Lousy lovers pick their prey but they never cry out loud… The patronising dullness of New #Atheism

Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine an...

Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at its launch in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Atheists have always been a confused lot.  To mock an idea that he didn’t like, Hobbes imagined a class of people who popped up out of the ground — like mushrooms — fully formed with the ability to engage in economic transactions.  This group of mushroom-men were devoid of culture, family, society, and (most importantly) history.  Of course, no such creatures can exist and we have to form our political views in response to an existing social framework.

That said, a lot of the rhetoric of New Atheists suggests that we might have found our mushroom-men.  Culture is something that happens to other people.  Their intuitions are the default rational ones.  Everybody should be a straight, white male or at least not talk about deviations from this norm.

It doesn’t strike any of them as odd that they just happen to share common views about things.  Enlightenment calculus just happened to direct them all to the same conclusions.  Rejection of religion was intuitively obvious.  Indeed, it would have been easier to just go along with the religious beliefs of their society!  They had to strive to be better.  They had to transcend the superstitious ways of the past in order to become Atheists.  Indeed, atheism is nothing more than merely the lack of belief in God, so therefore all of the common slogans, mantras, and orthodox pop-atheist rhetoric makes perfect sense.

New Atheists have been criticised for this inane bullcrap for the better part of a decade.  It doesn’t make any sense.  It’s incoherent and intellectually bankrupt.  It exists only because of market forces (pandering to the egos of adolescents turns out to be profitable; a lesson we’ve learnt from video games which allow you to bash to hooker to get your money back).

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Walking in the countryside it seems that the winds have stopped… Could you vote for the @SecularParty? #auspol

Secular Party of Australia

Secular Party of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the brouhaha of the weekend in which we discovered that no reasonable person could vote for Wikileaks or the Sex Party, it seems the next contender for the ‘Alternative Option’ vote is the Secular Party.

This could go one of two ways.  Either it could be a party really engaged with the deep questions of what a post-religious society could look like, or it could be a party trying to capitalise on the Dawkins-inspired derpfest of New Atheism.  I haven’t read their policies yet, so I’m hoping for the former.  Hoping.

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The Missing Review of Jane Caro’s ‘Oz Book of #Atheism’ Entry…

Andrei Rublev's Trinity, representing the Fath...

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a similar manner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, I was reviewing the individual entries in the Australian Book of Atheism.  After I discovered that the essays were just making me grumpy due to the poor reasoning, wild assertions, and general awfulness of the tone, I gave up writing all these down.  But I still have my notes.  Oh, yes.  I still have my notes…

The latest in Australia’s pop-religious discussion is For God’s Sake — a ‘debate in book form’.  The book has four authors, one of whom wrote an entry in The Australian Book of Atheism, Jane Caro.  I’m no stranger to criticising Caro.  One of my biggest complaints is her presentation as an academic expert in the public education debate.

My criticism of her article in The Australian Book of Atheism, however, was so scathing that I refrained from uploading it to this blog.  As was fairly evident, I wasn’t the intended audience for the book in general.  Despite being an atheist and interested in the history of atheism, this was a book for the happy-clapper atheist.  The sort of atheist who happily repeats everything they’ve heard that conforms with their prejudices, biases, and intuitions.  The sort of atheist who describes religion as the source of all social evils in the world in one breath, then ignorantly attacks Islam and its adherents in the second.

But reading Caro’s contribution to For God’s Sake made me remember the horribleness of her entry in The Australian Book of Atheism.  It seems obvious that terrible things happen when intelligent people say nothing.

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Back in the back of a Cadillac… Why do New Atheists hate Islam so much? #atheism

Dawkins: Debates Make us Look Bad

Dawkins: Debates Make us Look Bad (Photo credit: Templestream)

Following my post about Dawkins’ strange take on what constitutes racism, a friend asked me why Islam was a major target of New Atheists.  The answer is strangely complicated but, fortunately, overlaps with one of my projects to map out a history of New Atheism.

