The Five Horsemen

There’s a very good Staggers article by Brian Appleyard reviewing A. C. Grayling’s recent book. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the review, but there are several nice points, one of which I want to look at further.

The Four Horsemen of the Secular ApocalypseContinuing the on-going theme of this blog as an exercise in reflexivity, I should note here that I may be an atheist, but that it’s very hard to tell. I subscribe to a neoPagan religious tradition, which places no requirement on the traveller to believe in deities; it can function as a theologically neutral life philosophy, along the lines of Daoism, or as a fully featured animist religion. My current position on theism is that for me personally, it’s too early to tell. I am not, however, agnostic; the language of neuroscience provides some pretty good models for how ecstatic spiritual experiences happen and mechanisms which can produce them, but from the point of view of the user they are still gnostic in the Neo-Platonist sense. That’s why Burning Man and LSD remain so popular in a secular society.

Appleyard identifies this book as Grayling’s application to join the “Four Horsemen of the Secular Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens Minor). He also finds a number of things to take issue with, following this summary of the work overall:

This is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular- humanist position. […] the first half, which is in essence analytical, is much better than the second half, which is rather discursive and feels almost tract-like in its evocation of shiny, happy people having fun in a humanist paradise. Nevertheless, this is rhetorically justifiable to the extent that it is an attempt to answer the question necessarily posed by any attempt to eliminate religion – what would be put in its place? Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.

Having accepted what the book does well, he then starts to pick up on the problems:

The broad point is that Grayling, like the other horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.

When discussing the extraordinary political experiment which is the Union of American States, one simply cannot proceed without engaging with slavery, and with the genocide against the Native Americans. These great, gnawing cancers ate the heart and soul out of America’s idealism for two hundred and more years, and both live on in scars and wounds today. Equally, when discussing theism in English, what one is primarily actually talking about is the JCI religious triad; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the impact those religions have had on our civilisation and the world. One cannot consider the beauty of the Hagia Sophia or the power of Tallis’ glorious polyphony without also considering the Crusades and the Inquisition: violence against women, eugenics, colonialism, the doctrine of eminent domain, and the War on Terror. Inevitably, the Five Horsemen attack one side of that equation, and the argument made by Appleyard presents the other.

What is much more interesting is this:

There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” […] The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.

This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail.

Appleyard is right in paragraph two; Neal Stephenson addressed the same ground in Snow Crash when he has a character describe the Western canard that atheism is a sign of intelligence, nothing more. But in the first paragraph Appleyard comes very close to something rather more important. Grayling’s stamp-collecting metaphor is a good one, as it provides a way to think about the Horsemen and their philosophical ancestors from a new direction.

In this metaphor, a theist is a stamp-collector; an atheist is someone who collects no stamps. What do we call someone who wants stamp-collecting banned?

When I first framed this problem, I saw it as a difference between a-theism and anti-theism. The first is a non-stamp collector; “I do not believe in stamps.” The second would stamp out collecting; “You should not believe in stamps!” I really enjoyed the Humanist Bus campaign in London; based on reductionist evidence, gods probably don’t exist, and I am a passionate believer in free speech. My problem with Dawkins has always been that he uses a-theism, a very easily defendable position, to provide him with political cover for a completely different campaign, which is anti-theism. This is misdirection, political sleight-of-mind, and I don’t honestly see why he needs it.

Based on this review, Grayling is indeed riding out: Appleyard describes that same rhetorical sophistry at several points. I have no problem with the existance of anti-theists; the intellectual agora of the Internet era gets more robust with every added voice and viewpoint. I do have a problem with arrant intellectual dishonesty. If you are against gods, or (I suspect, in most cases) against a particular God, admit it. When you vote ‘No’, don’t tell the press you abstained. Dawkins and Hitchens Minor are quite openly anti-theist as well as atheist, and they should defend that; they both carry intellects of high calibre and have plenty of ammunition.

