Reader Daniel sent me a link to a dreadful anti-antheist article from, of all places, the New Humanist, and I, like he, was horrified. It’s nothing less than a distorted attack on New Atheism, especially the “Four Horsemen” (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens), as well as on the conversation they had on YouTube (here and here) which has been turned into a book. This New Humanist screed is so appallingly bad that it might have been “ripped from the pages of Salon.”
I asked Daniel who published the New Humanist, and he responded this way:
The Rationalist Association, formed in 1885; the magazine is also that old. So it has a good pedigree—indeed, the Rationalist Association’s presidents have included Bertrand Russell and the late Jonathan Miller. Past contributors to the magazine have included David Aaronovitch, Peter Atkins, and all of the ‘four horsemen’ except Hitchens (though he was interviewed by it once)! And honorary associates of the Association include Aaronovitch, Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, and Philip Pullman. So it’s a fairly serious and eminent publication in the freethinking world. Not that all freethinkers have to sign up to ‘new atheism’, of course—but one would think that such a respected magazine would publish half-decent rather than half-baked arguments against Dawkins et al.
Indeed. But read and weep (click on screenshot). You can already see one criticism in the title: that the New Atheists are “religious” in their passion and ardor. (Note to Tiso: passion is not the same as faith.)
I didn’t know of Giovanni Tiso, but he’s identified here as “an Italian writer and translator based in Wellington. He’s a featured writer at Overland, blogs at Bat, Bean, Beam and tweets at @gtiso.” He hasn’t appeared on this website before.
What are his claims? Besides asserting that the New Atheism was a “flawed intellectual project” (it wasn’t a project but a reflection of the Zeitgeist), he says it failed (has he seen the statistics on the rise of “nones”?), and that it failed because it attacked “strawmen,” “largely imaginary opponent(s)”. The latter isn’t true, either, as there are many religionists of all stripes—not just fundamentalists—who do damage to our societies. And there are many New Atheists besides Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll just summarize Tiso’s accusations:
1). New Atheists are spiteful and shrill and “laugh people out of their faith” by mocking them. This is not always the case, and if you read the four books that started the “movement”, you will find far less mockery than judicious examination and critique of faith. But yes, sometimes mockery is on tap given the bizarre behavior and arguments of believers, just as mockery is sometimes on tap with respect to creationists (who, by the way, are all religionists).
2.) New Atheism is a form of Western cultural supremacy, designed to buttress imperialism. I kid you not; here’s a quote:
Now, as we survey what’s left of the movement from its smouldering ruins, we may wonder what the fuss was about, and how these authors managed to build such formidable straw men of religion and human history on their way to selling millions of books. But New Atheism was never about faith nor, indeed, atheism. It was about asserting the supremacy of Western culture in spite of the enduring place of religion in Western institutions and societies, for the purpose of giving renewed justification to Western imperialism. It doesn’t matter that three of the four horsemen were initially opposed to the war in Iraq, for theirs was always primarily a war against Islam itself.
Do I really need to point out that criticizing Islam—and yes, it was the rise of militant Islam that prompted the writing of the first New Atheist book, by Sam Harris—is NOT the same as “justifying Western imperialism”. I don’t have to say more here; Tiso’s claim discredits itself.
3.) New Atheism neglects the palpable benefits of religion. These include ethics morality, and charity. In fact, New Atheists have not neglected these benefits; they just claim that, by embracing secular humanism, we can have the same benefits without the many downsides of religion, which include oppression of women, gays, and opponents; a fatuous and restrictive “morality” that’s largely about sex; fostering violence and divisiveness; torturing children’s minds, and so on.
4.) Dawkins made mean tweets. Yes, that’s right. Dawkins hasn’t always been adept on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean that New Atheism is in “smouldering ruins”. This is another Salon-like red herring that doesn’t address the substantive arguments of New Atheism against religion.
5.) New Atheism’s arguments against religion, so far as they go, are not only mean but incoherent. Here’s one example from the essay, in which Tiso goes after Sam Harris:
A rhetorical woman appears in The Four Horsemen, too. In his essay, Harris asks us to imagine that on this day a set of identical twin girls was born with microcephaly in Brazil due to their gestating mother having been bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus.
Imagine the woman herself a few months ago, doing everything within her power to prepare a happy life for her unborn daughters. Where does she work? A factory. How often does she pray? Daily, no doubt. But at the crucial moment she sleeps. Perhaps she’s dreaming of a world better than the one we live in. Picture a lone mosquito finding her open window. Picture it alighting upon her exposed arm. Will an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly benevolent God muster the slightest defence? Not even a breeze. The mosquito’s proboscis pierces her skin immediately. What are the faithful to believe at this point? One suspects they know that their God isn’t nearly as attentive as he would be if he actually existed.
