Pharyngula

The backlash is winding up

I’m about to hop on a plane and fly off to New York for a few days, and now it seems like everyone is sending me op-eds from all over the place that are screaming against the “new atheism”. We must be effective to inspire such denunciations, and we must be striking deeply to cause so much obvious pain. It’s sad to see the agony people are experiencing as they witness the godless speaking out with such boldness, but they’re just going to have to get used to it. After all, if they’re really tolerant, they have to recognize people’s right to believe or disbelieve as they will…but I guess we’re going to have to face a few spasms of outraged accusations as religiosity is challenged.

A perfect example is in the Wall Street Journal; it shows why the WSJ opinions page has such a low reputation.

Without God, Gall Is Permitted

By SAM SCHULMAN

January 5, 2007; Page W11

When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age—brought to life by Lyell’s “Principles of Geology,” Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and other blows to religious certainty—it was the personal dimension of atheism that others found distressing. How could an atheist’s oath of allegiance to the queen be trusted? It couldn’t—so an atheist was not allowed to take a seat in Parliament. How could an atheist, unconstrained by a fear of eternal punishment, be held accountable to social norms of behavior? Worse than heretical, atheism was not respectable.

In the 21st century, this no longer seems to be the case. Few acquaintances of Dr. Richard Dawkins, the world’s most voluble public atheist, wonder, as they might have a hundred years ago: Can I leave my wife unchaperoned in this man’s company? Indeed, the atheists are now looking to turn the tables: They want to make belief itself not simply an object of intellectual derision but a cause for personal embarrassment. A new generation of publicists for atheism has emerged to tell Americans in particular that we should be ashamed to retain a majority of religious believers, that in this way we resemble the benighted, primitive peoples of the Middle East, Africa and South America instead of the enlightened citizens of Western Europe.

Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) and Sam Harris (“The End of Faith” and, more recently, “Letter to a Christian Nation”). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose “Moral Minority” was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.

There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool—or better, simply to ban—the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.

He’s partly right. Yes, I want to see people become acutely embarrassed about holding beliefs that contradict reality; does Mr Schulman think that it is not a subject for humor that many religious people believe the Earth is 6000 years old? I also think that we’d be better served if the default response to religious claims was deep skepticism—instead of allowing international policy to be influenced by apocalyptic predictions of people drunk on the book of Revelation, there should be an automatic dismissal of such considerations. We should purge our culture of the unearned deference given religiously-motivated ideas. This doesn’t mean religion should be banned, but that, for instance, we’d be better off without all that foolish support given to dogma that leads to repression of homosexuals, artificially dictated roles for men and women, the banning of information about sex and contraceptives.

Schulman glosses over that; he wants you to have the impression that atheists are using objections to the most horrible examples of fringe extremists to criticize religion, that we’re busy creating straw men from a few aberrations to bash, but it’s not true. Those are widespread beliefs that shape public policy.

Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. (“Wisdom dwells with prudence,” the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society—or even our species—is to survive.

Most of us do not focus on Muslim religious belief (which I’ll happily agree is just as insane if not more so than Christianity) because we do not live in a Muslim society, and criticism of Islam simply isn’t relevant. I would be overjoyed to see the Middle East and Asia and Africa become entirely secular, but that change would have to be driven by the inhabitants of those regions; I can’t impose it on them. I would like to see American christians abandon their beliefs because it would directly and immediately improve my life (I’m being selfish) and because they are my friends and neighbors and relatives.

What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote—both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

For them, belief in God is beyond childish, it is unsuitable for children. Today’s atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people—which Dr. Dawkins calls “a form of child abuse.” He even floats the idea that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents’ religious beliefs.

You can also read all of Schulman’s commentary, and not only will you see no new criticisms of atheism, but you won’t see any defense of christianity. The whole thing is a cranky tirade against those who dare to disbelieve, propped up by dishonest accusations.

Arguments are not false merely because they’re old, as any defender of religion should know. We have to keep repeating them because the theists keep indoctrinating their children to ignore them; when you’re fighting dogma with reason, of course it’s going to take time and patience and continuous instruction.

