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To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 3

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Below is part 3 of a three part essay on Hitchens and the New Atheists. Part 1 can be viewed here, and Part 2 here.

Atheists have long had to hide or downplay their atheism if they hoped to be influential figures in national discourse, but now--thanks in large part to the New Atheists--the marginalization of atheists and atheism is eroding [1] .  When lost in the desert you eat and drink what you can, and you become grateful to whomever gave you food and drink, whatever their other flaws.

Indeed, this is what makes some observers of the New Atheist phenomenon--including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges--perceive danger in Harris's and Hitchens' popularity.  For critics like Hedges, the views that Harris and Hitchens expound as "atheist" views could contribute to cretinizing the growing pool of atheists, agnostics and those who check "none" under religion on national surveys.   The fear is that ethically and politically undecided members of the flock might come to adopt the New Atheist comportment and cluster of attitudes as a kind of non-believer's default (one arguably different from the non-believer's default pre-9/11).  Hedges would likely agree, then, that treating Harris and Hitchens as prototypical atheists is a gross injustice to atheists like Ridenhour [2] whose life and work reflect a bold resistance to authoritarianism and to the mass murder of foreigners--the resistance that atheism stands for at its best.

Yet it is misleading to use a phrase like "that atheism stands for at its best" because atheism (much like race, ethnicity and sexual orientation) has no ethical essence.  There is not very much that follows ethically from "There is no God," or from its opposite for that matter (unless God is given a normative definition like "a fundamental existential linkage between sentient beings that makes all of them worthy of humane and loving treatment") [3] .  It is unclear why people have their identities so attached to either of these propositions when neither proposition has many solid normative implications in its most basic form.  In any particular culture or time in history there may be some distinctive attitudes empirically associated with each propositional axiom ("There is no God" or "There is a God"), but if the correlation of the axiom and attitude is what justifies the axiom, then why not center one's identity on the attitude rather than the axiom?  In other words, if what justifies atheism or theism is how kindly, tolerant and non-mass-murderous atheists or theists are supposed to be, then why not just center one's identity on kindliness, tolerance and non-mass-murderousness and cut out the middle man?

Not cutting out the middle man may have rather unsavory consequences in fact, because if the axiom (atheism or theism) is anointed rather than the attitude (niceness, tolerance, peacefulness), then the axiom may eventually find it expedient to wander in its allegiance from the attitudes that justified it to the complete opposite attitudes.  Something like this appears to have happened to the New Atheism.  New Atheists praise atheism's tolerance and peacefulness as marks of its clear moral superiority to violent intolerant religiosity (especially to Islam).  And yet Hitchens and other New Atheists have managed to peddle some very unsettling opinions as views that are consistent with atheism.  And these opinions are on matters of undeniable relevance to tolerance and peacefulness--matters like the validity of religious bigotry, cultural chauvinism, preemptive war, imperial occupation, and torture.

Two of the three major New Atheists--Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens [4] --overtly scapegoat people with Muslim beliefs for the contemporary evils of the world, and Harris, as we have seen, even muses about the moral legitimacy of killing people for their beliefs.  Thus ultimately the New Atheists tend to adopt the same tone of sanguinity towards hatred and atrocity that (in almost the same breath) they accuse religious fundamentalists of being pathologically wedded to.

It is unclear whether their regressive ideological add-ons to atheism will ever disrupt the sales, blogospheric celebrations or shallow media coverage of the New Atheists.   The dark political implications of the New Atheism that Chris Hedges and others have tried to highlight have largely slipped under the radar so far because a thought-numbing dialectic with its own momentum is already underway on "the atheist question."   Perhaps one day this dialectic may morph into something of actual interest or relevance, but for now it is just another culture war distraction.   The vocal supporters of New Atheists are most often ordinary irreligious individuals who appear not to have read New Atheist work very closely (or disassociated while reading the most morally atrocious passages and so forgot them).  The most vocal opponents of New Atheism are generally Judeo-Christians whose tender feelings are hurt by any kind of atheism.  These Judeo-Christians characterize the New Atheists as rigid doctrinaire fanatics who do not truly understand religion.  They are much less likely to object to New Atheists for being neoconservatives-in-atheist-clothing who propagate militarism, fascism, and ethno-religious bigotry to an irreligious liberal demographic that has long been known to oppose these vices.

Chris Hedges, in fact, is one of the only well-known media figures to expose this more bigoted and scary side of the New Atheism [5] . Hedges' writing on this issue is a cry of political sensitivity in a wilderness of frothy faux dialogue.  Yet even Hedges' shrill opposition to the New Atheists, while based in a valid reading of their work and a plausible prediction of their political effect, may not necessarily be salutary if more widely adopted.

