The New Snake Oil Salesmen


I have noticed the recent rise in popularity of the skeptic debater as a new intellectual hero to some, revered nearly on the level of ministers or humanitarians of yesteryear. This is a movement termed “new atheism” and features such talkative book salesmen and debate specialists as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Chris Hitchens. I’ve listened at least a bit to all these guys and find them entertaining and likable. They are clearly committed to cool-headed rationality and unite in their loathing of religion — or at least theology.

However, I liken most of what they do to snake oil selling because while they may leave you with something supposedly superior to superstitious faith — science to replace religion — it solves no day-to-day human problems and gives no actual answer for the age-old human questions. They offer no viable alternative to the (caricature) theology they belittle or to the religious institutions they distrust. The intellect exists in a very small space. Most people want a larger spirituality that can be experienced not just cogitated.

Its easy to shout warnings about religion which clearly has some breakaway floorboards in its dilapidated house. Even as a non-religious person, I understand this calls for repairs not demolition.

I understand that part of what is being promoted is intellectual development and inquiry to overcome irrational imposition of emotionally held personal beliefs upon others.

But that is not where the boundary lines are drawn. The emphasis is on equating religion with anti-rational superstition and repeating that science must win the battle with religion, not on drawing appropriate boundaries for it in society.

What these intellectual salesmen offer to take the place of religion or even spirituality (that resembles religion) is cold intellectual science — or at least the current paradigm of it.

Their belief in it and fervor for it, while detached and cool-headed (usually), approaches or equals that of religious belief. Religion/theology is superstition, science is not — is one of the best summary memes of this belief. Another is — Religion is fake, science is fact. Implied is, “You want to be one of the cool smart people, don’t you?”

Straw dogs and red herrings are well-loved by these eager debaters.

“Evolution … renders the account of human origins in Genesis false.” (Sam Harris)

Joseph Campbell didn’t come to that conclusion. He understood the place of myth. I don’t hear anyone calling him a superstitious religious nut. Since when do clear, objective intellects take Genesis or any other myth as anything but a myth? A myth is not expected to be a factual historical account, but a story, condensed, dramatized and focused for retelling, especially to children. A myth is an entertaining way of offering an answer to those unanswerable questions. Besides, myths tell us a lot about ourselves and our own cultural origins and development. If you no longer find them entertaining or useful this doesn’t invalidate them anymore than your articles of children’s sized clothing are invalidated as “false” or fake once you outgrew them. You grew. You wear what fits now.

And that’s the problem with the typically male intellectual who aims at the straw dogs, popular theological caricatures (the bearded man in the sky hovering over us) — they have trouble handling the baby and the bathwater.

To them mythology is superstition because of its association with religion and should be thrown out in favor of a supposedly objective, but coldly intellectual, supremely rational and honest brand of science that is extremely uncomfortable with dirty bathwater — the human interior with all its imperfections, mixed motivations, conflicts, irrational drives and needs, and its weird religious or mystical experiences or beliefs that defy their explanation. Poets they are not.

I am smarter and can spot the lie, the scam — seems to be a common sentiment among this crowd.

So just step loudly again on that creaky breakaway floorboard in the house of religion and distract us from the reality that their outlook offers nothing to equal or better what they are looking to remove from your life (all theology, all “faith”).

At best someone may get the wool pulled from their eyes about their particular religious exploitation — a good debunking — but no answers, no real alternative to go to.

But attempting to stretch the debunk to the entirety of faith and religion is doomed to failure.

The choice is not between the lowest straw dogs of religion on one hand and cold rational science on the other. Theologies and spirituality can be developed.

The answer is self-initiated growth from where you are now,

not a black-and-white acceptance or rejection, which would not be possible anyway within Sam Harris’ frame of reference that free will is “illusion.” If that were true Sam is wasting his time attempting to influence anyone to change their minds. A change of belief is in fact an exercise of choice — free will.

Harris is deluded if he thinks were are anywhere near “The End of Faith.” (His 2004 book). This is idealism, good evidence for a belief of a religious, spiritual or political nature aimed at making it happen — free will in action.

The vast majority of human beings are not cold rationalists. Faith sustains them, but they do want leaders of their particular brand of faith to act morally and responsibly. They want the walk to match the talk.

The “new atheist” movement of authorship and debate was spurred by 9/11 as much for Chris Hitchens as for Sam Harris. It was spurred by an understandable disdain for Islamic radicalism. And that is the only thing really fueling this hyper-rationalist, more aggressive atheism — a preceding wave of politicized religious fundamentalism. Trend, counter-trend.

When it is all over the questions humans have asked for eons will remain. The big tease that science holds the answers to these will fade in the distance like cries of “Wolf!” People will maintain and continue developing their myths, rituals, ceremonies and beliefs because that is what it takes to feel fully engaged in the pursuit.

We want more than our intellects involved. We want spirituality that involves the whole person.

A story must be told even if we have made it up ourselves. A ritual must be performed so we can act it out. Ceremonies must be conducted so we can celebrate in reverent awe of life. Beliefs will be held passionately because a point of view is more than a place from which the eyes see.

A point of view is occupied by a heart, indeed a whole person.

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One thought on “The New Snake Oil Salesmen

  1. The Greek and Roman gods are considered myth’s yet astrology has planets named Jupiter, Mercury, etc. with the myth’s persona’s attached with accurate results. It’s always a person’s perception. Some say astrology is not a science. I believe that it is. I am a Christian person who believes in Astrology. I have no desire to argue my faith. I just accept it for what it is TO ME. I am happy to let others do the same.

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