Atheists Eat Their Own

September 24, 2012

New Atheism, the movement that holds that religious belief should be strongly criticized and countered because it is dumb, delusional and dangerous burst on the scene early in the 2000’s with a flurry of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Motivated in part by the perceived religious motivations of the 9/11 attacks and George Bush’s overt religiosity and fueled by the easy communication of blogs and discussion boards, New Atheism quickly grew into something of a movement. Foundations, conferences and rallies have since provided a sense of community and identity to the nascent cause. And yet, while there has been much fanfare about the growth of New Atheism, at nearly a decade out the movement appears to be employing the same attacks against itself that it once leveled against the religious and with greater effect.

Overt acts of sexism and harassment by men in the movement against participating women have recently splintered the movement. New Atheism has also dividing over what it means to be an atheist; whether the movement is merely skeptical of religion or obligated to advance certain social and political concerns like feminism, gay rights and social and economic justice. In short, some want to offer a progressive agenda, or what has been dubbed ‘Atheism+’. Atheist journalist Nelson Jones gives a good overview at the NewStatesman:

A number of incidents have served to crystallise the sense that all is not right in the world of unbelief. Most notoriously, there was “Elevatorgate”, an late-night incident in a lift during an atheist conference in Dublin during which the blogger Rebecca Watson was propositioned. Her subsequent public complaint about the man’s behaviour and sexual harassment within the Skeptic movement drew criticism from Richard Dawkins himself and fuelled an ugly flame war. She received, and continues to receive, rape and death threats…

…The first item on the Atheism+ agenda, then, is a cleansing one. [Jen] McCreight [A founder of the movement at PZ Myers Freethought blogs] herself says: “We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism.” Greta Christina has gone so far as to devise a checklist of goals to which atheist organisations should aspire, including anti-harassment policies and ensuring diversity among both members and invited speakers. “To remember that not all atheists look like Richard Dawkins.”

Not long after this article was published skeptic Jen McCreight ceased blogging at FreeThoughtBlogs over the harassment she received from her criticism of her fellow atheists. Beyond the blog wars, major players in the atheist movement like Dawkins and PZ Myers and Sam Harris are vociferously at odds over all sorts of issues. While the blog comment sections and discussion boards of atheists have always been offensive and irrational places for believers, they are now verbal torture chambers for fellow atheists.

As a Christian I would normally avoid commenting on the internecine battles of groups that don’t include me. It is no skin off my nose that atheists are attacking each other. But I think the current state of affairs is instructive when it comes to understanding the modern atheist movement and human nature.

The first thing to understand is that ‘New Atheism’ is primarily the domain of young white males. And not ordinary young white males, but the sort whose lives consist largely of the consumption of video games, pornography and internet trolling. Psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo described this group recently in his book The Demise of Guys. While many of the leaders of New Atheism appear to be respectable enough folks, New Atheist leaders like PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have been idolized by troops of young men because they justify their chosen lifestyles. Whereas it was once expected that a man in his twenties would do something productive and profitable like advancing a career or starting a family, now we have millions of young men who feel completely content to squander their lives engaging in artificial combat to conquer digital worlds while satisfying themselves with virtual relationships. They are ripe for the picking by folks like PZ Myers who created a legion of trolls by whipping fan boys into a frenzy against imagined evil religious hordes. There is little wonder then that the fun was spoiled when real women started showing up at the party, with all their expectations of social maturity and common decency. Their presence, and the insistence by certain atheist leaders that the some of their followers need to grow up was like Peter Pan telling the lost boys to leave Neverland and get a life.

While this was true for the minions, for leaders of New Atheism it has never been about mere skepticism. New Atheism is closely allied with progressivism because they share a common enemy. Progressives see atheism as useful to diminish the power of conservative faiths that are the primary bulwark against leftist agendas. Of course the fan boys in the atheist movement aren’t nearly so high-minded – they see religion as bulwark against their chosen lifestyles. As much as this mindless passion causes young men to rail against religion, they are useful to leaders on the left. That is why the movements in the sixties could encompass both the high-minded feminist notions of ‘equality’ alongside the ‘free love movement’ which consisted mainly of mainstreaming sexual promiscuousness. To advance, both required diminishing traditional and religious beliefs about family even though they shared little in common with regard to actual goals. They were literally strange bedfellows.

