U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Undead Ideas about Ideas: Intellectual History & the New Atheists

Last week, Jacobin published an essay by Luke Savage on three of the leading lights of the “New Atheist” movement – Richard Dawkins, the now deceased Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Savage’s argument is clear and sound: obsessed with the threat of some monolithic entity called “Islam,” Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have aided, abetted, and very much contributed to the racist political discourse that informs and supports American imperialist projects in the Middle East.

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University

Savage’s article is the latest member of a now large family tree of essays taking down the New Atheists – many authors, including myself, have spilled much ink trying to explain why the protestations of figures like Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins (who claim they are merely standing up for reason and civil liberties) cannot be taken at face value. My experience with this project had a particular edge to it, because I came to that position from within what its members refer to as “the atheist community.” For a while, I was rather active in this sphere, and have been to the talks of, and indeed even taken photo-ops with, Dawkins and Harris.

But the story of how I became disillusioned with that community is not one I need to tell here – nor is an extended explication of how many of the New Atheist leaders participate not only in racism, but also sexism. If anyone is curious about it, they can check out any of the excellent pieces written on the subject or refer to my own previous writing.

Rather, what I want to talk about here is the peculiar reflections the discourse of the New Atheists might generate for those who do intellectual history. For, in a nutshell, the argument that Harris and others pursue is a kind of monstrous, deformed version of what intellectual historians do.

Consider the following line from an essay by Sam Harris on what he considers to be the very direct and entirely obvious connection between “Muslim hysteria and violence” and Islam: “This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas.” To Harris – as with the majority of major voices in New Atheism – the wire linking ideas and actions is simple, straight, and unobstructed by anything else. Social, economic, and political dynamics – history, in short – matter only insofar as they can be read as results of ideas. Or, as he puts it, “Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.” Thus it is not simply that Harris pursues a narrative that gives predominance to the power of ideas – rather, he offers an analysis where culture, structure and power barely exist at all, and do little to nothing to inform or shape those ideas. The world is a vacuum into which ideas enter and create nearly the entirety of social reality.

Consequently, religions – and especially their holy texts, should they have them – are not to be understood as social products open to a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, but rather concrete, never-changing truth claims that will tell us in a very straightforward manner exactly what the followers of a broadly defined religion believe and why they believe it. And understanding what people believe, Harris insists, is the only thing we really need to know if we seek to understand their behavior.[1] Hence, the cause of terrorism carried out by fundamentalist Muslims is entirely clear, and Harris can confidently go on national television and incredulously defend himself against charges of racism by arguing, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.”

Even as I write this, I am tempted to go ahead and unpack how frustrating this quote is – how it can’t make any sense to refer to “Islam” as a monolithic, essentialized thing, how Harris uses the posture of a defender of critical thinking as a cover for his selective and entirely unthoughtful obsession with his fictional version of this totalizing threat called “Islam,” and how he uses the same logic to blithely reply to anyone trying to complicate his narrative with the blank, impervious-to-knowledge reply of “ok, but have you actually read the Qur’an?”

Yet that’s not what I intended to do, but rather to think about the implications of this kind of rhetorical strategy for intellectual historians. Thus, back to our specific concern here.

First, it is quite clear that what Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins do is not good intellectual history – indeed, it’s not even history at all. At least all the intellectual historians I am well familiar with – who knows what Harris is reading! – insist that the significance and the consequences of ideas can only be understood in the larger matrix of which they are a part: the ever present, perhaps tyrannical importance of Historical Context.[2] Culture, power, politics, even aesthetics – all of these are engaged in both shaping and limiting ideas and vise-versa, and the joy of doing intellectual history is discovering these relationships and then, as an extra treat, getting to argue with one another about which factor is the most important or the least important (or equally important?, inherently inseparable?, or moving through as much as bouncing off of one another?) in any given case.

Of course, all of this is preaching to the choir – but the point I am pursuing is that this does, at least, give us an opportunity to make some kind of positive intervention in all of this. We, as intellectual historians, can do the best we can to explain to whoever is listening – atheists, Americans haunted by nightmares of racialized Muslims, or assorted friends and family – why the assertions of people like Harris simply do not withstand scrutiny.

