Blogger R. Joseph Hoffmann recently posted a stunningly idiotic essay lamenting the present state of atheist discourse. It’s standard fare for him, this time expressed in especially pretentious and contentless prose. For example, I defy you to discern anything sensible in these two paragraphs:
Atheism has become a very little idea because it is now promoted by little people with a small focus. These people tend to think that there are two kinds of questions: the questions we have already answered and the questions we will answer tomorrow. When they were even smaller than they are now, their father asked them every six weeks, “Whadja get in math and science?” When they had children of their own, they asked them, “Whadja get in science and math?” Which goes to show, people can change.
They eschew mystery, unless it’s connected to a telescopic lens or an electron microscope or a neutrinometer at the Hadron Collider at CERN. “Mystery” is not a state to be enjoyed or celebrated like a good wine or a raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes: it is a temporary state of befuddlement, an unknown sum, an uncharted particle, a glimpse of a distant galaxy, the possibility that Mars supported microbial life.
This is not how you write when you are trying to persuade people by making a forceful argument. You only write like this when you’re trying to impress people with how well you write.
Hoffmann goes on like this for paragraph after preening paragraph, so I decided the post wasn’t worth a response. Eric MacDonald was more patient than I, and gave eloquent voice to everything I was thinking.
Then, today, I came across this post from Jacques Berlinerblau, over at the blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Berlinerblau writes:
If I were in charge of American Atheism–which I am not, but then again who is?–I would ask myself the following questions: Why does poll after poll indicate that we are one of the most disliked groups in the United States? Why are there so few self-professed atheists among 535 congresspersons and senators? Why have all three branches of the federal government turned their backs on the vaunted mid-century policy of Church/State separation? Why has atheism–a once formidable intellectual tradition–become such a “little idea” as R. Joseph Hoffmann memorably put it in an important recent essay.
I obviously don’t agree that Hoffmann’s essay was important, but putting that aside I think Berlinerblau is asking important questions. The trouble is that he doesn’t provide any answers. In fact, he immediately changes the subject with this:
As Head Atheist in Charge I would first get my priorities straight: The intellectual crisis of atheism is actually far less severe than the political crisis. Pop Atheists have certainly made atheism a small idea. Though Hoffmann himself emerges from the erudite and thoughtful Secular Humanist circle. Alongside that school there exists some truly excellent scholarly research about nonbelief.
It’s always frustrating to read people like Hoffmann and Berlinerblau. You have to wade through an awful lot of pompous academic puffery before you can even try to discern a point. Leaving aside the silliness about atheism being in a state of intellectual crisis or being a small idea (whatever that even means), I’d like know how this scholarly research will help us answer the questions he asked in the previous paragraph. Alas, Berlinerblau offers very little in that regard.
In scholarly journals–where far too many religion reporters fear to tread–a completely different understanding of atheism is emerging. Those like Hoffmann who think seriously about their subject matter are routinely debunking popular misconceptions about atheism. Once the media turns its attention to this scholarship, produced by both believers and nonbelievers, atheism becomes a big idea again.
A completely different understanding of atheism? Different from what? The links in the paragraph above are to two of Berlinerblau’s earlier posts. Very important posts, clearly, since Berlinerblau is careful to mention they are the result of serious thought.
You should read the posts. Berlinerblau conjures up lists of allegedly popular misconceptions held by atheists about atheism, without providing either a quote or a link to anyone actually presenting them. I don’t recognize any of them, and most seem incredibly trivial to me. Here is one example:
Glaring Misconception 1: Atheist identity is timelessly stable and consistent. There is basically one way to be an atheist and it has been operative since the days of the Athenian polis. We atheists are so cognizant of who we are that we can spot one another in crowds. Much in the way that anonymous bald men on the street feel a sense of solidarity with one another, we atheists can visually bond with our atheist brothers (we note with sadness that we lack for sisters) in public spaces. Also, at the circus our gaze is drawn almost reflexively to the atheist clown.
Seriously? This is the difference between atheism being a small idea and being a big idea? I have no idea what “atheist identity” is — not, at any rate, if we are imagining something that was ever thought to be timelessly stable and consistent — and I am not aware of anything any prominent atheist has written that can plausibly be parodied in the way Berlinerblau does here.
