Anti-“New Atheism” Has Nothing of Value to Say

Let’s start by self-plagiarasingDuring the 2000s militant secularism has been on the rise in the English speaking world. Of course this has generated a backlash, not only from religious people (I link to an article which presents Chris Heges as an “intellectual provocateur”, while he’s neither intellectual (let alone an intellectual) nor a provocateur), but also from “moderate” nonreligious people and, especially, selectively secular people, like CJ Werleman, a man who’s made a career out of writing against the US Christian right, but won’t have it said that Islam is dangerous (Mr Werleman happens to be a serial plagiariser but that’s of little relevance to the question at hand).

For various reasons which would be obvious to any approximately objective observer, New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, have spent a lot of time focusing on Islam. Predictably, that upset many people. I’ll just take the latest New Atheism-bashing article along with one of its sources, and endeavour to show it literally has nothing of value to say.

So let’s dive in shall we (I’ll quote the article integrally and react in between paragraphs, I don’t want to let anything out)? It starts with

Despite the steady decline of religiosity in the U.S., the general public is still not fond of atheists and their ways. Pollsshow that atheists are one of the most mistrusted groups in America, so much so that the public considers adultery less of a sin than godlessness when sizing up a presidential candidate.

While there are a number of reasons for this discomfort, one is the legacy of the influential and controversial so-called “New Atheists,” a band of belligerent public intellectuals including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the late but still influential journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Apparently, the reader is supposed to accept this assertion that atheists are disliked, among others, because of Dawkins and Harris, on face-value. Also note that later in this article, its writer will scorn poll results, after having used poll results as an incipit.

The trio has pushed so fervently for a venomous strain of atheism that their rise to fame has alienated many potential sympathizers and has come at the expense of the broader movement for secular life. Together they have cultivated an absolutist version of atheism that has produced many more enemies than friends.

Just for the sake of completeness, one of the “potential sympathisers”, apparently, is Chris Hedges, a man now in holy orders. Chris Hedges’s previous position was that organisation and authorities are terrible for religion, and that gave him a facile platform to counter the New Atheists’ arguments (something along the lines of “Faith is good, but religious institutions pervert it” (listen to the debate with Hitchens to which I just linked, this is really his only argument)). Everyone has the right to change their mind, of course, so let’s not waste more time on this, and soldier on instead.

While atheists tend to be particularly progressive and peaceful, the New Atheists harbor a deeply militarized attitude toward the religious. Their combative demeanors have afforded them an outsized amount of airtime and a disproportionate role in shaping the debate about atheism. The most recent incarnation of this was a dramatic, much-discussed showdown between Harris, actor Ben Affleck and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, during which Harris and Maher — whose values overlap heavily with the New Atheists — waxed poetic about the existential threat that Islam poses to liberal society.

I’ve talked about this event in my blog. According to the author of the present piece, a Mr. Zeeshan Aleem, quoting poll results is “waxing poetic”, apparently. More about that below.

The troubling global politics of the firebrand New Atheists, which have centered on advocating for a broadly secular West to rid the world of Islam, is essential to understanding their failure as a movement. Harris’s heated rhetoric on Real Time about how Islam represents the “mother lode of bad ideas” typifies the coarse and hysterical thinking that the New Atheists have encouraged about cultures and ideas they don’t understand — and reveals their conviction that the quest for an enlightened global civilization is at war with Islam.

Reality check: the quest for an enlightened European civilisation has been carried through a war with Christianity. Often an offensive war of ideas, and, sometimes, a defensive military war (the Spanish Civil War being a prime example of the latter).

Islamophobia and endless war: The leading New Atheists did not make names for themselves in a philosophical vacuum. All three are deeply political animals who captured the public’s attention when arguing against religion in the context of Islamism and war in a post-9/11 landscape. Few people deny that militant Islamist fundamentalism is a serious problem, but the New Atheists have responded to Islamist extremism by arguing that Islam itself — the faith of about one and a half billion people the world over — is a civilizational menace that must be stamped out to cure the world of its greatest source of savagery. As Luke Savage notes in an insightful article for Jacobin, for this mission they have “variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture and … genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.”

Yep, that’s an old school argumentum ad numerum: 1.5 billion people say they believe in Islam, therefore you lose. I’ll address the “insightful article” at the end of the post.

Savage’s essay pulls together many of the most extraordinary moments of their fear of Islam. Sam Harris once wrote in his book The End of Faith, “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”

So?

On another occasion, he wrote, “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.”

Still waiting to see what your point is.

Dawkins (who admitted in 2013 to never reading the Quran) has deemed Islam “the greatest force for evil today,” and said that for him “the horror of Hitler is matched by bafflement at the ovine stupidity of his followers. Increasingly feel the same about Islamism.”

Paragraph over.

In a statement that typifies the colonialist mindset of all three of them, he once wrote, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Hah. Nice one. Still waiting for Aleem’s punchline, though.

Before his death, Hitchens popularized the term “Islamofascism” amid a crusade to convince the Western public that Islam was, at its core, a violent, totalitarian faith and the greatest threat the modern world has ever faced.

I’ll only take issue with the word “crusade”, which is, as Hitchens himself would say, “inexpensive” in that context.

Harris and Hitchens have used this anxiety about the threat of Islam to buttress a campaign for war and imperialism (Dawkins has not engaged in this, although his rhetoric has not helped). Harris even contemplates the prospect of a preemptive nuclear strike: “What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? … The only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”

For Harris’s comments on how these oft-quote-mined sentences have been taken out of context, see here.

In a section of The End of Faith entitled “What Can We Do?,” Harris proposes a firm helping hand from the West:

“Some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary … But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert) or some combination of both.”

I do not own The End of Faith and cannot assess whether this is a fair summary of Sam’s views. If it is, then I think it warrants clarification and discussion. If it isn’t, then the exact same follows. Remember, though, that very few democracies have just appeared peacefully out of the blue.

For his part, Hitchens was one of the most vociferous and effective champions of George W. Bush’s Iraq War. He expressed “pleasure” in killing jihadists and disappointment at low death tolls in Iraqi cities after the U.S. invasion. On Iran, he once said: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”

On the top of my head, I can’t remember whether this is here or here, but I know that in one of those two presentations Hitch expresses hope and satisfaction due to the fact that the Iranian youths resented the theocratic regime in place. Not a word about wanting to “wipe” Iran “off the face of this earth”, but rather an internationalist displaying brotherhood and solidarity. Hitch did support the Iraq War, for reasons he explained at length, for instance in the two videos linked just above. In short, he despised totalitarianism, of which Saddam Husein’s regimes was one of the worst avatars in history, and anticipated Husein’s death and the bloodbath it was likely to bring upon Iraq. Moreover, he saw the removal of Husein from power as nothing more than the conclusion of the liberation of Kuwait from the 1990 invasion, during which Husein’s troops committed not only war crimes but also one of the worst environmental crimes in history.

Rebels with the wrong cause: The New Atheist pugilists have been driven by a rigid and ultimately misguided understanding of how religion functions in deeply religious societies. They believe that militant Islamist extremism and a literalist reading of the Quran represent a distillation of the “true” Islam, and so they seek its extinction.

You can always count on apologists to start raping logic at some point. A classic move is for them to assert that what’s in the holy texts is not the true form of the religion, and to throw around adjectives like “literalist” to describe what is simply a straightforward understanding of what’s in the holy texts.

On Real Time, Maher and Harris cited polling results showing how many Muslims in various countries support the death penalty for apostasy or the restriction of free speech, ideas that they understandably find troubling. But they sound like many security analysts: brimming with abstract data points, and lacking any discernible acquaintance with lived experience in the so-called Muslim world. A keener observer might realize that polls should be read beyond their literal results and represent a form of cultural signaling about local norms rather than immutable, doctrinal political convictions. Likewise, they might question the reliability of polls on Islam in the very countries they criticize for their limitations on free speech.