I find this vignette quite upsetting. What are we to make of it? Does the existence of the mosquito and the fact that it’s prepared to bite a member of the flock prove that this woman’s God doesn’t exist? Is the fact that the woman works in a factory implicated in her faith? Is she unwittingly but nonetheless ultimately co-responsible for her own misfortune, by wasting her time in prayer instead of promoting scientific and medical discoveries?
It’s not hard to make out what Sam is saying here: he’s raising the classic argument about what kind of god would create “physical evil”—the torture and/or death of innocent people by natural circumstances. If god is ominipotent, he could prevent such evil, and if he’s omnibenevolent, he would have. There is no convincing religious answer, at least in the Abrahamic faiths, to the existence of this kind of evil, though many theologians have tried. How could Tiso have missed this simple lesson?
It goes on, but you won’t find anything in the piece that you haven’t seen in Salon or in the many other pieces trying to denigrate New Atheism. Tiso even manages to drag in “Elevatorgate”!
Why did the New Humanist, which as Daniel said is a respectable magazine, publish such tripe? Your guess is as good as mine. If you’re a member of The Rationalist Association, and object to this scattershot and ill-informed attack of New Atheism, you might let them know.
41 thoughts on “The New Humanist goes after the New Atheists”
Maybe Tiso could explain why the religious are so attracted to Donald Trump. What is the pull of those so spiritual to the vulgar, immoral likes of this man? It is a mystery to most atheist how this can be. Could it be for the same reasons why they treat women like farm animals or kill other people who speak poorly of their religion.
The religious are always attracted to hierarchies … because that what supports god at the top, then Satan, then the angels, etc at the way down to the lowly insects …or electrons if you are a panpsychist. That is why Trump is tolerated … like it ‘must be god’s will’ … and some even pray for him because it says to do so. And guess what … nature/science also shows hierarchies everywhere, in stars, chemical elements, parents, grizzlies against black bears, etc. So it is easy to see why any terrible leader can persuade the ‘righteous religious’ to keep them in power … it must be god’s will.
I got it. To be stupid, corrupt, disgusting and plain dirty like Trump, g*d goes for that. The more unlawful he is, that fits right in with the religious? Imagine that.
Of course, Rasputin famously persuaded Russian female aristocrats that the more they sinned (with him, naturally) the more g*d would have to forgive them, and the more forgiveness he gave the better it would make g*d look. Therefore, by sinning they were helping the Almighty.
One of the silliest theological concepts made up is that god is so perfect that he cannot look at sin … while the rest of us humans are obviously so much greater in ability … we can look at everything! And there are many theologians that actually believe this! Like all items of faith, so mysterious that only an idiot or god can understand it.
Why do the Godbots love tRump? Because he pisses off the left wing, who they see as their natural enemies.
They’d side with Satan if he was persecuting lefties.
They’d side with Satan if he was persecuting lefties. — Pretty close to what you’ve got here.
Two words: Gorsuch, Kavanaugh
I gave it the old College try, and started reading the piece, but gave up here:
I despise when people claim to know other peoples’ (surreptitious?) motives and thoughts. This quote is a classic example of such pseudo-clairvoyance. I wouldn’t have been able to get past it either.
This is a rhetorical device I see a lot on the far left these days. If someone wants to discredit an idea, they try to link it with some kind of disreputable “-ism” (sexism, racism, imperialism, colonialism, etc.). A couple of posts back, we saw how the writers of the NY Times piece on Gwyneth Paltrow tried to defend her pseudoscientific claims by linking mainstream medical science to patriarchy. It’s a simple guilt-by-association tactic, and unfortunately it sometimes works.
Yes, that’s a correct observation.
Good grief! Is nothing sacred?
Wellington is known as being a windý sort of place 😜
On Sam Harris,
“I find this vignette quite upsetting”
in line with his accusations of the new atheist,
take a couple of low dose pain killers, perhaps anti inflammatories and call a doctor if it persists.
If Dawkins’ ill-judged tweets have reduced New Atheism to “smouldering ruins” the Trump re-election campaign is doomed. I’m not holding my breath though.
Yeah it’s only shoved in their faces at every turn. Has this guy never watched videos?
“Why did the New Humanist…publish such tripe?”
I suspect the editors change over time and some woke humanist/crypto-compatablist let this pass.
