The New Atheists (Mis)Use of History (Stupid or Sinister?)

Those in the West tend to favor the pronouncements of scientists too much. While works on theology written by scientists (e.g Dawkins, The God Delusion) are praised despite their theological vacuity, there is a general skepticism about non-scientists making any sort of claim on science that diverge from the scientific mainstream. This double-standard that privileges the scientist also permits that profession to write “reputable” histories as well; for example, the scientist Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is widely acclaimed (by Bill Gates no less!) despite the fact that its thesis is historically dubious. This is not merely a science vs. theology issue. The conflict runs deeper:  science has accrued such a bloated reputation that people too often thoughtlessly embrace books, articles, and shows merely because they feature a man with a Ph.D. in biology. Little else can explain the popularity of the New Atheists. They are scientists, so we must give them credence, even when they begin speaking to matters out of their field of study. This is an intellectual state of affairs that bodes poorly for culture at large. The minute one sort of knowledge begins to trump all others you get a myopic view that blinds more than it enlightens. (The writer would also like to point out that such a critique is equally applicable to religious fundamentalists).

The West’s embrace of science has led to the inability to identify the sketchiness of the New Atheists’  historical rhetoric (among other things), which is something I intend to explore here by considering their metahistory (a grand theory of history and where it’s going) and then a specific example of Christopher Hitchens’ specious historical rhetoric in support of that metahistory.


First, a word on “historical rhetoric”: the two words should really never be paired. Using history to prove a philosophical point tends towards a very selective reading of the past that distorts more than it illuminates. Not only that, but it’s a dangerous tactic to advance in a debate: someone with a basic grasp on historical facts can make you look stupid very quickly by bringing up inconvenient counterexamples. And yet it is this very  selective reading of history upon which metahistories depend. Thing is, people (Christians and atheists alike) construct metahistories all the time based on selective readings of the past. This is tragic—history is an unwilling whore.

The New Atheists’ metahistory goes something like this: in the old timey days people were ignorant of science and tried to explain the world in religious terms. With the dawn of the age of reason and the use of the scientific method, man no longer needed to posit spirits hiding behind the clockwork to explain why things worked the way they worked. But religion held tightly to her doctrines and resisted science. A war ensued in which slowly but surely science continues to conqueror the ground once occupied by religion thus making religion more and more irrelevant. While Hitchens (for one) compliments religion as humanity’s first attempt to understand the world, he sees it as nothing more than a malicious albeit intellectually backwards idea in need of demolition.

This “conflict thesis” is nothing new and was first popularized by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the late 19th century. As Draper once put it, “The history of Science…is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.” Sound familiar?

The thing is that the Draper-White thesis, though popular for a time, has since been roundly rebuffed by historians as an antiquated and simplistic interpretation of the past. While it is true that science (broadly defined) and religion (broadly defined) have been at odds with each other from time to time, the reality is that the relationship is a complicated thing in which religion both impeded and actively advanced science. To make things even more complicated, even with the most blatant examples of religion halting the advance of scientific knowledge (e.g. the trial of Galileo) the story is often more nuanced than the manichean way it is portrayed in popular literature.

As euphoric as the New Atheists’ are about the advance of scientific knowledge, they seem oblivious to advances in modern historiography that have deconstructed the Draper-White thesis on which their historical rhetoric depends. In some ways I find the error forgivable (after all, they aren’t historians), but as virulent as the New Atheists are about defending science  from the ignorant assaults of Bible-wielding, young-earth creationists, you think they would pay more respect to historians.

This seems especially ironic when their historical rhetoric is a classic example of thesis driven work, something they themselves as scientists eschew. Simply put, they already know how the story turns out (science eventually overcomes those knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping apes) and so it’s just a matter of finding examples to prove the point. Deconstructing this thesis is not that difficult: all one has to do is find evidence to the contrary (religion advancing science) or demonstrating how the example used to prove the point really doesn’t prove what the person wants it to prove.

I’m tempted to write out a whole list of historical examples the New Atheists use to advance the Draper-White thesis but I will limit myself to one for the time being. This may seem like a thin criticism (only one example, seriously? Anyone can pick on one little thing) but the lion’s share of the criticism resides in their flawed historical methodology as already addressed. The rest is just a matter of highlighting how in particular instances their methodology corrupts historical understanding.

So, to the example. This excerpt is from a debate between Hitchens and Dinish D’Souza. The context: after Hitchens compliments religion as our “first attempt” to come to terms with reality, he moves on to give an example of how religious explanations are irrelevant and we’ve progressed beyond them with the help of modern science.

“To have a germ theory of disease relieves you of the idea that plagues are punishments, that is what the church use to preach, that plagues come because the Jews have poisoned the well as the church very often taught or that the Jews exist and are themselves a disease which the church taught when it was strong enough and also when it was morally weak enough and had such little evidence, you can free yourself from the idea that diseases are punishments.” -18min mark.

Here we see the Draper-White thesis par excellence. Their are two forces at work in the world: religion and science. The church posited silly ideas about the cause of plague but thankfully science eventually triumphed over the harmful, superstitious ignorance of the church and set the world right.

When someone begins telling a story with such sweeping generalizations, one best beware. This particular story asserts well worn tropes that unravel rather easily upon further consideration.