The author of this piece, Mr. Aleem, is so proud of the sentences “The New Atheists sound like security analysts: brimming with data points, and lacking any  acquaintance with lived experience in the  Muslim world.” that he’d like you to Tweet them. This paragraph, though, is nothing to be proud about. It’s wrong on details (Christopher Hitchens, for instance, has quite a bit of “lived experience in the so-called Muslim world” (traveling to Iraq and especially Iraqi Kurdistan had him convinced of the necessity to remove Saddam Husein from power)) and incredibly disingenuous on the main point. Mr. Aleem, indeed, is engaged in nothing less than fact-denying here, when he calls poll results “abstract data points”. He provides us with a link which is supposed to convince us that the famed Pew Poll results in question here are untrustworthy. The author of that link rightly points to concerns about the genuineness of the answers provided by polled Muslims, explaining that the lack of freedom to even question Islam in many Islamic countries might have warped the numbers. That is a legitimate point, but I’ve checked the Pew methodology and from what I understand people were polled in their homes.

Religions are fluid, composed of worldviews that are always infused with local cultural, political, economic and historical realities. While the New Atheists love to argue that Islamist extremism is about Islam in its purest state, it’s in fact about geopolitics.

There, the hammer has been dropped. “Islamism is not about Islam”. What a sick joke. He’s not going to back up his claims himself, but he’s delegated his argumentation to three links. Two of them are little more than a barrage of lies and insults. The third one is a Wikipedia page.

The one and a half billion Muslims of the world constitute an immeasurably diverse set of communities, with people who claim the same god nonetheless believing contradictory things about how society should be run. In today’s world, no more than an extremely small minority of adherents to any faith advocate for the death of innocents or global theocracy. To compulsively exaggerate the existence of religious extremism is unseemly for any serious thinker, and to encourage the use of force to deal with this exaggerated threat is an imperial impulse, not a civil one.

Bear in mind, this is written just one paragraph below Mr. Aleem’s refusal to take the Pew Poll results into account. The intellectual dishonesty is unbreathable at this point. To sum things up, Mr. Aleem has made the following points: “I resent your affirming that substantial numbers of Muslims adhere to the most violent teachings of Islam. You may have poll results but I’m just going to ignore them because I’ve decided that the poll methodology is flawed -or, whenever I prefer, call them “abstract data points”. On the other hand, I’m perfectly entitled to repeat the “liberal” credo that only a “tiny, minuscule” minority of Muslims take their religion seriously without providing any evidence to back it up. Bottom line: I’ll keep favouring faith and feelings over facts, thank you very much”.

Steeped in paranoia about a world governed by Sharia law, the work of the New Atheists emanates from a totalitarian vision of an enlightened society. Their insecurity drives them to discard the hard questions of how to better society with secular values. Instead, they insist that the world must pledge allegiance to their idiosyncratic set of notions about meaning in the universe. Their fear leads them to argue for free thought by caricaturing, smearing and arguing for the extinction of thoughts that they feel uncomfortable with.

Read: “I, Zeeshan Aleem, want to redefine secularism as the blind respect of all kinds of stupid superstitions including mine”.

The less unhinged beliefs of the New Atheists about the value of a world without superstition and social conservatism and with more robust secular ethics are laudable. Organized religion in every region of the world has a record of justifying some terrible things. But they’d be better served by remembering that religion, like food or fashion or art, can be both bad and good, changes over time, is inextricable from human history, and is best understood through a pluralistic lens. You can ask people to try your cup of tea without smashing theirs.

More of the classic “A given religion has little to do with its holy texts” cop-out. This is one of the recurring arguments you’ll get from people who want to criticise New Atheists. Often, these people are believers themselves, but can’t even be bothered to defend their own holy texts. Consistency is not their forte.

Let’s now move to a likeminded article to which Mr. Aleem links, that is, Luke Savage’s “insightful” Jacobin article. I’m not a lazy punk, and I’ll go through it entirely.

In explaining his transition from radical polemicist to neoconservative hawk, Christopher Hitchens insisted that his politics had not changed. It was perfectly consistent, he opined, to have opposed the Vietnam War on anti-imperialist grounds and unapologetically supported the invasion of Iraq; perfectly consistent to have abandoned confraternity with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and sipped champagne at the White House as a guest of Paul Wolfowitz.

I’ll let Hitchens expose his reasons (which I’ve briefly summed up above) for supporting what he understandably called the “liberation of Iraq”. Let’s just note that for Mr. Savage to think that someone opposing some wars and supporting others is proof of intellectual inconsistency, he must think very lowly of his fellow humans’ ability for elaborate thought.

Hitchens liked to claim that a single intellectual thread united his positions, namely opposition to “totalitarianism”: “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.”

But for all his pro-imperial bluster, it was Hitchens’ attacks on religion that finally garnered him international fame. These, too, he claimed, were fundamentally “anti-totalitarian,” analogous to resisting North Korea or Joseph Stalin. A leading light of the “New Atheist” movement, the former socialist spent his final decade at war with religion and at peace with imperialism.

A fair summary of Hitch’s views.

As Richard Seymour observes in his book Unhitched, Hitchens’ transformation, though unorthodox, was not without precedent:

The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the ‘Free World’. In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.

If you thought, as I do, that the non-word “Islamophobia” is a dishonest piece of slander, you might think it’s not so badly nausea-incuding as “Stalinophobia”. But remember, this is coming from Richard Seymour, an admirer of George Galloway, Hitchens’s opponent in the debate linked above on the Iraq War. George Galloway once said: “I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life“.

It is through polemics like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great that “New Atheism” has gained mass attention. Alongside Hitchens, the movement’s two other leading disciples, Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), have engaged in innumerable public debates with religious figures, making them doubly influential as Internet celebrities and popularizers of antitheism.

At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.

In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.

The claims made in the last paragraph above won’t be justified by Mr. Savage. Rather, he goes:

Whereas some earlier atheist traditions have rejected violence and championed the causes of the Left — Bertrand Russell, to take an obvious example, was both a socialist and a unilateralist — the current streak represented by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris has variously embraced, advocated, or favorably contemplated: aggressive war, state violence, the curtailing of civil liberties, torture, and even, in the case of the latter, genocidal preemptive nuclear strikes against Arab nations.

I re-provide the link I gave above to Sam Harris’s response to the last point. None of the above New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) ever advocated for torture in practice. To clarify, Hitchens had himself waterboarded simply to check whether it was actually torture, and began speaking out against the practice thereafter. Sam Harris has written a piece entitled “In Defense of Torture” where he examined which extreme cases could make torture acceptable. Harris’s piece has every sign of having been written by a rational thinker and not by a fan of Dick Cheney. On civil liberties: years before the likes of Glenn Greenwald jumped the bandwagon, Hitchens was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency. On “aggressive war” and “state violence”: both Dawkins and Harris opposed the war in Iraq, and Hitchens defended it for reasons which his detractors won’t even be bothered to mention, apparently.

Its leading exponents wear a variety of ideological garbs, but their espoused politics range from those of right-leaning liberals to proto-fascist demagogues of the European far-right.

The fact that few people besides “proto-fascist demagogues” voice concern about the possible Islamisation of Europe does not mean that being concerned about it automatically means one is a “proto-fascist demagogue”. The best journalist I know of in Europe is Nick Cohen, who’s perhaps the only person on the Guardian lineup not to be a cheerleader for bowing to Islam in the UK. What is sure is that he’s no proto-fascist, unless you want to label every critic of Islam proto-fascist (which I’m sure some on the left wouldn’t mind).

The title of Hitchens’ bestselling book tells us something about the priorities and focus of the New Atheist movement (“God is Not Great” is clearly intended to be a facetious inversion of the common Arabic phrase Allahu Akbar, which translates as “God is Great,” something which he no doubt thought was both hilarious and iconoclastic). Without exception, an overwhelming preoccupation with Islam infuses the whole discourse, even as it posits itself as a disinterested scientific critique of religion as such.

