Right Wing Cover in ‘The Atheist Movement’

Commentary from reactionaries of all kinds and in all places are defensive and lacking nuance. This is true of religious and political sectarians. It is true of atheists, too. Those who hold closely to a tightly constrained view, until they are willing to examine it, find it difficult to separate out, for instance, religion and its radicals from well-meaning people who practice it. They manage similarly to equate criticism of their evident reactionary attitudes and surprisingly bad faith, sham imagery with tacit support of religious hegemony. This is a style of sloppy characterization I’ve seen more times than I’d care to count among many self-identified “atheist” circles.

No serious-minded, ethical person, when confronted with the consequences, would go after Catholics, Communists or Mormons with the kind of aggression and blinkered fear as shown toward Muslims. The more famous personalities associated with the vaguely defined “New Atheism”, some of whom don’t dissuade people from referring to them as “leaders” don’t ever dissuade people from taking and acting on the most radical and reactionary interpretations of their sometimes overly theoretical, sometimes exaggerated and tone deaf positions on religious adherence.

The same serious-minded, ethical person would no more lump “all Muslims” together any more than they would “all atheists”. This even while acknowledging that a Muslim (for instance) is likely to make particular assumptions about gods and special geographical locations in the same way that an atheist will make particular assumptions about the origin of gods and the production of holiness.

In mirrored comparison, an essay by Luke Savage is something of a jumbled grab bag of incoherent rants 1. I note, hardly five paragraphs into it, the eye-roll inducing word “scientism” set along side some other frothing bits which may be worth folding into another critique. Savage does, however, manage to make a good point or two in spite of his own efforts to derail himself.

One point is trivially if only partially true:

“The typical New Atheist text is laden with maudlin references to Darwin, Newton, and Galileo…”

I’ll give him that one, though, doesn’t such a characterization hinge on what is meant by “typical”, on who is folded into the population of “New Atheists”, or upon the context of these “references”? He gives us absolutely no examples of accused weepy wistfulness, so we’re left to simply take it on his word. He’s painting a picture. I get it.

On the matter of this oft cited but hazily defined “scientism”, Savage is content to characterize his subjects who practice as having a “crude epistemology”, even if it is practiced “rationally”, he says at the bottom of essay.

It sounds like a real word. I’ve heard it pronounced and used in sentences elsewhere, so it must mean something. He contrasts its crudeness with “labour” (presumably not a “crude” labour) of religious interpretation and he seems to promise a bit too much when forcing the idealized religion into a highly compartmentalizing and theoretical “symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances”. I will leave it to you to tell me of a single moment in anyone’s day when derivation of meaning adequate to the circumstances of life doesn’t take place and doesn’t also take place mediated by the symbols and agents at hand. The quote, incidentally, is from Richard Seymour’s Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens 2, in which many excellent observations are made, and contradictions underscored, but similarly manages to pander to those who’ve already decided that religion as such is inert and untouchable.

We never get to find out what he means by “scientism” in this crude, reductive, and highly selective critique, but we do find out that, in his mind, both Francis Bacon and René Descartes practiced it! We find out too that the religion of Savage’s world is not tied up in any way with ideas of power, privilege, hegemony, hierarchy, or imposition. He almost concedes the provincialism of religion, but not quite. Just glorious and indispensable hermeneutics.

My own critique of contemporary “atheist” literature is that it plays to the modernist enthusiasms of those who consume it; makes “products of Science” into objects of appreciation under the banner, “Science”. This “Science” fetishization strips science proper of its method, of its public criticism and of its reproducibility, not to mention, its rigor. Savage, by contrast, seems to think that the application of reason to particular subjects is what makes the separate and derisive category.

But, this scientism is the fetish object consumed by religious and non-religious alike in our technological societies. The fetish object, “Science”, replaces the method of science with pretty pictures of Mars, breathless articles about robotics and catalogues full of clever devices. This is the “scientism” I think Savage and others hope to skewer. Unfortunately, this “Science fetish” is a cultural standard he shares and (I’m guessing) enjoys. Besides, a thoughtful approach with some semblance of intellectual foundation doesn’t give quite enough ammunition for the contemptuous broadsides of New Atheists. Whoever they are.

Savage’s best and nearly hidden point is that it isn’t just that ideas give intellectual cover to political and military goals, but that much of the so-called “rationalist” and “pragmatic” thought we see actually played out, the product of Right Wing, so-called “think-tanks”, is reenforced by Islamic hysteria also found among some atheist writers. That is what he means when he says “give cover”, but I think he gets it all backwards.

Even though this was the ostensible subject of his essay, and though Savage did no service to the topic, I don’t — I can’t — describe the process of creating “intellectual cover” in complex societies. It’s a subject worth understanding and analyzing; and worth discussing intelligently with good examples not laden down with the blunt contempt Savage offered us. I don’t think it is too much to claim that “intellectual cover” is likely not the same as an active “justification of imperialism”. Both can be propagandistic. The former is ethereal and cryptic; subtle. The latter is the stuff of those who pander to idiots. The likes of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens may be guilty of pandering to idiots; that’s the position Savage seems intent on carrying. I don’t think that would be a fair position to take, even when I disagree, as I’ve done before, with one or all of the listed writers

Authoritarian concerns manage to insinuate themselves, similarly into both centralized and decentralized groups. We probably pull the power of these authorities onto our own backs, Capitalistic powers in particular, but also industrially oriented (whether admittedly Capitalistic or not). This is the normal Rightist mode, but one toward which the “Left” can easily devolve to, going to ground, so to speak. Christopher Hitchens might be an intellectual example of this. It is the manner in which Leftist organization might succumb to Rightist methods of authority, hierarchy, force, sentiment, etc, possibly because of an enduring desire for a similar status quo.

“Even among those of us who push back against grand narratives that pimp the obscenity of Western exceptionalism there is an implicit assumption about progress; a secular faith in “advancement” despite the face of insidious institutional racism.”
— Siviku Hutchinson 3

  1. Luke Savage, “New Atheism, Old Empire” Jacobin Magazine (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/new-atheism-old-empire/
  2. Richard Seymour, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. Verso (New York 2013) 
  3. Siviku Hutchinson, “Teaching Against Terrorism”. FreeThought Blogs 2014-12-05 (http://freethoughtblogs.com/blackskeptics/2014/12/05/teaching-against-terrorism/