Friday, November 1, 2013

Victor Stenger Is A New Atheist, And I'm Still Not

When I first learned back in 2010 that there was a group called the New Atheists who were very vocally critical of religion and its interference with reason, I at first assumed I was one. And I suppose that's a judgement call, and that I could be regarded as a New Atheist. But I no longer consider myself to be one. I'm as critical of religion as I ever was, but the thing is, I also find myself butting heads with New Atheists on a regular basis, and also, and perhaps this is the very crux of this particular biscuit: I don't see New Atheists criticizing each other. I was going to say: "I don't see New Atheists criticizing each other very much," but the thing is, I don't see it at all.

Victor Stenger calls himself a New Atheist. I wasn't entirely clear about that until this article of his. I agree with most of what Stenger says in this new article. Like him I see a basic conflict between religion and science. (I see this conflict as becoming clearer and sharper as science develops, and as our understanding of religion develops, based on the study of history and other things which in other languages are called sciences but which in English are not, which is unfortunate, and seems to have interfered with some English-speaking scientists' understanding of those other disciplines.) I agree with Stenger that science's quarrel is not just with religious fundamentalism, but with religious "moderates" as well. The point of departure of the "moderates" are the same holy texts read by the fundies, the "moderates" refuse to cease according those texts an importance above that of other texts, they still engage in magical thinking, in short: the distance between the "moderates" and the fundamentalists is not nearly as great as the "moderates" would have you believe. I can't keep myself from constantly underlining this point by always putting quotation marks around the word "moderates."

So far I seem just like a New Atheist, and it's not surprising that for a while I thought I was one.

It seems that very many of the New Atheists are scientists, in the narrow English definition of science as pure natural science. And science lives and breathes on debate and self-criticism and the constant modification and refinement of its views in light of new information. So do other disciplines, but the New Atheists don't seem to criticize each others' statements about religion and society and history and archaeology. It's ironic, and it's very unfortunate: when these scientists, the New Atheists, take on religion, their approach is quite unscientific. History and archaeology have peer review and debate just as much as biology does, but it seems as if this would be news to the New Atheists. In a few recent Wrong Monkey blog posts I've discussed an example of this, the statement by the big Mac Daddy of New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, that the Old Testament authors were "Bronze-Age goat herders," when in fact Hebrew did not begin to be written until the Iron Age, the Old Testament was written by city dwellers such as Temple scribes, herdsmen at the time tended to be illiterate, and those rural Israelites who did tend herds raised many more sheep than goats. If Dawkins had made such a thoroughly-mistaken statement about biology, his colleagues would've been all over it instantly, and quite soon, whether good-naturedly or shame-facedly, he would have been compelled to issue a public retraction for the sake of his professional reputation.

But what criticism of Dawkins' "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme there has been has come from outside of the New Atheist community. Which has led some New Atheists to declare that "no one at all" has any problem with it. On the contrary, it has become a tremendously popular meme among New Atheists. Astonishingly, it's repeated by many people who don't seem to care whether it's accurate or not -- it expresses contempt for the Bible, that's the main thing. It also expresses contempt for accuracy in historical statements, and, astonishingly, New Atheists are simply not calling each other on that.

Or on any statement of opposition to religion, it seems. Here are a couple of examples culled from the comments on Stenger's article. Examples of stupid rash statements made by New Atheists and deemed by other New Atheists not to require challenge or criticism;

"Religion isn't just a collection of yokels incapable of understanding current scientific theory. It is a system of social incapacitation, perpetuated by the worst amognst us, made efficient over a very long period of time undeserving of your respect. "

You're undeserving of my respect, Sparky! Religion currently comprises billions of people. Not all of those billions beling to the worst among us, nor are all of the worst among us religious. "Incapacitation" does not describe all of what religion is. The world simply isn't that black-and-white. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, Bubba, but any time you've got a group of billions-with-a-b of people, some of what some of them are doing some of the time is going to be good.

"The single quote: 'Ignorance is Bliss' covers the entire article. People are afraid, so they take comfort in their willful ignorance. It's as simple as that."

Your worldview is as simple as that. Mine's not.

I didn't have to look long or far to find those statements. But New Atheists criticizing such simpleminded statements made by other atheists? That's as rare as a New Atheist challenging Dawkins' "Bronze-Age goat herders" meme. (Well. I suppose I shouldn't call something rare if it's possible that it's completely nonexistent.) And a group which doesn't keep itself honest and call each other out on such a basic level of crude clueless statements made on behalf on the group is a group of ignorant fanatics. When a group is too busy criticizing their enemy to criticize itself at all, it greatly diminishes whatever effect its legitimate criticisms might have had. With a complete lack of self-criticism, the group will eventually wither away and disappear, or so one certainly hopes, and good riddance and the sooner the better.

So, is Stenger himself guilty of any of these clueless whoppers, putting them out there to the approval of the in-group, while the group of others who are listening at all keeps shrinking? Yes, he is, as a matter of fact he wrote one in this very article:

"From its very beginning in prehistory, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line."

Oh man, where do I start? Well, for one thing, nobody knows when religion began. For another, we know very little about how religion functioned tens of thousands of years ago. At this point, the best we can do is guess -- not only about the nature of religion at that time, but about any of the power relationships within human society. But Stenger's statement is a nice black-and-white, 100%-anti-religion gross oversimplification of the kind New Atheists love. They won't criticize it, they won't pay attention to those of us who will. They live in a bubble.

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