Dishonest writing. Hitchens’s fight against religion was less scientific than it was political.

Indeed, Sam Harris’s much-discussed October appearance on Real Time withBill Maher — a crude spectacle in which he pigeonholed most Muslims as “jihadists,” “Islamists,” or “conservatives” — merely complements a lengthy record of Islamic demonology from him and other leading figures in the New Atheist movement.

Apparently, it’s wrong to say that most Muslims are conservative. I’m curious to know what proportion of Muslims worldwide support contraception, apostasy rights, gay rights, etc. Maybe we could look at poll results to learn something about this. Oh, wait, no, they’re just “abstract data points”. It’d be much better to just state, in the face of evidence, the “liberal” credo that only a “tiny, minuscule” minority of Muslims take their religion seriously (sorry, I just love this too much).

In The End of Faith, for example, he argues: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” Elsewhere, he writes: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” And, while defending the Iraq War as a humane, civilizing mission: “We are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.”

What Sam Harris means by “We are at war with Islam” is an ideological war, not a war with every single individual who identifies as Muslim. But making that clear would show how useless Mr. Savage’s entire article is.

While Harris’s views are undoubtedly the most strident, there is certainly overlap with Hitchens and Dawkins. In a 2007 interview, Hitchens argued: “If you ask what is wrong with Islam, it makes the same mistake as [other] religions, but it makes another mistake, which is that it’s unalterable. You notice how liberals keep saying, ‘If only Islam would have a Reformation’ – it can’t have one. It says it can’t. It’s extremely dangerous in that way.”

In addition to the blatant chauvinism of such a statement, it is not a remotely accurate historical claim and is arguably hypocritical, even on its own terms. Islamic fundamentalism — which no one, incidentally, believes to be a fiction — is insidious not because of its adherence to some ossified medieval tradition, but rather because of its eager and effective embrace of modernist dynamism.

Indeed. Nothing illustrates a group of people’s “embrace of modernist dynamism” better than, say, mutilating young women who dare wear nail polish, prevent little girls from going to school, and killing all adult males in villages where the dominant faith is not the one you approve of. But wait, I’m sure Mr. Savage misspoke. He’s going to clarify this in the next paragraph, right?

Not to be outdone, Richard Dawkins has called Islam “the greatest force for evil today” (in the same breath, rather amusingly, as admitting he’s never bothered to read the Koran). At other times Dawkins has beeneven more vulgar, tweeting: “For me, the horror of Hitler is matched by bafflement at the ovine stupidity of his followers. Increasingly feel the same about Islamism” and inferring that then-New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hassan is unqualified to be a journalist because he is also a Muslim. Or, to take yet another example, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

For the New Atheists, then, all religions are equally bad — but Islam is more equally bad.

If you bother to go fetch Dawkins’s tweet on Mehdi Hassan, you’ll see it reads “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist”, which is somewhat different from old school religion-based discrimination. Incidentally, this could open another debate, which I think is very interesting: how much intellectual respect should be granted to people who are glad to accept Bronze Age desert mythology as central to their lives? The “For the New Atheists, then, all religions are equally bad — but Islam is more equally bad.” passage is playful slander, but slander nonetheless. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, especially, always made it clear that all religions are equally unworthy of intellectual respect, but that some of them (Islam included) have especially hateful teachings.

It is simply impossible to imagine the commercial and intellectual success of the New Atheist project in a pre-9/11 world without both rising anti-Muslim sentiments across Western societies or neoconservative geopolitics. It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.

During the Real Time appearance, both Harris and Maher mounted the familiar argument that their position is a defense of “liberal principles” that others, out of fear, timidity, or perhaps relativism are applying selectively. Maher:

“Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles … like freedom of speech, freedom to practice religion without fear of violence, equality for minorities including homosexuals … these are liberal values which liberals would applaud, but then when you say ‘in the Muslim world these qualities are lacking,’ then they get upset … [Islam is] the only religion that acts like the Mafia.”

Harris affirmed this statement, and took it further:

“Liberals have really failed on theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy, they’ll criticize Christians … they’ll still get agitated over the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984 … We have been sold this meme of ‘Islamophobia’ in which every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people … we have to be able to criticize bad ideas… [and] Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

There is much to say about these statements, but let us first examine what this noble and courageous defense of “liberal principles” looks like in practice.

The politics of the leading New Atheist thinkers are not uniform. Dawkins opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while Hitchens was one of its leading apologists. Harris defends torture as an ethical necessity in the “war on terror” while Hitchens, who was voluntarily subjected to waterboarding, did not. Both Hitchens and Harris have been prone to bellicose outbursts of violent, almost bloodthirsty rhetoric, which cannot be said of Dawkins.

See my clarifications above.

Nevertheless, all are united by several common intellectual threads. Each espouses a binary worldview that pits a civilized, cosmopolitan, and progressive West against a barbaric, monistic, and reactionary East. Though varied in their political positions, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all had very public alliances with the Right, expressing either overt sympathy for, or enthusiastic endorsement of, some of its most vile and disreputable elements.

Is that supposed to mean that the Right is, by definition, wrong on every single issue, and intrinsically evil? Well, clarification on which of “its most vile and disreputable elements” the New Atheists have had “public alliances” with might have helped me discuss this point, but such clarification is not provided.

Each is outwardly a cultural liberal who primarily addresses liberal audiences — “respectable” to blue-state metropolitans and their equivalents elsewhere in ways Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh never could be — while embracing positions and causes that are manifestly illiberal in the commonly understood sense of the term.

When you take a cold hard look at what liberalism has become, i.e., as far as I can see, little more than a metropolitan, upper-middle class, culturally relativistic version of self-righteousness which seems to have welcomed Islamism as a force against Western-centred capitalism, you’ll fail to see what the problem is here.

Beneath its many layers of intellectual adornment — the typical New Atheist text is laden with maudlin references to Darwin, Newton, and Galileo — we find a worldview intimately familiar to anyone who has studied the language of empires past: culturally supremacist, essentializing and othering towards the foreign, equal parts patronizing and paternalistic, and legitimating of the violence committed for its own ends.

The charge of patronage leveled by Mr. Savage is as ridiculous as it is obscene, in the wake of decades of patronising of Muslim immigrants by the European left. See here for a discussion of the kind of dishonesty displayed by Mr. Savage.

In The End of Faith Harris suggests that nuclear-first strikes may be necessary if the ostensible conflict between “Islam” and “civilization” escalates: “What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?…The only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”

Here Mr. Savage won’t be bothered to try and refute Sam Harris’s arguments.

In an endorsement of one of the Iraq War’s key justifying logics, Harris described it as a noble and selfless crusade undertaken by the civilized West to defeat Islamic barbarism. In late 2004, he wrote in the Washington Post, “civilized human beings [Westerners] are now attempting, at considerable cost to themselves, to improve life for the Iraqi people.”

Elsewhere in the The End of Faith, he avers:

We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.

The book goes out of its way to frame Arab nations as backward and Muslims within them as primitive and in need of paternalistic tutelage. “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,” he pronounces, in tones worthy of a nineteenth century ethnographer.

Mr. Savage probably knows that denying the fact that “not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development” would expose him as the dishonest ideologue he is, so he’ll just casually associate Harris with 19th century racists. Stay classy.

“At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root.”

What is needed, in his view, is no less than the imposition of “benign” tyranny:

“Some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary … But benignity is the key and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both.”

I’ve briefly addressed this above.

In his voluntarily assumed role as a leading “war on terror” propagandist, Hitchens — who had previously eviscerated Henry Kissinger for his executive role in the 1969 bombing of Cambodia — embraced the rhetoric of violent militarism with an even more aggressive zeal.

Speaking about the 2004 assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which had been occupied by anti-American insurgents, Hitchens declared that the “death toll is not nearly high enough” on the grounds that “too many jihadists [had] escaped.” (The civilian death toll in the Battle of Fallujah is contested, but aid groups on the ground called it a “humanitarian catastrophe,” and residents today suffer extremely high rates of birth defects and cancer, apparently from the use of white phosphorous and other chemical weapons by American forces. The increase in cases of leukemia exceeds that which followed the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.)

