Scepticism, class, and the 'New Atheists'

Scepticism, class, and the 'New Atheists'

With's Chomsky's appearance on a 'skeptic' podcast and in light of the recent comments by Dawkins and the reaction to them, including JK's blog post, it got me thinking about the relationship, or lack thereof, between 'scepticism', 'new atheism' and radical politics. Here's some garbled thoughts.

I mentioned Chomsky's appearance on Skeptically Speaking in a previous post. It turned my thoughts to scepticism/rationalism/humanism 1 and I had to split the posts.

I've been listening to this podcast a few years as it covers a lot of interesting science. I'd noticed that the host, Desiree Schell has some sort of lefty/radical slant but never looked into it. She'd interviewed the guitarist from UK Subs, tackled gender and science with Cordelia Fine, and done an episode on Kropotkin. Turns out she's a member of the IWW and works for a public sector union in Canada. She's discussed Joe Hill, the IWW, Emma Goldman and Kropotkin to audiences or 'sceptics'.

Normally 'freethought', 'scepticism', 'rationalism', particularly in its most vocal form as typified by the 'new atheists' has little to say about capitalism, class, or organised labour, and when it does, it's usually in the service of existing social relations (eg, Steven Pinker, EO Wilson, Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer).

It's hard to read much into one skeptic's 2 commentary on labour history, but it would be interesting to see if the until recently very fashionable 'bourgeois rationalist' criticisms of religion will actually evolve into something more. Richard Dawkins' recent verbal flatulence about muslims does seem to be causing a split in the 'skeptic'/rationalist movement. and it certainly is viewed as a movement in the US; see publications like The Skeptic, Skeptical Enquirer, podcasts like Skeptically Speaking, Skeptic's Guides to the Universe, Skepticality, Rationally Speaking, organisations like 'THE BRIGHTS'.... and so on

Science writers and rationalists/skeptics/humanists are increasingly distancing themselves from his public pronouncements. Martin Robbins described Dawkins' twitter account as 'the increasingly erratic comedy creation of a bored Oxford Professor', and Dawkins himself as 'a man who knows the definition of everything and the meaning of nothing.'

New Humanist's new editor has written what I think is a bold first contribution to that site essentially saying that humanism must move 'Beyond Dawkins', and it's arguable that this implies moving 'Beyond New Atheism' and the smug, simplistic take on religion.

Daniel Trilling wrote:
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were told that the triumph of capitalism would lead inexorably to the spread of liberal, democratic and secular values. Yet as globalisation has brought down barriers between nation-states, new forms of exclusive, aggressive identity politics have thrived. Sometimes, these are founded on religious belief; other times on culture or ethnicity; others still on twisting the language of tolerance and equal rights so that it can be used to oppress others. One of the most pressing questions of our time is how we negotiate complex ethical and political issues while remaining true to secular values.
Currently, Richard Dawkins is providing a case study in how not to do it.

This apparent split makes some sense. If indeed 'the foundation of all criticism is the criticism of religion', then it does follow that, unless you want to continue preaching to the choir of smug atheists (which apparently Dawkins does, and he does very well out of it), you have to move beyond the basic materialist premise that 'God doesn't exist'. Ok, we get it, you don't believe in gods. Clap clap. The mere fact that someone is or isn't religious isn't interesting in and of itself. WHY they are or aren't certainly is. And more interesting than that still, whether politically or purely as an academic question, is at a different level of analysis altogether; namely that of the social and political function that religion can serve in the here and now, for those that follow it.

Fuck it, sceptics/rationalists really could do a lot worse than read Marx as a starting point on religion, rather than Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens.

Marx wrote:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

That's always struck me as a much better point at which to begin discussion of religion. Although I lumped Hitchens, Dawkins and Sam Harris together, there are some important differences. It's arguable that Harris knows more about Islam than Dawkins, but that his pronouncements on terrorism and profiling muslims are even worse. Harris is one of New Atheism's 'Four Horsemen' - Dawkins, philosopher Daniel C Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Harris himself.