I should like to see his evidence that we “new atheists” claim every religious person thinks in lockstep with the Pope and Falwell. It’s simply not true: I criticize religious moderates because they are religious, not because they are extremists. The “moderate” part is good, and I can sympathize with the majority of believers as well meaning, and maybe even striving for virtuous goals. My complaint is that they reach for those ends by flawed methods, methods that have a history of being easily subverted.

For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it. The reviewer of Dr. Dawkins’s volume in a recent New York Review of Books noted his unwillingness to take theology seriously, a starting point for any considered debate over religion.

Ah, if you saw my email…this “you atheists think you’re such smarty-pants” sentiment is so common. It’s not true, like so much of this op-ed’s assertions. I agree that brilliant people have also been believers, and that there are some truly stupid atheists; if a stupid person leaves the church, it won’t make him smarter, except in the sense that he has perhaps learned one new thing.

We don’t write as if we were the first to discover the bible is full of foolishness—we write to point out that people like Schulman freely confess to the superstition, but never actually do anything about it, other than defend it. Oh, and they’re also fond of waving theology at us, as if that has anything to do with honestly evaluating the truth claims of religion. Theology is an exercise in logic and history and rhetoric that has nothing to do with determining the validity or the accuracy of religious claims about the universe.

The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody. It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo, Newton and Spinoza—let alone Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Kierkegaard, Goya, Cardinal Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr or, for that matter, Albert Einstein. But to pass over this deeper faith—the kind that engaged the great minds of Western history—is to diminish the loss of faith too. The new atheists are separated from the old by their shallowness.

I do find it impossible to see what there is about the doctrine of damnation or the concept of transubstantiation that could possibly have been satisfying to great thinkers, either, except that we all have cultural baggage that is not the product of rational thought. So? I must be shallow.

I also notice that after railing at the new atheists for only picking on christianity, Schulman only mentions great Jewish and Christian thinkers. How about Mohamad ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi or Abu Raihan Mohammad Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni? Does their brilliance and reason and skill also validate the doctrines of Islam? I’d argue that their minds are testimonials to the potential of humanity, not the power of some invisible ghost or magical ritual. Invoking Goya or Einsteins says great things about what we can do, and I rather resent the way the apologists use human accomplishments to falsely brace their superstitions.

To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the “eternal note of sadness” sounded when the “Sea of Faith” receded from human life. In one testament after another—George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself—the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes—and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and—fatally—by politics.

God did not exist, they concluded, but there was no denying that this supposed truth was accompanied by a painful sense of being cut off from human fellowship as well as divine love. To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission—like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it—and sympathized not only with atheism’s pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.

We are social organisms, so when a majority of society hold particular beliefs, it pains us to dissociate ourselves from them; especially with religious beliefs, which are often used as glue and a goad to reinforce conformity. It is not surprising that many find pain in breaking away from the crowd (Darwin is an excellent example. Reason led him in one direction, away from god-belief, yet as a well-fitted cog in his culture and as a person who loved others who did not question religion, he did not want to openly divorce himself from it, and the problem tormented him). This, again, is not an argument for the validity of religion. It says it is a powerful tool of acculturation, which none of the new atheists deny.

I have a different solution. Let’s build a community of atheists who are outspoken and willing to happily announce their skepticism. We could have a few prominent advocates who are successful in their fields and act as great role models. Then, I think what you’ll see is that more and more people will be able to leave that smothering blanket of fog called religion without pain, without the sense that they are pariahs in their communities, freed of the social extortion that Schulman sees as a virtue. That sounds much more productive than the C.S. Lewis approach of making poor excuses for foolishness that allow smug theists to feel that they’ve reached out to the godless.

There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism—to find it, one has to look to believers. Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background—Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon—who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more “open-minded” homes—rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.

