Of New Atheists and Brownshirts

This Evolution News and Views piece on Christopher Hitchens suggests that the penchant of New Atheists like Dennett to use invective where discussion might do was learned directly from the recently deceased Hitchens. If this is so, the appellation “brown shirts”, otherwise so apt, ought to be reviewed.


For once one identifies Hitchens as a source, there is a hotlink straight back to the New Left in the Oxbridge of the 60s and 70s, with which Hitchens was associated. I was at Cambridge then, and well remember how the Left used exactly such tactics of packing meetings and shouting down  opponents, indeed every opponent. These included other students present who didn’t toe the party line and made some other democratic  suggestion – shouted down. Any of the University authorities trying to negotiate with them – howled down as fascists. Even visiting academics like the ageing Jewish Hans Eysenck received the same treatment for differing in their interpretation of the world – he was a Nazi.

The only thing that mattered was to silence other voices. Part of that was so that they would be seen as the voice of the student body, so infiltration and takeover of the student bodies by simple intimidation was de rigeur. Most people in such institutions will not resist those with loud voices.

The role model for the sixties students in Britain was not, despite the similarity, Hitler’s Brown Shirts. Their inspiration came directly and consiously from the Glorious People’s Cultural Revolution in China. I well remember the rosy glow in which this shameful episode was viewed by those leftist students I talked to. Methodology, it seemed, was even more important than the underlying ideology, which is not surprising because almost to a man, these New Leftists were drawn, not from the downtrodden masses of the proleteriat, but from Britain’s exclusive fee-paying public schools. One could hypothesise about their attitude’s roots in immature adolescent rebellion, but exerting power over others by force holds an attraction of its own, and is addictive. It can even last a lifetime.

Still, the New Left eventually came to grief because its cause was shown to be worthless, for all the influence they thought they had. Maybe New Atheism is a suitable substitute for Mao and Fidel – but that says absolutely nothing about its validity, or even its longevity.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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