whose bodily autonomy has been defined by the religious right.  Or maybe he should talk to the women of Wisconsin who just lost their legal protections for equal pay.  Or maybe he should talk to gays and women who have had their rights undermined by taxpayer funded “faith based initiatives”.  Rational people who value equality and justice have been undermined for decades by the religious who seem to think they have a right to divide the population into the privileged and blessed by god vs the disenfranchised, damned and unfit for society.  The religious lead a crusade to get us into a land war in Asia against muslims and they have a history of violent crusades and jihads.  When was the last time a bunch of atheists invaded a country and went all Clockwork Orange on it?

I don’t know if I would say the New Atheists are contributing to division so much as standing up and redrawing some firm boundaries between church and state that the rest of us have neglected.  Volk also seems to have forgotten that this country was penned into existence by secularists so, you know, maybe the problem with other failed secular political movements has as much to do with authoritarianism and the weaknesses of human nature and not so much to do with secularism, right, Steve?  Just reason it out.  It’s not that hard.

We’re entering a new period of inequality that is being aided and abetted by the religious and if the New Atheists are willing to fight back against that, count me in their corner.

More on the Reason Rally: What the left can learn from the godless

Jesus rides a dinosaur at The Reason Rally, March 24, 2012

Brooke woke up earlier than her customary “crack of noon” wakeup on the weekends and is now busily draining my hot water tank for her “hour shower”. (note to self: commence 5 minute shower training regimen for upcoming exchange trip to Germany) All this is to say that once she’s awake and has fed that monster that lives in her stomach, she can set about to download her pictures.

In the meantime, I want to talk about what I think the left can learn from the Reason Rally and vice versa. This is really important because although movements like Occupy have struck a nerve with the public and have reintroduced morality into our public discourse (that’s what the “we are the 99%” mantra is all about), it suffers from something that the Reason Rally already has- established community organizations or just organization, period.

Organization is not a bad thing. Getting together and having a show is much easier to do when you plan and delegate. It’s also much harder for police to breakup. The people on the mall yesterday were every bit as committed as anyone who has attended an Occupy event. They are just as concerned with the erosion of our constitutional rights, just as concerned with the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised and just as committed to do something about it. But they choose to do it through the groups they have already established. They are humanist, secularist, rationalist, freethought, atheist and skeptic groups. They’ve been around for awhile but in just the past few years, they have seen an explosion of their ranks. Here are a few things that set them apart from the Occupy movement:

1.) They organize conferences. There are a number of freethought, skeptic and atheist conferences across the country. Some of these happen in colleges, like Skepticon, which is held each year in Missouri. But there are also a lot of freethought groups scattered all over the bible belt in places like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and even Mississippi. Find a venue that won’t be raided by dudes in riot gear and invite some speakers. This last point is important. The kind of people who went to the Reason Rally are the kind you might have seen at early Occupy marches. They are ordinary, middle class and working class people and their kids. But what you won’t see at a Reason Rally event is batallions of storm troopers. I didn’t see a strong police presence at all at yesterday’s rally.

2.) They write books. Many of the invited speakers for yesterday’s rally in Washington have written very popular books that fall into the category of what I will call The New Enlightenment (shout out to Dan Barker who started a “Tell me what Enlightenment looks like, This is what Enlightenment looks like!”) Some of those books, like Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, are well known and popular. Others, like Dan Barker’s Godless is a *de-conversion* story, and we’ve all seen the power of personal testimonials at DailyKos. The important thing is that the these de-conversions broke new ground. It’s important that religious insiders write them because it comes from an authentic place and those insiders know how the “company” works. Other speakers like Michael Shermer, write on morality. It is important for your prospective audience to know what issues you are wrestling with so they can engage and dissent. And dissent is crucial to growing confidence in a movement. That’s how ideas grow and breakthroughs happen. Your audience shouldn’t be afraid to challenge you on your statements and that leads to something that I think the Reason Rally participants value most of all (I’ll get to that at the end).

