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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

That list again ... some funny things were said

Leaving aside the choice of people for the "50 Top Atheists in the World" list, discussed in the previous post, some things said about them are very odd. Take this on Jerry Coyne:
Coyne is Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Educated at Harvard University, where he studied under Richard Lewontin, he is a specialist in the problem of speciation. He runs a web site called Why Evolution Is True, and has published a bestselling book by the same name. He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and other prominent publications. He confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”
Jerry can speak for himself, but I doubt that very much that he has expressed impatience with the New Atheists - he'd often be categorised as one himself. In the quote (and elsewhere no doubt) he expresses impatience with the labels "New Atheist" and "New Atheism", as we all have from time to time. That is something totally different.

After all, these labels were not self-chosen, and they are often used as tools of denigration ... something that happens in the list itself, which frequently makes uncritical references to such things as "the dogmatism of the New Atheists".

Moreover, it tends to diminish the contributions of individuals if they are all thought to be saying the same thing - Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and so on, are not merely clones of each other. They are allies in many ways, no doubt, but there would be very little in their thought that can be reduced to a lowest common denominator. These people deserve to be engaged with individually, and the "New Atheist" label tends to elide what is distinctive about them.

Edit: I see that Jerry has had a bit to say himself, including that the site seems like it might be some kind of creationist front.

5 comments:

Wowbagger said...

At least Jerry will be happy they called WEIT a website and not a blog...

Deus Ex Machina said...

"They are allies in many ways, no doubt, but there would be very little in their thought that can be reduced to a lowest common denominator. These people deserve to be engaged with individually, and the "New Atheist" label tends to elide what is distinctive about them."

Could you briefly elaborate? Aside from Harris's forays into ethics, they are primarily known (in the public eye) for their views on religion and the supernatural, views that do not differ in any substantive way. Sure, Dawkins writes about Biology, Hitchens writes about politics, and Harris jumps around from ethics to neuroscience, but they don't disagree with each other, pretty much ever, on any issue. Why is it not fair to say "if you've read one, you've read all three"? What can be learned from Dawkins that can't from Hitchens or Harris, and vice versa?

stuart said...

yeah and jerry's update points to some conclusive proof that the whole site is rubbish anyway...

Russell Blackford said...

DEM, I'd say that their main books actually have quite different emphases and even messages. E.g. Dawkins places a lot of emphasis on his view that a designing intelligence is an inherently improbable and unsatisfactory explanation for the observable universe and any features of it that might suggest design to (some of) us. The others don't really talk about this very much at all.

The main thrust of The End of Faith is that religious and other "big" ideas must be taken very seriously and not too readily brushed aside and tolerated as harmless - they really do motivate people.

Breaking the Spell argues mainly for study of religion from a naturalistic viewpoint (i.e., attempting to understand it as a natural phenomenon).

Again, Christopher Hitchens' main points are rather different from any of these. One of his main points is that religion (at least of the kinds that he is thinking of) is insulting to us as human beings (it insults us in our "deepest integrity", as he sometimes puts it) in suggesting that we require supernatural entities and sources of knowledge just to treat each other decently. Thus religion poisons our view of ourselves and the world.

I don't think you could read just one of these thinkers and believe you've picked up the main emphases, or even necessarily the main messages, of the others.

There are also things that they actually disagree about - e.g. Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq but I don't think any of the others did or do. At a more philosophical level, Dennett is a compatibilist about free will, whereas Harris is a hard determinist. It's not clear to me where the others stand. Harris has all sorts of ideas about the advantages of meditation and spiritual exercises that the others don't necessarily share. I also expect you'd find that they have rather differing views among themselves about the ethics of abortion, and we could probably come up with quite a few other examples of actual disagreement. But that wasn't what I was mainly thinking of.

Really, whatever agreement they all have is actually at a rather abstract level - e.g. they agree in not believing in the existence of any gods (or other supernatural entities like demons or ghosts) and in seeing dangers in religion. But below that level of generality the emphases, arguments, and main messages are not the same.

Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM said...

Well, Russell Blackford, it appears that you have read books from each of the so-called four horseman, and concentrated enough to understand what they were saying.

OTOH, Deus Ex Machina, I could not say the same about you. How much did you actually read and how well were you attending at the time? You are usually better informed than this.