‘Statistics can prove anything’ (and other fictions used by New Atheists)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been spending my time recently trying to find video clips that might represent a ‘New Atheist discourse.’  This week, I selected a few examples in order to demonstrate how one might do bad scholarship.  In fact, this post is perhaps just a continuation of my previous one on locating New Atheism within a discursive boundary demarcated by an ‘asshole’ mentality.  Does this mean I think ‘bad scholars’ are ‘assholes?’  Maybe.  It varies from day to day, and from scholar to scholar.


Let’s begin with Richard Dawkins.  In the following clip Professor Dawkins is listing off a number of ‘religious things’ that offend him.  Or, rather, that should offend us.  While we might all ‘generally agree’ that these are certainly things that we should be offended by, were we to specify them as actions outside our own contextual boundaries about ‘ethics’ and ‘morality,’ the way that he shapes his argument is what shines through for me.

In the clip, he displays horrible atrocity after horrible atrocity while deftly (or, as he says it, ‘logically’) associating these things with ‘religious thinking.’  Then, he casually moves his argument toward a quote from Martin Amis, a rhetorical question about what a ‘secularist’ would shout when ‘cutting off an infidel’s head.’  To answer this question, he cites a ‘critic’ of Amis’ book, who responds: “they shout ‘Heil Hitler.'”  Now, his argument is about Hitler, focused on whether or not he was an ‘Atheist,’ to which he easily declares that he was a Catholic.  Or, at least his soldiers were.  Likewise, he adds, even if he was an Atheist, that shouldn’t matter.  He was also a vegetarian.  He asks: “Does that suggest that vegetarians have a special tendency to be murderous, bigoted racists?”  To which the audiences giggles at such audacity.

From here, he easily slides into his conclusive point:

The point is, that there is a logical pathway leading from religion to the committing of atrocities.  It’s perfectly logical, if you believe that your religion is the right one, you believe that your God is the only God, and you believe that your God has ordered you through a priest or through a Holy Book, to kill somebody, to blow somebody up, to fly a plane into a skyscraper, then you are doing a righteous act.  You’re a good person.  You’re following your religious morality.  There is no such logical pathway leading from Atheism and secularism to any such atrocious act.  It just doesn’t follow.  

Based on the evidence he provides, his argument appears sound.  Of course, were we to test his argument against historical facts, not only would much of what he says be logically unsound, it would also be questionable on a vast number of theoretical points. For these reasons, we might ask, why did he not supply more evidence?  Or conflicting evidence?  Why would he use Hitler as an example, if the association of Hitler to ‘secularism’ is a “truly outrageous thing to say?”  As well, could we not simply take his argument about the ‘logical pathway’ leading from ‘religion’ to the committing of atrocities and relate it to another evidential example, such as the State Atheism (Communism) of Albania, China, and Cuba, or the ‘secular revolutions’ of France and Mexico?  Of course, to do this, we might be forced to define, via discursive and lexical examples, how those ‘Atheisms’ might represent some sort of ‘Atheism’ that we could then relate to that found in Britain or the United States.  Then again, this takes work, to which, for logical reasons, I doubt Professor Dawkins is willing to commit.  When it comes to this subject, he is a bad scholar.


I would argue that this is another trait of the ‘New Atheism’ presented by Dawkins, Harris, and a few others, such as Bill Maher.  While Maher has been an Atheist advocate for some time now, his discursive alignment with the Atheism representative of Dawkins, et al. is not only established but their shared argumentation, but by their bad scholarship as well.

Here’s a handy example.

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2014, Maher presents his position on religion (‘they’re all stupid’), and then turns the conversation (with the help of Charlie) toward religious violence.  The essential point I will be focusing on here is a citation he makes to support his statement that Muslims, in general, ‘condone violence.’ When asked by Charlie, “how do you know that,” he states:

There’s a Pew Poll of Egypt done a few years ago, 82 percent I think it was, said, uh, stoning was the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Over 80 percent thought, uh, death was the appropriate punishment for leaving the Muslim religion.  

This statement is made at the 2:23 mark.

This citation returns a bit later on his own show on HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher.  His guests for this episode are Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Michael Steele, and Nicholas Kristof.  Again, the discussion is on religious violence, predominately about ISIS, and the way that ‘liberals’ are failing to control this sort of ‘fundamentalism.’  The section of this clip that I will focus on here comes toward the end of the debate after Ben Affleck attempts to convey his own argument that Maher and Harris are simply being racially insensitive, and stretching their ideologies beyond reasonable limits.  In reaction, Maher states:

No it’s not.  It’s based on facts.  I can show you a Pew Poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that say like 90 percent of them believe that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.  If 90 percent of Brazilians thought that death was the appropriate response to leaving Catholicism, you would think it was a bigger deal.  

The specific statement occurs at the 8:02 mark.