The fascist aspects of the New Atheists tend to be like landmines in a rice paddy--most of the rice paddy is quite compelling, endearing and healthy (quite the opposite of fascism) and so the (fascist) landmines in it do not really belong there.  Most fans of the New Atheists are attracted to the lush greenery and wholesome nutrition of the New Atheist rice paddy (which looks very much like their own atheist rice paddies).   These fans tend to bleep over the obvious landmines they see in the rice paddy, if they let themselves see them at all.  Calling attention to the landmines in the rice paddy of New Atheism can thus lead to some interpretive problems.  Chris Hedges, by crying, "there are land mines in that atheist rice paddy!" is potentially offending other cultivators of atheist rice paddies who think he is saying "there are land mines in all atheist rice paddies" or, at the very least, "there's nothing but land mines in the most famous bestselling atheist rice paddies that you admire so much and look up to for inspiration, so you're a dupe."  These interpretations of Hedges' critique could lead to reactance--atheists clinging even more tightly to New Atheist worldviews, perhaps to the point of adopting their most repulsive political and ethno-cultural stances as legitimate and valid, or even as central to atheist identification.

Some subtlety might be more effective, therefore--e.g. noting that many of the 21st Century's bestselling Judeo-Christian ideologues also share the most noxious New Atheist attitudes but argue for them less elegantly and, as people, have fewer redeeming qualities.   In this, at least, New Atheists can claim some legitimate superiority.  In general, though, it is best not to assist bad ideas by pounding on them with hyperbolic opposition.  It is an unwise hater of mercury who pounds on mercury with a hammer; it is an unwise hater of terrorism who pounds on terrorism with military occupation, legalized torture, and evisceration of the legal enshrinement of rights in one's own nation; and it is an unwise hater of New Atheism who screams that it should be combated as vigorously as Judeo-Christian varieties of fundamentalist fascism.

At their best, Hitchens and other New Atheists bring important issues to the attention of a public systematically banalized by sitcoms, video games and infotainment. Outside of the tiresome "You should believe!" vs. "No you shouldn't!" debate, the issues raised by the New Atheism have the potential to inspire genuine thought, inquiry and public discussion into matters of existential and political importance. The very anomalousness of "right wing" qualities grafted into what is supposed to be a "left wing" worldview orientation challenges us to think beyond the stultifying dichotomies of liberal vs. conservative and left vs. right.   There is something invaluably subversive about atheism old and new, as there has always been something invaluably subversive about questioning the supposedly unquestionable.

In addition, New Atheism could have ironically positive effects on the currently stunted American capacity for cultural and religious tolerance.  Fundamentalist religious believers, for instance, might find themselves inadvertently drawn away from their own inclination to religious bigotry when they read New Atheist attacks on all-religions-especially-Islam.  Even though the New Atheists single out Islam and thus treat de facto Western religions like Judaism and Christianity as relatively superior in the pantheon of bad religious ideas, some Judeo-Christians who had once felt infinitely superior might find themselves suddenly reaching out tolerant, rights-and-dignity-respecting hands to Muslims out of their greater offense at New Atheist attitudes.   Judeo-Christians might also be legitimately concerned about the long term consequences of tapping the ethos of New Atheism against Islam.   Who, for instance, is next if Islam gets taken down by neoliberal culture-washing, neoconservative imperial wars and occupations, or perhaps even by the mushroom cloud flames wrought by a button-pusher who reasons like Sam Harris?

The effect on a fundamentalist Judeo-Christian of reading Hitchens' or Harris's attacks on Islam may be much like the effect on a white racist reading the early Malcolm X's attacks on Martin Luther King's liberal pacifism. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend and my enemies are both enemies to each other, then either of them might become my friend--and in either case I will be befriending an enemy.  Following this short train of logic can potentially discombobulate bigots right out of their bigotry, or at least lead to divergent alignments of bigotry that make defeating bigotry easier in the long run.

Of course many fundamentalists would not resolve in a tolerant direction any contradictions that arose from such an intellectual confrontation, and might even end up following the bizarre example of white supremacists who cheerfully attend contemporary Nation of Islam rallies (dryly described in Jon Ronson's excellent Them) [6] .   By similar processes, the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend mentality may lead the most frothing-at-the-mouth Islamophobic Judeo-Christians to make their peace with the likes of Harris and Hitchens.  The hope, presumably, would be that they could all be brothers bound together in bellicose ethnocentric hatred of the savage Other.  This is the alliance that Chris Hedges fears, and with some justification.

The nods to neoconservative and Islamophobic themes in New Atheist writings already offer ample evidence for this potential coziness between New Atheism and the more fascistic strains of Judeo-Christianity.  But it appears that some fascistic Judeo-Christians have been willing to drop subtle hints that they too are comfortable with this alliance.  For instance, the laugh-a-minute 2004 documentary George Bush: Faith in the White House claimed preposterously that George Bush is the most Christian president since the Founding Fathers (who, incidentally, were not in fact all that Christian), and yet it cheered atheist Christopher Hitchens as a source of wise authority to debunk scurrilous anti-Bush documentaries (specifically Fahrenheit 9-11, directed by leftist Michael Moore, an increasingly religious Catholic).

More strategically-minded Christian fundamentalists may not be so bold as to sympathetically name drop notorious atheists while soaking the faithful with right wing propaganda, any more than they would buy their children God is Not Great for Christmas. They might instead just try to ensure that publishing patterns distribute many more copies of New Atheist literature to the blue states, where they should dampen the egalitarian environmentalist civil libertarian anti-war spirit that flourishes there, and many fewer to the red states, where they might stir up precisely that spirit as an accident of increased inquiry.

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Ian Hansen is an Associate Professor of psychology and the 2017 president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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