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“Atheist” Curtis White attacks Hitchens, makes fool of himself

June 28, 2013

Some idiot named Curtis White has written a book called {yawn} The Science Delusion {glop}. Salon has published an extract from it under the title Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors. It’s a truly atrocious piece of writing, full of factual errors, unfounded assertions and vitriol where evidence and argumentation should be. I could tear the whole thing to bits, but instead I’ll focus on one spectacularly stupid mistake. Like all spectacularly stupid mistakes, it’s flavored by hubris, hypocrisy and plenty of other stupid mistakes.

In short, White accuses Hitchens of drawing presumptuous conclusions while ignoring religious scholarship. Had White read Hitchens more closely, he would have realized that the conclusion he attributes to Hitchens, was actually Hitchens quoting the conclusion of Israeli archeologists….. the very kind of scholars White was accusing Hitchens of ignoring. It’s a straight up failure in reading comprehension on White’s part, and he should print an immediate retraction and apology. The whole piece though is a disgrace, so I’ll take a ping at a few other aspects of it too, before dealing with White’s mis-quotation of Hitchens.

 

White accuses Hitchens of lying. Not of exaggeration, or of getting his facts wrong, or of sloppy scholarship, but of lying. Obviously, for someone to be lying, they need to be aware that they are lying. Even more obviously, when accusing someone of lying, you need to be able to present some kind of evidence that they are deliberately saying things they must know aren’t true. Sadly — well, stupidly — White does nothing of the sort. Instead he fills the piece with invective:

Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” is an intellectually shameful book….

He carries on in that vein for a long time, complaining that Hitchens 

reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes.

Well, the book is clearly an anti-religious polemic, the subject of which is the trouble with religion. Had Hitchens titled the book A History of the Abrahamic Religions, White’s complaint would be valid. But it isn’t called that. What was White expecting? A set of encyclopedias delivered to his door? He continues, arguing that

virtually all of the real history of religious thought, as well as historical and textual scholarship, is simply ignored as if it never existed.

That’s a very strong and clear statement, and as will soon become apparent, a stupid one. The entire book is focused on exactly historical and textual scholarship, from the early days of Christianity, to the Enlightenment and beyond. I don’t really know how to begin to refute White on this point. Should I advise him to open the book and focus on the squiggly black bits? Should that, ultimately, not suffice, please see the footnotes for further resources.

After opening with a spray about Hitchens’ supposed lies and poor scholarship, White presents his knockdown evidence which he claims demonstrates “Hitchens’s naked dishonesty” and “historical howlers”. This is a lengthy quote from a biblical scholar, Richard J. Hamblin, which includes Hitchens’ own words.

In discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert.” 

Hamblin concludes that Hitchens–

has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions.

He has a suggestion for Hitchens:

Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai?

There are several problems here. One is that White doesn’t bother checking out the merits of Hoffmeier’s books, expecting his readers to take it on trust that Hoffmeier does indeed provide a compelling case for the existence of Moses. Nor does he bother to point his readers to any other references supporting the historicity of Moses. If such evidence really is clear from “even a superficial survey” then why doesn’t White do it and add some otherwise missing substance to his invective?

But there’s a much bigger problem. Hamblin himself failed to do “even a superficial survey” of the very passage he is quoting.

***

Tip for Curtis White: If you are going make an argument based on an appeal to authority, make sure that the authority has done his homework.

***

Hamblin quotes Hitchens only partially. Had White checked the passage himself, he would have noticed what readers of this blog — but NOT readers of White’s stupid book — will also notice……

Here’s the whole passage including the bit that Hamblin failed to include, (emphasis added):

Hitchens:

No group of diggers and scholars has ever worked harder, or with greater expectations, than the Israelis who sifted through the sands of Sinai and Canaan. The first of them was Yigael Yadin, whose best-known work Was at Masada and who had been charged by David Ben-Gurion to dig up “the title deeds” that would prove the Israeli claim to the Holy Land. Until a short time ago, his evidently politicized efforts were allowed a certain superficial plausibility. 

But then much more extensive and objective work was undertaken, presented most notably by Israel Finkelstein of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and his colleague Neil Asher Silberman. These men regard the “Hebrew Bible” or Pentateuch as beautiful, and the story of modern Israel as an all-around inspiration, in which respects I humbly beg to differ. But their conclusion is final, and the more creditable for asserting evidence over self-interest. There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert (let alone for the incredible four-decade length of time mentioned in the Pentateuch), and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date.

From God is Not Great Chapter 7

That’s right — the conclusion Hamblin criticized Hitchens for drawing was not drawn by Hitchens at all. Rather, it was the conclusion drawn by dozens of archaeologists and summarized by Finkelstein and Silberman — the very type of scholars Hitchens is accused of “simply ignoring”. White would have seen this had he checked the passage his authority was quoting. He would have seen that Hitchens repeatedly refers to religious scholars who chose facts over self-interest — he quotes Bart Ehrman for this reason too, among others. But clearly, White “simply ignored” the evidence that was before his very eyes. Or maybe he was lying….?

