Saturday, March 15, 2008


The back and forth over respecting contrary beliefs continues, and has now merged with the broader question of whether "new atheists" represent merely a different strand of fundamentalism. Chris Hedges seems to think so:

[T]hat frightens me, that demonization of a people -- turning human beings into abstractions, so that they're not human anymore. They don't have hopes, dreams, aspirations, pains, sufferings. They represent an unmitigated evil that must be vanquished. That's very scary, and that is at the bedrock of the ideology of the New Atheists as it is with the Christian fundamentalists.
I find this claim both exasperating and nonsensical in a few ways, starting with the way a commenter on Evolutionblog nicely expressed:
I'm quite certain (but not absolutely certain) that Dionysus did not resurrect from Zeus's thigh, that Baldur was not killed by Loki, and that Joseph Smith did not find any golden plates. For this, no one has ever called me a militant or any other such label. Not once. I'm equally certain (again, not 100% certain, but reasonably certain) that Moses did not receive any laws from any gods on Mt Sinai, that Krishna did not appear to Arjuna on a battlefield, and that Muhammad did not receive any messages from Gabriel. Yet I have been called "fundamentalist atheist" for expressing these views ... It all depends on how popular the religious belief being denied is. That's the only distinction I can find between a "fundamentalist atheist" and a person merely stating that a certain belief is wildly implausible.
Hedges brings the slurs of fundamentalism and demonization to the service of his shallow special pleading on behalf of the Abrahamic faiths, knowing there is a large and ready audience for the special pleading in question: namely, funny exotic faiths from faraway places and times past are silly and beneath consideration; but the home team's spectacular tales must be respected, their baselessness wished away.

Apart from an intellectually dishonest reading of Sam Harris*, Hedges' charge of demonization hangs entirely on Hitchens' support of the Iraq war and general relish to destroy Islamic militants, but there's something curious in Hedges' roundhouse swings at Hitchens: on the one hand, he vilifies Hitchens for being sure of his opinions and elevating himself to a superior plane or whatever; on the other hand, he assails Hitchens as a clowning huckster who neither believes in nor gives a damn about anything:
[Salon Interviewer]: Do you think Hitchens really believes what he writes?

[Hedges]: I think he's completely amoral. I think he doesn't have a moral core. I think he doesn't believe anything. What's good for Christopher Hitchens is about as moral as he gets.
That Hitchens will say almost anything to work a crowd, that he has more than a touch of the showman, is not lost on anyone who has caught him on cable talk shows, youtube, or anywhere else, but it would seem to make him a rather poor candidate for a replacement god -- an honorific he would reject-and-denounce in harsh terms if offered, irrespective of mood, I am quite confident in saying. Hitchens would say many things, and indulge many more for the sake of a rousing argument, but not that.

Which brings us to the charge of fundamentalism, a word that actually does have a history and a meaning apart from "whatever in the realm of religious belief the current speaker on tour to hock a book doesn't like." Fundamentalism refers to a literalist interpretation and strict adherence to first principles as embodied in sanctified, divinely-inspired, or otherwise unchallengeable foundational texts -- those texts and the authorities behind them being the fundamentals.

By the actual meaning of the word, fundamentalist Muslims take the Koran and Hadith extremely seriously; fundamentalist Christians take the Bible extremely seriously; fundamentalist Jews take the Torah extremely seriously. What do so-called "fundamentalist atheists" take as seriously? The showboat Hitchens? Is there a church of Richard Dawkins? Are the children of atheists being sent to special schools in which they commit the words of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to memory in the original English (whether or not they're native English speakers), where they bow toward Dan Dennett's faculty office several times a day, in which they're commanded to confess all their scientifically unsupportable speculations to atheistic professors, in which they pledge to make a pilgrimage to the ancestral home of Tom Paine, Voltaire, or Darwin at least once in life?

No. There is no fundamental text or authority around which to frame an atheistic fundamentalism. (In other moods, this fact is marshalled as a critique of atheism -- "It is sheer nihilism!") To label the reliance on reason and evidence in matters of belief as fundamentalism is to play the basest of word games. Atheists want a single standard of reason and evidence to underwrite claims about all gods, even the home team favorites.

Beyond that, atheists, new and old, disagree frequently -- watch the room of atheists go uncomfortably silent when Hitchens turns away from his "anti-theism" rant and slams critics of the Iraq war (e.g., disk II from the AAI 2007 Convention).

And watch the same room rise in unanimous and spontaneous respect for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose life was almost lost to, and is still endangered by, an actual fundamentalism that deserves the opposition of anyone who does care about human rights, human dignity, and the future of this species.

* Harris argues in The End of Faith (also here) that the logic of Cold War deterrence doesn't work when one side is peopled with willing martyrs; Hedges contrives to convert this into Harris advocating a nuclear first strike on the entire Muslim world.

1 comment:

mikesdak said...

Once again, Merriam-Webster....
atheism - (a) disbelief in the existence of deity (b) the doctrine that there is no deity

I have some misgivings about how those are worded (and the inclusion of an archaic definition that defines it as wickedness), but the main point is that the definition is simple, and it doesn't include anything else - nothing about pacifism, nihlism, morality or amorality. 99% of the arguing by these people is about subjects that they wrongly attempt to associate with atheism.