Yet at the same time, listening to New Atheist leaders talk occasionally makes me conscious of the ghosts – or zombies, if you will – of intellectual history. For while the legacy of the traditional, ethnocentric approach to intellectual history has come under so much criticism, it still sometimes seems to haunt its current practitioners, who are well aware that some possess a basic suspicion that anything labeled “intellectual history” must participate in deeply rooted elitism. This is not so much because of the way New Atheist figureheads talk and write – as I said before, almost nothing they do resembles history as historians currently practice it – but by the way they use ideas as a measuring rod for the value of entire societies.

Take for example, one of Richard Dawkins’ more infamous gaffs – a tweet that read, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” Note here that it is not just any ideas that this statement celebrates – it only applies specifically to the type of (largely scientific) knowledge that is recognized as valuable and legitimate by western liberal civilization. So it is hard to read this and not think of a thousand old-fashioned syllabi for World History, where the uncivilized brown people are regulated to a distant past of lost splendor, only to reappear as the passive beneficiaries and/or victims of Western Civilization, which itself can be best understood through a progressive reading of Plato, Descartes and Voltaire. If contemporary intellectual historians want to do better, observing the ethnocentrism and racism at the heart of New Atheist rhetoric reminds us how much damage remains to be addressed.

Fortunately, I believe we do want to do better – but here is where an apparent irony steps in. At one plenarysession in Indianapolis, “What is U.S. Intellectual History?,” presenters and the participating audience focused largely on the question of how far we can, and should, expand what and who are deemed appropriate subjects for intellectual history. Edward J. Blum powerfully reminded us all of how some contemporary intellectual history continues to exclude women and people of color, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen advocated for an expanded understanding of intellectual history as dealing with “ideational stuff,” and Kathryn Lofton made a case for the relevance of even Kim Kardashian to the subjects and processes that concern intellectual historians. Indeed, there seems no project more pressing for intellectual historians than, as Blum recently put it at this blog, desegregating our scholarship.

Yet interestingly, democratizing intellectual history can sometimes mean deemphasizing the importance of ideas – at least as the Western tradition has traditionally conceived of them. For in debates and conversations I’ve had with genuinely intellectually curious atheists, the main assumption I’ve had to uproot is the belief that ideas, in and of themselves, can change the world and possess enormous independent power and value.[3] Thus the historical contingency of a reactionary discourse arguing for the supreme power of ideas has compelled an intellectual historian to argue that ideas aren’t actually quite as powerful as some assume. And although this might seem awkward or contradictory at first, I think it holds out to us a delightful possibility: if we want to democratize intellectual history, there is more than one way to do it. In addition to including people and subjects not traditionally considered appropriate topics for intellectual history, it could also involve encouraging ideological shifts just as important as the first necessary step of inclusion as subject matter. It might also, in fact, include exploring why some ideas have much less agency than others. So in other words, the value of our field rests not merely in talking about where ideas were very important, but also where – and why – they weren’t.

[1] And as Kathryn Lofton’s lovely talk at the recent S-USIH conference attests to, the very idea of what one believes is a concept fraught with difficulties and ambiguities; a problem which Harris, if he deals with it at all, only deals with from a neuroscientific perspective and never a historical or sociological one.

[2] I say “perhaps tyrannical” not so much out of a personal inclination, but in recognition of a desire, expressed partially in the Q&A session of the “What is Intellectual History?” panel and more subtly elsewhere, to occasionally allow ourselves the kind of freedom found in political theory or other humanities to appreciate ideas in some sense outside of, or perhaps regardless of or in spite of, their historical roots.

[3] It has also occurred to me, although I’m not entirely sure what to make of the connection, that the “power of ideas” idea (if you will) has been very popular on the neoliberal New Right, which has devoted enormous resources to think tanks and public relations campaigns which not only emphasize certain ideas, but encourage a way of thinking about ideas in general that celebrates them to the point of worship (think Ayn Rand and the supreme value of the creative and exceptional individual). So I suspect that there is a connection between this tendency and the pro-imperialist politics of some New Atheist figureheads.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice, Robin. In your first post you’ve managed to address several of the controversies ongoing at this blog and in the larger field. How powerful are ideas? Can ideas be analyzed in non-contextual ways, or I might add, are ideas contexts in and of themselves? What counts as intellectual history? How and why do we study the gaps? How and why do we democratize intellectual history? I hope our commentariat takes you up on these challenging questions.

