Attacking the New Atheists: It's fun, it's easy, it's thought-free!

20 Sep 2010

Attacking the "New Atheists" (that odd label that apparently means nothing more than atheists who aren't afraid to speak up, which isn't even anything new) is a popular pastime. Its practitioners aren't only religious believers; some are secular or atheist types who prefer that we all just keep quiet about religion's special privileges.

The Pope's highly-publicized and contentious visit to the UK has given atheists (and more than a few religious folk!) reason to protest this "state visit" by the head of a non-state at British taxpayers' expense. Which, in turn, offers "New Atheist" critics a chance to vent as well. 

There's nothing wrong, in theory, with criticism of the New (or any) Atheists and their message! In fact, for such criticism to be legitimate, it need only accomplish two things:

a) Factually address the New Atheists' actual words or deeds; and

b) Provide some evidence that those words or deeds are harmful, incorrect, hypocritical, or otherwise deserving of criticism.

Yep, just two criteria to make criticism of the New Atheists valid. That can't be so hard, right? Well, let's see how the critics are tackling the job:

Times writer flies off handle over "New Atheists" but can't name a single reason why

In I have no faith in these unholy warlords (original article behind paywall), self-professed secularist Janice Taylor of The Times (London) calls the New Atheists enemies of secularism:


Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ anti-Bible bashing doesn’t just upset the Pope. It offends my secular tolerance

I never thought I could utter this sentence, but I agree with the Pope. Like him I feel distaste for "aggressive forms of secularism", although maybe I’d term it differently. I’d call it macho atheism as preached by unholy warlords.

Harsh stuff! Let's see Ms Taylor's reasons for that distaste.

As old ladies and small children, nuns and office workers, the faithful and the merely curious turned out in Glasgow and London for a gawp at His Holiness, I considered Richard Dawkins’ remark that Catholicism is the "world’s second most evil religion" — did he do a poll? — and wondered about its contribution to our national discourse.

Poll? Does Richard Dawkins need to conduct a poll to hold an opinion about Catholicism? What poll did Ms Taylor conduct to reach her determination of "macho atheism as preached by unholy warlords"?

But that's an aside. Let's get to the meat of things.

Likewise, when Stephen Hawking announced recently, with messianic certainty, that God could not have created the Universe, he sounded only like a spiteful child, hoping to make his baby brother cry by revealing there is no Santa Claus.

BLAM. End of argument for Ms Taylor, before she's even barely started.

Stephen Hawking did NOT announce "that God could not have created the universe". What Professor Hawking said, in an excerpt from his latest book, was: "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

The Professor's "It is not necessary to invoke God" to create the universe is NOT the same as Ms Taylor's "God could not have created the universe". That's not some atheist-only distinction; most modern religious people, as well, will happily acknowledge that it's not necessary to invoke God to explain lightning (as ancient people did). That doesn't mean, the believers will correctly add, that God could not have first created lightning. In the same way, Professor Hawking makes no "God couldn't have done it" claim, and even the most devout believers should not mistake his statement as such.

What explains Ms Taylor's words, then? The most likely explanation is that she's lying. It's hard to believe she missed the Professor's actual statement; it appeared in a book excerpt carried by the paper she's writing for, The Times (and if she hadn't read his statement, why would she be condemning it?).

Is there a point to continuing with the article when Ms Taylor is simply making up the words of her atheist targets? Morbid curiosity is the only one I can think of: 

Dawkins, Hawking, Hitchens: these male (always male) demagogues, bashing their anti-Bibles on to bestseller lists, smugly uncloaking the magician to show his act is mere incense smoke and mirrors. As if the rest of us require professors of theoretical physics or evolutionary biology in order to ponder the big questions of human existence, any more than we need a priest.

"Always male"? There are plenty of outspoken female atheists out there – but whether the best-known atheists happen to be male or female or both or neither, what does that have to do with the content of their words?

I do hope we're going to get to some actual (not invented) atheist words to criticize. The above bizarre sexist comment aside... what is this author saying? "Bashing" books "on to best-seller lists"? The authors can only write the books; it's the readers who put them on best-seller lists. And what's this about not "requiring professors" to ponder questions? Is there some other profession that we do require to speak out, before we can ponder certain questions?

I'm getting lost. So far we've got an attack on the New Atheists' gender, popularity, and professions. Plus a swipe at Stephen Hawking for words he didn't say. Still no critique of anything these atheists have said. Let's keep digging. 

At least Christopher Hitchens, a US citizen, must maintain his thunderous volume to be heard above the American Tea Party movement’s Creationist tumult. (Although I thought it inconceivable that the mighty Hitch could ever be boring until I read his book, God is Not Great, a monotone, unreadable harangue.) But the other two are here in Britain. How are their crass insults to decent, thinking Catholics adding to a sane and necessary discussion about religion’s place in our public life?

