One of the oddest things about the “new atheist” phenomenon, typified by the best-selling anti-theistic works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, is that some of the most vituperative criticisms of these works have come, not from fundamentalist Bible-beaters, but from liberal, secular, intellectuals. For instance, last October, the Los Angeles Times published a sublimely silly op-ed by author and critic Lee Siegel, who decried the new atheist authors and accused them of opposing love, beauty, and art. He didn’t mention motherhood, baseball, and apple pie, but I’m sure he thinks that Harris et al. are against those too. Why such animus from those who would no sooner attend a prayer meeting or Bible study than they would be caught knocking back pork rinds and PBR at a NASCAR rally? The reason is that, in the eyes of these liberal critics, the truculent atheists have committed a sin much graver than being wrong. They have committed the sin that for many liberal intellectuals is the secular equivalent of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost: Insensitivity.
This was the charge that Washington Post columnist Nicholas Kristoff recently brought against his fellow liberals. He accuses liberals of deriding the beliefs of evangelicals, an attitude, he says, that is intrinsically repugnant, like making pejorative comments about someone’s race or sex. This, of course, is pluperfect nonsense. Criticizing beliefs is not at all the same as insulting someone’s race or sex. We are not responsible for our gender or ethnicity, but we largely are for our beliefs. As philosophers put it, we have “epistemic duties” to examine our beliefs critically in the light of the best available facts and the most solidly substantiated theories. When, therefore, somebody says something culpably and perversely ignorant (like, e.g., that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that homosexuality can be “cured,” or that the “rapture” is due any day now) then they deserve to be mocked.
A recent contribution to this bizarre literature of internecine condemnation is Damon Linker’s “Atheism’s Wrong Turn: Mindless Argument Found in Godless Books,” published last December 10 in the liberal (or formerly liberal) New Republic. In Linker’s inane article we see, once again, that the primary objections have to do with style not substance. Linker thinks that atheism is fine if it comports itself with fastidious academic detachment and deference. Properly buttoned-down atheism, what Linker calls “liberal atheism,” should proffer its claims tentatively and respectfully, without polemical tone or destructive intent. On the other hand, loud, in-your-face atheism, termed “ideological atheism” by Linker, is bad, springing from the illiberal legacy of Jacobinism and communism. Ivory-tower defenses of atheism in learned journals and academic books are OK, but not on the street corner. For Linker, atheism is like the topic of sex for Victorians; lest it offend, it may be discussed only in hushed tones behind closed doors.
According to Linker, those who seek to defend the secular politics of the Founding Fathers, are pursuing a liberal goal, but the “ideological” atheists pursue the illiberal goal of a secular society, one in which the American people have abandoned religion. According to Linker the essence of political liberalism is liberality, that is, generosity and openness:
To be liberal…is to accept intellectual variety—and the social complexity that goes with it—as the ineradicable condition of a free society. It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way—that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not.
In short, Linker holds that the “ideological” atheists, by vigorously arguing that religious belief is deluded and deleterious are being ungenerous, intolerant of diversity, and, hence, illiberal. Once again, we see that insensitivity is the unpardonable sin.
Well, shouldn’t we tolerate and respect the convictions of others? Tolerate, yes; respect, not necessarily. There is nothing about being liberal that requires that we abstain from hurting people’s feelings. An ideally liberal society recognizes that people have a perfect right to believe and promulgate any doctrine, even if it is silly and dangerous, without fear of persecution or censorship. Yet a liberal society also recognizes the equally perfect right of people to criticize any and all such doctrines in ungentle terms. Indeed, rough-and-tumble polemics, and an absence of sacred cows, are hallmarks of an open society. Hence, however bumptious their rhetoric, angry atheists have a perfect right to express disdain for religion, and their exercise of that right in no way infringes or undermines liberal ideals—so long as they concede that religious people have an equal right to hold and express their views without interference.