Here Mr. Savage stoops so low as to imply that when Hitchens wished more jihadists had been killed, he really meant to say he wished more civilians had been killed.

Hitchens also praised the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan as “pretty good, because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too.”

On the subject of jihadists, he declared: “It’s a sort of pleasure as well as a duty to kill these people.”

 And…?

On another occasion, Hitchens stunned even sympathetic members of an audience in Madison, Wisconsin by saying of Iran, a nation of almost 80 million people: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”

I haven’t seen this particular talk by Hitchens. As discussed above, the only way I see to make sense of this in the light of other discussions of Iran by Hitch is to assume he was talking not about the country’s inhabitants, but about its sinister theocratic regime.

The tendency to abhor the violence of its chosen enemies while relativizing and legitimating its own is an intrinsic part of any imperial or colonial ideology, and a consistent feature in the rhetoric of both Hitchens and Harris.

This kind of blabber might make some sense in an alternate reality in which Europe was liberated from the Nazi takeover through nonviolent means. Hitchens, keep in mind, wasn’t even reluctant to discuss the war crimes committed by the Allied Forces in World War 2. He spoke out against the use of torture by the US Army in Iraq. But all that is lost on Mr. Savage.

Another preoccupation of leading New Atheists mirrors several themes of Europe’s neo-fascist right.

In extremely sinister fashion, Harris has mused about the birthrates of European Muslims and the supposed peril of their prolific breeding. The notion of a demographic “threat” posed by Muslims in Europe is easy to debunk empirically.

Mr. Harris’s quote: “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe.  The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”

The debunking: see here. It seems as though the only way in which Mr. Harris’s assertion about France can be correct is that in 2030 France, Islam will be the religion with the most followers. But that’s not enough for Mr. Savage.

Even if this weren’t the case, the sordid subtext of these remarks is confirmed by Harris’s favorable treatment of far-right figures, who speak openly of the demographic dangers posed by Muslims. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris makes his sympathies explicit, declaring: “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascists.”

On the contrary, Sam Harris has expressed his regret at the failure of the left to speak out against Islam (see the Bill Maher show).

Harris shares such terrain with neoconservatives like Mark Steyn, who writes: “Every Continental under the age of 40 — make that 60, if not 75 — is all but guaranteed to end his days living in an Islamified Europe.”

In a positive review of Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Hitchens expressed disagreement with Harris’s pro-fascist sentiments — but didn’t take issue with the posited “demographic threat.”

Here the interesting part is Hitchens’s writing “When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: ‘Not while I’m alive, they won’t'”. This is the best way to disprove Harris’s assertion: by speaking out against Islam. But that’s a possibility Mr. Savage has excluded from the start.

He also defended his close friend, novelist Martin Amis, who toldthe Times Magazine:

There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.

This is convenient quoting, not to say quote mining. Check the link for yourself.

Harris’s treatment of Muslims as a unique demographic and security risk has caused him to advocate racial profiling and to side with the likes of Sarah Palin and Fox News on the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Guilt by association is a recurring theme in the rhetoric of the “anti-Islamism but pro-Islam” left. That might be a cosmetic point, but Sam Harris has made clear he would gladly include himself in the people who, based on looks, should be suspected of being a jihadist more easily than an Asian five-year old girl or a white grandpa in a wheelchair.

Dawkins has enthusiastically supported far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has called for the banning of the Koran — a book he’s compared to Mein Kampf — alongside mosques and immigration from Muslim countries. In 2009 Wilders faced trial for hate speech, and his 2008 film Fitna is replete with racist images like Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb. Dawkins: “On the strength of ‘Fitna’ alone, I salute you [Wilders] as a man of courage who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.”

Mr. Savage had been careful up to that point, but here he’s jumped the shark. An image of “Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb” is apparently racist. If you want a plausible reason as to why one might compare the Koran to Mein Kampf, see here.

Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have all rejected the notion that there is anything racist about statements of this kind or the prescriptions that so often follow from them: “Muslims aren’t a race,” being by now a particularly worn phrase in the New Atheist rhetorical repertoire. Harris and Hitchens have also dismissed the term “Islamophobia” as a tool for silencing their arguments. According to the latter: “A stupid term — Islamophobia — has been put into circulation to try and suggest that a foul prejudice lurks behind any misgivings about Islam’s infallible ‘message.’”

Given that “race” is an entirely social construct, with a history that involves the systemic racialization of various national, ethnic, and religious minorities, this defense is extremely flimsy. The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.

Only the last sentence here is not pure white noise, and its arguments have been addressed above.

If its imperialism and racism aren’t enough, New Atheism’s intellectual foundations are also exceptionally weak. Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.

Another pet talking point of the critics of New Atheism. Let’s see how it’s argued for here.

The typical New Atheist text scrutinizes religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence.

So wrong it hurts. Go to YouTube. Search for Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Knock yourself off.

Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith — namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform — is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon. As Terry Eagleton puts it in a discussion of God is Not Great:

“Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.”

Except for extremist wackos, it seems as though religious believers, or apologists for religions, can’t be bothered to argue in defense of the foundational texts of religion. It goes along the lines of: “Word of God? C’mon, Mr. Harris, no one really believes that!”

Contrary to the crude epistemology of rational scientism, religions are not rigid “doctrines” that followers obey uniformly, regardless of their social or material contexts. As Seymour has written:

Religion is a labour of interpretation, of symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances. Apart from anything else, the sheer indeterminacy of religious texts would make it impossible for there to be a literal, consistent meaning present in the texts: interpretation is [indispensable].

Here I can’t not point out that it seems like very tough luck that the most revered books on Earth are ones for which “interpretation is indispensable”, something which is rarely said of any other book. How inconvenient and regrettable indeed, is it that the books around which most of people are urged to organise their lives are so unclear and open to interpretation! It’s amazing to see how far apologists are willing to go to blur lines and negate definitions.

This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion — one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.

Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind — honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise — are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.

Unless, of course, a straightforward reading of holy texts leads one to think that your God wants you to perform such actions.

The ways in which the New Atheism serves imperialism are manifold. It bolsters the “clash of civilizations” narrative used to justify ventures like the invasion of Iraq and the need for repressive measures like state surveillance.

Addressed above.

Moreover, in presenting itself as a disinterested defense of reason, it lends such arguments a credibility they would lack in the hands of commentators from the political or cultural right.

For Mr. Savage, it seems that if you happen to agree, even superficially, with the right, you shouldn’t bother using arguments. You’re wrong by definition.

Finally, it shifts the focus from the social ills wrought by unjust economic arrangements to an external singularity called “religion.”

As argued by Christopher Hitchens, you can’t do much against poverty until you start giving women control on their reproductive cycle, something against which all religions have always violently campaigned.

Beneath its superficial rationalism, then, the New Atheism amounts to little more than an intellectual defense of empire and a smokescreen for the injustices of global capitalism. It is a parochial universalism whose potency lies in its capacity to appear simultaneously iconoclastic, dissenting, and disinterested, while channeling vulgar prejudices, promoting imperial projects, and dressing up banal truisms as deep insights.

Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may masquerade as intellectual insurgents, leading a crusade against the insipid tolerance of liberal politics. But ultimately they are apologists for some of its most destructive tendencies.

That is, thankfully, the end of Mr. Savage’s piece. The next source is supposed to support the notion that jihad is “in fact about geopolitics”. I wanted to take it “front to back”, but it’s such a hatchet piece I won’t waste my time with it. Its writer, Sean McElwee, blurs the line between strawmaning one’s opponents’ positions and flat out lying. More often than not, he’s happy to go with the second possibility. I would spend much more time and energy writing about Mr. McElwee’s lies than I would trying to refute his arguments, so I’ll pass. I also wanted to address CJ Werleman’s Salon piece, but it’s so badly written the only think I can concentrate on while reading it is “Now I know why he plagiarised people, his own prose is so bad it makes me cringe”.

