With religious fervour

On the ‘New Atheists’

Giovanni Tiso reads the recently published transcript of the famous 2007 conversation between ‘New Atheists’ Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and asks why ridiculing your targets with sceptical tools has been so influential.

Is it time we paid a visit again to the New Atheists? Penguin Random House seem to think so, for earlier this year they published a full transcript of the famous conversation on faith that Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris had in the autumn of 2007 at the Hitchens residence in Washington DC. The title is the phrase once used to describe the intimidating reputation of that quartet of iconoclastic intellectuals: The Four Horsemen. Yet the decision to revisit that event in the Year of our Lord 2019 poses some questions. Is this the post-mortem of the ‘atheist revolution’ that the conversation supposedly ‘sparked’ – per the book’s subtitle – or is it one last attempt to cash in on the significant commercial success that those authors enjoyed at the time? Perhaps a little of both. It is clear after reading The Four Horsemenhow quickly and poorly the material has dated, which raises yet more questions: how did such a transparently flawed intellectual project hold sway for so long among so many, and what are the lessons for those who wish to reclaim ‘science’ and ‘reason’ for a more inclusive and progressive politics?

Most immediately jarring when approaching the book is its rhetorical stance, a mix of assured belligerence and petulant self-regard. The chief preoccupation of the horsemen appears to be twofold: to defend their own reputation as good-faith seekers of the truth; and to lay waste to a largely imaginary opponent. The very first topic of the conversation is ‘offence’. ‘Why are religious people so sensitive?’ the foursome ask. And why do they think we are ‘strident or arrogant or vitriolic or shrill’, when it’s clearly all their fault? ‘The thing about religious people is that they recite the Nicene Creed every week,’ says Dawkins, rhetorically converting everyone to Christianity, ‘and yet they have the gall to accuse us of being overconfident’. Dennett echoes: ‘The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude’. To which Harris responds: ‘Our criticism is actually more barbed than that. We’re not merely offending people, we’re also telling them that they’re wrong to be offended’. Dennett again: ‘And there there’s no polite way to say to somebody…,’ Harris completes the sentence, cheerfully: ‘You’ve wasted your life!’

These, remember, are four adults incredulous that people call them arrogant. The almost heroic lack of self-awareness eventually culminates in Hitchens’ plea that the group be entitled to ‘laugh people out’ of their most contradictory beliefs. In fact, he declares, ‘I think we must’.

‘Laughing people out of their faith’ does not sound quite as grandiose and laudable an activity as the phrase ‘New Atheism’ might suggest, but on balance it seems more accurate. Now, as we survey what’s left of the movement from its smouldering ruins, we may wonder what the fuss was about, and how the authors managed to build such formidable straw men of religion and human history on their way to selling millions of books. But New Atheism was never about faith nor, indeed, atheism. It was about asserting the supremacy of western culture in spite of the enduring place of religion in western institutions and societies, for the purpose of giving renewed justification to western imperialism. It doesn’t matter that three of the four horsemen were initially opposed to the war in Iraq, for theirs was always primarily a war against Islam itself.

Arnaldo Dell’Ira (1903–1943), floor mosaic for the projected “Scuola di Guerra”, 1939-1940. Elaboration of the original drawings kept in the Archivio Dell’Ira. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The conversation provides ample evidence of this. ‘Is there any remote chance of a reformed, reasonable Islam?’ asks Dennett – who, by all accounts, should be remembered as the moderate, reasonable one. ‘There is a conflict between Islam and modernity’, adds Harris, and ‘you can find instances in the history of Islam where people weren’t running around waging jihad,’ but that’s ‘because they had successfully waged jihad’. Dawkins’s contribution to this topic is relatively tame, although he would more than make up for it in years to come by selecting Islam (‘the greatest force for evil in the world today’) as the primary target for his late-stage incarnation as internet troll. As for Hitchens – who did support the war in Iraq, and who still worshipped at the altar of ‘Saddam had WMDs’ by the time of his death, in 2011 – he gives us the most terse and memorable position statement of all: ‘I think it’s us, plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st, who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy’.

