ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (Two of Four), February 2008: The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens by Vox Day
Vox Day (Christian, conservative columnist, videogame designer, electronica composer) is in agreement with me on one thing, and that is that in some sense there isn’t much to say about atheism. There is no God, and life goes on. End of story. That’s why I don’t normally blog about atheism (this “Month Without God” is special) nor seek out local atheist clubs or Godless community groups or what have you — to my mind, that’d be a bit like saying that my friends and I are bound together by our common belief that there isn’t a tenth planet named Gybrat. Who cares?
Further, I am always wary of people who want to pack a broad cultural agenda into a small philosophical compartment, so I would never insist that there is a distinctly atheist brand of ethical thinking, aesthetics, or attitude — just as libertarians, whose philosophical common ground is merely the belief that markets work and government doesn’t, should be wary of anyone claiming that there’s a definitive libertarian lifestyle or artistic mode (or theology, for that matter). Anyone who asks me what “the” atheist moral code will be or how atheists shall spend their Sunday mornings is barking up the wrong tree — like someone who demands to know how I expect him to find water underground if I insist that divining rods don’t work — though I’m certainly happy to make recommendations based on other considerations having nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of God, namely utilitarianism.
Day is inclined to see the recent crop of prominent proselytizers for atheism — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Michel Onfray — as people who “protest too much.” If there’s nothing to atheism proper except an absence, why do these people have to go on about it so much? Day has decided to fight back.
He is annoyed by, as he puts it (in words that I must confess have come almost verbatim out of my own mouth at times), Harris-style atheists’ claim “that Man is on the verge of vanishing in nuclear fire unless billions of idiots can be forcibly stripped of their belief in nonexistent sky fairies.”
After some initial insulting of atheists, Day makes some powerful, damning points about the stats on people murdered by atheists vs. people murdered by religion. One’s impression of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris — who rely on claims of religion’s murderous tendencies more than I realized — must be diminished (I should confess I have only read Onfray’s atheist book but have seen Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris speak in the past two years, and they’re good enough to be preachers). Still, there is no God to be seen, and Day wisely says the book’s goal isn’t to convince you there is one, only that the recent crop of atheist authors make bad arguments.
He also makes the powerful and fair point — based largely on his gamer-spawned knowledge of military history — that only about 1% of wars have in fact been attributed to religious motives and, perhaps most damning of all, argues that the Hitchens/Harris/Onfray tactic of shunting 100 million nominally-atheist murders at the hands of communism over into the religion column by declaring communism a sort of “secular faith” is bogus. Fair enough. (He conveniently totes up the number of people killed by avowedly atheist regimes in tabular form.)
Of course, Day sometimes pulls semantic fast ones analogous to calling communism a religion, as when he lumps “Low Church” atheists (that is, people who simply describe themselves as unaffiliated with a church or religion in surveys without actually calling themselves atheists — people who I’d say are more likely “those too apathetic to care about anything including religion” rather than true atheists) in with atheists proper in order to shoot down a stat from the UK showing atheists are far more well-behaved and law-abiding than the religious. Lump in those who fail to call themselves atheists but also fail to attend church or affiliate with any particular religion, and the crime stats suddenly skyrocket. But so what? Sounds less like an indictment of atheism and more like evidence that religions can’t hold onto their flocks (likewise, atheism cannot be blamed for teens turning to Satanism and engaging in bad behavior as a result — it wasn’t atheism that taught them they had to choose between Jesus and Satan, so in some sense there’s nothing in the world more Christian than Satanism).
More to the point, the poorly-behaved unchurched remind me of the stats showing that church attendance itself is correlated with good behavior — but that’s no surprise: I would hardly expect someone prone to mugging people to be a stickler for punctuality, friendly social activity, or weekly moral lectures, whether divinely inspired or purely secular (as it happens, the Ethical Culture Society building in New York City was host to the Harris speech and one of the Hitchens appearances I saw and was also the site of the Christian services I briefly attended after being talked into accompanying my Christian then-girlfriend, Dawn Eden — and I doubt too many of the attentive, well-behaved audience members at any of those events were heroin-addicted burglars).