The reason conflicts have arisen in the atheist movement is the reason conflict inevitably arises in all human movements – the selfishness and hubris that is inherent to human nature. This comports with first and foremost truth advanced by Christians that all men are sinners – that is by nature we are selfish, proud and corruptible creatures. This is why the very atheist hordes PZ Myers used to command against the religious now clog his inbox with messages of contempt. It is the reason the very folks Richard Dawkins inspired to be rationalists now label him a misogynist. And it is why Sam Harris, whose books partly inspired the New Atheist movement, is now labeled among the ‘5 Most Awful Atheists‘ by some of his peers. Atheists imagined that religious belief itself exacerbates conflict and once it was done away with reason would reign – now they prove that a devotion to reason is no remedy for the inherent human tendency to advance one’s ambitions over the interests of others.

Atheists often cast aspersions on the Church because there are multiple Christian denominations. ‘How can there be one truth with so many different variations?’ goes the reasoning – all the while ignoring the basic creeds that Christians overwhelmingly adhere to and the fact that the Church experienced no significant splits for over a thousand years of its existence. They tout their movement as one motivated by reason and thus immune to the vagaries that plague many religions; yet they can’t deal with basic matters amongst themselves with common civility.

If we can test the truth of a proposition by the consistent agreement about its basic tenants among its proponents, then New Atheism, a small movement that is splintering almost as soon as it has begun, is almost certainly false.


Havel and Hitchens

December 20, 2011

With the deaths this last week of these two great voices for freedom, there have been many remembrances and much analysis on the impact of each man. In a recent article in the American Spectator, writer Paul Kengor does a brief yet insightful comparison of the two men highlighting the understanding Havel had that Hitchens lacked:

Václav Havel was not just a man of politics and intellect, but a man of the arts, theater, literature — and, yes, of God. He exhorted the West and the wider post-modern world to seek “transcendence.” Hitchens might have figured God “the ultimate totalitarian,” but Havel saw God as the solution to totalitarianism, as tyranny’s antidote, as the fountainhead of freedom. This was something Havel deeply admired about America and its roots — its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former. “The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” Havel concluded in his July 4, 1994 lecture at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, home of that very sentiment. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”

While it is proper to call Hitchens a crusader against tyranny, he only slowly abandoned the Marxist beliefs which dominated his youth. When Havel began his anti-communist activities in Czechoslovakia, Christopher Hitchens was working as a student at a Cuban ‘summer camp’ with his fellow leftist students helping to support the burgeoning Castro regime. While Václav Havel sat in prison for voicing opposition to the repressive Communist regime, Hitchens was writing for The Nation, penning critiques of American foreign policy, much of which was aimed at curbing the spread of Soviet sponsored communism. Havel was a man of action in the middle of the fight; Hitchens was an observer who rarely suffered for his anti-authoritarian views.

In many ways this explains why Havel, despite not being a believing Christian understood the need for transcendence in the postmodern world; mere words are not sufficient to battle the tyranny of the state. Such a battle requires truths that are rooted in permanence beyond the material world. Hitchens on the other hand saw the threat of an oppressive state but his militant atheism never allowed him to articulate a substantive basis for human rights and liberty nor did he need to – he was comfortably ensconced in the West where such rights were already recognized.

As a result, in the end Václav was a reformer while Hitchens was a political gadfly.

The Ironic Life of Christopher Hitchens

December 16, 2011

*A few more thoughts about Christopher Hitchens I ‘ve had since his death was reported.*

I first heard of Christopher Hitchens by way of the regular interviews he did with conservative Christian radio talk show host, Hugh Hewitt. Hugh had him on his show regularly to talk about mid-East policy, national politics and the threat of radical Islam. His regular appearance on the show is an apt illustration of the dichotomy that was Christopher Hitchens – a former Marxist and staunch atheist having long in-depth and often agreeable conversations with a conservative Christian.

And Hugh Hewitt wasn’t the only Christian admirer Hitchens had. Upon learning that he was sick and in all likelihood dying, many skeptics expected the caustic atheist would be reviled by Christians, when in fact the opposite happened. In part this might be explained by the fact that Christians are commanded to ‘love their enemies’ but the affection expressed even at his death goes beyond mere tolerance – there has been a real sadness at his loss. I think in part that this is because Hitchens strove to be a great truth teller; even if one disagreed with him one always got the sense he was trying to boldly get at the truth of things whether it be the threat of Islamo-fascism or abortion or the existence of God. He wasn’t petty like Dawkins, or prissy like Sam Harris – he was however consistently antagonistic to anyone he saw as dishonest or tyrannical. It was this characteristic that was to cause the left to castigate him for being a ‘neoconservative’, though he was never so easily pegged.

