It seems the hand-wringing over “New Atheists” hasn’t abated in respectable circles, and is still as depressing as ever. Take this latest effort by Tim Robertson over at Eureka Street.
Like it’s 2006 all over again, we kick off with a retread of the “New Atheists do it too” retort concerning creation myths; an old standard still carries the tacit admission that there’s something to be embarrassed about in believing in creation myths. I guess I’d be more disappointed if I was religious.
Getting closer to the meat of things, Robertson portrays a “New Atheism” that views itself as being in line with a Humean kind the Enlightenment. This strikes me as more than a little odd, because ever since Harris’s The Moral Landscape, misunderstanding of and dismissiveness towards Hume could be portrayed as a fashionable trope of the “New Atheism”; from cod-moral realism, to dyspeptic rationalists* giving anti-Humean lectures at the pub, to train-wrecks involving the is-ought distinction like those described here.
If you’ve been around skepto-atheist circles during the past ten years, and you haven’t come across this anti-philosophical, anti-Humean schtick yet, you’ve either not been paying attention or have been incredibly lucky. “New Atheism” sees itself as anything approximating Humean? Phooey.
(And if the “New Atheism” did actually exist, you’d also think it’d be more Millian than Lockean, too, what with all the utilitarianism and the motivation to avoid all the peskiness involved in natural law.)
As for the matter of Dawkins and his eugenics tweet, and how this moves the “New Atheism” away from the Humean, I’m pretty sure Robertson is just being salacious here. Mentions of Dawkins and eugenics in close proximity may excite the usual audiences, but Robertson doesn’t really go anywhere with it so much as riff over the matter with a cheap jab and glib allusion to critical theory by way of Wikipedia. It’s all over a bit quickly.
An essay detailing why we should consider the referenced Dialectic of Enlightenment as a sound analysis, and how it applies specifically in cases like Dawkins’ might be interesting (and probably a good deal more interesting again if involving a case with a publisher other than Twitter). We don’t get that though. Is something like this expecting too much, or are we all supposed to be clever, to be “in” enough to just know where Robertson is going with this and give each other knowing nods?
(If you have the time, patience and curiosity, there’s a discussion on much the same topic that has the merit of being somewhat less conjectural or opaque than discussion centered on theory. Keith Stanovich’s concept of cognitive decoupling presents as highly applicable to Dawkins’ tweets and similar displays of reasoning. Points for dipping your toes in that are as good as any other can be found here and here.**)
The matter of eugenics and the Dialectic of Enlightenment pushed to one side, Robertson moves back to bromides, performing a bit of splitting to present Dawkins The Biologist and Dawkins The Atheist as if they were somehow distinct. It’s a artifice of course, so that Robertson can present one as having failed to do the work of the other – in this case Dawkins The Atheist being a mean uninspiring sod, incapable of the “wonder and splendor” achieved by Dawkins The Biologist. A neat little trick of Manichean negation if your brain can manage it, I guess.
Of course religion is positioned as a purveyor of “wonder and splendor” itself, which Dawkins himself could have remained more like if only he’d stayed in his lane.
(This splitting does raise a question, though. How do you dissociate Dawkins’ tweet on eugenics from Dawkins The Biologist in the first place? Because we are trying to hang shit on the “New Atheism”, right? This is Dawkins The Atheist leading us towards scientific racism, not Dawkins The Biologist yeah?)
I can’t help thinking that deep down, this hope-trope is tied to another piece of apologetics: “The New Atheists have failed to contend with the hope brought by sophisticated, progressive religion! They talk about us like we’re creationists!”
The “New Atheists” – whoever they are on any given day – among others, treat religious moderates/liberals/progressives as if they are statistically or socially marginal, which in many, many contexts they are. In practice this often means just overlooking them. Does being ignored like that hurt so much that apologists still need to trot out the denials? “No, no. They’re talking about us!”
Maybe people need to get over themselves, yeah?
Getting back to hope; what’s to contend with anyway? I don’t just mean background levels of hope, or hope that the credulous can get behind. Why is religion portrayed as especially inducing of high-grade hope, more so than say worker’s clubs, group knitting or mosh-pits?
We’re challenged by Robertson to consider why the “New Atheist” bogeyman fails to inspire hope like religion or like Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn? It’s truly odd that Corbyn is presented by Robertson as an alternative given that this piece was published well after the bloodbath that was the 2019 UK general election.
The Corbyn rapture didn’t happen. And it’s less than hope-inspiring to have to listen to all the rationalizations for why prophecy failed to materialize. Yes, the Russians got involved. Yes, the Tories lied, even more so than usual. But no, none of this clinched it. It’ll all be just as much fun when the Bernie Sanders rapture fails to materialize and his more fervent followers – the hopeful ones – try to re-invent history so as not to look like followers of Harold Camping each time they pass a mirror***.
Robertson compares religion to this cascading disappointment and still finds the nerve to criticize “New Atheists” for slagging off religion?
This phenomena of Australian writers of a radical bend, or of progressive theological sympathies, crying into their beers and pissing and moaning about perceived slights from now over a decade ago, doesn’t inspire much hope either. I can understand religious people not liking The God Delusion. What’s not to understand? I can understand them not finding it inspirational either because outside of a particular subset of the ex-religious, who does?
I can understand people finding Dawkins’ tone-deaf tweeting annoying or uninformative. My suggestion is simply that if you don’t like the guy’s tweets, you treat him like someone who’s transitioned well outside their talents into a retirement full of awkward, eminently ignorable beat poetry. It’s not like you’ll ever have to worry that some nation will turn one of his tweets into policy.
What I do have difficulty understanding is why any curious, emotionally functioning, religious adult would feel the need to get Dawkins so long after the original narcissitic injury. Defensive, thin-skinned, grudge-holding types on the other hand – that’s easy to grasp. As is the idea of authors willing to pander to these sentiments to get published.
I’m not sure how sulky axe-grinding, or peddling ego-balms is a good fit for publishers of serious literature, though. Don’t ordinary religious people find these grudge pieces utterly depressing? Maybe they do and maybe more literary journals and should reflect that.
At any rate, you don’t have to be religious to find a failure of Jesuit culture depressing; we’re all humans after all. Unless you’re a sadist, the failure of other humans is something that we should feel on some level.
Similarly, if you have any care for Australian literature, the indulgence of pettiness has got to be pretty disappointing as well. I don’t think people are remotely as inured to this as some pretend.
* Term borrowed from here, which is a good read in its own right. Apparently Sam Harris first coined the term, so I guess it’s nice to have something decent to attribute to him.
** I won’t endorse all the points made, obviously, but the discussion overall seems fruitful enough, and leads off into other conversations people may want to chase up.
*** Even if Sanders becomes president, his purported appeal won’t be enough for his supporters dream to survive Congress.