Sunday, February 15, 2015

Craig, Brad, and the New Atheists

On February 10, 2014, Craig Hicks killed three young people. Hicks actions are abhorrent, criminal, and the deaths of his victims unequivocally tragic. Hicks is not in any way, shape, or form heroic; he is a criminal, a coward, a murderer.* My arguments against our "justice" system notwithstanding, he needs to be punished to the full extent of the law.

*I am not a journalist; I can pre-judge Hicks to my heart's content. I can live with certainly being excluded from sitting on his jury. If I'm wrong, I'll apologize.

Hicks is, among other things, an atheist, and his victims were, among other things, Muslims.

Thus, we do have to ask: did the New Atheist "community," however defined, contribute to this crime? I think the question cannot simply be dismissed; it needs to be asked, and we must answer it carefully and deliberately.

In Muslim Panic, Satanic Panic?, the Infamous Brad, presumably a NeoPagan, whom I've been reading for years, and for whom I have tremendous respect, answers in the affirmative: The New Atheist community is nothing "but an anti-Muslim hate group." If Brad's charge is true, then the New Atheist community definitely would bear substantial responsibility for Hicks' murders, even if it is true that Hicks is legally insane or has a serious medical mental illness.

But, uncharacteristically, Brad's argument is substantially flawed.

Brad first mentions the Washington Post article, "Chapel Hill killings shine light on particular tensions between Islam and atheism," where author Michelle Boorstein explores the possible relationship between New Atheism and Hicks' murders. Boorstein delivers a balanced piece, raising the question of the relationship between "public criticism and violence," in contrast with statements by spokespersons of notable atheist organizations decisively rejecting Hicks' kind of violence. Brad then contrasts Boorstein's article with The Baffler article, The Nuances of Nonbelief. In this article, Stuart Whatley argues that atheism, being simply the absence of belief, has no overarching ideology that could be a legitimate cause of Hicks' crimes.

Brad dismisses Whatley's argument out of hand first as a "No True Scotsman" fallacy, but this dismissal seems completely unfounded. A "No True Scotsman" fallacy is a fallacious move from an empirical claim to a definitional claim. As far as I know, no New Atheist claims empirically that all atheists are nonviolent (or even especially good people). Whatley's argument may be flawed — he ignores, I think, that atheists who speak publicly about atheism, and offer public criticism of religion, have formed at least a loose community, with some socially constructed cultural values — but Whatley does not seem to move from an empirical claim to a definitional claim. At best, we might define a "true" New Atheist is one who renounces senseless, infantile, and socially illegitimate* violence such as Hicks'; since Hicks does not meet the definition, he is not a true New Atheist. In just the same sense, I personally was born in the United States of French/Italian/English parents and have never lived in Scotland; therefore, I am not a True Scotsman. That argument would hardly be fallacious: even though the definition might be arbitrary, I simply do not fulfill any component of the definition.

*One does not have to be an absolute pacifist to be a New Atheist.

Inexplicably, Brad compares the New Atheists vs. Muslims to the #NotAllMen vs. #YesAllWomen controversy. I know absolutely nothing about the details of the latter controversy, but on general principles, there's an obvious context there: the existence of a millennial, socially constructed hegemonic patriarchy, from which all men benefit, whether they like it or not. A man cannot simply use his personal attitudes to excuse himself from patriarchal privilege. But there is no such thing as a socially constructed hegemonic atheism. Furthermore it's not NotAllAtheists, it's exactly one atheist out of millions, who's also apparently a gun nut and an American chauvinist. (And furthermore, an atheist who had, according to Michael Nugent, written extensively on social and religious tolerance.) The comparison is especially inapt because Brad himself admits that "atheists are, in America, the single most hated belief group, with approval ratings on par with or maybe even below religious extremist terrorist groups." Hardly the stuff of hegemonic power.