Oh, man … now “open-mindedness” is the mark of the beast, and he’s calling atheists stupid. Wasn’t he just complaining about the strategy of calling all christians stupid and denying the intelligence of those great christian thinkers of the past? Maybe I need to rethink this. If Sam Schulman thinks an effective strategy to get atheists to turn to religion is to call them rigid, indifferent, unthinking and unsympathetic, maybe we should get more vigorous in criticizing the mental facilities of the religious.

The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill. Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent. Here is Sam Harris, for instance, addressing those who wonder if destroying human embryos in the process of stem cell research might be morally dicey: “Your qualms…are obscene.”

The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves—a remarkably incurious elite.

Well, since Schulman seems to believe that believers can be swayed by the contumely and condescension of his piece, apparently the answer is supposed to be “yes”.

I don’t care whether you’re an atheist or a Christian, but you have to admit that Schulman’s article is nothing but a bitter rant against atheism that offers no reason to support religious belief, other than that those atheists are such bad, bad people. If this is the strategy being used in the anti-atheist backlash, I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about—it’s the same old damning we’re used to.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    January 7, 2007

    The implication seems to be that it’s okay to be an atheist, as long as you really really want to be a theist.

    If you’re happy and content with being atheistic, you’re an inhuman monster who is obviously denying the deep human need for religion.

  2. #2 Kevin
    January 7, 2007

    this article was completely ridiculous. The following passage sums up the general stupidity and the main theme of his piece:

    To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the “eternal note of sadness” sounded when the “Sea of Faith” receded from human life. In one testament after another–George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself–the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes–and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and–fatally–by politics.

    God did not exist, they concluded, but there was no denying that this supposed truth was accompanied by a painful sense of being cut off from human fellowship as well as divine love. To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission–like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it–and sympathized not only with atheism’s pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.

    So atheism was good when all we did was lament about how we wish we still believed. But now that we actually take pride in this and aren’t afraid to tell people that we don’t believe, we are the problem.

    BTW, more “Dawkins is teh bad!!!” at Red State Rabble, where an email from a teacher in a Catholic school proves conclusively once and for all that if only Dawkins would shut up, the war for science would be won (ignoring the past 100 years of quiet atheists and eroding science standards and increased fundamentalism).

  3. #3 Steve LaBonne
    January 7, 2007

    The “moderate” and “liberal” religionists are a dying breed and they know it- that’s where the angst is coming from. Their slide into irrelevance has been greatly delayed in the US as compared to Europe, but the chickens are now coming home to roost here as well. The future will offer a stark choice between rationality and obscurantism. And it will be interesting to see which side those in the mushy middle will ultimately choose.

  4. #4 Joshua
    January 7, 2007

    Very well said as usual, PZ. Those who insist that atheism breeds (or, worse, is born of!) wild hatred are again and again proved wrong. You’re absolutely right: if they best they can do is chide us for not reading Aquinas and Lewis and drag out that old “too strident” canard, we’re probably on the right track.

    It is abundantly clear that it is the atheists these days who actually have a positive philosophy, e.g. your brilliant post about breaking down the irrelevant theological barriers that keep churches, already social centers, from expanding to become vibrant centers of secular culture and art that turn away no one and encourage people from across town to come and mingle where their arbitrary labels of Lutheran vs. Baptist vs. Catholic no longer keep them apart but their shared interests and community bring them together. Where’s the supposed hatred and gall of the atheist in that?

    No, we’re increasingly seeing that the best the theists have is “Atheists are mean!” And that’s the best. Occasionally, as in this op-ed, they resort to “Muslims are worse than us, why don’t you pick on them?” Which rather proves our point about why we’d be better off religion.

    Honestly, atheists are the irrationally hateful ones?

  5. #5 Keith Douglas
    January 7, 2007

    I also find it sad and outrageously funny when the list of believers includes Newton (an Arian), Einstein (a metaphorist) and Spinoza (a pantheist almost-materialist). Which leads to my comment about supposed ignorance of theology. I remember reading some story somewhere, maybe these guys have heard it too, about hypocrits and beams and specks in eyes?

