Newsweek Discovers Atheists

P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula draws my attention to a Newsweek article by Jerry Adler, “The New Naysayers“, about several prominent atheists and the impact they have had on American culture and society.

In sum, I agree with Myers: this article was terrible. (Newsweek in general has a poor track record when it comes to atheism.) Although any attention paid to atheists is welcome, Adler’s article was characterized by the heavy-handed application of logical fallacies and an intrusively opinionated tone that makes the article seem to waver between a simple factual report and an editorial hit piece. His attitude toward his subjects seemed half dismissive and half bemused, as if he himself was having a hard time believing that atheists really exist.

Following are some comments on sections of the piece I found especially vexing:

Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition.

On the very first page of this article we see the intrusive editorializing begin, as Adler strongly implies that religious beliefs are “time-honored”, that “billions” of people hold them and therefore they are automatically worthy of respect, and that they should be treated “politely”. This is just a masked version of the standard plea that religious beliefs should be exempt from criticism.

Yes, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and many other atheists are attacking superstition, and all I have to say to that is that it is about damn time. For ages now religious fundamentalists all over the planet have been killing, waging war, committing acts of terrorism, subverting the democratic process, violating human rights, and openly stating their intent to take over the world. It is about time that a strong and vocal atheist movement stood up to these bullies and fanatics and informed them in no uncertain terms that we will not permit them to destroy what we hold dear. At long last, such a movement is emerging. And yet when it happens, pundits like Adler sit on the sidelines and simper at us that we are the rude ones, that these beliefs are “time-honored” and should not be criticized.

A wrong idea is a wrong idea, no matter how old it is. If a religious belief calls for the killing and enslaving of innocents, it does not become more respectable just because it has been around for centuries or because millions of people believe it. If religious groups want atheists to stop criticizing them, then they should stop doing and believing things that are worthy of criticism.

What Adler fails to grasp is that most prominent atheists are arguing for tolerance and attacking religion. The two are not incompatible. Tolerance simply implies that you recognize another person’s right to hold some belief, without stating that you agree with that belief or even that it is worthy of respect. One can tolerate a belief while also criticizing it scathingly. If anything, it is the atheists who are more tolerant: we recognize religious people’s right to exist, but demand that they not be allowed to force their religion on us. Many religious people are unwilling to make that concession.

These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the “theodicy” problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress.

Adler seems anxious to assure his readers that religious apologists have answers to all the arguments an atheist might propose, so they need not worry themselves. And yet this confidence is belied by his very next clause, where he admits that theistic replies to the argument from evil are “works in progress”, which in practice translates to: “We have no response at all to this argument, except to encourage believers to shut their eyes and pray harder.” As Adler admits, the argument from evil is not “brand-new” and is in fact quite ancient, so why is it taking so long to come up with an answer?

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

This paragraph is probably the most condescendingly dismissive of the entire essay. It sneers that Richard Dawkins overlooks what “any storefront Baptist preacher” might have told him, and assumes without evidence that he has “not… spent much time among ordinary Christians”, as if such a thing were even possible in our pervasively pious society. On the contrary, it is getting away from the omnipresent spamming for theism that takes effort. Although it reluctantly acknowledges that the mere existence of belief does not prove the existence of God (how could it, when members of numerous incompatible religions claim that their belief has beneficial effects on their life?), it then commits an implicit version of that very fallacy.

As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading. He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath?

This is a very good question. However, Adler shows no interest in dealing with it, as he immediately moves on to the next section of his diatribe without acknowledging that Harris has raised a point that deserves to be answered.

Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a “movement.” American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than $1 million.

It does not speak well of Adler’s knowledge of his subject material if he thinks American Atheists is the only or even the largest organization of nonbelievers. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example, has over 6,000 members and growing, and other groups such as the Secular Coalition for America are larger still. More importantly, nonbelievers make up a substantial 14% and growing of the American population, and that figure is even higher in many other countries. 14% of the population equates to about one in seven people, and outnumbers nearly all of the identifiable religious dominations. These are undeniably relevant facts. Why are they not mentioned by Newsweek?

