Unholy Alliance

I’ve been watching a spate of videos, over the past week or so, featuring various members of the group often referred to as the “New Atheists”: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. The last two links I’ve posted here were debates between one or another of these fellows with some religiously-minded opponent, but most recently I ran across a conversation amongst all four of them at once. This video ought to be an instant hit with all the atheists out there: these fellows have achieved rock-star status amongst the heathens, and getting them all together like this constitutes sort of a Supergroup of the Damned. (Too bad the name “Blind Faith” is already taken.)

This video, titled “The Four Horsemen” (whether this is intended as a reference to the indomitable “Four Horsemen” of Knute Rockne’s 1924 Notre Dame football team, or as a suggestion that these secular gadflies may actually be harbingers of the Apocalypse, I don’t know), is a record of a two-hour discussion, with adult beverages, on a range of topics. The venue seems to be someone’s house or apartment; I’m guessing that it might be Hitchens’s, as he smokes constantly throughout, something that non-smokers rarely tolerate in their homes these days.

As you might expect, given that this is a fellowship in arms in contention against a common foe, there is a tone of mutual admiration, of shared struggle, and of a general reluctance to disagree. But although these four are often seen as a single, Godless beast with four heads, they are hardly identical men, and what is most interesting about this video is the chance it affords to see the ways in which they differ.

I was immediately struck by how much younger Harris, at 40 or so, seems than the other three (Dennett, who looks by far the oldest — and who was battered last year by an aortic dissection, which must surely be a glimpse of the abyss — is 65, Dawkins 66, and Hitchens 58). We are also reminded that Harris parts company from the others, in particular Dawkins, in his acceptance of mystical and spiritual exercises as a worthwhile pursuit, and a potential trove of objective information about human potential. I couldn’t agree more. Harris, in his writing, has made the point that up to this point in history the various methods of inner work have been presented almost exclusively in the context of religion, so that all of these systems have dense encrustations of supernaturalist dogma to scrape away. (He has his eye exactly on the key and common feature of all of them, by the way: the conscious control of attention.) His chapter on “Mysticism” in The End Of Faith is an excellent attempt to pry apart the practical aspects of mysticism from its supernatural associations; it is the least talked-about part of his book, and I think one of the most important. In this conversation Dawkins is clearly impatient with what he plainly regards as mystical mumbo-jumbo, though; Harris brings up the subject early on, and when he mentions it again later Dawkins quite brusquely cuts him off, saying to him “You’ve made this point already, and I think we’ve all granted it.” Harris, abashed to be chided so by his elder, meekly subsides; neither Dennett nor Hitchens rise to his defense. It’s a surprising, tense moment.

Hitchens comes across quite differently from the others, too, in his own way. He seems much more the humanist, the artist, the “literary man” than his fellow Horsemen, and indeed he is; his background is in history, politics, and social criticism. In contrast to the others, he seems first and foremost a writer, an impression reinforced by his world-weary look and his purposeful smoking and drinking. He made more than a few interesting remarks rather out of the blue. One came up in relation to the Trinity: “We are all triune in one way or another; we’re programmed for that, that’s very clear,” he said. “There wouldn’t ever have been a four-headed god.” I found that quite startling; it had more than a whiff of Triamazikamno about it. He also made what I thought was an important point about the need to distinguish the numinous from the supernatural.

But by far the most interesting glimpse into Hitchens’s inner world came when he was asked if he would like to see religion defeated. For Dawkins, who is an outstanding example of an utterly unspiritual man, and who views all religion as a biologist would a sample of diseased tissue, it was a no-brainer: yes indeed, out the window with it, the sooner the better. But Hitchens, to the surprise of all assembled, demurred — he said that no, he’d be sad to see it go, because it would be the end of the debate. He felt that without religion for his wits to push against, it would be like “one hand clapping”. This was, I have to say, a bit surprising — his book, after all, is subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything — but as he explained it I understood, and it was revealing of how unlike the others he is. Dennett, for his part, is aware of the social and cultural utility of religion, and has suggested that we’d be best off not obliterating it, but keeping it around in a “denatured” form — and even Harris wouldn’t go as far as Dawkins in just tossing it out. But for Hitchens, the struggle is the point, not the result. In an inverted, apophatic way, religion gives his life meaning. What is there for a polemicist in a perfect world? What is left for the doughty knight when all the dragons have been slain? We realize that Hitchens lives, above all, for the fight.

Dennett and Dawkins are their usual selves. Dawkins is the aloof arch-scientist, who sees the religious mind as a curious specimen, and is baffled as to why anyone would bother with such foolishness. Dennett is as always the arch-analyst, examining from all angles the ruses and defenses that religion has evolved for its propagation and self-preservation.

Obviously this is a sympathetic review: it should be no surprise to any of you which side I’m on in this debate, and these are all men that, in different ways and for different reasons, I admire. I doubt that many on the other side of this cultural and intellectual divide are going to want to sit through two hours of this!

But for those of you who would like to, you can find a low-res version online (or you can even buy a DVD from richarddawkins.net). The first hour is here, and the second is here. You can also watch it in twelve ten-minute chunks, more fuzzy than grainy, on YouTube, starting here.

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  1. Lola says

    Thanks for your review.
    I read that the reunion was convened by RDFRS (Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science).

    Posted May 28, 2008 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You’re welcome, Lola, and thanks for dropping by.

    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Permalink