Lisa Miller Exorcises Her New Atheist Demons

Lisa Miller of Newsweek, it seems, has had it with us nonbelievers. In her latest column, she seems to be indulging is some form of guilt-laden catharsis, awash in shame for having devoted too much precious ink to the New Atheists.

For five years, since the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith … three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities.

It’s not their fault, though, says Miller. It’s the media, all too attracted to the latest shiny (or loud) thing that comes along.

… this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs.

I think this is wrong to begin with. The New Atheists have attracted more attention than atheists have generally, certainly, but the idea that they drive the conversation about faith and its value to society is laughably wrong. We are bombarded with coverage that presents faith in a gauzy, cozy package that begins from the assumption that religion is a positive force in society—indeed, assumes that it is an assumed element of people’s lives. The New Atheists may currently dominate the discussion about atheism, but as far as the “faith-verus-reason” debate, if it happens at all, it is not in any way owned by the New Atheists. Perhaps if more people were brave enough to engage in it, this would not seem to be the case to Miller. She goes on.

We in the media have to bear some of that responsibility. Just as we covered Jerry Falwell when he said the Teletubby Tinky Winky was gay, we cover the “new atheists” because following controversy is part of what we do. As religion editor of NEWSWEEK, I have done my share of enabling these battles, most recently in a September interview with Dawkins.

So according to Miller, covering Dawkins is equivalent to enabling the bigotry of Jerry Falwell. ‘I don’t believe God exists’ = ‘Gays are immoral.’ This nonsense is insulting not only in the gross comparison of the New Atheist thinkers to irrational, demagogic, right wing hate-mongers. It also robs the atheist movement of its genuine intellectual substance and relevance. Falwell was simply trying to rile up the credulous and spread homophobia. The New Atheists are trying to spread reason and critical thinking. You may not like their tone, but the intellectual foundations and intentions could not be more different.

But Miller isn’t through. Now it’s time to really lay on the stereotyping.

But we can’t shoulder all the blame. The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.

There may be a grain of truth in that this kind of “regurgitation” does indeed exist, as it does with any like-minded group from liberals to libertarians to librarians. But Miller says “the atheists” are this way, implying that atheists as a whole all behave in this same “adolescent” manner. It’s astounding this kind of language was even allowed in the pages of Newsweek by the supposedly pluralistically-minded Jon Meacham.

The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let’s move on.

Let me answer your question: No one. They are three (and if you include Daniel Dennett, four) of—yes— the smartest guys in the room trying to get us to stop buying into nonsense, myth, and superstition, to stop giving religion immunity in the public discourse, stop assuming that faith is intrinsically a good thing, and to bring a little reason and critical thinking to the public debate. If it seems like they’re showing off, it’s probably just because they’re right, and sometimes the truth is a little uncomfortable. So let’s not “move on” until the lesson has sunk in.

Most of the public criticism of the New Atheism is, unfortunately, based on this queasy discomfort over exaggerations of their “style” (as though all four men were the same). This has been the subject of a lot of my writing, and so it was a large part of my recent address to the Northern Virginia Ethical Society last weekend (which I may or may not post later). This kind of attack is bad enough when it’s based on a distortion of the New Atheist approach, but once in a while these broadsides cross over from simply being a poorly formed argument or a misinformed rant, and into the territory of the unjustified maligning of entire group. This is par for the course for reactionaries like Charlotte Allen. I’m sorry to see Lisa Miller creep into their camp. With the more sophisticated set, this almost always happens under the guise of frustration with the tone or the supposed futility of the New Atheists’ argument, but it disguises an underlying prejudice against the marginalized subgroup they often represent. This is about a frustration with atheists as a whole, not Christopher Hitchens. This is about discomfort with reason trumping faith.

Miller does one good thing in this otherwise astoundingly ham-fisted column—she notes that other atheist voices have not received the degree of notice that they have earned, including Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain of Harvard, and my favorite, Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and author of Doubt: A Historyand The Happiness Myth. But these voices are not being shut out, which is Miller’s implication. They simply have not garnered the same amount of attention as the New Atheists have, most likely due to the very reasons that Miller suspects: the New Atheists are louder, and their message is more directly confrontational. But there is nothing stopping her or anyone else in the media from cluing in to Epstein’s work on secular community and morals, or Hecht’s wonderful perspectives on history and culture.

Of this, Miller writes, “This new conversation won’t be sexy,” but she’s wrong. It’s only “not sexy” if she and others in her position fail to make it so. Writers and commentators shouldn’t feel like their arms are being twisted to find the compelling within the subtle and the nuanced. It shouldn’t be that hard, if only they will take the time to move beyond the stereotypes. I’ll be waiting.

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