3.) They use media in many forms to reach out to others outside the group. There are a number of podcasts and community television programs that are employed so that outsiders have a chance to interact and learn. One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed about New Enlightment leaders is that they’ve found their niches of specialization pretty easily and are developing their talents in that specialization. Richard Dawkins is like a guru. He is full of wonder at the breathtaking beauty of nature and he communicates that very well. His audiences listen with rapt attention to the way he articulates what they are experiencing about the world and themselves without the interference of dogma. Jerry DeWitt of Recovering from Religion is another talented speaker who encourages us to live fully in the present and be joyful about our own uniqueness and individuality. Other leaders inspire through humor or entertainment, like Tim Minchin or Eddie Izzard. I’d even put Dan Barker in this category because his Friendly Neighborhood Atheist song (please put this online, guys. It’s delightful), which was a homage to the very decent Fred Rogers, can take the heat out of possible conflict with gentle humor and musicality. Some leaders are very good on YouTube. That media suits their deftness with editing their stream of consciousness thoughts into brilliant arguments. I’m thinking Cristina Rad, AronRa, Thunderfoot and Evid3nc3. Still others like Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) who is involved with the Secular Student Alliance, Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist) and Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience) engage the public through dialogue in a radio and TV format. You can call in and ask them anything. If you’re a feminist, check out The Godless Bitches with Beth Presswood and friends. Then there are watchdog groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation who work with lawyers and the law to make sure the rights of non-believers are respected. They defend people like Jessica Ahlquist, see to it that they don’t go it alone and know they have support and the law behind them. Or Sean Faircloth’s lobbying effort through the Secular Coalition of America. In short, there is something for everyone. You pick the level and method of your involvement and there will be a community out there for it.

4.) They learned from the experiences of other groups. Greta Christina, atheist activist, has a brilliant piece about what the non-believer community can learn from the LGBT community and the similarities are striking between the two groups. People like Greta are invaluable in pointing out how to avoid the pitfalls of the groups that went before you and where you might even speed up the process or avoid alienating your friends.

5.) Finally, and this is the most important part that I think is hardest to articulate, they have RIGOR. What is rigor? Well, from a labrat’s POV, rigor is a hard quality to achieve. It is discipline of the mind to learn to separate data from bias, experience from artifact and to be able to make conclusions that survive past the current set of observations. If your conclusions can’t be applied to new experiences, your method must be revised until they can. A method must have rigor or it’s a fucking useless piece of shit, excuse my French. That’s why sciencey types are always asking questions and poking holes in other people’s arguments. They’re not trying to be pains in the asses (unless they’re suckups who are trying to impress their bosses). They are looking for rigor. And you shouldn’t be insulted when they ask you to defend yourself. In fact, it’s kind of a challenge of equals. You show me your evidence, I’ll show you mine and we’ll do sort of mental fencing and see who wins. You should have the evidence, data and preliminary conclusions to back up what you are saying. It’s only when you don’t have that evidence, and then refuse to acknowledge that you need it, that the rationally minded individual starts to pigeon hole you as a nutter or ignorant or most of the time, just plain lazy.

When Fox News types accuse the Reason Rally audience as simply having faith of a different kind, those leaders can come back with, “not really, we just have rigor!“. That ought to send the Fundies scrambling for their dictionaries.

But a lot of the left is just as plain lazy and ignorant as those on the right. They’re just lazy about different things. The right goes on about God and faith and evolution and can just be tiresome after awhile. And on the left, the stupid non-rigorous posturing about GM food, vaccines, and homeopathic remedies gets really old as well. Yes, they may actually be good or bad for you but where is your rigor?

The left needs to be on its guard, but frequently isn’t, to people who will seek to exploit this lack of rigor for their own ends. We may all laugh at Michelle Bachmann’s crazy talk about the HPV vaccine causing brain damage but the left doesn’t blink an eye when some equally crazy person on the left makes the claim that bee colonies are being wiped out by GM corn. Whole websites have been known to eat that bit of “vacuous crap” without question. And it doesn’t need to be said at this point that if the left had been more rigorous in its selection process in 2008, it wouldn’t have been rolled by the Democratic party’s PR operatives into supporting the weakest candidate that moderate Republicans would find acceptable.

Failures like these hurt the left because when it starts to respond with emotion rather than reason, it can often fail to identify the real causes for alarm. It makes the left less effective advocates or adversaries because emotion and faith is easy to dismiss. In fact, there are just as many people on the left who haven’t got a clue what “critical thinking skills” are as there are on the right. It just a term that sounds good and smart. But from what I have seen of the left, there’s a lot of learning to do about what it means to think critically. It is vitally important that we learn to do so as quickly as possible because evidence and rigor are much more deadly than mere tribal beliefs when we seek to disarm our adversaries.

