I don’t think this is quite right. I think it misses the mark.
I’d like to say his heart is in the right place, unlike the current crop of atheist propagandists, but the trouble is that, as with many Episcopalians, it is more mind than heart…I have no use for anti-Darwinian campaigners, but I do have a lot of respect for popular skepticism. The people do not trust those who present themselves as elite…[R]ead any of the self-indulgent, virulent atheists in circulation today – Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens being just two. Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt. That part of the American population that believes God made man in His own image has a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls. I am inclined to say, God bless the people, even when they get it wrong.
Harris and Hitchens being just two; two out of perhaps five; but Ian Hacking (for it is he), like so many people, gives the impression that there is a crowd. It’s all too familiar – first poison the well by mentioning ‘atheist propagandists’ and saying their hearts are not in the right place, then imply that there are hordes of them, then call them self-indulgent and virulent, then refer to their loathsome arrogance and imply that they are know-it-alls. Well – who is the propagandist here?
But more precisely – does the theist part of the American population really have a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls? I would say it doesn’t. Why? Because believing ‘God made man in His own image’ tends to correlate with voting for Bush, and what is Bush if not a know-it-all? And the worst kind of know-it-all at that, the kind who in fact doesn’t know anything. I’m not making a joke here, I’m flat serious. I think there’s something badly skewed about calling a tiny handful of atheist academics know-it-alls while flattering fans of the most blatantly arrogant and self-indulgent know-it-all in the country, if not the world. Bush is orders of magnitude more arrogant and know-it-all than any of them or all of them put together, because he has the arrogance to think he knows enough to do the job he went after. So – why is Ian Hacking enraged at the ‘loathsome arrogance’ of five atheist writers but apparently approving of the people who think Bush is adequate? If theists really had a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls, how could they possibly vote for such a glaring example of one? (Surely Hacking isn’t fooled by the ridiculous folksy airs and syllable-dropping (‘I kspect Merkans to…’) into thinking Bush really isn’t a know-it-all? Surely he can’t be so silly as to confuse pseudopopulist fakery with genuine humility?) I really wonder. I find it odd.
This is not necessarily to say that the atheists in question are not arrogant, but it is to ask if they are more arrogant than, say, know-nothing fundamentalist preachers. I don’t think they are. Fundamentalist preachers pretend to know things that they can’t possibly know, while atheists merely point out that they can’t know what they pretend to know. The two are not equivalent.