They all have a slightly different emphasis when it comes to religion.
- Dawkins' is usually that IT'S WRONG (with some evolutionary specualtion thrown in.
- Dennett extends the evolutionary explanation and I'd say has a more genuine interest in it and doesn't make the same blanket generalisations.
- Hitchens did take on the fawning reverence for the oh-so-sacred cow of Mother Theresa, which as an irish catholic (catholic atheist, mind, catholic atheist) still makes me chuckle, but, and I'll paraphrase myself here, "his cheerleading of the invasion of Iraq, his status as a figurehead for the 'new atheism' and its associated attacks on Islam by what Terry Eagleton calls the liberal literati, or the "academic wing of the 'war on terror'", means that under the guise of 'criticism of religion' he's defended the indefensible.
- While Dawkins does make sweeping racist generalisations, Harris advocates racial profiling of muslims, and also looks forward to the day when we have brain-scanning to look for neural correlates of 'criminal behaviour'.

What they all lack is any sort of attempt to engage with the failure of capitalism to provide for the basic needs of the many. They lack any sort of 'sociological imagination' when it comes to religion - that is definitely the case for Dawkins, Harris and Dennett.

Marx wrote:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Perhaps criticism of Dawkins by vocal atheists might give those seriously interested in informed criticism of religion a kick up the arse. Perhaps it will entrench the views of smug liberal 'Brights', rationalists, skeptics, humanists, new atheists, whatever. Perhaps I'm over-analyising it. I'll keep an eye on it.

Marx wrote:
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

  • 1. I will lazily use these terms interchangeably, as in my experience although the terms may have slightly different emphases, the degree of overlap in how they're actually used, is so large as to justify it
  • 2. they spell it with a 'k' in the US of A

Posted By

Aug 17 2013 19:44


  • The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.


Attached files


Aug 17 2013 21:19

Thanks for this, and giving me a new podcast to check out!

Aug 18 2013 09:38

From above:

"While Dawkins does make sweeping racist generalisations"

Folks may be intrested to read Richard Dawkins perspective on the recent 'Nobel Prize-Islam-Trinity College' related controversy.

Aug 18 2013 10:20
satawal wrote:
Folks may be intrested to read Richard Dawkins perspective on the recent 'Nobel Prize-Islam-Trinity College' related controversy.

Amazing! He writes:

Dawkins wrote:
If you think Islam is a race, you are a racist yourself. The concept of race is controversial in biology, for complicated reasons. I could go into that, but I don’t need to here. It’s enough to say that if you can convert to something (or convert or apostatize out of it) it is not a race. If you are going to accuse me of racism, you’ll have to do a lot better than that. Islam is a religion and you can choose to leave it or join it.
But aren’t Jews a race? And you can convert to Judaism
Yes you can convert to Judaism and no, the Jews are not a race. You can argue about whether Judaism is a religion or a cultural tradition, but whatever else it is it is not a race. That was one of many things Hitler got wrong.

I'm sure we're all glad to hear that the mass murder of 6 million Jews wasn't racist but an unfortunate misunderstanding by Hitler of what a race actually is. Oops! If only Dawkins had been around to put them right. Bad luck hey!

"you can choose to leave it or join it." If only the Jews in the Third Reich had realised that when Hitler's men came knocking on their door! Thank god we have Dawkins on Twitter nowadays addressing such misunderstandings.

fingers malone
Aug 18 2013 11:07

No 1 is making a crucial point there, it isn't all about what you think you are, racism isn't a question of self definition. If someone is walking home late at night and a police car goes past, the police look at them and decide in two seconds "what they are" and decide whether or not to stop and search them. Same goes for racist attacks, "foreign names" on job application forms, and immigration controls. Other people, especially in a position of power, can decide that you look like a Muslim to them. They won't care if you actually are a communist athiest, or in fact a Sikh. (I met Sikhs who got threatened in the street after the 7/7 London bombings.)

[edit, sorry, bit of a derail, should have posted this on the other thread really.]

Aug 18 2013 12:46

Yes racism is all about someone else having the power to define what you're like. I think racism has its roots in the ruling class ascribing certain backward characteristics deemed essential to an ethnic group group because it fulfils some ideological need they have. Racism exists not because 'race' is meaningful as Dawkins seems to believe, but because it is very useful. Slavery could be justified by ascribing a less than human animalistic nature to black people, colonialism could be justified by making the colonised into child-like peoples crying out to be governed by more civilised, the Nazis could murder the Jews and requisition their possessions because their propaganda had previously made them inimical and parasitical. With the "war on terror", the essential characteristic ascribed to Muslims is fanaticism and irrationality leading to terrorism - and that's precisely what Dawkins is alluding to without explicitly saying it: "Muslims" aren't getting Nobel prizes because Islam makes them irrational and fanatical and backward, "they" are obsessed with throwing bombs and chopping heads off because "they" have failed to "modernise". Saying that in the post-Woolwich context where the EDL are burning down Mosques is pretty racist. It's a good example of how Dawkins and other 'new atheists' have happily been enlisted in the "academic wing of the 'war on terror'". Perhaps their criticism of religion is crap and far from emancipatory because they are more interested in the useful propaganda role they play .

fingers malone
Aug 18 2013 12:50

[cross posted with no 1]

I think it's an excellent post and that image with the flowers made me a bit emotional.

