Day job not going so good right now, a little under the weather and dog-tired yesterday, I accidentally deliberately slept in this morning. But, I finished my C J Werleman notes on the tube, stepped out into the sunshine, grabbed a great breakfast at a little cafe I’d not previously noticed between the tube and the office, was pleased to pick up in Waterstones a copy of Salman Rushdie’s latest released just today in the UK. It’s 9:15 and we’re set up for the day.
So I decided my original title for this post should be relegated to the subtitle behind the more positive opening:
“Extending the Hand of Friendship – how new atheism poisons everything“.
I already posted and added to my pre-review notes (in the previous post) since my reviews are generally for my benefit in extracting what I’ve learned into my own research agenda, But C J Werleman’s “The New Atheist Threat” deserves a standalone review:
CJ – I already feel I can call him that – is an Aussie now resident in US who spent a decade in Indonesia, including being in Bali when the nightclub was bombed. An erstwhile New Atheist in reaction to that experience, published several books well received in that community and a speaker at American Atheist and similar events.
Though we clearly have had different day jobs and life trajectories, I too have benefitted from living and working around the world, west and east, but we’ve arrived at much the same place intellectually on the topic of new atheism. In fact I was there before new atheism existed – which isn’t to brag I’m leading the field – but to emphasise that despite the closeness of the end points, we have significantly different takes on root causes. I was already “trying to keep science and atheism honest” because of the damage simplistic, reductive, anti-theistic and scientistic dogma was doing to science and the place of scientific knowledge in culture generally. He sees New Atheism as dangerously bigoted as any fundamentalism and a dangerous contributor to the downfall of east-west political action and world peace itself. And I agree. Though it’s not where I started, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that “dogmatic rationalism” (an oxymoron hopefully, so really naive dogma masquerading as rationality) is the problem underlying all levels of discourse, decision-making and governance in all contexts.
Werleman states his case against the New Atheists bluntly, assertively and passionately. ie He’s not subtle, and most of his argument is in copious quotes from others, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and Karen Armstrong for example. He’s nothing if not well connected and he speaks from a unique position with (for me) a new US perspective on the ills of New Atheism. Of the “four horsemen” Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins cop the most flak, but Dennett, Krauss, Maher, Boghossian, Hirsi-Ali and a host of other less cerebral celebrity New Atheists get the treatment. He nails Harris at every opportunity, though in my experience, when Harris is not spouting anti-theistic anti-religious New Atheism in a political context, I find him more subtle philosophically. Thankfully (my hero) Dennett escapes Werleman’s venom in the wider political context – Dan really is a philosopher and a very good one. Anyway, Werleman’s is a very entertaining read.
In describing the cultish “echo chamber” effect of New Atheism as a movement, I think Werleman is bang on. The sloganising, the rehearsed attack and defense arguments, the reductionism, the simplistication, the plain naive and under-informed-&-over-reaching positions are all real, and can’t improve whilst it’s a militant campaign fought through social media, sound bites and popular books targetted at the choir. Some proper listening and learning required.
Ironically, given the charges of reductionism and poorly argued sloganising Werleman lays on the New Atheists, his own delivery is as I say bold, binary and assertive, though wise-crackingly witty with it. That rhetoric I can live with; the points are well made. Where I do part company with Werleman is his conspiracy theory take on the cause (and danger) of the New Atheist movement as cover for neo-con ambitions. To be clear, he’s not saying New Atheists are an active part of such a conspiracy, you know, that conspiracy of US / Western imperialist, military-industrial-complex hegemony, setting up anti-theist / anti-Muslim “pretexts” for economically and geo-politically attractive internal and international “security” activities. He is saying, rightly, that New Atheism’s sloganising plays into it in highly dangerous ways. Painting “the other” as evil or deranged – to paraphrase a Harris quote he repeats mercilessly. Myself, I don’t hold with the underlying conspiracy theory reasoning, even though he provides a fascinating litany of facts amidst his strong opinions. As I say, I see the underlying “conspiracy” as a much deeper and wider meme of “dogmatic rationality” we’re all suffering from, where our leaders and decision-makers are just more “we” with the same spectrum of human virtues and faults, with higher stakes under greater pressure.
In terms of cataloguing evidence, none is more striking than his penultimate chapter on New Atheism as a propaganda tool for Islamic extremism and how extremist rage is cultivated. Worth the read for that alone; a lot of the content being the author’s personally collected direct evidence, as well as assembled from the public record, on actual motivations of individual extremists in the context of groups of humanity tarred with the same brush. Fascinating, important and indeed, very moving.
So good to see that Werleman’s conclusions ultimately focus on achieving true dialogue – achieving proper understanding to be used in better decision-making (in terms of my own epistemological context) – which includes caring for the people in the dialogue. The story of Mubin Shaikh is salutory. But as he says:
I know what you’re thinking. No, I’m not suggesting we should hug an ISIS fighter, or send flowers to the Al Zawahari. They must be defeated. But the way to defeat them is not via machismo and feel-good hyper-nationalism, but rather it is to starve their recruitment pipeline. You starve their pipeline by dealing with the resentments on which terrorist groups thrive: humiliation, alienation and discrimination.
… is the idea of defeating terrorism … one Marvin Gaye song at a time, really that silly?
As I’ve mused many a time before, what is so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
Peace to you too CJ. The New Atheist Threat is a much needed contribution to the meme pool.
[Post Note: Tweeted a few references to this Harvard conversation – and since obtained their book, reviewed here by Sarah Brown – but credit to Harris for appearing to have listened and learned in his recent dialogue with Maajid Nawaz @QulliamF. Harris appeared subdued, chastened even?]