If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.

Despite the fact that Adler opens his article with an allusion to September 11, he seems blissfully unaware of the obvious truth that millions of people have already been hurt and killed in the name of religion throughout human history, and the killing is still going on today. The terrorists of al-Qaeda still want to destroy the West because we do not share their fundamentalist beliefs; Iraq is rapidly sliding into civil war between Shia and Sunni; Hezbollah is on the ascent in Lebanon; Iranian mullahs who regard killing infidels as a sacred duty are growing nearer to getting their hands on an atomic bomb; our own Christian fundamentalists cheer every explosion in the Middle East as another step towards Armageddon and regard those who work for peace as enemies of God; and atheists are the ones we should be worrying about? How much worse could a strongly worded argument for reason possibly make things?

(Author’s Note: An abbreviated version of this complaint essay was sent to Newsweek‘s editors at webeditors@newsweek.com. I encourage my readers to do likewise.)

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a “movement.”

    Funny, last I checked China is (officially at least) an atheist state, and they make up a fifth of the population of the world.

  • http://home.graffiti.net/lillymon/index Rhapsody

    These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the “theodicy” problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress.

    This part really stuck out for me. Looking on Wikipedia, I decided to find out just who was the first to propose the ‘Problem of Evil’ as we currently know it. Turns out it was Epicurus, around three centuries before Christianity was even invented.

    That’s quite some time to think of a response.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    If their cover stories are any indication, Newsweek has become increasingly Christian in recent years. As a subscriber, I will certainly e-mail my own complaint letter. Then again, I suppose cancelling my subscription in protest might be more effective.

  • http://www.atheistgirl.blogspot.com roya

    “If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.”

    So what?

    Let me get this: If x is true, then Y is the consequence. Y is not good, therefore X is wrong/should-not-be-considered/untrue/crazy-hypothesis?

  • http://www.atheistgirl.blogspot.com roya

    bdw, I have added you to my list of Atheist blogs. :)

  • faust

    that article was digusting. thanks for fisking it.

  • Philip Thomas

    Sounds like consequentialism to me…

  • Oz

    I think that the phrase “well-practiced reply” is not committal either way; all it really means is that the apologists have been saying it over and over again. Their well-practiced replies remain unsatisfying.

  • Archi Medez

    Ebonmuse,

    Thanks for sending that in to Newsweek.

    From the Newsweek article:

    “As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading. He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves.”

    Ah, the evils of literalism.

    (Sarc on): Of course, all poets love to use slavery metaphors, particularly ones that go into detailed mundane rules and regulations, including in regards to physical punishment, when they are composing their artistic works. Of course the nasty fundamentalists will take the poets’ metaphors literally and develop entire economies based on slavery. Shame on those fundamentalists for not realizing that in the non-literal interpretation, “punishment” of slaves actually means hugs and kisses, and “slavery” means freedom and fair compensation for sevices rendered. (sarc off)

  • Alex Weaver

    Atheists can take comfort in the fact that Adler’s argument barely amounts to a “*ahem* movement.” ^.^

    This kind of perspective tends to be appallingly common, along with its companion, the “atheists don’t have anything to complain about” delusion. I believe I linked a while ago to a forum thread where I brought up the Chuck Smallowski case and most of the other responders…what’s the polite term? Poo-pooed it? Works well enough, I suppose.

  • http://dark-sided.blogspot.com/ Michael Martine

    I was surprised Newsweek even did it, other than perhaps as flamebait for its audience. I enjoyed your critical overview of the article’s problems.

  • inkadu

    Come on, this is ridiculous.

    This article’s author clearly is not pro-atheist, but so what? He accurately represents a lot of wonderful atheist arguments, and gives the lame religious rejoinders. Anyone with an open, analytical mind is going to see that atheists come out ahead. Atheism only loses when it is grossly misrepresented, or slandered as amoral. This article does not do that, and without doing that, the truth shines through quite clearly to me anyway.

