Sunday, August 14, 2011

The "New Atheists" And Controversial Political Views


As I have been listening to many debates, lectures and podcasts on issues of atheism vs. theism and the philosophical grounding of moral systems I've become well acquainted with the views and arguments of the bigger names in the so-called "New Atheist" movement. For the most part atheists, skeptics, free-thinkers tend to be politically liberal, but there are a few glaring exceptions.
In the February 5 episode of the Unbelievable? podcast which features weekly discussions between Christians and non-Christians, noted Christian thinker Alister McGrath mentions noted "New Atheist" Sam Harris's controversial support for torture in certain circumstances. This isn't the first time I've heard this claim, and considering how reasonable, lucid and appealing I find the majority of Sam Harris's arguments, I was concerned how Harris could possibly truly believe that torture was ethically justified.
Instead of taking the word of second hand sources I decided to research it and find what he actually said on the issue. I found an article on his website where he responds to the criticism of a few controversial passages in his writing. I'll let him speak for himself: "there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like 'water-boarding' may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary." Now the original passage in Harris's book brings the subject up as a comparison to the ethics of so-called "collateral damage" in war which he argues is eminently more objectionable. That one point I can agree with, but he then rationalizes his support for torture by framing the classic fantastical favorite hypothetical of torture supporters: what if there was a hidden dirty bomb somewhere in an American city and you had the guy who hid it but he wouldn't tell you where... I'm sure we all know it well. This is a sorry excuse for an ethical argument and I share Mr. McGrath's disgust in Harris's support for torture. The simple fact is that when tactics like water-boarding are used it is never in so cut-and-dry of a situation and even if it were, there is strong scientific and historical evidence that torture is a far less effective means of interrogation than the standard methods used in the criminal justice system. I am disappointed in Sam Harris and I think that in this case his Islamophobia has compromised his ability to objectively examine the issue.
The same type of Islamophobia may be at the heart of another right winged aberration among the New Atheists, namely Christopher Hitchens' support of the Iraq war. I can't think of any other reason that a seemingly intelligent man would lend his support to such a poorly thought-out foreign policy blunder, and judging by the stale talking points he would offer when questioned on the point, it seems he can't think of any good reasons for his position either.
Although for the most part they are rational thinkers with well-considered views, it seems to me that there is a streak of emotionally reflexive demagoguery among the more strident members of the New Atheist movement. Considering this, along with the point that right-wing political positions are often based on the same kind of reflexive emotionality which is relied upon to conquer the rational defeaters of the position, it perhaps should not be surprising to find the occasional neo-con argument in the New Atheist movement.

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