Brad's main point is to compare the New Atheists to the NeoPagans' shameful participation in the prosecution of alleged "Satanic ritual abuse" in the 1980s and 90s. Again, this comparison seems entirely unfounded. In what sense at all are any New Atheists whatsoever endorsing the legal persecution of innocent people for public relations gain? Has a single even moderately prominent New Atheist said, for example, that we should not challenge the illegal imprisonment of innocent Muslims in Guantanamo Bay just because they are Muslims, because we want to curry favor with the authoritarian neoimperialist United States government? Brad seems to think too that criticism of Islam is somehow insincere, that New Atheists have latched onto Islam just because Muslims are a popular political target. I can assure Brad personally that this is not true: New Atheists criticize Islam because we are genuinely critical. We — or more precisely some authors, notably Harris and Hitchens — might have become more popular because the target of our criticism happened to match United States imperialist policy, but the motive for criticism of Islam rests on genuine disagreement, not simple opportunism.

Brad's main point, however, is not his worst point. His worst point is a paragraph literally libelous hate speech:
Not all atheists are bigoted anti-Arab, ant-Islam wannabe hate killers, but yes all Muslims have to fear New Atheists. After the New Atheist communities’ most prominent authors have spent the last half dozen years or so beating this drum, I don’t see how anybody can call the New Atheists anything but an anti-Muslim hate group. These are people who can’t be distracted from their message of anti-Muslim hate by oppression or violence from any other religious community, whether it’s the veto on public policy the Ultra Orthodox hold in Israel or the anti-gay secessionist rhetoric of Alabama’s fundamentalist Chief Justice or terrorist acts by Christian Identity groups or anti-abortion groups or anti-Islam terrorism by Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Nope. Try to bring any of that up, and they change the subject back to, “the Muslims are coming to kill us all!”
First, if public criticism of a group is "hate speech," then this paragraph is prima facie hate speech: whether or not his criticism is warranted, Brad is being publicly critical of New Atheists. Could some nutjob read Brad's criticism and that conclude that some New Atheists, whom all Muslims should fear, need killin'? The only alternative to public criticism is that everyone suck everyone else's dick 24/7.

But, more importantly, I know what hate speech is: it is saying literally that people are inhuman and deserve death. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." So... Sam Harris perhaps crossed the line when he said that Islam might, if they acquired long-range nuclear weapons, require a preemptive nuclear strike. Harris has defended this postion as entirely hypothetical, but I still don't like it one bit; it looks way too much like the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical to justify torture. And, of course the late Christopher Hitchens was notably in favor of a global war on Islam. And fine, if Brad wants to criticize Harris and Hitchens, he would have my support, but to generalize this criticism to all New Atheists is a blatant lie. Some New Atheists are also pro-imperialism, some, such as Jerry Coyne, are pro-Israel. — there's a considerable range of opinion in our "community" — but my sense (without a rigorous statistical sampling) is that pro-imperialists are a minority among New Atheists.

Brad asserts that New Atheists talk only about Islam, and refuse to discuss any other religious oppression. This is a flat out lie. We can't discuss everything, but New Atheists talk about a lot of stuff. Just look at the front page, for example, of Planet Atheism. There is a range of opinion and topics. Notably, the front page includes a story critical of the lack of the media coverage and the weak government response to a Christian terrorist intending to blow up mosques in Jerusalem. There's a lot of stuff critical of Christianity there too (duh). New Atheists have written about Irish blasphemy laws, Christian anti-evolutionism, Christian theodicy, etc. We also talk about race relations, anti-vaccination stupidity, and feminism.

All this from a cursory investigation of Planet Atheism and a few prominent New Atheist blogs. PZ Myers, has even written two thoughtful pieces on the responsibility that New Atheists really do have in Hicks' crimes: Own it ("I do not think that atheism compelled [Hicks] to kill Muslims, just as I don’t think Islam compels one to become a suicide bomber, or Christianity compels one to bomb abortion clinics. But I do think that the ideology must accept some responsibility for failing to teach people not to do those things.") and Beliefs have consequences ("I don’t think there’s a significant component of atheism that preaches for violence against believers, but there are a large number of atheists who seriously try to argue that atheism should include no moral component at all."). The New Atheist discourse is a lot richer than Brad would have his readers believe.

