Ethnocentrism is generally associated with religious fundamentalism. Puritans. Manifest Destiny. White Man’s Burden. Civilizing the savages of the world. Unfortunately, this mindset has carried over into the atheistic intellectual elite of the 21st century.
I. “The New Atheists” Movement
I.a. Major Players
Many renowned scientists, including ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, cosmologist and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, cognitive scientist, linguist, and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, are a part of this movement.
I.a-1.) “The Four Horsemen”
Lawrence Krauss disagrees with the label and proudly proclaims himself an “old atheist”, and (rightly) claims to have been lumped in with the movement rather than having chosen to identify himself with it (Krauss & Wright, 2017).
Julia Galef of the Center for Applied Rationality
Cara Santa Maria of the Huffington Post and The View
I.b. Criticism & Resistance
The movement has been criticized by science journalist and agnostic secular humanist Robert Wright (Harris & Wright, 2017; Krauss & Wright, 2017) as well as atheist/agnostic and skeptic Michael Ruse (Ruse, 2009).
Islamophobia (Sparrow, 2015).
Islamophobia, sexism, racism (Shives, 2017).
Neil Degrasse Tyson has stated on several occasions that he refuses to self-identify as an atheist lest he be identified with the movement and summarily labeled before any conversation on the subject can take place.
II. Elitism, Ingroups & Outgroups
II.a. Attitudes toward Monotheism
Islamophobia (Sparrow, 2015).
II.a-1.) Monotheism as a Strawman
Almost all atheistic treatments of religion, at least so far as the Anglosphere is concerned, presume, ethnocentrically, that “religion” is an inherently monotheistic construct and invariably Abrahamic in nature.
“Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it: Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day, and the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do, and if you do any of these ten things he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever, until the end of time. But he loves you.” — George Carlin (2009, 00:30)
Here, Carlin is obviously using the word “religion” as a synonym for the Abrahamic faiths, as can be discerned from his reference to the ten commandments and to the Judæo-Christian Hell. Carlin gets a free pass on this, being that he was never a scientist or academic, nor employed in a field that demands intellectual rigor. He was, as a comedian, under no obligation to avoid logical fallacies such as this obvious strawman argument which uses the absurdities of the Abrahamic faiths to attack religion more generally; his only obligation was to get laughs.
Unfortunately, most of the anti-religious arguments coming from “The New Atheists” commit the same fallacy.
“If there is a deity, it is bigoted, capricious, cruel, deceitful, genocidal, homophobic, insecure, intolerant, irrational, jealous — oh yes, very jealous! — malevolent, misogynistic, racist, vindictive, and violent: a bully, who demands constant praise and sacrifice, adulation and ego-support, or the penalties can be very severe. Or don’t you know your scriptures?” — James Randi (2012, 03:45)
This is not only an ethnocentric strawman argument, but an ethnocentric false dichotomy as well: Implicity, the choice is between monotheism and atheism; the God of Abraham or no god at all.
Jerry Coyne (2012; 2016; 2017) uses the term "religion" in much the same way. For example, in his 2012 presentation, "Jerry Coyne on the Odd Couple: Why Science and Religion Shouldn't Cohabit", Coyne goes to some length to describe the supposed conflict between science and "religion", even though only a small handful of religions, primarily ecclesiastical ones such as the Abrahamic faiths, have an official dogma that must be taken literally. Coyne (2012) also uses "belief in God" (with a majuscule "G") as a measurement of religiosity. To his credit, Coyne does remark that he's speaking primarily about the Abrahamic religions at one point in his 2012 presentation, while talking about the Adam & Eve story and its incompatibility with science, but makes no such qualifications in his earlier or later remarks about "religion" or "God" with a capital "G". Almost every statement he makes about religion is true only of the Abrahamic faiths, but only when mentioning Adam & Eve by name does he ever bother to qualify his statements by saying he's referring specifically to the Abrahamic religions. This clearly demonstrates that Coyne is aware of the existence of non-Abrahamic religions, but is choosing to intentionally misrepresent them because representing them accurately would undermine everything he's saying. (This should come as no surprise, as Coyne has also on occasion been guilty of similarly sloppy and inaccurate or deceptive speech when it comes to evolutionary theory, declaring things about evolution predicting increases in complexity over time and that the fossil record confirms this, and other things that betray the fact that he earned his Ph.D. before the year 1990, when biologists were still laboring under the eukaryocentric 5 kingdom system — 3 of which contained complex multicellular eukaryotes — and the fossil record was generally regarded as containing nothing of interest prior to about a half-billion years ago, around the time of the Cambrian explosion.)