But aren’t the angry atheists intolerant in attitude? Shouldn’t they recognize, as Linker eloquently proposes, that we all have to make our way through this vale of tears as best we can, and that, being but human, we will inevitably answer life’s biggest and most difficult questions in different ways? Aren’t they being just ungenerous and mean-spirited in their blanket condemnation of religion? Maybe (In fact, I think so), but to make these charges stick against Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins, Linker is going to have to discredit their claims and not just bemoan them. If religion were always as bad as they say, then it would deserve every bit of censure they dish out, and, without question, the world would be much, much better off if we were rid of it. If it is objectionable to say that all religion is bad, then it is objectionable because it is false, not because it is rude to say so. Hence, it will not do for Linker to perch on his high horse of sensitivity and castigate the “ideological” atheists for their supposedly bad attitude; he is going to actually have to deal with their arguments.
And those arguments deserve attention. Are the “ideological” atheists implacably hostile towards religion? Yes. Is their rhetoric often hyperbolic and offensive? Yes. Do they all too often wield a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed? Yes. Do they often unfairly tar all believers with the same brush, from the mildest moderates to the most rabid fundamentalists? Yes. Does this mean that we can dismiss their arguments? No. For instance, the angry atheists point out that religion, particularly the locally favored flavor, is often the beneficiary of a double standard. Consider that when John McCain accepted the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee, a “Christian Zionist” extremist and premillenialist fantasist, liberal journalists, even those who pride themselves on playing “hardball,” tossed marshmallows until someone pointed out the duplicity. By contrast, had Barack Obama accepted the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, the media punditry, liberal and conservative, would have been a festering boil of outrage. In America, the spontaneous reaction to the endorsement of a presidential candidate by a far-out Protestant fundamentalist (but not a Black Muslim) is to give a free pass.
An even more egregious example of how religion gets special kid-glove treatment occurred when the Danish newspaper published those now-infamous cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in a restrained but critical manner to protest Islamist violence. When, of course, the Islamists reacted to this protest against their violence by committing acts of extreme violence, pundits asked us to try to “understand” Islamic outrage and urged us, Linker-like, not to employ our freedom of the press to provoke tender religious sensibilities. Is hatred and violence less odious if it issues from a religious source, so that it is illiberal and intolerant to criticize it when it does?
What about Christopher Hitchens’ claim that religion poisons everything? In god is not Great (the small case “g” in “god,” is, of course, an intentional diminishment), Hitchens recalls once hearing Israeli statesman Abba Eban discussing the perennial Israel/Palestine problem. Eban said that the salient fact about this conflict is that it admits of an easy and obvious solution (!). When two peoples of roughly the same size lay claim to the same patch of land, the obvious solution is two states side-by-side. Hitchens continues:
And so it would have been, decades ago, if messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stroked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything (pp. 24-25).
Everything? Well, an awful lot. In innumerable bad situations, if religion doesn’t create the bad situation it exacerbates it. Religion did not create the human impulse towards cruelty, but, as Bertrand Russell observed, it lends divine sanction to that impulse:
The harm that theology has done is not to create cruel impulses, but to give the sanction of what professes to be a lofty ethic, and to confer an apparently sacred character upon practices which have come down from more ignorant and barbarous ages (from Religion and Science, p. 106).
Don’t like Jews, Arabs, or gay people? Your religion can give you the pleasure of hating them with a clear conscience.
Is there a place for aggressive, in-your-face critique of religion? Yes, there is and always has been. Consider Thomas Paine’s rousing condemnation of Old Testament barbarism from The Age of Reason (1794):
When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
Wow! Nothing in Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, or Dawkins tops that!
David Hume is generally more restrained in tone (but the restraint itself was often ironic), yet in the concluding pages of his Natural History of Religion, he has some quite harsh things to say about the prevailing religious beliefs and practices. He begins with some boilerplate:
What a noble privilege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the Supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator.
Then he drives the dagger home:
But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them as the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.
Again, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, or Dawkins would be proud to have authored these lines.
But, Linker might protest, Paine and Hume were not atheists. Paine was a deist, and whatever Hume was (an attenuated deist, according to some commentators), he denied the charge that he was an atheist. Paine and Hume therefore only held that some religion (nearly all, in Hume’s view) was bad, not all of it. However, by failing to effectively confront the substance of the arguments of Hitchens et al., Linker never makes clear why it is acceptable, even laudable, to condemn some, even most, religion, but grossly illiberal to reject it across the board.
