05 August 2012

The "Awful Atheists" article

Hemant Mehta brought to my attention an article from Alternet (which I tend to avoid) in which some guy named Ian Murphy, whom I suppose fancies himself a fantastic atheist, labels five fairly prominent non-believers as "awful atheists". He begins,
Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.
It's true that being an atheist, just like being very intelligent in general, is not a buttress against believing in some stupid and/or simply erroneous things. But what makes this article worthy of an old-fashioned facepalm is the haste and hubris with which Murphy dismisses and ridicules their views. I'll reprint Hemant's summary, because I think it's pretty fair and accurate:
  • Sam Harris: He thinks religious profiling might have merit and defends torture in some instances.
  • Bill Maher: He’s misogynistic, condescending, and anti-flu-shots.
  • Penn Jillette: He’s a libertarian.
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali: She’s practices “neoconservative lunacy” and is excessively anti-Islam.
  • S.E. Cupp: She’s a self-loathing atheist
I have no idea who S.E. Cupp is, so I'm going to pass on that one (Hemant seems to agree on her, though). But let's take a look at the others.

Sam Harris has the stones to do something that most people don't, which is to take a skeptical stance on our usually reactionary views on things like profiling and torture. Sam was wrong on profiling and, to his credit, invited to his blog a security expert who did a fine job of explaining why and published a lengthy exchange on the topic. Frankly, I thought Sam got schooled.

I also disagree with Sam when he starts rambling on about 'transcendence'. But y'know what? Sam is one of the most lucid and articulate critics of religion out there; his books, especially The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, have been hugely influential – as have his lectures. His excellent book on morality, The Moral Landscape, was similarly provocative – even for those who found themselves disagreeing.

But what about torture? Sam does not endorse torture. He's essentially using torture as a tool to demonstrate the absurdity of absolute moral values. I'll use another: genocide. We all agree that it's not just wrong, but really really wrong, to kill hundreds, thousands or millions of civilians. Absolutely wrong, right? Well... what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Whether you agree or disagree that the bombings were the right course of action, they had the intended effect: they forced Japan to surrender, ending World War II. The genocide of those Japanese civilians is, for those who support the bombing, justified in that they believe their deaths prevented a much greater evil – the indefinite extension of the war and an invasion of Japan. Sam is using torture in a similar context, suggesting that we can probably think of desperate times in which torture is the most rational course of action. He's never advocated systematic torture and has said so on countless occasions.

But even on the issues where I disagree with Sam, that doesn't make him an "awful atheist". We're allowed to disagree, to varying degrees, about particular things. It's important to create a dialogue about issues we often take for granted.

Penn Jillette aroused Murphy's ire because... he's libertarian. Really? I know many, many atheists who are libertarian. One of my favorite writers, a brilliant and learned critic of religion who unfortunately passed away in 2010, was also a libertarian – Ken Pulliam. In any case, I found a comment at Friendly Atheist to echo my view perfectly:
The very suggestion that simply being a libertarian (or any other political philosophy) is sufficient to characterize a person as "awful" is offensive and tells me a lot more about the ethics of the person making the assertion than it does about the person being characterized.

Bill Maher is not anti-vaccine. He penned a lengthy (and pretty rambling) post clarifying his view, and it's not really anything like what his critics have said it is. I'm not saying I fully agree with him – on many points he makes, I do not – but it's misguided to put him in the same corner as the ignorant-but-loud Jenny McCarthys of the world. And I don't really care that he's occasionally condescending... that's one of his best qualities!



Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not as well-known in the 'new atheist' movement, because she spends most of her time criticizing Islam specifically. She had her genitals mutilated as a child – still a 'tradition' in some Muslim countries – and lives under guard because she's received death threats. Her charity – the AHA Foundation – actively works to help women who are victimized by the misogynistic culture of Islamic fundamentalism.

She's expressed some controversial views – like saying it would be better to try to convert Muslims to Christianity than to try to convert them to atheism [here], and suggesting that Muslim schools should not be allowed in the US. But her views on these subjects are far more nuanced than Murphy's reactionary hyperbole would let on.



Personally, I welcome dissent among atheists. It's fine that we occasionally disagree on controversial topics, or question things we might take for granted. There are many positive humanist values that are interwoven with the new atheist movement, and I think it's important that we can have a constructive discourse without ostracizing one another. Ian Murphy seems like he'd be happier in a circle-jerk. That's religion's specialty.


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