Trying to Defend the New Atheists Leaders

Reza Aslan wrote a stinging criticism of the New Atheists, causing Heather Hastie to desperately try to defend her idols.

Harris and Dawkins have been labelled “New” atheists. According to Aslan, “they give atheism a bad name”. He then does his best to find quotes from both men that show them in a bad light, or are at least likely to offend religious people. Instead of repeating Aslan’s quotes, I thought I’d introduce a couple of different ones:

Hmmm. Why doesn’t Hastie want to repeat the quotes? Let’s take a look. Aslan writes:

To be sure, there is plenty to criticize in any religion and no ideology – religious or otherwise – should be immune from criticism. But when Richard Dawkins describes religion as “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus,” or when Sam Harris proudly declares, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion,” it should be perfectly obvious to all that these men do not speak for the majority of atheists.

Dawkins says religion is as evil as the smallpox virus and Harris argues religion is worse than rape. These are the beliefs of closed-minded, wild-eyed extremists. I myself could add many other examples of wild-eyed extremism from New Atheist leaders, but why bother? These two alone completely neutralized Heather, such that her only defense was to sweep them under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist. I’m sooo impressed.
Oh, but it gets better. In her attempt to sanitize the documented rhetoric of her extremist heroes, Heather tries to subtitute the “nicer” side of the Two Horsemen.

First, she quotes (meme-style) Harris about society not suffering from people being too reasonable. LOL! Heather tries to sweep away Harris extremist views about rape being preferrable to religion but offering up….a Sam Harris deepity!

Clue to Heather/Harris – New Atheists have shown no superior ability to be “reasonable.” Was it reasonable for Harris to oppose Collins’ nomination to head the NIH? Is Dawkins being reasonable when he routinely mocks religious people as “faithheads?” Or perhaps we should explore the reasonable behavior of the Gnus when one famous Gnu accused another famous Gnu of rape?

Then she quotes (meme-style) Dawkins, asserting that faith is a cop-out and how we need to think and evaluate evidence.

So Heather wants us to ignore Dawkins equating religion to a deadly virus by offering up one of Dawkins hypocritical talking points.

Sorry Heather, but we have seen too many instances of Dawkins refusing to think and evaluate evidence and instead wanting us to accept his claims on faith. Let me give you an obvious one – Dawkins claims he was molested as a young boy. Well…..where is the evidence? Dawkins won’t even say who supposedly did this. We are just supposed to accept his claim on faith.

In the end, Heather can’t bring herself to deal with the truth of her idols’ hateful extremism. She hides from the evidence and instead tries to replace it with a Sam Harris deepity and a Richard Dawkins cliche. The problem is that neither the deepity nor the cliche have anything to do with New Atheist reality.
The bigger problem is that Hastie unknowingly demonstrates how New Atheists deal with evidence that conflicts with their self-image – they purposely ignore it.

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11 Responses to Trying to Defend the New Atheists Leaders

  1. TFBW says:

    The insistence that “all atheism means is a lack of belief in gods”, which Heather dutifully parrots, is getting extremely old and tired. I can only hope that the New Atheists who deflect all criticism with that mantra will cotton on sooner rather than later. By that definition, my shoes are atheists, and if you’re going to demand that your intellectual position is identical with my shoes, why should I take you even slightly seriously?

    But, of course, Heather wants to have it both ways. Atheism is nothing but a lack of belief in gods, but each atheist “is different and unique.” Well, nobody was suggesting that all atheists are identical, or even similar. In fact, the whiole point of Aslan’s argument was to distinguish moderate atheists from the New Atheists extremists — i.e. emphasise the differences. But no — you aren’t allowed to do that, because atheism is just a lack of belief in gods, and all atheists are different.


  2. James Parliament says:

    I’m also curious – why put up a defense? They said stupid things. Do they seek a claim to infallibility?

    If I were an atheist, I would unceremoniously create distance from Dawkins and Harris. I’ve even recommended Nagel and Ruse to some atheists, so they could see a more considered view of things.

  3. J.P. says:

    That’s right, James. It seems that Heather is applying to write the Pastor Æternus 2.0, atheist version.

  4. Billy Squibs says:


    When I’ve pointed the same out to atheists inclined to use the “lack of belief in God” line some have qualified the definition by adding the word “person” to it. So it now becomes “a person who lack the belief in God” or some such. I’m not saying it make the objection any better mind you.

    Also, (The url kinda gives it away.)

  5. TFBW says:


    Given the tendency for New Atheists to also be Darwinian fundamentalists, and to rail against the term “person” being applied exclusively to humans, I’ll be happy to narrow my comment down to living organisms in general, or even to organisms with a brain in particular. It would be promoting hypocrisy to go any narrower than that, however, unless the atheist in question was also willing to assert that human beings are clearly separated from the remainder of the animal kingdom in this way. Under this improved definition (which excludes inanimate objects like shoes, despite their outstanding capacity to lack belief) one can clearly see that it takes a highly advanced brain to be a theist, but a drunk mosquito can be an atheist.