Before jumping to the complicated answer, we have to show why we should reject the simple answer: Islam is a major religion; New Atheists criticise all religions; so therefore New Atheists criticise Islam.

Of the four largest world religions, Islam and Christianity are the two which are routinely attacked by New Atheists.  The next two largest religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely mentioned.  This isn’t an equal opportunity hosing down of religions.  There’s something else that is making Islam and Christianity the major targets.

Christianity is easiest to explain: historically, it is the religion which has attracted the opposition from atheists.  Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the centuries-long history of atheism without reference to Christianity.  (SPOILERS: By the end of this blog post, we’ll see that New Atheism isn’t actually engaged in this history.)

But Islam doesn’t have a similar history.  From the example of Christianity (the reasons are socio-political and historical), we should expect the reason for New Atheism’s response to Islam.

To uncover that reason, we need a solid understanding of what New Atheism is and how it works.  We can then see what features of Islam cause it to be of particular interest to New Atheists.

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When you’re high, you never want to come down… On @RichardDawkins and Race #atheism #racism

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists ...

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Working in an office one day, a conversation was taking place down the corridor.  A sharp difference of opinion was under discussion in which various people were advancing various viewpoints.  One of the participants left the conversation and walked up the corridor towards my desk.  Overhearing a bit more of the discussion behind him, he turned around and shouted clearly: ‘Yeah, but he’s such a poof!’

I was rather shocked at the outburst.  Prior to it, the conversation had been heated but on point.  This random homophobia came entirely out of left field and was entirely out of place.  How did the conversation get to this point?  How did this person think it was appropriate to make that comment?  What the hell is wrong with this person that they’d think this was an appropriate thing to say?

It would be a while before I was this thrown by out of place prejudice again (yay, privilege).  Fortunately, Richard Dawkins was on call to provide such an experience over Twitter.  This time, it was his weird and entirely unprovoked declaration that hatred towards Muslims isn’t racist.

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We don’t need no education… Why State funds private schools (re: @JaneCaro) #atheism

When I was younger, I argued with street preachers and door-knockers.  I loved to watch the way they could hold irreconcilable beliefs and yet assert them all forcefully and with a straight face.  The artifices of language held up by Escheriffic scaffolding loomed like a Tower of Babel: surely such batshittery must be an affront to the gods.  Most of the claims advanced were either unsupported or unsupportable.  Where were the rocks upon which God would build His church?

As I grew older, I realised that there were some catastrophic problems on my atheistic side of the fence.  Positivists roamed free, mingling with science fetishists and other carriers of diseased thought (A = A!!  The world is directly engaged by the seeeeeenses! A = A!!!!).  At every point of my engagement with the door-knockers and the street preachers, I could dismiss the problem as: ‘We just fundamentally disagree about the nature of the world.’  But with other atheists?  The same escape clause didn’t work.

Few places is this problem more clear than the issue of private schooling in Australia.  I’m a fan of religious education in schools for a lot of reasons: it makes religious education mainstream (thus making it harder for fringe lunatics to preach hate in the pulpit), it means people educated in religious schools have to be taught science properly, it means the State can punish religious schools who preach and forget to teach.  State funding is a firm leash on a potentially wild animal.

In a lengthy exchange with Jane Caro, we discussed the issue and kept coming back to the same mantras about private education in Australia.  Because private schools weren’t strictly secular (whatever that means), they shouldn’t receive taxpayer funds.  Private schools exclude (and, though I pointed out that some public schools do as well, it was correctly rebutted that they probably shouldn’t).  Private schools entrench class differences based on parents’ ability to pay.  Private schools are run by the Church.

As an example, Caro noted the excellent US system which Constitutionally divorces religion from the curriculum.  Speaking of the US system, has anybody seen Waiting for Superman? (Note the table in the trailer which puts Australian kids at number 9 in the world for competency with maths, with the US at 25).

