Sunday, February 05, 2012

Motes and beams

The thesis of Frank Furedi's article is right in the title: "How atheism became a religion in all but name." He starts with a provocative tag: "It was only a matter of time before someone proposed an ‘atheist temple’, given the religious-like zealotry and dogma of the New Atheists," followed by some examples of historical oppression an marginalization of atheists. Furedi reports that, today, however, atheism has become respectable, and has thus "paradoxically" become transformed. Atheism is, according to Furedi, no longer an "insignificant" component of its adherents' overall identity and personal philosophy; atheism per se has become a central intellectual idea. Atheists have consequently adopted the worst features of the religious, the very characteristics of religion that we criticize. Like the religious, Furedi claims that atheists have adopted a "dogmatic, polemical style," a "black-and-white" moral outlook, and make claims that "often verge on the irrational and hysterical." Atheism has, according to Furedi, simpoly transformed the religious narrative into a medical narrative, which he believes explains the purported atheist double-standard towards nonreligious woo. Atheism become not only "a secular religion" but also "an intensely intolerant and dogmatic secular religion." Indeed, Furedi believes that the "moral disorientation of Western secular culture," to which modern atheists are presumably substantively contributing, is a greater threat to humanism than is religion. Furedi, however, gets almost every point completely wrong.

First, I'm mystified by Furedi's treatment of Alain de Botton’s ridiculous idea* of an "atheist temple." Since he mentions it in the tagline, as a reader I expect that Furedi will use this idea as an important piece of evidence to support his idea. Yet Furedi himself notes the "strong criticism" this idea has received from the New Atheists. Furedi also notes that de Botton is at least something of an outsider to the New Atheists, someone who is, in contrast to the New Atheist "canon", such as it is, not aggressive towards religion. It is incomprehensible that the idea of an "atheist temple", an idea that has been substantially rejected by New Atheists, an idea proposed by someone who does not self-identify as a New Atheism and who is not accepted as such by self-identified New Atheists, would prove that it was "inevitable that sooner or later the New Atheist crusade would mutate into a quasi-religion." Indeed, Furedi acknowledges the New Atheist response to Furedi's idea as a real counterexample: "But for all that..." Call me old-fashioned, but I've always thought that a writer must actually rebut a counterexample, not just, as Furedi does, mention and dismiss it.

*Rumor has it that de Botton has sensibly backed off from this idea.

Furedi erroneously accuses the New Atheists of a hypocritical selectivity. But the New Atheists are just selective in focus, not in opinion. No one can write about everything, and to a large extent, the New Atheists is just a label adopted by people who, in part, focus on criticizing religion. No one can address every problem; furthermore an individual's focus is determined not just by her subjective evaluation of the importance of a problem, but by other considerations such as personal importance as well as considerations of talent, personal interest, and expertise. Of course, New Atheists do criticize Eastern Mysticism. Deepak Chopra, for example, is a frequent target of criticism by self-identified New Atheists. New Atheists talk about a lot of subjects other than the three Abrahamic religions. I write about economics and politics. And many New Atheists criticize and condemn "alternative medicine", which seems to directly contradict Furedi's claim that the New Atheists support any old thing that employs "therapeutic" rhetoric. It's not sufficient to show that New Atheists rarely address some subject; to show a double standard you have to at claim that we actually support or make excuses for patently unscientific subjects.

(There is a conflict of sorts between the New Atheists and the larger skeptical community. That conflict, however, hinges on skeptics not wanting to discuss religion; it does not hinge on New Atheists wanting skeptics in general to focus exclusively on religion.)

In addition to mishandling the counterexample, Furedi makes several claims unsupported by any evidence. Where are the "irrational and hysterical" New Atheist claims? Where is its "doctrinaire language?" And without an example, I'm unable to determine what Furedi even means by the "dogmatic, polemical* style" of New Atheist writing. Without evidentiary support, Furedi seems to simply be poisoning the well before he attempts his only supported argument.

*"Polemic" formally means an argument against a position, in contrast to "apologia", an argument for a position. It's uncontroversially accepted that New Atheists tend to argue against religion. There are, of course, other, pejorative senses of "polemic", but without explanation or example, Furedi's specific meaning is impossible to determine.

Furedi's only supported argument for New Atheism becoming religious is the medicalized treatment of theistic religion. New Atheists "use the idiom of therapy to pathologize religion, using terms "such as 'toxic faith' and 'religious virus.'" Furedi notes that New Atheists refer to religion as an "addiction". All right; so what? Medicine is a terrific narrative framework for talking about social problems. It is perhaps the field of study that most obviously and powerfully expresses the intersections of scientific, evidence-based reasoning and direct human well-being. Furedi is not arguing against bad medicalization; he cites only medical rhetoric, not any faulty science. Even if Furedi were arguing directly against medicalization per se, the connection between a medical narrative and the specifically religious character of New Atheism is entirely absent: I'm aware of no religion — and Furedi does not inform us of any — that uses a medical narrative as an essential or important component. And unless Furedi wants to indict the medical profession itself as just as dogmatic, zealous and irrational as any theistic religion (in which Furedi would be talking about physicians, not atheists), noting the medical narrative of the New Atheists does not support but undermines his thesis.