The only thing Muslims have to fear from New Atheists are our words: we will criticize Islamic misogyny, authoritarianism, superstition, and, yes, its scriptural and ideological support for political and personal violence, which goes far beyond any violence justified in resisting Western imperialism. The only reason Muslims have to fear imperialism from New Atheists is that, sadly, many New Atheists are embedded in an imperialist capitalist system that we did not create, a system bent on a conquest of the (oil-bearing) Muslim lands we did not begin: the proper criticism should be directed against imperialism, not New Atheism. And the only reason Muslims have to fear personal, individual violence from New Atheists is because writers like Brad and Luke Savage (see also my response) spread bigotry and vicious lies about us. That's hate speech.


  1. Too True! If the evidence pointed to the killer being xtian there would be a ton of counter statements about him not being a true xtian even though their dogma says KILL!!!!
    There is NO DOGMA in atheism (new atheism is an invented BS). We just have no reason to believe. ALL the atheists I meet or read all say life is special and don't kill!!!
    I do think that as an atheist (& crazy) may have aided his decision in killing the entire bunch as they were isLame. But the initial reason was over the parking cuz ya know HE IS CRAZY!!!! So NO I take NO responsibility for his act as as an atheist I respect life and tell others NOT to kill. This is not the same thing as the BS dogma of the religious who go around playing lip-service to the idea of NO KILLING while their holey books o'BS say go ahead and kill them its cool with the gawd!! When these dogmatic ahole come out with books o'BS ver2 where they remove all the hate-bigotry-killing-fear and then say this is us, then I will start to believe they mean it.

    1. Regardless of what principles you or others pay lip service to, promoting the use of dehumanizing labels like "isLame" is its own message.

  2. Matthew, how is "isLame" specifically dehumanizing? Is everything you dislike dehumanizing? Do you have some authority I'm unaware of to declare what is and is not human?

    Mockery is a human activity, and has existed since the invention of writing. See, e.g., Aristophanes' mockery of Socrates in (IIRC) The Birds. Or see this cartoon. It's stupid, it's literally misguided, but is it dehumanization?

    What does constitute dehumanization?

    When you comment here, you're talking to me. I doubt LL even reads follow-up comments, but if he is, he is as unlikely as I am to be swayed by the mere expression of your personal opinion, which appears superficial and unreflective.

    I suggest you think carefully about what your actual project is. If your project is to change my views, you are going about it all wrong: I am almost completely immune to people just saying they don't like what I say, and absolutely immune to people taking offense at my words.

    If you want to find some group where you can hold hands and sing Kumbaya (all while exploiting the invisible proletariat), this is definitely not the place for you.

  3. Quite the lengthy response to my one sentence comment, Larry. I was hoping for a response from you to my longer, more thoughtful comment on a previous post of yours, but, I guess I'll take what I can get. I do admit that using the adjective "dehumanizing" may have been a bit of hyperbole, but I'll do my best to defend the sentiments behind my statement:

    Three people were murdered. LL says of the victims, "the entire bunch... were isLame". Now, I know this may seem obvious, but the people who died were, first and foremost, people. They were not a "bunch", they were NOT a religion, they were human beings. Using any label, even an appropriate label (i.e. one that the victims would have felt comfortable applying to themselves while they were alive) is *in this context* somewhat dehumanizing, in that it distracts us from our common humanity, and instead emphasizes differences: otherness. Applying the terms "atheist" and "crazy" to the person who killed these three is also dehumanizing, from this perspective. But I reacted most strongly to "isLame" because it is specifically designed to be an insulting group label, and because it's being applied to three people who were just murdered.

    I do recognize that the term, "isLame" does not turn its targets into animals or automatons, so this term is not dehumanizing in the same sense that victims of war, slavery, torture and genocide are often dehumanized through the language of those who seek to harm them.(1) In that context, "isLame" is really more a form of "name-calling".(2) The term, "lame" is an old term for a person with a physical disability, so calling Islam "isLame" is an attempt to insult that religion by comparing it to people who have physical disabilities, and like many such insults, it denigrates both the intended target, as well as the group that the target is being compared to.

    Nonetheless, I don't think it's particularly "let's hold hands and sing Kumbaya"-ish of me to insist that it's wrong to apply an insulting label emphasizing outsider status to three people who were just killed in a probable hate crime because of the very thing that label is insulting.


    1. Sorry about not responding to the previous comment: Blogger ate two of my responses, and I'm kind of up to my neck (and perhaps over my head) in work and school.