So, what I would advise Occupy to do is to start applying more rigor to its methods. It should not be afraid to challenge its own beliefs. It is a good thing to apply the scientific method. You know that there is widespread suffering. You know that people are being exploited, cheated, mislead. You want to do something about it. Doing something positive about negative things that are destroying your society is a very laudable goal. It will contribute to the overall happiness of society. But to do this, it is not simply enough to get angry and protest. You must also get smart. You need to put aside your prejudices, emotions and biases and apply a more rigorous method for developing your proposed solutions. Collect evidence, ask questions, recruit experts, solicit advice, analyze carefully, eliminate noise and concentrate on signal and test your conclusions. Accept challenges. I understand that some Occupy working groups are already doing this. The one that came out with the thorough, well researched response letter to the financial crisis is a case in point. But the ones that have to do with science and pharma are still mired in some very non-rigorous debate and pseudoscience that is not going to be helpful. It just looks stupid, from my perspective, and should get the same kind of treatment that Tim Minchin gave to Storm.

When I heard Minchin’s poem for the first time yesterday, I immediately thought of some people on the left I’ve met. What a waste. Without rigor, some of them do just come off looking like Dirty Fucking Hippies. They might be right but all their opponents see is incense, astrological charts and an easily lead mind that poses no threat to them. It is really important for the left to challenge the lazy thinking of some of its adherents and not be afraid to tell them when it’s utter crap. Policing your own will greatly enhance your reputation.

Ok, I’m off of my soapbox now. I do have to say that after the past couple of months, reviewing all of the material online and attending the Reason Rally yesterday, that I think the two major parties are engaging in poo-flinging and I don’t want any part in it anymore. I think I’m ready to finally give up the Democrats altogether, even though that’s where my sympathies are. The question is, are the Democratic party’s sympathies with its base? The overwhelming evidence of its actions over the past several election cycles is very clearly No. I’m ready for The New Enlightenment and where it’s going. That doesn’t mean I think Occupy is a waste of time. Far from it. I think Occupy has tremendous potential but only in that it needs to intersect with The New Enlightement and learn from it to make it an effective tool against growing authoritarianism. But there needs to be a new foundation laid upon which we base our worldview and the Reason Rally participates are actively engaging in doing it while the left is still struggling out of a fog. Greta Christina would probably recommend that we reach out to each group and form a coalition with each other. Let’s try that.

Here again is Tim Minchin’s poem Storm as he delivered it yesterday at The Reason Rally:

How big will the Reason Rally be?

I just booked two tickets for the Reason Rally bus and tickets were going fast.  There were only a few spaces left on the bus.  This may be a bigger turnout than I anticipated.

If you are a secular American and you’re tired of our government bowing to the religious who throw bronze age rules and regulations in your face, consider attending.  Richard Dawkins is going to speak as well as Adam Savage from Mythbusters, Greta Christina and many others.  The purpose of the rally is to demonstrate our numbers and that we can be a formidable voting bloc.  This voting bloc wants reason to prevail in the way we run our government, make our laws, educate our children and maintain our privacy.  You do not have to be a non-believer to attend this rally.  All that is required is a desire to protect the separation of church and state.

The attack on reason is gathering steam.  In addition to the new regulations on abortion and contraception sweeping the nation, Tennessee has just passed a Monkey Bill which will mandate that science classrooms teach that evolution and climate change are controversial subjects.  While reasonable people can debate the degree to which human activity contributes to global warming, there is nothing “controversial” about the subject of evolution.  It happened and continues to happen. I see it in the sequences I download and proteins I study every day.  There is no better evidence.  The only thing that is controversial about it is scientists’ opinion on why the religious right refuses to believe an incontrovertible truth.  Some say it’s stupidity, while people like me say it’s indoctrination.  It’s a controversy.  Can we discuss that in Tennessee classrooms?

And for those of you who just can’t get enough politics, here is a very informative video of Sean Faircloth, author of Attack of the Theocrats on the strategy for secular success.

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