My Problem with Chris Hall’s “Dawkins and Hitchens Are Over” Article

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.

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • breaplum

    “…and certainly an ex-Muslim should be the forefront of criticism against Islam.”

    And yet how often are ex-Christians criticized for being on the forefront of criticism against Christianity, for being too ‘strident’ and ‘angry’? Even by other atheists, including other ex-Christians? Perhaps he did not want to be tarred with those labels.

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    I liked the Hall article for what it was, which imo was a piece aimed at people who don’t usually hang around the Atheisphere who may or may not be atheists but have very little info/perspective on movement atheism. I’ll refer to them as the “public”. I’ve found that alot of the public sees Atheism as being solely about the 3 Horsemen (3 because most people don’t have opinions on Dennett.) and assume that the Horsemen speak for all confrontational atheists and that we all share/endorse their views. So I thought the article was good at pointing out 1.) there are other people gaining influence in the movement (and explaining why), 2.) many atheists do NOT agree with the views of the Horsemen on some very key issues and rightly criticize them (ie- the Horsemen aren’t as fawned after as many in the public would believe and they aren’t wholly hero-worshipped.) and 3.) that the asshole contingent of misogynists/MRA’s in atheism is far from representative: there are many people fighting against that sort of thing, which is a good. I think all 3 are important points for the greater public to understand and to broaden the appeal of movement atheism to prospective newbies.

    Totally agree that it’s ok to admire one aspect of Dawkins and criticize others, and that it’s ok to like Dawkins and Greta or whomever. I would only add that it’s also ok to not like Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris based on how wrong they are on certain issues (feminism/war-mongering/Islamophobia respectively.)

    Dawkins continues to show male-privilege and anti-feminism with every turn (see Jaclyn Glenn for a recent example) and it’s just sad. As far as Hitchens goes, he wrote about women being unfunny so I don’t have much hope that he would have sided with feminist causes.

    Anyways, I agree that the article was misleading based on the title. I would never say the Horsemen are irrelevant. But I would say that their dominance is diminishing slightly as other voices are rising up and as many people get fully turned off by their blindspots on social issues and on the limited scope of atheism in general. But yeah, clearly the article’s title and focus was aimed at maximizing page-views.

  • thelibyan

    I think the article, and the commentary here, is wrong in implying that the rise of more recent internet atheists somehow diminished the phenomenon or impact of New Atheism spearheaded by Hitchens, Dawnkins and Harris. I think its the other way around. There was just a string of international events around the 2005-2008 “golden era’ of New Atheism that propelled the atheist argument to a relevance it didn’t have before, and likely wont have again for a long time; ie, the War on Terror, Evangelical rival in America, resurgence of the Creationism/Evolution debate in schools, London/Madrid bombings, Ayaan Hirshi Ali controversy, Vincent Van Gogh killing, Danish Cartoon controversy, Pastor Terry controversy, etc.

    Couple that with the fact that the atheist perspective was being spearheaded by Christopher Hitchens, someone who was already a heavy hitting political and media insider (and a viciously erudite one at that) you had a near perfect confluence of factors. The reason Hitchens and Dawkins regularly made it as deep into the mainstream milieu as FoxNews and CNN is that the general populace correctly saw the religious angle behind what was going on in Post-9/11 society, and wanted to hear responses to it. That general, cultural awareness of religion seems to have subsided, I think replaced by an even more vicious debate about economics after the financial crisis.

    Even on my part, while I’m still interested in combating the influences of religion and arming myself with arguments against it, atheism just doesn’t have the same excitement factor it did for me during that time. To me, a certain weight and gravitas went out of it, and Hitchens death was the final nail in the coffin frankly. And as far as the “rebranding” towards social justice; why would I bother going to an atheist blogger to inform myself about social issues when I can go to Salon, Slate, the Atlantic, the Nation, or HuffPo, or any of the countless progressive outlets with Ivy League educated writers and academics writing on the subject under professional standards and an at least slightly more pronounced incentive towards objectivity? Just doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Ben Finney

    Bear in mind that, in large periodical publishing houses such as Salon, it is almost entirely out of the hands of the author what title + subtitle, and what picture, will accompany their article. Those are almost always chosen by a sub-editor without any consultation to the author.

    You’ve already noted, in this example, that essentially the same article was published in two different places under two differrent titles. So, if your complaint is about the title and picture being misleading, you are right — but that’s not at the feet of Hall, but the publisher.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      I didn’t know that. If that’s true, then I will have to edit my article.

  • wwwwww

    “by featuring Hitchens’s picture so dominantly, you have actually proven that they are not old news.”

    That’s silly. Self-reference is how we construct identity, it’s impossible to demonstrate “fresh versus cold news” without showing the ossified titans of whatever you are trying to talk about.

  • Raging Bee

    Because of many reasons, they are not equipped to deal with many issues…

    Statements like this give me the feeling you don’t know what you’re talking about. Dawkins and Harris aren’t just “not equipped” to deal with certain issues; they don’t even WANT to deal with them, except to gain themselves more attention, regardless of any other consequences. Dawkins has said some extremely ignorant, demeaning and UNNECESSARY things about other atheists (including some of those you acknowledge here), none of whom had done Dawkins any wrong. He’s attracted a sizeable fanboy base of vindictive misogynist idiots, who have been inflamed by HIS WORDS to attack decent people and spread hateful lies as far and wide as they can. And he’s never shown a trace of regret, never admitted making any mistakes, and never lifted a finger to try to tell anyone to tone down the attacks on other atheists.

    And as I pointed out in an earlier thread, Sam Harris is nothing but a bigoted self-inflating blowhard, incessantly saying things that are demonstrably wrong. These two jackasses belong on the scrap-heap of history. They’re doing more harm than good to just about everyone but themselves.

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