The New Atheists: A House Divided
|September 19, 2014||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
The rift between P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins is now official. After Dawkins tweeted that he admired equity feminist Christina Hoff Summers (the author of Who Stole Feminism?) for her bravery, and mockingly referred to Myers’ Free Thought Blog as the “Feedingfrenzy Thoughtpolice Bullies”, Myers hit back, accusing Sommers of being “an anti-feminist … on a mission … to discredit all of feminism” and added: “Well, I’m going to have to write off Richard Dawkins now. He’s been eaten by the brain parasites… I couldn’t be more shocked if Dawkins had endorsed a creationist… Thanks, Richard Dawkins! You’re now officially an anti-feminist!”
Sommers’ great crime, apparently, consisted in being currently employed by the American Enterprise Institute, which Myers labeled “a far right wing think tank,” and of being a feminist of the wrong sort (i.e. one who attacks what she refers to as “victim feminism”), which makes her an anti-feminist in Myers’ book. A week ago, Myers wrote an open letter to Dawkins, in an attempt to enlighten him on this point. Myers then went on to accuse Sommers of being “a professional selective quote-miner and anecdote-citer who is on a mission from AEI to discredit all of feminism,” adding that “she’s simply not a trustworthy source, any more than Kent Hovind is a good source of information about evolution” – a claim which is amply refuted by her statements here and here, where she uses statistics to punctures some myths of victim feminism. (Sommers, by the way, is a former philosophy professor, and she certainly knows the difference between a good argument and a bad one.) For Myers, Dawkins’ endorsement of Sommers proved that he’d lost his marbles: she had evidently “bamboozled” him.
Myers’ readers were even more vicious in their comments about Dawkins. Wrote one (asterisks are mine – VJT):
We don’t need to coddle Dawkins to have a movement. We don’t need him to keep Creationism out of schools. Or haven’t you heard of Eugenie Scott?
He needs us to be Richard F***ing Dawkins, the Pope of all Atheism. We don’t need him to be atheists or activists.
Another atheist commenter wrote that “Richard Dawkins doesn’t represent atheists any more than the Westboro baptist Church represents theists.” A third reader rhetorically wondered whether “Dawkins’ motivation [for attacking creationists in The God Delusion] was starting a long feud with an adversary he knew to be much feebler than him so he could enjoy a very long streak of rhetorical victories.”
I have on a previous occasion publicly called out Richard Dawkins in the past for his unkind remarks about Dr. William Lane Craig, whom he publicly refused to debate in 2011 because of his views on the slaughter of the Canaanites, even though he had already debated Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who holds similar views – see here and here) back in 1996. In my 2011 post, I also pointed out that Dawkins did not suddenly learn of Craig’s views in 2011, as he claimed; in fact, he knew about them as far back as 2008. However, after reading the venomous diatribes directed at Dawkins in the comments to P.Z. Myers’ post, it’s hard for me not to feel sorry for the man.
Other controversial remarks by Dawkins come to light
Another reader of P.Z. Myers’ blog recalled a controversial remark made by Dawkins several years ago, in which he stated that belief in the doctrine of an everlasting Hell could do children greater harm than being sexually abused (asterisks mine – VJT):
Let’s not forget the one which did cause outrage in me, where he said that teaching children about hell was abuse, and it was worse than being molested. As someone who was taught relentlessly about old school hell and was raped for years as a child, I can say he was full of s**t then, and he’s full of s**t now. (Yes, the hell teaching was bad, it terrified me, for years on end. It wasn’t even close to being as bad as the rapes.)
Dawkins should have come clean on this point and admitted that he was clearly in the wrong, but he never has.
Other commenters criticized Dawkins for his remarks on rape, including a recent tweet in which Dawkins stated: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” One male reader regarded these remarks as tantamount to “rape apologia” and proved that Dawkins was, “at heart, a misogynist social reactionary who is wedded to his male privilege and invested in maintaining the oppressive status quo” – which in my view was a very uncharitable interpretation of Dawkins’ comments. To say that while all rapes are evil, some rapes are worse than others is surely as obvious as the statement that while all murder is evil, some murders are more evil than others. But the most interesting part of this reader’s comment is yet to come. He had the honesty to squarely admit that many New Atheists have a superiority complex and look down on religious people, and he belatedly recognized that New Atheists are just as fallible in their judgments of human beings as everyone else, and that being an atheist doesn’t make you more rational:
If Dawkins was always clueless about social justice, given to a misogynist and dismissive attitude toward women, and only really qualified to speak with regard to the more obvious failings of religion and his own very specific academic field, then we got it wrong. We made a bad call. We backed the wrong horse. And we did it all while no small number of us were frankly being a little too inclined to clap ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for being oh so clever. We had after all seen through all this religion business, hadn’t we? We saw it for the convenient fusion of easily exploitable mythology and socio-political power dynamics that it was. And we are still in a minority, hated by so many for puncturing their cherished delusions. Surely, the only way we could have seen through a lie that has so completely gulled billions for so many centuries is because we have clearer vision than other, dare we say ‘lesser’, mortals? Never mind that the lie was never all that convincing to begin with and took no special genius to reject, and what maintained its power wasn’t any supposed stupidity of believers but instead a complex set of self-reinforcing social and cultural factors, which we were able to overcome more often than not by good fortune or a specific set of personal experiences, not some laughable notion of nigh-superhuman intellect or insight – none of that gives the warm feeling of intellectual and moral superiority that seems so appealing to so many of us.