It barely needs pointing out but, just in case, a footnote helpfully informs us that the 82nd and the 101st are two airborne infantry divisions of the US Army, active in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly, ‘laughing people out of their faith’ doesn’t seem quite so cheerful an enterprise – not when it is cluster bombs providing the punchline.

Even in their far less spirited attempts to deride religions other than Islam, or faith in general, the horsemen show a remarkable lack of psychological insight – or any interest whatsoever in trying to understand the inner life of other people except as an object of ridicule.

In one of his most unpleasant moments, Dawkins advances the idea that, deep down, religious people don’t actually believe, they just repeat the words ‘I do believe, I do believe, I do believe!’ like a mantra. Dennett bristles at the very mention of the eminent scientist Francis Collins, one of the leaders of the Human Genome project, whom he lambasts for thinking ‘that on Sunday you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus because you’re in the presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist’. The fact that Collins has demonstrably managed to marry his religious beliefs with the practice of science doesn’t give pause to any of the horsemen, who similarly have no time for people moved to acts of charity by their faith – that’s doing right for the wrong reasons and should barely be tolerated, certainly not commended. In other words, the four never seriously contemplate the possibility that religion, reason and ethics may not be absolutely exclusive, and that the former may have contributed to the historical development of the latter. As the scholar of atheism John Gray has noted, ‘The idea, for instance, that humanity has a collective identity is fundamentally a religious notion – that’s how it came to us’.

There is an almost disarming naivety behind the brash pronouncements of the horsemen. In the New Atheist worldview, the physical world has been made knowable by science, therefore faith is redundant. But religion cannot be removed from the social in so crude a fashion. Jeff Sparrow wrote in a 2015 Guardian piece on the New Atheists:

if you investigate the material basis of religious belief, you immediately confront a phenomenon that operates on many different levels. In particular circumstances and particular settings a faith may function as a guide to morality, or an aesthetic, or a social network, or a collection of cultural practices, or a political identity, or a historical tradition, or some combination of any or all of those things.

Science is a wonderful thing but it helps us very little with any of the above. As Gray has quipped, ‘The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics’, which surely is the central problem of modernity. And no, you can’t just do a global find/replace of ‘secular’ for ‘sacred’ in the collected texts of the history of philosophy to resolve it.

In the first instance, then, The Four Horsemen reminds us that the New Atheists harboured some very un-nuanced ideas. Which, again, raises the question: how did such a rough-hewn, 18th-century brand of scientism experience such a powerful revival at such a late stage? A possible explanation was suggested above: after 9/11, the west needed a secular justification for going to war with Islam – a need which was less acute but nonetheless present also in the US, where Hitchens evangelized. But there could be a second set of reasons, connected not to their ideas but to the shape of their arguments.

In a new essay for the book, portentously entitled ‘The hubris of religion, the humility of science, and the intellectual and moral courage of atheism,’ Dawkins quotes from a 2015 Scientific American article by Dennett and Deb Roy on the Darwinian implications of the ‘radical transparency’ driven by the internet: ‘We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before – and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles’.

Dawkins derives comfort from this. If so-called quorum sensing can regulate behaviour among something as simple as bacteria, he reasons, then the increased presence of atheists in public life, made visible through social media, can produce civilising results. ‘Certainly,’ he concludes, ‘the rise of the New Atheism was enabled in large measure by this expansion of mutual knowledge’.

The conversation between the four horsemen took place when Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were in their infancies. Soon, the horsemen’s books were not just being discussed on television panels and university campuses, but were also embraced by a generation of internet users with the most remarkable set of tools in the history of humanity with which to spread the word.