The rest of his criticisms of Hitchens are the usual mix of snootiness and confusion. Yes, Hitchens did tend to lump all religions together, but if you read carefully, he did not claim that all religions are equally bad, just equally wrong — if God does not exist. (And yes, the “if” there is also Hitchens’.) Yes some religious people do good things (White mentions liberation theology) but Hitchens’ argument is that the same good could just as easily be done by secular organizations. “Name a good deed done by a religious person that could not be done by an atheist” is Hitchens’ challenge. White does not address this point, but keeps on winding the argument back to the start.

Yes, I also found the chapter on Eastern religions a little lacking. It also contained some factual errors that White didn’t pick up. And White’s critique of it added some factual errors that Hitchens didn’t make. (For example, Rajneesh came from a Jain and not a Hindu tradition; and the movement he started was called Neo-Sannyas not Sanyasa, as White states.) 

White then accuses Hitchens of failing to state what he means by “Enlightenment values”. Well, okay, but these values are implicit in the book. You’ve got to read the book though to notice them. 

Finally White faults Hitchens for failing to define what a conscience is. But he misses the point completely — simply that humans don’t need religion to be moral, which is a point many religious people happily concede — and raves on incoherently for ages. It’s completely irrelevant. I won’t spend any more time on it. 

White ends the piece by repeating his accusations:

And what of Hitchens himself? Where is his conscience when he knowingly falsifies the history of religious and philosophical ideas?

Again, Curtis White, where is your evidence that Hitchens is doing this? You have a financial interest in promoting your book on Hitchens “lies”, but you have not presented any evidence that he is lying. Even more stupidly, you haven’t even presented evidence that he’s wrong! Instead you’ve been caught out yourself by a very amateur blogger whose only relevant qualification here is simply the ability to read.

You’ve got a lot of nerve, Curtis White, calling a fellow author a liar without a shred of evidence. And you have attempted to prop it up with arguments that have imploded under the most superficial scrutiny and demolished your own case. You can thank your lucky stars that Hitchens is no longer around to respond personally to your weak-minded and slanderous drivel.

References:

Here’s a short clip of Hitchens responding to an atheist of similar temperament to Curtis White.

Here’s a lengthy discussion between Christopher Hitchens and religious scholar Tim Rutten. Unlike Curtis White, Rutten has actually read the book, and finds much to praise in it. He corrects a few factual errors, graciously and gratefully accepted by Hitchens, and outlines some criticisms far more cogently than White could ever even dream of. The discussion is extremely civil, sincere, and scholarly.

Posted by Yakaru

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9 comments

  1. Is the magazine Slate or Salon ?
    Is Curtis White an idiot or just mediocre and illogical ?
    “Excerpted from “The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a a Culture of Easy Answers” ”
    ? ? ? Do the publishers need a grammar checker or a better proof reader ?
    I like the title, “The Science Delusion” – I think I brought up the same title in another posting here, some time ago, so maybe I am as confused an idiot as Curtis White might be labelled, but I don´t think so (?).

    I think what might be happening is that Curtis White and his publishers and the publishers of Slate / Salon want to sell as many copies of the book as possible or get as many hits on the website as possible, one way of advertising the book is to make a lot of public and outrageous media submissions, and this article in Slate / Salon is one such foray.

    I would opine that exaggerating is one way of lying, but most other people might draw a distinction between lying and exaggerating and not consider exaggerating to be lying.

    I think the truth has three facets: accuracy, sincerity and spirituality.

    To my mind, the output of Hitchens is closer to accuracy, sincerity and spirituality than others I am familiar with. But I am still ignorant of much other work/thought. However, I consider he distorts the truth by over-emphasising the shortcomings of his targets (losing a sense of relative importances, I also do this, I focus on the mistakes or wrongs, I am prone to be over-critical and under-complimentary).

    Christopher Hitchens classified himself as an “Antitheist” as distinct from an “Atheist”, Curtis White classifies Christopher Hitchens as an “Atheist” see a) and b), and Curtis White appears to classify Curtis White as an “Atheist” but if you read what Curtis White wrote

    a) I’m also an atheist and believe the religious right is a problem
    or
    b) Like Hitchens, I am an atheist, if to be an atheist means not believing in a CEO God who sits outside his creation

    I think if I (Donald) were a Christian I would not believe in a CEO God who sits outside his (sic) her creation

    What is essentially atheistic about not believing in a CEO God ?
    What is the logical catch in using the word “if” in the same sentence as “not believing” ? Take some courses in mathematics to find out ?

    If one person (Hitchens) says he is an anti-theist, I do not see the problem for Hitchens if Curtis comes along and tells us Hitchens is doing harm to atheists. Hitchens presumably considers Atheists to be philosophically or intellectually inferior to Antitheists.

