It’s been a bad week for atheism. Actually, it’s been a bad few centuries for atheism, which is not so much an organised system of thought as it is a very bad mood frocked up for an Oxford formal. But we’ll get to the over-dressed non-history of Western atheism another day. For the present, let’s look at how two of its notables have chosen to spend the last few days.
Sam Harris is by some accounts a capable neuroscientist. He was also certainly a drawcard for the many atheism conferences that so profitably legitimised the racist anxieties of a post-9/11 West and functioned well as singles bars for angry white people. What he is not, as this video demonstrates, is an adequate philosopher. Instead, he’s a good propagandist. What he does here is what he does in his awful book The End of Faith and this week on his blog, which is to restate his revulsion for Islam over and again in a voice that sounds reasonable but from its first breath as irrational as that of a European anti-Semite screaming about blood libels in the Middle Ages.
Islam is bad, says Harris. It might not be more hypothetically bad than Judaism, he says — although elsewhere, he denies this claim and ascribes to the Koran a foundational violence that is unmatched in other holy books — but it is practised by worse people. How do we know that the Jewish state of Israel is better than the (not necessarily Islamic) occupied territories of Palestine? Because “we know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it”. In other words, that Israel is tactically capable of killing every soul whose very existence questions the veracity of its borders but does not is evidence of its rationality and therefore of Judaism’s rationality and, somehow, the bloodlust intrinsic to Islam.
By this logic of statecraft, we can argue that the entire Cold War was based in ethical good because superpowers chose slow and toxic colonial stealth over blowing people up. Which is a syllogism of the sort that brings us to the week’s other atheism snafu, from the famous Richard Dawkins. Ricky D tried to give us all a good lesson in logic.
Like Harris, Dawkins’ marquee name is lit by a scientific qualification. He is an evolutionary biologist and, it must be said, formerly one of the best popular science communicators history has produced. His work The Greatest Show on Earth is a matchless primer on the theory of evolution. His Twitter account, by contrast, is a toilet.
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Flushed with anger at what he saw as the stupidity of a world that permitted no critique of Islam that was not also interpreted as an endorsement of Zionism, he got all Organon on the internet. To help us understand the elements of an assertion, Dawkins made a series of x,y claims. Now, my memory of Logic is fuzzy, but I can’t remember Aristotle advising that it was a good idea to use a topic like, say, violent rape to clarify the shape of an informal proposition.
To borrow a meme-critique of the meme guy, “your a dick”. A monumental dick to suppose that one of the most incendiary topics in the world would help us more calmly understand one of the most incendiary topics in the world. I’m only shocked he didn’t make some gags about ebola.
Structurally, of course, there is nothing wrong with Dawkins’ syllogism. Tactically, though, it was bound to be a disaster to use date-rape and paedophilia in the place of variables.
There is absolutely no way that a man who has made his name in the very business of debate could not have known that his partial examples would not evoke some very partial responses. But he and his coterie are now making like the world is full of absolutists who just can’t get their politically correct, morally relative heads around the beauty of an untrammelled reason that exceeds all time.
To be momentarily partial, I happen to think there are few better exhortations made in history than that by Kant which dares us to use our reason. Of all the thought crimes of the Enlightenment — and these are several and complex and horrible — we should not decry the birth of our active engagement with reason. Intellectual tools like methodical doubt, natural law and scepticism took us to the moon and delivered us from the reeking furrows of feudalism. But Harris and Dawkins are not keeping these instruments sharp. Rather, they are beating us over the head with their blunt and meaningless reference in the hope that we will eventually agree that Islam is bad because it’s bad and “rape” is different from “rape rape”.
Harris has previously said that the “real” enemy of reason and of peace is the moderate Muslim who obfuscates the true violence of his faith with good manners. Perhaps reason’s real adversary of the Enlightenment is the atheist who, in his lack of belief in god, chooses to mistake his own superstition for logic.