    *cough*.

  6. #6 jeffk
    January 7, 2007

    To summarize the article:

    “Can you BELIEVE that there are OUTSPOKEN ATHEISTS? Isn’t that CRAZY?”

    These people need to learn what an “argument” is so they can engage us.

  7. #7 Bobryuu
    January 7, 2007

    Why is it that people think that the best way to convert a body to their Christianity is by denying them their vices?

  8. #8 Damien
    January 7, 2007

    The “first atheists” bit is all wrong, too. First ones: Carvaka and Lokayata in India, 600 BC. Then the almost-atheists of the Epicureans, 300 BC. Not to mention various other doubters, who in turned shaped the religions they doubted. Cf. _Doubt: A History_ by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

  9. #9 Strident Centrist
    January 7, 2007

    PZ, when you get to New York, be sure to pick up a copy of CityInfo/New York, the best visitor guide available. My daughter is the general manager & local editor. :)

  10. #10 Tukla in Iowa
    January 7, 2007

    Gosh, there weren’t any atheists until a century ago, and then we disappeared until a few years ago? I did not know that!

  11. #11 Ken Cope
    January 7, 2007

    After all the good sad people who wished they weren’t atheists died of guilt and shame, all atheists were Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who got what she deserved. For even lazier op-ed journamalists who can’t be bothered to keep up, all atheists would still be Madalyn Murray O’Hair, except that “Richard Dawkins” is easier to spell, and happens to be British, which is almost French.

  12. #12 S. Rivlin
    January 7, 2007

    At last I understand it. Some of the most briliant people throughout history were religious, thus, if you are briliant, you should be, too. And since Einstein was Jewish and among the most briliant, Judaism must trumps Christianity. And the most important conclusion from Schulman’s masterpiece is that there will never be a briliant atheist, since briliance equal religiosity. What bothers me the most is how the Sam Schulmans and the Cal Thomases in our midst have managed to command such an elevated pulpit in the Church of American Journalism.

  13. #13 Skeptyk
    January 7, 2007

    I am despairing of these noble agnostics’ reading comprehension. Why do you need to repeat the same counter arguments over and over? (And I thank you – and so many posters and your daughter and so on – for doing so tirelessly and clearly.)

    No matter how polite, reasonable and precise we are, we will be tarred as rude meanies who have no grasp of the subtleties of theo-philo-fairyosophy.

    As for the charm and skill of H.G. Wells, has Schulman read that horrifying quote from Wells in Dawkins’ TGD? Where Wells so charmingly, as Schulman says, “flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent”, he insisted that brave, bright white men would not flinch to lynch, that it will be an unpleasant but neccesary thing to kill the inferior races.

  14. #14 Stogoe
    January 7, 2007

    *slaps cheek in mock-surprise* Well, gol-lee! Red State Rabble yelling at atheists for existing? Well shucks. I guess I ought ta jes git back in my hole and wait for ma crusts and water, then. That guy is correct about everything..

  15. #15 tomh
    January 7, 2007

    Although the piece itself was pretty silly, I was glad to see Brooke Allen, author of The Moral Minority lumped in with Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. For anyone interested in the subject, this is a great little book on the US Founders anti-religionist beliefs. It details exactly why God was deliberately voted out of the Constitution. An easy read, well researched and accurate.

  16. #16 Alon Levy
    January 7, 2007

    The reasoning Schulman uses to dismiss atheism makes him look like an anarcho-capitalist. Ludwig von Mises was intelligent, and Marx was insanely wrong; therefore, any government regulation of the economy will destroy society.

    Schulman’s argument demonstrates fairly well why taking theology seriously is so nonsensical. When an assumption or argument logically leads to preposterous conclusions, it’s time to abandon it.

  17. #17 Tukla in Iowa
    January 7, 2007

    has Schulman read that horrifying quote from Wells in Dawkins’ TGD?

    I sincerely doubt that Schulman has actually read the book.

