The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. They imagine themselves to be like the intrepid explorer Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853 disguised himself as a Muslim merchant, went to Mecca, and then wrote a book about his unprecedented feat. The public appears to agree, for the neo-atheist books have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14
This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.
Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.
It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”
Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: “Who is genociding whom?” To adapt Dostoyevsky slightly, starting from universal reason, I arrive at universal madness.
Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”
Dalrymple seems to making lots of mountains out of molehills.
If it’s all been said before, so what? Did Harris, Hitchens, et al ever label themselves the new atheists? Did they ever claim to be stating something brand new?
When Hitchens says “religion spoils everything”, does he mean everything literally? My read is more like the figurative everything, as in “Oh, well that changes everything!” or “Everything must go!” I could be wrong. Regardless, my memory of it is that Hitchens, before using these words, would submit a very clear example of how religion has poisoned something. Mountain from molehill, Dalrymple takes this to the following conclusion:
Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness.
yet subtitles his article: “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.”
Many large words in service of many petty points, in the same vain as above.
Have to agree with Aaron. This “New Atheists” is a media creation. As Paul Kurtz has pointed out, Prometheus Press has been publishing books with much the same message for years. What seems to disturb some atheists, Free Thinkers (I prefer the latter) etc. and apparently scares some religionists is that Harris , Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens were published by main stream publishers and getting so much publicity.
If you’ve read these guys they can handle and respond to the criticizm quite well and frankly, i’m glad to see the debate.
For those on the non-believing side, when has the rationalist position gotten so much press? (Not my lifetime, I not old enough to remember Robert Ingersol)
Harris is pretty amazing to me. He has such reasoned and thoughtful response to some real idiocy addressed against him. Hitchens who is actually a conservative is pretty funny. Unusual for a conservative. Dawkins was better in “Blind Watchmaker” but his book serves as a survey course in non-belief.
Frankly, in trying to read all these I am getting a lttle bored. (I’m in the choir to which they are preaching) However, I tried to read the much praised book by Francis Collins the renowned scientist (you know, see what the other side is saying.) I got to the part in the first few pages where he made the argument to the effect that ducks desire water because there is water and humanity’s desire for God is evidence of his existence I gave up . I didn’t even get to the part about the three frozen streams proving the trinity.
New, old or otherwise, as long as it makes more people aware of the options, keep it up.
I’m not sure what point Dr Dalrymple is trying to make and why he’s trying to make it.
He lets us know he’s an atheist then goes on to denounce every famous atheist in modern history. He is dismissive of the work of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett, characterising it as an embarrassing assortment of hysteria, sloppiness, intellectual unscrupulousness and, in the case of Harris, insanity. Bertrand Russell was a high-pitched pedant, Sartre a petulant child.
Yet his own ‘argument’ for atheism, presumably to be viewed as superior to the works of the aforementioned writers, is that his headmaster kept one eye open during prayers.
Dalrymple-the-atheist, having thus disposed of the best-regarded works on atheism and their various authors, proceeds to assure us that he is ‘far from decrying reason’ before contradicting himself within the very same sentence by blandly stating that the absolute best that reason can possibly offer is a world of lifeless, humourless, oppressive dogmatism a la Mr Gradgrind.
He then goes on to make reference to Spanish pictures of cabbages (and religious still-lifes in general) and some apparently ‘sonorous’ prose by a former Bishop of Exeter & Norwich. These, we are told, are ample evidence of the moral and/or intellectual superiority of the ecclesiastical persuasion. Clearly this superiority is apparent to Dr Dalrymple (though one wonders how he might imagine it could possibly be apparent to his readers on the evidence given) and equally clearly he finds no problem in asserting so whilst simultaneously professing to be an atheist.
One can only hope that his medical diagnoses are arrived at with less confusion.