    2. TOTALLY CORRECT!! Their religion is lame!!! The fact they were killed by a crazed nut over parking does not change the fact that their religion was and is and will continue to be LAME!!!! It just worked out that the name of their religion is close enough to be isLame, muslins and there are catlicks, if I could think of a way to say xtian is some insulting manner I would. I do so because a string of 4-letter words is not permitted on most comments. And just as with rePUKEians and Demoncrats I will continue to invent words to show my disgust with the beliefs of certain groups, especially violent hateful ones.

  4. More substantively...

    Your comment seems... not really apt. It feels like you're quibbling with minor issues of terminology while leaving the larger points unaddressed.

    It really doesn't feel to me like the core of the problem is that atheists are not bending over backwards to be super-polite to Muslims. I could perhaps be wrong, but I would need to see real evidence.

    LL does not in any way use his unflattering opinion of Hicks' victims at all to justify their murder. Atheists have universally condemned the murders absolutely; regardless of our opinions of Islam, however insulting, the victims' religion does not in any way diminish the tragedy and wrongness of their deaths. I see no reason to believe that LL has anything but that opinion. But also, that they were murdered does not change my opinion of the stupidity and evil of Islam. We can have sharp disagreements about ideas without holding the opinion that our opponents deserve death; the opposite attitude, I must say, seems somewhat more prevalent among Islamic opinion leaders than among atheists.

    To be honest, I don't particularly agree with how LL expressed himself in the comment. But it's small potatoes. And his choice of words was, I suspect, as much as anything a reaction to the horrific crimes, including judicial and private murder, committed in the words of the actors in the name of Islam. And, to be honest, I find (after long and bitter experience) that commenters debating some superficial point to be tedious and boring.

    But there is just no debate whatsoever over whether or not this crime is justified; the consensus among atheists is that there's no justification whatsoever. The debate is about whether criticism and opposition to Islam plays a substantive role in promoting and encouraging infantile violence.

    The term, "lame" is an old term for a person with a physical disability, so calling Islam "isLame" is an attempt to insult that religion by comparing it to people who have physical disabilities, and like many such insults, it denigrates both the intended target, as well as the group that the target is being compared to.

    I am almost entirely unsympathetic to this line of argument. I only grudgingly gave up the term "retarded," and only because the intended analogy and double denigration is extremely clear and direct. Aside from that, English, like all natural languages, is rich in both metaphor and, sadly, immoral and hurtful usage. Almost every term of judgment has been used to unfairly judge some people for some stupid reason. I think that, aside from direct, unwarranted insults, we have to choose between tolerating some metaphorical usage or sapping the language of judgment of all emotional impact.

    I think the word "lame" is a clear indication of the latter. Yes, it has been used historically to unfairly judge people with, shall we say, atypical physical ability. But, unlike "retarded," modern usage has almost completely decoupled the applicability of "lame" to judgments about actual human physical functioning, rendering it entirely metaphorical.

    I also find this sort of what I consider nit-picky language policing to be evidence that the speaker wishes to turn his criticism to minutia to avoid really looking at larger issues: just because someone is extremely careful about the nuances of their language does not mean that they escape responsibility for their participation in a system of privilege. Not all bullying is overt, not all self-righteousness announces itself with an engraved invitation. I'm not necessarily talking about you personally: if the shoe doesn't fit, you're not obliged to wear it. But I do want to alert you to an element in my own thinking about certain lines of argument.

    Fundamentally, I guess I'm saying that you seem to be distracting the discussion away from the salient points into triviality.

  5. Hi Larry"
    I had forgot the ...
    The term, "lame" is an old term for a person with a physical disability, .... As I was using it as lame in just this side of stupid. But changing definitions and meanings are a pit. As I use to refer to myself as gay but can no longer do so unless I am trying to prove a point.
    And you are 100% correct Just as I know some individual xtians who are very nice people, I'm sure there are muslins that are hypocritical of their book o'BS enough to be nice people too. And the murder of these 3 as I did state above is 100% crazy and horrible. There is only one way that I defend killing and that is for direct self-defense.
    Have a good day!! And there is only 1 commandment worth following....Be nice to others (Carlin).