While many of the rejoinders to Maher’s and Harris’ statements here about their ‘caricatures’ of religious individuals, as well as connections of this sort of language to ‘white racism against blacks’ in the United States, are indeed poignant responses, it is the statistics that Maher is using to defend his position that I think stand out the most.

On two occasions, when arguing that Muslims (or ‘Islam,’ since he tends to refer to the religion, rather than to religious individuals) are inherently violent, he has done so based on ‘facts.’  This is, of course, a good means of argumentation.  It gives credence to one’s position, and grounds the statements made in a foundation of ‘truth.’

Of course, this only tends to work when those ‘facts’ remain details without any further elucidation.

With this in mind, and in considering that he has based his argument that ‘Islam’ is violent because a Pew Poll stated that a vast majority felt a certain way about using violence, let’s turn now to those facts themselves.

The poll cited was a part of a Pew Forum report on The World’s Muslims: Religion Politics, and Society conducted in 2011.  The section Maher is referencing is Chapter 1: Beliefs about Sharia.  In the first clip, he references the results about stoning as a punishment for adultery.  Here is an image of that data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.09.34In the first and the second clip, he refers as well to the punishment that should be given for leaving the Muslim faith.  Here is that data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.11.07While he is incorrect about the exact percentage, he is still fairly close to the actual numbers.  Nevertheless, here is quantitative data, ‘fact,’ that he can use to support his argument.  From this, we might agree that, yes, it seems that up to 80 or 90 percent of Egyptians believe the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery or leaving the faith.  He would be correct, then, in saying that, as an example, this supports the idea that ‘Islam’ is violent.

However, his statement begins to turn into a ‘caricature’ when we look at the actual numbers polled.  Here is an image taken of Appendix C: Survey Method that gives the specifics about the data itself:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.15.17

Likewise, here is an image of the sample size that make up the data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.16.11

As we can see, the data itself is representative of a sample size, meaning it should not be used as a representation of all people in Egypt, let alone all Muslims.  Furthermore, this is data based on face-to-face interactions over a single month.  It would be impossible in that time to actually poll the roughly 79,000,000 people who lived in Egypt in 2011.  As well, the two responses concerning the death penalty for adultery and leaving the faith are based on individuals who ‘say sharia should be the law of the land.’  These details do not support his argument in the way that he has made it.

I should add here that this is not meant as a critique of this sort of data, nor of the utility in gathering and using such quantitative information.  Rather, I’d argue it provides a bit of a caveat about mis-using it.  This is evinced best, I think, by how Maher does exactly that.  That is, if he were to re-word his statement, the resulting conversation might be a bit more effective.  Perhaps something like this:

Of the Egyptian people polled in 2011 who thought Sharia should be the law of the land, 80-90 percent of them stated the death penalty was an appropriate response to actions we here in America might find unethical because of our differing political context.  While this is merely a sample size and should not be considered a representation of the 79 million people living in Egypt, let alone the billion Muslims worldwide, I still think it provides an interesting entry point to a discussion we could have on the way this sort of discourse might influence how Islam is perceived, both in and out of the context in which these answers are given.   

Instead, he chose a different approach:

It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book (6:40 in the third clip).

Again, this is bad scholarship.


The caricatures created by both Dawkins and Maher in these examples reflect a certain type of discourse.  This is, I’d argue, a result of the way they use ‘data’ and ‘facts’ to support their argument, rather than the other way around.  Which, additionally, damages what they have to say.  Instead, they come across as equally fundamentalist in their thinking as the people they are arguing against, using bad scholarship to support their opinions.  In this same way they are telling a particular story about themselves, and about how they construct their discourse, much in the same way the individuals who responded to the Egyptian poll have provided a certain story that we might, were we so inclined, use to interpret them in an equally general (and incorrect) manner.

Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism

In our tutorials for Atheism in Debate this last week we discussed Feuerbach.  The week before that was Strauss, and before that was Hegel.  Understandably, its usually around this point where the energy of the course begins to wane.  In order to try and remedy this, I tend to use video clips, usually of one of the four ‘New Atheists,’ to break up the monotony of just talking about the reading.  For this round of clips I tried to find ways to connect the ‘anthropomorphism’ of Feuerbach’s deconstructive theory about religion being ‘human nature reflected, mirrored in itself,’ with the way Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens diminish religion to infantile self-creations.  For those interested, these are the clips that I chose:

As I was searching for these I came across this interesting video:

Here was a listicle of ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”  This got me thinking.  What is the difference between these ‘comedy routines’ and the statements being made by the ‘New Atheists?’  Are they not equally ‘scripted’ critiques of religion?  Do they not function the same way as the rhetorical use of the ‘Atheist discourse‘ being presented by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

I thought I’d look into this a bit more.

