The (New) Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse
And then came the moment we had all been waiting for – the Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse, minus Christopher Hitchens but including his worthy successor, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ironically, it was explained that Ali was supposed to have been on the panel which evolved into the Four Horsemen DVD, but was unable to attend. So, it is only fitting that she should now move into the chair so sadly vacated by Hitch.
Daniel Dennett began the discussion by questioning Ali about her charge that it is Christians rather than atheists who are doing the most to oppose Muslim fundamentalism.
Perhaps part of the problem, Dennett suggested is that liberal Muslims don’t want to ally with atheists.
Also, he said, “We have to stop being afraid of being thought racist or Islamaphobic.”
What is more racist? Ignoring the plight of women or children under Islam because they are Muslims, or opposing it because they are human beings?
Dennett insisted that we need to speak out against harmful cultural practices like genital mutilation.
“If the genitals of little white girls were being cut off there would be outrage!” Dennett reminded us. “Is it not racist, not to oppose this practice because the targets are Muslim girls?”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali agreed.
“By doing nothing, you are worse than racist, you are complicit!”
Dennett expressed concern about the attitudes engendered by ‘hypermulticulturalism’ and ‘postmodernism’; not all religious, traditional or cultural practices should be tolerated. The mutilation of children or the abuse and oppression of women is not culturally subjective.
Offering his take on why liberals are reluctant to take on Islamic fundamentalists, Richard Dawkins added dryly, “The threat of having your head cut off is something of a deterrent.”
He repeated his mantra to Islamic extremists:
“I fear your barbarism, but don’t for one moment confuse it with respect. I don’t respect you, I despise you.”
Dawkins noted that it would be easier to stand up against Islam if there was some kind of solidarity in the West. He told the story of Peter Mayer, the Chairman of Penguin publishing.
Mayer bravely published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In the outcry that followed:
“[Mayer] received many death threats, including one scrawled in blood. An anonymous telephone call told Mayer that “not only would they kill me but they would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall.” Cohen takes up the story:
Far from rallying to defend an innocent girl and her innocent father, the parents of her classmates demanded that the school expel her. What would happen, they asked, if the Iranian assassins went to the school and got the wrong girl? And Mayer thought, “You think my daughter is the right girl?”
[From: “It’s Part of their Culture”: Reading Nick Cohen in the light of the Jaipur Affair by Richard Dawkins]
“Yes!” agreed Daniel Dennett, “How about sharing the risk?”
Dennett recalled that after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie was pretty much ‘left cut off by himself’.
Dawkins noted that, at the Reason Rally, it was suggested we should “withhold respect from those who believe in transsubstantiation.”
But Dawkins did not entirely agree. He thinks the stock reply to those who give credence to such ideas should be:
“I respect you too much to believe that you could possibly hold such ridiculous beliefs!”
“We should challenge Catholics who purport to believe in transubstantiation to defend the idea or admit that they are not really Roman Catholics at all,” said Dawkins.
Dennett wryly observed, “There is no gentle way to tell someone they’ve devoted their life to a folly.”
But Harris was quick to correct him, “Wasted their life! It’s time wasted!”
Dennett believes that many church leaders don’t believe what they’re preaching. They speak on two levels, he said.
They preach the gospel in order “to placate the old folks, but in such a way as to let the younk folks know you don’t really need it.”
This prompted Dawkins to recall some typical Aussie humour.
“When someone asked why there were always so many old people in church,” he said, “an Aussie dryly suggested, “Craming for the final?”
Dawkins admitted that he was not enthusiastic about allying with Christians, although he could see the political value of doing that.
Dennett noted that, “Many people view their pastor as a reliable source of information.”
Accordingly, he suggested, we need to target the pastors and the leaders who encourage the pastors to tell these preposterous stories.
These are the ‘villains’, said Dennett; their congregations are more victims than villains.
Dawkins mused about the value of attacking ‘the mild strain of the virus’.
At this point, just as a stage technician was adjusting Sam Harris’ microphone and earpiece, Ayaan Hirsi let loose with a tremendous sneeze, nearly blowing out Harris’ ear-drum!
It was a lovely moment which made these four luminaries appear so much more human!*
“Bless you!” grinned Daniel Dennett.
Recovering his composure, Harris said, “We want people to think scientifically.”
Still, said Dennett reassuringly, “Religion is losing ground everywhere. Their leaders are getting frantic.”
“But,” he wondered, “what happens when all is left are the fanatics?”
What happens when we lose the “buffer zone” of the moderates?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked that the fragility of belief was exemplified in advice being given to Muslims in the USA:
“Don’t become police [i.e. join the police force] – you are in danger of becoming impressed by that system of law.”
Dennett noted that the information revolution has wrought a radical change in the “selective environment in which religions live”.
“They will have to evolve rapidly or go extinct,” he said.
Ali raised another question, “Why do middle class, highly educated [Western] women convert to Islam?”
Harris conjectured that it was “To cut through the superficiality of life.”
Harris went on to suggest how we might counter religion.
“Theologians are not lazy,” he warned. “They are burning a lot of fuel trying to make sense of their doctrines.”
“Islam,” he said, “is a huge collective to which the individual much commit completely.”
The way to attack it is to push individualism and through ridicule.
“We need to develop a competing narrative that creates a cognitive dissonance,” he said.
Dawkins noted the paradox that, “Religions prosper by making life hard for their followers.”
He suggested that religion should be subjected to the same kind of education campaign used against drunk driving. Drunk driving was once acceptable, it is only through the recognition of the harm it does and extensive public education that its incidence is being reduced and its practice has become publicly unacceptable. It was an excellent analogy, I thought.
(For theists who may read this with ‘conspiracy theories’ in mind, there was no suggestion that the practice of faith should be made illegal – only that those who practice it should be treated with the same kind of disdain as those who drink and drive. It is the change in public attitudes, not legislation which was Dawkins’ point.)
But Dennett remains concerned about the ‘vacuum’ that might be created by eradicating belief. We can already see it being filled by, “… new age babble and conspiracy theories.”
We need to address the problem of “infectious stupidity” he said.
This reminded Dawkins of a quote by GK Chesterton:
“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”
So, as the Global Atheist Convention 2012 comes to a close, and we all return to our everyday lives, how do we move on from here? The view from the ‘Four Horseman’ was clear:
Keep in contact – and keep on celebrating reason together.
There was a standing ovation and tremendous applause as the new Four Horsemen stood, joined hands, and bowed to the audience.
One could not help but feel that a new chapter in the fight for reason and secularism had just begun.
* For more on the ‘human face’ of the Four Horsemen, see Kylie Sturgess’ “I kind of got kidnapped by Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Global Atheist Convention”.
This is the last of my write-ups on the presentations given during the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. I plan to follow up in a day or two with a post summarising the main themes and highlights together with a book list, given that there were so many interesting books recommended during the event.
In the meantime, for an excellent video summary of the Convention, I highly recommend Andrew Skegg’s, “The Global Atheist Convention” (featuring me!):
I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts. If so, you might consider subscribing to my blog – see the top of the right hand side-bar.
If you have been inspired and want to DO SOMETHING NOW, might I encourage you to make a contribution to Ron Williams’ legal costs for his High Court Challenge against the National School Chaplaincy Program. The verdict is due soon, and Ron really should not be left out of pocket for so bravely defending the cause of secular education in this country. Any donation, small or large will be greatly appreciated.
For information on how do to donate go to: High Court Challenge
Michael Barnett is the photographer who provided the images for this post. He is a passionate campaigner for gay rights and yes, he’s one half of the couple in that famous kiss during the convention. You can read his blog here: Mikey Bear.