I Don’t Believe in Atheists
March 13, 2008 — 7:41

Author: David Slakter  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Books of Interest  Comments: 18

There is an interview with Chris Hedges at Salon regarding his new book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, an attack on the political designs of the “New Atheists” such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. Just in case anyone feels that we’ve been remiss on our Dawkins-harping lately.
I look forward to picking up a copy of Hedges’s book, although the impression I get from the interview is that it’s more polemical than theoretical. Historically however, the case for toleration has always had an integral polemical component as well.


I had considered writing on this issue from a philosophical perspective for my Ph.D. thesis, although I’m currently focused on some of the arguments for toleration put forward in Modern Europe and Classical India. I’m not as confident as Hedges is that the New Atheists are numerous or influential enough qua atheists to effect policy, but I do agree that their views entail serious oppression of religious dissidents.
The major problems with the New Atheists that he identifies is their utopian belief in progress, which is a priori defined to the exclusion of religion. This faith – and it is certainly right to call it that – allows them to exempt themselves from any negative repurcussions of their actions, chalking up any suffering the implementation of their preferred policies would bring as the inevitable march of progress. As Hedges puts it, “I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. ”
Hopefully, work that shines a light on the politics of the New Atheists will lead to an appreciation of the value of toleration in diverse societies, and make it more apparent than it is that it’s not a one-way relationship between religions and state or society.

Comments:
  • I’m not as confident as Hedges is that the New Atheists are numerous or influential enough qua atheists to effect policy, but I do agree that their views entail serious oppression of religious dissidents.
    What oppression of religious believers has been proposed by e.g., Dawkins or Dennett? If you want to argue that Dawkins is disrespectful of religious belief, fine, but that’s not equivalent to advocating oppression of religious believers.

    March 13, 2008 — 11:40
  • David Slakter

    I said that their views entail certain forms of oppression, not that they have endorsed any. The disease metaphor for religious belief has parallels with arguments from prior eras concerning why heretics should be eliminated before they can infect others. They may not mean the same thing by it, but that’s the pedigree of the metaphor. Labelling something a disease implies a desire or obligation to eliminate it, and it’s not clear what Dawkins or Dennett thinks limits any such obligations or desires.
    Dawkins has suggested that children have a right not to be exposed to a religious education. It’s fair to ask where this right comes from, and what responsibilities we have to protect it. The potential that children might be seperated from their parents for having the wrong religious beliefs is pretty oppressive.

    March 13, 2008 — 15:35
  • John Alexander

    I am wondering if this is not a ‘two-edged sword.’ I would agree that there may be a political agenda entailed by the ‘new’ atheisim (whatever that is), but is also seems that there would be a politcal agenda inherent in theism (or at least certain forms of theism). If one thinks that x is true (where x is some metaphysical belief), then it follows that they believe that -x is not true. If we should base our actions (lives) on what we think is true, then it would seem to follow that we would be (at least theoretically) opposed to seeing lives lived based on -x. We may very well think that someone living a life based on -x is misguided, but being misguided seems to be a permissible state of being even within Christian metaphysics.
    As is well known by memebrs of this blog, I am not a believer in God. I do think that if one wants to understand how the universe works then science offers the best explanation. But I do not think that this gives me the right to deny someone who does beleive in God to live their lives accordingly (and I trust the reverse would also be true). It seems to me that if we have the normative right to act according to our beliefs as long as those actions do not limit anyone else from living according to theirs, then the question of what is metaphysically true, from a politcal perspective, is best left with the individual, not science, or the church, or the state. All reasonable people should fight any law (suggested or actual) that restricts the right of a person to think as they see fit and to act accordingly within the constraint of how the action affects others ability to live their chosen lives.
    Although this is really off the problem of this post, I hope that someone will make a post soon explaining how there can be new sins. Obviously, I am not a Catholic (although my wife is), but I am confused.

