The Four Horsemen: the philosophical foundations and political implications of the ‘New Atheist’ movement

For the last year or two I have been a fan of Christopher Hitchens. He was one of the so-called 4 horsemen. The other three surviving members of this group are Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Upon his (Hitchens) death, I started doing a bit more reading about his views and realized that he was a very vocal supporter of the war on terrorism. So also is Sam Harris. Now while the other two guys don’t say much about domestic issues, their own views within the domain of their respective areas of expertise have been causing me concern just as much as Hitchens’ and Harris’ pro war rhetoric. This is what I want to talk/type about today. I’ll deal with the war stuff first and then talk about the tension between the public message of the 4 horsemen and the conceptual inadequacies of their accounts of specific issues within domains of respective expertise.

1. The War on Terror: So, the basic idea is that these guys all think that religious fundamentalism is bad and irrational. They think that the ‘terrorists’ are all islamo-fascists (thus religious, bad and irrational) and that they represent a danger to civilization and that we have to destroy them before they get a nuke from the former soviet union and destroy America.

So, here’s what I agree with: anyone willing to kill others because God told him so is insane and one must defend themselves against such individuals. What I don’t agree with is that the so-called ‘islamo-fascists’ are who they are solely because of religious fanaticism.  Chris Hedges has made this point in debate with Sam Harris. Wars are not the results of absolute religious intuitions. The roots are deeper and more systemic. Certainly there is a story we can tell about how belief in an absolute deity can make these roots grow in very twisted ways. But to reduce the complexity of the situation to religion is a gross over simplification. The fact of the matter is that the middle east is a socio-political nightmare that has been immensely over-complicated by the ‘intervention’ of US foreign policty. Whether it was the arming of Iraq to fight Iran or the arming of Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, these are situations that are so nested in the military industrial complex, that to my mind, religion is merely the face and not the heart of the issue. Absolute religious belief plays the psychological role of justifying actions rather than being its sole motivator. So, on this score, I think the unapologetic endorsement of the War on Terror by Hitchens and Harris represents an un-nuanced perspective on the events in question. I would check out the Harris vs. Hedges debate on this, it’s excellent.

I would qualify what I just said with two more points: 1. I acknowledge the heinous treatment of women in many of these countries and the general insanity of dictators like Saddam Hussein and the suffering they have visited on their populations. However, I do not think that this is the reason that wars have been fought in these regions. After all, the human rights situation is Saudi Arabia is hardly laudable and I do not foresee a war in that region any time soon. Nor in China or North Korea whose treatment of its citizens is perhaps the most horrendous of all modern nation states.  2. Ultimately, violence can only beget more violence. Thus, even if we find ourselves in a situation where war seems justified, it is hardly clear to me that it is ever the best choice, especially given the aforementioned complexities of the war on terror.

A final caveat: I apologize if anything I’ve said in these past paragraphs comes across as idiotic or totally groundless. This is my first time into public writing on these subjects. On the following issues I can speak with a little more confidence.

I mentioned above that I have some issues with Dawkins and Dennett. Dawkins is a biologist and Dennett is a philosopher. I do not want to go into too many details, but I will say a little bit about each of their view. Dawkins is a biologist with a very widely accepted view of genetic transmission. I strongly disagree with this view due to my having studied with Evan Thompson at the University of Toronto who offers a devastating critique of Dawkins in his book ‘Mind and Life’. In a nutshell, Dawkins view is that phylogenetic (speciatic level) traits are passed on without any active effect impact being had on the drift by the ontogenetic (individual) level. Frankly, this seems absurd to me. How else is evolution expressed except through the individuals who concretely comprise and instantiate a given species? Genetic drift is a process comprised of embodied organisms and it is in and through and by those organisms that traits are contained, lived and expressed. To claim that living beings are nothing but robotic containers for little atoms of genetic material is like a biological Cartesian dualism which states that every being contains a smattering of genetic code which is not effected by the action of its carrier. This is a view of evolution that I find deeply untenable.

As far as Dennett is concerned, he has some rather unorthodox views about the nature of consciousness. I can’t go into detail without doing this venerable philosopher a good deal of disrespect. However, his view does include the attempt to deny the existence/explanatory power/conceptual coherence of phenomenal consciousness as a basis for any kind of metaphysically or methodologically basic system. As someone who thinks that Phenomenology is essentially a trasncendental enterprise, I do not hold with this view. So the question arises, how do these particular issues in evolutionary biology and philosophy of mind impact the public discourse about the tension between religion and science?