We need to relate to people, not look down on them, and understanding what people get out of religion and how it is meeting their needs in some way is very important. I live in a poor area, very badly affected by the crisis, benefit cuts etc and the evangelical churches are far, far more successful here than class struggle activities (and this is also an area with a strong progressive tradition.) I think that the neo pentacostal evangelical groups are cynically targeting very poor areas where people are vulnerable.
One of the things religion offers people is the chance to come together. When I was doing some organising with migrant cleaners, for a lot of them the church was the only place where they got together with other people. A lot of the activities in church, like singing, give people an emotional release, and something that comes across in Dawkins et al sounds like sneering at people for having feelings and needing emotional release. This isn't a defence of irrationality or downplaying the importance of rationality, analysis and hard fact but maybe as communists sometimes we do that a bit as well? I also feel the lack of some chance to express those things too.

Mr. Jolly
Aug 19 2013 09:42

Capitalism with Religion is imperialism, exploitation and brutality.
Capitalism without Religion is imperialism, exploitation, brutality and Sam Harris.

Aug 20 2013 00:00

So, if you think Islam is a race you are a racist, there isn't really any such thing as a race but Islam isn't one..and, oh yeah, Hitler..y'know?! Wow! Good old Dawkins, as vacantly illogical as ever. But what can you expect from a guy who conceives of the social world as a cultural genetics, in which there are these weird viruses called 'memes' that go in and out of people's brains and control them...woooo. Daniel Dennett has used this curiously idealist notion as the foundation of his materialist theory of mind, with which he explains consciousness by arguing that subjective experience is illusory! Presumably he doesn't include his own but he probably should. So far no-one has been able to isolate an Islam meme or seen one leaping from brain to brain and find a cure but where there's life there's hope eh? This idealism from the guy who prides himself on his materialism - "Memes are real because they are material" is just a crude attempt to apply the only stick he has to shake, inheritance, to the social world. How the FUCK did this character get himself a reputation as some sort of supreme rationalist?

Or any kind of humanist? What is a humanist sociobiolist? What's a humanist evolutionary psychologist whose rudimentary version of materialism (which is biologically a crypto-vitalism) doesn't even leave room for human consciousness as anything except an epiphenomena that has no influence on human behaviour? (sorry, on the behaviour of the genetic machinery of 'lumbering robots' was his phrase for us) In one breath our reductionist humanist denies any evolutionary advantage of ethics, reason, creativity and subjectivity, in the next - with his natural flair for reason - he claims that minds must have evolved because they had been favoured by natural selection. But why would they be favoured by selection if they are only an epiphenomenon which don’t do anything and have no influence on our behaviour, in our role as gene propagating zombies? And this is supposed to be own field ffs, so what chance is there that he'll say anything meaningful about more complicated subjects? I don't think any of these creeps are about to start getting a clue anytime soon. I liked Hitchens’ stuff on Kissinger but he totally lost it (or finally came out) after 911. I read Harris' first book when I was in the South Pacific. I'm not saying I'm completely proud of this but I chucked it down an active volcano, I just couldn't resist.

Oct 20 2013 23:10

It's not often I make a prediction with merit, but it seems I wasn't bonkers here. The podcast I mentioned above, Skeptically Speaking, has just changed its name to Science For The People, and its first new episode is about the 1970s radical science movement and the relationship between trade unions and science workers. Unfortunately the interviewee does use the term 'hard left' which is a bit embarrassing for someone in the New Left Project (which I confess to knowing little about).

Interesting departure away from standard rationalist type stuff. Interesting, Science For The People was also the name of the 1970-80s group of lefty scientists and students who, among other things, penned a letter against 'sociobiology'. There doesn't seem anything equivalent to the 'radical science movement' at the minute, groups like Science For The People, and British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, seemed quite productive at the time and had lots of prominent marxist scientists associated with them (Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Hilary & Steven Rose etc).

I have some old journals from the Radical Science series put out by Free Association in the UK in the 80s, again with some prominent scientists and historians/sociologists of science.