Tuesday, January 19, 2016

New Atheists and Old Bigots

I must admit that I have not paid sufficient attention to the “New Atheists.”

I suppose I am what one of my friends calls an “old atheist.” Like him, I had rejected religion by my teens and moved on to other things. As my friend likes to say, “There is only one atheist book you really need. It reads, ‘There is no god. The End.’” On to improving the human condition.

Accordingly, I identify as a humanist. To clarify, not the way Men’s Rights Activists twist the term to malign feminists.(1) I mean in the sense of the American Humanist Association which has honored Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and Barbara Ehrenreich.(2) Specifically, I identify as a secular humanist since religious humanists also exist. But secular humanism has always struck me as the logical extension of atheism. I advocate the advancement of humanity and the celebration of its achievements.

This tightly ties into both my book and this blog because I believe that humanism is inherent in the Enlightenment's generous conception of patriotism which I contrast with narrow nationalism. Concepts like The Rights of Man transcend nation states. And as Mary Wollstonecraft (England), Judith Sargent-Murray (America), and Marie Olympe De Gouges (France) asserted, the Rights of Man must mean humanity, women very much included. True patriotism strives for liberty, equality, and democracy for everybody. It is therefore universal and internationalist.

Historically, humanists have been super-polite. Carl Sagan was kindliness personified. Indeed, he seemed nearly saintly. It is impossible for me to imagine him raising his voice. I am not saying that his politeness is a mistake – I think he is someone most people should emulate. However, the good cop/bad cop dynamic is missing and we need people like me to be assholes. And one thing I think that the New Atheists are doing right is getting confrontational. The objections to doing so are identical to the ones used against every minority that has tried to assert their rights.(3) As groups like Act Up and Black Lives Matter understand, you have to bother people. Certainly, we humanists have never shied from asserting ourselves: We have always advocated coming out of the theological closet. But we have rarely gotten really obnoxious about it and that made us heretofore easy to ignore. So, I have no problem with being rude or obnoxious. I am a sometime cartoonist and a fan of satire, so how could I?

But that does not mean that I condone bigotry just because it generates controversy. And the New Atheist movement seems to increasingly resemble Donald Trump's campaign – often dominated by Islamophobic rhetoric. Perhaps they should be called "paleo-atheists" after the paleo-libertarians some run with.

I have not read enough Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris to say how personally responsible they are for this. We should be cautious judging figures by their followers.(4) Some apologists say that their writings are more nuanced than Salon.com suggests. Although, Harris saying that "most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith” is certainly not a good sign – likewise with Richard Dawkins calling Islam an “unmitigated evil.” My point here is that there are a lot of vocal Islamophobes calling themselves atheists and making shockingly shoddy arguments that are inconsistent with a scientific mindset.

Take the one that they are only attacking the religion and not the people. Turn that one around in your head for a moment. No, I mean really turn it around: You would not say that atheists should not feel threatened when politicians demonize atheism, would you? Of course not because you know that an assault on our rights comes next. Remember President George Bush, Sr.'s comments on atheists. And recall Poppy was the moderate George Bush - the "kinder, gentler" one. Regardless of how successful you think they would be, the trajectory of such rhetoric is never in question. Likewise, there is precious little “love the sinner, but hate the sin” in the Westboro Baptist Church’s “GOD HATES FAGS” signs, so it is a pretty fragile distinction and I strongly suspect planned obsolescence is in play.

Claiming that Islamophobia is not racism because “Islam is not a race” is another dud stock argument. It keeps cropping up despite its being so easily debunked. Yes, Islamophobia is not racism but an entirely different kind of bigotry – minus the word “entirely” because fear of a brown planet is part and parcel of the hostility. Likewise, sexism and homophobia are entirely separate prejudices.

