Jeff Sparrow Misses the Point: Atheism Doesn’t Need Saving November 30, 2015

Jeff Sparrow Misses the Point: Atheism Doesn’t Need Saving

Jeff Sparrow has one of those holier-than-thou articles in The Guardian in which he goes after Richard Dawkins for his comments about Ahmed Mohamed (the kid whose clock was mistaken from a bomb), Sam Harris for saying that Ben Carson understands the threat from Muslim extremists better than Noam Chomsky, and Christopher Hitchens for supporting war in the Middle East a decade ago. You’d think he’s writing for Salon the way he throws everything about atheism under the bus because he finds reason to critique its most popular cheerleaders.

You don’t have to be a believer to see that religion genuinely offers something to its adherents (often when nothing else is available) and that what it provides is neither inconsequential nor silly.

That’s the basis for the dickishness that so many people now associate from the New Atheism, a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim.

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.

And truth is what those New Atheists are interested in. They understand the power that religion has, for good and bad. They’re not afraid to point out the consequences, even if that means taking away (false) hope from people who have no other options.

Look: There’s no way to tell people their most deeply held beliefs are wrong without coming across as a dick.

Is Sparrow wrong to fault Dawkins for all the time he’s spending on Twitter disparaging a teenager? No. I also think Dawkins misses the bigger issue of anti-Muslim bigotry and have said as much.

Is Sparrow wrong to be shocked that Harris would “prefer” Carson despite the dumb thing he’s said on the campaign trail? Well, yes, because Harris doesn’t support Carson in any meaningful way. Harris thinks radical Islam is a major concern and he admits that some Republican presidential candidates feel the same way. (A stopped clock is still right twice a day, etc.) If you want to criticize Harris, then explain why his priorities are misplaced or how his proposed solutions wouldn’t work. Sparrow does neither.

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.

By all means: Challenge the popular atheists when they get it wrong. But don’t presume that all of atheism is doomed because a couple of famous ones have said cringe-worthy things.

Keep in mind that still-popular Christians push policies that harm LGBT families, take money from gullible followers, treat women as chattel, ruin science and history classes across the country, and think that anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe will be tortured for all eternity.

But, you know, Dawkins tweeted something stupid. That’s really where the focus should be.

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.


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