    March 13, 2008 — 17:16
  • A few things.
    You wrote:
    The major problems with the New Atheists that he identifies is their utopian belief in progress, which is a priori defined to the exclusion of religion.
    I think this is an odd use of ‘a priori’. From what I’ve read of the New Atheists, they thinkexperience has shown religion to be an impediment to progress.
    As for oppression, I just don’t see that their views entail any sort of oppression at all. Suppose I thought that the following is a good inductive inference: if you believe in ghosts because of first-hand experience, you suffer from some sort of mental illness. Upon meeting someone who claims to believe in ghosts because of some experience, I’d think of them as diseased and I’d wish they weren’t that way. I wouldn’t desire to eliminate that disease, however. Not unless I thought that their mental illness posed a threat to others. Insofar as I thought that you suffered from mental illness, I’d think this is unfortunate. Few think there’s any sort of inference from some state of affairs being unfortunate to there being good reason, much less overriding reason, to do what is necessary to change it.
    As for the right children have not to be exposed to a religious education, I think this is an interesting issue. I guess if my parents had been Scientologists and they raised me to be a Scientologist as well, after undergoing the deprogramming I’d think my parents have violated my rights. However, even then I’d agree that there’s a difference between saying that there are rights of this kind that might exist naturally, as it were, and saying that these rights ought to be enforced regardless of the consequences for traditional family arrangements.
    Even if you say lots of the things that New Atheists say or are similar to what they say, you’re still a far way off from endorsing an obviously oppressive society.

    March 13, 2008 — 20:54
  • Raymond W. Aldred

    I too wonder about the claim that religious education is some form of “child abuse”, most noteably by Dawkins. If it is, what does Dawkins propose we do about the alleged abuse? Should we tear children from parents that choose to educate these children about there own beliefs? Should we simply make it a illegal to educate children in religion? I am reminded of the First Nations people here in Canada that had similar charges laid against them. It was thought that First Nations people were not allowing children to reach their full potential by teaching kids a First Nations world view. What resulted, of course, was the government forcefully removing children from their families, they were forced not to speak their own languages, the children’s hair was cut, and last the children were basically forced to forget everything about their former way of life; all of this so that they could be properly assimilated into a more rational society. Of course the consequences of this was extremely disappointing, children were abused, languages were lost, entire ways of life were forgotten, alcoholism became a way to cope with a massive identity crises. Certainly religious ilk were not entirely separate from these events, but neither was the rationalist and enlightenment ideologies. One may argue that this wasn’t real enlightenment, and real rationality but something that hid behind the veil of rationality and enlightenment; but the same argument can be made by Christians. That is to say, oppressive atrocities, like these or other violent events weren’t really Christian or weren’t really religious, but something that hid behind the veil of Christianity and religion. In short, I think we should be sceptical of these sorts of proposal coming from our more “enlightened” friends and think them through not because it is oppressing religious believers, but because it can oppress religious believers.

    March 13, 2008 — 23:24
  • David Slakter

    Hi Clayton,
    I think this is an odd use of ‘a priori’. From what I’ve read of the New Atheists, they thinkexperience has shown religion to be an impediment to progress.
    My understanding is that, progress, as they would define it, necessarily involves a dimishment in religiosity. Maybe ‘a priori’ isn’t the right term for this, but it appears to be correct.
    Regarding the ghost argument, you say that people’s belief in ghosts wouldn’t require any oppression unless such a belief posed a threat to others. But that religion does pose a threat was precisely Dawkins’s point in The Root of All Evil?, so what you’re saying would suggest that, at least in Dawkins’s case, religious people ought to be oppressed.
    As to the Scientology example, if you were to claim that your parents had violated your rights by raising you to be a Scientologist, how would that argument go? Furthermore, what is the purpose of recognizing a right if it does not entail some kind of obligation to either aid or refrain from hindering on the part of others?
    Even if you say lots of the things that New Atheists say or are similar to what they say, you’re still a far way off from endorsing an obviously oppressive society.
    The point is not that they endorse oppression (although sometimes some may), but that forms of oppression may either be entailed by or easily derived from their views. Pushing the ‘New Atheists’ and those sympathetic to their views on this point is a means of getting them to think seriously about the political implications of some of their views.