So far we are just in the throat-clearing phase of Berlinerblau’s post. With the next paragraph we finally get down to business:
The real priority for American Atheism concerns its political future, its ability to shape policy agendas so as to represent the interests of its constituency. The key question, then, is: What do atheists want? If what they want is to abolish religion–a New Atheist theme with deep roots in the Radical Enlightenment, Deism, and Marxism–then there is no political future. Atheism will simply remain a movement of overheated malcontents lamenting their great civic misfortune.
My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion. If permitted to find their voice (and if ever approached by the media) I think they would not express a desire for religion to disappear but aspire for a much more modest goal: freedom from religion.
Is there even a single nonbeliever, American or otherwise, who wants to abolish religion? Have Dawkins or Hitchens or anyone else said anything close to that? What we actually want is simply for religion to die a natural death. We want roughly what has happened in Scandanavia and other parts of Europe, where majorities of free people have decided that religious belief just isn’t important to them anymore. We certainly do not want the government to do anything to hinder religious practice (with obvious exceptions, like if those practices involve violence.)
Berlinerblau is quite right, though, that as far as politics is concerned what atheists really want is freedom from religion. The only thing we ask of the government is that it remain scrupulously neutral with regard to religion. But does he have any suggestions for how we might go about attaining that?
Of and From: “The Constitution,” vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman famously intoned in 2000, “guarantees freedom of religion not freedom from religion.” It is precisely this form of demagoguery and its associated policy implications that atheists must strenuously challenge.
Freedom of and freedom from religion are not mutually exclusive. A clever atheist leadership would spend its resources not on billboard advertisements devoted to making the point that your God is a doofus, but to demonstrating that these two freedoms can exist in symbiosis. The key word is freedom. Southern Baptists, after all, want no more to live under a Catholic establishment than Catholics wish to live under a Southern Baptist one.
I certainly agree with that first paragraph. But the second is just ridiculous, especially coming from someone so keen on reminding us what a deep and serious thinker he is. First, most of the atheist billboards that have gone up are not remotely insulting towards religious people. There are rare exceptions, but most say things like, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” followed by a web site address. And it really does seem pretty obvious that if you want to mainstream your point of view, you have to make it visible. Putting up billboards and other advertisements seems like a perfectly reasonable step in that direction.
The second, and more important, point, is that Berlinerblau’s crude argument about “freedom of” and “freedom from” being compatible is far too simplistic. Most of the church/state issues we deal with today are nowhere near as dramatic as trying to impose a Catholic establishment or whatnot. When the country really is in danger of becoming a Catholic theocracy, you can be sure the Southern Baptists won’t need the atheists to persuade them to oppose it.
Nowadays the most prominent church/state issues involve things like directing public tax dollars to parochial schools or other faith-based organizations. Most religious people would not want any part of a government program that blatantly preferred one religion, even their own, over another, but too many are just fine with government promoting religion over non-religion. A nakedly sectarian prayer before a public high school graduation, say, would not be acceptable to most people, but a bland acknowledgment of God is just fine to many.
Berlinerblau has nothing concrete to suggest regarding how a clever atheist leadership would persuade Southern Baptists to equate freedom of with freedom from. If he has a really slam dunk argument that would get them to slap their foreheads, I’m all ears. I would suggest that part of the explanation for why people often do not equate the two is that we live in a society so drenched in religion, and in which religion is so commonly equated with goodness and morality, that nonbelief is all but invisible. That people have religious differences is obvious to all, but that a great many people choose to live without religion at all is not even in the consciousness of many people, especially in certain parts of the country. I would say that posting atheist billboards, writing bestselling books, and holding atheist conferences are good steps towards changing that fact. And they are certainly more productive than Berlinerblau’s empty rhetoric.
Widen the Tent: Why must the admission price to American Atheism be total nonbelief in God and hatred of all religion? Can’t the movement, at the very least, split the difference?
Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent? Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the movement as well? Why can’t skeptics and agnostics join the club? What about heretics and apostates? In short, democratic mobilization requires numbers. Atheism needs numbers, accurate numbers. . .
Know Your Numbers: “Atheists have the biggest underground movement in America. They are everywhere.” Such were the words of the famed atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Not surprisingly O’Hair would claim in 1969 that her advocacy served 74-million Americans!