From the onset, it’s important to note that one need not demonstrate that Christians never thought of plagues as punishments or blamed the Jews for hardships. These things did in fact happen. But they are not the only response the church had to these matters (indeed, excesses often were initiated by laymen, not clergy) and it is this omission that makes Hitchens’ story so polemically false.

For example, in response to the murder of 5,000 Jews by participants in the First Crusade,  Pope Calixtus II issued a bull in 1120 to protect the Jews and their liberties, which included their lives, property, and freedom from forced conversion. This bull was reaffirmed through the centuries by numerous popes. Another example, the prominent doctor of the church St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1155) condemned anti-semetism. Another example, Clement VI (1291-1352) presided as pope during the worst of the Black Death and despite widespread hysteria blaming the Jews for the outbreak issued two papal bulls condeming anti-semetism and commanding priests to protect Jews throughout Christendom. Another example, Piux XII, long denigrated in popular memory for being “Hitler’s pope”, condemned the Nazis to the point they planned to assassinate him and more importantly played a crucial role in mobilizing the church and saving hundreds of thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps. So much for the moral weakness of the church.

Anti-semetism aside, while one may find examples of Christians believing that plagues and general suffering are caused by disobedience to God, no serious Christian theologian has ever advanced the idea; after all, he has the book of Job. So much for science freeing us of ideas that suffering is the judgement of an angry God.

These are just a few historical examples—and I have yet to even mention the crucial role Catholicism played in financing the arts and sciences and advancing man’s knowledge of the natural world; nor have I mentioned the work of the Church in curbing the abuses of colonialism; nor have I mentioned the church’s general acceptance of evolutionary science. The list goes on.

All of these historical realities contradict the Draper-White thesis as advanced by Hitchens.

The history of the Catholic church aside it’s worth noting that scapegoating is not unique to religion as Hitchens implies nor is the elimination of religion a solution to scapegoating. You can find countless examples in which political, social, racial, and economic factors are almost exclusively the driving force behind historical incidents of violent ostracism. Indeed, the “sound science” of the late 19th and early 20th century supported the idea that certain races were biologically more advanced than others: eugenics was not quacky stuff. Eugenicists were as motivated by scientific findings as plague-crazed Christians were by the idea that they had made God angry or Christ killers had poisoned the well. Science, no more than religion, is free of black eyes or delusion.

The sad thing about all of this is that it doesn’t take a lot of research to call into question Hitchen’s simple little anti-Catholic story. What makes the whole thing so ironic is that his historical assault on Catholicism mirrors the ignorant anti-catholicism of protestanism. None of this is to say that Catholics don’t have their issues and haven’t made mistakes in the past, but it is to say that if the New Atheists really want to deal with the opposition fairly they need to address the complexity of the past.

When it comes down to it, it’s just bad scholarship to lump all believers together and then characterize the whole because of the actions of some. What makes this all the more galling is that atheists become very upset when one brings up the fact that during the 20th century explicitly atheistic regimes systematically killed hundreds of millions of people.

Good history shows, though, that atheism doesn’t lead to genocide anymore than Christianity leads to ignorant anti-scientific, anti-semetism. Both contemporary parties would do well to be aware of this (I could just have easily written a critique of protestant metahistory, something that irks me even more since it’s my own camp) and avoid constructing metahistories in which one faction is responsible for ignorance and suffering and the other responsible for progress. No one has a monopoly on the goodness or evil of the past. The past, like the present, isn’t manichean. Best to leave history to the historians. If not, they will gladly deconstruct your tidy stories with inconvenient facts.

But this leads back to the question in the title of this post: stupid or sinister? I think it could be either. Hitchens and company tell a persuasive story and as long as it gets the philosophical results their looking for, who cares if one twists historical facts to make a point? But there’s another side to this: Great intelligence can lead to arrogance and arrogance can lead to mind-bending ignorance. Richard Dawkins in an interview with Playboy magazine back in 2012 claimed that the authors of the Epistles weren’t even really that interested in whether Jesus was real. This is stupefying but telling. And this is where I fall back on the aphorism, “Don’t ascribe malicious intent to that which can better be explained by ignorance.”

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2 thoughts on “The New Atheists (Mis)Use of History (Stupid or Sinister?)

  1. For the record, I quibble with one part of your otherwise magisterial take-down of the Neo-Atheists, Bellewether.

    Unless I’m misunderstanding, I don’t know if your claim that Christians don’t understand catastrophe as God’s judgement is correct.

    Indeed, the issue may be a bit more nuanced than that. Surely, Confessional Christians do not see catastrophe as being the direct judgement of God. They would, and do, however, consider catastrophe as being the after-effects of the Fall, which is, of course, the fault of all Man, and, thereby, these hideous events of plague, war, natural disasters, ARE occasions for repentance.

    Anyways, just one minor clarification, I guess. I could be wrong. Theology isn’t my strong-suit.

    Bark, bark.

    CM

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  2. It’s a fair clarification, CM

    In the grand theological scheme of things you’re right. At the more basic level, though, I was addressing the simplistic cause-and-effect bandied about my shallow religious believers (of all stripes) and shallow materialists.

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