Continuing with the process of getting caught up on things I should have blogged about a while ago, let’s take a look at this bizarre article from Bryan Appleyard, published in The Guardian. It is a contribution to a familiar genre, in which the New Atheists are criticized for being so mean and nasty:
Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.
We could stop here, of course, confident that we will miss out on nothing for having skipped the rest of the article. Nothing that starts like that could possibly have any point worth taking seriously. For example, I assume I don’t have to respond to the suggestion that a group of people composed primarily of scientists and philosophers is going to be uncomfortable with mathematics. And it’s strictly amateur hour to contrast the genial dinner conversation between you and your friends with the cultish behavior of your critics.
That notwithstanding, let’s sample some of this horrible, cult-like abuse Appleyard and co. have suffered:
De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.
This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.
“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.” Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.
There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”
De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality. “To say something along the lines of ‘I’m an atheist; I think religions are not all bad’ has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?”
Are you crying yet? Anyone saying anything interesting on these sorts of topics can look forward to receiving nasty e-mails. I get them all the time, but I don’t go rushing into print to whine about it. It is disappointing that atheists have their crazies no less than the religious fundamentalists, but it is the lowest level of cultural criticism to pretend that a few angry e-mailers represent the center of gravity of any popular movement.
That is a sideshow. The real action is that quote he presents from P. Z. Myers. You see, to someone as delicate as Appleyard, being criticized on a blog is tantamount to being on the wrong end of a fatwa. It is tyrannical. It relegates the critics to the status of a cult. And while de Botton might be mystified that some of us think the idea of an atheist temple is deeply silly, the sequence of events here is not really all that complicated. De Botton, in the course of promoting a book, presented certain ideas. Certain bloggers were unimpressed by those ideas and criticized them, sometimes using strong language. De Botton and some of his friends then got together at a Greek restaurant in London, whined about how put upon they were, and decided the less than enthusiastic reception of their ideas was indicative of a great sickness in society.
What a bunch of pussies.
Appleyard’s article is fairly long. It is also so deluded that it is difficult even to find an entry point for correction. It hails from a familiar genre, in which grandiose, and mostly false, assertions are made regarding the beliefs of the New Atheists. For example:
Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist – indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” – and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.
I’m sure we’re all grateful for the deifnitional lecture, but there’s a reason Appleyard does not quote anyone prominent equating secularism and atheism. For what I assume are obvious reasons, atheists sometimes feel the importance of protecting secularism more urgently than do members of religious communities. But I am not aware of anyone prominent who equates the two. For example, since Appleyard singles out P. Z. Myers for special disapprobation, let me call your attention to this article, in which Myers wrote this:
If there were but one message I wanted to communicate, though, it would be that secularism is a progressive value; it is something we should be promoting as a core part of our identity, and an absolutely essential property of good government. Secularism does not in any way imply atheism or agnosticism, nor is unbelief a prerequisite for favoring a government that is completely independent of sectarian religion.
See what I mean about Appleyard making stuff up?
It only gets worse as it goes along:
It was in the midst of this that Fodor and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published What Darwin Got Wrong, a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought which concluded that the theory of natural selection could not be stated coherently. All hell broke loose. Such was the abuse that Fodor vowed never to read a blog again. Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading the book but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.
Fodor now chuckles at the memory. “I said we should write back saying we had no intention of reading his review but we thought it was all wrong anyway.”
What a bizarre paragraph! The condemnation of What Darwin Got Wrong among knowledgeable reviewers was so comprehensive that it amounts to simple lying to pretend the criticism was limited to a small cadre of militant atheists. Indeed, I cannot recall another science book (excluding obvious counterexamples, like books written by creationists) that was so thoroughly panned in every major science venue. Far from being seen as a sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought, just about every biologist and philosopher who reviewed it saw it as badly misinformed and ultimately without any substance. Perhaps all those critics were wrong, but for our present purposes what matters is that very few of them were among the New Atheists.
As for Myers trashing a book he never read, it should come as no surprise that Appleyard failed to provide a link. He probably means this post, but that can’t be right, because aside from a brief mention at the start Myers does not discuss the book at all. He was actually discussing an article written by Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini that appeared in New Scientist, an article in which they presented the book’s major argument. In Appleyard’s world it is tyranny to say, “For the reasons I just discussed at great length, I found this magazine article to be so bad that I am not going to read the book on which it was based.” Here on Planet Earth that is called making sensible use of your time.
Appleyard and his cohort remind me of so many creationists I have met. When preaching to their choir they affect an air of toughness, and of standing firm in the service of truth and light and goodness. But upon receiving even the slightest criticism they curl into a fetal position and blubber about how abused they are. A few snide blog posts are enough to get them talking about fatwas and tyranny and a mob mentality. The New Atheists are lucky to have such incompetent critics.