O’Hair’s estimate is part of a long tradition of Atheist self-aggrandizement. To this day extreme atheists in America estimate their numbers in the tens of millions. The error often stems from a misreading of various American Religious Identification Surveys. Those studies discovered growing numbers of “nones” or people who professed no religion.
Atheist ideologues routinely assume that the “nones” are atheists and hence conclude that they represent roughly 15 percent of the American population. The mistake is not only baffling, especially for a cohort that prizes itself on empirical precision, but disastrous to the strategic vision of American atheism.
After all, how effective would the political activism of Jewish Americans be if they
started from the premise that there were 110 million Members of the Tribe shlepping about the country?
What on earth is Berlinerblau going on about? He assures us that atheist ideologues routinely assume that people who do not associate with a religion also do not believe in God, but he provides no examples of anyone prominent doing that. And who exactly is metaphorically throwing skeptics or agnostics out of the club? People like Jerry Coyne and myself happily identify with a religious tradition (we’re Jewish), but I haven’t noticed that hurting our standing within the community. Some of us are critical of agnosticism as a philosophical position, or have some problems with the idea of a “spiritual atheist,” but we are happy to have agnostics and spiritual atheists on board when it comes time to fight political battles.
Once again, Berlinerblau has nothing serious or concrete to offer. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose he is actually right that atheists routinely overestimate their numbers. Can he demonstrate any concrete way that belief has harmed atheist advocacy?
Which brings us to Berlinerblau’s last suggestion:
Reach Out and Touch (Moderate) Faith: And while we are at it, why can’t atheists make common cause with religious moderates? In its first decade of operations New Atheism has virtually assured its political irrelevance by acerbically shunning the very religious folks (think Mainline Protestants, Liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, etc.) who are waging their own pitched battles with fundamentalists. “Even mild and moderate religion,” averred Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion, “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”
Evangelicals, it bears noting, achieved many of their greatest political triumphs by entering into what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency” with Roman Catholics and Mormons on issues like abortion, gay marriage, religion in public schools, etc. In other words, leadership put aside seething theological animosities in order to achieve pragmatic political goals.
In so doing, the Christian Right successfully managed to curtail both freedom from religion and freedom of religion for countless Americans. The time has come for a strategic atheist defense of both these virtues.
And atheists have been perfectly willing to make common cause with moderate religious folks on subjects like science education and prayer in school. Many of us have criticisms to make about the religious arguments of people like, say, Ken Miller or John Haught, but when it comes time to fight creationism I’m not aware of a single atheist who is not happy to have them on the team.
It is when I read essays like Berlinerblau’s that I understand why academics are thought to live in ivory towers. I catch a glimpse of what anti-intellectualism is all about. Atheists were politically irrelevant and reviled long before Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris came along. They had nothing to do with creating the political difficulties atheists face, and there is not a shred of evidence that anything has gotten worse for atheists because of their work.
What has changed as a result of their efforts is that atheists are now far more visible than ever before. By writing a few books, and standing tall in the face of extraordinary vituperation from outraged religious folks, they have shown that there is a surprisingly large market for atheism in this country. No one predicted that their books would be hugely successful, but people are still talking vigorously about them years after they were published. Aided by bloggers, and by numerous unheralded organizers on the ground, we now have a vibrant community of nonbelievers, both online and real world. The numerous well-attended conferences, and, yes, the billboards and merchandise, are all positive developments. Considering how deep in its own endzone atheism was starting, I’d say the New Atheists have accomplished something pretty impressive.
Then here come the Berlinerblau’s of the world to tut-tut and to criticize. It’s all so vulgar and low brow and not at all the sort of thing that scholars investigating the roots of nonbelief in fifteenth-century France care about. Those people on the ground who actually built something are doing it all wrong. He has it all figured out if only people would ask him. He thinks seriously about these issues, you know.
But when it comes time to offer anything concrete we get only talking points and empty rhetoric. Despite how he frames his essay, he never actually tells us what he would do if he were in charge of American atheism. He just criticizes what others are doing. One suspects that he, like so many critics of the New Atheists, don’t actually have any constructive political strategy. To judge from their writing their main agenda has more to do with preserving their own self-rightousness and feelings of superiority.