    For now I’d be interested in your take on what seems to me an ironic congruence between fundamentalism and doctrinaire atheism. You write about the New Atheist interpretation of religion as such: “religions – and especially their holy texts, should they have them – are not to be understood as social products open to a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, but rather concrete, never-changing truth claims that will tell us in a very straightforward manner exactly what the followers of a broadly defined religion believe and why they believe it.” Just like fundamentalists, huh?

    • Yup. The funny thing about atheists like Sam Harris is that they take fundamentalists at their word, and thus reproduce a lot of their unstated assumptions that are just as, and I would argue much more, important than the surface beliefs of “was Jesus the son of God or no,” and so on.

      Harris in particular has used this strategy repeatedly, but most often (of course!) in concern to terrorism carried out by fundamentalist Muslims. He constantly says look, this is not mysterious — if you want to know why they are doing this, just ask them! And they will say something about the Qur’an and infidels and so on and so forth! Case closed.

      So the model here is of an autonomous, blank slate kind of human, and ideas just get projected onto her like a photograph and them wallah!, that’s what you get. Of course this is a model impervious to any speculations about how culture & power shape and limit our thinking without us even being aware of this, necessarily. Thus it is also, strangely, a model of human nature with pretty much no room for the unconscious.

  2. Enjoyed your post. Welcome. The new atheist are fundamentalist because they are idealist and purist. They believe (and I mean believe) in pure unadulterated and essential ideas inhabiting a Platonic plane that come down and dwell among us causing us to do all sorts of crazy things. Historians are all about context, change, and contingency, multiplicity, and messy boundaries of thought. There is also another impulse I see here, scientific utopianism. The new atheism will make interesting work for future historians of religious thought.

  3. Love it. Love it. Love it. One additional point that could be made is that these men present a threat to an intellectually rigorous defense of atheism. In attempting to wrest rhetorical victory from their (often religious) opponents they cede the very intellectual standards their arguments are supposed to be rooted in.

  4. I quite agree that the New Atheists practice an absurdly idealistic version of intellectual history. Some criticisms of them raise problems of their own, however. It’s an error to understand Islam as having an unchanging essence defined by the Koran, but it’s also an error to think that there aren’t persistent and recurrent themes and tendencies in the Islamic tradition. Thus ISIS has a great many precedents in Islamic history, and its ideology harkens back to particular, identifiable strains in Muslim thinking. That fact isn’t going to go away just because you don’t believe in universals or find it politically convenient to find nice things to say about Muslims. (Of course, to recognize the Islamic roots of contemporary terrorism is not to claim that all the roots are Islamic—the jihadis seem to be borrowing quite a bit both from European existentialism and the apocalypticism of the contemporary Christian right, for example—; and the Islamic tradition, like any major religion, is a very mixed bag.)

    There’s a separate problem. While Islamic fundamentalism may not be a good example of a political movement based on ideas, you can make a case, as Jonathan Israel has in his writings on the radical Enlightenment, that ideas can be powerful historical forces under certain circumstances. Is it accidental that the New Atheists, who accord an enormous importance to ideas, come across as throwbacks to the 18th Century, the classic era of dangerously effective ideas? Dawkins and the others write like second-string philosophs. Their highly schematic, Manichean view of history would hardly be out of place in some under-the-table Parisian pamphlet.

    • Hurried comment: The reference to J. Israel is interesting at least in part because of the reference to/perversion of Enlightenment that seems to be going on with the New Atheists. I’d only say that Israel’s whole project seems to me to be almost unbelievably idealist–implausibly, too, since there is also such a depth of scholarship and erudition at work in it. But in the end he always finds Spinoza and Spinoza always means this one thing! Which, at least in the few places I can even pretend to competence that overlap with him, seems to me totally implausible.

      Also–I wonder if it would be helpful here to think about what intellectual historians do as more closely related to what cultural historians do. Intellectual history can also surely be (although not only) about understanding the limits that ways of thinking can place and continue to place on our political/social action and vision. Intellectual history can be about understanding a problematic at a given moment, the range of possibilities that seemed available, those that did not…

      At any rate, I wonder if that would also be an effective way to reject what does indeed seem like an extraordinarily naive version of intellectual history (one that missed the psychoanalytic as well as the deconstructionist moments of the discipline!).

    • Sure; I’m not arguing the inverse of Harris’ position, that the variety of Islam fundamentalist terrorists draw from has nothing to do with their behavior or motives. That would be pretty silly. (And not that you were necessarily saying I, in particular, was doing this).

