Noam Chomsky on the "New Atheism" 18

Noam takes on the atheist fundamentalists.

As an atheist myself, I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment. First, none of the prominent ones are genuine religious scholars, historians of religion, or cultural anthropologists who can, for instance, examine  the cultural, historical, literary, or linguistic contexts in which the varying parts of the Bible were written to provide an explanation of why fundamentalist biblical literalists are, well, mistaken and ignorant. There are plenty of genuine scholars of religion whose work examines religious beliefs and sacred texts within their proper framework, such as Robert Price, John Loftus, Daniel Barker, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman, and D.M. Murdoch. These are the skeptics who are worth paying attention to.

Second, they typically conflate atheism with stereotypical liberal or radical left-wing politics when there’s no inherent relationship whatsoever. See Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche, and Mencken.

Third, like the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, they come across as narrow-minded and ill-informed bigots whose only purpose is to antagonize religious people.

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I haven’t been thrilled by the atheist movement.  First, who is the audience?  Is it religious extremists?  Say right-wing evangelical Christians like George Bush (as you rightly point out)?  Or is it very prominent Rabbis in Israel who call for visiting the judgment of Amalek on all Palestinians (total destruction, down to their animals)?  Or is it the radical Islamic fundamentalists who have been Washington’s most valued allies in the Middle East for 75 years (note that Bush’s current trip to the Middle East celebrates two events: the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, and the 75th anniversary of establishment of US-Saudi relations, each of which merits more comment)?  If those are the intended audiences, the effort is plainly a waste of time.  Is the audience atheists?  Again a waste of time.  Is it the grieving mother who consoles herself by thinking that she will see her dying child again in heaven?  If so, only the most morally depraved will deliver solemn lectures to her about the falsity of her beliefs.  Is it those who have religious affiliations and beliefs, but don’t have to be reminded of what they knew as teenagers about the genocidal character of the Bible, the fact that biblical accounts are not literal truths, or that religion has often been the banner under which hideous crimes were carried out (the Crusades, for example)?  Plainly not.  The message is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.  Who, in fact, is the audience?
Furthermore, if it is to be even minimally serious, the “new atheism” should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq, or cannot comprehend why they might have some concern when their own state, with their support, carries out some of its minor peccadilloes, like killing probably tens of thousands of poor Africans by destroying their main source of pharmaceutical supplies on a whim — arguably more morally depraved than intentional killing, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere.  In brief, to be minimally serious the “new atheism” should begin by looking in the mirror.

Without going on, I haven’t found it thrilling, though condemnation of dangerous beliefs and great crimes is always in order.

NC

18 comments

  1. I’ve had a taste of this ‘new atheism’ already from that troll David Houser. If anyone drank the ‘new atheist’ cool-aid it was him. And now he wonders why his political life is over now that his pathetic statist past caught up with him.

      • It was intended as part satire. Suggesting atheism can become a dogma as much as any religion. It also suggests Chomsky is laying down rules for atheists in the same way as popes etc lay down rules for their religions or sects. It was also suggesting that much of the “new” atheist dogma is joyfully held by old atheists like me. A recognisationof the evils done in name of religion, past, present and future and without returning to read the Chomsky comment the idea I think he was pushing that many of these ideas about religion do not need to be repeated as everybody knows of them. I challenge this belief of widely held knowledge and certainly it being they case when it’s your religion. “I recognise the evil acts of other religions but mine is the saviour of the world” iIt was also intended to say that because I may use simple, one dimensioned ideas does not mean I do not know, as I think Chomsky was saying, I do not know the complexed role and history of religion. But then I may have misread Chomsky or he was taken out of context.
        Sorry for length of this, my intention was just to write one word -satire.

  2. Chomsky sometimes gets it wrong…this is one of those times. I also find it most bizarre that the author, Preston, uses accusatorily, the term “fundamentalists” to apparently decry as somehow bad the arguments of so-called “new atheists”. Fundamentalism as it applies to general beliefs is the strict adherence to the fundamental principles of any set of beliefs. The only consistent set of beliefs shared by all atheists, new or otherwise, is a disbelief in the existence of deities due to the lack of any good evidence for those alleged deities. So, if a new atheist adheres to the fundamental principle that they disbelieve in deities due to no good evidence, how exactly is that a bad thing? Chomsky, most ironically, is politicizing the issue in many ways and clearly in these words, ” the “new atheism” should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship, so well exemplified by those who laud huge atrocities like the invasion of Iraq.” So weird that he accuses new atheists of the thing he himself does.

    • Perhaps one thing you could take from Chomsky’s piece is to be weary of assuming that all there is to religion is “alleged deities” because that precise argument is the one which does not need repeating. Those who believe it do not claim there is proof. You are therefore limiting all of religion by doing so and creating further division and miscomprehension between people when the genuine evils of the world will not be solved by pointing out paradoxes and inconsistencies; the world is full of mystery. Why should we not focus on our own societal problems such as those our corporations and governments carry out daily WITHOUT religion as a premise, instead of wasting time reminding those who practice faith that there is no scientific basis to faith? Peace.

      • You have assumed incorrectly SSR. I certainly don’t believe that religion is only about the belief by adherents in their particular brand of deity/deities. But that’s where it starts for most people following a religion which relies on an alleged deity/deities for authority and their own moral compass. It is your shortsightedness in fact which assumes that the belief and spreading of a belief system based on very bad evidence is not a societal problem. I challenge you to give me one example how such a belief system is not societally dangerous in the world we live in today.

    • Holy Christ, do you always write long winded comments with no reference to reality? Do you understand what he means when he references the New Atheism as opposed to “new atheists”? Do you even know who Noam Chomsky is? Did you even read this article that you commented on?

      Looking at your picture, you’re not even sexy. I doubt you’re even a vegan at this point, you overconfident douche bag.

