Atheist bigotry

Can anyone explain how and when Sam Harris became an atheist spokesman? I missed the email.
Which is lucky, because I find many of his views (eg he thinks torture is ok) as repellent and unrepresentative of mine as, say, the average muslim would find the views of the latest islamic wingnut hate figure.
There’s a superb – if unfashionably long – piece by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian about his response to Murtah Hussein’s article on Al Jazeera. and Nathan Lean in Salon – both of whom pointed out the bigotry expressed by the atheist media stars.

Contrary to the assumptions under which some Harris defenders are laboring, the fact that someone is a scientist, an intellectual, and a convincing and valuable exponent of atheism by no means precludes irrational bigotry as a driving force in their worldview. Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian

I’m talking about Greenwald’s, rather than the other, articles because:

  • I wouldn’t have seen the other posts except for his article;
  • His arguments seem self-evidently true to me; and
  • because his article attracted a flurry of comments. (4913 at the moment of writing this.) I find many of those comments, at the least, disturbing, even allowing for the fact that the Guardian’s comment pages have basically become a vanity publishing platform for trolls.

Commenters referred to Greenwald’s being a gay jew:

“As a gay Jew, you must realise that in most Middle Eastern countries you would be persecuted. The exception being Israel.”

” If Glen expected to be an open and practicing gay man in Qatar he would be imprisoned.”

I presume that these rational beings have not come across the concept of a non-sequitur. The only way to read this is that these people genuinely believe that Islam is a huge monolithic block, that every person born a muslim is responsible for every injustice committed by every other muslim and any other majority islamic state, and so on.

In one comment, a Harris defender complained that his words had been taken out of context, then provided the “context” which turned out to be at least as disturbing as the paraphrase.
I am particularly offended that the pro-Harris writers seek to present themselves as the defenders of a rational scientific worldview. And then take their political and social opinions straight from the “Holy Book of Neocon Ideas about Global Politics.”
“Bugger rationality in that case, then, fellow rational people. Don’t bother trying to understand global politics and religion, because they’re really really hard to follow and you might find your simplistic world views too hard to maintain. Just keep your minds closed and go along with the war and torture stuff. It’s not as if non-atheists are human beings or anything.”
That is the Sam Harris message and it seems to have had at least a greater than zero influence on fools.

Atheism, Faith and Idiotic Confusion

It seems that all the PR work by Dawkins, Hitchens, PZ Myers, Harris et al., is still not fully driving home the message of what atheism is and what atheism means. Part of me feels that, for all the good intentions in the world this is something they will never achieve, and a small part of me feels that “organised” atheism is seriously a step in the wrong direction.

At its most basic level, being an atheist implies nothing about a persons intelligence, rationality, political leaning, attitude towards others, scientific literacy, education (and so on). All being an atheist means is the person does not believe in gods. Nothing else. Al Kafir Akbar is a recent example of an atheist who is not rational, intelligent or scientifically literate (and I dread to think what his political leaning is… 🙂 ). Campaigns such as the “Scarlet A” and “Brights” are, IMHO of course, eventually doomed to failure as the differences between any two atheists start to far outweigh their single shared characteristic. In the past people have mooted ideas such as atheists becoming “politicised,” will such a thing ever work? Would you, for example, vote for a raving right / left (depending on your own orientation) lunatic simply based on his atheism?

For me, the worrying thing about all this – along with the growing sycophancy which surrounds the more prominent atheists (Dawkins lost a bit of support when he dropped a clanger and used the term “Jewish,” but the others still get the hero worship…) – is that it starts to scream “religion.” I am sure everyone remembers election campaigns where one church or another pledges the support of its followers to Politician X because of his beliefs, as soon as the prominent atheists pledge their support (and the support of their sycophants, followers, readers) to a politician because s/he is an atheist the final difference will be gone [*].

In recent months, the furore over the the Scarlet A struck cynical old me as if people were starting to demand an atheist doctrine which was going to be laid down by the high priest (pontifex maximus? We all know where that took us…). People who disagreed with PZ Myers over the “A” for example, were savaged (online, rather than a visit to the lion enclosure) and for one reason or another, large numbers of atheists have fallen in line and display the A on their sites. Now, I must stress, I do not think this is a bad thing in general. If you want to put an A on your site to denote you are an atheist, great. I think it is really cool. I am concerned about the process which brought this about though.

Reading through the ever entertaining times online today, I came across an article by “Dolan Cummings” in the “Battle for Ideas” section. Titled “Count me out of atheism’s creed,” this article expresses some of the points of view I am trying to make, but mostly in a more readable manner… I found this bit quite relevant: (emphasis mine)

From attempts to popularise the term ‘bright’ as a positive identity to calls for atheists to be included on the roster of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, it seems that some want to establish atheism as an alternative, non-religious camp for people to belong to. But atheism itself ought to be the least interesting thing about atheists, who surely have various and often conflicting beliefs and passions of their own.

