The main article over at Salon right now is an interview with Chris Hedges, author of the delightfully titled I Don't Believe in Atheists, which is cute, I'll give it that much. But if it's as intellectually rigorous as the interview, that's about as far as it'll go.

He does get one thing right--Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, on this subject at least, are intellectually shallow, and I cringe that they're two of the more prominent spokespeople for what has been termed the New Atheism. Richard Dawkins may be a boor and a bully, but he's thought his arguments out, and done so in some depth, but Hedges doesn't take him on in this interview, except to essentially claim guilt by association, or excuse him because he's British. It's a little unclear at times.

But he does what every New-atheist basher does, and he gets it out of the way pretty early in the interview.

Unfortunately, what they've done is offer a Utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists. They adopt many of the foundational belief systems of fundamentalists. For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress -- that we are moving towards, if not a Utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society. That's fundamental to the Christian right, and it's also fundamental to the New Atheists.
I just love being told what I believe by someone who doesn't have a clue about it. New Atheism makes no claims on the future of humanity, nor does it say that we are headed toward some utopian future under the banner of Science! If anything, it does the opposite--it looks at the future and acknowledges that we may be well and truly fucked, and that there might not be anything we can do to save our future, and that there isn't a divine fallback plan. Richard Dawkins certainly doesn't make that claim, and I'd be surprised if either Hitchens or Harris made it either. They may claim that the world would be better off without religion--which is a stretch to my mind, but is at least a debatable position--but that's a universe away from claiming that a secular world would be a utopia.

Human beings are really good at tribalism--on some levels, it may be what we're best at, and religion is one of many tribes we separate ourselves into. It may be that if humans stopped believing in a personal god who interfered in our daily actions that we could reduce some of the suffering many people experience, but it's no panacea on its own, and I don't know a single New Atheist who believes it would be.

Harris and Hitchens do have some odious beliefs, and Hedges points them out--Harris called for a nuclear first strike on the Muslim world, Hitchens continues to defend and lie about the origins of the Iraq war, and both defend torture, so neither of them are people I want on my side in any debate, but tainting atheism with their beliefs is akin to tainting atheists with Stalin's purges or China's human rights record. Atheism has nothing to do with it. Hitchens and Harris, based on those arguments, are monsters, and atheism is secondary to that.

One section I found interesting was the part about Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
You say at one point in the book that the New Atheists, "like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class." But I wonder what you would say to someone like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a victim of genital cutting who fled her faith-based homeland for the secular West, when she says that the secularism of Western society is better than the religiosity of her native Somalia?

It was better, for her.

She doesn't qualify that. She says it's better.

Well, she's speaking out of her personal experience, and it was better for her. I mean, look, I covered conflicts in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Central America, where Western society rained nothing but death and destruction on tens of thousands of people, which is of course what we're doing in Iraq. So, is Western society -- American society -- better for Iraqis? And I think part of the problem is people who create a morality based on their own experience, which is what of course the New Atheists and the Christian fundamentalists have done.
Hedges is trying to be a little cute here, but he's comparing different things. Ali says the West is better, based largely on the way women are treated, and I agree with her. Hedges counters with the capitalist exploitation of the region, and that's an argument I'm sympathetic to, up to a point, but here's the thing: just because a system might not be good doesn't preclude it from being better than what's in place. The best scenario would be one where there's no exploitation and where women aren't chattel, and we should work to make that world appear, whether we're atheists or believers, but I would argue that if you compare western societies where women are nearly full partners (yes, we have plenty of work to do here in the west) to those where women are property and little more, yes, the west has a claim of superiority. Moral and cultural relativism only works up to the point where individual rights are infringed.

What any of that has to do with atheism is beyond me, by the way.

In the end, what it sounds like Hedges really is attacking isn't the New Atheism, it's Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and their politics. Fine. Do that. I'll applaud. But leave atheism out of it, because it's not the problem.

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