    March 14, 2008 — 9:19
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey David,
    Thanks for your reply.
    … concerning the apriori, you wrote “My understanding is that, progress, as they would define it, necessarily involves a dimishment in religiosity. Maybe ‘a priori’ isn’t the right term for this, but it appears to be correct.”
    I’ve not seen that in what I’ve read. I haven’t read all the NA stuff, but I know I’ve seen Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins use empirical evidence to support their claim that religion is an impediment to progress. If you have some textual evidence that they have an apriori argument to the same effect, I’ll take a look.
    … concerning Dawkins and the dangers of religion…
    I don’t think that Dawkins’ point in The Root of all Evil? was anything quite so strong as the view that religion in all its forms is dangerous. I don’t think he defends anything quite that strong in his God Delusion either, but if you have something specific to point to that warrants attributing to him this view, I’ll take a look.
    … concerning Scientologists…
    I think it’s interesting to note that you _don’t_ seem to think that children have the right not to be raised into cults. I would have thought that everyone took that pretty much for granted. I would have thought that we’d want to look for a more nuanced view on which it does violate a child’s rights to be raised into a cult but not to be raised, say, Catholic. I guess I’d say that children have a kind of right that those who created them will do what is within their power to help them become healthy autonomous agents and raising them into a cult is a threat to their autonomy.
    You ask ‘What is the point of recognizing this right if it does not entail some kind of obligation to either aid or refrain from hindering on the part of others?’
    You seem to be making a significant mistake here. Suppose we say that ‘A has a right to X’ entails ‘There is some kind of obligation to aid A in keeping X/hinder B from depriving A of X’. That obligation might be a defeasible obligation in which case the right and the obligation might exist, but the obligation to preserve A’s rights are overridden by stronger obligations that prevent us from interfering with certain arrangements because of the social costs. And that’s why there is no easy inference from what the NA’s say about religion (it’s dangerous, it’s a mental illness, it’s a blight, etc…) to the further claim that their views amount to a defense of oppression. The NA’s can believe in tolerance just like the rest of us can. They can see (or seem to see) something as flawed, lacking virtue, etc…, but not something it is any of their business to fix by whatever means necessary.

    March 18, 2008 — 20:59
  • If for x to have a right to E is just foor someone to have an obligation to ensure that x has E, then children do have a right not be raised in a cult, since parents have an obligation to ensure their children are not raised in a cult. Indeed, in this sense, children have a right to be raised in a true religion (the only such is Catholicism, I believe), since parents have an obligation to subscribe to a true religion and to raise their children in one.
    But of course it is one thing for x to have a right to E and another for the state to have the right or obligation to ensure x has E. If you’ve promised to meet me for lunch, I have a right to have you show up (barring defeaters). But the state should not compel you to show up–indeed, such compulsion would be incompatible with some of the goods that are served by having pleasant lunch-time meetings. Likewise, even though though all children have the right to be raised in the true religion, compulsion by the state on this point would be incompatible with some of the goods that are served by subscribing to the true religion (e.g., the good of worshiping freely).
    The case of cults is harder, and here there is surely a spectrum from cases where state compulsion would clearly be justified (e.g., cults that involve activity that is both immoral and criminal) to ones where it probably wouldn’t be, and I doubt there is a way of drawing a line on general principles.

    March 19, 2008 — 10:50
  • David Slakter

    Hi Clayton,
    That some of the New Atheists might use emprical arguments to establish that religion is always or tends to be harmful doesn’t mean that they don’t conceive of progress as being essentially anti-religious. I can’t point to a case of one of them saying that progress, necessarily, involves a diminishment in religious belief. There is something that Dennett says, mentioned by John Gray, about how religion will no longer have influence due to “”the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television).” As Gray mentions, there’s already good reason to doubt that this would be borne out.
    Concerning Dawkins, in the first episode of The Root of All Evil, Dawkins makes the point, perhaps more than once, that “moderate” religious people are to blame for the violence of the extremists in their faiths, because their moderate religiosity somehow condones violence in the name of religion. If he’s not saying that all forms of religion are dangerous, he’s at least denying a clear distinction between those who actively support acts of violence and those who simply happen to share the same religion with those sorts of people. I’m reminded of something Hobbes once said about punishing all people who are present during a riot but can give no good account of themselves, and that sort of implication isn’t a good thing.
    Your view on cults is simply mistaken. There’s no more reason to think that cults are more a threat to people’s autonomy than any other religion. There may be specific cults which are, but keep in mind that I’m using ‘cult’ here as a sociological category, not as a shorthand for a negative value judgment. Presumably, even a mainstream religious group could engage in activities that limit people’s autonomy.
    On the part about rights, a distinction should be made between possible moral obligations we may have to help someone or prevent others from hindering them and between a political right as such. Presumably, all political rights also entail moral obligations, while not all moral obligations entail that a person has certain rights. For example, I may have a moral obligation to tell the truth, but that does not mean that anyone has the right not to be lied to by me.
    Thus, if there is a right for children not to be exposed to religion, not doing so because of “the social costs” is simply a practical matter, as the New Atheists are limited by the current composition of a modus vivendi. Once they have the power to enforce their view of children’s rights not to have religion forced on them, all bets are off.
    I’m not claiming that there’s an easy inference from the views of the New Atheists (Sam Harris being at least one notable exception) to oppression, just that there’s a plausible one. I’m not denying that atheists – or even New Atheists – can be tolerant, it’s just that many of them don’t seem to be.