      Yet I would hesitate to attach it to anything larger than that particular variety, as I do not pretend to be an expert on Islam and, unlike many New Atheists, therefore do not presume to know what, if any, “tendencies” there are that I can confidentially say characterize the entire Islamic tradition in all its variety and could now help us explain, say, ISIS. When an expert like Reza Aslan has something to say about it, then I will listen to him on the manner.

      But I would advise shying away from rhetoric about the “political correctness” of saying “nice things about Muslims,” because this is precisely the rhetoric used by Harris et al to build outlandish arguments about how liberalism is sapping the moral clarity of the US and preventing it from, you know, Doing What Must Be Done. Moreover, while it rests on a grain of truth — there is always one hippie to be found in the audience who waxes poetic about what a peaceful man Muhammad was — for the most part it is a straw man argument that operates to distract us from the real problem, which is widespread, and systematic bigotry against Muslims.

      And yes, you’re absolutely right that Harris and Dawkins etc resemble 18th century philosophes — and unfortunately they inherited most of their bad characteristics along with the good ones! Moreover, I agree with the critique of Jonathan Israel Eric offers below; not the biggest fan of Radical Enlightenment.

      • Political convenience, which is what I was talking about, isn’t quite the same as political correctness. In the wake of 9/11 even Bush went out of his way to assure everybody that he wasn’t attacking Islam and if I were in his situation I’d use similar language for similar reasons, though I’d probably skip the bit about the crusades. I’m not attacking liberal piety here.

        I find it extremely difficult to find a way to state a properly nuanced perspective on the relationship of Islam and recent political events. I’m very well aware of the internal complexity of the Islamic heritage and also of the degree to which Islamic fundamentalism, like other fundamentalisms, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon that can’t be understood as a simple return to tradition. On the other hand, as Islam’s internal critics have been pointing out for almost two centuries now, you can’t wave away the problematic features of Islam as an aberration or a foreign intrusion into a basically universal and tolerant religion. Forced conversions and cultural vandalism aren’t recurrent features of Muslim history for nothing. How do you talk about these tendencies without being unfair to the many other strands of Islamic history and practice? Beats me.

  5. Robin Marie–
    I agree with much of what you say here (although, as you might guess from some of our earlier discussions, not all!). I wonder if you might address the fact that these new atheists seem to imagine themselves as on the left, and in fact share a great deal of space with liberal and left critics of the religious right in the domestic sphere. In fact, the intellectual style of a Hitchens seems to have been honed in the take-no-prisoners forum of left factionalism. Its features are the argumentative hostility of the take down, in which systems of popular belief are routinely dismissed as “irrational,” combined with a strain of leftist thought that paints religious belief as a form of unfreedom, and a smug certitude and lack of critical self-reflection. One finds the same kind of hostility toward religious belief in thinkers like Richard Rorty. Just to be clear, I’m by no means talking about all liberalism and radicalism, just a strain of it which is hostile to religion entirely, and whose imagination of a rational utopia is one in which all forms of superstitious belief have been eliminated.

    • Dan:

      Where do you see hostility to religion on Rorty? He struck me as perhaps dismissive of religion. I could see how that might offend people with religious beliefs, but that is still different–to me, at least– than hostility.

      Nor did Rorty engage in the “argumentative hostility of the take down.” When he was alive, he was constantly criticized for, if anything, the suggesting that everyone already agreed with him, at least about the important things. It’s more like he was too genial than too hostile.


    • Hi Dan —

      Yes, the argumentative style of “the takedown” is very popular in various pockets of the atheist community. But it actually depends on exactly where you are — say, whether you are on a reddit feed or at the blog of an individual scientist who also partakes in discussions about atheism — how much that style predominates. There are also very well-known leaders of the very closely related, but not identical “skeptical community,” like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, who not only do not adapt this style but actively criticize others for doing so. (See for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik)

      Which also brings up the issue of the politics of the broader community. I would say the vast majority of atheists who participate in atheist community activities identify as liberal, and lots of those are lefty-liberal sorts. Nearly all are socially very liberal, at the least. In addition to that, there is also a small spattering of libertarian sorts; socially liberal and economically conservative.

