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.

Kim Jong Il and Sam Harris

December 22, 2011

The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il brought to mind a claim by Sam Harris that I had wanted to write about some time ago, but never found the time to. Sam Harris’ statement was in his September blog post on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He wrote:

Whatever else may be wrong with our world, it remains a fact that some of the most terrifying instances of human conflict and stupidity would be unthinkable without religion. And the other ideologies that inspire people to behave like monsters—Stalinism, fascism, etc.—are dangerous precisely because they so resemble religions. Sacrifice for the Dear Leader, however secular, is an act of cultic conformity and worship. Whenever human obsession is channeled in these ways, we can see the ancient framework upon which every religion was built. In our ignorance, fear, and craving for order, we created the gods. And ignorance, fear, and craving keep them with us.

Here Harris engages in unprecedented sophistry. Obviously in and of itself the fact that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and the Ils killed tens of millions of people and imprisoned tens of millions more is itself ‘evil’. It is in fact the worst sort of evil in human history. And the regimes that conducted this evil did so without ever resorting to a belief in God or gods – which is the ordinary definition of a religion. Harris of course realizes this but to say so would show that atheism is as capable of atrocities as any other belief, so he twists that definition. Instead of the ordinary view of religion, Harris re-defines religion as any act of cultic conformity and worship of a leader. In saying this Harris displays an egregious, and sadly all too typical weakness amongst New Atheists, that being ignorance of history. The Marxist ideology which led to these regimes was wholly secular – and the movements which installed Stalin and Mao and the Ils weren’t mere devotions to particular leaders, but were the result of the acceptance of the truth of Marxist ideals. These leaders gained power because of the acceptance of a bad secular political and economic philosophy; they didn’t impose this philosophy on the societies in which they ruled. The fact that Harris misses this is wrong-headed and dangerous because it is precisely this sort of ignorance that allows such ideals to grow and metastasize into monstrous regimes.

Contra Harris, the existence of places like the Soviet Union and North Korea show us the critical importance of transcendent beliefs. Rights and liberties that don’t emanate from an immaterial order (as those in the US do) invariably must emanate from the state, and the state is invariably subject to the corruption of human ambition. This is why in declaring their independence from Britain the American founders didn’t appeal to democracy or science or economics in and of themselves, but instead rooted the rights liberties of man in an endowment by a transcendent Creator. That is in fact the only reasonable place from which certain rights can emanate.

North Korea and South Korea are perfect exemplars of these principles in action. Though not explicit in its Constitution, historically the South Korean notion of rights developed as a product of Western (particularly American) influences on political thought. Rights in South Korea are inherent, not bestowed by the state. North Korea on the other hand was modeled after a Soviet style totalitarian society. The ascendency of the Dear Leader in North Korea was a product of the dominance of the secular state not particular religious behaviors. Such ‘cultic conformity’ occurs whenever humans have no authority to answer to but their own coupled with the power to carry out their will.

The only bulwark against such monstrous behavior is the very thing Sam Harris and his co-secularists would eliminate – a set of transcendent truths rooted in the nature of God and his purposes for humanity.

Secularism and the Pornification of Culture

December 1, 2011

I am struck by how often I am assured by atheists that they are as ‘moral’ as Christians or that they generally accept the “good teachings in the world religions”, only to have them demur when it comes to the question of pornography. Indeed, a number of atheists are not only reluctant to condemn pornography, but openly embrace it as a societal good. This isn’t particularly surprising given the vast majority of atheists are young unmarried men who are the primary market for pornography. And to be fair, many defend it on libertarian grounds, namely that it is a ‘victimless crime’, and the participants are consenting adults. If participation is optional, and no harm is done (harm being defined as physical injury – at least of the permanent sort) then the argument contends there is no reason to restrict either the production of pornography or its consumption by adults.

Recent events however demonstrate that the impacts of pornography aren’t so easily constrained. Take for example the recent announcement by Michael O’Leary that his airline would soon be offering pornography on flights. As the New York Times notes, this is already becoming an common occurrence on flights:

The flaw in Mr. O’Leary’s logic notwithstanding (hotel rooms have doors; airplane seats are surrounded by eyeballs, some very young), his proposal isn’t so radical. As most any flight attendant will confirm, passengers are already indulging in racy content downloaded onto their phones, tablets or laptops from outside sources.

Beth Blair, a flight attendant and travel writer based in Minneapolis, said she once worked on a flight out of Burbank, Calif., during which an adult-film editor and his assistants began editing footage on their laptops. A child was sitting behind them. “I asked them to turn it off ASAP,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Instead of obliging, they built a private area/tent out of newspapers. Luckily, the volume was turned down.”

In another instance, radio personality Laura Ingraham talks about an incident on a train where her young daughter was exposed to pornography:

Last week radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham told a story of traveling by train from Washington, DC, to New York with her young daughter. Walking up the aisle to get a snack, the little girl pointed to the computer screen of a man sitting two rows ahead of them. “Why are those people swimming naked, Mommy,” she asked. It turns out that their fellow passenger was watching “full blown porn,” as Ingraham described it, in easy view of anyone who happened to be sitting nearby or walking past.