    Seriously, if they want to promote the idea that if you’re smart, you’re an atheist, then they need to raise the bar on their definition of atheism such that it necessitates some actual reasoning capability.

    On the atheist shoes, I’d have written the text in mirror image so as to make the footprints legible.

    Back on topic, since I’m posting anyhow, has anyone else come up with a more charitable interpretation of Heather Hastie’s rant than I have? As far as I can tell, it utterly fails to engage the comments that it was ostensibly criticising, but I got frustrated with it pretty quickly when I was trying to analyse it, and I may have been too hasty. So, did anyone else have more success? Did it actually make any good, relevant points?

  6. TFBW says:

    Okay, in the absence of anything new and interesting to discuss, here’s a slightly more thorough analysis on my part, looking at the question, “does Heather Hastie’s response to Reza Aslan actually address his claims?” I hope you all like such dry analysis.

    Heather titles her response, “Reza Aslan Pontificates: Atheism is an Ideology and New Atheists are Violent”. This acts as her introductory precis of Aslan’s position: she boils that which must be refuted down to those two points. Is this a fair summary?

    Heather’s opening remarks make no attempt to establish the accuracy of her summary. She spends the first paragraph accusing Aslan of being predictable in his writing, and the second making unfounded assertions about his motives.

    In the third paragraph, she gets around to some of the evidence that Aslan presents in making his case — namely, quotations from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — but chooses to omit them completely in favour of her own selection of quotes. So she chooses not to address the question of whether of not the quotes were even supportive of her as-yet unsubstantiated summary of his argument.

    Is that a valid move? Presumably the quotes were supposed to support the idea that “New Atheists are violent”. An appropriate question to ask would have been whether the quotes can be interpreted as supporting violence against religion or the religious. Instead, she chooses to introduce selected quotes of her own which are more clearly non-violent in nature. Is this a counter-argument? If there is a quotation in evidence which supports the idea that the speaker wishes some kind of violence on someone, can this be refuted by showing that the speaker said other things which are non-violent? I think this is clearly not the case, and I don’t need to belabour the point: Heather’s introduction of new quotes doesn’t even provide a valid counter-argument to her interpretation of Aslan’s argument.

    As such, there is nothing of any substance so far to support her interpretation of his argument, or act as a counter-argument to that interpretation.

    Next up, things get a little unclear. She quotes Aslan at some length (one and a half paragraphs), and responds like so.

    Well, duh! Aslan has committed one of the errors common among the religious when discussing atheism.

    What’s unclear about this is that it implies that he has both stated the obvious (“well, duh!”), and made a common error. It’s not easy to surmise which part is supposed to be which. She goes on to give another example of the error, which appears to be the idea that there is more than one form of atheism. She says:

    There’s only one form of atheism. All atheism means is a lack of belief in gods. Atheists, of course, are people, and like all people, we’re complicated. Each of us is different and unique.

    So the error is that atheism must only be characterised as “lack of belief in gods”, but at the same time, each atheist is different and unique. Is this a refusal to allow categorisation? Evidently not: even Heather is willing to categorise, like so:

    Most of us are anti-theist as well as atheist, and some aren’t.

    So it is possible to draw a distinction between atheists who are anti-theist and atheists who are not. The question then arises as to what, if anything, in Aslan’s remarks seem to over-reach that boundary. Is there some substance to Heather’s objection, or is it merely pedantic huffing that one mustn’t say “forms of atheism” when one categorises atheists into anti-theists and others?

    I’m afraid that if Heather had a valid point here, it’s been lost in translation. All Aslan seems to have done is draw a distinction between anti-theistic atheists and “mere” atheists, which is a distinction that Heather is also willing to make. Where’s the beef?

    Next, Heather actually lends some support to the second half of her precis: that Aslan accuses New Atheists of violence. She frames Aslan’s quote in such a way as to make it appear more extreme than it actually is, however. She presents it as follows.

    “… religion [is] an insidious force that must be rooted from society – forcibly if necessary.”

    Add a little more context back in, however, and you get this.

    … an anti-theist opposes the very idea of religious belief, often viewing religion as an insidious force that must be rooted from society – forcibly if necessary.

    That slight distortion aside, her response is as follows.

    Neither Harris nor Dawkins has ever, as far as I’m aware, advocated violence. In fact, they have spoken out against it. To imply otherwise is inflammatory and irresponsible.

    This rings slightly hollow for several reasons. First, it’s more exaggeration. Aslan never used the word “violence” — he used “forcibly”. Force may be violence, but it may also be force of law. There is a distinction between coercion and violence with which Heather plays fast and loose here.

