I noticed, via a pingback on Ed Clint’s blog, that Radish has written a long post on the subject of the new atheism, which Karl Boetel (the writer of Radish) interesting contrasts with the old atheism. More on that in a bit.
I’ve tussled with Radish before now, largely on the matter of race, and Boetel’s weird insistence that slavery wasn’t as bad as all that. Boetel’s response to my comments was unimpressive.
Perrier water under the bridge, I’m sure. The current post is pretty good – it’s certainly a stronger criticism of the New Atheism than you’re likely to find in most Salon, The Guardian etc., though I may be setting the bar a little low there. Boetel’s argument goes a little like this.
1. He starts by noticing, rightly, the amount of hatred and vitriol that a significant chunk of the modern atheist types direct at others, in particular Sam Harris. Harris picks up a lot of heat for having the temerity to criticise Islam, while Atheism plussers and similar only ever care to attack Christianity, in particular American Christianity.
2. Radish argues that this isn’t surprising when you see atheism not just as the belief that god doesn’t exist, but as a historical phenomenon. In this light it is inextricably linked to violently intolerant leftwing movements, from the French Revolutionary Terror to the Communist purges.
3. This is inevitable, as only Christian faith can provide a basis for morality – the ‘moral impulses’ that Sam Harris talks about are just irrational impulses, and cannot be rationally justified.
4. The Atheism Plussers and the rest are simply the advance guard of a new kind of atheist totalitarianism.
5. The only recourse to avoid moral collapse is to take refuge in Christian religion.
Again, I recommend reading the post quite thoroughly. It certainly asks a number of good questions that do need to be faced. However, I think that, just from the foregoing summary, that we can find a number of flaws in this argument.
First of all, is it really true that traditional Christianity is so much less violent than the French Revolution, or even modern totalitarianism? Well, first things first, I find myself a little leery at reading humanitarian concern from someone who argues that neither slavery nor lynching were that bad.
To the question at hand then, it depends on how you count. In terms of raw numbers, the modern totalitarianisms were probably worse. On the other hand, you can’t kill people who aren’t there. So if you adjust for kills per capita, then things look a little different. The Albigensian crusade killed almost ten percent of the population of France as it then was. The Thirty Years war devastated central Europe, killing a third of its population in a war between different types of Christianity. The Tsarist empire, underwritten by the Russian orthodox church, has a record of horror, not least of which was the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and you know what that lead to.
Which brings me to my next point. The record of Christianity in the modern totalitarianisms is not the nicest one. The Catholic Church famously supported Hitler, and as I have been growing tired of having to point out, the term for extreme Christian right in Europe is fascism. The Falange, the Ustaca, the Legion of the Archangel Michael are all examples of this. Meanwhile in Russia, for all that the Communists indeed persecuted religion, it is true that the Orthodox church snuggled up to Stalin.
Now here’s where things get a little weird. Radish is well up on the many pathologies of the Atheism plus crowd, but he contradicts himself when he tries to paint this lot as the next Jacobins or the next Bolsheviks, and that we can tell this by the absurd deference they show to Islam.
Genuinely militant atheists, like Robespierre, St Just, Trotsky or Lenin would not adopt this cringing posture. It’s inconceivable. What we have here isn’t militant atheism, but gucci atheism. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s dhimmi atheism. A-plussers and their carbon clones in the media (Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald) are happy to be as atheist as Islam allows them to be. They’ll oppose the oppression of women if Islam allows it, else they will happily look the other way to segregated prayer in schools. They’ll argue that religion needs mockery and ridicule, if Islam allows it, else they will start worrying that cartoons are offensive. And they’ll defend gay rights, if Islam allows it, else you can bet your last penny that you’ll see Greenwald franticly searching for a beard.
This isn’t militancy. This is the very definition of what it means not to be militant, or radical either, for that matter. The reason for the extreme hysteria on this point is that accepting the reality of Islam threatens the rather comfortable status quo that this crowd enjoys. Notice, please, that this phenomenon relates almost purely to well off, Western people. Radish doesn’t mention Ibn Warraq, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or the heroic atheist movement in Iran.
To return to the question of violence and totalitarianism in the twentieth century – it is certainly true that after the death of God, that is, the decline and collapse of Christianity as a serious power, many worse movements rose to fill that space.
The trouble is that this point has been made before, and indeed, in advance. In Also Sprach Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned of exactly this: that into the space that the old god inhabited, a new god had reared his throne, the god called State.
It is a sad truth that many people become emancipated from one form of nonsense only to embrace another. Many escaped the ancient yoke of religion only to embrace the yoke of statist tyranny. Radish is doing that trick in reverse.
Fortunately, this is a false dilemma. As Ayn Rand pointed out, the choice isn’t between enslavement by the priests, versus enslavement by the state. The question is enslavement versus freedom. The question isn’t ‘Does your life belong to God or to The People?’. The question is ‘does your life belong to you or to someone else?’ Most crucially, the question is not ‘Do you decide things based on divine revelation, or from some imperative you ‘just know’?’ The question is ‘Do you base your views on things you can prove or on things that you ‘just know’?