The main issue as I see it, is that in many of these public exchanges, it is not clear of what will be left after the conceptual architecture of religion has been stripped away. My concern is that science in its current state is not sufficient to bear the existential weight of human concern. This is most clearly seen through the problem of consciousness. It is my view that the immanence of consciousness to any scientific model of the world is too robust a phenomenon to be borne by the philosophical undergirdings of any kind of strictly materialistic naturalism. The new atheist movement seems to endorse this kind of metaphysics tacitly (and sometimes explicitly). While the removal of a celestial dictator at the heart of creation is certainly a service to humanity, a reductive materialism, I maintain, is not.


4 thoughts on “The Four Horsemen: the philosophical foundations and political implications of the ‘New Atheist’ movement

  1. “But to reduce the complexity of the situation to religion is a gross over simplification”
    Yeah, exactly. There needs to be a balance between systematic violence and religious violence (both of which are completely unacceptable).

    “anyone willing to kill others because God told him so is insane and one must defend themselves against such individuals.”
    My question is, what would this defense look like? Americans for all intensive purposes are “defending” themselves against these individuals. I’m in the middle of an existential crisis around pacifism vs. violence. And much of this is coming to light because I recently went to the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia which was full of what I would call borderline Christian terrorism. When I confronted this, I was met with the equally horrendous stories of peoples Christian family members and congregation members being murdered by muslims. What shocked me was that in their quest for self defense/evangelism, they were unable to see that two wrongs don’t make a right.

    It commonly gets mentioned that all of the worlds major wars were fought over religion but I think that people fail to see that even if religion was taken completely out of the picture, something (read:capitalism) would replace it. Perhaps what is required is less of a focus on eradicating religion and more of a focus on a theology of peace (read:everything Jesus said). People are always seeking meaning in their existence, religious or not, but what I struggle with is why that meaning is often so devastating to other people. My job as a minister (I feel) is to foster communities of people who stop seeing themselves as just an individual and start seeing themselves as part of a whole, intrinsic with all of creation. After all, plants, animals and the Earth all consist of the same things, atoms, etc, how have we become so disattached to that?

  2. hey evan,

    i think all violence can be reduced to systemic pathology in individuals, whether they hold absolute religious beliefs or not. so, religous violence is just one extreme form of violence based on certain types of beliefs.

    i am not sure what such a defense would look like either. as far as your point about eradicating religion with a theology of peace, i’m not sure that would work as jesus said many horrible things (the doctrine of hell, for example) on top of many wonderful things. the eradication of religion on the agenda of the 4 horsemen is a matter of reason and science being able to explain things better than religion. the ‘terrorists’ are just one extreme example of a more ubiquitous problem (so they claim) of people having irrational beliefs in a cosmological dictator who tells us what is right or wrong, judges us and sends (most of) us to hell. such beliefs in the hands of people already pre-disposed to violence due to other socio-economic and political reasons has been disastrous for the 21st century and many centuries before, but the heart of the issue is that supernatural thinking of this kind is intrinsically problematic for a proper understanding of reality and our place in it. as i mentioned, it is not yet clear what kind of a framework would need to be put in place to maintain a secular ethics and secular spirituality for the further evolution of human kind. maybe jesus would have something to say about that. i’m not so sure though.



  3. Hey Sean, I’m digging your blog so far. I agree on basically all the points you’ve made here. It only adds further support to your point about the war on terror to note that Saddam Hussein was supported throughout the 80s by the American government partly because he was regarded as a secular leader. This was the period during which he was gassing Iraqis, and so on. Examples like Hussein (and we could add Stalin, Mao and the North Korean regime) show that religiosity correlates poorly with atrocious violence, and that other causes should be examined.

    As for your critique of Dawkins, I’m not sure how much that affects how we should perceive his line on religion. The criticism that Thompson levels at his genetic reductionism comes out of advances in Biology, so it’s hard to claim that they somehow problematize the ability of science to handle the facts of life. Some other line of argument to that effect is possible, I’m just not sure how much Dawkins’ failures as a Biologist enter into it.

    • hey corey, absurdly awesome to hear from you. it’s been almost 2 years, i think. strange days, indeed. in any case, i hope you’re well. message me on the book of faces if you want to get back in touch. in regards to your 2nd point about Dawkins (and ostensibly, Dennett), I think that you’re right that there is no major conflict in terms of their negative case against full blooded monotheism. However, my concern is that say they are successful and these beliefs are stripped away, I worry that the scientific and philosophical framework that remains would be somewhat transcendentally impoverished (I think I say something about this). so my worry is not the question of whether their criticism has teeth in light of specific issues i have with their biology and/or philosophy, but rather what will be left to us in the event of the critique being successful by the light of public opinion.



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