Easter holidays reading for atheists

One of the more positive aspects of Glenn Greenwald moving from Salon to the Guardian is that he’s let people see that there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on in Salon. He still stands out at The Guardian, but his online footprint was starting to outsize Salon’s. This post isn’t about that, it’s this: As of late I’ve noticed Salon publishing a number of decent attacks on the “New Atheists,” or the “Neo-Atheists.” And as an atheist, it was a nice Easter reading list, because few things bug me more than seeing things I agree with used in incredibly annoying ways.

Ian Murphy’s 5 Worst Atheists piece was much needed, but I can summarize it for the tl;dr crowd:  Sam Harris is a troll-baiting shill; Bill Maher doesn’t believe in vaccines, either (make of that what you will); Penn Jillette is one of those performers that boys like when they’re between the ages of 9 and 13, and then should promptly grow out of; Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case study in favour of Frans de Waal’s thesis (see below) that the most ardent anti-theists are those traumatized by religion; And S.E. Cupp, I’ll just say it: I don’t think she’s an atheist: She’s a TV performer for Christian conservatives pantomiming what they think atheists are and/or should be.

I enjoy well-written criticism and decently accomplished contrarian debate. That’s why I could watch the late Christopher Hitchens verbally corner an opponent, and will still pick up a book by over-educated troll baiter Richard Dawkins and give it a chance. Both of these men are not without their serious faults, but they also have raised a pertinent question at the right time: Why is faith accorded special status? And why can’t we recognize that this special status is contributing to some very serious social and political problems? It’s not the intellectuals that should concern people, but the zealotry of their fans, who seem to seek as simple an answer to the universe as those they criticize. It’s telling that on the web’s biggest atheism forum, the top items are almost always image-and-text memes, while posts linking to actual articles and criticisms barely register. So, which atheists should atheists be reading and watching?

  • Frans de Waal: In “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, the primatologist and ethologist looks at the actual function it has and continues to serve and how it could have emerged in a species without the need to try and humiliate present day practitioners.
  • Jared Diamond: The American scientist’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday includes the chapter “What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion.” Diamond takes an anthropological route to illustrate religion’s endurance through not only serving primary needs but in meeting several other uses for both traditional and modern societies. He doesn’t need to lampoon people for it, and instead shows how it’s likely enabled survival of our ancestors over tens of thousands of years.
  • Francesca Stavrakopoulou: An atheist biblical scholar is, to me, the best kind. Her BBC series from a couple of years back is still online. If you want to know why the Abrahamic trifecta still hold the sway it does, it doesn’t hurt to study the languages, historical and social context in which it emerged.

Many religions are good at taking a load off of individuals’ minds. They synthesize multiple complex needs into manageable concepts that can easily be put on the shelf. Fear of death: sorted. Why be good: sorted. Need a group: sorted. Like singing: sorted. Need a patron for a mural: sorted. Our brains like to reduce things in order to conserve energy. Religion does this in grand style. Some people see progress in religion’s decline and creeping secularism, while others see it as a sign The End is nigh. Instead, let’s consider adaptation. In this information age, we have new methods to more easily synthesize complex ideas into easily consumed ‘memes’ (a word coined by Dawkins). Twitter is one. In the midst of a Tweet binge, the good professor recently asserted that one can criticize a religion without having read its text.  That was said in the way of a justification for this one about Islam being the greatest of evils, which just doesn’t wash. Stalin didn’t need it to slaughter tens of millions. Neither did Pol Pot. Hitler wasn’t reciting from the Quran. The U.S. didn’t didn’t use it as an excuse to kills hundreds of thousands in Iraq. Try nationalism. Try again.

On an entirely pedantic level, it may be true that one can be critical of a faith without a review of the source text. But that’s a technicality, and not that good of science, which shouldn’t be as interested in outing origins myths as false as it is in discovering their actual origins for the sake of knowing them. For that, you need the source documents.

The supposed neo-atheists’ message is doomed, because they aren’t doing anything except telling people who agree with them how to say things their way, which many others find off-putting. Secularism is “winning” all the same, so they maybe they can just enjoy the ride. But these evangelical atheist’s ability to sell their books and get TV appearances in increasing numbers is a byproduct of the cultural and social shift under way, not a contributor. The emerging methods available for synthesizing complex ideas are doing the actual work. This shouldn’t be confused with ‘better’ or ‘more accurate.’ Adaptation is about the survival of things that tend to change to work better than others amid a given set of circumstances. The neo-atheist’s gimmicks have a limited shelf life.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald reads my blog. How do I know? I published this post on the 2nd of April, and he published this on the 3rd.