  6. L.Long, I did notice you say in your original comment above, "I respect life and tell others NOT to kill". Great. I also see your newer comment that, "there is only one way that I defend killing and that is for direct self-defense." Even better. In that respect, not only do I agree with you, but I also judge you to be far more morally enlightened than a great many people.

    But using a derogatory label for the victims of a hate crime is simply not okay. I recognize that you think you were mocking religion, but in fact, you were applying that label to the victims of a hate crime. Until you speak of the victims as people, and not as a religion, you've missed the point that your use of language can contribute to an environment in which hate crimes are more likely to occur, regardless of how much you decry the wrongness of hate crimes.

    This isn't a minor quibble over terminology, and it has nothing to do with whether atheists are polite about Islam, or any other religious group, for that matter. You can mock religion all you want, so far as I'm concerned. I'm an agnostic atheist, I might even join in.

    But ridiculing *religion itself* is not the same as applying religious insults to *individual people*.

    As I've commented before on this blog, one needs to be careful about not demonizing minority groups. Our country, the U.S., has an ugly history of this, not only with respect to race, but also with respect to religion. While the vast majority of hate and bigotry against religious minorities has been committed by members of other religious groups, that doesn't give us atheists a "get out of jail free" card.

    I think the key to moral ridicule is that it seeks to attack the powerful and defend the oppressed. Its focus is on mocking and deriding morally reprehensible ideas, policies, and actions, not simply attacking individual people. Off the top of my head, I can think of no better example of ridicule done right than Jonathan Swift's satirical pamphlet, A Modest Proposal.

    Good ridicule is so much more biting and effective than mere name-calling. When you descend to name-calling, you make yourself look like a childish bully, and most people will instinctively side against you.

    1. FYI: Using the asterisk for *emphasis* is fine, but you can, if you wish, use basic HTML tags for emphasis, e.g. <b>bold<\b> for bold and <i>italics<\i> for italics.

    2. Thanks! I'd been meaning to look that up, lol.

  7. Also Larry, fwiw, I don't really see it as my "project" to change your views. From what I've read, most of what you say on your blog (at least that which I understand) I agree with. I generally like your blog — that's why I've been reading it.

    I've given up on trying to change anyone's views on anything. If someone changes their views, it's their own doing. It's simply not in my power to change anyone's views but my own. The best I can hope for is to bring things to people's attention that might help them, ultimately, to change their own views. In the process, I open myself up to hearing things from them which might help me, ultimately, to change my own views.

    1. Well... I like it when people have the project of changing my views. That's the whole reason I allow comments. I really want to be proven wrong. I'm a skeptic, so I won't just roll over every time someone disagrees with me, but the philosopher's job (and I sometimes conceive of myself as a philosopher) is to seek the truth, not to expound dogma. I know that I alone am unequal to the task, so I ask for the assistance of others.

  8. L.Long, I did notice you say in your original comment above, "I respect life and tell others NOT to kill". Great. I also see your newer comment that, "there is only one way that I defend killing and that is for direct self-defense."

    It is perhaps an unfortunate symptom of our times that these declarations are not taken for granted and assumed unless explicitly or implicitly contradicted.

    But using a derogatory label for the victims of a hate crime is simply not okay. I recognize that you think you were mocking religion, but in fact, you were applying that label to the victims of a hate crime. Until you speak of the victims as people, and not as a religion, you've missed the point that your use of language can contribute to an environment in which hate crimes are more likely to occur, regardless of how much you decry the wrongness of hate crimes.

    I notice the weasel word: "can contribute." The operative question is: whether or not LL's use of language actually does contribute, and whether that contribution is substantial enough to warrant criticism. Simply that you personally find such language distasteful is not a sufficient basis for concluding a larger social effect.

    The larger political question of the murders is what is at stake. In another context, LL's language might have been intolerably rude, but when people are already using the victims as a political tool to criticize atheists, it's hardly objectionable per se that we would resist. And LL is correct: the tragedy of the victims' deaths has no relevance to the value of their religion.

    If LL's comments offend you, you are perfectly free to say so, but I don't see any value in a long debate over whom may or may not offend whom. The basic rule is that if a commenter offends me, I have the power to act decisively. Other than that, after registering your offense, unless the offending party wishes to apologize, I consider the matter closed.