It is interesting and a bit alarming that for all Day’s jabs at Bush and the Iraq War throughout the book, he actually recommends the Crusades as a model for Western survival, saying (oddly for a libertarian, as Day turns out to be) that democracy, secularism, and material wellbeing are weak things to oppose to jihad and that the West must instead recognize that it faces the same choice that it did 1,000 years ago: the crescent or the cross. Jesus, I hope not.
He’s more convincing pointing out (again, in a delightfully rational-looking tabular form) the huge numbers of people killed in various nominally-atheist historical actions compared to the trifling number killed, for instance, by the Inquisition (the latter being only about three per year — tragic though any death is — or roughly 1% of those put on trial), primarily for falsely claiming to be Christian converts rather than for mere unbelief itself. The Inquisition had no authority over professed Jews or Muslims and followed courtroom procedures that were very advanced and civil by the standards of the day, which, remember, was not so far removed historically from the era of trial by combat and other barbarisms, as my historian friend Christine Caldwell Ames can explain, delighting and appalling listeners with her explanation of the Inquisition’s forgotten good points, not to mention its sado-masochistic impulses, depending on what sort of party crowd she’s talking to.
Day does us all a service by exposing as false some of the glib slogans of atheism, such as “religion is the cause of most wars,” but he is himself so vituperative that at one point it’s as if he literally can’t think of any words damning enough to direct at his enemies (a bit of a relief) and simply lists — in tabular form again — dozens of statements from Hitchens’ book that Day considers self-evidently absurd, though I actually found most of these statements to be among the more reasonable ones Day dissects…which leaves me suspecting that Hitchens in his own words would not seem quite as absurd as he does when paraphrased by Day (hardly a surprise).
One of Day’s strangest point-missing arguments is his criticism of atheists’ One Less God argument. This is the argument that since (most) religious people don’t believe in Zeus, Odin, etc., they are already well on the way to atheism and have implicitly accepted a certain amount of skepticism about supernatural claims — they just need to go one God farther in their skepticism to arrive at the intellectual consistency of the atheist. This actually seems like a pretty solid point to me, but Day’s bizarre, off-target response is to point out that Christians do not believe in just one more supernatural being than atheists — they believe in multiple supernatural beings, including God and Satan.
Day is at his best when he avoids the philosophical and semantic arguments, where he tends to get tripped up, and sticks to the practical ones about religious vs. secular human behavior. He makes the interesting point, for instance, that if the possibility of nuclear war with Iran (or nuclear terrorism) is one of the chief pieces of evidence that religion is dangerous, surely those dangers could be used as arguments against science as well. Religion has existed for thousands of years without destroying the planet, observes Day, yet science risks killing us all after a mere three centuries on the scene. (This argument is not so different from the concessions I make to cautious Luddites in my article on nanotech in the March issue of Reason.)
But then, the cure for such problems as mass-murder by the state and acts of terrorism is not necessarily religion or Luddism — as a libertarian like Day should know — but something more akin to the pragmatic utilitarianism that he repeatedly dismisses. Not all atheists are communists, just as not all religious people are terrorists. Instead of arguing over secondary cultural characteristics when trying to prevent slaughter, why not just stick to condemning the slaughter directly, promoting an awareness of and aversion to human suffering?
But hey, such moral concerns are precisely why I’m still something of a conservative — even, by some (non-statist) measures a moderate social conservative — instead of a left-libertarian. And why I’ve even been expressing my sympathy for the students of Leo Strauss (who feared that if intellectuals let it be known there’s no God, there’d be social chaos) for twenty years now and picked Strauss as the first author praised on ToddSeavey.com, lest anyone think I’m oblivious to the immense moral stakes involved here.
If one insists on trying to tote up the social effects of religion vs. secularism, though, it must be admitted that no matter how good religion’s track record arguably is so far, the present-day situation involving Iran and al Qaeda has to weigh into the calculus. I for one do not trust divinely-inspired mullahs to be the peacekeepers of the new era. Nor, it seems, does Day, since he admits Islam is the cause of a hugely disproportionate share of violence and ethnic conflict around the globe. All it takes is one nuke going off in New York or London to skew his stats back in a pro-secularist direction, so I for one would like to see theism defused (so to speak) before it comes to that.