The only thing I learned while reading these pieces was that the fear of a Muslim demographic takeover of Europe is ill-founded. As a New Atheist myself, I’ll unapologetically say that this is great news. Let’s encourage the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants to leave their faiths, and to join in the building and strengthening of a society in which the rights women, free thinkers and homosexuals are affirmed and upheld. To drive my point home, I’ll close by quoting a YouTube comment I’ve recently made:

I don’t care what skin colour Europeans will have in a fifty or a hundred years. I care what kind of “software” they’ll have “running” on their brains. I want it to be centred on humanism, freedom and secularism. I don’t want it to be any religion or facile, “one size fits all” ideology. I think Muslim immigrants who come to Europe should be clearly told that our ancestors didn’t tame Christianity for us to surrender to Islam only a few decades/centuries later.

Social Justice: Recycling Christianity

My first exposure to “social justice warfare” was through my passion for secularism and free thinking. It was introduced to me, so to speak, by Thunderf00t, a rather prominent voice in English-speaking atheist/free thinking circles, who runs what I’ve called my favourite channel on YouTube.  Around two years ago, Thunderf00t started posting uncharacteristic content on his channel: videos dealing with feminism, and how some feminists were trying to “take control” of the “atheist movement” in the United States. The best illustration of this was the creation by a Jen McCreight, supported among others by a Dr. Richard Carrier, of Atheism Plus, a movement which wanted to unite atheists around a social justice-oriented political agenda. The foundation of the movement arguably found its roots in claims of pervasive misogyny and sexism within US atheist/skeptic circles, claims which, to my knowledge, are yet to be substantiated. Atheism Plus was founded on the motto

We are…

  • Atheists plus we care about social justice,

  • Atheists plus we support women’s rights,

  • Atheists plus we protest racism,

  • Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,

  • Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

To do it à la Christopher Hitchens, I’ll address these points in reverse order.

  • The last one is clearly the most ridiculous. Atheists are known to use critical thinking and skepticism all the time. It is possible in principle, to be an atheist purely on faith, or because one was brought up to be one, but the fact of the matter is that this is a marginal phenomenon at most. Atheism is a position at which people arrive through critical thinking and skepticism.
  • That surely is a noble cause, but contrasting it to “only atheism” is doubly ridiculous. First, gay and trans rights have technically nothing to do with atheism whatsoever. Second, if you want to be political on top of your atheism, that’s perfectly all right, but it’s clear to me that you’ll only be pushing an open door if you “fight homophobia and transphobia” in atheist circles (of course, there’re always exceptions, but come on).
  • See just above.
  • See just above.
  • Voilà. This is more or less how I was introduced to social justice. I’ll devote the remainder of this post to discussing this political movement and how it reminds me of Christianity.

I can start with a nod to my previous post in which I called the juxtaposition of a word -usually an adjective acting as an epithet- to a great, universal word “the rape” of that second word. For instance, alternative medicine, or maybe, Christian science, or, as it stands, social justice.

Social justice, for several reasons, reminds me of Christianity. Here’s why:

  • Social justice relies very much on guilt to convince people. Especially the people it deems “privileged”. That is, especially, straight white males. As if being those things were a guarantee of having an easy life. For instance here you can find someone praising the bogus “academic discipline” of women’s studies who, writing about “privilege” and “oppression”, goes

    The problem with broad application of these terms outside of their intended meaning is that they diminish their real truths. Privilege and oppression are part of a spectrum of disempowerment and cultural norms, and the stuff in between is just as important. Some stuff sucks and is uncomfortable, but isn’t oppression. Some people have had super easy lives, but not necessarily because they’re in a culturally privileged social group.

    Here one can already see how ideology is at work. Instead of going for the intellectually honest meaning of privileged as having a “super easy [life]”, the writer sets the stage for explaining everything in terms of social groups. An impulse that is absolutely endemic in social justice circles, where people seem to love nothing more than to put labels on people and then think of them as “black” or “female” or “straight” instead of as individuals.To go back to guilt, in fairness, it’s easy to find many social justice “warriors” use what has almost become a catchphrase in their circles, namely “Privilege is not something to be ashamed of, it is something to be aware of”. But I’ve found it rather common to see “privilege” mentioned in the same breath as “oppression”. For instance, in the same text as above:


    That’s where oppression comes into play: just as privilege confers special luxuries and basic rights exclusively to certain social groups, oppression denies those same things to the “other.” Oppression and privilege go hand-in-hand. because those with privilege are participants in a social structure that uses that privilege specifically to limit the opportunities or resources of another group.

    That’s where the awareness/guilt dichotomy explodes in the hands of those who were swearing they’d handle it carefully. If that paragraph is to be accepted, then one must reject the notion that privilege shouldn’t come with any guilt or shame. Indeed, one should feel guilty if one is a “[participant] in a social structure that uses that privilege specifically to limit the opportunities or resources of another group”.

  • Once you’re convinced of your guilt, social justice pulls a classic Christian move: “As you now know, you’re an evil, selfish oppressor unworthy of respect, but chin up, now, because you can be saved from your wicked ways. Just accept social justice as your savior and join us”. Like in religion, that involves swallowing a truckload of ideological baggage, as scrutinised in detail here. If, on the other hand, you appear to be part of an “oppressed minority”, social justice is also here to save you. In fact, it was invented with you in mind. You can be saved from oppression and all kinds of discrimination, at the low cost of not asking questions and isolating yourself from conflicting viewpoints. Behold “GeekFeminism”‘s definition of a “safe space”, something that is invariably called for by third-wave feminists and other social justice “warriors” to be provided by educational institutions, as “an area or forum where either a marginalised group are not supposed to face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalisation, or in which a shared political or social viewpoint is required to participate in the space”. Of course, according to social justice lingo, women are a “marginalised group”, just to give you an idea. One can argue, I think, with the first half of the definition (it may or may not be a good thing), but, in the second acceptance of the term, “safe space” just becomes a euphemism for “a place where we mutually reinforce our biases and from which we have a right to exclude anyone who disagrees with us”.
  • Like ideologues of all obediences, but especially religious believers, social justice types have a general hatred of free speech. One of the best illustrations for this is the “Ban Bossy” campaign/trainwreck, centred on a YouTube video where  it is actually, really, explicitly, literally said that, and I quote, “By middle school, girls are less interested in leadership than boys. And that’s because they worry about being called ‘bossy'” (sic). Don’t even ask if they’ll bother to prove evidence for that. And of course, later in the video, the hammer is dropped: “Let’s just ban the word ‘bossy'”. That is just, sadly, the tip of the iceberg. On North American college campuses, it seems that social justice ideology has gone rampant, and with the love of its followers for censorships, free speech is facing repeated challenges. See here for instance, and especially here where Dr. Janice Fiamengo very cogently voices concerns about a “takeover” of humanities departments by this ideology.Seeing how Europe always seems to import American trends with a few years’ lag, I have to say I’m curious about a possible development of a censorship-loving, pseudo-feminist ideology in our campuses. It might not happen, and that would be a relief.

The “Rape of Words”

Politeness has always been an important feature of society and civilisation, but I think that overall, it is a bit overrated. This is especially the case when people are involved in debating ideas. Many people will take disagreement as a personal insult. This is very regrettable, I think, but also very clear. Many people will disregard claims of “hurt feelings” and keep trying to get their point across, but they form a minority. Many more people have decided that the best way to argue is sometimes simply not to argue, but rather to refrain from voicing their disagreement with someone who might get “offended”.