    Where Wells…insisted that brave, bright white men would not flinch to lynch

    Wells must have momentarily lapsed into atheism when he said that, then felt bad and turned back into a theist.

  18. #18 Jim in STL
    January 7, 2007

    How could an atheist’s oath of allegiance to the queen be trusted?

    Allegiance to royalty premised on an oath to God? I wonder how that worked out for them?

  19. #19 Tukla in Iowa
    January 7, 2007

    The reasoning Schulman uses to dismiss atheism makes him look like an anarcho-capitalist.

    I suppose that’s why he’s in the WSJ.

  20. #20 S. Rivlin
    January 7, 2007

    [i]Allegiance to royalty premised on an oath to God? I wonder how that worked out for them?[/i]

    Well, it worked for them just as it works for Bush’s cronies today!

  21. #21 Bob O'H
    January 7, 2007

    A word to the wise – these op eds are being to you sent by members of the NAC (Nasty Agnostics Conspiracy). We’ve decided to silence your criticisms of us by trying to raise your blood pressure and give you a stroke.

    Be warned: if this doesn’t work, and you continue in your persecution of us, we will be forced to use appeasement. I can promise you, it won’t be pretty.

    Bob

  22. #22 Carlie
    January 7, 2007

    Yeah, I just couldn’t get past the first sentence about there not being any atheists anywhere until a hundred years ago. Anyone stupid enough to believe that doesn’t deserve my time to read anything else they have to say. And they should be slapped with a copy of the Pali Canon.

  23. #23 Observer
    January 7, 2007

    Nice, PZ. When I read this last night (and the awful Guardian article that someone here posted as well) I thought, I know some people who will read this WSJ opinion piece and go “rah rah!” like they do when they read Ann Coulter. It’s a shallow piece of scatological writing that leaves out so much nuance of atheist thinking (and Dawkins’s thinking as well) and reduces it to soundbites. He sounds so vapid, but it’s a trap – if you say he sounds stupid you confirm his “atheists think they’re smarty-pants intellectual deriders” notion in the minds of equally myopic thinkers. I expect to hear these same lines repeated very soon – the great artists and thinkers line has been trotted out in a zombie fashion already.

    And what’s with this “new atheists” term? There’s nothing “new” here except that the Internet has provided atheists a new forum to congregate and speak out more. And it’s about time.

  24. #24 Millimeter Wave
    January 7, 2007

    PZ,
    I do hope you’re going to send this, or at the very least, some abbreviated excerpt, to the WSJ for publication?

  25. #25 G. Tingey
    January 7, 2007

    I hate to say PZ is dead wrong, but when he says:
    “Most of us do not focus on Muslim religious belief (which I’ll happily agree is just as insane if not more so than Christianity) because we do not live in a Muslim society, and criticism of Islam simply isn’t relevant.”

    No, islam is just as lunatic, and probably even more dangerous than christianity.

    However, this battle over the dangerous militant atheists has also spread to Britain, and an amusing, if long read can be had by perusing the insane ramblings of the christian at the start, followed by just about everyone else (including me) blowing his non-argument away….
    See HERE …
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1984003,00.html

    Enjoy.

  26. #26 G. Tingey
    January 7, 2007

    Oh, and an atheists’ loyaty oath to her gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II?

    No problem.
    You just affirm your loyalty – what else is necessary?
    There are members of at least two, if not all three of our main parties who do this.

    After all, the only time our country was a republic, its’ leader was probably the best christian we’ve ever had in charge – ask the people descended from Irish stock what a good christian Oliver Cromwell was …….

  27. #27 Mondo
    January 7, 2007

    “leaves out so much nuance of atheist thinking”

    I think you are the one falling into the trap of thinking that
    there is anything nuanced at all to be talked about.
    An athiest need not jump through elaborate mental hoops to keep his world view intact.
    A simple “I do not believe in faery tales” suffices. Don’t ever forget the onus is on the faery tale practitioners to provide proof, not athiests.