    Thanks for the stimulating website.


  2. Nice post, Yakaru. I tried to read the original article, I really did. But this guy is not discussing the same “God is not Great” that I read! Hard to imagine that he actually read it.

    I thought his “I’m an atheist, too, if being an atheist means such and such” was quite a washy washy statement.

    It’s good that there’s an answer to this article.


  3. The following gives a different perspective on the circumstances:

    http://boingboing.net/2013/06/20/the-real-problem-with-curtis-w.html

    There are quite a lot of spirited comments following that piece.

    I have not read the book.

    One of the comments to the other article was that Curtis White needs an editor (or a better editor). However, it is possible Curtis White is a university professor of English. How odd ? Or how ironic ?

    To subvert one of his possible jokes:

    Like Hitchens, I am an atheist, if to be an atheist means not believing in a CEO God who sits outside his creation.

    That sentence begs several questions, what about a non-CEO God (sic) or a female God (sic) or a God (sic) who does not sit on the outside ? Does he believe in any of those while still being a self-confessed atheist.

    To re-express that not entirely satisfactorily using different allusions:

    Like Menuhin, I am a cellist, if to be a cellist means not playing in the woodwind section of a conductor-less all-female orchestra.

    I mean the late Yehudi Menuhin who was primarily a violinist and would describe himself as such, and would never describe himself as a cellist. Neither cellists nor violinists play in the woodwind section.


  4. “The average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of cliches. What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard. My guess is that well over 80 percent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.”

    ― H.L. Mencken

    (Some times the “average man” writes a book and proves he doesn’t know what words mean”).


  5. “You can count your lucky stars that Hitchens is no longer around to respond personally”

    It’s not luck; it’s the old “wait until someone is dead before lying about them” move.


  6. @Donald,

    Thanks for the correction — I knew I’d make at least one mistake like that in a post complaining about other people’s slackness…

    –“Is he really an idiot or just illogical and mediocre?”–

    Had he made that mistake on a blog I would have said he was foolish. He could still have made a shamefaced retraction and gotten away with it. But to call someone a liar and shoddy scholar, and the only evidence you produce actually proves that his scholarship is fine, and then publish it in a book, that I think qualifies one as an idiot !

    Thanks also for the links to the other reviews.

    White makes a very popular error about the “New Atheism”. Saying that they ignore moderate religion and various forms of spirituality is irrelevant. The criticisms of fundamentalist religion (God as CEO) are also just as valid for other (pantheistic?) forms of “God” and spirituality. Just one needs to think a little harder about it.

    Also, Rupert Sheldrake also has a book called The Science Delusion. Curtis White is in good company!


    @Mariah,
    Agreed. It looks to me like White only read the title. From his tone, it sounds like he’s got a massive chip on his shoulders. He should learn from both Hitchens and Dawkins about how to respectfully engage ones opponents.

    @Jim Jones,
    This quote also seems relevant:

    “They say everyone has at least one book in them. In most cases that’s exactly where it should stay.”
    — Christopher Hitchens


  7. I think Curtis White is about 62. He has also written an article in Harper´s Magazine “The spirit of disobedience”. The issue was dated April 1 2006, which makes it a bit suspect.
    Nevertheless in that article I find he has several insightful things to say (or at least he and I think largely on the same wavelength, warning: normal people find me strange).
    Maybe Mr White´s mental faculties have deteriorated over the past 7 years.


  8. To avoid confusion, I’ll point out that in calling White an idiot, I didn’t mean that everything he has written is idiotic. I just think that anyone who displays such shoddy scholarship, while accusing others of shoddy scholarship (and worse), deserves to be called an idiot. It has more to do with quality control than anything else!


  9. Along with the magazine article The Spirit of Disobedience, there is also a book The Spirit of Disobedience (same author).

    In previous decades Curtis White used to be either a science fiction or experimental fiction author. He describes himself as a post modernist author. Put everything so far mentioned or read online together: we get an experimental science fiction post modernist science & philosophy & religion & aesthetics satirist.

    On further reflection, I think that by writing a book with the title The Science Delusion he was meaning to alert readers that he was going to be witty or satirical, but the editorship (?) and readership on the whole was not switched on enough to comprehend the hint or notice the slip-ups.

    Also, another gripe, it is not intellectually honest (as he questions the intellectual honesty of other writers) for someone to publish a book under the same title as another book by a different author which has been published recently. (i.e. Two distinct books by two distinct authors under the same title, covering roughly the same subject from different angles. This could be another facetious prank on the part of Curtis White.)

    I have not read any of these books.

    Foremost I would criticise Christopher Hitchens for smoking and drinking adult beverages, both of which I regard to be sick activities. Modesty prevents me from mentioning my own weaknesses and character faults here.



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