      But a group that has developed in the last several years, in the wake of many incidents of internal sexism and racism, are a group of people who call what they do Atheism +. These include people like Greta Christina, the bloggers at Skepchik, and probably also P.Z. Myers. They, too, can sometimes partake in the style of the takedown, but their reason for being, so to speak, is to develop an atheism that is justified only by speaking to larger social problems. So there are many of those (I believe Crommunist used to be in this category as well, but no longer blogs much about atheism, I do not believe) who have a variety of style but also significantly different politics than the well-known New Atheist leaders like Harris or Dawkins.

      And not surprisingly, those who partake in the “rationalist utopia” idea (none actually claim they do, of course, but as we know contributing to an idea does not require you consciously owning the fact) are much less often the Atheism + people, and much more often the Sam Harris, reddit-commenters sort.

  6. Mike–
    Yes, hostility is probably the wrong term, in that I used it directly following the description of Hitchens’s style, and Rorty is definitely not hostile and argumentative in that sense. And he probably is a very bad example of what I had in mind, when I was thinking to myself who was an influential thinker on the left who shaped an animus to religion in political life. I’m going on memory of his writings, particularly Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. What you call “dismissive,” however, I would see as a stronger antipathy. Rorty’s vision of a liberal society essentially denied a role for religious belief in the public square, and treated it as a dangerous form of belief if it occupied a space other than a purely personal, private and aesthetic one. He believed that religion is incompatible with reasoned discussion, even though he also believed that any form of solidarity could have no ground other than agreement itself, so “reason” had no privilege over other forms of uncoerced agreement. Given the extent to which Rorty turned his back on the kind of metaphysical vision of science associated with figures like Harris and Dawkins, it’s interesting that his own personal secularism could lead him to a general distrust of religion as a component of human solidarities that seems in sync with that of the New Atheists. I think you’re probably right that Rorty is a bad example for the point I was trying to make, but maybe a better one for a related point? Mea culpa!

  7. Robin, great post.

    Two thoughts. One, if I was talking to a friend who was going to write a paper about Sam Harris and Dawkins, my spontaneous recommendation (which might be worthless) would be to look at Lazzarrato’s essay “Strategies of the Political Entrepreneur,” on Berlusconi and postmodern mass media. That is–the labor historian in me is interested in how Sam Harris put together this strange life as a pedantic reactionary, which apparently is paying him enough to live on (I suspect it is paying him even more than that). I think that if he is a new kind of ideological entrepreneur (different, in this sense, from Dawkins, who comes out of a more traditional occupational space within the sciences), then that is likely an important determinant on the kinds of arguments he makes and the ways he makes them. (That’s vulgar Marxist, no doubt, but here, I think, it is relevant).

    Second, it seems to me that the hyper-positivism of Harris and Dawkins is completely out of sync with the current state of theoretical sciences. Quantum physics does not permit the kind of Popperian reductionism in which these sorts of ideologues specialize… in fact, here, the space of the theological seems ever to become wider and wider?

    • Hi Kurt!

      So, funny you bring in the question of Harris’ trajectory; he actually does have a weird kind of story, which maybe you knew about. He began school at Stanford and then decided to go to India for an entire decade to study meditation and Eastern religions. When he came back he finished a degree in philosophy, a few years later 9/11 happens, and then somehow (I’m not at all clear on how or have all the info on this) becomes the pop writer he is. You’re absolutely right; this is drastically different than say someone who climbed the institutional ladder in a very traditional way like Dawkins, and someone absolutely should explore what the implications of that difference might be.

      As for how they square with say, quantum physics, I really can’t say; I myself am highly suspicious of the entry of the discoveries of quantum physics into discussions about social reality, but that’s only because of the Positive Thinking Industry (such as books like “The Secret”) that abuse the science to basically encourage and justify capitalism by implying that its victims are just not go-getters. (It’s boot-strapperism for a new generation, truly).

      But yeah, per the above reply to Andrew, New Atheism also supplies similar psychological comforts and needs as religion; you might not believe in heaven, but you do feel very special (you’re one of the smart ones, you know) and assured that you know how to access the Truth at all times.

  8. Robin Marie, thanks for this very excellent post.

    The above discussion about polemical style, epistemic/political commitments, etc., intersects, I think, with another piece that was recently published in Jacobin: The Left Can Win, an excerpt from a talk given by Pablo Iglesias.

    In the piece, Iglesias reminds the Left of some practical considerations when it comes to building a movement, and he encourages people to focus less on “doctrinal” purity and arguing people out of their theoretical/ideological misconceptions (whatever those may be) and to focus more on building coalitions. Here’s a snippet:

    One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”…

    When you study successful transformational movements, you see that the key to success is to establish a certain identity between your analysis and what the majority feels. And that is very hard. It implies riding out contradictions.