I’m not suggesting that religious education makes kids better at maths.  I am suggesting that handwaving the US system as the gold standard to which we should be aspiring is a bit wonky.  The American system is fundamentally broken and the approach championed by the haters of the private education system will result in similar structural problems.

But let’s start way back at the beginning.  This is, as I’m sure everybody would agree, an argument about principles more than evidence.  If it were about evidence, one would merely point to our great education outcomes and say: the system of public and private seems to be working, so why change it?

The basic principle is that every kid in Australia deserves an education.  We can either couch it in obnoxious rights language: ‘Every kid has the right to an education’.  Or we can put it in more sophisticated virtue politics tones: ‘An ideal society would enable all children in that society to receive the best education which meets their needs.’

So how do you ensure that every kid gets an education?  You could start by building schools, filling them with teachers, and then allocating children to those schools by lottery.  Kids in less population dense areas wouldn’t need a lottery because they’d only be able to support one school.  So that’s buildings and teachers, but what about resources?  Should there be one Bunsen burner per student or should the Bunsen burners go to where they’d deliver better outcomes?  If a Bunsen burner out in regional Australia can only meet the needs of 5 students, wouldn’t it be better to put it in a city school where it can meet the needs of 15?  Given that there aren’t infinite resources, how do you divide the resources up between schools?

What about kids with multicultural needs?  Should Caro’s Extremely Secular High School provide prayer rooms for Muslim students?  Should school cafeterias include kosher and halal food?  Her exact words were: ‘I’d like to see them purely secular‘.  It’s unclear.

Do you know who should be able to choose the sort of educational environment for their children?  Parents.  If parents want their kids to do the International Baccalaureate instead of the Victorian Certificate of Education, who should stop them?  If parents think that their kids will be better served by technical education rather than scholarship, why should they be denied?

Because the options aren’t infinite, it makes sense to have a co-contribution system.  If parents want special education desires fulfilled, they can help make up the financial difference.  The question then becomes: why should parents be expected to meet all the costs of their children’s education?

We’ve already agreed that the State should facilitate the education of every child.  In some sense, we recognise that there’s a duty of the Government to support every student.  Why does that duty cease to exist the moment the child walks through the gates of a private school?

In a fair and egalitarian society, taxpayer funds follow the student to subsidise their parents’ choices.  The only way to disagree with that is to say that parents should be denied the right to choose academic outcomes for their child and that the State knows best.

Despite having this discussion a few times, nobody’s agreed to assert that final point.  Their argument, instead, is:

1.  Religion is bad.

2. Separation of Church and State (whatever that is).

C. The State shouldn’t be funding private schools because they’re religious and OMG Separation, Separation, Separation.

But that just delays the question.  Why shouldn’t parents be able to choose religious education for their children?  I’m an atheist and I really cannot see any problem with a parent deciding that religious education is the best option for their child.  I also can’t see why the State should be allowed to drop the ball when it comes to that child’s education just because the parents want a religious education.

The ideal education model isn’t difficult to envisage.  The State allocates a certain amount per student which follows them to wherever their parents decide is best.  If that place is a private school, the private school requests fees from that parents to make up the difference between the amount made up from students and the amount it actually costs to run a school.  Each public school would get a block grant based on a few specific factors (location, for example, would mean public schools with fewer students in regional areas would need larger block grants).  Simple.

So apart from the rabid animosity of New Atheists to religion, what argument is there against State funding of private schools?  None.

(By way of disclaimer: I received a scholarship to go to a private school.)

My eagle’s busy doing other things… Why New Atheism hates Islam and dissent.

This week, we have been treated to something almost entirely absent in the broader atheist discussion: dissent. When Jeff Sparrow wrote that progressive atheists were disconcertingly quiet in response to the nasty streak of neo-con Islamophobia amongst New Atheists, the comment section went wild.