The affection many believers had for Hitchens undermines the New Atheist caricature of Christians. In the modern atheist mythos, Christians are invariably dumb, deluded and dangerous. And yet Hitchens, who himself often spoke this way about believers was often warmly received on by them. He once described the Christian audience into which he was received at a debate as a ‘den of lambs’. His brother Peter, a devout believer made peace with him later in life. Francis Collins, the geneticist and doctor who spoke frequently about matters of faith who is often ridiculed by atheists, aided Hitchens in his fight against cancer. After he announced that he had cancer there was a veritable outpouring of support for him, much of it by way of prayer for which he expressed being ‘touched’ despite not believing them to be effective. Unlike atheists, Christians merely see their opponents as wrong, not fundamentally stupid or insane. We understand that despite his best efforts, Hitchens was no more a sinner than anyone else and no less deserving of the grace than any believer.

Another great irony of Christopher Hitchens’ life is that it only matters if he was wrong. If Hitchens was right about the universe, then he has passed into nothingness and will be soon forgotten – atheists have little love for history except where it serves their purposes and the modern world has an increasingly short attention span. If a face and voice isn’t ever-present on the screen it soon fades from public memory. So the increasingly secular world quickly forgets its own champions; everyone is equally unimportant and inevitably lost in a dying universe.

And yet if Christians are right, Hitchens existed for an eternal purpose. To the degree he championed truth and good purpose; his work inadvertently had eternal impact even if it didn’t result in his own salvation. To the degree that he championed evil notions, even those works will ultimately conform to the will of God. Just as Joseph said to his brothers ‘What you meant for ill, God worked for good’ no one can thwart the eternal purposes of God. Pharaoh and Moses and Pilate and Peter all played their part in the great story that is unfolding, so in the Christian understanding the part Hitchens played is enshrined in eternity, even if he isn’t there to enjoy it.

By his own admission, Hitchens destroyed his own body through the smoke and drink that led to his cancer. He took on tyrants and hypocrites, but he couldn’t conquer the demons of his own desires and the rise above the depth of his own boredom.

The ultimate irony of his life is that believers, who saw in him the Godly virtues of courage and honesty and perseverance, may have valued his life more than he did himself.

Christopher Hitchens – RIP

December 16, 2011

The great atheist has died.

The debate is over.

Is the ‘Hitchen’s Challenge’ that Challenging?

June 22, 2011

One frequently quoted challenge to religious belief is the oft cited ‘Hitchens’ Challenge”, taken from Christopher Hitchens’ book The Portable Atheist. Hitchens frames the provocation as follows:

“Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.”

He claims no one has yet has provided an example. I haven’t looked around enough to see how hard anyone else has tried, but a little thought immediately brought this example to my mind; human equality.

I would assert there is in fact no atheistic basis for claiming humans are equal, or should necessarily be treated as equals. There is certainly no such basis in biology – no two humans are biologically ‘equal’, in any sense of the word. We are certainly not intellectually equal (in fact atheists themselves consider believers to be deluded and generally less intelligent than non-believers). There is no historical obligation to treat people as equals, and even if there were, atheists don’t base mandates in mere history.

And yet Western Society holds up equality before the law and in terms of human worth to be an essential value – and many (if not most) atheists share that value. And yet, there is no reason as atheists to do so in any logically inherently consistent way; it is by neccesity the product of mere personal preference.

It appears the only rational and inherently consistent basis to assert human equality is the basis the Founders utilized – that we were created equal by a transcendent Creator. While we might have no physical or natural basis for equality, they thought it to be self-evident that we had an equality rooted in our eternal souls and that we were imbued with inherent worth by the one who originated our souls. Only by a scale that transcends a temporal and material world could the worth of a human life be measured and found equivalent to the worth of another human life, and thus we were compelled to recognize this equality and incorporate it in law. While the Founders and those that followed weren’t perfect in their implementation of this value, it is this value that constantly called us to progress as a society.

So I don’t find ‘Hitchens’ Challenge’ to be all that challenging – the greater challenge I would think is to realize how unbelief undermines the essential values of the Western world.

Christopher Hitchens and the Edge of Boredom

January 31, 2011

I often follow what Christopher Hitchens writes and says because I have been a long time admirer of the man’s thought processes, long before he came out as an avowed atheist. He is a heroic character in some ways, inasmuch as he has faced down dictators with a pen and resisted being easily pressed into a political categories by those who agree and disagree with him. These are a few of the many reasons I am saddened by his critical illness and the potential loss of his incisive and unrelenting voice.