This post is prompted by a debate that I had in and atheist discussion group about a month and a half ago. Yeah. But for the most part it was okay. I only had to deal with one overt racist and he dropped out after the first day. But, boy howdy, was he ever racist! Here is a sample:
Point is don't feed me this tolerance shit, Christians have nativity scenes up and you want to take them down yeah very tolerant but a Muslim who believe that people who leAve the religion should be put to death let's be tolerant guys.

This page takes no prisoners on Christians and their beliefs the you turn around and take up for Muslims who throw gays off roofs because they are gay and yes even the nice Muslims think gays should be persecuted for being gay but yet again when it comes to them let's be tolerant.

This is where the PC thing comes in you only take up for Muslims because they are a different race than WHITE, you have no trouble making fun of a Christian because we live in a time where it's cool to hate white people for being white.
So much for the claim that Islamophobia has nothing to do with racism.

Also, for the record, I do not condone throwing LGBT people off roofs. However, I will go out on a limb and guess that this guy probably does not really care about gays and was cynically concern trolling. His contempt for tolerance telegraphed that pretty clearly. Pro tip: You are less convincing when you rant about political correctness. Also, your silent dog whistle is actually quite audible.

Oh, and one more thing: Defending the separation of church and state isn't intolerance. Festoon your homes and houses of worship with whatever religious brick-a-brac you like. Buy billboards. Whatever. Just do not do it on public land or on the taxpayer’s dime. Because once you do that, you are enlisting the prestige of the state to promote your faith and proclaiming special status. Calling this commonsense precept intolerance is either ignorant or dishonest.

Yes, only one guy got explicitly racial, but he was not the only one bashing political correctness. It was almost like the 12/15/15 Republican primary debate. Pinball machine bells dinged when the candidate's time was up, but it seemed to be for whenever they said “political correctness.” They all knew that they had to push that button by the end of their answer/sound byte.

Another common comment was that I was somehow hypocritical for defending Muslims or that I thought that Islam was above criticism. Not at all. I was just pointing out how easy it was to cherry pick horrific passages out of everyone's sacred texts and it seemed that they had Sharia Law pretty much covered. And it turns out that most old holy books sound pretty much alike. I had also pointed out several recent incidents of Christian terrorism - including one that had just happened. And I also mentioned the fact that presidential candidate Ted Cruz sought and got the endorsement of a pastor who favors executing homosexuals. And he was not the only GOP hopeful seeking the pastor's blessing.

Of course, my debate opponents still insisted that none of this really counts and that Christianity had gotten such extremism out of its system. As evidence, they said America has no such laws. Um, that's not for want to trying. But if zealots fail stateside, they often succeed overseas. American Evangelical pastors essentially authored Uganda's "Kill the Gays" bill and they are pushing draconian anti-gay legislation all over Africa. They give Russia's anti-LBGT laws lots of love too. It's like the post-Tobacco Settlement strategy of the cigarette industry: Lose in America, pedal your poison abroad.

The point is that such ugly impulses remain. And those who I was arguing with puzzlingly gave America's secular safeguards precious little credit for keeping them in check.

Indeed, their argument that other religions had somehow gotten over their violent texts made me question the sincerity of their criticism of religion. It turns out that they think religion is actually pretty okay - like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy described Earth: "mostly harmless." It's just that one particular religion that's really nasty. In their weltanschauung, Islam is the exception that proves the rule. In short, apologists were calling me an apologist. But that was not nearly as funny as their linking to fundamentalist Christian websites as credible news sources. Yes, one person actually cited World Net Daily. Meet the new Islamophobes: Same as the old Islamophobes. Or close enough. They apparently drink from the same well.

I’ve asked around, and discovered that friends have had similar experiences. All of the New Islamophobes’ arguments are pretty shoddy and have often been debunked before. But that does not stop them from repeating them. It is as robotic as a catechism recitation. To true believers, a talking point is an article of faith. They are so enamored with its imagined cleverness that they cannot be objective about it. They are incapable of recognizing that it is actually a moronic argument that could only convince a hardcore convert like themselves. Their rhetorical gold is sophomoric dross: The Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. If they could perceive their embarrassing shellacking they would take it as a test of faith. But they cannot and take it as your failure to understand. Hence the repetition.

