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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.

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The “Clinton Party”? Hmmmm…

Howard Fineman wrote in HuffPo today about a couple of victories yesterday in Pennsylvania.  The two candidates he wrote about got the benefit of the Big Dawg’s endorsement.  In Kathleen Kane’s case, the former president called the candidate for PA attorney general’s campaign and offered to do a fundraiser.  He pointedly did not offer to do one for her competition, Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was an early endorser of Barack Obama’s in 2008.

In another case, Rep. Jason Altmire, who stayed neutral during 2008, asked Bill for assistance and was turned down.  Altmire lost the primary last night to Clinton endorsed candidate Mark Critz, who used to work for John Murtha, an early supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Fineman says that there are actually three parties in PA, the Democrats, the Republicans and the Clintons.  The Clintons are still wildly popular there.  Then he goes on to discuss Hillary’s supposed run for the White House in 2016.  Suddenly, everyone in the media is just wild about Hillary- in four years.  But it makes me wonder, if so many people are non-plussed by Obama and can’t stand the thought of the Republicans taking over and seem to be voting for Clinton endorsed candidates, why exactly do we have to wait four years?  Just askin’, because Obama’s prospects at winning the White House are ny no means assured.    Can’t anyone in politics think out of the box anymore?

Anyway, there’s more idle speculation in the Fineman post.  Of course, it’s Fineman and the Village probably doesn’t deserve anymore recognition or propagation of its conventional wisdom.  And for all we know, the Village is just exaggerating the tense detente between the Clinton and Obama camps.  They’re bored and they’d rather stir up some animosity and watch what happens, no matter how it affects the lives of ordinary Americans.  “Let’s talk up Hillary to piss off the Obots and then, pull the rug out from all of the hopeful voters.  Won’t that be fun?”  Just another case of election year journalists trying to make the news instead of reporting on it.

Nevertheless, there is a chewy nugget of truth in yesterday’s victories and before the lefty progressive anti-Clintonites start taking credit for it, let’s pause and consider if the older generation of Pennsylvanians aren’t nostalgic for better times and whether their votes for Clinton endorsed candidates are a swipe against Barack Obama and the Democratic party pony he rode in on.

*************

Here’s another little bit from that Fineman post that had me in stitches:

Hillary’s almost stoic durability was on display recently at a State Department briefing in the Franklin Dining Room, a colossal expanse festooned with marble pillars, crystal chandeliers and oil paintings of dead diplomats.

A sensible minute past the appointed time, Hillary swept in, casually carrying a mug of tea and a sheaf of briefing papers. She wore a handsome black-and-white pantsuit, an extra-long strand of double pearls and the look of an envoy supremely confident in her role, her knowledge and her station in life. She took three questions and three questions only — they run a tight ship at State — and answered them with clipped authority. Then, with a thin, business-like smile, she turned and left the room.

“She’s not the one with the sweeping vision,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “That’s Obama’s role. But she’s pragmatic and sensible. I’d say that she has a solid, workmanlike record.”

LOLOLOLOLOL!  {{wiping eyes, catching breath, straightening clothes}}

In other words, she’s overqualified to be Secretary of State.

Ok, I’ll take stoic durability, supreme confidence, knowledge and authority over Obama’s “sweeping vision” any day.

Like it matters

Thou shall count to thrrrrree

I read Charles Pierce’s delightful evisceration of Ross Douthat’s new book yesterday.  Ross is pining for the old time religion, which is Catholic, and preferably the old Latin mass variety.  Gosh, remember the days when we all wore lace doilies on our heads and gloves, carried rosary beads everywhere and couldn’t understand a single word that Father Gentili said?

Anyway, if we all just went back to mass and did what the Pope told us and stayed in the rigid little boxes that conservative religion creates for us and stopped searching the internet for answers to the questions that we all have about who wrote the bible and why Jesus didn’t leave explicit instructions about his succession and code of conduct, we’d all be a lot better off.  Don’t question anything and no one gets hurt.

Ross is also hung up over something called the Didache, which I’ve never heard of.  It turns out this mysterious tome has some proscriptions against abortion that Christians are supposed to follow.  Hallelujah for that one since the rest of the bible doesn’t seem to have an opinion on abortion or birth control.  There’s some stuff in the Old Testament about compensating a man for the loss of a fetus due to injury to the mother but it’s a bit tenuous when applied to abortions of fetuses where the paternal unit doesn’t really give a f^&*.

But whatever it is that Douthat is still yearning for is eclipsed by the fact that so many of us out here don’t care about his esoteric scribblings about which ancient 1st and 2nd century texts have the true religion.  If he wants to be the next Saint Augustine, great, but I don’t feel compelled to read his stuff as if it is saying something important to me.  I don’t know if Douthat knows this or not but the Roman Catholic church no longer rules the western world and hasn’t since Henry VIII chucked it out of England.

Former Pentacostal pastor turned atheist Jerry DeWitt says it best: we frequently feel compelled to invest more of our lives in a concept than in the people who most deserve our attention- our family members and friends.  I’d rather live in the present than bury myself in the musty, dusty texts of people who lived thousands of years ago when flush toilets hadn’t been invented and when a husband could direct his wife to expose girl babies to the elements. I’m not sure I want to be pulled back to the 1st century and I’d really appreciate it if people like Douthat would stop trying to take us there.

The thing that irritates me about some religious conservatives like Douthat is their insistence that as many people as possible think just like they do.  Divergence of opinion is simply unacceptable and they will not give up trying to convert you until you fit into their predertermined worldview.  They remind me of pathologically obsessive-compulsive people who have to touch doorknobs three times or must have vacuum tracks on their carpets that cannot be disturbed by children.  People like that need to get as many people as possible around them to comply so that they’re not driven crazy by imperfections and inconsistencies.  They need medication, not indulgence.

Besides, there is something that Douthat simply refuses to acknowledge (or is freaking out about).  Many of us don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god, bible and religion.  I don’t know where Douthat has been in the past several decades but there are a lot of people of different faiths here in the US of A and not all of them have a stick up their butt about the bible like Douthat has.  Not only that but there are some people who don’t believe in a god at all.  And as DeWitt says, once you don’t believe, you have only two choices.  You can admit that you don’t believe and be true to yourself, or you could pretend to believe.  Pretending to believe is called faith and a lot of people do it.  It is belief in something in the complete absence of evidence.  And, you know, if that’s what you want to do, knock yourself out.  Don’t let me or anyone else stand in your way.  Just don’t expect the rest of us to act like it matters.

Here’s a clip of DeWitt talking about free will, predestination, faith and why did God put that tree in the garden of Eden in the first place:

God needs a major upgrade and rewrite but let’s not give a project of that importance to a twit like Douthat.