    Now he’s talking about a different project than atheism (though maybe closer to atheism+ as you’ve described it above), but it seems to me that some of the same habits/conventions/stylistic tics show up in debates over “atheist ideology” and “Left ideology.”

    These debates are often bemusing to me. This is partly because I am not “native” to either of those intellectual frames; I am approaching an understanding of atheism from a confessional background, and I’m approaching an understanding of the Left from a conservative background. (My background isn’t dispositive when it comes to where I’m going to end up in my thinking on any issue, but it’s certainly one of the conditions impinging upon my alacrity — or lack thereof — in seizing upon ways of thinking that are new to me, if commonplace to others.)

    In any case, from where I stand, it seems that the idea that people must first be disabused of their incorrect thinking — whether that’s their thinking about the existence of God or their understanding of their class identity — seems to be a place where various projects hit a snag. And this too might be evidence of that habit of thought that you single out for critique above: an overemphasis on having the correct ideas as a prerequisite to political action, social progress, building community, whatever. For me, a functional approximation of the New Atheists’ doctrinaire hostility to belief would be something like Thomas Frank scolding Red State voters with the refrain, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” It seems that the more practical approach would be to figure out if there’s any way to find common ground with “Kansas” where it stands right now. That’s assuming that the goal is to effect change that makes peoples’ lives better in some way, rather than simply winning an argument.

    From your post above, and from the discussion with Mike and Dan (and whoever else has commented while I’ve been composing this post!), it seems that winning arguments in the realm of ideas (or at least in the realm of rough-and-tumble polemic) has become a goal in itself. As an observer from the sidelines, it seems to me that this kind of internecine warfare over the right to be right(eous) is something that the New Atheists and the Left sometimes have in common with the most doctrinaire religious fundamentalists. That’s one opposition I see at work: the “doctrinaire” v. “the pragmatic.” And — Jamesian that I am — I’d chalk that up to sensibility / temperament, rather than to a particular set of right or wrong ideas.

    • Thanks so much for this great comment, because yes, I think this absolutely is a dynamic that segments of both the Left and New Atheism suffer from.

      You see this in the kind of incredulous replies essays detailing the problems with New Atheism get from many atheists. People really are shocked that anyone could read a Sam Harris book and think he’s contributing to racism — just *shocked.* All they know is that he is right that the textual and specific truth claims made by religion (Jesus is the son of God, Noah built an ark, Muhammad was a prophet, etc) are untrue, and that say, female genital mutilation is evil and, therefore, he can’t possibly be racist. Because he’s *right* about everything he says. And, in their minds, I believe, that’s really the only important virtue or factor in play. Nothing else matters; and one cannot be rational or right and be racist at the same time and then, ergo, Sam Harris cannot possibly be racist.

    • LD,

      To play the Clifford to your James, what concerns me about this notion that correct belief should not be a precondition for action is that it does not hold beliefs accountable for the actions they may cause. In the case of religious belief, I often see this as an attempt to extricate religion from its dire real world consequences. While I think it is reasonable to only hold individuals responsible for their own actions – and not their beliefs – it seems to me that at a certain point the idealogical origins of horrible practices should be interrogated. It seems that we do this all the time with modernization theory. Often, modernization theory looks great on paper but we’ve seen from its horrible consequences in practice that it’s a deeply flawed ideology that is best left on the political margins.

      I think a good amount of our disagreement on this issue stems from our different backgrounds. Coming from a deeply secular background and having once had an affinity for atheism, I approach New Atheism from a position of ideological sympathy. It’s actually the way New Atheism duplicates the close-mindedness of religious fundamentalism that I find abhorrent. Also, having grown up during the George W. Bush administration I was always aware of how his religious beliefs shaped his approach to American domestic and foreign policymaking (though it obviously was not the only force shaping his policies, hello, capitalism) so I have seen the way ideology can create ‘bad’ politics.

      It may ultimately be a utopian project, but I think one of our aims as intellectuals is to not only support certain ideas for temperamental or sentimental reasons, but because we think they are morally right and will lead to right action. Obviously, this will always be a struggle and we will sometimes err, but, in the words of the late Peter Novick, it’s a “noble dream” worth pursuing.

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