I came across the work of Patrick McKearney at the University of Cambridge who, for a few years, was the ‘Atheist comedy guy.’  Aside from the four conference presentations he gave on the subject (“Public Belief and Civil Society: A Case-Study of Contemporary Anti-Religious Stand-Up Comedy;” “The Ridicule of Religion in Contemporary British and Irish Stand-Up Comedy;” “‘What are you laughing at?’ The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation;” “Methods for Investigating Non-religiosity in Stand-up Comedy”), he also participated in a BBC 4 discussion on Comedy and Religion, and published two articles on the subject in The Guardian (“Heard the One about the Pope?”) and Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge (“Slap in the Faith“).  The latter is focused on issues of comedic criticism and the reactions we might see in fundamentalist religion striking back (such as we saw with the attacks against Charlie Hebdo a few months back).

Likewise, my good friend Katie Aston deals with this a little bit in her Doctoral Thesis.

So how might these comedic criticisms present a useful example of an Atheist discourse?  I believe the answer lies in some specificity.  For pragmatic reasons, then, I will be using two methodological points made by Norman Fairclough in his Analysing Discourse (2003).

First, in consideration of the utility of discourse analysis in the study of texts, let’s broaden our conception of that term itself:

“written and printed texts such as shopping lists and newspaper articles are ‘texts’, but so also are transcripts of (spoken) conversations and interviews, as well as television programmes and web-pages” (Fairclough, 2003, 4).  

In this way, these video clips, as edited versions of the stand-up comedian’s routine, are texts, filled with, and exemplary of, particular ‘language in use.’  In other words: ‘discourse.’

Second, let’s specify how we might more directly consider these texts via a three-part interpretation:

“the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (Fairclough, 2003, 10) 

In this way, we can be a bit more specific about the discourse being used, as well as establish a contextual boundary within which it emerged, was presented, and subsequently received.

These things established, let’s look at three examples, two of which were also on ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”

The first comes from Ricky Gervais, and focuses on a critical analysis of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark:

The second comes from Bill Maher, and focuses on examples of religion ‘doing harm:’

The third, and perhaps most famous, comes from George Carlin, and focuses on religion as ‘bullshit:’

From out of a cursory analysis of these three clips as ‘texts,’ we can establish a number of discursive specifics:

  • Each are reactionary, and thus present a criticism directed at a particular subject.
    • The first (Gervais) presents a critical assessment of the fictionality and inherent unbelievability of a Biblical myth through the lens of modernity.
    • The second (Maher) is directed at issues of morality, and the fact, as he sees it, that ‘religion’ is harmful and immoral.
    • The third (Carlin), like Maher, presents a critical assessment of the harmful and equally immoral dangers of religion/religious belief (though with the caveat that his ‘Sun Worship’ (not ‘prayer-to’) is still practical.
  • The ‘religion’ of their collective criticisms is somewhat vague, though we can presume via their language they are reacting against a particular monotheism, likely Christianity (though Maher intermixes this with critiques of Islam).
  • While seemingly problematic, these differences tell us a great deal about their contextual discursive language use.  Gervais’ routine was given in 2010, the same year as Maher’s.  Carlin’s routine comes from 1999.  So, we might concede that Gervais’ and Maher’s routines stem from a ‘New Atheist,’ or post-September 11th discourse, though that might be presuming a bit much.
  • However, simply as ‘texts,’ they do not tell us much about their ‘Atheisms.’  Yes, we might assume (or presume) that they are being inherently ‘Atheist’ by means of their criticisms, it is not as specific as, say, an informant telling us about his or her ‘Atheist identity,’ and how he or she has constructed that identity in a specific way.

So how might we use them as textual discursive sources?  By taking up Fairclough’s three-part interpretive method, we can begin to shift them from mere textual examples to more direct discursive ones.

  1. Learning about how they were produced (written) we can learn a great deal about the individuals doing the writing, the context that writing took place, the type of Atheism they themselves identify with, and the influences that shaped their texts based on that type of Atheism.
  2. Then, our cursory analysis (such as above) becomes a bit more nuanced.
  3. Finally, we can look at how they are received by individuals (audience or viewers) who equally identify as ‘Atheist,’ while equally deciphering how these texts assist these individuals in their own identity constructions.

By weaving these together, we begin to form a much clearer (in my opinion, at least) conception of ‘Atheism,’ such as we might use to better understand the discursive elements that influence the New Atheist clips presented above.  While this isn’t a better means of approach then conducting interviews and ethnographically shaping a textual representation, as a means of understanding the discourse that might underscore or influence the identities that make up such an ethnographic textual representation, this seems quite beneficial.  Likewise, I believe this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.’


Norman Fairclough, Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research (London: Routledge, 2003).

*As an extra bonus, here is an animated version of Louis CK (who is not an Atheist) talking about ‘God as a shitty girlfriend,’ and the oddity of ‘saying Jesus Christ with a shitty attitude.’