Seriously? That’s it?

I was ready to get all worked up when I read the headline to this article by Sam Harris. I deeply dislike Harris’ brand of “athiesm”. (note: I myself am an atheist)

The headline, “When Atheism Attacks”, and the sub-headline, “A noted provocateur rips Sarah Palin—and defends elitism” were just begging to set me off.

After reading the article… I was left trying to figure out exactly what “atheism” was attacking. Harris certain “rips” into Palin but I’m not exactly sure what sort of “elitism” Harris is “defending”.

To wit, here are the two basic arguments of Harris’ piece:

  1. It is bad to have a presidential – vice or not – candidate who is a millennialist.
  2. A candidate for high office should have a basic competence in governance.

There is nothing paticularly “atheisistic” about the above; I have heard people of many differing religious/anti-religious stripes make the same sort of  statements. There is nothing particularly “elitist” about them either.

In his article Harris is perfectly moderate in his statements. Though he certainly mentions his personal atheism in the article none of his arguements are grounded in it and the reader is not expected to agree with Harris metaphysics to accept the validity of his arguements.  Similar propositions – with little modification of their basic grounding – could easily be offered by someone with a different religious/anti-religious bent than Harris.

This was not what I was expecting from Harris, either from his reputation – as the athiest equivelent of a rhetotical bomb throwning Leninist – or from the impression the headline left on me.

Newsweek’s headline is deeply troubling; atheists are constantly treated as either the theologically court jesters of the mainstream media (Christopher Hitchens?) or as deluded fools. If an admitted atheist – like Harris – makes argument the media naturally spins it as a byproduct of their atheism. People of faith are not treated the same.

If “Ben Smith”, a devout member of – I don’t know – the United Church of Christ, wrote a roughly similar article about Palin would it have been headlined “When the UCC Attacks?”. Certainly not.

In our religious and political discourse atheists and other non-religious types are constantly diminished into a sort of intellectual ghetto or carnival of mutal insults and recrimination with religious believers. Until atheists are treated with a modicum of actual respect, there can not be a real debate about the nature of faith or the lack thereof in our politics.


5 Comments on “Seriously? That’s it?”

  1. Doctor Brown says:

    By (the lack of) God, Old Boy, I do think you have something here.

  2. Tito says:

    While the main headline is awful and terribly misrepresentative, I think the sub-headline only pissed you off because elitism has become such a loaded term. Harris does, in fact, defend elitism:

    “Ask yourself: how has ‘elitism’ become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence.”

  3. while that is certainly a kind of elitism is a very “soft” sort. what is harris is advocating is professionalization which is an sort-of-elitism. but is a far cry from the sort of “political” elitism that they teach you about in political-science classes.

    or at least that’s how i take it.

  4. Tito says:

    Fair enough, but I think his point is still valid. The right’s love of Palin is rooted in anti-elitism (at least in name), which through some contrived logic sees her willful ignorance as a positive.

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