II.b. Attitudes toward Pantheism
II.c. Attitudes toward Polytheism
Atheist arguments against religion tend to neglect the fact that polytheism exists. When prest for comment on the matter, atheists dismiss polytheism out-of-hand as even more backward and superstitious than the religions they interest themselves in arguing against, without even so much as bothering to consider the intellectual and technological advances of polytheistic societies compared to monotheistic ones, or whether their arguments against religion can logically be applied to polytheistic faiths.
II.c-1.) Ignorance of Polytheism
“All religious people are atheists with respect to everyone else’s religion.” — Sam Harris (May 1, 2017, 33:05)
While this is probably true for most mainstream denominations of “thou shalt have no other gods before me” religions like Christianity and Islam, it falls far, far short of being true for “all religious people”, especially if one is to examine both past and present religions as one must if the rejection of all but one faith is to be considered as an inherent feature of religiosity.
Harris’s assertion is most obviously untrue with regard to polytheistic faiths. As P. Sufenas Virius Lupus writes in Speaking of Syncretism (Mar. 17, 2015):
“Most of the ancient indigenous polytheistic religions the world over have thus had syncretic elements. The cultus of Serapis in Egypt and Greece, the cultus of Sabazios in Thrace and eventually Greek and Roman cultures, and the cultus of Antinous in Greece, Rome, and Egypt are examples of phenomena which are syncretic in nature. The development of the cultus of Isis in Egypt, which was both intra- and inter-pantheonic in its syncretism, is a syncretic cultus. Hinduism is likewise syncretic, and can incorporate elements from other religions, as well as new developments within itself, quite easily. Shinto had no problem incorporating aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and even Christianity (in the form of some saints who were turned into kami) at some shrines. And Buddhism itself remains highly syncretic, able to accommodate itself into or alongside a diverse range of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices with no difficulty whatsoever. The examples of this could be multiplied extensively, but I hope the basic premise here is clear: the syncretic element is an ongoing one in a wide variety of religions that are often polytheistic in outlook or practice.”
“There's an infinite number of things like celestial teapots that we can't disprove. There are faeries. There are unicorns. Hobgoblins. We can't disprove any of those. But we don't believe in them. Anymore than nowadays we believe in Thor, Amen-Ra, or Aphorodite. We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us, just go one god further.” — Richard Dawkins (September 22, 2011, 46:20)
“We’re all atheists with respect to the thousands of dead gods who lie in that mass grave we call mythology. Think of Thor and Isis and Zeus. These were once gods in good standing among our ancestors. Everyone now rejects them.” — Sam Harris (May 1, 2017, 33:11)
Here, Harris is parroting Christian bigotry both in his reasoning and in his vocabulary.
“Well, actually not everyone. I occasionally get hate mail from people who do believe in Zeus, but that’s another story.” — Sam Harris (May 1, 2017, 33:30)
Including this bit merely as an afterthought, as though modern polytheists were some obscure sect of crackpots barely deserving of a footnote, is a clear ethnocentrism. What Harris seems to be saying here is, “Nobody worships Thor or Isis or Zeus anymore, except for the people who do, and I’m conveniently choosing to ignore them because their existence completely undermines the point I’m trying to make.” Such willful ignorance from such an otherwise thoughtful speaker and writer demonstrates a total lack of intellectual integrity with regard to the subject of religion.
With an estimated one million followers (some estimates ranging from under one hundred thousand to over four million), neopaganism has been ranked 19th among major world religions by Adherents.com (2007), outranking Unitarian-Universalism, Rastafarianism, and Scientology. (Actually, “neopaganism” is not a single faith but an umbrella term for an entire family of religions, so no single one of them — with the possible exception of Wicca — would likely be regarded as a major world religion in its own right. For statistical purposes, the neopagan religions are often lumped together as denominations or “traditions” of a single, cohesive religious movement due to what outsiders perceive as a unifying cultural identity and shared value system.) While neopagan religions may vary widely in their conceptions of deity, the vast majority are polytheistic and honor such traditional European and Middle-Eastern dieties as Zeus, Isis, and Thor, among many other polytheistic, tribal, and indigenous gods from many other cultures, who, contrary to Harris’s assertion, remain in good standing to this very day.