    March 19, 2008 — 10:58
  • David Slakter

    That John Gray link doesn’t seem to have been embedded properly. Try this – http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2265395,00.html

    March 19, 2008 — 10:59
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    From a certain level of abstraction, this is a very funny response:
    Your view on cults is simply mistaken. There’s no more reason to think that cults are more a threat to people’s autonomy than any other religion.
    I say raising a child into a cult is a way of undermining their autonomy. Your response seems to be that if that’s right, raising children to be religious undermines their autonomy. At that point, I don’t see much sunlight between you and Dawkins.
    Now there’s the further questions:
    Q1: Is it a form of abuse to raise a child into a cult?
    Q2: Do children have rights that would be violated if raised into a cult?
    I’d say ‘Yes’ is the obvious answer to Q1 and gives us some reason to say ‘Yes’ to Q2. I’m in the minority on most matters at Prosblogion, but on this matter I expect I’d find some agreement with others. (It looked like Pruss and I were in partial agreement on some related issues which means that they’re passing out mittens and ice skates in hell as we speak.)
    I’m not really sure what your views are here. Do you think parents who raise their children into cults abuse them? Do you think children have a right not to be abused by their parents? It looks like you think ‘No’ and ‘No’ are the correct answers. In the fight between someone who says ‘No’ to those questions and Dawkins, I’m rooting for Dawkins.
    As for rights and obligations, I don’t think that is where our disagreement is. I was willing to say that for every right there is an obligation to protect that right, but merely wanted to point out that you can sensibly say that the obligations are ones that can be overridden. The case against interference could appeal to the social costs, but it could also appeal to other rights that are threatened by setting up the regulatory measures necessary for preventing parents from raising their kids into certain religious practices. For example, suppose you work with the following view. The case for interference requires identifying a kind of harm and identifying religious instruction as a harm requires appealing to controversial claims about the good that we cannot expect all reasonable people to accept. There’s a rights based story that is not terribly complicated that would show that even if the social costs associated with regulating people’s private lives were nil, it wouldn’t follow from the fact that children had a right not to be indoctrinated that the state should all things considered dissolve the family units in which such indoctrination took place.

    March 20, 2008 — 10:02
  • David Slakter

    Thanks for the reply, Clayton.

    I say raising a child into a cult is a way of undermining their autonomy. Your response seems to be that if that’s right, raising children to be religious undermines their autonomy. At that point, I don’t see much sunlight between you and Dawkins.

    I’m saying that the fact that some religion is a cult is not the salient point. I’m saying that raising someone in a cult, ceteris paribus, doesn’t violate anyone’s rights or autonomy any more than raising them some other way does.

    I’m not really sure what your views are here. Do you think parents who raise their children into cults abuse them? Do you think children have a right not to be abused by their parents? It looks like you think ‘No’ and ‘No’ are the correct answers. In the fight between someone who says ‘No’ to those questions and Dawkins, I’m rooting for Dawkins.