    On top of that, she’s refused to even acknowledge the relevant quotations that Aslan provided to back up his case, and the tone set by the things they juxtapose with religion. Suppose some ranting religious leader were to describe atheism as “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus,” or say, “if I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or atheism, I would not hesitate to get rid of atheism.” Would Heather, in all honesty, be inclined to characterise these remarks as non-violent towards atheists? Or would she be more inclined to characterise them as hate-speech? Weasely hate-speech, perhaps, which dances on the edge of propriety by keeping all the atheist-eradication implied or hypothetical, but hate-speech even so?

    I’m not at all convinced that she’s applying the same standards to Dawkins and Harris that she would to an ideological opponent here, and I’d like clarification on that point.

    Next up, she addresses the first part of her precis, refuting it simply, thus.

    The idea that atheism is an ideology is simply false.

    If we grant her definition of atheism, then this is true. I don’t think it’s reasonable to classify a lack of belief as an ideology, although one must allow the converse: that certain ideologies demand that certain beliefs be held or not held. As such, a belief or lack thereof can be a consequence of an ideology — a fact which Heather recognises when she says, “atheists have a wide range of ideologies, of which atheism is only a part.”

    Of course, it remains to be seen whether Aslan actually said anything remotely like “atheism is an ideology.” In point of fact, his article contains the word “ideology” once, as follows.

    To be sure, there is plenty to criticize in any religion and no ideology – religious or otherwise – should be immune from criticism.

    Any further connection between “atheism” and “ideology” must be inferred from context. From my reading, Aslan considers anti-theism, rather than atheism, to be an ideology, and I think that’s a pretty uncontroversial characterisation. I don’t see the claim that “atheism is an ideology” anywhere, and Heather has provided nothing to support the claim that it exists.

    In short, Heather is simply attacking a straw-man here.

    There’s more that I haven’t analysed, but that’s as much drudgery as I’m willing to inflict on myself in this task, and I’m sure it was more than most people wanted to read in any case. Suffice it to say that this is why Heather’s response “utterly fails to engage the comments that it was ostensibly criticising,” as I said earlier. It’s a swing and a miss as usual, from the crowd who seem to think that they knock the ball out of the park on every pitch.

  7. Michael says:

    Very nice!

  8. Billy Squibs says:


    Do you have a blog by any chance?

  9. TFBW says:

    All my web assets are in a disgraceful state of disrepair, but I’ll start linking to them again if I ever get around to fixing them up.

  10. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”
    Quoted by Reza Aslan, from

    Harris precedes this with, “But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. [Not only religion is.] Genocide is. Rape is.”

    Whether or not, should Harris ever find or imagine he could wave a magic wand and get rid of either genocide or religion, he would unhesitatingly get rid of religion (and unhesitatingly keep the presumably lesser evil of genocide) is not revealed to us, though I would be very interested in finding out.

    But there is no doubt – Harris himself has declared it – that if he could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, but (implied) not both, Harris would not hesitate to keep rape.

    I see Heather Hastie doesn’t defend Harris’ misogynistic choice. I am not sure she could – I couldn’t. Rape is an often violent assault, one predominantly inflicted by a man on a woman, and relatively seldom inflicted on a man; I am told it is a very traumatic crime for a person (usually a woman) to suffer; I am not sure I know a woman who – nor am I sure I can imagine many women who – if given that same choice, would not hesitate to get rid of rape rather than religion. I suspect it generally takes a man, and a misogynistic man at that, to choose as Harris does.

    In Harris’ September 15, 2014 blog entitled, ““I’m Not the Sexist Pig You’re Looking For””, Harris quotes passages from his interviewer’s critical article (adding, “I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading” – why not read the blog, and judge for yourself.)

    “I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

    I note that (amongst Christians, at any rate) women are disproportionately more likely to be religious than men are – though it’s not a huge disproportion; evidently Christianity does have that “nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe” that attracts women; whereas the “angry atheism” which Harris promotes does not, as Harris acknowledges.

    Nothing quite emphasises the lack of a “nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe” in Harris’ “angry atheism”, or quite emphasises that Harris is a misogynist, than his unhesitating readiness to abolish religion rather than abolish rape, should he ever be given the choice: “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.

    “I’m Not the Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.” – ????

  11. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > “I came to it [Buddhist practice] initially through a few drug experiences. I had a brief psychedelic phase around twenty years ago”
    See, dated September 2006, ie eight years ago.

    In his July 2011 blog (updated April 2014) entitled, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”, Harris says, “It has been many years since I took psychedelics myself, and my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved.”

    I’ll bet he has a healthy respect for the risks involved: many years!; it’s now about three decades since Harris took them briefly; that tells us how just healthy his respect is for their dangers. Yet his blog (likewise his “Waking Up”) positively gushes with enthusiasm for prospective meditators to first try psychedelics; and although he sometimes warns strongly against the dangers of taking Ecstasy, aka MDMA, he also, and including very recently in his November 04 2014 video conversation with Dan Harris entitled, “Meditation and the Nature of the Self”, Sam Harris implies they give a wonderful experience – implied message, go for it.

    Everyone else should take the drugs he considers too dangerous to take himself. Yeah, yeah. What a nasty man Sam Harris is!

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