A negative opinion of Christopher Hitchens' book. All right, the author is entitled to that opinion, even if she withholds her reasons. (Or is her opinion based on a poll?) But right after that: More monotone haranguing of atheists, with still no hint as to what they've said to deserve such crass insults.  

Because true secularism is not aggressive, it is the end of aggression. It is cool, temperate, unfailingly rational. It does not name-call or demean. It does not care if you believe wine literally turns into Christ’s blood or, like South Indian Hindu pilgrims, carry a coconut full of ghee on your head. In its support for the rights of all faiths, yet championship of none, it is the highest attainment of civilisation. Its demands are simple: that laws be made and enforced in a sphere clear of discrimination or zealotry.

Secularism denotes a lack of religious or spiritual basis, or lack of adherence to religious rules. The presence or absence of aggressiveness is not part of its definition. There's another lie (or simply an opinion – did I miss the poll for that one too?)

So where's this New Atheist aggression, anyway? Ah, there: Those shrill good-for-nothings have aggressively derided belief in the Eucharist, and the carrying of ghee on the head, and... No. Wait. They haven't actually done that. You won't find Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens making any public fuss about wafers or clarified butter.

What's that last bit up there? Hmm, something about how secularism should support the rights of all faiths, and hold that laws be made and enforced without discrimination or zealotry? Hey, that actually sounds sensible! Let's keep that thought as we go on:  

The last thing secularism should do is ratchet up the volume. The recent railings of look-at-me blowhards such as Hitchens and Dawkins are, in part, the reason why Benedict XVI arrived in Britain with his unapologetically re-evangelising message. When the Pope asserted that secularism gave birth to German Fascism, atheists countered with a swing at the Church’s own shonky wartime record. And so debate sank below that of the sixth- form common room, with furious finger pointers calling each other Nazi.

This is not where we should be heading, as I saw this week while visiting New York and tuning into the furore around the Ground Zero mosque. With shock jocks labelling the Cordoba Centre a jihadist cell in downtown Manhattan, and its imam predicting violent consequences if the mosque site were changed, all reason died. That a compromise might be reached, that mindful of local sensitivities — given that it is planned within the “greater Ground Zero area” where debris fell — the mosque might retreat a little, was now inconceivable. Stalemate, intransigence, mutual loathing prevailed.

More ratcheted-up volume and more finger-pointing from Ms Taylor. Yet we're still waiting for the other shoe (hell, still waiting for the first shoe) to drop: What have the New Atheists said that's incorrect, harmful, or otherwise disagreeable? Surely it's coming:

Like the majority of British people, I have little religious faith, but the peace I feel in, say, a spartan Suffolk church connects me with my northern chapel-going ancestry. While I may not believe, the peace and quietude, the sense of something transcendent that makes my life on Earth seem at once precious and utterly insignificant, gives me sympathy towards those who do. My devout Catholic neighbour, who worked unpaid delivering babies in an African clinic, the born-again Christians who befriended my lonely aunt, even the Jamaican ladies in church hats who bring me tracts depicting in colourful line drawings the very moment the dead will rise again — they don’t make me long to assert my moral superiority or slap them round the head with Darwin.

So the New Atheists are aggressively railing against peaceful church services and volunteer works by religious adherents? No. That's what Ms Taylor is strongly implying in a bit of "well, I'm not directly saying it, but..." sleight of hand. But her targets don't decry those things. Surely she knows that Richard Dawkins openly avows to singing Christmas carols every year, and that Christopher Hitchens has said nothing but kind words toward the well-meaning believers who insist they'll pray for his recovery from cancer?

And I’d guess the majority of my fellow heathens, those who don’t have iconoclastic non-fiction to flog, would agree. Secularism needs to stand behind the progressive movements within the Catholic Church, already challenging its policies on women, contraception, homophobia and child abuse, not run ahead of them screaming. It might concede that the Pope has a point that secular values have struggled in the past decade when morality was wholly defined by the free market. It needs to equip itself for a cool, clean fight as the coalition Government seeks to use its Big Society agenda to undermine hard-won secular principles, inviting religious groups to fill the space vacated by a shrunken State.

Already, five out of the first sixteen Government-approved free schools are faith-based, able to set their own curriculum, and able to teach religion without having to understand the comparative value of other faiths. It would be ironic if Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, a hammer of Islamic extremism, was to preside over the creation of government-funded madrassas.

And... I'm sorry to say it, but with that final bit of iconoclastic flogging and screaming by the author, we've reached the end. Really! The count of New Atheist lies, hypocrisies, or harmful utterances stands at zero – or at least, zero is how many Ms Taylor revealed to us.