Everyone who writes for this blog is an atheist, yet Heather and I have (at times) viewpoints which are at polar opposites. Calling us “atheists” with an implied commonality of purpose seems to gloss over that. If you search around the various atheist blogs, there are mountains of interesting, entertaining and educational blogs – all written by atheists. There are also lots (sadly too many on the blogroll now) of blogs which are little more than people shouting “I am an atheist” over and over.

For a long time people (famous or otherwise) have been trying to get the unthinking masses to realise that atheism is not a religion, chanting is as a mantra sets that task back considerably. If people want to challenge irrational belief then it needs to be done with logic and reason, not with formulating a “counter-church” for people to rally around. Take this idiotic comment on the Dolan Cummings’ article:

Atheism is not non-belief – it’s active faith in the non-existence of God – an unprovable hypothesis. Atheism is just another religion. Richard, Colchester, UK

Pure stupidity. Sadly, as atheism becomes more of an “active” process, people may start to think this even more.

Before I finish, I think I should stress I am not a supporter of the quisling atheists who seem to think religion should be tolerated and pandered to. Religion (any) does not deserve special status or special treatment. Irrational idiocy should be challenged at every juncture. I love to read Sam Harris, Pharyngula, Dawkins et al. I agree with an awful lot of what they have to say. However, there is no holy doctrine of atheism and I do reserve the right to disagree with the prominent spokespersons when they are (IMHO) wrong.

The greatest challenge for atheism is learning how to “cure” people of religion, without becoming a religion. Are people up to that task yet?

* I am more than aware that the chances of a prominent public figure in either the US or UK coming out as an atheist is close to zero at this time, the future may be different. Also, rather than the politician being an atheist per se, s/he could simply espouse atheist-friendly policies.

How many angels fit on a pinhead?

Comments on Pharyngula’s blog led me to a discussion about the Sam Harris & Chris Hedges debate. I know I don’t keep up – luckily there’s no god to judge my atheism orthodoxy – because this is ages old, but I found the tapes on truthdig.

This debate between Sam Harris (outspoken atheist) and Chris Hedges (Christian, outspoken against the fundamentalist right) is one of the rare debates that actually expand your thinking. Both are excellent speakers. Both make some unassailable points, as well as speak occasional tosh. (Like any of us. Except me of course.)

Lots of these “debate” things are just creationist fronts or debates about ideas, like the medieval discussions over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin (I.e the premise is meaningless, the detail is mind-numbing and the importance is non-existent.)

Ignore the content to some extent and just consider the approaches. Pure thought vs thought in the world. “Proper science” and “social science.”

“Proper science” is good at the logic. I.e.., it tells you that the “God” concept is nonsense. This is so self-evident that you can get pretty fed up with restating it. All the same, Sam Harris does it beautifully and probably as well as anyone can.

He also points out that the spiritual and ethical and emotional aspects of the human psyche don’t require a belief in a sky-god. This is always good to hear because religious believers can often appear to have cornered the market in transcendence.

Social science is good at understanding the ideological consequences of beliefs. Hence, Chris Hedges was able to discuss the social context that has created fundamentalism of every kind. (For instance, he argued that the basically secular PLO was ousted by Islamic fundamentalists, as a direct consequence of the actions of the US and Israel.) He’s not an atheist but I can’t see how that that makes him wrong. I couldn’t even see how most of what he said was affected one way or another by him being a believer. (Although I may not have been payng total attention.)

I don’t think there’s a real split between social science and “proper” science. However, a lot of “proper” scientists know much very little about social science. I certainly believe many atheists could learn a lot from the sociology of religion.

Reference, our recent ill-advised foray into a discussion of ADHD on the Pharyngula comments that seemed to do nothing but generate misconceptions… Say, for instance, a new psychoactive medicine is developed. “Proper” scientists can understand the biochemistry and study its mode of action. It is the realm of social science to ask questions about how it is used, why it is used, who has access to it, how do social relations influence what medicines are developed, who pays for the development, who pays for the end-product, what does it mean to the individual to experience its effects, and so on, ad infinitum. These are not just boring topics to “proper scientists” (just as biochemistry is to me) They are also things they have not been trained to evaluate (just as biochemistry is to me).

The different modes of thinking can be mutually incomprehensible. So, it’s great to find a real debate that illuminates an issue from two sides.

Ie, ignore the Christian stuff that comes from Hedges and consider the approach. That is, a recognition that ideas have consequences. Our beliefs have no importance except where they find social expression. Quoting Alun’s comment on a post here.

Someone with a personal hotline to a god with no social support is merely a lunatic (as defined by the rest of society)

Cop Out of the Month – March 07

Is there potential for a new “feature” here? Reading through a variety of news sites and the like, I came across an article on newsweek (I would hat tip whichever atheist blog sent me there, but I can’t remember who covered it – sorry). On this article, there is something which strikes me as one of the “best” theistic cop-outs I’ve read in March 07. So, (drum roll) ladies and gentlemen, I present for your reading pleasure the Theistic Cop Out of the Month for March 2007:

[Newsweek] Is the Bible inerrant?
[Rick Warren]: I believe it’s inerrant in what it claims to be. The Bible does not claim to be a scientific book in many areas.
(read original)

don’t you just love empty sayings like that?