That last one’s the very important one. Radish has a lot of sport with Sam Harris observing that no nation ever got into trouble by being too rational. Why, just look at revolutionary France and the Communists!
Except that both of those movements were deeply infected with rationality, right from the start. Take the French Revolution. It is no secret that Rousseau strongly influenced Robespierre, and Rousseau was a profound irrationalist – indeed, it is his rejection of science and reason that caused him to be ostracised by the other philosophes of the Enlightenment (Voltaire in particular).
But Rousseau was a piker to the man who would come later – Immanuel Kant. Kant’s whole philosophy is based on the idea that we cannot perceive reality, because we have means of perceiving reality. That is, that simply because we rely on our eyes to look, we cannot know what something really looks like, and we can’t know what something really sounds like because we have ears. Seriously, that’s his argument. He therefore distinguishes between a noumenal world of ‘things as they are’ and a phenomenal world of ‘things perceived’. As people are shackled by their senses, to understand how things really are, they have to rely on… well, something. ‘Categorical imperative’. It is another version of the same thing.
Boetel completely ignores Ayn Rand in his arguments, because then he’d have to face the fact that this line has already been addressed and answered:
As products of the split between man’s soul and body, there are two kinds of teachers of the Morality of Death: the mystics of spirit and the mystics of muscle, whom you call the spiritualists and the materialists, those who believe in consciousness without existence and those who believe in existence without consciousness. Both demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. No matter how loudly they posture in the roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter—the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit—the destruction of his mind.
The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive—a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence. The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society—a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no physical form, a super-being embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself. Man’s mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God. Man’s mind, say the mystics of muscle, must be subordinated to the will of Society. Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith. Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of muscle, is the pleasure of Society, whose standards are beyond man’s right of judgment and must be obeyed as a primary absolute. The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question. His reward, say the mystics of spirit, will be given to him beyond the grave. His reward, say the mystics of muscle, will be given on earth—to his great-grandchildren.
Selfishness—say both—is man’s evil. Man’s good—say both—is to give up his personal desires, to deny himself, renounce himself, surrender; man’s good is to negate the life he lives. Sacrifice—cry both—is the essence of morality, the highest virtue within man’s reach.
The mystics of spirit declare that they possess an extra sense you lack: this special sixth sense consists of contradicting the whole of the knowledge of your five. The mystics of muscle do not bother to assert any claim to extrasensory perception: they merely declare that your senses are not valid, and that their wisdom consists of perceiving your blindness by some manner of unspecified means. Both kinds demand that you invalidate your own consciousness and surrender yourself into their power. They offer you, as proof of their superior knowledge, the fact that they assert the opposite of everything you know, and as proof of their superior ability to deal with existence, the fact that they lead you to misery, self-sacrifice, starvation, destruction.
The French Revolution failed because it had already taken into it the poison of Rousseau’s unreason. The Communists were even more lost to mysticism, and the Nazis more still. Throughout the Western left, the strain of unreason has grown and grown, and now it is the dominant mode. That is why you see so much indulgence of anti-reason, anti-life creeds like Environmentalism, Islam, etc.
That isn’t to say that Boetel does make some good points. The ‘ethical intuitions’ that Sam Harris discusses are, I’m sorry to say, something close to Kant’s categorical imperative, or divine inspiration. More generously, what he has a kind of deist morality. He can discuss how to analyse moral action once you’ve gotten that standard, but he doesn’t describe how you get that standard in the first place. Also troubling is the late great Hitchens’ indulgence of men like Trotsky and Che Guevara, sweeping aside the fact that these were stone cold killers. It is a pity that such great minds make these mistake, it’s true.
But then, if working out a rational morality was easy, it’d have happened earlier. Rational morality required not merely a great mind, it required a genius. Fortunately, she was available. And her students have already dealt with this stuff before now – here’s an excellent article on the limitations of Harris’ approach to ethics.
And now… payback! Turnabout is fair play!
The question that Radish and the other racialists can’t answer
I promise I have never heard a single answer to this question. Radish points out, rightly, that Islam is the principle menace of our times. Present-day Islam does not just commit more atrocities than any other religion, it commits more than all the others put together. Radish apparently wants Islamic colonialism resisted, as do I. It’d be a cheap shot to ask why Radish wants this – Islamic domination will just give him what he wants: subservient women, imperialism, terrorism, an absence of democracy – but I think that he’s upset that Islam is a ‘brown’ religion, which is a very leftist way of looking at things.
(What is that stuff about a brown future about anyway? You mean a superpower with shining economic prospects, world class science and engineers, who have just sent a mission to Mars? Sounds alright to me…)
But the real question no racialist can answer, and I have asked this repeatedly: the main reason that people will not talk sense about immigration is a fear of racism. So people like Mr Boetel are just keeping the castle gates wedged open by peddling this stuff. Furthermore how, exactly, is the West to endure without drawing on the help of her sister civilizations? I have found that those speaking the most sense about Islam, the ones who really get it, are invariably from an non-Muslim immigrant background, because they do not have the fear of being called racist for telling the truth.
Where, exactly, does Mr Boetel think the resistance to Islam would be without such people as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq?
I have not heard a single racialist discuss this