    The topic of interest is not the offense, but the analysis. If the offending remarks have a larger social impact, I am quite interested in the analysis of that impact. I do not, however, find the argument that if someone finds some remarks offensive, they have for that reason a negative social impact larger than the individual offense taken.

    I must be brief; I have much to do today. More later, perhaps, as time permits.

  9. Nothing I've written here has anything to do with me being personally offended. It's not about me or my feelings, and it never was, not from my very first post at the top. If you think otherwise, you're misreading me. My own personal feelings have no bearing on whether or not it's a good idea to apply insulting labels to the victims of a probable hate crime. It may help to think of everything I've said so far from the perspective that I'm trying my best to help L.Long be more persuasive.

    1. I will note that there's nothing wrong with being personally offended.

  10. My own personal feelings have no bearing on whether or not it's a good idea to apply insulting labels to the victims of a probable hate crime.

    But your personal feelings should matter. Feelings matter a lot.

    Ultimately whether something or other is a "good idea" depends on what the speaker's intentions are, what their target is, their personal experience, the context of their remarks, etc.

    It should be always relevant to know if a real person has actually been offended. People should care that they're offending others. Sometimes they want to offend, sometimes they don't want to offend, but knowing that some person has taken personal offense is always useful. It's something we can work with.

    Saying something is offensive in the abstract is rarely, however, useful. For something to be offensive, some real, concrete person's feelings must have been hurt; abstract offense isn't any offense at all.

    What I'm trying to say is this: LL's remarks seem at worst trivial. LL is reacting not to the murders, but to my reaction of the Infamous Brad's assertions about New Atheists. The murders themselves are over and done: the murderer is in jail, (my criticism of punitive justice in general notwithstanding) he will be punished, and his murder universally condemned; and, sadly, no matter what we do or say, three human beings will remain dead.

    The question now is: do atheists/new atheists stop criticizing and condemning religion? There's no middle ground. If we are to accept the Infamous Brad's position, all criticism of religion is "hate speech." We've seen this reaction to literally every form of social criticism, especially the criticism of racism and sexism/misogyny, and of course, criticism of capitalism. Because these social issues, religion included, are not matters of abstract debate: they are about power. Power defends itself, by any means necessary, including violence. And those confronting power are still human beings, not saints. (Indeed it is a well-established tactic of power to point to the flaws in its opponents as a justification for its own rule.)

    New Atheists are going to confront the power of religion. We will do what is reasonable and proper to minimize Hicks' kind of infantile violence. Regardless of the abstract morality (and the abstract morality of violence is incredibly complicated), we will not eradicate the evil of religion by assassinating random religious people. But people like Hicks exist in the world: they will latch onto anything to justify their infantile violent tendencies (and that's assuming that Hicks even did latch onto religion to justify his murders to himself beforehand).

    I think it's important that New Atheists not back down: The murders were tragic and criminal, and Islam is still a horror. I might not have chosen LL's exact words, but that's what he's saying. Unless you have a larger point, quibbling over the exact words of a comment on an extremely minor blog seems like a waste of everyone's time.

  11. I agree with your larger point that atheists should not stop criticizing or condemning religion as a result of this murder. And your comment that it's "a well-established tactic of power to point to the flaws in its opponents as a justification for its own rule" is an extremely important point, and particularly pertinent to why I posted my one sentence comment in the first place. I certainly don't expect my allies to use the perfect choice of words at all times. But I do think it's helpful to do a certain amount of "language policing" (as you call it) within a community of allies, as long as the goal is clearly not to shut people up, but rather to improve arguments & rhetoric in order that the community as a whole may be more effective in advancing its message in the larger society.

    If LL only posted that sort of statement on just your blog, then yes, perhaps it would not have justified even my one sentence comment. But language is habitual. To the extent that LL may be tempted to post similar statements elsewhere, he should be alerted to the hazards.

    "Language Policing" is not an inherently bad thing. Everyone does it, although they might not always use that loaded term to describe it. You were justified in "language policing" my use of the term "dehumanizing". I was justified in "language policing" LL's use of the term "isLame".

    All in all, I think this was a helpful discussion. I hope you don't feel it's been a total waste of your time.

    1. Only I can waste my time; I will rarely let anyone else do it, and certainly not here. :-)


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