Monday, May 28, 2007

New atheism is old hat

I've been meaning to post about this for a little while now, and this gave me the perfect excuse. Seems the Washington Post today published an article by wherein Greg Epstein decries "new" atheism. A few people were upset with his pronouncements.

Some of you may be asking--what on earth is "new" atheism?

Well, according to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal:
What is new about the new atheists? It's not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won't encounter a single point you didn't hear in your freshman dormitory. It's their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote—both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

For them, belief in God is beyond childish, it is unsuitable for children. Today's atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people—which Dr. Dawkins calls "a form of child abuse." He even floats the idea that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents' religious beliefs.

Essentially, atheists were tolerated as long as they knew their place and kept silent so the rest of the world could pretend that they didn't exist. "New" atheists aren't so timid; Professor Myers is quite right in suggesting that a better word be "uppity". But aside from all that--there's nothing new about this, either.

I recently finished reading a book entitled Essays of an Atheist, by Woolsey Teller, who also wrote another book called The Atheism of Astronomy. It is a collection of essays that had previously been published in The Truth Seeker, a magazine founded in 1873 with the goal of "promot[ing] reason over superstition." Let's look at the tone Mr. Teller had:
It requires no courage for a man to fall on his knees and beg for supernatural aid. It requires only sufficient ignorance and stupidity. But to stand erect and rely on one's self requires the elements of manhood. The score for courage is distinctly on the side of the atheist, who does not look for help by babbling to the sky.

--"Christian Cowardice and Atheist Courage," Essays of an Atheist p. 44, ranting against the quip "There are no atheists in foxholes"
Who are the "misfits" in life? They are those who are saturated with superstition, slobber their piety, froth their fanaticism, fight evolution, and attack science with their medieval doctrines. Worse than the vocationally maladjusted are the shanty mentalities, who, from one ago to another, have gagged liberty of thought and blackjacked every man who reasons for himself. They are those who have stifled critical opinion and drooled their inanities in the face of progress. In brief, they are those who have been dog-whipped and cowed by the Church and kept in ignorance by its priests.

--"Atheim--and Jesuit Duplicity", Essays of an Atheist, p. 91
Jesus, to be sure, did not teach astrology, but its practice in Christian times and places fits well with the intellectual dearth which Christianity creates. ... Astrology flourishes in Christian countries today, not because it is embodied in Christian doctrine, but because it appeals to the same gullibility and uncritical type of mind that makes Christianity possible. The same individual who believes in divination by dreams, or in any of the other miracles of the Bible can very well believe in diviniation by the stars; it is merely a matter of transferring his credulous proclivities to another delusion. Susceptibility to one form of superstition leaves one susceptible to others.

--"Christianity and Astrology," Essays of an Atheist, pp. 104-05
Saving a man from superstition by sending him to the Bible, is like throwing an anvil to a drowning man. The book itself is the world's most sanctified fraud, and is more responsible for wishy-washy thinking today than any other influence. It has crippled the brains of men and contributed more to the befuddlement of our race than a million "horror-scopes".

--"Christianity and Astrology," Essays of an Atheist, p. 111
"What distinguishes Humanists from atheists," says Mr. Floyd, "is their faith in man's ability to do what God has failed to accomplish--make the world a happier abode." I fail to see wherein the Humanist can claim a greater interest in humanity than the atheist. Atheists are doing a specific job in exposing superstition. They are to be found, also, fighting an idea which Humanists still cling to, namely, that "religion" is respectable. They are fighting--openly and above deck--the vulgar notion that a God exists and are united in teaching that religion is a despicable and corroding influence.

--"Humanism--a New Religion", Essays of an Atheist, p. 221

It certainly seems as if Mr. Teller had a fairly strident tone going there, which would supposedly mark him as a "new" atheist, though Mr. Teller generally referred to himself as a "militant atheist" or "militant freethinker." This may be because he was publishing before "new" atheism existed: Essays of an Atheist was published in 1945. At that point, many of the leaders of so-called "new" atheism were toddlers or a twinkle in their parents' eyes: Richard Dawkins was only 4 years old, PZ had 12 years to be born, and Sam Harris wouldn't crawl the earth for another 22 years. It's amazing how little has changed. Some of what Mr. Teller wrote about could have been a blog post at Pharyngula, almost:
  • He viciously attacked "woo" in science, which then was called "new physics" and didn't rely so much on the word "quantum":
    The Heisenberg experiments are frequently cited as damaging to materialism, since they are supposed to show there is no stability underlying the physical universe. We cannot depend on what the electrons will do next. This is ludicrous enough. If Heisenberg has knocked "predictability" out of the realm of microcosmic phenomena, he hasn't bothered our laboratory technicians. Real physicists today smile at our sub-atomic mystics and religious ghost chasers. In spite of highly complicated movements within the atom itself, steel girders still stick together, the Empire State Building is where it was before, and you can lease an office in the structure without fearing that it will disappear when your back is turned. "Predictability" in physics and chemistry is a safe procedure for those who do not follow the rainbow chasers of "modern physics". Matter is still with us, regardless of the grasshopper antics and hopping around of tiny electrons. And it stays put. I myself own a chip of an Egyptian obelisk which is thirty-five centuries old. In spite of its "unpredictable" sub-atomic movements, I predict it will remain a piece of granite for ages to come.

    --"Mysticism in Modern Physics", Essays of an Atheist, pp. 32-33

  • He mocked fundies who sought to defend the inerrancy of the Bible:
    On the subject of natural history, Mr. Rimmer could not hold his own with a water-carrier in the zoo. He has stated that the camel "does not divide the hoof"--an error hu must continue to defend as long as he believes the Bible. Yet he is quite safe in making this statement, since it is not likely that any of his Fundamentalist readers will take the trouble to look at a camel. Why should they, when they have a Christian's word for it?