    It is better for atheism that this article was published than if it was not.

  • jake3988

    Very good job with the blog. First time here and this article was fantastic. Obviously I will add to my list.

    Ok, now with the critiqing: I very much agree with the assertion of the slavery, et al immorality in the old testament. No christian has EVER given me a response other than: ‘We live through salvation. The old testament doesn’t apply’ Not only is that a lie but it doesn’t matter. God won’t punish you for it, but its still there as something he holds as an opinion and obviously not something I would like to hold as a belief.

    Which means, I’m not dismissing the fact that there is a ‘god’, I really could care less, but I am convinced to show people what a truely vile creature the christian god really is. And the fact of how much pain and suffering organized religion has caused throughout the ages.

  • http://dark-sided.blogspot.com/ Michael Martine

    It is better for atheism that this article was published than if it was not.

    I agree, though I still see it as baiting, simply because you know Newsweek knows who its audience is. But for many people who will read it online, and who are not so blindly attached to their beliefs, this article may contain the first cogent pro-atheist arguments they will have ever encountered.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” …That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality.

    But tons of people who believe in God are NOT good. It doesn’t matter how religious you are: Everyone sins. Even Christians. And yes, even Christians of your particular sect. A few Oxford-type Christians like C.S. Lewis are even honest enough to admit to this: That faith is precious little guard against personal wrongdoing. In a world where Osama bin Laden, anyone who suggests faith is the antidote to immorality should simply be beaten to death.

  • Christopher

    One question: if nonbelief is hardly a movement, as Mr. Alder claims, then why does he dedicate an entire article to refuting the claims of nonbelievers?

    This man really knows how to shoot himself in the foot…

  • Philip Thomas

    jake3988. I am a Christian. The Old Testament and New Testament passages condoning slavery are utterly reprehensible and wrong, like so much of the rest of the Bible. And we Christians should make this clear. At the same time, removing passages from the Bible to produce a more user-friendly version is not something I will do. Because I do not beleive people should be allowed to forget that these passages exist in our sacred texts. They should confront the evil that lies at the heart of our religion and see it for what it is.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    They should confront the evil that lies at the heart of our religion and see it for what it is.

    I did that already: I became an atheist.

  • Philip Thomas

    Blessings be upon you, then.

  • Marc Holt

    Imagine if there was no religion. Read this…http://whiteboysinasia.com/?p=412

  • Marc Holt

    And here’s another one that may interest you…same author…http://whiteboysinasia.com/?p=404

  • jake3988

    They should confront the evil that lies at the heart of our religion and see it for what it is.

    Exactly. But why do you believe in a god that condones these actions? I mean, I was a christian but like most christians completely oblivious to the facts. I never read the bible very much except for those silly stories that we get told at 5 years old (like Noah) and they believe them. Because hey, they believe in the Easter Bunny too! I then read it and boy did I get a big awakening. Penn and Teller told me if I read the bible I’d become an atheist. They were correct.

    So, like before, if I ever do decide to pick up a religion (I don’t see a point and I don’t care) then it most certainly will not be the christian god. A god that sees fit to punish all that don’t belive in him to an eternal damnation is not a loving god. He’s an evil vile creature. If a king said ‘You pray to me or you’ll be burned in a fire’ You’ll definately think that king is immoral. But when God says it, its perfectly ok. Its not.

    Then again, a youth minister I know condones the actions of God when he mauls 42 kids for calling Elijah a baldy. That’s disturbing and grotesque to say the least that he would ever conceive of supporting such an immoral passage. One of too many.

  • Padishah

    The Bible was written by men, and men can err. One does not have to believe the entire Bible was written or sanctioned by God to be a Christian.

    I can understand your friend. Whilst there are many unpleasant passages in the bible, the bears eating the 42 children is by far the most stylish piece in the entire book.

  • Dennis

    Thats the first time I’ve heard our culture as full of religious spam, but thats exactly what it is. That made me laugh out loud.