Friday, January 11


If you want to be a jerk about it but gain a pretty good understanding of what neo-atheism is (so named and anecdotally described in this article by Wired Magazine, the same which introduced me to the movement), replace ‘neo’ with ‘fundamentalist.’ No different than Islam or Christianity, atheism has accrued fundamentalists of its own, and considering their rather antagonistic viewpoints, I have always found it amusing just how much of the language and techniques the neo-atheists have appropriated from their religious fundamental brethren. You get the same talk of the imminence of the end times, couched in language of nuclear holocaust rather than Revelation, and the same belief that their position is not only right, which is really not so uncommon even among the moderate, but that it is the only position worth having. Everyone not a part of your camp must either be persuaded from their path or is a potential threat. There has to be a video on YouTube somewhere of someone pointing this parallel out to Dawkins or Hitchens, and I have to see their response

This post is not intended as a refutation of neo-atheism. While I do believe that its most vocal proponents have gone off the deep end in their extreme rejection of everything religious and the possibility of any good coming from it, I understand why people choose atheism. I also know why I do not. Someday I may post on my thoughts on the subject, but that day is not today.

Rather, I prefer now to write on something which occurred to me since completing an essay comparing John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. As one may guess from the titles, Locke and Harris have differing views on the subject of tolerance, Locke believing that so long as religious practices do not intrude upon the civil interests or otherwise muscle in on the state’s territory it must be afforded tolerance. At the other end of the spectrum, Harris insists that religion, as the prime source of pain and suffering in this world and throughout history, must be eliminated.

The thing is, their underlying, fundamental goal is not so different. Both are members of the Enlightenment tradition and anticipating truth and a communal utopia through argument. Locke has faith that “truth certainly would do well enough, if were once left to shift for herself,” and Harris believes that civil society is “a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without the risk of physical violence,” and where the expectation is that only the truth is able to survive the ensuing rigorous debate.

What is with that? That was the question my professor posed to me after we went through an early draft. My answer after a great deal of thought (not in that same meeting but a month or so afterwards)? Harris is trying to resuscitate the Enlightenment project of achieving a universal Utopia through argument and discussion since postmodernism came through and did a hatchet job on the veryidea of there even being a firm ground from which we can judge the rightness or wrongness of different ideas. First, he asserts materialism and the related ability to objectively quantify and measure everything as this common ground. Second, he tries his hardest to tear down religion, something which I find largely dependent upon one’s subjective experience of the spiritual, because anything relying upon the individual experience is a friend of postmodernism.

I like to think of Harris’ philosophy in this context as the Enlightenment project with teeth. And guns. Lots of guns. The gloves of Harris’ Enlightenment have come off. It cannot wait for everyone to realize that something is true or false. It needs to make that decision for them.

It is a pity. I like to think that people can still be trusted to come to the appropriate conclusions on the big issues by themselves.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

You didn't mention, from our conversation on the topic, that Harris' position, as a restatement of late 18th century enlightenment principles, is historically and probably philosophically untenable because of the great divide in the cultural and societal context since that period of time.

Wow. That was one sentence.