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Same Old, Same Old

In response to Daniel’s post below, I’d like to note that I intended “New Atheism” only as a convenient shorthand for the gaggle of God-botherers (I mean that in my own new and improved sense) lately dominating the bestseller lists. … Read More

By / December 12, 2007

In response to Daniel’s post below, I’d like to note that I intended “New Atheism” only as a convenient shorthand for the gaggle of God-botherers (I mean that in my own new and improved sense) lately dominating the bestseller lists. As to whether they are so different from the Old Atheists discussed in Linker’s article and Daniel’s follow-up: I don’t possess anything approaching Daniel’s command of philosophy, but I do know that one is unlikely achieve the timeless renown of those Old Atheists by writing books like Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

David Strauss commented that it’s “absurd to require that someone who proves something wrong also provide something ‘right.’” His apparent belief that Harris has proven anything is very mistaken. I write all this as one sympathetic to Harris’s suspicions and frustrations, even as one who favorably reviewed the far superior God Is Not Great. But I was raised Catholic, and to me Harris is just another bright but intellectually lazy kid trying to freak out the volunteer CCD teacher.

Hitchens’s book is enormously entertaining, whether or not one is inclined to buy its argument. Harris’s books are grating and disrespectful—and I don’t mean disrespectful of belief, but of the intelligence of the believer. Jeffrey Hart once wrote about respect for the “perceptions” of others: “If a person tells you that he ‘perceives’ that the moon is made out of green cheese, the only reply that respects him is that sorry, it is not.” Hitchens’s book is that kind of reply, while Harris’s wants to cart the believer off in a straitjacket. Sadly, even Hitchens is moving in that direction these days. His “takedown” of Hanukkah is a good example.

Thus, to celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either.

People seem to have missed or disregarded the point of my previous post, and here we have as good an opportunity as any to revisit it. If radicals of a particular religion pose a threat to liberal democracy, do you form an uneasy alliance with the many, many people who belong to more peaceful “faith traditions”? Or do you write an attention-mongering essay about a harmless and also heavily commercialized holiday? (Nothing says “moderate” like commercializing your most sacred days!) If the so-called New Atheism differs in any way from the Old, this is it: It seems to have more to do with self-promotion and too-clever-by-half provocation than with forestalling an imminent religious encroachment on our political and intellectual freedom. It has lost sight of the goal—preserving culture and saving lives—because it wants nothing more than to look smart and feel superior.

It has also lost all interest in distinctions. Josh writes with a straight face that “our time has just finally come to recognize centuries-old superstition for the intolerable danger it is,” as though some superstitions (no meat on Friday, no washing the lucky jockstrap) aren’t more dangerous than others (no honor if we don’t gang rape a dishonorable woman!). For the record, Josh, superstitions may be irrational and irritating, but only crimes are intolerable. Preserving that kind of difference is one of the most important duties we can perform on behalf of not soiling or own nest.

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