To accommodate this state of affairs, the media and our general public discourse have been busy redefining the meaning of some words. At the forefront are respect and tolerance, two big words which used to be beautiful, bold and sincere. “Respect”, according to most dictionaries, either means “admiration” or “careful deference”. It is my impression that, in the public discourse, its first meaning is almost no longer in use. Notice, indeed, how people say that they “respect” someone only when they disagree with them (I’d even playfully say that “respect” has become to disagreement what “friendship” has become to unrequited love: it’s the thing -or the word- you’ll give someone whose feeling you’ve hurt, mostly to feel better about yourself). In and of itself, that is just a quirk of our era. I would even be very pleased if more people were able to disrespect people’s ideas while respecting the actual people. But that’s clearly not enough to please those who seem to want nothing more than a soft dictatorship of the most easily offended. Many people actually insist that not only their persons and their rights should be respected, but that their ideas be shown equal deference. As far as I know, this kind of demands come almost exclusively from religious authorities and so-called “persons of faith”. The demand is often worded around the lines of “You may not agree with my religion, but at least you should respect it”. Respecting beliefs is not only not required by any moral or ethical imperative, it is even dangerous, and can often only be done at the cost of extreme hypocrisy. To put it plainly, religious belief, as well as the dogmas (or dogmata) religious people carry with them, are not worthy of respect. So maybe they are worthy of “tolerance”? Well, I tolerate their existence, and that’s about as far as I can go. I’ll tolerate the beliefs, and only the beliefs. Though I’m urged to do so, I won’t tolerate the push by religious people for religious education, against contraception, against the rights of homosexuals and unbelievers, and everyone else indeed. To use a recurrent trope, I will only “tolerate intolerance” insofar as intolerant people understand no one has to follow their dogmata or confirm to their “teachings”.

Keep in mind that these demands for “respect”, or, even more abjectly, “tolerance”, are made only because religions have lost their grip on most of Western society. Eliciting pity is one of the only means of survival left at religions’ disposition. The only thing that should be granted to religious people is the only thing, so to speak, that should be granted to other people: freedom of thought and speech and expression. No less, but no more. A fantastic piece on this topic can be found here. It would be a waste of time for me to rehash even its best excerpts, as I would mainly be cheering along, not adding much valuable information to the mix.

“Respect” and “tolerance” have lost much of their beauty and grandeur as words. “Respect” is chiefly offered as a measly compensation for mild to fair disagreement, while “tolerance” is the notion people like journalists invoke when all else is lost, for instance in debates or interviews, when the opposition of ideas couldn’t be starker. This tendency to use positive-sounding words to hide the ugly truth is rather universal, and obviously goes beyond these two particular words. A special variation on this theme is when epithets are juxtaposed to genuinely “positive words” to exploit their prestige while completely changing their meaning, a particularly disingenuous, sordid practice which I’m tempted to call the “rape of words”. Prominent examples include:

– Alternative medicine. From homeopathy to faith healing, these are practices which have, at best, the same effect as a placebo. At worst, they encourage sick people not to seek medical treatment, which can cause great harm to their health. Proponents of alternative medicine often display a rather strongly antiscientific animus, and revel in epistemic and cultural relativism.

– Creation science. A particularly egregious example whereby religious zealots try to benefit from science’s reputation while being in the business of shamelessly violating the scientific method.

Thoughts Around Books (2) The Fakery of “Scientism”

Benson and Stangroom’s Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense is so short and terse I struggled to think of a topic to discuss. I finally settled for “scientism”, the game-breaking word often used in discussions about science and its importance for mankind. B&S’ Dictionary clearly upholds, through satire, the view that rational discourse is the best (and maybe the only) kind of discourse to approach, if not reach, true statements about the world. With some people, this view can be unpopular. And a “word” has been attached to it. That “word” is “scientism”, a group of phonemes which has an acoustic appeal roughly equal to that of the sound of throwing up. From what I’ve seen around the internet, the “scientism” argument has rather little to offer beyond caveats and strawmen. Namely, it starts with the “Science has had countless positive consequences for humanity” caveat and carries on with the “But some scientists think that science can solve all humanity’s problems, which is wrong” strawman. There’s often a lot of tilting at windmills involved, and, so as not to fall into that trap myself, I’ve selected a nine-part (yep) argument laid out by Former NASA researcher and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Dave Pruett in the Huffington Post, among others to show that the “scientism” accusation isn’t only thrown around by stupid or gullible individuals. Links to this “Science’s Sacred Cows” series are provided here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/sciences-sacred-cows-part-1_b_2392381.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/newtons-laws_b_2431074.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/science-determinism_b_2490045.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/sciences-sacred-cows-part-4-dualism_b_2606489.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/sciences-sacred-cows-part_b_2663986.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/science-sacred-cows-part-6-realism_b_2796507.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/reductionism_b_2891392.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/sciences-sacred-cows-part_1_b_2948321.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-pruett/sciences-sacred-cows-part_2_b_3008153.html

Since I’m a patriarchal, ethnocentrist, imperialist linear thinker, I’ll start with part 1 and then soldier on through the following parts. So let’s dive in. Pr. Pruett opens with no less than

In a 1983 address to an international symposium on Galileo, Pope John Paul II issued a stunning pronouncement:

“The Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. … It is certain that science and faith represent two different orders of knowledge, autonomous in their processes, but finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects…”