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7 Responses to “The Five Horsemen”


  1. 1 kitwhitfieldield 07/03/2013 at 10:49 am

    *waving hello, about to propose an amicable disagrement…*

    the intellectual agora of the Internet era gets more robust with every added voice and viewpoint

    I may be burned by personal experience here, having experienced a lot of profound nastiness from the anti-theist atheist contingent … but I’m actually not sure that the Internet gets more robust that way.

    It would, no doubt, if there was no sense of culture attached to the views and viewpoints. If everybody who held the view that religion is an entirely malign force in human history was a reasonable and civil person, then we would indeed be enriched by their contribution to the debate. The problem I have is that when you advance the idea that a widely-held belief is entirely bad and should be eradicated for the common good, you are inherently promoting a notion of moral heroes and villains, of superior and inferior beliefs. For a careful person, this may be handled with nuance, but not everybody is careful. Some people are attracted by the idea that it’s morally admirable to be intolerant and aggressive towards the opinions of others.

    And the thing is, when a culture builds up around such a viewpoint, a culture that treats intellectual intolerance as synonymous with intellectual integrity and verbal aggression as synonymous with social virtue … well, you get a lot of dickheads, basically. People who were dickheads to begin with, and people who might have gone a number of different ways but whose heads get dickier through positive reinforcement from their peers. Atheists like to reply to this contention with the argument that there are a lot of dickheads everywhere, but the behaviour I’ve seen online from anti-theists is such that ‘reasonable’ anti-theists should not be making excuses for it.

    Especially because a lot of it is associated with misogyny and other prejudices. Remember the ‘Elevatorgate’ debacle, where anti-theist men crawled out from under every rock to attack a woman for remarking, in a brief aside during a vlog, that hitting on a stranger in an enclosed space is not a good idea – and Richard Dawkins was in there encouraging them? Which is similar to my experience of PZ Myers encouraging the mob that was harassing and threatening us for publishing an article by an atheist criticising another atheist. There’s been a lot of discussion of online misogyny of late, and a point people keep making is that when a cyber-mob swarms on a single individual for expressing an unpopular opinion, it militates against robust debate. I forget the link, but someone made a good analogy to the effect that if a person stands up to make a speech at Speaker’s Corner and five hundred people stand around threatening her and shouting her down, that militates against free speech, not for it: it’s suppression of free speech by mob attack rather than rule of law, but the net result is that more and more people get discouraged from dissent.

    Some added voices make the Internet not more robust, but more poisonous; they drive out the people speaking for diversity and nuance, leaving the debate louder, but intellectually weaker. And in my experience, the anti-theists have a strong tendency to attract and promote a lot of voices of that kind.

    This is not to say that I support suppression of all anti-theist arguments, of course. But at the moment, the Internet is a disaster area for many people because its freedom of speech isn’t balanced by any kind of accountability for speech, from the basic ‘If you harass people there is a consequence’ to a serious discussion of how responsible spokesmen (and it’s usually men) are for the emotional violence their followers show towards dissenters. Right now there’s a lot about anti-theism that’s frankly dedicated to silencing unwanted views, and that does not enrich any of us.

  2. 2 Chris Naden 07/03/2013 at 1:50 pm

    It’s an entirely fair point; I came up via Usenet, so I certainly know what you mean.

    I also chose the word ‘robust’ carefully; free speech on the Internet is hard to break. That doesn’t mean it’s all good, but it does mean it’s resilient when we need it to be, even while we may wish it was more accountable.

    My main exhortation was to the intellectual heavyweights. I want to see the Horsemen defending the position they actually hold, i.e. anti-theism, rather than taking cover on the high ground afforded them by conflating that stance with atheism. Good comment, and thank-you!

    • 3 kitwhitfieldield 07/03/2013 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks! If you’re happy to continue chatting…

      A big problem with the ‘four horsemen’ and their anti-theist arguments, I think, is that they simply aren’t qualified to make the kind of generalisations that they do. By their own terms, they’re being irrational by neglecting to study the evidence.