I just figured that this was somebody’s idea of a “balanced view” post. Got to show both sides, you know, even if one side is full of shit.
I can see it now – Science: “Flat Earth, an Alternative View, Making Headway Around the World!”
Maybe a closeted faitheist? He is defending religion, after all.
Perhaps he is trying to move some social justice warriorism into humanism, and thinks he needs to clear out a space for it…? I dunno. The article is an embarrassment. Or it ought to be.
There’s a bit to untangle here. If by ‘western cultural imperialism’ they mean “y’all want every single country on Earth to be a human-rights honoring democracy of some sort” – like most western nations – then the answer is yes. I want that.
If by ‘western cultural imperialism’ they mean “y’all want the above…plus for everyone to love Rock n’ Roll, McDonalds, be addicted to you tube, and speak English” then the answer is no. I don’t want that. Cultural variety is, frankly, far more interesting than cultural uniformity. The (liberal parts of the) U.S. is practically built on the notion of celebrating cultural variety.
And if by ‘western cultural imperialism’ they mean “y’all want the above done…at the point of a gun or through installing our own puppet governments to do it”, then the answer is HELL no, I REALLY don’t want that. Morally, it’s bankrupt. Pragmatically, it fails.
Soft power is a real thing. It may be out of fashion, but I have absolutely no problem saying I support policies that reward governments that give their people political representation as well as put their common prosperity ahead of some oligarchic class. I’m okay with ‘the carrot’ approach. I also have absolutely no problem thinking ‘the stick’ approach is strategically a horrible idea as well as unnecessary. If we fear China’s “belt and road” approach, maybe we need a “vote and home” response.
I may too want everywhere to be a democracy; but I also do not want arbitrary means selected to supposedly get there!
Wasn’t it wokeness which killed off New Atheism/Skepticism as a unified movement?
It was a cause of many schisms.
Why did they publish Tiso’s tripe? Pandering to the offense junkies, perhaps? It appears to work for so many other site and publishers.
As for Dawkins’ tweets, ill-advised? That’s a judgment call, but were they factually incorrect? Well, the ones that seemed to rankle the most people, I’d say nope. Does Islam hamstring scientific and intellectual development? Yep. Do some parents choose to abort a fetus when they find out it has a severe disability? Yep. Is that their right and their business? Yep.
Dawkins’ tweets were okay. I am not agreeing with every single thing he may have tweeted on a rainy Tuesday some five years ago, but the usual condemnations were unconvincing or outright comical.
For example, Adam Lee claimed it was white supremacy because Dawkins included Darwin, Einstein, and Schubert into a tweet, when he kicked off a twitter hashtag with some of his favourite contributors to arts and science. A hashtag’s purpose is to add more ideas, including people of other origins, genders, ethnicities, or whatever else counts as diverse “identities”.
Other than that, it’s possible to get to the bottom of such controversies. Some scientists were drawn into New Atheism because creationism sought to undermine education and the wall of separation. But that, and the rise of evangelicalism and dominionism in response to 9/11 (i.e. religiously justified terror) is typically omitted. That’s already tendentious and not just “my opinion”. That can be checked, and found out whether people have a legitimate interest in “attacking religion” — as if they need any.
Next, we can check who engages with arguments and replies to them. New Atheists did. The people who emerged in the next turn, the accommodationists, believers in belief, theologians, the woke and so on, they do not.
They are stuck on their first set of assertions and never bothered to consider the replies. This can be checked, too, and placed on something more solid than “that’s like … your opinion, man”. That’s a good indicator where’s what in this “controversy”.
Yes- this is the sort of thing one expects from the less lettered writers from Salon!
I’m half tempted to submit a rebuttal.
Do it! It would be entertaining. 🙂
Yes! Do it! (But first see if they’d entertain a rebuttal.)
The article appears to be an example of Emotional Imperialism…
Or perhaps it is Imperious Emotionalism?
I am a subscriber to New Humanist and wrote to them about this article at the time it was published last year. I never received a reply. My letter follows below [Cambridge Heath is an area of London where the magazine has its offices].
“Publishing a cover article on ‘why New Atheism failed’ is strangely masochistic behaviour for a magazine that calls itself ‘New Humanist’. Does the Internet troll have a relative called the Magazine troll living under a bridge in Cambridge Heath?
Unsurprisingly Giovanni Tiso’s article doesn’t demonstrate how ‘New Atheism’ has failed (because it hasn’t) but it does seem a weirdly vitriolic and embittered attack to appear in these pages. Has Mr Tiso met Richard Dawkins? (that’s the Richard Dawkins who is an Honorary Associate of the the Rationalist Association who publish New Humanist). Perhaps he considers New Zealand a safe distance from which to throw brickbats.