But again, I think Day should know, as a libertarian, that his secular political philosophy — which is also mine — is a better guarantor of respect for rights than people’s notions about the grand structure of the cosmos. If the New Atheists and I must concede that a religionist like Day can be respectful of people’s rights, Day must concede that I can be — and furthermore, that this calls into question Day’s repetition of the common religious assertion that without God there can be no basis for moral judgments.
Does Day really behave well only to avoid Hell? Somehow, I find myself thinking too highly of him to believe that, but maybe he really is a barely-restrained monster. I, by contrast, am a nice guy, and not because I think God’s watching. Interestingly, and contrary to the thinking of many Christians, Day claims that motives are irrelevant and that only actions matter — and were he a utilitarian, I might say he was being coherent. Presumably, though, he thinks God judges character, not just utilitarian outcomes — as would any good Aristotelian concerned with predicting people’s future actions, of course. I don’t see how, given his philosophical beliefs, Day can say only actions matter, though I think I know why he says this: having argued forcefully that (as a practical matter) only Heaven and Hell can incent good behavior, he can’t bear the thought that the dreaded atheist who nonetheless does behave well without such incentives has done something Day considers difficult and implausible. If motives mattered to Day and he were to confront the fact that I behave as well as a Christian without the carrot and stick of Heaven and Hell, he might just have to admit that I am his moral superior.
Alas, Day spends only a page on the one atheist argument that actually matters: The Argument from Lack of Evidence. In a very sloppy way, he admits that there is no evidence for God yet insists that one has no good evidence for much of anything, from quantum mechanics to whether your relatives love you (utterly false — there is ample experimental evidence for quantum mechanics and every reason to base one’s belief that one is loved on observational evidence such as how people treat you). There is simply nothing else in ordinary human life believed with the utter, yawning abyss of evidencelessness that is religion. And that is why — in all likelihood — there is no God, and no fully rational, sane person who considered the arguments would ever again believe otherwise, even if Day were to prove conclusively that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris are mentally retarded and that nine out of ten atheists become amoral menaces who commit mass murder. Still no God. Suck it up and face reality.
But then, Day’s relationship to reality and evidence may be shakier than he lets on. He tells us by way of argument against The Argument from Hallucination that he has had both a supernatural experience and drug-induced hallucinations and therefore knows the difference between the two, which, needless to say, is not the most reassuring eye-witness testimony one could ask for.
Since just a few pages later in the book, he asserts that Jesus’s claim to have existed before Abraham suggests that Jesus was privy to multiverse theory and modern conceptions of the spacetime continuum, I would not be surprised to learn Day was actually experiencing drug-induced hallucinations during the writing of the book itself. He also asserts that the Book of Revelation accurately predicted the European Union, which is the sort of reading-into of vague prophecies that makes one question his trustworthiness even when assembling some of his more numerical-historical data (almost any vague-enough prediction is likely to come “true” given 2,000 years or more of history to play around with — something worth keeping in mind not only when dealing with people who believe in Bible prophecy but when listening to the supposed insights of Nostradamus).
Day manages to hold the high ground logically and morally at times, when he points out irresponsible hyperbole by the New Atheists, but within pages he is accusing atheists of being “childish” and “irrational” and amoral and parasitic and “insane,” until his whole screed degenerates rapidly (in what he might himself concede is a flagrant example of “projection”) into lamentations/paeans about the ineradicable, inevitable, and profound irrationality of humanity in nearly all aspects of life, supposedly making skepticism and scientific reasoning futile. All of which is a bit like saying that because crime is rampant, the man who proposes to live honestly must be fooling himself. Rationality is possible, and so is a respect for the lives and liberty of others. The fiction of God is not necessary for these things, regardless of the good or bad done in His name, and regardless of the quality of the arguments advanced for or against Him.