That being said, I think Hitchens is also a tragic figure, one who in many respects is his own worst enemy. As he now struggles to survive there is much to be learned from his him about the emptiness of a life without God. I was particularly reminded of this in a recent interview in which he describes the choices that led to his illness:

HITCHENS: So to answer your question, of course, I always knew that there’s a risk in the bohemian lifestyle and I decided to take it because whether it’s an illusion or not, I don’t think it is, it helped my concentration, it stopped me being bored, stopped other people being boring, to some extent, it would keep me awake, it would make me want the evening to go on longer, to prolong the conversation, to enhance the moment. If I was asked, would I do it again, the answer is probably yes, I’d have quit earlier, possibly, hoping to get away with the whole thing.

Easy for me to say, not very nice for my children to hear. It sounds irresponsible if I say yes, I’d do all that again to you. But the truth is it would be hypocritical of me to say no, I’d never touch the stuff if I’d known, because I did know, everyone knows. And I decided all of life is a wager, I’m going to wager on this bit. And I can’t make it come out any other way. It’s strange; I almost don’t even regret it, though I should. Because it’s just impossible for me to picture life without wine and other things fueling the company. And keeping me reading and traveling and energizing me. It worked for me. It really did.

LAMB: What over the years has bored you? You use that word more than once in your writing.

HITCHENS: Yes, well, it’s a vice, of course. Acedia, I think it’s actually one of the deadly sins. Boredom was the anteroom to despair. Sort of the feeling that anime (ph), that nothings interesting, nothings worth – I am too prone to it. I get easily tired of – I don’t know, committee meetings or – not that I have to do many of those. Or waiting in line. I’m a very, very impatient person.

So, I’m very happy by myself, I’m lucky in that way. If I’ve got enough to read and something to write about and a bit of alcohol for me to add an edge, not to dull it.

It’s been a formula.

In many ways this claim is almost impossible to believe for the average person. Christopher Hitchens has led anything but a boring life. He had a first class education; he has traveled the world, entertaining and being entertained by the wealthy and famous as well as the infamous. He has kept from himself no pleasure he desired, male or female, and he is widely received and hailed as a phenomenal author, speaker, and thinker. He has managed the achievements of several lifetimes.

And yet he felt compelled to lubricate it all with vociferous amounts of alcohol and tobacco, to his own detriment – to stave off the boredom and despair which crouched at the edges of his existence.

In many ways this isn’t so hard to understand – even at a young age I realized how rapidly human existence grows boring. There is, as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “Nothing new under the sun“. Having been freed of the shackles of parental supervision as a young teen and having a precocious need to experience the world, by the time I hit college I had already indulged my desires in ways many people often don’t experience until much later, if ever. I was deeply familiar with how such emptiness begs for the numbing effects of alcohol. It was in part this realization that began to open my heart and mind the reality of God, and the necessity of Christ for completeness. If anything is to be learned from Hitchens’ choices, I think it is the reality that a life without God is not sufficient for contentment or real joy.

For myself I can honestly say I have not felt one moment of despair since making that decision, or any extended periods of boredom. And as a result I haven’t felt the need to stave off such things with alcohol and stimulants. It is sad to think that Christopher Hitchens may never know such a life.

Low Hanging Fruit

September 28, 2010

I was just listening to the debate between David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens on the question, ‘Does Atheism Poison Everything?‘ I won’t detail too much of what was said (you should watch it for yourself here) but I did note that Christopher Hitchens made a terrible blunder. At about 36 minutes into the debate he states that it is a, “filthy slander” to say that Nazism was the ‘implementation of Charles Darwin”. He further states that Darwin’s thought was, “not taught in Germany” and that Darwinism, “was derided in Germany”.

Either Hitchens was being terribly disingenuous here (something I doubt as I consider him to be a very honest person) or he was simply and profoundly ignorant of history on this count. A simple review of the relevant history will show us how.

In 1912 the 1st International Eugenics Conference was presided over by Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin. It was dedicated to Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who studied and popularized the idea of eugenics. This spawned a worldwide Eugenics movement which had its implementation in government policies as well as the establishment of eugenics institutes throughout the world. Eugenics was in modern parlance, the reigning scientific consensus.

The 3rd and final Eugenics Conference was in 1932. At that conference Ernst Rüdin was unanimously elected president of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. It was the very same Ernst Rüdin who was to head the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Rassenhygiene (German Society for Racial Hygiene) and who was one of the authors of the statute Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring which was the justification for Nazi sterilization laws, and later the elimination of the Jews.

So Hitchens is quite wrong on this count. While Nazi Germany was not the only country to implement the Darwin inspired eugenics ideas, the Third Reich was certainly the worst outgrowth of a movement which sprung directly from Darwin’s theories.