Given centuries of animosity between science and religion, the pontiff’s admission astounds for several reasons. First, it stresses the complementarity rather than the antagonism of rational and intuitive modes of knowing. Second, it grants autonomy to both revelatory processes, implying that neither should seek to manipulate or triumph over the other. And third, it suggests that ultimate truth — so far as we can know it — emerges from the concerted efforts of external and internal explorations.
The notion that faith is a process of acquiring knowledge is invariably facepalm-inducing. But since Pr. Pruett wants to talk about how reason-driven and superstition-based claims of fact “converge upon the discovery of reality”, here’s how it usually goes: writers of religious texts make a claim about the physical world, that claim is held as true during centuries because children are taught to accept it on faith, at some point a scientist proves the claim is wrong and should be discarded, the scientist is insulted and threatened, and sometimes worse, and pressed to dismiss his findings, time passes and many scientists confirm the initial findings of the scientist which become scientific fact, the church amends its initial claim and calls it “metaphorical” instead of discarding it. More about that in this fantastic presentation by the great Jerry Coyne.
Pr. Pruett then mentions some of the worst examples of the bullying and  persecuting of scientists by religion, and then jumps the shark:
Science’s infractions are subtler but equally damaging to the human spirit. During an enlightening lecture in 2000 by religion scholar Huston Smith, I began to appreciate how science infringes on religion’s domain. Smith thoughtfully distinguished science from scientism. The former is an investigative protocol; the latter is a religion, complete with dogma. Science is a formalized procedure for making sense of the world by studying its material properties, perceived through the awareness of the senses […]. Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material. Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science over the past three centuries, it is more than fair to acknowledge that science represents a powerful way to learn about the world. But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world. In short, scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible.
If “scientism is a religion”, as Pr. Pruett argues, then how is it infringing on religion’s domain? If faith is a legitimate way to gain insight or knowledge, how is the purported faith behind “scientism” bad? The best answer to these questions found here is stunningly weak and lazy: “scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible”. The comparison is intellectually embarrassing to say the least. Non-fundamentalist religion is, I’m afraid, little more than the practice of ad hoc exegesis of holy texts with the goal of nullifying the most grossly immoral or laughably counterfactual excerpts. You don’t see “moderate” and “fundamentalist” theoretical physicists arguing over whether section 5.2 of Steven Weinberg’s The Quantum Theory of Fields is to be read metaphorically. That’s because in science, we’ve got a clear way to discriminate what should and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Experimental evidence is to be taken seriously. Intellectual, formal and/or mathematical constructions are to be taken seriously when their underlying assumptions or axioms are motivated by empirical evidence. All the rest, as far as I can think, is useless. Religion is a completely different game, and the fact that it values faith over evidence makes it intrinsically incompatible with the scientific endeavour.
Science remains most true to itself and of greatest value to humanity when it assiduously avoids unnecessary assumptions. Over the long arc of history, science has initially embraced — then discarded — most of the following tacit assumptions: dualism, determinism, reductionism, absolute time, absolute space, the principle of locality, materialism and, most recently, realism. In subsequent posts, we’ll examine each of these in some detail.
What Pr. Pruett doesn’t say, and maybe doesn’t understand, is that scientists have made the assumptions we all make in our everyday life. They had no reason not to make these prima facie perfectly reasonable assumptions, which are derived from everyday experience and allowed them to construct theories, which for decades or even centuries, were not contradicted by experiment. It’s also particularly funny to see Pr. Pruett list all these assumptions while omitting one of the central ones: the God hypothesis. The one which, a couple of millenia ago, was used to explain just about everything. Of all the countless achievements of science throughout history, not a single one has made use of the God hypothesis. At the moment, one can safely call the God hypothesis “entirely redundant” and discard it, since it hasn’t been used to explain, let alone predict, a single scientific observation. Of course, in some sense, the God hypothesis explains everything. If a surprising or unusual event can’t be explained by scientists, or even if it can, you can always say “God did it”. It works. It explains everything. It has of course, no intellectual value whatsoever. It features no analysis, no systematisation, no identifying of patterns and relevant parameters or variables, and no testing of hypotheses, and, for these very reasons, it has strictly no predictive value. Its usefulness for science is therefore exactly zero. It’s a much, much, much worse assumption to make than, for instance, absolute space and time. If you assume that time and space are absolute, you can still “do” Newtonian mechanics, nonrelativistic quantum physics, chaos theory, statistical mechanics and hence thermodynamics, etc. In other words, you can build steam engines and planes and transistors and predict the weather (the caveat here being that you must have, to invent some of these technologies, a working knowledge of the laws of electricity, but, in order to retain your absolute time/space hypothesis should not look too deep into the underlying structure of the more fundamental theory of electrodynamics, which is incompatible with that hypothesis -nevertheless, if you do realise that hypothesis isn’t valid after all, it will only mean that you’ll understand that nonrelativistic theories are only approximately valid, but that won’t mean steam engines and planes and transistors will stop working). Pr. Pruett closes this incipit with the following paragraph:
Ultimately, science and religion should serve rather than dominate the human societies from which they emerged. Each, I believe, serves best from a stance of awe and humility that assumes as little as possible. The best from both worlds — the greatest scientists and the most profound religious thinkers and teachers — have always practiced these two qualities. Childlike awe motivated Einstein. “All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren,” he accepted. “The real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.” Similarly, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner invoked both humility and awe when he asked, “Which do we love more, the small island of our so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?”
Here’s what happens to religion when you start “assum[ing] as little as possible”: it disappears. Its unprovable claims to knowledge, which bear no predictive power whatsoever, become completely superfluous. Aside from that, claiming these two quotes bear the same meaning is simply dishonest. While Einstein’s assertion echoes Socrates’s insistence that wisdom is knowing how little you know, Rahner is clearly dismissive of knowledge. I think Rahner’s metaphor is adequate and even pretty good, though not used for the best. Rather than downplaying the importance of the island of knowledge, we should expand it by building polders. This way we can observe farther away towards the see of mystery. Today we are in awe when we look at and think of black holes rather than simply rainfalls. If you don’t work to expand the island, you’ll just be staring at the same skyline forever.
Part 2 of Pr. Pruett’s series is a very terse, and forgivably simplistic account of how Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics opened the way for Einstein’s special relativity, which in turn meant the hypothesis of absolute space and time had to be discarded. Part 3 consists of three different subparts, the first of which is concerned with chaos and the second of which with the advent of quantum physics. The final subpart is a kind of botched “putting everything together” conclusion. Part 3 is marred by two jaw-dropping mistakes. The first one is that Pr. Pruett affirms that deterministic nonlinear chaotic systems force us to do away with determinism. Assuming you know the initial state of a chaotic system perfectly, you can predict its future behaviour at all times. There’s nothing non-deterministic about that, and that’s a crass mistake to make when you’re trying to showcase your knowledge of science in order to criticise “scientism”. Non-determinism is not a feature of chaotic systems but of stochastic systems, systems which are described by probabilities. The second mistake is made when Pr. Pruett writes
“Newton’s law of gravitation is nonlinear. Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics are not, but they’re the exceptions. General relativity is strongly nonlinear. So are the strong and weak nuclear forces. As a result, so is most chemistry.”
This passage is cringeworthy for two reasons:
1. It makes excessive and unprofessional use of the “linear/nonlinear” dichotomy. Comparing Maxwell’s equations with general relativity and the strong and weak nuclear forces is meaningless on face value. One can compare Maxwell’s equations with the Yang-Mills equations, which are to the strong and weak nuclear interactions what Maxwell’s equations are to the electromagnetic interaction. The Yang-Mills equations are indeed nonlinear equations for the strong and weak fields. Einstein’s general relativity equations for the metric field, which, roughly stated, describes how curved spacetime is, are nonlinear. Mentioning Newton’s law of gravitation amidst these other equations is rather frivolous as it is but a very special case of Einstein’s equations.
2. Much worse is the apparent “deduction” that “most chemistry [is nonlinear]” from the nonlinear nature of the equations governing general relativity (and hence gravitation) as well as strong and weak interactions. That is simply an embarrassing mistake. Pr. Pruett should know that out of the four fundamental interactions of nature, i.e. gravitational, electromagnetic, strong and weak, the gravitational, let alone the weak, interactions have extremely little, if anything, to do with chemistry. The same can be said about the strong interaction, with the caveat that it is central in the cohesion of atomic nuclei, around which the electrons “live”. But chemistry is really the story of electromagnetic interactions between electrons and atomic nuclei, and, as such, prominently features Maxwell’s equations which are linear.
Part 4 deals with measurement in quantum physics, and, in a way, so does part 5, which is concerned with the EPR paradox. Pr. Pruett is more at ease with these topics than with determinism and nonlinearity. Part 6 is largely a rehash of Part 5, and also deals with “realism”, though in a quite superficial way.
Part 7, which deals with reductionism, largely leaves the realm of science to enter the territory of pop epistemology. It’s little more than a medley of loosely related points. The general message, it seems to me, is that “Scientific models are not perfectly accurate descriptions of the physical reality”, which every one has known for centuries. When Pr. Pruett mentions that
a type of reductionism occupies the very heart of thermodynamics by allowing us, in principle, to wall off a system from its environment. But truly isolated systems are hard to find
he could equally be arguing that any prediction made while considering that the Earth is a perfect ball is only approximate because the Earth is not perfectly spherical. But he doesn’t bother to make this kind of argument, because he’s set on a course to argue for holism. And less than shyly:

In 1991, Michael Talbot published The Holographic Universe. Based upon the insights into quantum entanglement by University of London physicist David Bohm and the neurophysiology of Stanford University’s Karl Pribram, The Holographic Universe presents a paradigm-shifting view of the nature of reality by which the whole is contained in every part. The book’s title comes from the remarkable properties of holograms, three-dimensional images constructed by laser interference and stored on two-dimensional film. Unlike conventional photographic negatives, however, each tiny piece of holographic film encodes the entire three-dimensional image!

If, like me, you thought that Talbot’s hypotheses might have been worth checking out of intellectual curiosity, you’ll be disappointed to learn from Wikipedia that “According to Talbot extrasensory perceptions, telepathy, and other paranormal phenomena are a product of this holographic model of reality.”

Holography is a fitting metaphor for what mystics have always taught: separation is illusion. The universe is a seamless whole. Reductionism has revealed much, but its utility may have run its course. I anticipate that holism has as great a role to play in the future of science as reductionism has played in its past.

Not only is this a complete non sequitur from noticing that “a type of reductionism occupies the very heart of thermodynamics”, it’s also typical para-religious blabber. Pr. Pruitt’s discussions of such notions as the absoluteness of space/time and locality were imperfect but respectable. Here, he’s resorting to wishful thinking, and using the typical strategy to expound that type of thinking: disguising white noise as profound, spiritual considerations.
Part 8 is a complete waste of Pr. Pruett’s breath as far as science and epistemology are concerned. Part 9 is, I’m afraid, only marginally better. It just repeats the same holistic non-sequitur. So much for a climax.

