Lisa Miller Exorcises Her New Atheist Demons

Lisa Miller of Newsweek, it seems, has had it with us nonbelievers. In her latest column, she seems to be indulging is some form of guilt-laden catharsis, awash in shame for having devoted too much precious ink to the New Atheists.

For five years, since the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith … three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities.

It’s not their fault, though, says Miller. It’s the media, all too attracted to the latest shiny (or loud) thing that comes along.

… this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs.

I think this is wrong to begin with. The New Atheists have attracted more attention than atheists have generally, certainly, but the idea that they drive the conversation about faith and its value to society is laughably wrong. We are bombarded with coverage that presents faith in a gauzy, cozy package that begins from the assumption that religion is a positive force in society—indeed, assumes that it is an assumed element of people’s lives. The New Atheists may currently dominate the discussion about atheism, but as far as the “faith-verus-reason” debate, if it happens at all, it is not in any way owned by the New Atheists. Perhaps if more people were brave enough to engage in it, this would not seem to be the case to Miller. She goes on.

We in the media have to bear some of that responsibility. Just as we covered Jerry Falwell when he said the Teletubby Tinky Winky was gay, we cover the “new atheists” because following controversy is part of what we do. As religion editor of NEWSWEEK, I have done my share of enabling these battles, most recently in a September interview with Dawkins.

So according to Miller, covering Dawkins is equivalent to enabling the bigotry of Jerry Falwell. ‘I don’t believe God exists’ = ‘Gays are immoral.’ This nonsense is insulting not only in the gross comparison of the New Atheist thinkers to irrational, demagogic, right wing hate-mongers. It also robs the atheist movement of its genuine intellectual substance and relevance. Falwell was simply trying to rile up the credulous and spread homophobia. The New Atheists are trying to spread reason and critical thinking. You may not like their tone, but the intellectual foundations and intentions could not be more different.

But Miller isn’t through. Now it’s time to really lay on the stereotyping.

But we can’t shoulder all the blame. The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.

There may be a grain of truth in that this kind of “regurgitation” does indeed exist, as it does with any like-minded group from liberals to libertarians to librarians. But Miller says “the atheists” are this way, implying that atheists as a whole all behave in this same “adolescent” manner. It’s astounding this kind of language was even allowed in the pages of Newsweek by the supposedly pluralistically-minded Jon Meacham.

The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let’s move on.

Let me answer your question: No one. They are three (and if you include Daniel Dennett, four) of—yes— the smartest guys in the room trying to get us to stop buying into nonsense, myth, and superstition, to stop giving religion immunity in the public discourse, stop assuming that faith is intrinsically a good thing, and to bring a little reason and critical thinking to the public debate. If it seems like they’re showing off, it’s probably just because they’re right, and sometimes the truth is a little uncomfortable. So let’s not “move on” until the lesson has sunk in.

Most of the public criticism of the New Atheism is, unfortunately, based on this queasy discomfort over exaggerations of their “style” (as though all four men were the same). This has been the subject of a lot of my writing, and so it was a large part of my recent address to the Northern Virginia Ethical Society last weekend (which I may or may not post later). This kind of attack is bad enough when it’s based on a distortion of the New Atheist approach, but once in a while these broadsides cross over from simply being a poorly formed argument or a misinformed rant, and into the territory of the unjustified maligning of entire group. This is par for the course for reactionaries like Charlotte Allen. I’m sorry to see Lisa Miller creep into their camp. With the more sophisticated set, this almost always happens under the guise of frustration with the tone or the supposed futility of the New Atheists’ argument, but it disguises an underlying prejudice against the marginalized subgroup they often represent. This is about a frustration with atheists as a whole, not Christopher Hitchens. This is about discomfort with reason trumping faith.

Miller does one good thing in this otherwise astoundingly ham-fisted column—she notes that other atheist voices have not received the degree of notice that they have earned, including Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain of Harvard, and my favorite, Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and author of Doubt: A Historyand The Happiness Myth. But these voices are not being shut out, which is Miller’s implication. They simply have not garnered the same amount of attention as the New Atheists have, most likely due to the very reasons that Miller suspects: the New Atheists are louder, and their message is more directly confrontational. But there is nothing stopping her or anyone else in the media from cluing in to Epstein’s work on secular community and morals, or Hecht’s wonderful perspectives on history and culture.

