Salon Author O’Hehir: Stupidly stuck between hipsterish self-importance and pseudointellectualism

I only just became aware of an opinion piece published in Salon on April 12th called America: Stupidly stuck between religion and science, by Andrew O’Hehir. In it the author makes the argument that religious fundamentalism is nearly dead, and that atheists who speak out against it are, effectively, self-important parrots of 19th century philosophy who are fanning fundamentalism’s last embers for the media so they can pretend to be smarter than you.

It is, of course, a startlingly stupid and oblivious article, written by a man who, ironically, seems to be flagrantly guilty of the very holier-than-thou ego-inflation he accuses the ‘new atheists’ of! There’s a good article over at Why Evolution is True called Salon jumps the shark, becomes official secular atheist-bashing site completely debunking the arguments O’Hehir presents. Highlights include pointing out that: his assertion that creationists are a vanishingly small minority is completely invalidated by the fact that studies show 46% of Americans believe that humans were created in their current form by a divine entity somewhere between six and ten thousand years ago; the fact ‘that humans do long for symbolism, sensuality, and communality’ doesn’t lend credence to religion just because it is designed to provide them; etc. It’s a good read, and clearly demonstrates the buffoonery of the original article.

Atheists & SuperiorityHowever, I think the discussion goes far beyond the topic at hand. To me, the big problem this Salon article represents, other than a complete lack of editorial rigor on the part of Salon’s staff, is the mess of self-defeating, pseudo-intellectual distraction-tactics that much of American public discourse has become. The WEIT article makes a couple of references to this, especially the exemplary xkcd comic (at right) on the subject. As a relatively outspoken non-believer and online champion of rationality, I of course feel this article’s anti-’new’-atheist slant most deeply as a personal attack, but I think that’s the point of the distraction tactic.

Think about it. If you read the article, you’ll note that behind all his slurs, there are no actual facts presented to back any of them up. Among his utterly unsupported claims:

  • “Of course, no one on any side of the argument understands its philosophical and theological history” – Really? Prove it. I’d bet money most of the ‘New Atheists’ you decry can demonstrate mastery of that history better than you can, and some of the fundamentalist ‘thinkers’ too!
  • “religion still finds a way to attack liberal orthodoxy at its weak point.” – As an active non-believer who isn’t a liberal I find this one is especially ironic, as a) non-belief is in no wise an exclusively ‘liberal’ position, an b) most liberals are still believers, so what orthodoxy could he possibly be referring to?
  • “Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with their pop-culture sock puppet Bill Maher …. Their ahistorical or anti-historical depiction of religion is every bit as stupid as Ken Ham’s.” – This is a mind-bogglingly stupid statement, at least in the case of the specific authors named, and requires some kind of evidence even in Maher’s case. It’s almost like he’s purposely making things up just to rile the reader.
  • “So on one hand we have atheists whose views would have seemed old-hat under Queen Victoria but who see themselves as representing the apex of progressive modern thought” – Yet again, this is just unsupported fluff. Even if the first claim is correct, the second part is clearly unfair. More importantly, it’s purposely intended to set ‘the author’ above and apart from ‘those stupid, derivative new atheists who think they’re so smart’ and to invite the reader to join him in feeling that way.
  • “the liberal intelligentsia compulsively exaggerates the danger posed by the likes of Ken Ham or Pat Robertson, who are deemed to be plotting the theocratic overthrow of the republic” – Seriously? What kind of idiot really believes this? Name one ‘liberal intelligentsian’ (outside of a random internet catfight; I’m talking about established writers/thinkers) who has documentedly espoused the belief that Pat Robertson, Ken Ham, or any of their media-drenched-and-getting-rich-off-the-system ilk, for that matter, are plotting a theocratic overthrow. I’m not even remotely a liberal, and I call bullshit on this one! This particular straw-man is ridiculously overstuffed…

This is only one example of this type of discourse. You see them about the anti-GMO debate (“Those protestors are kinda nuts, but the people who support GMOs are just as bad!”); the climate change debate (climate change activists are like a fundamentalist religion, but the deniers are even worse!”); The gun-control debate (Clearly, the anti-gun activists are hysterical, and don’t have their facts right, but the people on the other side are juvenile knuckle-draggers with sexual performance complexes who need their guns as compensation!”); and any number of others.

The new “intellectualism” seems to have gone “meta”. It’s a lazy, apathetic intellectualism, that seeks to avoid all the bother of learning the issues and understanding and informing the discourse by instead declaring oneself to be above all that muck, and attacking both sides of the debate “even-handedly”. It does so partially by recycling the arguments of each side to use against the other, but that often seems to be a half-hearted smoke-screen for the “real” attack. More importantly (or maybe “more self-importantly” would be a better word choice?) it attacks on procedural aspects of the debate, rather than facts and reason, because this “meta” level discussion is much harder to fact-check, and if you word it right, the reader might even miss the fact that you were expressing opinions rather than supported facts.

It’s rather like (and possibly the intellectual sibling of) the stereotypical ‘hipster douchebag’ memes running around the internet: “Religion? Atheism? I have a much deeper and more refined understanding of these things. You probably wouldn’t get it.”; Second Amendment? Gun-control? There are much bigger and more complex issues in play here. If you ask nicely, I’ll tell you how it really all works.”

It’s not so much that these meta-intellectuals’ arguments couldn’t have value in and of themselves, but we never see them actually backed up with any facts or logical exegesis. We have to simply trust the author that they’ve got some really obscure vantage point on the topic that allows them to utterly outclass either side of the debate, because they never present more than a vague “oh, the whole thing’s moot” kind of apathetic avoidance of telling us what that vantage-point is…

I actually hope someone starts an argument with me on this subject, because I’ll be really tickled when someone shows up to tell us how we’re both equally wrong, and metas my anti-meta discussion…

About the Author

Despite a decade of Catholic school, I have never been a believer. I guess I was just born without the gene! Nevertheless, I've always tried to explore others' ideas and practices, on the theory that just because you can't use one part of a product, it doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing away.
I spent over a decade traveling the world, and I've lived in both Europe and the US. I've read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran. I've studied engineering, yoga, martial arts, shooting sports, and ballroom dancing. What I've discovered is that a) spirituality is just a spooky sounding word for any of a number of methods for learning about yourself and your mind, and b) whatever word you use, doing so is the single most important thing in learning to be happy.
My blog, The Passionate Rationalist ( is dedicated to my thoughts both on gaining self-knowledge and using your mind to eliminate misunderstanding and delusion.