Sadly there is no letters page in New Humanist. In fact, since the ‘Big Question’ feature was unceremoniously dropped two years ago the magazine has been entirely free of the opinions of mere readers. Tiso’s article might have prompted an interesting debate. He thinks ‘the well from which we all drink has been poisoned…by the debased logic of conspiracist thinking and by prejudice passing for scepticism’. I disagree, but whatever he’s drinking, it certainly seems to have had that effect on him.
In your most recent Editor’s Note you claim that New Humanist is ‘a magazine that is open to all readers’. I’m well aware of the usual ‘views of the author don’t necessarily represent those of the magazine’ disclaimer, but by printing this article without allowing any forum to redress the claims it makes you appear to want to alienate a significant percentage of those readers.”
A quote from the Center for Inquiry’s “Morning Heresy” blog:
But you don’t have to worry. Pastor Hank Kunneman says that Donald Trump, because of his opposition to abortion, will magically protect the United States from the virus. Speaking for/as Yahweh, I assume, the pastor says:
“Because of the administration that stands in this land, who honors me, who honors the covenants of your forefathers and of the Constitution, and because they have aligned themselves with Israel, and because they have sided on the right side of life — life in the womb, life given outside of the womb — therefore I give life to this nation, and I give mercy. Do not fear this virus, says the Spirit of God.”
Can’t help feeling that a certain amount of mocking laughter is inevitable here… The faux biblical language (surely he could have fited a ye, a thee, or a sayeth in somewhere), the confusion of self and the deity… Presumably if the virus nevertheless propagates, it will be the fault of all those who did not do their aligning or their siding or their honoring as they should have.
[correction] …could have fitted…
This is where religion goes from laughable to dangerous.
They will probably claim that it’s the fault of Democrats colluding with Satanists (and the Ukrainians) to bring the virus to the USA.
New Atheism was fine when the hobby-horse was White Evangelical “Moral Majority” types, but that enemy has mostly expired.
Now atheists are attacking post-modernism and the philosophical relativism necessary to justify dumping meritocracy in favor of ethnic nepotism, it is time for it to leave.
Not to mention since we now love Islam, atheists are an embarrassment, not just the mockery but actually injecting facts like what the Qur’an actually says about slavery into public discussion. We all now know that there are no facts, only interpretations.
Sorry guys, you need to leave to make room for Linda Sarsour.
The New Humanist’s attack on the most prominent atheists is symptomatic of a broad cultural turn against New Atheism.
Scott Alexander, who runs the blog Slate Star Codex, tried finding the reason for this in a post titled “New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed.” (https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/10/30/new-atheism-the-godlessness-that-failed/)
Despite the title, it’s not an attack on New Atheists or atheism. Alexander posits that much of New Atheism “seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement.”
“This probably comes as a surprise,” he continues, “seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement. I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Sure, a lot of people who identify as atheists now are pretty critical of social justice. That’s because the only people remaining in the atheist movement are the people who didn’t participate in the mass transformation into social justice. It is no contradiction to say both ‘Most of the pagans you see around these days are really opposed to Christianity’ and ‘What ever happened to all the pagans there used to be? They all became Christian.'”
Alexander concludes that “New Atheism was a failed hamartiology” (a “subfield of theology dealing with the study of sin, in particular, how sin enters the universe”). During the awfulness of the Bush years (and triumph of Christian conservatism) and post 9/11 period (the heyday of Islamic terrorism) it seemed like religion was at fault for many problems in the world. But after Obama gained the presidency and after various racial injustice cases hit the news, the “blue tribe” decided that racism & sexism were the true source of evil. “Most movement atheists weren’t in it for the religion. They were in it for the hamartiology.”
With all this in mind, the Four Horsemen have become targets for the social justice movement because (1) they are old/middle-aged whites males and (2) they remained New Atheists and did not join the social justice movement. They are the annoying pagans who did not turn Christian with all the other godly people.
I remember reading that article too a few months ago. “Hamartiology” is a great word, and I keep thinking of it when when I read about the 1619 Project or some other piece of woke-influenced journalism.
Most world views have a hamartiology of some kind: Christianity blames everything on Original Sin, Buddhism on egotism, Marxism on class division, Radical Feminism on patriarchy, and so on. The danger of hamartiology is that it reduces a bunch of complex interacting causes to a single thing and leads people into a black-and-white, with-us-or against us mentality.