Of this, Miller writes, “This new conversation won’t be sexy,” but she’s wrong. It’s only “not sexy” if she and others in her position fail to make it so. Writers and commentators shouldn’t feel like their arms are being twisted to find the compelling within the subtle and the nuanced. It shouldn’t be that hard, if only they will take the time to move beyond the stereotypes. I’ll be waiting.

Parade of the Fanatical Ignoramuses

It is almost becoming a ritual in our house these days. At the end of a long day at work, the wife and I turn on MSNBC and watch, stunned, as Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart put on the parade of angry right wing lunatics. We sit, mouths agape, as we see manufactured rage at town halls over something tangential to health care, we see Glenn Beck weeping over something called “oligarhy” and a whole circus of birthers, deathers, truthers, tenthers, and every other sort of “-er” you can think of (except “thinkers”). Obama is a Nazi, or a communist, or the antichrist, or the Hamburgler, or whatever.

My wife can’t stand it anymore, and is more inclined to change the channel to the new show about hoarders on A&E. But I always like to watch my friends in the liberal media take down the hypocrites, the liars, the ignorant. Besides, at first they all seemed harmless, a silly distraction, the easily-provoked getting riled up by an otherwise impotent minority party. But the more I consider what I’ve been hearing, the more I sense a more fundamental problem with an aspect of American culture, something dark.

To give you an idea, take a look at this foreboding interview with Frank Schaeffer, a former founding father of the Religious Right and now impassioned critic of wingnut zealotry.

Schaeffer calls the angry fanatics “beyond crazy,” a “fifth column of insanity,” particularly in their enmity toward Obama (the original subject of the interview), but I think that lets them off the hook. He notes that this pseudo-fundamentalist subculture is conditioned to “reject facts,” and I think that gets closer to the point. The rage and racism (more on that word in a bit) here is the result of a willful ignorance on the part of millions who know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not insane, they are opting out of reality.

Schaeffer also notes that the Republican Party, languishing in the political minority, is “enthralled to this subculture,” and this is evident in the unwillingness of the more reasonable members of the party to take a stand against the hate and stupidity, as well as in the more knuckle-dragging members who dive head first into the filth, hoping to ride a mosh pit of bigotry and fear into a fixed position of consolidated power.

Which leads me, as one might guess, to Rush Limbaugh. I don’t care to simply quote mine Limbaugh to prove some kind of point about what a blowhard he is—this is like explaining that fire is hot. Instead, I want to use a recent diatribe of his as an example of exactly the kind of thing Schaeffer is talking about.

If you read any liberal-leaning blog, you already know about Limbaugh’s stupid tantrum about the white student who was beat up on a school bus by black students, in which Limbaugh belched, “We need segregated buses.”

This is revolting and offensive enough on its own, but a full reading of the transcript shows that this isn’t really what Limbaugh was getting at per se—don’t worry, I’m not defending him, because it’s really worse than you think. Limbaugh said:

It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,” and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he’s white. Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives. We can redistribute students while we redistribute their parents’ wealth. We can redistribute everything, just return the white students to their rightful place, on their own bus with bars on the windows and armed guards—they’re racists, they get what they deserve! …

… I wonder if Obama’s going to come to the defense of the assailants like he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.

It’s that term “Obama’s America” that kept haunting me as I heard this. That Rush Limbaugh and those like him harbor racist feelings and resentments is not news. But what is striking about this serving of rhetorical vomit is how it attempts to make white racism against blacks acceptable again, but uses a perversion of the phraseology of identity politics and manufactured umbrage. The important message of Limbaugh’s monologue is not “let’s bring back segregated buses,” it’s really, “You see? Black people have always been the problem!” He feels the racists have had their point proved: In Obama’s America, white kids get beat up and white men get blamed for everything, while their wealth is stolen by blacks (and gays). Another way he might have put it: “We let the blacks have a shot at being in charge, and now your kids aren’t safe from black people.”

When Obama was elected, there was a lot of fuzzy talk about the beginning of the end of racism. But Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk (and I specifically mean anyone in the Republican Party who will not totally renounce them), in what they are telling their stupid followers, are showing us the opposite—they’re trying to make the case that it’s okay to be racist again, because Obama is a Nazi/communist/black nationalist/foreigner/racist/Muslim/antichrist. You were right all along, these inexcusably abhorrent men tell their anti-intellectual swarms, so it’s okay to take this president down.