In a persuasive piece for the Baffler, Alex Nichols has placed New Atheism – understood as a predominantly male and predominantly online pastime – within a continuum that begins in the heyday of internet message boards in the 1990s, and leads in this decade to Gamergate and the rise of conservative provocateurs like Stefan Molyneux and Ben Shapiro, whose screeds purport to use LOGIC and REASON to DESTROY their opponents (the use of block capital letters being a key element of the vernacular). One of the horsemen played a starring role in one of the key transition points on this continuum. As Nichols explains:

In 2011, skeptic blogger Rebecca Watson described in a YouTube video how a male fellow attendee of an atheist conference had followed her into an elevator at 4AM in order to ask her on a date – behaviour that, understandably, made her uncomfortable. The community erupted into what was later remembered as ‘Elevatorgate’. A forum was created to harass Watson, and Richard Dawkins himself wrote a comment.

The reference is to an appalling post addressed by Dawkins to the imaginary figure of ‘Muslima’, a rhetorical device he employed to dismiss the sexism experienced by women in the sceptical/atheist community and Western societies more generally. It read in part:

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

A rhetorical woman appears inThe Four Horsemen, too. In his essay, Harris asks us to imagine that on this day a set of identical twin girls was born with microcephaly in Brazil due to their gestating mother having been bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus.

Imagine the woman herself a few months ago, doing everything within her power to prepare a happy life for her unborn daughters. Where does she work? A factory. How often does she pray? Daily, no doubt. But at the crucial moment she sleeps. Perhaps she’s dreaming of a world better than the one we live in. Picture a lone mosquito finding her open window. Picture it alighting upon her exposed arm. Will an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly benevolent God muster the slightest defence? Not even a breeze. The mosquito’s proboscis pierces her skin immediately. What are the faithful to believe at this point? One suspects they know that their God isn’t nearly as attentive as he would be if he actually existed.

I find this vignette quite upsetting. What are we to make of it? Does the existence of the mosquito and the fact that it’s prepared to bite a member of the flock prove that this woman’s God doesn’t exist? Is the fact that the woman works in a factory implicated in her faith? Is she unwittingly but nonetheless ultimately co-responsible for her own misfortune, by wasting her time in prayer instead of promoting scientific and medical discoveries?

These questions lead me to a larger point: this radical transparency supposedly introduced by the internet, this almost infinite ‘mutual knowledge’ that Dawkins and Dennett view as an engine of progress – where was it, when Muslima and the woman from Brazil were conjured up to win arguments against feminism and faith? Is it really true that we live in an age of deep communal understanding? Or is it possible, rather, that our instruments of social communication and inquiry are shaped in a way that permits only the act of trying to laugh people out of their beliefs?

Consider Twitter, a medium in which the three surviving horsemen all enjoy a mass following. There is something uniquely exhilarating about Twitter’s ability to put everyone in contact with everyone else. Yet this seemingly effortless erasure of social and geographical barriers comes at a cost. On Twitter, we have no personal or collective histories – there are only our utterances. It is a purely rhetorical space that favours argument over deliberation and invective over nuance or understanding. If, like the New Atheists, you believe that the most complex questions can be abstracted from their social context and reduced to binary opposites, then Twitter is a perfect vehicle for your ideas. This is what I mean by the shape of the New Atheist arguments, which perfectly matches the current operation of social media. Dawkins once tweeted: ‘I use language precisely & say exactly what I mean’. If you can believe that about yourself and about language, then of course the current iteration of the internet will seem a utopia of social transparency and mutual understanding.

In his 1927 lecture ‘Why I am not a Christian’, Bertrand Russell described the creed of the atheist: ‘We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it’.

I want to believe that this is still a task worth agitating for, but it requires profound changes in our tools of communication. Currently, the well from which we all drink has been poisoned – to use a metaphor dear to the New Atheists – by the debased logic of conspiracist thinking and by prejudice passing for scepticism. These have material causes, in the steady deterioration of economic and social relations. But conquering the world by intelligence also requires us to increase our knowledge of one another.

The internet once seemed poised to help us fulfil the aspiration. While that view was no doubt naïve, there is great value in the idealism that made that collective vision possible. We need a plan of radical reform for how we talk to one another. There can be no solidarity without understanding, no progress without a sense of genuine curiosity in how other people live – and the things they believe.

Published 30 July 2019
Original in English
First published by New Humanist Summer 2019

Contributed by New Humanist © Giovanni Tiso / New Humanist / Eurozine

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