Despite stating, in no uncertain terms, that “[i]n Australia, the most prominent local atheists […] are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics”, atheist readers could see nothing but an unmitigated attack on them and their beliefs. Dr David Horton wondered “how [Sparrow’s] tarring-all atheists-with-a-one-quote-from-Hitchens-broad-brush stands up to meeting actual, you know, atheists“. President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, Mr David Nicholls, thought the piece was “a marvellous display of quote mining, misrepresentation and downright misunderstanding about Atheism, all in one go“.

Reading through the responses, I became both saddened and frustrated. Atheists won’t get riled up about racism in their midsts, but they’ll go ape over criticism.

As both a conservative and an atheist, I have no doubt that Sparrow is correct. Having to confront on nearly a daily basis the xenophobia and racism of political leaders who are supposed to represent my political persuasion, it is nauseating to see the same traits among the most vocal advocates of my religious beliefs. For all the New Atheist rhetoric about how religion is for sheep, it is much easier to find Catholics speaking out against homophobia within the Church than it is to find atheists speaking out against the Islamophobia preached by prominent UK and US New Atheists.

There is no dissent within New Atheism. There is no room for it. If you don’t toe the party line, you’re either marginalised or you’re suspected of being a covert theist.  I’ve often wondered to what extent this is due to market forces: would the Atheist Convention in Melbourne have been as successful if there had been dissenting voices?  Would people pay to have their views challenged?

Sparrow’s article drew attention to the disease within New Atheism but – as correctly noted by some of the commentators – didn’t analyse why New Atheism seems to slide so easily into xenophobia and racism. In fairness to him, Sparrow wasn’t trying to analyse the resultant xenophobia of atheology; had he turned his mind to it, I have no doubt he wouldn’t have found it a taxing task.

First, there’s the lack of diversity within New Atheist culture. The profile of the most internationally outspoken atheists is not insignificant: they’re old; they’re white; and (overwhelmingly) they’re male. Dr Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, argues “that New Atheism’s dominance by elite white males from the scientific community does not serve the broader interests of non-theist people of color. In order to make atheism and secular humanism relevant to people of color, our communities’ specific needs in a racist, sexist, heterosexist global context must be assessed.” It is hardly surprising that in a monoculture, intolerance festers.

Second, there is the stillborn debate between secularists and pluralists within modern atheist dialogues. Earlier this month on New Matilda, Adam Brereton argued in favour of secularism. After arguing that religion has no place in our schools or public debate, Brereton asserts that “secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church.” Although he doesn’t use the phrase, it seems that Brereton is an advocate of freedom from religion.

Contrariwise, atheists could argue in favour of freedom of religion: where public discussion is flavoured by all kinds of religious (and non-religious) viewpoints. Religious education in schools, for example, would be less about forcing children to accept particular religious beliefs and more about teaching them how to elucidate and discuss their religious beliefs. This viewpoint is called ‘pluralism’.

Secularism is currently the unofficial orthodox position of the New Atheist congregation, and it’s not clear why. Why should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) to pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in the public debate)?

Third, there are the unexamined cultural assumptions of New Atheism. New Atheism is less <i>secular</i> than it is <i>disbelieving Christianity</i>.  Although they’ve crossed out the word ‘God’ and question the historical accuracy of Jesus, they’ve imported all the existing cultural values and dubbed it ‘universal’.  Nowhere is this seen most than in how the secularist panacea of “Keep religion where it belongs” is applied in different ways to different groups.  To Christians, this means ‘in Church’.  To Muslims, this invariably means ‘Back in your home country (unless you were born here)’.

Finally, there’s the “Otherness” factor. Atheists are finally in the position where they understand (fundamentalist) Christianity.  The internet has cracked the nut wide open.  Where the atheists of the glorious past were engaging in the problems of mainstream, orthodox Christianity, New Atheism is chiefly concerned with the nutbag, backwater Christianity which ‘predicts’ the apocalypse and thinks that Noah rode around on a triceratops. New Atheists are, by and large, stone ignorant about Islam, considering it to be a pseudo-Mediaeval attack on their ‘universal’ values.  Until we have equal representation of atheists from Islamic backgrounds, this won’t change.