Hemant Mehta—“The Friendly Atheist”—has one of those holier-than-Salon articles on his blog where he goes after Jeff Sparrow for his opinion piece in The Guardian advocating for movement atheism to find new leaders besides Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I’m not usually one to wade into movement atheism shit-flinging contests; atheism is not one of the facets around which I construct my identity, and I’ve been nothing but annoyed and disappointed by movement atheism in general. But Hemant Mehta’s post was so obnoxious in its hubris that I just can’t help myself from commenting on it.
Mehta’s post begins with a somewhat simplistic summary of Sparrow’s article, pointing out how Sparrow “goes after” (notice the framing—it’s not that Sparrow is critical or disagrees, it’s that he’s “going after” them) Dawkins, Harris, and Christopher Hitchens for various absurd things they’ve said or done. Mehta’s response:
Anyone who actually reads their books knows that’s not at all what they’re doing.
Since Sparrow can’t bring himself to admit it, I will: Those atheists he criticizes are all well aware that religion provides comfort to billions of people, many of whom have little else to turn to. As Daniel Dennett has written, you can have a “belief in belief” — acknowledging that religion helps a lot of people — without admitting that it’s true.
Who said anything about Daniel Dennett? How does Daniel Dennett’s belief-in-belief model contradict Sparrow’s claim that movement atheism—and New Atheism in particular—is often represented by some of the biggest assholes in the world who talk about destroying religion because it is harmful? Mehta’s claim that all the New Atheists are interested in is “the truth” is complete bullshit. They have been very vocal about advocating for the erasure of religion based on it being harmful and having no redeeming qualities. For example, Richard Dawkins has said that raising children as religious is “child abuse.” That doesn’t sound like someone who’s just interested in what’s true or not—that sounds like someone who is taking a Manichean view on religion and then accusing religious parents of abusing their children for enculturating them into their religious tradition.
That’s just a shitty thing to say to people who genuinely love their children. Saying that makes you an asshole, not a truth-seeker.
There’s no way to tell people their most deeply held beliefs are wrong without coming across as a dick.
Why do you need to “tell” people their most deeply held beliefs are wrong? Why do you care what others believe? It matters what people do. If someone’s religious beliefs give them comfort and they’re not trying to make public policy based on those beliefs, why do you feel it is your responsibility to tell them their beliefs are wrong? And not only that, what makes you think they give a shit about what you think about their beliefs?
Also the fact that Mehta says he thinks Dawkins “misses the bigger picture of anti-Muslim bigotry” is laughable considering he gives space on his blog to such bigotry.
But Sparrow really loses me with his underlying assumption that those two guys basically represent the totality of atheism.
There are plenty of atheists who are women, people of color, not former Christians, etc. So why do those guys get so much attention? Because they wrote a couple of bestselling books, creating a platform for themselves, and journalists keep referring back to them instead of all the other atheists who have sprung up over the past decade. It’s a positive feedback loop that ignores what so many other atheists have been saying for years now. To them, a random tweet by Dawkins or an off-the-cuff comment by Harris is worth much more than, say, an organization started by ex-Muslims.
Speaking of missing the point!
Movement atheism is full of assholes. It is about more than just Dawkins or Harris or the media constantly referencing them (convenient narrative—blame the media!). It is also about all of the asshole atheists who agree with them and vocalize it, creating a hostile environment in movement atheism. I mean, one only need look so far as the comments on Sparrow’s article to see it. For example:
Hmm, that Salon dig looks awfully familiar—I feel like I have seen that somewhere recently. Where could it have been? Oh, right. In Mehta’s post:
You’d think [Sparrow is] writing for Salon the way he throws everything about atheism under the bus because he finds reason to critique its most popular cheerleaders.
Anyway, behold the majesty that is a comment complaining that an article gives the reader “ZERO knowledge” of Dawkins’ views while simultaneously giving ZERO knowledge about Sparrow’s views. All the while doing nothing but insulting Sparrow and impugning his honesty rather than addressing the actual problems Sparrow brings up.
Speaking of honesty (and convictions), how about this gem from the eminently honest Brian Dunning:
Thank you to GeoffreyB, whoever and wherever you are, for your incisive reply to Dunning. I would just add that saying Dawkins is “probably wrong” for comparing a teenage tinkerer to a teenage terrorist pictured beheading someone is, well, probably an assholish position to take. It wasn’t probably wrong. It was absolutely wrong and disgusting and bigoted. To dismiss that as “Dawkins said something stupid” diminishes the terribleness of what Dawkins did. Not to mention that movement atheism hasn’t exactly been on board with social justice causes (and that’s putting it extremely mildly—you know, reading charitably and all that horseshit). To say that’s where the focus should be makes me laugh because when many people have tried to make things such as social justice a focus of movement atheism, they’ve been shit all over and told that the only thing atheism should be concerned with is atheism.
The end of Mehta’s post is pure hypocrisy:
If Sparrow really wanted to “save atheism,” he could focus less on a handful of popular atheists’ tweets and podcasts (which, let’s face it, draw a fraction of the audience and attention that their books received) and spend more time highlighting the work that other atheist activists are doing. He would realize that we don’t need him to be a savior of anything.
So let me get this right. Your critique is that Sparrow should spend his time highlighting atheist activists rather than critiquing big names in atheism for their stupid ideas. In a post that critiques someone for their allegedly stupid ideas.
Also, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are atheist activists. This fact makes it difficult for less-well-known activists to get much notice, and this is not only because of the media, but also because Dawkins and Harris have huge followings who use their ideas to do their own kinds of atheist activism. To make it seem as if the only reason Dawkins and Harris get attention is because the media is obsessed with them ignores the fact that there’s assloads of atheists who follow and agree with their appalling views.
Look, I’m indifferent at best about atheism. I could really not give less of a shit if someone believes in gods or whatever. I don’t see religion as an inherently good or bad thing, I see it as having benefits and drawbacks, just like any other human activity including science. Fetishizing science over religion, as Dawkins and Harris do, doesn’t do us any favors either in the pursuit of truth and knowledge or in mobilizing activists. I will gladly clasp hands with any who want to fight for social justice, and I don’t feel the egotistical need to pontificate to them about what I think about their beliefs. When it comes down to it, I would rather fight side-by-side for social justice with a religious person who fights for social justice than with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Hemant Mehta. Any fucking day.
I look forward to Hemant Mehta’s reply in the form of a post with a bunch of links to various atheist activists who aren’t rich old white straight men who say bigoted things on social media.