    --"Froth and Fraud in Fundamentalism", Essays of an Atheist, p. 56

  • Even back then, one had to defend against the claims that atheism is "intolerant":
    IN keeping with its unctuous character, the Catholic journal "America" features, in its end-of-the-year number, a blatherskite article denouncing atheism in the United States for its alleged intolerance. The author entitles his screed "The Cult of the Atheists Follows the Nazi Pattern" and accuses freethinkers of being interested "in neither freedom nor thought, but only in the destruction of religious worship. Intolerance, not liberty, is their goal."

    --"Atheism--and Jesuit Duplicit", Essays of an Atheist, p. 90

  • He had some words to say on people who accomodated religion and said that it was compatible with science:
    The mistake here is in thinking of Christianity as anything but obscurantism at its worst. If science is opposed to "obscurantism" (as Dr. Gregory holds it is), then science is in deadly conflict with Christianity. Nothing can nullify the fact that without the miracles of Jesus, the claim that he was the Son of God, that he died for men's sins, that he raised persons from the dead, and that only he can salvage us from damnation, the Church is meaningless. Science is in conflict with these ideas as clearly as it is with the claim that Father Divine is God or that the Pope is "infallible".

    --"Whitewashing the Infamous", Essays of an Atheist, p. 114

  • I was floored when I came to this section:
    The book, ["Religion in Science and Civilization" by Dr. Richard Gregory] for the most part, in dealing with religion, takes a conciliatory attitude. It is written more in the "appeasement" tempo of a Chamberlain than in the vigorous manner of a Churchill telling the enemy where to get off.

    --"Whitewashing the Infamous", Essays of an Atheist, p. 113. See this post, for example, to see these terms popping up on Scienceblogs even now

  • And consider how closely this post mirrors this passage:
    Works such as Draper's "History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion" and White's "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom", says Dr. Gregory, "are melancholy reading today, for they are largely concerned with problems and influences which no longer exist, though at the time they evoked bitter discussion."

    It will be time enough to talk about these books being out of date when the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England go out of business. If there is "melancholy reading today", it is furnished by that type of writer who is blissfully unaware of the mountainous mass of nonsense preached in Christian churches and of the singular devotion which thousands of our clergy display in their work of muddling science.

    Dr. Gregory clearly recognizes the fact that "crude and cruel conceptions of religion are still held by large Christian communities; and are believed to be justified by literal interpretations of Biblical texts." This being so, how can he contend that these are not Christian doctrines or that they are not in conflict with science? It is just here that ill-considered thought leads him to the conclusion that the battle is over, that the works of Draper and White, depicting the struggle, are antiquated and unworthy of consideration at this time. Quite the opposite is true; seldom has there been greater need to emphasize the fact that Christianity and science are irreconcilable enemies, that a Munich peace-pact is out of the question, and that war must go on until one side or the other is vanquished.


    "The tendency among enlightened leaders in the Church of England," writes Dr. Gregory, "is to ask for nothing more than belief in a Supreme Being. . . . These are advanced views, and professing Christians condemn them as almost blasphemous."

    There is the rub; it is precisely because "advanced views" are condemned by "professing Christians" that we have the conflict.

    --"Whitewashing the Infamous", Essays of an Atheist, pp. 114-116. The pattern is the same: atheists point out that religious doctrine makes no sense and is irreconcilable with science; religious apologists defend religion by citing "advanced views" that create a deity vague enough that these views make no scientific claims and hence are compatible with any sort of science; atheists point out that no-one actually believes that crap.

  • Dr. Gregory later responded:
    Dr. Gregory states that he wishes to be classed among the "freethinkers," even though he may not be, as he himself puts it, a "militant rationalist." In spite of all that can be said against religion, he still feels that something of "ethical" value may be salvaged from the wreck. This he would preserve by cultivating the "moral" teachings of our leading cults.

    Dr. Gregory is not concerned, he says, with what men "worship" so long as it develops in them an appreciation of the virtues and strengthens their moral fiber. But is not this "appreciation" often developed in religionists at the expense of the intellect and by the sacrifice of that which is essential to the stability of character--a regard for truth?


    To sum up, no one has more aptly put the matter, in one sentence, than Dr. Gregory himself:

    "Christian teachers claim that worship of a supernatural Being is essential to promote high ethical ideals, but I need scarcely say that I do not accept this view."

    If morality, then, as Dr. Gregory maintains, is quite independent of a belief in God and can be practiced without it, why need we bother to retain religion? If the virtues can be sustained without the incumbrances of superstition, why leave the religious structure standing as a perpetual eye-sore and disfigurement to civilization?

    --"Dr. Gregory and Religion", Essays of an Atheist, pp. 273, 275

I could go on and on, but I'm getting kinda tired of this. How do Digby and Glenn Greenwald write such long posts every day?

Anywho. Even the criticisms of "new" atheists are old:
DEAR MR. TELLER: I have read with interest your article in The Truth Seeker. Your purpose is good but I doubt whether you are using a wise method. It seems to me that you go as far in one direction as the Fundamentalists do in the other. To speak as though the Bible were a perfectly worthless book seems to me absurd. Even if you believe that it is a very human book, full of mistakes and expressing merely man's attempts to solve some of the world's great problems, it nevertheless contains numerous extremely beautiful and valuable sayings. Moreover, as an historical record, it is of extreme value. This is true no matter whether its ideas about God and the future life are true or false.

Your attitude drives people like myself in the opposite direction from what you intend. Sincerely yours, ELLSWORTH HUNTINGTON

"You 'new' atheists are fundamentalists in your own right!" and "Your stridency just pushes people away." It's all been done before; there's nothing new about the "new" atheists, except perhaps that they're getting more publicity than before.

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