      After all, ‘religion causes more harm than good’ is a statement that’s either objectively true or objectively false. It’s an extremely difficult statement to test, requiring a set of generally acceptable definitions for ‘religion’, ‘harm’, ‘good’ and ’cause’ before you can even begin … but it also depends on studying areas that are outside these guys’ fields. I’m not talking about theology, which is what they tend to assume when people accuse them of dismissing religion with insufficient study, I’m talking the humanities. History. Anthropology. Sociology. Not studies of the physical processes inside the human brain, but of human behaviour – which is where, objectively, the harm is done. Unless you’re going for the circular argument that religion is bad because it’s wrong to believe incorrect things, for no reason except that they’re incorrect and therefore wrong, it’s what people do and have done and will do that needs to be considered. You need to look at history.

      Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are biologists. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist who read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford – where, according to Wikipedia, he got a third-class degree, which is a shaky qualification at best. (Unless Oxford is very different from Cambridge, it’s pretty are to get a third. Even the lazy students usually scrape low 2.2s; a third smacks of the ‘gentleman’s C’.) These are all guys who’d scream if a theologian tried to dictate about evolution to a biologist, but they’re no more qualified to talk about the progress of human history than a theologian is about science. It’s not their field, and demanding the right to pronounce on it as sweepingly and authoritatively as they do is simply anti-intellectualism on their part. Specifically-focused anti-intellectualim; anti-intellectualism against the arts and humanities (which is another force I’ve felt the scorch of in the ‘new atheist’ movement; many of them consider science insulted by anyone who refuses to concede that it’s superior to every other field of human endeavour ever) – but anti-intellectualism nonetheless. They’re making and encouraging ignorant generalisations because they serve their political turn.

      Which political turn, I cynically suspect, is largely to do with being white, middle-class, heterosexual men finally spotting a chance to get their own slice of Oppression Pie. As Natalie Reed put it,* “The creepy thought that the reason a lot of outspoken, committed, passionate atheists are choosing this as their arena is because they’re too selfish, too entitled, or too sheltered, to allow any other issues to really matter to them. That they choose this ONE civil rights issue to dedicate themselves to, because it’s the ONLY legitimate civil rights issue that actually effects them … Since being involved with feminism and social justice work, I’ve come to notice that people, especially those with the most relative power and privilege, love casting themselves as persecuted underdogs. We see this in white supremacists, in MRAs, in transphobic rad-fems, in anti-semetic conspiracy theorists and, yes, in the Christian right. Very much so.”

      At this point I’m speculating, of course. But there’s certainly a kind of white straight man who feels that on some level it’s unfair that everybody else should get their talking-point when it comes to persecution while they get called privileged, and are consequently very eager to pursue any kind of grievance they can drum up.

      What I do think is that they’re not going to make a serious effort to defend anti-theism in an intellectually honest way, because if they were intellectually honest they’d have to admit that they have neither the expertise nor the data to back the assertion up.

      *http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/08/10/all-in/

  3. 5 kitwhitfieldield 07/03/2013 at 2:39 pm

    I should add, lest I be seen as rude/dim, that I don’t assume you’re unaware of the grading system in Cambridge, given that we met through Cantabridgian mutual friends! I tend to craft online comments in a format that could be understood by any passing Martian, but it’s not meant to imply or assume any ignorance on your part. :-)

    • 6 Chris Naden 10/03/2013 at 1:58 pm

      I entirely understand :) I am, indeed, so aware, having interviewed unsuccessfully for Magdalen College. In addition to the Oxford Entrance exam, I sat a STEP in History, back in the anti-diluvian early 90s. The STEP paper wasn’t so much about Cambridge entrance as it was about my Head of History recognising that the A-level I was about to takewouldn’t stretch me much, and wanting to give me a taste of a more challenging approach before I got to Uni myself.


  1. 1 Back to the Cavalry | Better Giants Trackback on 10/03/2013 at 1:50 pm
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