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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.