I don’t know if it’s this one article that people keep digging up and sharing on my Facebook feed or really it seems there’s a ton of them, but from time to time I stumble upon this Chris Hall article with a title like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris Are Old News: A Totally Different Atheism Is on the Rise, or Forget Christopher Hitchens: Atheism in America is undergoing a radical change (both are the same article published in two different venues).
And every time I see this article, I cringe and feel there is something distasteful about it. And I want to explain why.
It is not for the core message they argue for. I agree with that. Celebrity “New” Atheists like Dawkins, the late Hitchens, and Harris have their own scope, and their own priorities, and therefore they are not enough as the voices of a genuinely humanistic secular movement. Because of many reasons, they are not equipped to deal with many issues, and therefore we need atheists who do. Dawkins is often – sadly – painfully wrong on issues like sexism and international policy. I admire Harris’s courage and resilience in the face of vapid vitriol coming at him from Islamophiles, but at the same time I find his views on Islam a bit lacking of nuance and certainly an ex-Muslim should be the forefront of criticism against Islam. The late Christopher Hitchens remains to this day my favorite contemporary atheist, but there’s no doubt that the man could be wrong from time to time (eg Iraq War or abortion).
This is, of course, no attack or criticism against Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris. We are all flawed, we all have our priorities, we all have our limits. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens do their own stuff very well, and therefore they deserve the fame. But people with other priorities and other strengths need to be equally famous, so that they can voice different opinions and portray different perspectives. This is not the fault of people who are already famous, but it is a fair and correct criticism that the “Atheist Movement” as it is today needs more diverse voices. I’d really wish that atheists like Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Hiba Krisht, and many others are equally famous and internationally known to provide a better perspective, and especially we need more international and global voices on this issue. Atheism needs to be more diverse, and ultimately the current line-up of famous people is not enough. We need more.
This was all a huge disclaimer to point out I don’t actually disagree with the core message.
Hall’s article also mentions multiple valid points, such as the importance of context, the importance of issues like gender and race, the omnipresence of internet bullying, and many points that are truly ignored in the wider discourse and need to be addressed.
I disagree with part of the message though. You can like both Dawkins and Christina. This is not a this-or-that situation. Thankfully we are not engaged in a primary election for the Atheist President and therefore we don’t have to choose and vote. You can like Dawkins for his work on science education and like Greta Christina for her work on sexism and LGBTQ issues. Seriously, you’re allowed.
My problem starts with these articles with the fact that Hall frames the issue of diversity as if diversity is inherently opposed to the current line-up of “New” Atheists. I don’t know why Hall needs to frame his argument in “Kick these people out and make space for others” and not in “We need more diverse voices”. I don’t know why they need to subtract and add, rather than just add.
But to be quite frank – I actually do know. It’s because Dawkins and Hitchens sell. Dawkins and Hitchens are the bait we are supposed to take and click on the link, and increase readership.
The Facebook link to the Salon story features the image of Christopher Hitchens, and the same image is prominently displayed in the post. But the article only mentions one fact about Hitchens – that he is dead. By the advertisement you’d think the article is about Hitchens primarily, but actually Dawkins and Harris are much more frequently mentioned. The AlterNet article at least mentioned Dawkins and Harris too, but since it seems that Salon is on a holy crusade to discredit Hitchens, they did not bother.
(And I don’t want to plan on the distasteful and disrespectful manner Hall has touched upon Hitchens’s death. Bertrand Russell is also dead. Being dead doesn’t mean someone is intellectually irrelevant).
So, why would you feature Hitchens in the headline of an article that barely mentions him? While there is some reason to include Dawkins in this article (because of his mistakes on issues like “Dear Muslima”), as far as I know Harris and Hitchens have never taken any sides on social justice issues, and I doubt they were even aware of it. Their inclusion seems completely random. Unless because they are stars, and stars boost the sail, so these three gentlemen are actually cameos.
Which brings us to the reason that this article has become so self-defeating in its purpose. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens will be “old news” only when you are not able to use them as bait to boost your readership. By naming the article like that, and by featuring Hitchens’s picture so dominantly, you have actually proven that they are not old news.
And therefore at the heart of this article lies a hypocrisy, a shameful marketing technique.
All the people featured in this article – Greta Christina, Heina Dadabhoy, etc – are people I admire and respect as my heroes, and I agree with the content of this article. This is not meant as a criticism of people who were interviewed in the article, nor what they said in the article. Just to make sure this is clear.