With Friends Like These

Damon Linker has a great essay in The New Republic on the so-called "new atheism" and the ways in which it undermines the vision of a secular politics that it purports to defend:

Still, the rise of the new atheists is cause for concern--not among the targets of their anger, who can rest secure in the knowledge that the ranks of the religious will, here in America, dwarf the ranks of atheists for the foreseeable future; but rather among those for whom the defense of secular liberalism is a high political priority. Of course, many of these secular liberals are probably the same people who propelled Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens onto the best-seller lists by purchasing their books en masse--people who are worried about the dual threats to secular politics posed by militant Islam and the American religious right. These people are correct to be nervous about the future of secular liberalism, to perceive that it needs passionate, eloquent defenders. The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

Yes indeed. In a raw power struggle between people who, like Harris, want public schools "announce the death of God" and those who want them to indoctrinate us all in the Gospel, the numbers aren't on the side of the non-believers and the outcome is unlikely to be a happy one for anyone. The liberal consensus, by contrast, has served the country well and undermining it from the point of view of ideological atheism is really no better than undermining it from any other direction.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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