Pharyngula

I’m home! I even got a good night’s sleep! And just to fire me up, Jeff Sparrow replies to my criticism of his article claiming that the New Atheists are a gang of neo-fascists. Bracing!

It’s especially fun since he begins the piece by disavowing one of my criticisms: “I do not think that the New Atheists are fascists, and nowhere did I say that they are.” No, he’s cleverer than that. He argued instead that the New Atheists were replacing anti-semitism with anti-Muslim racism, that they were converging with the populist right (does this mean we can invite Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh to our conferences now?), claimed that “enthusiasm for the rhetoric of the Islamophobic Right is entirely characteristic of the New Atheism,” played a little game in which he dared readers to distinguish New Atheist quotes from neo-fascist quotes, and suggests that atheism is practicing the “functional equivalent of 20th century anti-Semitism”. But oh, no, he doesn’t come right out and say New Atheists are fascists. It’s only the entire freaking point of his essay.

He does now firmly come out and say this:

I did, indeed, write that many of the main speakers in the two conferences scheduled for Melbourne in 2011 are very, very right wing. That’s because … um… they are.

Which is confusing. What two conferences is he talking about? There was one in 2010, and an upcoming one in 2012, but only a few of the speakers have been announced for the 2012 event, and his two major examples of atheist fascists, Harris and Hitchens, weren’t at the 2010 meeting. Even if we only use the partial lineup for the next event, and if we accept his claim that Harris and Hitchens are right-wingers (which I do not), it’s hard to claim that two is “many”.

And that was part of my counterargument, that he was cherry-picking two speakers and claiming their views were representative of the whole New Atheist movement. I would have expected that he’d at least try to shoot me down by finding more examples of neo-fascist New Atheists, and he tries, but he doesn’t do very well.

To the evil duo of Harris and Hitchens, he now adds Richard Dawkins, because he said “Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today”…which doesn’t sound racist or fascist. He’s targeting an ideology, not a people; if you asked him, he might even go on to say that Christianity is the second greatest force for evil. If we can’t even criticize ideological craziness without getting slapped with the accusation that we’re racist, we’re in trouble. Next thing you know, someone will pull up my denunciations of crazy American politicians Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and declare that I’m clearly anti-woman and that I hate white people.

It’s a bit of a reach to include Dawkins in there, but his next efforts are even more ridiculous. To punch up his claim that racist Islamophobia is a serious problem in the movement, he cites…Herman Cain, teabagger politician, and a poll of Victoria schoolchildren to show them rife with petty racist bigotry.

I had no idea the tentacles of New Atheism reached so far.

Taslima Nasrin, AC Grayling, and Peter Singer were also at the 2010 convention — perhaps Mr Sparrow would like to cobble up a rationale for accusing them of being closet right-wingers out to exterminate the Muslim world? That would be even more entertaining than flinging Herman Cain in our faces.

Sparrow also makes the claim that these few speakers he can find who he doesn’t like are representative of the New Atheist community, or are leaders of the organizations (we don’t even have just one, we’re that splintered). This is nonsense. The New Atheists are not personified by any one individual, or even by a group of individuals; the Four Horsemen theme was prompted by a meeting of four individuals — Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — to discuss their recent books and their attitudes towards religion. It was an entertaining meeting of a book club, basically, not a cabal of the party leadership to determine the path of world conquest. The reason these people get invited to conferences is because they have interesting ideas and are provocative speakers, not because they’re in charge. Sparrow doesn’t have a clue about who the real leaders of the atheist movement are.

He also doesn’t understand the relationship of the atheist community to these inspiring educators and rhetoricians and idea generators. We aren’t the sheep he’s looking for. Every one of these people gets up, presents their views, and then gets praised and criticized by the audiences; they don’t give orders, they express themselves, and the listeners talk and argue and agree or disagree. I’ve been to atheist meetings where Christians and Buddhists and weird New Agers have been given a time-slot to speak; so? This is not a movement that demands ideological conformity, and that likes to be challenged.

Finally, Sparrow condemns us because we haven’t thrown Hitchens from our ranks, and that we’re supposed to “speak out against the Islamophobia that’s self-evidently rife in the atheist movement,” a perfectly lovely demand that is offensive in its assumptions; shall he also tell me that I must stop beating my wife? There is racist Islamophobia scattered about within the New Atheist movement, just as there are racist atheists, anti-gay atheists, and Republican atheists, and we’d be fools to deny that a diverse movement built on a criticism of the folly of religion wouldn’t contain many individuals with a range of views orthogonal to our focus. But the outliers are not the movement. If Sparrow had actually attended any of these conferences and known any of the attendees, he’d know that the average participant is strongly left-leaning and progressive, but that there are also a significant number of Libertarians in the ranks with radical capitalism as their religion — but there is no purge in progress, which might annoy a Marxist like sparrow.

As for Hitchens, I adore the guy as a brilliant speaker and writer, as somebody I would go out of my way to listen to, and as an interesting human being who I sincerely hope can recover from his current affliction. But that does not imply that I listen to him unquestioningly, or that I and others won’t disagree with him on specifics. I was at the Freedom From Religion conference in 2007 in which he spoke and was at his most bellicose, and he was not given a free pass: the majority of the audience was vehement in its rejection of his ideas, and I flat out called them insane.

To people like Sparrow, though, the fact that we allowed him to speak, and that we even liked many of his ideas while specifically rejecting the war-mongering and Muslim-bashing, is a sign that we’re all right-wingers.