Not only does medicine exemplify the same kind of scientific, empirical methods and humanistic goals as New Atheism, the medical narrative also encourages us to look — and look rationally — for treatments. Furedi claims the New Atheist medical narrative casts humans as "powerless, vulnerable and victims of their circumstances." But in general, medicine does not render people powerless; medicine empowers people. Cancer, for example, is not the punishment of a vengeful God, over which one has no control; it is a physical problem one can take power over using chemotherapy, radiation, etc. The medical narrative also helps people take power over addiction. Alcoholism is not the result of a moral failing or some vague weakness of will; it is caused by something in the brain, and it can be treated by learning to think in more-or-less well-defined ways. Again, if Furedi does not want to indict medicine itself for rendering people powerless and vulnerable, simply claiming that New Atheists use a medical narrative does not establish that we want to render people powerless.

As a self-identified New Atheist, I feel entitled to speak directly and with some authority about what New Atheism actually is and, more importantly, what it is not.

The New Atheist critique of religion is not and has never been about the fact that religious people have strong moral beliefs and advocate them vigorously. Every accusation of "zealotry", "fundamentalism", and "dogmatism" that I've seen has been directed towards the uncontroversial fact that New Atheists have strong moral beliefs, and we advocate them vigorously. Yes, we do indeed have something in common with religious people: we think we know what is good, and we actively promote it. New Atheists do not criticize the religion for thinking they know what is good; we criticize specific religious doctrines and people for being wrong about what is good, and we criticize most religious people for having a "bad" methodology for determining and justifying what is good. The same is true for physical facts. We don't criticize anyone just because they believe they know the truth; we criticize people, especially the religious, for believe that things to be true that are not not actually true (i.e. false or unprovable), and for having a "bad" methodology for determining and justifying what is actually true. And I'm not criticizing Furedi here because he believes the New Atheists are dangerous, I'm criticizing him because he's wrong, and especially because his arguments are so ridiculously poor.

It is neither dogmatic nor "fundamentalist", in our view, to advocate what one believes is the truth. We do not accuse the religious for being dogmatic just because they advocate what they believe to be true. What we do consider dogmatic is to believe or say that something is true "because I say so," because the Pope says so, because it was written in a collection of myths of an early Iron-age middle-eastern culture, because it is the (supposed) opinion of a 7th century warlord (however successful he might have been), because it is the claim of a charlatan with missing golden plates, or simply because the believer wants it to be true and wants everyone to agree. It is not fanaticism, in our view, to criticize a belief or say that it is false, however harsh or direct the language. We do not criticize the religious just because they criticize atheism. What we do consider fanaticism is to silence criticism, to place a topic — any topic — beyond the bounds of civilized discourse by using intimidation, threats, and actual violence.

The New Atheists, contrary to Furedi's assertion, do not simplistically equate religion with fundamentalism and fanaticism. Our critique, available to anyone with Google, is more subtle: the bad methodology of theistic religion makes it more difficult to argue against what we consider to be dogmatism and fanaticism. If it is legitimate to claim — without evidence — that God wants everyone to be happy, how is it illegitimate to claim — without evidence — that God wants gays, infidels, apostates, or especially women to suffer? Why is your private, revelatory knowledge better than his private, revelatory knowledge? The New Atheists simply say that because we have to rely on public knowledge — evidence about what actually does make promote happiness and alleviate suffering — to decide between competing claims of private knowledge, we can simply dispense entirely with the concept of private knowledge.

We may be many things, but we are not the sort of hypocrites and fools that Furedi calls us. Indeed, it is Furedi himself who is revealed as a hypocrite and a fool. Furedi believes he knows the truth (good for him), yet he condemns the New Atheists for nothing more than believing we know the truth. Furedi vigorously advocates strong moral beliefs (good for him), yet he condemns the New Atheists for nothing more than vigorously advocating strong moral beliefs. And his evaluation of the New Atheists' simplistic and inaccurate interpretation of religion as simplistic is itself unacceptably simplistic and inaccurate. I do not, of course, believe that the authors and compilers of the Bible were inspired by a mythical God, but neither do I believe they were fools; many were astute observers of human nature. So I do not feel the slightest bit of hypocrisy in quoting the Bible, Matt. 7:3: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

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