Obviously, atheists are by no means immune to dogmatism. Take orthodox Marxists or Ayn Rand’s “Objectivists” (who Robert Anton Wilson often called "Randroids"). The interesting thing here is I was essentially accused of heresy. The overtly racist atheist said I was "giving real atheists a bad name" with my "hypocritical" tolerance. My atheism was questioned because I doubted that one religion was significantly worse than another. I did not know that was something that we had all agreed on. Did we have a meeting on this? I must have missed the memo.(5) Accordingly, my ideology was incorrect and not approved by the party. In retrospect, the experience was almost Maoist.

Let me emphasize that the atheist discussion group in question has plenty of good folks who have made posts against Islamophobia. That's important because Islamophobia must be acknowledged and confronted. There is no acceptable form of antisemitism. Secular humanists especially must confront this. Tolerance is not just a bedrock principle but something we have also benefited from. So when atheists foster religious intolerance, it is dangerous, ironic, and conspicuously pisses on what desists and atheists have been trying to achieve since the Enlightenment and I am going to call it out.


(1) Likewise, white racists like to reply to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “All Lives Matter.” Yes, but not all lives are equally threatened. Thus, I do not think these white racists really believe that “all lives matter.” If they did, they would share the outrage of their fellow human beings. By the same token, those who want to keep women subjugated can hardly call themselves “humanists.” Their hostility to half of humanity disproves it. They claim that women have gone beyond achieving equality and now enjoy greater power than men. But when they articulate their aims, it is “a man’s world” rather than an equal one that they seek. Both the “All Lives Matter” and the MRA twist on “humanist” are obviously dishonest and an idiot’s idea of clever. Only an ignorant bigot could find them convincing.

(2) Full Disclosure: I am not a dues-paying member of the AHA, although I used to subscribe to their magazine. So what I am saying might be slightly off and is certainly not an official position of the organization. If anyone in the AHA spots a faulty assumption, please feel free to correct me. I am using the term “humanist” broadly and this is my impression on the current state of atheism. Your mileage may vary.

(3) I do not think that atheists are “the last” or “most persecuted” minority. I do think polls that show that most Americans are least likely to vote for an atheist show a disturbing and ironic contradiction in American society. (How many of the founding fathers who were deists could get elected today because of that?) But, let’s keep things in proportion here. Again, it is not like there is an epidemic of cops routinely shooting atheists at traffic stops and getting acquitted for it. And it is not like atheists are paid less than the faithful – like women are paid less then men. Other minorities are far worse off and anyone who dismisses their hardships – while cynically invoking those same hardships as metaphors for their own struggles – abdicates any claim to be taken seriously. The dynamic might be similar, but the scale sure ain’t. And that absurdity does your claim more harm than good.

(4) I have heard that both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have disavowed the “New Atheist” label. Likewise, Karl Marx had also insisted that he was no Marxist. To quote the Deadly Bulb in “The Tick” TV show, “Heh. Minions.” Alas, labels are like that. Few folks know that Machiavelli wrote The Prince sarcastically. He was an advocate of independent republics and his “advice” to a prince was actually ridiculing the crimes of kings. Similarly, George Orwell was an obvious opponent of “Orwellian” forms of thought and government. Likewise, Franz Kafka was horrified by “Kafkaesque” bureaucracies. I do not want to be cavalier about inaccuracies and I certainly would hate for a twisted interpretation of one of my ideas to take root. However, the New Atheist label exists and must be dealt with. Therefore, to be ethical and err on the side of caution, I have opted to separate the celebrities from the movement. After all, it is the reactionary element that has infected the movement which is my true target.

(5) I do remember that we all agreed that taxpayers should not fund nativity scenes. (See also government displays of the Ten Commandments.) But it seems that some people may have missed that memo.

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