Frank Schaeffer said something else that is spot on, that we can’t “reorganize village life to suit the village idiot.” But we do have to wake the village up, assemble a legitimate town meeting, and make sure everyone knows that the village idiot has formed a posse, and it’s headed this way.

The Evolution of God: Brilliant and Maddening

Robert Wright, in his latest book The Evolution of God, promises up front that he will make a plausible case for the existence of some force or intention behind the universe that could be called “divinity,” and does so in the midst of making a different case altogether: that our notions of the illusory “one true god” (and Wright does call the idea of God an “illusion”) adapt over time to the circumstances of the people believing in him.

On the second argument, he succeeds brilliantly. Not so much in that this is a revelation (is it a surprise to anyone that religious notions change to fit the times and situations of the humans inventing them?), but in the fluid, accessible, and vivid way in which he makes his case and educates the reader. 90 percent or so of The Evolution of God is utterly engrossing and fascinating in this way.

On the first argument, however, he fails, and it leaves one utterly puzzled. He writes:

Maybe, in the end, a mercilessly scientific account of our predicament—such as the account that got me denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church—is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview, and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth.

It’s a valiant effort he makes, but not a coherent one.

Wright has a brilliant way of weaving together elements of history and constructing a guiding principle or theory to explain its dynamics. He did so inNonzero in regards to human interactions over time. Whether or not one thinks Wright reaches cogent conclusions in either book, it is hard to deny that he has taken his subject terribly seriously and constructed plausible and thought-provoking narratives in following history’s thread.

I don’t claim the religious or historical scholarship to be able to weigh his reconstruction of religious history for thoroughness or veracity, but I can say that at the very least he lends a fresh perspective to the evolution of religion that, if nothing else, is brought to life by his wit and passion for the subject. (Certainly worth further exploration is his comparison of financial analysts to shamans, people who show no evidence of genuine connection to an incomprehensible phenomenon — be it the stock market or the spirit world — and yet we imbue them with a kind of priestliness, assuming they possess knowledge that they likely do not.)

At the center of Wright’s examination of the evolution of religion is what he sees as religion’s expanding moral circle — as time goes on, religions and notions of God begin to accept a greater and greater share of the human species into the sphere of those we deem worthy of moral consideration. (He is careful to note, wisely I think, that gods were not originally conceived as moral arbiters at all, but merely as explanations for natural events and good and bad fortune.) There are fits and starts to be sure, big ones, and Wright does not hide them, but he posits that the overall trend is one of expanding and deepening tolerance.

That this occurs is difficult to argue with, but it immediately seems odd to lend this characterization to religion in particular, rather than seeing religion’s evolution as a byproduct of the wider culture’s evolution. Yes, the interpretations and dictates of various religious philosophies may be growing more tolerant and humanistic, but Wright fails to prove that this moral expansion is a product of the religion itself, and not vice versa (and truly, it is not always clear in what direction he wishes us to go). Does it not make more sense to say that as society becomes more diverse and sophisticated, and as disparate cultures are intermingling for the first time, that the accompanying religions are simply being adapted to that end? The religions aren’t making us more moral, our increasing and deepening sense of morality is being reflected in our religions (and Wright does not rule that out, either). One may reinforce the other, of course, and Wright doesn’t outright declare that religion’s moral growth is the only reason we don’t slaughter each other in the streets today (oh wait), but whatever his ultimate point, religion deserves less credit for our tolerance than Wright implicitly gives it.

This is all to say that Wright constructs a case through his narrative that religion changes with the times, and illustrates what forms it takes, but then seems to see this evolution as an innate property of religion; a guided human phenomenon that grows in moral scope over time (“there is a moral order out there—and it’s imposed on us.”). But were he not to proffer that conclusion, one would simply read his book as an excellent explanation of how human morality has changed and improved, independent of religion, and how religion then changes to suit.