I do not expect complete lucidity from atheists but he makes some rather obvious points about new atheism and especially Sam Harris. The main one being the implicit violence incorporated in the solution to the faith problem posited by many modern atheists. They do not want to believe what they want to believe, they want to rid the world of theism. If you are looking for examples just read the signature line of the above post. Sure Occams razor is kidding but the sentiment is shared by many. Beware of do-gooders trying to make you reasonable. They tend to send people to heaven immediately or off to purgatorial work camps
. . . Beware of do-gooders trying to make you reasonable. They tend to send people to heaven immediately or off to purgatorial work camps
Good one, Frank. I remember listening to an author on the radio a couple of months ago who started going into a description of Church torture techniques, then caught himself. He said that he couldn’t go into detail since such descriptions are so horrific that they’re really not allowable on radio air. If I told you he was not being sarcastic or duplicitous, you’d probably think that I was. (But he wasn’t.)
Church abominations have been forcibly reformed by the atheistically inclined, Frank. How many times will you need to be reminded of this fact? My guess is, quite a few, since you’ve admitted that severe means had been called for in light of the “fact” that they were necessary for other souls not to burn for eternity in imaginary fires.
Ok, so I’m sort of kidding. But if you think about it, what’s wrong with everyone who believes in Heaven going there as soon as possible? It’s not like we couldn’t do with the extra room down here and presumably Heaven is somewhere Christians would prefer to be.
And, frankly, I’d prefer them to be there too. No offense.
H. Finn- Christopher Hitchens is in no way, shape, or form, a conservative, and I have personally seen him take offense at that characterization. Please don’t fall into the trap of assuming he is a conservative because is is so hawkish about Iraq. He opposes conservatism on literally every other issue in the political spectrum.
Hey Occam’s Razor, perhaps your signature line should read, “All Christians should send themselves to heaven immediately!” With the words “should be sent” it appears that some external force would be participating in the “sending” thus eliciting the fear that frankr expressed at being “sent up!” by (presumably) atheists.
Of course from my own non-theistic perspective I would just assume that the one sending them to heaven could be god himself, for all that matters. It’s just a joke really, not about killing christians, but about giving them want they seem to want so earnestly. The fact that frankr would point out this humerous phrase as an onnerous threat tells us more about the christian temperment (and perhaps their lack of a sense of humour?) than anything else.
On the main theme of this post, it seems to me that Dalrymple is much like other (apparent) atheists who criticize Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens. These commentators claim that they already knew all of these anti-religious sentiments by the time they were 14 years old and that the only new thing that atheists like Harris declare is the militant stance taken against religious adherents. Yet if one reads certain writers in the French Philosophe circles, they too were fairly militant against their religious rulers and practitioners of the 18th Century. Yet I personally do appreciate what these present-day writers-against-religion manage to profess in their books. They speak to current issues that desperately need to be addressed, even if they aren’t saying anything particularly new, the context is new and the oppressive forms are new, the threats are new and the political circumstances are new. THese must be articulated.
Hey Occam’s Razor, perhaps your signature line should read, “All Christians should send themselves to heaven immediately!”
I did consider this alternative, but the advantage of the message being both more precise and less offensive was entirely overwhelmed by the fact that it didn’t really scan.
One must have standards, after all.
You could be right about their rulebook declaring that heaven is not attainable for the “victim” of suicide? I was reading about the Reformation in Germany during Luther’s time and at one point the author describes all of the crimes which were punishable by burning at the stake, apostasy and witchcraft were listed with the usual crimes but most inexplicable was that the crime of “failed suicide” was punishable by burning at the stake! How does that even make any sense?
I’d like to hear from practicing Lutherans how that works!
Could those french Philosophes you praise CanZen be the same ones whose ideas were the source of the French Revolution. I am sure they were responsible only for the good parts. equality liberty and brotherhood was due to the philosophes, but everyone knows the reign of terror was due to the priests.
I am hardly overly sensitive to Occam’s Razors signature. I am just pointing out the obvious. Many neo atheists want to rid the world of religion and religious people. It is why atheistic (not secular) states tend to silence, imprison and kill religious people. I know of no exception.
I do not expect complete lucidity from atheists but he makes some rather obvious points about new atheism and especially Sam Harris. The main one being the implicit violence incorporated in the solution to the faith problem posited by many modern atheists. They do not want to believe what they want to believe, they want to rid the world of theism.
