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Jul 31, 2014

Razer’s Class Warfare: this week in atheist fundamentalist idiocy

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are beating us over the head with blunt and meaningless references -- it's been a bad week in atheism.

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.

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.

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34 thoughts on “Razer’s Class Warfare: this week in atheist fundamentalist idiocy

  1. scot mcphee

    I agree. When I read Dawkins’ tweet my thoughts were: it’s true, gruesomely true, but what _purpose_ does this statement serve? I have to ask: what is the matter with this man?

  2. Ken McKinnon

    Oh dear. In an amazing trick, Helen plays both the bully (ALL atheists are white and racist / Islam IS peaceful and it MUST be respected) and the victim (outrage-explosion / open letter to no one) all at once.

  3. Chris Hartwell

    Simple Scot – are you able to put your (inherent, natural, justified, etc) distaste for the subject at hand and analyse it calmly and rationally?

    He’s asking “Are you as coldly rational as you need to be to discuss this issue?”

  4. Di Keller

    I don’t remember seeing anything from Sam Harris, but will now look 🙂 But I have read and seen a lot of Richard Dawkins and my understanding of him is that while he is anti all religion , he doesn’t particularly nominate Islam.

    I think his tweets are very valid. One thing does not automatically follow another , but a lot of people use that type of argument, which I find immensely annoying. As does he it would seem 🙂 I’m not quite as arrogant as he is though 🙂

  5. ilolatu

    Nice try, but you can’t justify your superstitions by ridiculing disbelief said superstitions.

  6. 64magpies

    “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.”

    More like we can’t get our politically correct, morally relative heads around the ugliness of a much-trammelled animal/human nature that isn’t going to change just because we have a transient ideology.

  7. scot mcphee

    Chris – so what? Of course I can. That’s called the examination and exploration of ideas you’d don’t agree with; every humanist ought to be familiar with this technique.

    So his point is rather trivial. It’s not much of an examination, is it? It’s nothing more than a shock tactic. And to discuss _what_ issue, exactly? Again, what is the point of this _specific_ example? It’s certain a “coldly rational” way to approach the idea that to say some X is worse than some Y is not endorse Y; in fact, it (the specific examples) are so “coldly rational” as to leave it seemingly bereft of humanity. An anti-humanist rationality, in other words. No thanks.

    Is he turning into Hitchens? A man whose rank obscenities over the Iraq war seem to me to be a far more gruesome a crime against humanity than his attacks on religious beliefs were a benefit to it.

  8. Marty

    The problem is that Dawkins’s assertion isn’t necessarily true. The pain a person experiences due to a given event is down to their perception. I haven’t experienced either of those events, but even if I had it would not be up to me to impose a hierarchy formed through my experience on others as the truth.

  9. graham answerth

    I don’t understand the last proposition,ie, the claim that my superstition, being a lack of belief in god, is an excuse for not being logical. I personally have never claimed that my non theism has anything to do with reasoning or lack thereof. The two premises are mutually exclusive. How can I believe in God, if I don’t? I cannot lie to myself and it is not a choice. I can however present an argument, orally and composed in a written form.
    Also, I can accept that anti theism could well be a belief system, but I simply don’t care for god.

  10. Chris Hartwell

    The problem Scot is that plenty of folks can’t do that. They get emotional. And that emotional response is not conducive to proper logical analysis.

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