Damon Linker Owns the New Atheists

Damon Linker, a contributor to the New Republic, is, to my mind, one of the more insightful writers on religion and irreligion writing in the United States today. In a recent interview with The Economist, Linker offers what I can only describe as an utterly devastating critique of the New Atheists:

[T]he so-called new atheists present a special case, which is why I devote one of the six chapters in my book to criticising such writers as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Mr Harris has denounced religious toleration, one of the founding ideals of liberal politics. Mr Dawkins, meanwhile, calls religious education a form of child abuse, which seems to imply that devout parents should be thrown in jail and their children placed in protective custody by the state. Such views are profoundly illiberal and have far more in common with the intolerant, ideological atheism of the French Revolutionary Terror and Marxist dialectical materialism than the humanistic scepticism of Socrates, Voltaire, or Camus.

The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.

I fear that far from shoring up the secular political tradition, the arguments of the new atheists are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite and mutually antagonistic forms of illiberalism—as well as one in which traditionalist believers feel vindicated in their suspicion that a liberal society is fundamentally hostile to their convictions. The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. In place of absolute faithlessness, we need intelligent faith and open-minded doubt.

This is quite a take down, and it is all the more so for its conciseness and understatement. As an agnostic, a believer in interfaith dialogue, and a longtime Camus admirer, I can only stand in awe and say amen. I especially like the second paragraph and so reproduce it again:

The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to Damon Linker Owns the New Atheists

  1. Santi

    I’ll have something to say about this, but actually I’m out of time as we’re unbelievely facing our own version of herderite-tea-partier-like rightwingers in the actual election for brazillian presidency.
    Wish us luck.
    However just to throw some thoughts, I don’t see an “utterly devaastating blow” here. Sorry. Old stuff indeed. Just another book writer trying to sell his own by criticizing GNU Atheists.
    Maybe in the book he is trying to sell he went deeper, but here he’s just taking Harris and Dawkins completely out of context, and making a strawman fallacy.

    • andrewclunn says:

      Not a chance. If you think that’s a straw man, then you haven’t been listening close enough to Dawkins or Harris.

      • I had a look at the interview, really interesting stuff, I don’t know if I agree, but it’s a guy worth reading.
        As for the straw man I still think it is. Dawkins have been talking about the child abuse thing yes, but as far as I know he’s not proposing to send any parents to jail. Any quotes please?
        I have my disageements with Harris but I don’t remmember him “denouncing relgious toleration”. Again, any quotes?

      • andrewclunn says:

        Dawkins:

        1) His “don’t label kids campaign.” Which was already mentioned. He actually argues that parents SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO CHOSE WHERE TO SEND THEIR KIDS and that government should force them all into standardized education programs.

        2) His in-group out-group mentality with the whole Bill Maher / Richard Dawkins science award thing.

        3) Here’s him using ad-hominem attacks against secular rightwingers, and CONFLATING PSYCHOLOGY WITH EVOLUTION TO PUSH A IDEOLOGY!
        http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3494530275568693212#

        4) For an example of him using religion as a red herring to (falsely) claim that those who disagree with his political position only do so because of religion, check out the Q&A at the end of the video “A Universe from Nothing” on Dawkins’ site.

    • santitafarella says:

      Gato,

      Good luck on fighting your local Herderians.

      —Santi

  2. JCR says:

    I wonder, does Linker come out strongly against the innumerable, intolerant Christians? There seem to be far more christians who discard religious tolerance than there are atheists as a whole .. yet he targets the atheists as needing to change.

    Christian intolerance existed long before the intolerance of the gnu-atheists and has was definitely what motivated many of them to move to such an intolerant approach – PZ & Dawkins allude to this on their blogs. Yet Linker thinks the gnu-atheists are at fault and should back down. That seems quite slanted.

    “Intelligent faith and open-minded doubt” seems like an odd statement. Maybe because I equate intelligence to objectiveness and faith is implicitly subjective.

    • santitafarella says:

      JCR:

      Linker is a strong opponent of fundamentalism and wrote a whole book on politicized religious conservatism. It’s titled The Theocons.

      —Santi

      • JCR says:

        Ah, I am a n00b 🙂 Glad to see he is consistent. I tend to agree with him. I know I come across as too defensive sometimes (which I guess also looks too aggressive) but I try to be respectful of the personal decision of faith. But my skin prickles when people quote the bible as a guide for how I and others should live.

  3. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi

    “ an utterly devastating critique of the New Atheists”??

    Not.

    Linker is being simplistic and just silly.

    First bad-mouth the ‘new’ atheists by taking things out of context and exaggerating. Sure, Dawkins has said that religious education is a form of child abuse. It is.
    But then “this seems to imply etc” is nonsense he makes up and on which he then relies on to hyperventilate about “French Revolutionary Terror and Marxist ….etc. ”

    Then exaggerate and advocate the tolerance of selected old time (nice)atheists and, finally suggest that by speaking out the ‘new’ atheists are jeopardising the status quo (which he presumably thinks is just fine).

    Similar tactics have been (and still are) used against civil rights, feminist, and gay activist individuals. In short, stop offending the majority, even when that majority does not have rational arguments to justify the way they oppress you.

    Atheists are fed up with being caught in the cross-fire of jihad, creationism, fatwa, crusades etc and the privileged status accorded to religions.

    Btw, “intelligent faith” is an oxymoron and “open-minded doubt” a pleonasm.

    – Colin

    • andrewclunn says:

      Hey I actually get to disagree with Colin! Watch this documentary Colin:

      Dawkins is attempting to use faith as a means of killing parent choice regarding education. He’s the very definition of a “useful idiot.”

  4. Colin Hutton says:

    Andrew

    Then you would probably also disagree with a comment I recently put on an older post here (The Theists Hell Vs The Atheists Hell …etc., on 22 September 10)??

    At the moment there is a queue on Youtube to watch the documentary you refer to above. I will reply, here, once I have seen it.

    Colin

  5. Colin Hutton says:

    Andrew

    I still havn’t been able to upload a clear run of the documentary you pointed me to. However, from the bits I have been able to run (and my memory of it from last?year when I saw it on tv) I don’t think you are reading Dawkins correctly. Note that he specifically says that parents should have the choice to send their kids to a religious school- just that the state should not be funding religious schools. (see also my recent comments to Santi on his post on Adam and Eve, where I comment also on what Dawkins says).

    I would go further than Dawkins, myself, and say that the state should require every child to attend an accredited school (from say age 6 to 16) 5 days per week and that no accredited school (state funded or privately funded) can discriminate on the basis of religious belief) and that no school can include religion in its syllabus. As far as I am concerned the other 2 days per week, school holidays and time at home after school provide more than enough time for parents (or the churches they support) to indoctrinate/mentally abuse their children.

    Colin

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