But then we come to the maddening 10 percent of the book, in which Wright tries to take his assembled case about the evolution of religion and use it to prove that behind this evolution is some intentional force, some Logos, that is driving the change. The Abrahamic scriptures in particular “reveal the arrow of moral development built into human history.” The word “built” being key. Wright tells us again and again that there is some trove of evidence that at least suggests that a power “out there” is pushing human history in a particular direction, but fails to provide it, citing only the adaptations religion (an entirely human-borne phenomenon) has made over the millennia. Our developing and evolving notions of morality are not, to Wright, byproducts of increased human and societal sophistication, they are proof of something not unlike God. “The fact that there’s a moral order out there doesn’t mean there’s a God. On the other hand, it’s evidence in favor of the God hypothesis . . .”

But wait. Wright insists he is not stretching logic in his arguments, calling them “materialist” and that “no mystical force . . . has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” No need for one, but he puts it there anyway, which is unfortunate. In a response to Jerry Coyne’s review of his book (which I think is quite a bit too harsh on Wright), he reminds us:

I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.

This is true, and Wright’s critics often unfairly attack him for supposedly trying to imply that we should all start believing in the unprovable in order to join in with Wright’s “moral axis.” But if anything, Wright sees any underlying divinity to the universe as, well, universal, and more importantly, unavoidable. Atheists would not be able to resist the moral arc of history even if we wanted to (and I, for one, wouldn’t, if it existed, which it doesn’t).

Perhaps most intellectually offensive is Wr

ight’s comparison of people’s belief in a cosmic superbeing with scientists’ understanding of electrons. Electrons can’t be “seen” in the usual sense, but we see evidence of their existence in other ways. So it is with divinity, says Wright. We can’t look at God in the face, but one can say that we see evidence of his/its presence.

Only we don’t. Or if we do, Wright hasn’t come close to proving it. Electrons, on the other hand, are known to exist through decades of rigorous study and experimentation by thousands upon thousands of scientists in all fields of study. The “divine” is a foggy notion that doesn’t have much of a definition, the evidence for which being, at best, extremely suspect, subjective, and remote.

And another important distinction: Were the scientific community to discover it was wrong all along about electrons, so be it. Science would accept its new understanding and go from there. Those who are told that there is no proof for a cosmic consciousness are rarely so open to disproof. I suspect the same is true for Wright, who has glommed onto his idea of a mystical force behind the universe without any kind of reasonable foundation. It’s a shame, because it taints what is on the whole a wonderful book. Had he kept his exploration to the “facts on the ground,” and wholly derived his conclusions from those foundations, The Evolution of God would be an unabashed triumph.

But, oh, that 10 percent. Get a hold of the book, read it, feast on it, enjoy it, and then get ready to be taken a bit off the rails. Though his quasi-deism is disappointing, the book is still very much worth the ride.

Disbelieving Outside the Lines

Ross Douthat writes in defense of the Yahweh concept, reminding we stuffy atheists that it’s not as silly as Russell’s teapot assumes:

This analogy – like its modern descendant, the Flying Spaghetti Monster – makes a great deal of sense if you believe that the idea of God is an absurdity dreamed up by crafty clerics in darkest antiquity and subsequently imposed on the human mind by force and fear, and that it only survives for want of brave souls willing to note how inherently absurd the whole thing is.

I’m fairly certain that atheists’ diselief in God is not contingent upon the assumption of some conspiracy of Jesus Christ Superstar-type priests looking to fool the drooling masses with a prefab script. It is the lack of any evidence that is the beginning and end of the story.

Douthat doesn’t discount atheism entirely, but if you don’t disbelieve within his parameters, you’re probably just a weirdo (emphasis mine):

But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn’t thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.

Ouch! But truly, the best reason I can think of that one would not see the two ideas as equally absurd is that the concept of God is either incredibly vague or incredibly anthropomorphic; that is to say, fuzzy yet familiar enough not to jump out in our own minds as patently nutty. Orbital teapots and sentient pasta, not so much. But there is equal evidence for all of these things: none.

Elizabeth Dole and the GOP Tell Me to Go to Hell

My day was flat out ruined by a political ad.

I’m very passionate about politics to begin with, but usually if a political ad upsets me it’s in the direction of worry (”this is gonna kill us!”) or rage (”that’s a filthy lie!”). But this ad ruined my day because it made me feel a certain emotion in a way I don’t think I had before.

Offense.

