Everyone’s an Evangelical!
Reza Aslan has another attack on “the new atheists” that repeats all the standard criticisms of the movement. He observers, along with every other detractor, that the new atheism is just like religious fundamentalism. Bus ads and other campaigns serve as his examples of proselytization. Critics find it endlessly clever to compare atheists to the evangelicals they often target. I’m always curious if they say that just because they know it will annoy atheists or if they actually think they’re offering a meaningful objection. Either way, the comparison is so broad as to be almost completely trivial.
You know who else has bus ads?
Aslan goes on to claim that the new atheism is a “particularly zealous form of fundamentalism.” He can’t be bothered to provide a single quote that demonstrates his allegation that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and others believe “they are in sole possession of the truth.” The charge is almost self-evidently false; “the new atheists” disagree with each other on many issues. Sam Harris, arguably the first “new atheist,” regularly argues that everyone (and atheists in particular) have a lot to learn from the spiritual experiences of mystics. The new atheists simply argue that people should provide reasons for their beliefs – a standard that the On Faith section of the Washington Post would collapse under.
Aslan wistfully remembers the atheism of the past that didn’t give “atheism a bad name.” Yes, Reza is actually arguing that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett give atheism a bad name, but Marx and Nietzsche didn’t.
After that historically oblivious nostalgia, Aslan does his best liberal theologian impression:
What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse?
I’m not sure what his first question is even asking, but I’m positive that “such a possibility” is, yes, more hypothetical than theoretical physics. This is due mainly to the fact those religious myths are either disproven already or completely untestable. Although many hypothesis in physics are indeed hypothetical they are qualitatively different from religious myths. Physicists construct them based on mathematical models that must be consistent with observable nature and rise and fall on the scientific method. Of course, scientists are often the harshest critics of theoretical physics. The models are also acknowledged to be hypothetical and won’t be fully scientifically accepted until they make accurate testable predictions. In a rhetorical move seemingly designed to embarrass the science-is-another-faith crowd, string theorist Brian Greene asks himself if he believes in string theory. His answer: “no.”
Do Christians, Hindus, and Muslims admit that their “religious phenomena” are hypothetical? Have they withheld believing in them until they clear standard evidentiary hurdles? Can Reza obscure the difference between science and religion any further?
Reza continues to push falsehoods about the positions of prominent new atheists. He writes, “new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence.” Again, no quotation is provided for the allegedly monolithic atheist view. In actuality, Sam Harris says that Jainism’s “core doctrine is nonviolence” and religions are as varied as sports. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, “Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything.” In his most famous polemic against religion, Christopher Hitchens explains that “Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize.” Hitchens and others openly acknowledge that nationalism and other non-religious ideologies can be dangerous; they just point out that faith-based beliefs are harder to correct and that no society has ever suffered from being too reasonable.
I’d love to see Aslan’s evidence for the “stock response” of the new atheists:
The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.
Here’s Harris in a debate with Andrew Sullivan:
You have also made the false charge that I think religious people are “fools” or “idiots.” Needless to say, I do not think Blaise Pascal was an idiot (nor do I think you are, for that matter). But I do consider certain ideas idiotic, and idiotic ideas can occasionally be found rattling around the brains of extraordinarily intelligent people. One of the horrors of religious dogmatism is that it can produce a Pascal–a brilliant man who was irretrievably self-deceived on matters of profound importance.
Here’s Hitchens in The Portable Atheist:
I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim–so modestly and so humbly–to possess. It is time to withdraw our “respect” from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.
Yes, many atheists think certain believers are dimwitted or ignorant of science, but they don’t make any across-the-board claims about the intelligence of religious believers.
For all the noise about atheists caricaturing the religious, I’ve yet to find a criticism that substantively attacks what the new atheist authors actually argue. Instead, pundits like Chris Hedges and Reza Aslan bumble around like media copycat criminals showcasing a version of the crimes that they fictionalize atheists having committed. Aslan’s stock criticisms, editorial proselytization, and accusations of ignorance litter every scene where he leaves his stamp.