Good Lord, when will places like the Guardian stop publishing the same article over and over again? Do people ever get tired of dumping on New Atheism or, in this case, the “Four Horsemen”? I haven’t heard of author Steven Poole, a British journalist and author, but here he reviews a book I’ve already read, The Four Horsemen: A Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution. And he uses his review to try to eviscerate Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Click on the screenshot to read:
My own short review: This is a transcript of the well known “Four Horsemen” conversation that took place in Christopher Hitchens’s apartment in 2007. There is a full video that you can find here. What’s new is simply the addition of a foreword by Stephen Fry and, as I recall, short commentaries by a few Horsepeople. But the meat of the discussion is already on YouTube. If you want to buy the book, you’d be buying it for the forewords, and to me it’s not worth it. Caveat emptor.
Now about the review: well, it’s the same pap that all liberal venues put out about the New Atheists, including smarmy but untrue remarks like these:
Contrary to the book’s subtitle, the “atheist revolution” was not sparked by this cocktail-fuelled pre-dinner round of chat and backslapping, which took place in 2007. By then the participants could already salute one another for the impressive sales of their books, boast about how willing they were to cause “offence”, and reminisce about how brilliant they were when they befuddled this or that bishop with some debating point.
That’s not what these guys did, although I’ll admit that the “brights” thing was misguided. But I’ve hung around most of these guys a fair bit (Hitchens I met only once), and I’ve never heard anything like the kind of boasting and back-patting that Poole reports. Those things, like the dumb atheist-dissing in Salon, are just character assassination.
Then there’s the obligatory claim that that that 2007 discussion is “dated”, and maybe it is, but so what? To answer Poole’s title question, what happened to the New Atheism is that it won: it exposed a new generation to old arguments about atheism (and some new ones based on science), and thus helped with the increasing secularization of the West. Their books were best-sellers, and for a reason; it wasn’t the Dawkins haters who bought millions of copies of The God Delusion. Finally, none of the Horsemen write about atheism any more because they don’t need to: the ball is rolling and it’s going to suck up religion with it.
Poole then makes the familiar argument that New Atheism was not sophisticated about religion and also neglects the benefits of religion. But would we have algebra even if Islam hadn’t existed? Of course we would, although the word for it might have been different. Newton and Lemaitre: well, yes, some religious people made scientific advances, but in most cases religion had nothing to do with it, as nearly everyone in the West was religious two centuries ago (yes, I know Lemaitre is more recent). Was the Human Genome Project the result of Francis Collins’s religiosity? I doubt it, and the other contributor, Craig Ventner, is an atheist.
Poole goes on:
New Atheism’s arguments were never very sophisticated or historically informed. You will find in this conversation no acknowledgment of the progress made by medieval Islamic civilisation in medicine and mathematics – which is why, among other things, we have the word “algebra”. The Horsemen assume that religion has always been an impediment to science, dismissing famous religious scientists – such as Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who first proposed the big bang hypothesis, not to mention Isaac Newton et al – as inexplicable outliers. At one point Harris complains about a leading geneticist who is also a Christian. This guy seems to think, Harris spits incredulously, “that on Sunday you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus because you’re in the presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist”. Harris offers no reason why he can’t, except that the combination is incompatible with his own narrow-mindedness.
This is irrelevant, of course, to the point made by these four men: that religion is a melange of foolish and unsubstantiated superstitions, that it doesn’t belong in this era nor in any rational mind, and that, by and large, it is harmful. And even if it does some good things, it’s simply not TRUE and there are ways of getting those good things without having the bad things.
Poole’s review continues, with Sam getting the worst of it, as he always does, in the end being accused of flirting with the alt-right. That’s simply not true, as Sam is on the Left. He’s just not woke enough for Poole.
In the end, these men did us a big favor by acquainting a new generation with arguments about why religion is false and harmful. They are the Ingersolls of our generation; and each generation, indoctrinated with religion by parents and peers, needs to hear the arguments anew. What people like Poole are trying to do, by discrediting the Four Horsemen, is to somehow justify and vindicate religion. Even if they be nonbelievers, they somehow can’t bear to say bad things about faith. But they are on the losing side, for in two centuries religion will have waned to a small band of superstitious holdouts. Or so I think.