    But why are you rooting for Dawkins here? The descriptor ‘cult’ is multiply ambiguous. Hence why I specified that I was using the term in a sociologically sense, to refer to religious movement with a small number of members. Most of these groups do not engage in any kind of behavior that encourages restricting anyone’s autonomy.
    On rights and obligations, perhaps you are correct that we aren’t really in disagreement. I think however that any rights children might have with respect to autonomy would be fulfilled through minimum educational requirements. So long as those are met, the religion of a child’s parents would be moot

    March 21, 2008 — 4:02
  • Floating around in this discussion is an argument that raising children in a religion restricts their autonomy in an unacceptable way. Presumably, a part of this alleged restriction of autonomy is that in raising the children in a religion, we teach them that certain religious propositions are true, and we impose on them certain religious practices.
    Except when the religious practices are morally wrong or significantly harmful to the individual (as they might well be in a cult), I don’t see how the imposition of the practices is any more of a harm that the imposition of non-religious traditions by society, such as the following of particular rules of etiquette (table manners by themselves are a source of much grief to children), the wearing of certain kinds of clothes (just try going to school in a loincloth), the abstinence from various kinds of food (it’s really hard to get dogmeat in an American restaurant), etc. Our behavior is reigned in by traditional norms, norms we expect children to internalize, in just about every respect. Some might think that is abuse. But the following of such rules is, arguably, important to the cohesion of society, to mutual respect, and so on.
    Is the the alleged violation of autonomy, then, in the teaching of religious propositions? But we also teach other kinds of propositions to children, such as moral and scientific ones. Now there may be some radicals who would say that all such teaching is wrong–children should discover religion, morality and science for themselves. That strikes me as an absurd view. There is too much there to expect the individual to discover. Not every child has the aptitude for understanding spherical geometry and the observational patience and precision needed to see why the Ptolemaic system doesn’t fit what we see in the sky unless we posit a lot of epicycles. Yet it is clearly appropriate to teach children that the Ptolemaic system is not true. We teach children much as fact without having them discover it. There is no need to pay for a child to travel to Hungary to observe the functioning of the seats of government there and deduce that Budapest is the capital of Hungary–it is perfectly OK to just tell the child that Budapest is the capital of Hungary. (Of course there is a value to such travel to Hungary; but likewise to Iceland, England, Poland, Zaire, Egypt, Brazil, etc. Budget and time are limited, though.)
    Perhaps the idea is that it is a violation of autonomy to require children to believe certain propositions. But we do precisely that in school. We teach kids that the force is proportional to acceleration, and then we penalize them on the exam if they say that force is proportional to the square of the acceleration.
    Or maybe the idea is that it is a violation of autonomy to require children to believe certain propositions merely on authority. But testimonial authority is a form of authority–and indeed is one of the main forms of epistemic authority that the great monotheistic religions claim–and it is perfectly acceptable to require children to believe various propositions on the authority of scientists who report having seen certain things in their labs.
    Or maybe the idea is that it is a violation of autonomy to require children to believe propositions that we do not ourselves know. But this begs the question against the religious person who takes herself to know the claims she is teaching her children.
    Or perhaps it is a violation of autonomy to require children to believe propositions that are not generally known by members of society. But this is implausible. Why should what is and what is not a violation of autonomy depend on facts about the distribution of knowledge throughout our society. If we lived among scientific illiterates (many think that we actually do), would it therefore be wrong to teach science to children?

    March 25, 2008 — 10:59
  • David,
    You might have been using ‘cult’ in some sociological sense, but I think it’s pretty clear in making the point that it would be wrong for parents to raise their children into cults that this was not the relevant sense of ‘cult’.
    Anyway, why do you think I’m rooting for Dawkins? I think Dawkins is funny, I think he’s right about some things, I’d certainly rather have drinks with him than with most of his critics, but I don’t think I’m rooting for him. (Confession: I loved watching him stick it to Ted Haggard for his absurd views concerning evolution.) There are, to be sure, problems with his work, but when I think the criticism is unfair or missing the point, I feel somewhat inclined to say it. I’ve seen a lot of really heated criticism of his work that seems pretty bad and its badness doesn’t go away just because the criticism is in turn aimed at bad work.

    March 30, 2008 — 16:59
  • David Slakter

    I was going to let you have the last word, Clayton, but this seemed like an appropriate place to mention this video poking fun at “The Four Horsemen.”

    April 3, 2008 — 11:57
  • David Slakter

    Okay, I guess the “You may use HTML tags for style” alert should be taken literally, since that’s all they can be used for. The video is here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaGgpGLxLQw

    April 4, 2008 — 16:13
  • Matthew Mullins

    You can use some HTML in the comments section, but you have to get the syntax of the HTML correct in order for it to be published.

    April 5, 2008 — 0:15
  • David Slakter

    Ah, yes. I probably forgot the quotation marks.

    April 5, 2008 — 8:39