Being so proud of our supposedly superior rational faculties (just look at all the smug straw vulcans who keep popping up within the atheist community), it is difficult to admit that, not only were we wrong about Dawkins and Harris and so many others, but we were wrong about them in much the same way that so many moderate religious believers are so often wrong about the own community leaders – we saw who we wanted to see, what was comfortable and expedient to us in the role, rather than who was actually there. That shatters to a million pieces the notion that we are above the kind of cognitive misfires that inform so much religious belief and tradition.
Atheism is most certainly not just another religion, but events like this remind us that theists and atheists are all people, and we are just as vulnerable to deceiving ourselves as they are when applying, or rather failing to apply, critical thinking to topics a little too close to home for comfort.
Well, at least he is an honest man. I’d call that a step in the right direction.
Finally, a reader summed up their feelings about the whole fracas:
::Banging head on desk at the stupidity of it all:: The believers have finally found their wedge issue.
which led a reader to respond:
Theists are not the problem. Atheists are the problem.
Now that’s candor for you! The reader had a point, too. A week ago, Buzzfeed journalist Mark Oppenheimer wrote a thought-provoking article titled, Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement? which was the subject of a recent post by News on Uncommon Descent. Now, I don’t wish to discuss the allegations made in the article against a certain well-known atheist speaker at New Atheist gatherings, as the man has yet to receive a fair trial in court. However, Oppenheimer’s insight into the New Atheist movement as a whole is remarkable for its perspicacity (emphases mine – VJT):
Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years…
The roots of today’s crisis can be found in the post-war history of the movement. The groups that make up the broader freethought community … have two things in common. First, they oppose the hegemony of religious, including New Age, thinking in American culture. And second, they all have roots in very male subcultures.…
“Back in the ’90s, up until our movement exploded online, this was an old boys’ network,” said Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist and the principal host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. “The guys would look around and go, ‘Where the hell are all the women?’ We made a concerted effort to bring parity to the movement, to have 50-50 speakers at meetings, to open up online.”…
“It wasn’t until I started getting hugely sexually objectified by skeptics and atheists, and would say mildly, ‘Please don’t do that,’ and get s**t in return — that’s when I realized feminism is highly relevant to me and to skeptics,” [feminist skeptic Rebecca] Watson said.
Amy Davis Roth had a similar evolution. “I became a feminist because people kept calling me one,” Roth said. “I hadn’t known what it was.” In fact, many female skeptics wanted it made clear that they value the sexualized culture of the freethought world…
[Skeptic] Alison Smith, … who told me she was a “terrible poster child for feminism,” expressed a kind of wistful affection for the matter-of-fact attitudes she found in freethought. “Because we are an offbeat community and we apply critical thinking to all aspects of our lives, we are more likely to participate in activities the general public would see as negative — for example, being open-minded about sex, or having sex with a lot of people. The general public would view it as a negative, but critical-thinking-wise, it’s par for our course.”
Early on, Smith considered that mind-set. “For a while,” she said, “I tried that critical-thinking mind-set toward sex, that it’s devoid of love, devoid of meaning, that it’s something for entertainment, like, say, tennis. It can lead you to some interesting situations. But it ignores evolutionary biology. We did not evolve to be sociopaths.” In the end, callousness did not suit her. At one skeptics convention, she handed her résumé to a famous author, and he told her that she should just be a prostitute. “He said, ‘I know people who do that, and it’s not a big thing — you’d be good at it, it’s a compliment.’ For a while, you do think, ‘I shouldn’t be upset, he was offering me the best advice he thinks he has to offer.'”
The real problem here, as I see it, is the pernicious myth – which skeptics are especially likely to swallow – that sex is not sacred, and that it is just an activity like any other (see here and here for examples of skeptics arguing for this position). It goes without saying that men who seriously believe this are apt to behave in boorish ways, when they are in the company of women. And it should be even more obvious that if these men are also consuming alcohol, their behavior will turn very ugly, very fast.
People who live in glass houses
Myers thinks he can overcome the bad behavior exhibited by some members of the New Atheists by giving it a broader ethical dimension. But Myers’ own system of ethics leaves a lot to be desired. In a 2011 post titled, Newborn babies: not persons, and not fully human – P. Z. Myers, I wrote:
P. Z. Myers is one of the 25 most influential living atheists. He is also on record as saying that he doesn’t believe that newborn babies are fully human, and he makes it clear that he doesn’t regard them as persons, either. Almost no-one noticed when P. Z. Myers made these utterances, because they were made in a comment on one of his recent posts. (See here for P.Z. Myers’ post, here for one reader’s comment and here for P. Z. Myers’ reply, in which he makes his own views plain.) So, what exactly did P. Z. say? In response to a reader who claimed that there is one very easily defined line between personhood and non-personhood -namely, birth – P. Z. Myers replied:
Nope, birth is also arbitrary, and it has not been even a cultural universal that newborns are regarded as fully human.
I’ve had a few. They weren’t.
Let me state at the outset that I have no doubt that P. Z. Myers is a good father; but that is not the issue here. His views on newborn babies are the issue.
Readers who check out the links will find that all comments seem to have been mysteriously removed from the Webpage I referenced. They’re not on the Wayback Internet either. I wonder why.
I respectfully submit that a movement which can’t even agree that newborn babies are human persons with a right to live, and that killing them is murder, doesn’t merit the respect of any thinking person.
So what now for the New Atheists? I’ll give Myers the last word:
Atheism is officially and asymmetrically split, with the authoritarians of the Dawkins/Harris alliance happily embracing MRAs [men’s rights activists], and the mob of the Skepchick/FtB axis standing apart, looking appalled. OK, bring it on.
Who was it that said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”?