The Course of Reason

Hero-worship and Atheism

December 7, 2012

Back in my highschool days, when I was the young, angry atheist who felt that no good can come of religion, that it was a poison that harms all it touches, I was excited to open the pages of Hitchens' book God Is Not Great. I had recently watched an interview with Hitchens, and was thrilled to hear someone speaking so critically of religion. To finally see and hear someone putting words to my anger was a relief. Until I reached the part of the book in which he wrote favourably about the Iraq War, that is. I had that sinking feeling. How could someone like this support an idea as terrible as the Iraq War? Of course I could answer that question today, but back then I was young and naive. The experience taught me early on to avoid putting anyone up on that pedestal. To avoid committing acts of hero-worship. I needed to remember that no one, no matter how much I may agree with them on a single issue, is above criticism and that a good idea on the one had does not guarantee a good idea coming from the other.

Hero-worship in the atheist community is an interesting concept. For one, we don't often think of atheists as having heroes to be up on a pedestal. The idea of making idols out of the big name figures in the movement seems antithetical that a group that rejects the dogmatic following of an individual. Yet, ever since Richard Dawkins' infamous "muslima" comment directed towards someone in the feminist wing of the movement, the discussion of hero-worship has swirled around in the blogosphere.

Readers are likely already familiar with Dawkins' comments and there's no need to restate them here, as the incident as been documented to death among atheist bloggers. The incident does act as an example of hero-worship, in the sense of how we can feel a certain sense of dismay when our heroes come out and say something we find to be incredibly disagreeable. I'm not suggesting that this is how everyone reacted to Dawkins' comments. Plenty of people were on his side, others weren't exactly shocked that the male academic was somewhat disconnected from the modern feminist movement. However, I'm sure that, for some, such comments from a man who champions reason were viewed as disappointing. Another example was Thunderf00t, often praised for his "Why People Laugh at Creationists" series on Youtube, who caused people to sigh—or just scratch their heads—when he used his new platform on Freethought Blogs to decry the concerns of sexual harassment at conferences.

Discovering that the person you hold great respect and admiration for does not share all of your views can be difficult. We want to believe that those we view as intelligent, attractive(yes, it is a factor), and popular hold views similar to ours. Some comments made by Ayaan Hirsi Ali have been making the rounds recently:

I will give you the example of the man who murdered Theo van Gogh, who was on welfare. Based on that principle, a 26-year-old, healthy young man, and what I took from that and I think what many Dutch people learned from that is he had the time to plot a murder, which in the United States he would not be.

He would be busy trying to feed himself and find a roof over his head. And so the idea that the free market makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, that creates a class antagonism and that that will become a showdown between the two classes and you're going to have the crime rate go up, and anyway the rich people deserve it. Why don't they share? I think it's too simplistic and it's been tried all over again. It shows that that's not really how it works (Source).

The comments demonstrate that Ali holds a very, very right-wing view on economics. Many in the atheist community find Ali's personal story to be one of admiration. A tale that demonstrates the worst religion has to offer, and how one can triumph over it. However, these recent comments are, in the words of Andrew Tripp, "sickening". Indeed they were, but are they surprising? Ali works with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and belongs to a fairly right-wing party. In many ways, she's not a whole lot different than the screaming heads over on Fox News that liberal atheists love to chide. Yes, she's an atheist (who wants us to work with Christians to deal with radical Islam, for some reason). Yes, her life-story offers a reason (somewhat) for why she holds the views she does, but at the end of the day she's just another right-winger, spewing right-wing nonsense. None of this should come as a surprise. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is just the latest example of why hero-worship is ill advised. We need to stop engaging in these acts of worship, and focus on being critical of everyone even our fellow atheists.

This post originally appeared on AAF Waterloo's blog


About the Author: Chris Burke

Chris Burke's photo
Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.


#1 jemankowski on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 9:46am

Thanks for writing this. It was a really, really interesting topic to think about. I don't know if I will ever take Bill Nye the Science Guy off of his pedestal though! ;)

#2 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday December 27, 2012 at 4:18pm

This is a good post. I don’t necessarily agree with the characterization of various individuals made in this post, but Chris’s overall point is a valid and important one. We should leave cults to the religious. Statements by leaders in the secular movement should be subject to analysis and criticism as much as statements by anyone else.




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