It would seem these sorts of incidencess are to be expected in a culture that increasingly sees humans (especially women) as consumable goods.

And it is not only the common exposure to pornography by unwilling participants that is becoming a problem; with the ever-growing appetite for fresh bodies required for pornography and other ‘adult’ entertainment venues, worldwide human trafficking is growing rapidly. This counters the old trope that legalization diminishes the involvement of criminals – the global criminality of human trafficking actually feeds off the increasingly open and growing appetite for commercialization of sex. Slavery, which was thought to have been eradicated in the US with the end of the Civil War is re-asserting itself in the sex trade industry.

As a Christian I have clear and consistent reasons for opposing pornography, starting of course with the notion that human aren’t objects but creatures that bear the image of God. I understand the centrality of sex to family life and procreation, and I understand the need to curb corrupt human desires and appetites. There are of course no such objections from atheists who form the core of the secular left; as I said, not only are they unable to articulate a position that will provide a bulwark against the pornification of our society, some promote such a society.

Atheists like Sam Harris often promote the idea of human flourishing as a measure of the moral health of society, which certainly has some merit – what is not clear is how a society can flourish where children’s minds are poisoned, women are turned into consumer goods, and men are enslaved to uncontrolled sexual appetites.

Atheist Contradictions – Sam Harris and Brute Facts

November 9, 2011

 In a previous post on the ‘magical thinking’ of atheism, I quoted the philosopher Edward Feser’s description of atheist thinking regarding the ‘brute facts’ of nature. As Fester puts it, “it is very likely that an atheist has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact…”” To do otherwise would be to open up the consideration that certain aspects of reality must have causes, and that exploration of the chain of causality would lead them back to something which is uncaused or non-contingent, i.e. God.

So as bulwark against such a consideration atheists simply have to accept that some things just are, without explanation. Almost as soon as I posted this I ran across an example of an atheist doing just this. In his second part of his post on the Mystery of Consciousness Harris writes this:

Many readers of my previous essay did not understand why the emergence of consciousness should pose a special problem to science. Every feature of the human mind and body emerges over the course development: Why is consciousness more perplexing than language or digestion? The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it.

 This situation has been characterized as an “explanatory gap” and the “hard problem of consciousness,” and it is surely both. I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have judged the impasse to be total: Perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms. Every chain of explanation must end somewhere—generally with a brute fact that neglects to explain itself. Consciousness might represent a terminus of this sort. Defying analysis, the mystery of inner life may one day cease to trouble us.

*emphasis mine*

In reality atheists accept many such ‘brute facts’. That an ordered universe can arise without guidance, that life can from non-living matter, that a life sustaining planet can arise according to ordinary processes. And those are just physical realities – as I have pointed out elsewhere they also accept as true that humans should be treated equally, that human rights exist, and that humans have inherent worth, even though such notions completely contradict the ‘science’ they say informs their decisions.

Ironically, in asserting certain realities as brute facts atheists are engaging in a sort of thinking they accuse theists of, namely that they their beliefs are informed by faith – or a blind acceptance of certain unprovable truths. This is even more ironic since this is not at all the Christian view of faith.

 Nonetheless it is important to note that when push comes to shove, atheists themselves acknowledge that many of their beliefs aren’t anymore grounded in ‘science’ than were those of the pre-Christian pagans of old.

Is New Atheism Antagonistic to Scientific Research?

June 7, 2011


One of the main arguments of New Atheism against religious belief is the supposed detrimental effect religious belief has on the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Religious faith is portrayed as being a viral delusion which undermines reason and contradicts that which gives us the only source of reliable knowledge – scientific research. And yet, when one considers the record of New Atheists on scientific research, it would seem being a New Atheist leader is quantitatively antagonistic to scientific research. Consider for a moment the research publication record of various New Atheist leaders:

Richard Dawkins – Last date of publication, 2004

Jerry Coyne – Last date of publications, 2007

PZ Myers – Last date of publication, 2002

Sam Harris – Last date of publication, 2011, the only paper in the last three years.

And of course Christopher Hitchens, not being a scientist, has never published research.

It seems the pattern with New Atheists is to get a degree in some scientific field, write a few popular books on a scientific subject, and then abandon scientific research all together to pursue the advocacy of atheism. In fact these folks aren’t particularly notable for their ground breaking research in a field of science; they are more notable for their popular books and their strident advocacy of atheism.

Of course nothing prevents them from pursuing what they consider to be the most reliable form of truth, scientific knowledge. Amongst the myriad of blogs advocating New Atheism there is a constant din concerning the value of scientific knowledge –and very little attempt to actually acquire such knowledge or utilize it in any practical way. Instead there is mostly a critique of religious belief (mainly Christianity) and practicing scientists who don’t throw in with the New Atheists. New Atheists spend as much time or more discussing religious beliefs as do religious people; certainly more time doing so then they do discussing hard science.