At this point, the only thing that could be said in Harris’s defense is that the explosion of neopagan adherents is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Often times, polytheistic deities are more poetic devices, archetypes, or metaphorical personifications of natural forces than anything even remotely resembling a Christian or Islamic notion of “God”. Polytheism and animism are thus far less derived from the primordial, de facto atheism that existed prior to the invention of religion.
II.c-2.) Misrepresentation of History
Much of the dismissive attitude toward polytheism by atheists seems to revolve around the false perception that the world has shifted from being predominantly animistic and polytheistic to being predominantly monotheistic with an overwhelmingly atheistic intellectual elite, according to a clear, linear progression from animism to polytheism, from polytheism to monotheism, and from monotheism to atheism, shedding various gods, demons, and other spirits as societies progress from “superstitious” band-level hunter-gatherer groups to chieftainships, ranked chieftainships, and finally state-level civilizations progressing from liturgically religious city-states, kingdoms, and empires, to secular, “rational” nation-states with skeptical scientific communities, correlating the number of gods recognized by a society inversely with political integration and technological advancement.
“Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans, and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives: Christianity, and Islam.” — Richard Dawkins (Aug. 16, 2016, 08:05)
This perception is demonstrably, however, an ethnocentrism of modern Westerners based in a gross oversimplification of actual world history and results in a grotesque distortion of the intellectual merits of its peoples, past and present.
It was ancient Greek polytheists who first reasoned the Earth is round and managed to calculate its circumference with a reasonable degree of accuracy, who first proved that air has substance, and who invented atomic theory, while it was the monotheists who brought with them the dark ages.
Under Christianity, the intellectual and technological accomplishments of advanced, polytheistic peoples like the ancient Greeks and Romans were mystified, demonized, and forgotten. By the fourteenth century, Italian Christians had even forgotten the intended use of the Roman aqueducts, with one popular theory holding that they were used to pipe olive oil over long distances; thanks to the Christians, the importance of clean drinking water was lost knowledge. Is it any wonder 200 million of these guys died in a single plague?
Christians did not begin to make their own scientific progress until after they had studied the works written by polytheists before the supposed birth of their god.
It is clear from their arguments that the English-speaking atheists of the Western world consider the word “religion” to mean, first and foremost, Christianity, and by extension, Islam and Judaism, with other major world religions like Buddhism considered only as an afterthought, and allegedly “primitive” belief systems like polytheism and animism passed off as mere superstition without any real acknowledgement. In short, they have essentially the same European-Christian exceptionalist notion of religion that the pre-Enlightenment Christians had.
Thus, just as Luciferean Satanism may be described as “upside-down Christianity”, this “New Atheism”, having demonstrated both inheritance and intentional preservation of the same group narcissism and associated religious ethnocentrisms as the Eurocentric Christians from which they derive, is functionally just an extreme contrarian movement occuring within a larger Christian cultural context and may therefore be regarded as a secular branch of Christian chauvinism. If modern, Western atheists wish to continue summarily dismissing non-Abrahamic religions as primitive superstition, as the Christians do, slighting polytheism and animism without giving them the same consideration as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, indirectly lending greater credence to the Abrahamic faiths as compared to others even while claiming to do the opposite, then the rest of us should rightly dismiss their self-described conflict with religion as an internal conflict endemic to the Christian religion.
If these “New Atheists” are to so liberally invoke such fallacies as strawman arguments and false dichotomies, and can’t be bothered to crack open a history book, then how can they expect to be taken anymore seriously than the Young-Earth Creationists or the Flat-Earthers?
There can be little doubt that religion is evolving in response to the development of science just as art had to evolve in response to the development of photography.
Rather than attempting to snuff out religion entirely, we should await with bated breath the exciting new directions religion might now take.
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