By the way, after many years of watching and participating in debates about religion, I have never noticed that the rhetoric of believers contained much in the way of Christian charity towards atheists and other skeptics. Even in academic circles, scurrility sometimes creeps in. Consider John Beversluis, whose groundbreaking C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (1985; 2nd edition, 2007) was the first book-length, genuinely critical treatment of Lewis. Though Beversluis’s critique was a model of calm, dispassionate, and evenhanded analysis, some academic Lewis-lovers, apparently outraged at Beversluis’s sacrilege, fired off broadsides, even impugning his intellectual integrity. When you move out of the halls of academe and into the blogospere, things get a lot worse. A quick perusal of some “Christian” web sites and blogs reveals that there is a whole class of semi-educated, self-styled “apologists” whose maunderings are short on logic but long on invective and name-calling. What do Linker and his ilk recommend? That atheists turn the other cheek while Christians are allowed to be as nasty as they want to be?
What about Christian philosopher Vic Reppert’s charge (expressed in his commentary on Linker’s article on his Dangerous Idea blog) that Hitchens, et al. are the atheist equivalent of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell? Like the religious right, he charges, the angry atheists have no respect for separation of church and state, but want to suppress religion with governmental power. Well, Harris really does attack the idea of religious tolerance. Would he favor, say, state-run reeducation camps for the religious? Should the public schools inculcate an atheistic and antireligious ideology? I see no evidence anywhere in The End of Faith that Harris would favor such measures. His call is for attitudes to change, especially the attitudes of liberals. Harris decries the sort of milk-and-water, namby-pamby “tolerance” of people like Linker, Kristoff, and Siegel. Harris would agree wholeheartedly with Karl Popper that in the open society we must be actively intolerant of the intolerant; we should oppose them by any means necessary—with words when they use words and with violence when they use violence. A bland, confused ideal of tolerance, that in the name of a fatuous sensitivity would wink at dangerous, intolerant, and irrational dogmas—just because they are “religious”—is in fact a profoundly illiberal ideal that militates against the open society.
What about Linker’s charge that Dawkins is unreasonable when he charges that a Catholic upbringing is a kind of child abuse, but then fails to take this thought to its logical conclusion by calling for the legal proscription of raising children within a religious tradition? Dawkins’ actual objection, as quoted by Linker, is that it is abusive to inculcate children with the dreadful idea that if they die with the guilt of unshriven mortal sins on their souls, they will spend eternity in hell. As usual, Linker responds with high moral dudgeon before asking the simple and obvious question: Does Dawkins speak the truth? Unquestionably he does. Let’s see: Would it be a really bad thing to tell highly impressionable small children that there is an invisible being who is watching their every move and even reading their very thoughts and who will torture them in flames forever and ever if they do not confess every one of their “sins?” Well, unlike Dr. James Dobson, I am not an expert in child psychology, but I’d have to say, just off the top of my head, that, yeah, it would be a pretty rotten thing to terrify a defenseless child with such disgusting superstitious horror stories. Is it illogical, nevertheless, to decline to seek legal sanction against those who do frighten small children with tales of the heavenly bogey-man? No, of course not. I think it is abusive for parents to raise their children to be Florida Gators fans, but I cannot see any way to make that a crime without also interfering with the sacred, inviolable right to raise your child to be a Georgia Bulldog. Seriously, legitimate privacy rights, which liberals like Linker should zealously defend, give parents a very wide latitude to raise their children as they see fit, and any attempt to cherry-pick all instances of psychological abuse, without seriously eroding those important rights, would obviously be a logical and legal impossibility. So we have no choice but to let some genuinely abusive things slide, as Linker surely recognizes.

I can respect those who straightforwardly disagree with the conclusions of the “new atheists,” though I think that many of these critiques, like Alister McGrath’s criticism of Dawkins, are only very partially successful. I cannot respect someone who is just shocked, shocked by what these horrible, horrible men are saying (though they largely agree with them in substance) and who get the vapors because of these atheists’ rude, crude style. One thing I haven’t mentioned is just how patronizing this attitude is. Are religious people hothouse flowers or like the proper young ladies of the 19th Century whose tender ears had to be protected from any suggestion of indelicacy or impropriety? Must liberals be their gallant guardians who rush to their defense when they are insulted by unbelieving boors? If, on the other hand, religious sensibilities really are that delicate, then tough shit. If religious people are going to ladle out the vitriol, as they so often do, then they have no right to complain if atheists spit some of it back into their eyes.

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About Keith Parsons