If popular Western atheism has anything at all to teach us, it is that all of us, most especially prominent atheists, are yet to learn the skill of disbelief. Atheists, as author Sam Harris demonstrated well last weekend on HBO, are generally slavish believers. And, hey, before you douse the comments with the tepid dregs from Russell’s teapot, the suggestion that the new atheism is built on a foundation of faith is not the same thing as saying that scientific method is hooey. To borrow the winning words of Richard Dawkins, if you confuse the two statements, you should go away and learn how to think.
For all the urging that the so-called Four Horsemen have afforded toward “freethought”, their own views have remained as enslaved to an unexamined darling as Tom Cruise reportedly has to Xenu. Again, this is not to say that the science upon which Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the late Hitchens putatively base their claim that god is stupid is a sham.
It is not even to suggest that god is not stupid. The views that (a) god is stupid; and (b) that the methodical doubt of the Enlightenment era was awesome are entirely defensible. They happen to be my views, and every time I go to the doctor, I am very glad that three centuries ago, the Western world moved from intellectual governance by supernatural laws to natural ones. If god were not dead, there is a good chance I would have been by 25 thanks to dental infection.
It is absolutely true that science and reason could only take hold in an era that had begun to fell god as an organising principle. It is also absolutely true that there are some idiots in the Western world who seek to undo the painstaking work of centuries and resume a life lived in servitude to a creator who would never prescribe antibiotics. But what is also true is that ours is a time that allows for belief in a great range of idiotic woo like CrossFit training, trickle-down wealth and The Secret.
And it also allows for the widespread belief in liberalism as numbly advanced by the bong-water mind of Bill Maher and his guest last Friday, Sam Harris. You can watch the video if you wish. Or you can just take my word for it that Harris bangs on, as he has many times before, that Islam is founded on a bedrock of evil unreason that necessarily leads to the oppression of women, the rejection of justice and diminished global sales of his marvellous, marvellous books that remind us all, because apparently we all need reminding, that the dominant forms of organisation in the world are the best forms of organisation in the world.
Now, let’s set aside for a moment the peculiar decision of Maher and Harris to argue for the intrinsic evil of Islam at a time when the Western world is almost uniformly convinced of it. The day before Australian Super Hornets joined strikes in Iraq, buoyed by our national approval, such vindication seemed gratuitous. Surely any attempt to persuade American audiences that Muslims deserve a good bombing is as urgently needed as a reminder in Liberal parliamentary caucus that the poor get just what they deserve. As actor and director Ben Affleck was on hand to run circles around these jerks, we won’t talk about the current moral value of such a public discussion. We won’t even talk about Harris’ myopic belief in the fundamental justice of liberalism.
What we might talk about, however, is the poverty of thought — a cultural condition Harris claims to despise — that leads him and many atheists to posit faith as the opposite of reason hundreds of years after that historical division took place.
“You can’t legitimately accept the dare of the Enlightenment, which was to use our reason, and conclude, as Hitchens did, that “religion poisons everything” when greenhouse gases are doing a pretty good secular job of that as well.”
Even the most casual student of Western thought would agree with the claims of Harris et al that methodical doubt produced miracles that exceed both in volume and magnificence all those described in the New Testament. Even an ardent Christian might agree that these miracles became possible only with a monumental shift in faith. Reason was true heresy, and we can only imagine that Descartes spent so long formulating a shonky “proof” for the existence of god because he was terrified not only of the intellectual outcomes of his doubt but of ending up in bits on the cobblestones of Europe.
Harris argues passionately that science and reason must destroy religion. He argues, as do many liberals and atheists, for a return to the pure ideals of the Enlightenment. And, yes, at the time, these did stand in radical opposition to religious orthodoxies. But centuries later, this is no longer the case.
This is not, by any means, to claim a historical victory for reason and science. One need only consider how little policy is derived from the work of climate scientists to know that they are as disdained by government as Descartes was by the Pope. But this particular, and potentially apocalyptic, rejection of science derives from religion no more than the atrocities of Islamic State derive from the Koran.
The Western failure to act on the overwhelming findings of science is due far less to the God Delusion than it is to the exigencies of a global market, itself a descendant of Harris and Dawkins’ beloved Age of Reason. And the Western decision to act, again and again, in Iraq has a fair bit to do with the market as well. That we are quashing the unreason of religion in Iraq and not advancing the unreason of the market is just a nice rationale that works as well to convince atheists and “freethinkers” that the West is noble as it does to persuade a good many Christians and other idiots.
But Harris transposes the historical war between philosopher scientists of the Enlightenment and their religious enemies on our century. Look. Look at all the trouble in the world. It has all been caused by religion! And when he revives this melodrama by placing himself in opposition to the dumbest fundamentalists he can find and casting them as the Pope, or when Dawkins compares his own fearless inquiry to that of Charles Darwin, he is no longer a freethinker. He is a hopeless, arrogant ideologue who tells us falsehoods about the sites of real power. And he is also a mystic.
You can’t just replay a histrionic understanding of the past peopled by heroes and villains and avoid mysticism. And you can’t legitimately accept the dare of the Enlightenment, which was to use our reason, and conclude, as Hitchens did, that “religion poisons everything” when greenhouse gases are doing a pretty good secular job of that as well.
Harris proved himself with his dickhead mate Maher to be as mystic in his thinking as any religious loony. And no, teapot, I’m not just saying, as others have, that “atheists are just as fanatical as religious fundamentalists”. I am saying, in fact, that they are more fanatical because they have evolved such a complex delusion where the methodical doubt they claim to champion is itself impossible. If you convince yourself that you are a champion of pure reason and that reason itself always moves from the laboratory of the individual mind into the world without creating conflict, well, you probably need to go away and learn how to think.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review