This is obvious sophistry, frank. What is explicit in what Sam Harris and others contend is that adherents to fundamentalist religion, who claim possession of absolute truth, IN FACT commit daily acts of violence against all who don’t drink their brand of cool aid. Most commonly Islamic jihadists, who fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up in public places, drill holes into and behead infidels, etc., but you Christians have your share of violent extremists, such as assassins of abortion doctors and their employees.
The fruits of jihad, violence, war, genocide, etc. are contained within the seed of religious exclusivism. Those who buy into the logical fallacy of possessing a monopoly on truth can easily morph into justifying the marginilization and dehumanization of those who follow other paths.
This is a central concern of the so called “new” atheism. Atheists have NO agenda to eradicate those who want to believe in any sort of nonsense they want. Most atheists would fall into the category of fair minded libertarians, who would permit worship, practice, belief in virtually anything, so long as it does not result in violence to others and remains in the privacy of a church, home or sanctuary - which is where religion belongs.
However, atheists have a legitimate concern when those believers, in their misguided zeal and mania, insist upon prostelitizing and imposing their beliefs on others and into government, foreign and domestic policy, schools, etc.
An atheist can co-exist with a believer: live and let live. The converse is not true. Atheists would love it if believers would start using the minds they were born with and eschew insistence upon possessing Absolute Truth. But they have no agenda to convert, as is the case with the latter.
Therein lies the tension. At what point is it justified to bear arms in defense against the threat of religious fanaticism? Clearly, the civilized world is now at the point with Islam. What tactics and strategy will work against them is anybody’s guess, but it is clear that co-existence with fanatics who consider everybody else in the world - men, women and children - infidels and fair targets of violence and death, is an impossibilty.
Fortunately, it no longer appears that we in the USA will get to that point with you Christians. Your influence in government and society is on the wane as it has FINALLY become crystal clear to the majority how inept you all were in the Bush Adminstration in all aspects of government, foreign and domestic, and how those who hold their religion above the rule of law have no place in a democracy.
Or at least I hope. So I’ll keep my gun oiled just in case
The book is called The End of Faith is it not? When he says End is he speaking teleologically?
Where are some contemporary christian examples of violence. It is always the Islam. Islam is violent therefore all religion is violent. Its funny that the Catholic Church is given the same status in Islamic states as it is in Atheistic ones. The Church in China and in Saudia Arabia is equally suppressed. Why is that?
The book is called The End of Faith is it not? When he says End is he speaking teleologically?
Where are some contemporary Christian examples of violence. It is always the Islam. Islam is violent therefore all religion is violent. Its funny that the Catholic Church is given the same status in Islamic states as it is in Atheistic ones. The Church in China and in Saudia Arabia is equally suppressed. Why is that?
First of all, this is yet another of your unsupported and hyperbolic assertions. Of course rational people abhor the immediate and actual threat of radical Islam more than the merely potential threat of radical Christianity.
Second, I already told you why Christians are similarly suspect . Are you mentally challenged or do you simply not listen to a single word any one else has to say?
The reason is your insistence on possession of Ultimate or Absolute Truth, which is fallacious both in the presupposition that it can be possessed at all, and in the presumption that you and your cult, alone, possess it. It is a fallacy on the most basic level of what it means to be human, and therein lies the danger.
Humans, by definition, are incapable of “understanding” or “knowing” Absolute Truth. Absolute Truth does not exist, because existence is that which is within the confines of time and space and accessible to human reason, and what is knowable by human reason is relative to the individual frame of reference. This is both a philosophical and a scientific fact. The science was proven by Einstein is his special theory of relativity: the fact that the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference in relative motion at constant velocity leads to the conclusion that neither time nor space is absolute, but relative to the observer. By the same token, Truth is not absolute from any individual human frame of reference, but relative to the observer. Therefore Absolute Truth does not exist as such - it transcends existence.
And therefore neither you nor anybody else can possess it. And finally, therefore, your insistence that you can and do is dangerous, because it could enable you and your ilk, as it does the Islamists, to devalue, dehumanize and marginalize the lives of others who are not in your frame of reference.
That is not consistent with what it means to live in a democratic and indeed civilized society.