Sunday, August 2, 2009

"embryonically totalitarian"?

I was beginning to wonder whether or not this issue of Francis Collins' nomination to be NIH Director had played out, but then I just saw that Andrew Brown begins his August 2, 2009 column in the UK Guardian like this
Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris. Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality. He has, for example, defended torture, ("restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place") attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: "We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene" ; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them.
And he ends it like this:
But militant atheism, of the sort that would deny people jobs for their religions beliefs, doesn't actually believe in real science at all, any more than it believes in reason. Rather, it uses "science" and "reason" as tribal labels, and "religion" as a term for witchcraft. Any serious defence of the real, hard-won and easily lost enlightenment must start by rejecting that style of atheism entirely. What use is it to be right about God and wrong about everything else?
Parenthetically I want to say that I feel especially indebted to Brown for drawing my attention to yet another example of just how incredibly godawful the writing of these New Atheists can be:
Every word zings like an elegantly fletched arrow from a taut bowstring and flies in a gratifyingly swift arc to the target, where it thuds satisfyingly into the bullseye.
[from Richard Dawkins' preface to Harris' End of Faith]
But, obviously, Brown's critique of Harris has far more to do with substance than style. Brown correctly condemns Harris' arguments ("To the extent that Harris has any argument at all"), as "fantastically illiberal". But personally I believe that Brown gives too much credit when he also characterizes the posture that Harris has assumed as only "embryonically totalitarian". That embryo hatched when Harris published his first book, if not before.

Andrew Brown is no rookie to the fun new sport of New Atheist bashing. A December 2008 column of his points out many of the flaws of the New Atheism, including the proposition that
Science is the opposite of religion, and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason.
and also their unsubtle insistence that all religion by its very nature must invariably be
something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous: if anything even more dangerous, because they conceal the raging, homicidal lunacy that is religion's true nature.
It's bad enough for the New Atheists that it is impossible for them to deny the existence of what, according to their vision of reality, should not be able to exist: religious scientists. But Collins is not just any religious man; his evangelical religiosity is straightforwardly of the very type that Harris & Co. insist lies hidden at the heart of darkness beating within the chest of even the most liberal seeming religious traditions. How can it be reconciled with the world-view of the New Atheists that an evangelical Christian could be a scientist of far greater stature than any of the proponents of the New Atheism!

The situation that Collins' nomination creates for the New Atheists is not unlike the embarrassment of the the Nazis during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. According to no less an authority than Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler "was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner" Jesse Owens. And Hitler's proposed solution to the cognitive dissonance caused by inferior races outperforming Aryans was the same as that proposed by Sam Harris: just as Harris thinks that religious scientists like Collins should not even be considered for prominent posts like NIH Director, Hitler felt that non-white athletes "should be excluded from future games."