People throw that term around pretty loosely in politics these days. If I were to summarize the 2008 presidential election, I don’t think I’d be too far off if I described it as a competition to see which campaign could take more “offense” at the other.

“That was sexist! How dare you?”

“You accused me of racism! That’s the race card! How dare you?”

Etcetera.

But the offense I’m talking about is the kind that really inflames the kind of anger that is one of the ingredients for cohesion in (I cringe at this term) identity politics. This offense is not the false umbrage of Geraldine Ferraro or Carly Fiorina, but the kind that emerges when a statement is made that explicitly says that one group of people is not welcome in America, that associating with them is an example of a flaw in one’s character. Of course, I’m not talking about associations with people who are legitimately questionable (had Barack Obama actually been a member of the Weather Underground, for example, I could see people having reservations). I’m talking about a group of Americans that is vilified even though they are law-abiding, decent, thoughtful citizens.

We’re familiar with this kind of bigotry in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. In all cases, it is obviously unacceptable, and more to the point, an example of willful ignorance and/or maleficence on the part of the person advocating for exclusion. What we never talk about, though, is prejudice against people with no religion.

Having made some minor rumblings about this a couple of months ago, the reelection campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee have released ads on TV and the web attacking Democratic challenger Kay Hagan for the most unforgivable of sins: consorting with atheists.

Here is the Dole campaign’s ad. Watch and then keep reading below.

Kay Hagan is upset mainly because the ad implies that she is an atheist, which she certainly is not, and is right to be upset at this misrepresentation. I am upset because the ad implies that because I am an atheist, I am someone who no self-respecting public figure should ever come in contact with. In other words, as then-candidate George H.W. Bush said in 1987, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

In my stomach-sickening anger after seeing this ad (and then later the NRSC’s web ad which displays the word “Godless” in smeary, blood-red letters), I wondered why we see so little of this kind of attack, accusing one’s opponent of being an atheist (of course, Obama is being compared to Karl “Religion-is-the-Opiate-of-the-Masses” Marx). Of course, the answer is that there are essentially no atheists in public life. Why is that? The unspoken religious test that disqualifies all atheists from serving in public office (unspoken until, of course, these ads).

There are two exceptions, of course, that I know of. Rep. Pete Stark of California is a non-believing Unitarian, and there is a Nebraska state legislator named Ernie Chambers who is also an atheist (and attempted to sue God, who did not show up for his court date despite calls of “come out, come out, wherever you are”). I know nothing about local Nebraska politics, so I have to chalk Mr. Chambers’ election up to a quirk of the region, and Rep. Stark has been serving in Congress for 18 terms, and only revealed his godlessness to his very liberal constituency last year.

The point is that it’s nearly impossible to accuse public figures of atheism if atheists are not allowed out in public.

Of course, there remains bigotry toward women, racial minorities, homosexuals, and people of faith. In these cases, however, it is now the mainstream position that this kind of prejudice is not okay, and any manifestation of this bigotry must be done covertly, with code, and hints, and innuendo. For atheists, however, a group differentiated only in their utilization of reason over superstition, are not allowed within this political force field. The Dole campaign and the Republican Party have made it clear that it is still okay to express open bigotry and hate toward atheists.

Or is it? These ads are relatively new, and Dole and the Senate Republicans are desperate. Perhaps there is still time for wiser voices in our political discourse to call this what it is: baseless discrimination and unwarranted prejudice.

I have little hope, but I have some. When Mitt Romney gave his semi-famous “religion speech” during the Republican primaries, he made two notable statements: “Any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me,” and most notably, made the starkly definitive statement, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Much to my surprise, major media figures such as Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos pressed Romney and his campaign as to whether Romney meant to explicitly exclude atheists from “freedom,” citizenship, or less importantly, his friendship. Romney, notably, walked his words back, and allowed a begrudging place for atheists in America. Thanks, Mitt.

But as of now, the ire against Dole and her pals is all focused on misrepresenting Hagan’s religion, with little about how the ads spit on nonreligious Americans, treat them like criminals, and declare them unacceptable in American society.

So I’m experiencing a small taste of offense in the way that I expect many other oppressed groups have experienced it. Of course, no one is locking me up, telling me where I can drink from a fountain, where I can sit on a bus, or keeping me from voting. But now I am more certain than ever that if many people had their way, they would.