      • If you’d have anything at all intelligent to add to this discussion ***ass, it would be welcome. What isn’t is the hostile, inflammatory, dishonest, ad hominem attacks which sums up in total your last absurd and vile comment. Please take your medications and come back when you are prepared to discuss this as a sane person.

    • I think “fundamentalist” is an accurate but incomplete description. What bothers me is not rigid atheism but the need to evangelize, proselytize, pick fights, and otherwise shove atheism down others’ throats in the most obnoxious manner possible. For those of us who have seen fundamentalist Christian appeals, for instance, the similarity in tone is eerily clear.

      • Your point is not at all accurate, Jeremy. What is fundamentalist about forthright challenging the destructive adherence to beliefs (and more importantly, behavior based on those beliefs) based on bad evidence? I have seen countless speeches given by new atheists and not a single one that I have seen is an act of shoving down people’s throats, reason and the positive consequences of belief based on good evidence as opposed to bad. What I have consistently seen done by new atheists is assertively present the argument as to why religion is harmful, as just one example of many. It’s no different than activists who oppose child slavery making strong and forceful arguments as to why the thinking and behavior of the people running child slavery rings is destructive.

        On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have people of religious faith who are forcing their form of sky spook worship down the throats of people, and most disturbingly, very young children…through intimidation and terror. It’s cruel child abuse to force a child to believe in something they can’t recognize in any way by assuring the child that non-believers suffer in a horrible place called hell for eternity.

        • What is fundamentalist about forthright challenging the destructive adherence to beliefs (and more importantly, behavior based on those beliefs) based on bad evidence?

          The inability to abide dissent. A fundamentalist doesn’t just believe his side is the right side, but that every other side must be wrong. This is not only arrogant and myopic, but moreover it expressly rejects what makes science so great: that all “truths” in science are contingent theories and models based on available evidence.

          Science isn’t “true”; science is a method of testing hypotheses. But the atheists Chomsky cites appear to need to make an authority out of science, and it ends up looking as intolerant as all the old theist authorities.

          It’s no different than activists who oppose child slavery making strong and forceful arguments as to why the thinking and behavior of the people running child slavery rings is destructive.

          You’re right, except for one thing: the premise of those arguing against slavery in this case is that we all share values that their arguments draw upon. If we didn’t share values, there would be no way to demonstrate why the destructiveness you’re calling out is “bad”. These shared values are a common ground relative to which we can stake out polemical positions.

          I think religion, spirituality, etc. operate in a much murkier environment where the values to which atheists appeal are clouded in the irrational and prerational. But atheists’ need to assert the non-existence of God is also irrational. A priori truths are by definition irrational.

          It’s cruel child abuse to force a child to believe in something they can’t recognize in any way by assuring the child that non-believers suffer in a horrible place called hell for eternity.

          I don’t consider it is child abuse. We have a fundamental difference of values. There’s nowhere to go except to taunt one another, and this is what happens on both the obnoxious atheist and obnoxious theist sides.

          You may find Keith’s essay on Nietzsche and the religionization of enlightenment rationalism interesting in this regard.

          • We most definitely disagree about these issues. The world you paint is completely not rooted in actuality. New atheist’s argument isn’t that science is truth but that we can come to truth through scientific methods.

            As for your definition of fundamentalist, it doesn’t apply to new atheists because you misrepresent their positions. None of the new atheists whose work I have read or whose debates I have seen have, as a matter of principle, consistently rejected every argument from the other side. You are completely misrepresenting these people.

            I don’t think there’s reason for us to discuss this further so long as you misrepresent others’ views or positions.

  3. The “New Atheist’s” are not even atheists they are so thoroughly laden with clericalism they might as well be Papal legates.

    In The Ego and Its Own, by Max Stirner, St. Max defines clericalism thus:

    “He who lives for a great idea, a good cause, a doctrine, a system, a lofty calling, may not let any worldly lusts, any self-seeking interest, spring up in him. Here we have the concept of clericalism, or, as it may also be called in its pedagogic activity, school-masterliness; for the idealists play the schoolmaster over us. The clergyman is especially called to live to the idea and to work for the idea, the truly good cause. Therefore the people feel how little it befits him to show worldly haughtiness, to desire good living, to join in such pleasures as dancing and gaming,—in short, to have any other than a “sacred interest.” Hence too, doubtless, is derived the scanty salary of teachers, who are to feel themselves repaid by the sacredness of their calling alone, and to “renounce” other enjoyments.

    Even a directory of the sacred ideas, one or more of which man is to look upon as his calling, is not lacking. Family, fatherland, science, etc., may find in man a servant faithful to his calling.

    Here we come upon the old, old craze of the world which has not yet learned to do without clericalism,—that to live and work for an idea is man’s calling, and according to the faithfulness of its fulfilment his human worth is measured.”

    Sacred ideas, if holding to sacred ideas (i.e., ideas not subject to questioning) then the “New Atheist’s” are clerical. They support 1) current neo-Darwinian theory dogmatically (even atheists can think a better option exists reads Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos for an example), 2) political liberalism, 3) statism, 4) evangelical science etc. The list goes on and on. These people lack the courage to be atheist’s, but are merely cowardly people trying to cloak their insecurity and rebellion in the guise of atheism, with a heavy does of clericalism to give meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives. In short the “New Atheists” still live and work for an idea as man’s calling.

  4. Albert Camus (an atheist, by the way) would probably feel nauseous if he ever had to read a billboard that says: “I’m not a believer and life is still awesome.”, because it proves how unsophisticated these New Atheists are & what an embarrassment they are to true, intellectual atheism.

  5. Funny and pointless article as the ‘New Atheism” Isn’t new. Same as it ever was. The only difference they have a more public appearance.

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