But: If you blinked, you may have missed that tiny, oh-so-quick reference to the Catholic Church and women, contraception, homophobia, and child abuse.

Ta-da! Since Ms Taylor won't say it, I will: THAT's what the New Atheists are upset over – as is every human with any morals. The Church and the Pope have protected child rapists, while openly telling people in Africa the despicable, deadly lie that condoms won't help protect against AIDS.

Those are crimes, not – as slyly suggested above – areas of "policy" that the Church is proactively "challenging" all on its wonderful own. Those crimes – not church services, not kindly religious volunteers, not holy wafers, not holy ghee – are what the New Atheists decry. 

Ms Taylor, are you not ranting against those crimes? If not, why not?

Remember these words?

[Secularism's] demands are simple: that laws be made and enforced in a sphere clear of discrimination or zealotry.

Wouldn't that suggest an end to the Church's cruel, pointless discrimination against women and gays? And doesn't enforcement of laws without discrimination mean prosecuting Popes, priests, and peasants alike for crimes such as hiding child rapists, with no special privilege granted for religious status?

Aren't the New Atheists protesting exactly what they – what all of us – should be protesting? By vigorously speaking out against the Church's ages-old prejudice against women and gays, and the Pope's special immunity from legal responsibility, aren't the New Atheists the very ones pushing for that secularist ideal of "a sphere clear of discrimination"?

Silly whiner points finger at Islam; finger backfires

The anti-Pope protests have sure brought out a lot of apologists. Here's another screed, also by a non-Catholic (though presumably not secularist):

Twisted values of the noisy bigots


For a country that prides itself on religious tolerance, this has been a shaming week. 

Thanks to the BBC and a noisy cabal of self-important atheists and Catholic-haters, we have been subjected to wall-to-wall attacks on the Pope and his Church. 

Leading this vicious anti-Christian charge were Stephen Fry - who seems to get smugger by the day - and Richard Dawkins, who described Pope Benedict XVI as a 'leering old villain in a frock . . . whose preaching is responsible for the deaths of countless Aids victims in Africa.' 

Well, at least that's an honest charge! Richard Dawkins does indeed call the Pope such delightful epithets and more, including "an enemy of humanity". (That's gotta sting!)

Put aside for one moment the sheer crudeness of this personal abuse, and imagine the outrage if the world's most senior Imam was accused of being a leering criminal who encouraged the spread of sexually transmitted disease. 

Um... Is the world's most senior Imam suspected of being a leering criminal who encourages the spread of sexually transmitted disease? 

If he is... then he should be, and presumably would be, accused. 

Ms Platell, your diversionary finger pointed at Islam just backfired. The Pope is accused of being a leering old villain and a spreader of AIDS, not because he's Catholic, not because he's religious, not because he's non-Islamic... but because the Pope has protected known child rapists from justice while telling people at risk of AIDS to stop using condoms

The accusations aren't a joke, they're not a stunt. This is serious. Deal with that.

For what it's worth, here's the rest:

Yet, in a case of breathtaking double standards, the Left is given airtime to attack the Pope - and by implication 42 million Christians in this country.

I am not a Catholic. I, too, am appalled at the Church's past attempts to suppress the scandal of paedophile priests.

Yet, the BBC in its reports this week has seized on the scandal as if the whole Christian creed was to blame, and that the Pope were no better than Gary Glitter. 

Even as the parade of priests walked to the altar in Glasgow on thursday, the BBC coverage had pundits and presenters discussing the crisis surrounding the Catholic Church. 

But, then, for decades now, Christians in Britain have been made to feel their faith is not just unfashionable, but shaming and ignorant. 

We have been bullied into silence so that the Liberal elite who really rule Britain can impose their atheist, politically-correct values upon us. 

I hope that, if nothing else, the Pope's visit has served to expose the empty hatred that motivates Messrs fry and Dawkins. 

The time has come to stand up to these bigots, whose twisted values are to blame for so much that's wrong in Broken Britain.

That's it. It's all the same as Ms Taylor's rant: No mention of any specific thing the "bullying" atheists have said that's dishonest or harmful. Refusal to address the validity of the very serious charges against the Pope and the Church. Silence on the question of why the Pope should be treated any differently from a non-Papal person accused of crimes. 

"Really, how dare all those mean atheists and reporters even suggest scrutiny of an alleged accomplice to child rape! Can't they see he has a special hat?" 

I've yet to see the New Atheists-bashing trend do much better than that. I wonder how long it'll keep up the noise and spittle before fading out. 

Amidst all this, Ms Platell says people are beginning to feel that their faith is "shaming and ignorant". Now that's a trend I can see picking up steam!

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