From Freethought to New Atheism

I’ve written an article for Counterpunch, using some episodes from Melbourne’s radical history to make an argument about the politics of the New Atheism.

It’s really a continuation of a Meanjin essay from a couple of years back. That piece was written when Christopher Hitchens spoke in the Sydney Opera House at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas – basically, in astonishment that the well-dressed crowd apparently thought that professing a schoolboy atheism in Australia in 2010 represented something dangerous. As Marx put it, ‘I desire there to be less trifling with the label “atheism” (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogeyman).’

The Meanjin piece compared Hitchens, with his glitzy lecture in the Sydney Opera House, to the nineteenth-century Melbourne Freethought leader Joseph Symes, who was explicitly denied access to the Melbourne Opera House by the state government, and spent most of his career being mocked and persecuted. The (fairly simple) point was that the social context had changed dramatically, and with it the meaning of atheism.

More recently, though, I did some more reading about Freethought in Australia. The building below was constructed explicitly so that secularists and freethinkers could hold their meetings free from persecution – it’s one of the oldest survivors of its type. But it was also the locus for a vicious dispute, out of which a division between a Left and Right atheism emerges.

Anyway, that’s what the Counterpunch piece covers.

Overland’s made similar arguments before: some of them are accessible online, including a debate with PZ Myers.

But I thought I’d use the blog to add a few extra bits and pieces.

The Q&A debate last night provided an example of how frustrating these arguments become. Obviously, Pell’s a complete reactionary, who last night explained that the Jews were a backward people, that animals have souls, that Hell was like a window pane and that humans weren’t contributing to climate change. In the face of that, it’s easy for any kind of atheism to seem progressive.

But, of course, staged debates of that kind are largely a sideshow. The Left needs to stop congratulating itself for winning itself from the eighteenth century, and instead look at why it’s doing so badly at the arguments of today. Pell and Dawkins might disagree about Heaven but that doesn’t actually impinge on most of us right now. They largely agree about Islam, however – and the consequences of that matter.

At the same time, many of those making legitimate criticism of the New Atheists do so on the basis of a religiosity that I simply don’t share. It would, then, be nice to see a Left staking out a third position: a confident and politically engaged materialism.

Two other quick points.

The Australasian Secular Association, the group that built that hall, had historical links with Melbourne spiritualism, something that I wanted to mention (but I ran out of room). It seems incongruous to us but in the Victorian era, many radicals saw spiritualism as both democratic (since it eschewed priests and allowed anyone to become a medium) and scientific (since spiritualist revelations came, not from faith but from séances, which were supposedly empirical verifiable). It’s a neat example of how a crude empiricism (of the kind you always hear from people banging on about defending the Enlightenment, etc etc) actually leaves the door open for fully blown craziness. Sam Harris, for instance, has a fantastic footnote in The End of Faith, in which he cites some crank studies to suggest that reincarnation has a scientific basis.

The other point that would be worth pursuing, IMO, is the role of an atheism derived from Leo Strauss in the neocon tradition.

Shadia Drury argues:

Irving Kristol, in his Autobiography of an Idea, echoed Leo Strauss when he argued that there was no reason to choose between the rational atheism of Freud and the religion of Moses, since the two can be reconciled by adopting, “a double standard of truth. Let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do withoutthem, and let the handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded esotericdoctrine – for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.”

Not all the neoconservatives are covert atheists. But the Straussian neocons are deluded into thinking that they are a special breed; they live by a different rule; they are the superior few who can face the abyss of nihilism; they know that God is dead and they have replaced him. For these mortal gods, lying, deceit and the manipulation of public opinion are honourable because the masses are not fit for truth – they need a diet of noble delusions intended to link the political interests of the state with the cosmic forces of justice, goodness and truth.

I’m just reading her book at the moment (and I’m not totally sold on it yet).

But that passage, in particular, is quite fascinating when thinking about the over embrace of neoconservatism by some of the New Atheists. Certainly, as I’ve argued, there’s a very similar elitism embedded deep within the New Atheist methodology. The difference is that the Straussians don’t proclaim the news of God’s death, whereas the New Atheists do. But it’s only a hop, skip and jump from thinking that you’re one of the special breed who knows the truth (remember the term ‘bright’?) to deciding that, actually, it’s not such a bad thing if the stupid masses are befuddled by some necessary illusions. Certainly, this notorious post from Dawkins seems to be heading down that road.

Anyway, that’s all very undeveloped, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about Strauss, as to whether there’s anything in it.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Years ago I was in church listening to the sermon. The preacher launched into an anecdote about Communists in Finland, during the Civil War. Taken prisoner by the Whites, they decided that since they were to be executed at dawn they would give up their foolish pretenses. They began singing hymns. The upshot of the story was that they were all executed.

    I think the moral was that you can’t wait to accept Jesus lest it be too late. I’m not certain, as I was chilled (literally, shivering) to think that the executioners treasured the memory and that a Southern Baptist clergyman still valued it after sixty years.

    Elitism may be an obnoxious trait but the Four Horsemen’s politics condemn them, not their manners. (Dawkins is a militant genetic determinist and evolutionary psychologist, aka new scientific racist by my book. And Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea devotes much, much time attacking Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky, which is no accident.) And religion may be diverse, but it is an institution that is the foremost defender of superstition and bigotry.

  2. Yes. On the question of politics, it’s worth remembering the proliferation of muscular liberalism in the wake of 9/11, with, at one point, the various pro-war ‘Leftists’ coalescing into something like a distinct tendency. To an extent, New Atheism was part of that.

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