I’m really starting to lose patience with professed secularists who seem only to be interested in trashing celebrity atheists. I have a hard time reading something like Ian Murphy’s latest Salon re-hash without thinking that the true objective is a pretense of looking reasonable when standing next to a straw man.
Murphy is an apparent fan of the list article – The 10 Most Outrageous Prank Calls By a Low Rent Humorist! –because nothing says ‘thoughtful writing’ like mimicking a tired Buzz Feed format. Of his twelve submissions to Alternet, seven of them are list articles fashioned like this: “The [Arbitrary Number] Most [Pejorative Adjective] People in America.” Tedious. If it looks like this stuff writes itself, that’s just because half the work is done before he even opened his laptop.
“The Five Most Awful Atheists” (appearing in Salon as “Five Atheists Who Ruin it For Everyone Else”) runs with the subheading “Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff, thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists.” It’s a bold, stupid claim, but let’s give him a chance to live up to his buzzy branding.
“The thing about the so-called ‘rationalist’ movement in America is that disbelief in gods seems to be the only qualification to join the club … Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.”
Can we please just get one thing straight at the start? The only prerequisite for atheism is to disavow any belief in an intervening, supernatural deity. By definition. You don’t need to know Greek to grasp this. I am an atheist by this standard. So is Joseph Stalin. I happen to be an anti-Stalinist, but that is irrelevant to my atheism. It’s a rather meager thing to have in common, and that’s fine by me. Atheism provides no instruction about how to feel about the subjugation of women or the war in Iraq. Atheism is not prescriptive because it’s a term that describes a very simple, very concise assertion. No god is influencing human affairs, and as far as we can tell, has never interacted with the natural world in any discernable way.
You can be a racist atheist, a Randian atheist, an atheist hawk, an atheist isolationist, any sort of atheist you want. That’s because atheism has absolutely nothing to say about race relations, biology, economics, or military intervention. You have to get your moral thinking from somewhere else. The only kind of atheist you cannot be is a religious atheist.
It’s really important that we draw their ranks from a diverse lot. If there’s an assertion that lives up to the standards of a hardcore libertarian and an authoritarian Marxist, that makes it more likely to be a non-ideological assertion. It makes it more likely to be an assertion of truth. Murphy opens his article by citing the growing demographic of non-joiners in this country. If one and five Americans agree on anything it means that you’re talking about a small agreement among a diverse group of sixty million people. So be it. That’s what building consensus looks like.
It doesn’t bother me that I might only have one thing in common with other atheists. That strikes me as a strength of our movement, not a weakness.
And if an atheist turns out to be an incorrigible idiot, that poses absolutely no challenge to the validity of atheism. Negating a claim on the sole basis of the person saying it at the time is an ad hominem. And guilt by association, by the way, is a Stalinist tactic. Murphy should have packed up here, but instead insists that the credibility of atheism is eroding. Why? Because of “many notable atheists” – a phrase that wouldn’t be publishable on Wikipedia, so it’s a wonder how a respectable magazine like Salon ran with it. I can’t say that this list article was provocative or enlightening because I actually agree with almost all of Ian Murphy’s criticisms of Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, Ayan Hirsi Ali, and S.E. Cupp.
For example, I sure hope Christopher Hitchens found time to embarrass his friend Sam in person on his creepy defense of torture. Harris’ incomprehensible case for profiling at airports relies some sort of terrorist “profile” – a non-racial profile, he insists unconvincingly – that does not exist.
Bill Maher is as skeptical of religion as he is of science-based medicine. He’s too enamored with the pop-pseudo-science peddler Ariana Huffington. (Though a word to the wise, Mr. Murphy, if you’re going to criticize someone for being unfunny, make sure you don’t do it in a boring, joyless way.)
Jillette’s libertarianism is too much for me to stomach. Ayan Hirsi Ali has said some really ugly things about Christianity’s superiority to Islam. And S.E. Cupp strikes me as the poster child of the self-hating secularist.
But these failings do not for a second reflect poorly on atheism. Because to reject Harris, Maher, Jillette, and Ali, you also reject the brilliant and incisive raids on religious territory they’ve achieved. (I don’t include Ms. Cupp here because I don’t know of any worthy contributions she’s made to the argument.) I can’t abide the “crap rising to the top” jab. These men and women are “notable” for worthwhile reasons: Harris as a philosopher and writer, Maher and Jillette as comedians and entertainers, and Ali as someone who has survived what believers are capable of when they think no one is looking. If atheism is going to be a movement, let it be a diverse one. We’ll hash out the other stuff at a different rally.
And Mr. Murphy, if you’re so worried about atheists doing harm to the reputation of the movement, you can start by apologizing for this incredibly flippant, fatuous, screed.