Sam Schulman's column, "Without God, Gall Is Permitted" from Friday's Wall Street Journal is a litany of misquotes, misunderstandings, and invective. I submitted a response through the WSJ online form, but I am not optimistic about the chance of my comments being posted. Many thanks to Steve Berthiaume of the Atheists of Greater Lowell for bringing this article to our attention. Those of you that believe snarky dogmatism is tasteless will find it ironic that it was published as a "Taste Commentary." Mr. Schulman's diatribe is a litany of misquotes, misunderstandings, and sneers. Though practically every sentence is weasely and chock full of fallacy, I'll responsd to just four points. I encourage readers to respond to the WSJ as well! Let them know that the audience gets ticked off when the editors allow invective to displace intelligent opinion.
1. "The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody."
Dawkins et al are not grappling with your straw-man, Mr. Schulman. Their discussion of the psychosocial, neurological and philosophical dimensions of worship is deep and demanding. The writing in the recent crop of books is clear, forceful, and elegant; we should be so lucky to have such authors make every complex subject seem so simple! The suggestion that these "new atheists" are debunking a caricature suggests that the critic has not personally read The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and other recent books that smartly and stylishly critique religiosity.
2. "It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo..."
Mr. Schulman is correct: religion has been indeed the preoccupation of great minds. Do not the accomplishments of Avicenna — physician, scholar, philosopher — demonstrate the sublimity of Islam? Is not the veracity of Buddhism proven by the genius of Bhavaviveka? That persons of intelligence — indoctrinated since birth, educated by religious teachers and offered no alternative to a supernatural worldview — have thought about religion does not mean their god exists. A number of luminaries have thought long and hard about Hamlet, as well.
In the same paragraph Mr. Schulman falsely ascribes religious belief to Albert Einstein. I hope that in his prominent publishing position, his example does not encourage business leaders to likewise pass on received wisdom without checking sources.
3. "The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill."
We should applaud, not deride, advocates who rely upon logic. Mr. Schulman's criticism here is self-serving, for he knows that his own position is defensible only if rhetoric can persuade without reference to fact. Unfortunately, that's the standard tolerated in our public space. I myself prefer truth to charm, and I am deeply suspicious of anyone who prefers a genial manner to rational thought. Of course, this is no sacrifice; Richard Dawkins' lively writing fairly crackles with wit.
4. "When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age..."
Well, if you believe that the creation of the universe was only ~6,000 years ago, it stands to reason that you'd have to bump up the appearance of freethinkers. Don't tell Democritus; he's rather infatuated with the idea of having lived in ancient Greece. Now, I don't believe that Mr. Schulman is a creationist, but he does seem laughably unfamiliar with the powerful intellects that shrugged off supersitution long before Lyell, Darwin, Wallace, and Dawkins.
Note: This Sam Schulman is not the now-deceased former owner of the Seattle SuperSonics; this Sam is a pundit whose writing appears frequently in Commentary and the Spectator. (Among other questionably-reasoned positions, he asserts that a person cannot marry a member of the same sex for the same reason that a man cannot be brother to a dog.)