I read a lot of things I disagree with, but this post on Richard Dawkins by The Spectator’s Damian Thompson stands out as one of the more brazenly dishonest ones I’ve encountered in a while. Dawkins is currently in hot water with feminists and others for tweeting about rape, and a few people, like the Guardian’s Eleanor Robertson, are pointing out (rightly) that the world-famous atheist crusader has been an unhinged crank for quite a while now.
Enter Damian Thompson with this rant asserting—it’s impossible to say he’s argued anything—that the “atheist Left” didn’t care about Dawkins’ bigotry as long as it was directed against Christianity. Dawkins’ tweets about rape and about Muslims, Thompson writes, have “exposed a rich vein of hypocrisy in the Left—and, more significantly, an intellectual rift between hard-line and multiculturalist atheists.” This is presumably because now “the Left” is pushing back against his craziness now that it’s directed at feminists and Muslims, even though they didn’t seem to care when it was directed against Christians. (Dawkins, for example, called Pope Benedict “a ‘leering old villain in the frock’ who ran ‘a profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution.”)
If there’s anything more tiresome than someone on the internet accusing someone else of hypocrisy, it’s someone on the internet accusing someone of entirely made-up hypocrisy. First of all, what is the “atheist Left”? Sure a lot of people on the left are atheists, but a significant number of them are not, enough to make the such a description functionally useless. Also, if memory serves me, only about 50 percent of the British public describes itself as religious, and only about half of those believe in God. So I’m pretty sure there are some right-wing atheists in the UK. Second, Thompson has completely invented this timeline where Dawkins first arose as an anti-Christian bigot and only later turned against Muslims. The entire phenomenon of the “New Atheism” arose in response to 9/11, and therefore was always about Muslims. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith was published in 2004, and explicitly advanced the notion of a civilizational clash between the West and Islam. Dawkins’ best-known book, The God Delusion, appeared in 2006. Hitchens’ God is Not Great came in 2007. The latter two also dealt extensively with Islam. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote, “[The New Atheism] may have targeted Christianity and occasionally Judaism, but hatred and fear of Islam was its animating force.” Sorry Thompson, but these guys have been singling out Muslims from the start.
And the entire time people on the left in the UK and the US were responding that this “secular fundamentalism” was a mirror image of what it purported to criticize. Terry Eagleton, perhaps the most famous Marxist in Thompson’s country, wrote a whole book about it. This is the famous first line of his review of The God Delusion, in the bastion of the British left, the London Review of Books:“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” And the temple of highbrow American liberalism, the New York Review of Books: “Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers.”And the liberal New York Times: “There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy.” (The reviewer also accused Dawkins of “scattershot reasoning” and “rhetorical excess.”) The American liberal magazines The New Republic and Harper’s both published strongly critical reviews.
The left has been even more unforgiving of Dawkins’ fellow New Atheists, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, not least because those two turned their arguments against religion into support for George W. Bush’s warmongering. Jackson Lears, reviewing Sam Harris in The Nation, the leading magazine of the American left: “The End of Faith, written in the wake of 9/11, bears all the marks of that awful time: hysteria, intolerance, paranoia; cankered demands for unity and the demonization of dissent.” In addition to innumerable leftist critiques of Hitchens’ politics, here’s a fellow atheist, writing in the liberal website Salon, about his “sloppy or altogether missing knowledge of theology” and his “irresponsible thinking within his own presumed area of expertise, Western philosophy and literature.” Here’s the Washington Post, which Thompson singles out for giving Dawkins a platform, reviewing Hitchens’ God is Not Great: “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens’s pet themes—the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.”
Of course there are leftists out there who hate religion and enjoy Dawkins’ antics. But presenting this recent response to Dawkins’ unhinged Twitter account as a sudden leftist awakening to his intemperate intolerance is selective reading of the highest order. Or perhaps more likely, it’s evidence Damian Thompson doesn’t read at all.
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