In the end the objective reader is forced to conclude that pursuing scientific knowledge is not nearly as important as wrangling over metaphysical issues; a conclusion with which I would heartily agree.

This is however unlikely to be the conclusion the New Atheists desire.

William Lane Craig/ Sam Harris Debate

April 15, 2011

I finally got around to listening to this debate (and much later, writing about it); it is yet another melee in a growing oeuvre of skirmishes between William Lane Craig and the New Atheists. With the caveats I mentioned in the Craig/Krauss debate post, I found this one to be much more engaging overall. Perhaps that is because Harris is a much more engaging speaker than Krauss was. Also Craig covers somewhat different ground here, less apologist and more critic of atheism’s power to ground objective morality.

I only have a couple of quick observations – I imagine people will draw their own conclusions based on their inclinations, so these are merely my take on it.

As I mentioned, Harris is very easy to listen to. Even when he is intimating that Christians are psychotic, idiotic and comparable to the Taliban he does so in even, reasonable tones that come across like he is just making an observation, not proffering an argument. And Harris often touches on points of agreement rather than merely dismissing his opponents – clitoral circumcision is bad, Jesus was a charismatic leader, we should fear losing an objective grounding for morality, etc.

Indeed one notable aspect of this debate is that Craig and Harris agree on one fundamental fact – that morals can be objectively known. Harris’ greatest critics in this regard aren’t Christians, but other atheists. Where they differ though is that Craig thinks morals are objective because he believes morals have an objective existence grounded in the existence and nature of God. Harris on the other hand thinks science can simply provide the framework for investigating morality by pegging it to human suffering, and we can understand that suffering is wrong because we have minds.

In arguing this Harris engages in a lot of question begging, but that is not my chief criticism of his views. In fact my chief criticism of Harris here wasn’t even one Craig considered. My chief criticism of Harris is that he puts great faith in human nature, though he probably wouldn’t call it that. For example, in his criticism of Craig’s ‘Divine Command’ theory he posits that in classroom of young children the kids might readily accept a direction from a teacher that it is fine to eat a cookie, but would reject a direction that it is fine to hit your neighbor. Apparently Craig has never actually encountered a child. In fact, this is exactly how we often end up with problem children – they have been given free reign by an adult to act as they desired, either through neglect or permissiveness. If humans simply acted in accordance with some inherent intuitive morality that we all innately agreed upon, we would have little need for laws or government at all. We actually have experimental evidence to show that adults will act to harm others in deference to an authority figure (ironically, a scientific researcher!), much less Harris’ imaginary children. So commands of an authority figure certainly do play a role in the moral choices humans make, and that authority should be one that is sufficiently great to warrant our obedience.

The other non-considered issue I take with Harris’ idea that science and provide a purely naturalistic framework for morality is that science has tried to do this before. As has been discussed here previously, the eugenics movement of the early 20th century was primarily an attempt to impose on humanity a purely scientific framework for making a better society. It was thought we could apply evolutionary theory to better mankind and thereby alleviate human suffering. Of course we now know that such efforts failed miserably. Just recently the global-warmists tried to save humanity by imposing on us a framework for how we should behave and act economically with regard to the latest scientific findings. We are only now beginning to realize how replete this ‘science’ is with politics, selfish ambition, and financial gain.

This is in fact that is the very reason we need a transcendent code of morality – because anything less than that is invariably the product of human inclination, and thus subject to the corruption of power and selfish interests. Sam Harris and the New Atheists aren’t above this. No person is.

As an aside Craig alluded briefly to the fact that the naturalism Harris believes in is deterministic with regard to human free will. This is critical, because if humans aren’t actually free to make moral choices, then attempting to determine which of those choices is ‘moral’ is irrelevant.

A number of folks have tried to counter that since by invoking the indeterminism of quantum physics. The problem with this argument is that while such indeterminacy might leave our futures indeterminate, it does nothing to free our will, because our will in purely mechanistic brain would be illusory anyway. Quantum mechanics would no more give us free will than it would cause a computer to exceed its programming and become aware of the its own operations and be able to modify them.

One has to wonder what the end-game for atheists is here. The reality is some subjects are amenable to scientific study – optimally those phenomena which can be readily quantified and subjected to repeatable experimentation. The cause and effects of human morality though are enmeshed with the complexities of human society and the results of bad morality may be stretched over generations. Take the ‘free love’ movement of the sixties. At the time it seemed like a fresh and exciting idea. Decades later, with communities plagued by broken families, deadly diseases like AIDs which cost our society significant resources to combat continuing to spread, and the objectification of women and girls which has turned human flesh into a consumer good has engendered much suffering in our society. While science has been employed to treat the symptoms it could do little to prevent the moral corruption to begin with. It certainly isn’t more effective than a few well understood and adhered to principles that prohibit adultery and sexual immorality, which if followed would lead to vast improvement of the human landscape.

Nonetheless, the debate raises some great discussions, which I think is the best outcome of such events.

You can listen to it here, and see it here.