Thoughts About Books (2) Benson & Stangroom – The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense

A second, brief installment of the “Thoughts About Books” series, devoted to Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense. The title of this book is an obvious homage to the English title of Sokal and Bricmont’s book, discussed earlier in this blog. The Dictionary is a short book (it is literally a dictionary) that clearly aims at being funny, and oftentimes succeeds. Benson and Stangroom give the definitions to some words from what they feel is the point of view of postmodernists (of course, it’s a parody and there’s a lot of exaggeration going on to make it funny, but it’s hard not to recognise postmodern tropes stripped of their pompous jargon coating in many of the definitions). I don’t want to give away too much, let alone to violate copyrights, but definitions such as that of Laboratory (“A place where scientists gather to torture, bully, extort and rape nature”) or Medicine (“Bad when Western, good when Eastern or alternative”) exemplify the style of this enjoyable, if slightly repetitious book. Perhaps the greatest laughs come from witty cross-referencing on the part of the authors.

Thoughts Around Books (1) The Bogdanov affair

Another new segment which will act as a twin for “Thoughts About Books”. Here I’ll start from the books I’ve read and discussed in “Thoughts About Books” and take the direction to a linked topic I’ll find interesting.

I initially wanted to make use of the uncanny similarity between Alan Sokal’s name and that of Alain Soral, a very mediocre French political activist and public figure, whose freedom of expression has been defended by Bricmont in the recent past, to take a deeper look into Bricmont’s political positions. Bricmont has been criticised for defending Soral’s right to his ideas and his speech, and for expressing outrage at the attempted state censorship of a public figure similar to Soral, i.e. French comic Dieudonné, by a possibly well-meaning but very ill-advised French government and press. I intended to say that what I find regrettable with Bricmont’s political positions lies elsewhere -he’s an avid fan of Noam Chomsky, who as far as I can tell has become less and less worthy of admiration since the mid-1990s, when it became clear that he thought Slobodan Milošević couldn’t be a big enemy of the left because he was an enemy of the US Armed Forces- but that, however mistaken I think he is on international policy, I still have more respect for him than for anyone who’s ever seriously contemplated censorship.

I also wanted to talk about Bricmont’s dear love for Bohmian Mechanics, which could be called a hypothetical superlayer placed above quantum mechanics by some of the people who are unhappy -and rightfully so, to some extent- with the current “orthodox” understanding of quantum mechanics, the so-called Copenhagen “interpretation”. For an introduction to Bohmian mechanics, one can look at this presentation by Stefan Teufel. As far as I can tell from this presentation as well as from other inquiries into the matter, Bohmian mechanics is nothing more than quantum mechanics with positions as hidden variables. Bohmian mechanics yields the same predictions as “orthodox” quantum mechanics -it’d better- with, as far as I can see, more assumptions. It’s apparently more intellectually satisfying to some people, and I see nothing wrong with that, but at the moment the theory does not seem to me to be the ultimate answer some think it is.

But instead of talking about Soral or Bohm, I’ll talk about how I came to learn about the Sokal hoax and the so-called “Science wars”. Though I’ve more or less been in contact with the scientific world for my whole life, and have been a student of physics at various institutions since ca. 2007, I had never heard of the science wars until I read through the Wikipedia article on the Bogdanov affair. Igor and Grichka Bogdanov are French twins who gained popularity in the 1980s as science-fiction enthusiasts and (self-proclaimed) science popularisers. In the 1990s, for reasons I have failed to uncover, the twins each started a PhD project, one (Grichka) in mathematics and the other one (Igor) in theoretical physics. Despite the abysmal quality of their manuscripts and the frankly unconvincing nature of their purported “results”, both twins were awarded doctoral degrees (Igor was given the task of publishing three articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals before he could get his degree, though). This elicited many reactions, largely discussed here. There are some excerpts of this Wikipedia article, including quotes by other people, about which I feel a need to react. So here I go:

When later challenges to the legitimacy of the papers submitted by the Bogdanov brothers arose, the debate spread to the question of whether the substitution of a “publication requirement” by university professors when they do not understand students’ work is a valid means of determining the veracity of a paper. However, the intrinsic complexity of topics like quantum groups and topological field theory—in addition to the extensive use of jargon by those who study these areas—makes it difficult to avoid such delegation, since often specific expertise is necessary in order to fully understand and evaluate the claims made in papers on these topics.

It’s a shame that no source is provided in this paragraph. If a professional physicist has argued that “the intrinsic complexity of topics like quantum groups and topological field theory […] makes it difficult to avoid such delegation”, I think  he or she should be challenged. A first obvious objection to this line of argument is that thesis examination committees generally feature people who are well-equipped to understand scientific work in the relevant field. If that is not so, then it is my impression that the people on the examination committee were not properly chosen. Another objection is that I’m absolutely convinced that you actually do not need to be a specialist in, say, topological field theory to conclude that Igor Bogdanov’s manuscript does not meet the quality standards of a PhD dissertation. I’ll get back to this later.

“[Igor and Grichka] worked for 10 years without pay. They have the right to have their work recognized with a diploma, which is nothing much these days.”

This apparently was said by Daniel Sternheimer, who, to keep things simple, was one of the twins’ advisors during their PhD years. A shameless statement in that it shows Mr. Sternheimer does not mind undermining the value of the PhD diploma -while one could guess that he resents the fact that “a diploma […] is nothing much these days”. A fine example of not acting in accordance with what one says.

“All these were ideas that could possibly make sense. It showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That’s all I ask.”

Another incredibly weak a posteriori justification of why our quirky twins were awarded a PhD, this time coming from a member of the examination committee. I think it is crucial to add that, while reading Igor Bogdanov’s PhD manuscript will leave you with no doubt that he’s familiar with a lot of jargon, it will also convince you that his understanding of the notions referred to by the jargon words is starkly superficial at best. Another member of the committee had the courage to admit he had made a mistake:

“I had given a favorable opinion for Grichka’s defense, based on a rapid and indulgent reading of the thesis text. Alas, I was completely mistaken. The scientific language was just an appearance behind which hid incompetence and ignorance of even basic physics.”

That last sentence rather accurately represents the most common reaction among theoretical physicists: Max Niedermaier chose to describe the abstracts of “scientific articles” written by the twins thusly:

“The abstracts are delightfully meaningless combinations of buzzwords … which apparently have been taken seriously.”

John Baez stated that the Bogdanov papers are

“a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order. There is no logic or cohesion in what they write.”

Jacques Distler voiced a similar opinion, proclaiming

“The Bogdanov’s [sic] papers consist of buzzwords from various fields of mathematical physics, string theory and quantum gravity, strung together into syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless prose.”

I have read Igor Bogdanov’s thesis dissertation, and I though I am not a specialist of topological field theory or quantum groups, I can comfortably say that Messrs. Baez, Niedermaier and Distler’s comments can be extended to it. Mr. Distler’s comment is probably the closest to a recurring complaint that stands out in my own written remarks. To paraphrase myself, the reader is confronted to no less than a barrage of undefined technical terms, referring to mathematical or physical notions the relevance of which to the intellectual progression remains almost invariably unexplained. It’s a hugely frustrating read if you try to understand what’s going on, in no small part due to the fact that the reader doesn’t even know what the theoretical framework used by the writer is. Mr. Distler also had a great remark on the media treatment of the debacle:

The much-anticipated New York Times article on the Bogdanov scandal has appeared. Alas, it suffers from the usual journalistic conceit that a proper newspaper article must cover a “controversy”. There must be two sides to the controversy, and the reporter’s job is to elicit quotes from both parties and present them side-by-side. Almost inevitably, this “balanced” approach sheds no light on the matter, and leaves the reader shaking his head,“There they go again…”