Friday, October 24, 2014

Someone Asked Me What "New Atheists" Are, And How They're Different From "Old Atheists"

Dawkins, Harris, PZ Myers and their fans are New Atheists. Hitchens and Victor Stenger were New Atheists. They combine a cluelessness about history and religion and the humanities with a propensity for making sweeping inaccurate statements about them, and don't seem interested in ideas concerning religion which are more complicated than sound bites. Some prominent examples:

Dawkins started the "Bronze Age goat herders" meme. (Coincidentally, he also coined the term "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene, back when he was doing something he did exceptionally well: writing about biology.) Point out to a typical New Atheist that the oldest parts of the Bible were written in the Iron Age, by town-dwellers, and that the Israelites' primary livestock animal was sheep, not goats, and the typical response is "So what?" So why do you keep repeating Dawkins' meme, that's what.

On p 1 of The Selfish Gene Dawkins approvingly quoted GG Simpson's pronouncement that we should completely forget about all attempts made before 1859 to answer the question, "What is man?" That should have warned me that neither Simpson nor Dawkins knew very much at all about things written up to 1859, and led me to expect things like Dawkins' activity since 2004, when he's published very little work in biology.

More recently Dawkins tweeted the fact that there were more Nobel prize winners from Trinity College than from "the entire Muslim world." Immediately I and a whole bunch of other people pointed out cultural bias, duh! in the awarding of Nobels. Last I heard Dawkins hasn't felt the need to reply to any of us about that. It's getting more and more difficult to take him seriously except in a very negative way.

Hitchens created a very popular meme in the subtitle of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

But of course it doesn't poison EVERYthing. Life's much more complicated than that, billions of people's lives over the course of tens of thousands of years, and yes, I'm saying that if you want to say something deep about religion, you have to have at least an inkling of all of those billions of people's lives, or at the very best you're only going to say something deep every now and then, completely by accident.

Michael Paulkovich is a New Atheist, and the editors of Free Inquiry demonstrated quintessential New Atheist behavior when they published an article because they liked the sound bite: "126 ancient authors who should've mentioned Jesus but didn't," without seeming to care at all about checking into whether or not Paulkovich is making any sense. He's not.

Sam Harris is a peculiarly mid-19th-century sort of New Atheist: his moral philosophy is utilitarian, like that of John Suart Mill, as if he hadn't heard of how Mill had been thoroughly dismantled by the late 19th century by people like Nietzsche.

Dawkins has a lot of credibility in the filed of biology, richly deserved, but he's helped to give an undeserved credibility to New Atheism. It's very bad luck that these people are currently the public face of atheism, but we atheists who actually know something about history, philosophy, the arts and religion -- about the humanities -- just have to speak up louder and more persistently. That's the only way that an intelligent and informed public discussion of religion will get underway.

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