Bertrand Russell, the curmudgeonly British philosopher and mathematician who set the sceptical tone for 20th century Anglo-American atheism, drew a very distinct line between questions of God’s existence and assessments of religion’s actions in the world. He believed there was insufficient evidential or logical proof for God, but had no time for accounts of Christianity’s charitable works, or the harm caused by foreign faiths — including, he maintained, the communist one. The worldly effects of a set of man-made doctrines don’t prove the truth or otherwise of the original supernatural proposition.
Fast forward to May 2009 and Christopher Hitchens, the world’s leading professional soak, suffers what is generally considered to be his only defeat in battle against a theologian, Professor William Lane Craig of Biola University. Craig is a professional apologist and has a reputation for devouring atheists whole. He pretty quickly got Hitch in the vice by turning Russell’s argument back against him.
In God is Not Great, Hitchens argues that all the barbarism done in the name of religion is good reason not to subscribe to its beliefs. Of course its good work — namely consolation — is to be discarded because its divine source is a sham. But, Russell would have said, Hitchens’ loathing of the products of religious belief, especially the hypocrisy and contradiction between scripture and its practice, does not prove the sceptic’s scientific demand for evidence.
When watching the video on YouTube you wish a scientist like Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan had been debating instead, because as soon as Hitch devolves the God question into pragmatism — that ideas become true as a result of their consequences — Craig does the same: What’s your evidence for God NOT existing, huh? The physicists would have torn Craig a cosmological new one, but instead the end result is a kind of high school debating style ledger-balancing that degenerates into Hitchens asking Craig if he believes in demons (he does), then laughing at him. It is great entertainment but it ultimately doesn’t go to the heart of the matter.
Yesterday’s article by Overland editor Jeff Sparrow in New Matilda makes, I think, the same mistake as the New Atheists he criticises. Sparrow could probably be called a New Atheist himself insofar as he’s scrambled the God egg by similarly proposing a moral dimension to a question that atheists don’t bear the burden to prove: How is there a politically and morally correct way to insist that theists provide some hard proof for their claims before you’ll get on the Jesus train?
No worries, Sparrow says, "Atheism is, we all know, inherently progressive". Moreover, he argues that the rational, sceptical values expressed in the upcoming atheist conventions — the Global Atheist Convention and Think Inc — are the values of an historical radical left project that Hitchens and neuroscientist Sam Harris have betrayed, first by imitating true radicalism by taking cheap shots against a Christian church that is essentially done for, and second by letting their disbelief feed Islamophobia and bloodlust, the modern anti-Semitism, views that harm left causes like justice for asylum seekers.
Sparrow’s claim that atheism is inherently progressive is odd considering the whole argument is about two leading neo-con atheists. He admits as much in his final paragraph:
"It is, of course, perfectly possible to question the existence of God, to support intellectual freedom and to oppose dogmatism, without embracing an Islamophobia that is the functional equivalent of 20th century anti-Semitism. But that’s not what the New Atheists are doing."
That’s right, they’re not, and considering Sparrow’s broadly Marxist characterisation of religion as "shaped by the material world", there are a lot of other historical atheists who are to be excluded from the "inherently progressive" project — David Hume and John Stuart Mill, Sir Karl Popper, H.L. Mencken and Bertrand Russell, to name a few. Popper in particular was a strident anti-communist with definite conservative or libertarian streaks, while Mencken’s support for Germany during the two world wars would be especially odious to a progressive atheism. Even scepticism itself is a conservative trait, demanding as it does sufficient evidence and a total abandonment of idealism, for which the left is notorious.
As for Hitchens’ and Harris’ bloodlust and hostility to Islam, we’re not really talking about questions of atheism here, are we? The quotes in Sparrow’s pop quiz could easily have come from the mouths of Christians, or with a little editing could plausibly have been said by a Salafi or Wahhabist of a Shia, or by a Shia of the Baha’i.
Carl Jung said that it was only possible to take away a man’s Gods by replacing them with others in return, and that’s really what’s at play here — the attempt to shoehorn one or another political ideology onto atheism in order to bolster its claims to truth, which for the New Atheists is the neocon "clash of civilisations" and defence of democracy against Islam. Atheism’s only necessary in the equation if you consider nonbelief to be the brightest light of western civilisation and its sole defence against savagery. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins of course do, and fancy themselves for the part of Cerberus.
Whether their nonbelief motivates them to become the new Islamic anti-Semites or not isn’t important to me because, although I’m an atheist, I’m not obliged to take up their politics. However, the argument on its face also seems problematic. Hitchens’ hostility toward Islam was crystallised, on his own account, when the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwah on Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses and when his successor Ali Khamenei stirred up riots in the Middle East after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. It’s hard to draw a moral equivalence between those events, and a belief in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example. At any rate, in both cases the offending media were denounced as "Zionist plots" by the Ayatollah of the day. Just sayin, is all.
Nor are atheists required to buy into the left’s tendency to treat religion as a symptom, following Marx’s conception of it as a flower which both camouflages and adorns the chains of a greater economic malaise. Despite treating it as a strictly temporal phenomenon, the left is less interested in specific religious doctrine. That’s because the religious and political superstructure is for the most part determined by the dominant economic order so the ritual and dogma aren’t as important. After all, if religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, and it can be wiped out by removing the oppression, what’s the big deal if they sigh from a minaret five times a day or from a pulpit in Latin?
As Catherine Deveny, comedian of choice for the progressive atheist, would say, God’s bullshit anyway. By the way, if, as Sparrow claims in both New Matilda and Meanjin, there is nothing really radical about Christian bashing to sympathetic audiences, then Deveny should be his public enemy number one. Her lazy, classist stand-up comedy consists almost entirely of the kind of scripture-picking he detests, but delivered in a grating put-on Resevoir drawl with a lot of f*cks thrown in. Comedy gold.
Phillip Adams, on the other hand, is the perfect example of the progressive who happens to be an atheist, rather than the "progressive atheist". At last year’s Global Atheist Convention he cautioned against triumphalism and dogmatism, and reminded us that religion is its own source of woe — something the proud left radical tradition, with its POUM church bombers and Soviet "League of the Militant Godless" would do well to remember.
Out in the foyer after his speech I asked him what he thought of PZ Myers’ endorsement of rudeness toward Christians. Adams didn’t get the point. "I quite like people, you see", he said. This was true for most atheists at the conference and will be again next year, when people come to share ideas and wear silly badges of Jesus fish with legs.
What is hostile to people is the atomising moral politics being packaged up with atheism that, as Jung noted, do not make humankind bigger, but "on the contrary, diminish him". If the New Atheists are guilty of such a sin, then Jeff Sparrow is too, but at least their sins are mortal.
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