  28. #28 Jim in STL
    January 7, 2007


    [i]Allegiance to royalty premised on an oath to God? I wonder how that worked out for them?[/i]

    Well, it worked for them just as it works for Bush’s cronies today!

    Posted by: S. Rivlin

    Exactly. A convenient shortcut. But not reliable. Of course, in the olden days it was handy in justifying torture and hanging/burning in the name of God. Again, convenient.

  29. #29 jb
    January 7, 2007

    Truly intelligent people have no need to emotionally assert their intellectual superiority by denigrating the intelligence of others. The very act of doing so makes the emotional assertion entirely dismissible.

  30. #30 Christian Burnham
    January 7, 2007

    Sorry- but I am cleverer than most religionists.

    I don’t want to keep repeating this- but I did win Time’s person of the year award for 2006. No small achievement and quite a surprise for me.

  31. #31 Christian Burnham
    January 7, 2007

    BTW- is there a secret plan that I don’t know about in which Christian is not capitalized- so as to reduce its status?

    That’s OK- I suppose, but you lot better remember to capitalize my first name.

  32. #32 Jim Harrison
    January 7, 2007

    I note that Schulman praises George Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells in passing as “men who flattered their audiences.” A telling detail. Schulman naturally assumes that kissing up to the reader–as opposed to respecting the reader–is obviously a good thing to do.

    Contemporary right-wing rhetoric may promote a variety of ideas but what it mostly does is endlessly butter up its audience. To listen to Limbaugh and the rest, as I used to do on long cross-country road trips, you’d think that a good part of the country was suffering from an acute lack of self esteem. Whatever the folks in the red states think of the pointy-headed intellectuals and other costal elitists, it’s pretty clear what they think of themselves. When atheists or liberal Christians, for that matter, are perceived to be making fun of traditional religion, what afflicts the believers may not be the loss of metaphysical certainties or even spiritual comfort so much as hurt feelings. Militant atheism is experienced as an attack on the self in the case of individuals whose already shaky sense of identity depends upon membership in a church. The problem is psychological and sociological, not philosophical or scientific. What do people in general have to do with philosophy or science, after all?

  33. #33 Unstable Isotope
    January 7, 2007

    I am also happy to see prominent athiests making waves. I think it easier to dismiss a minority group when they are hidden “in the closet.” I believe that a significant plurality if not outright majority of people are probably agnostic. Just look at how many people claim to believe in God vs. how many go to church at least once a month. There’s a big gap there. Most people don’t think about things too much, it’s just easier to go along with the crowd. Now that there’s a new crowd, maybe some won’t be afraid to join it.

  34. #34 Observer
    January 7, 2007

    “leaves out so much nuance of atheist thinking”

    Mondo: I think you are the one falling into the trap of thinking that there is anything nuanced at all to be talked about.
    An athiest need not jump through elaborate mental hoops to keep his world view intact.
    A simple “I do not believe in faery tales” suffices. Don’t ever forget the onus is on the faery tale practitioners to provide proof, not athiests.
    Posted by: Mondo

    Mondo, I agree, but for example, when I read a sentence like this:

    “Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote–both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.”

    …it drives me buggers. It’s now how I think. Dawkins, for instance, has no problem with teaching about religion. I wouldn’t consider, say, Ken Miller a “product of provincial minds.” The socio-political-ritualistic aspects of religion alone are quite powerful. This inflammatory, lumping bs in major publications annoys me. He talks about atheists’ “tone” and then proceeds to be deaf to the tone of his own voice.

  35. #35 Stephen
    January 7, 2007

    “leaves out so much nuance of atheist thinking”

    I think you are the one falling into the trap of thinking that
    there is anything nuanced at all to be talked about.
    An athiest need not jump through elaborate mental hoops to keep his world view intact.
    A simple “I do not believe in faery tales” suffices. Don’t ever forget the onus is on the faery tale practitioners to provide proof, not athiests.

    “need not” I will go along with. But there is plenty of nuance available should you be so inclined. Try ebonmusings for example.

  36. #36 Mena
    January 7, 2007

    The article seems like an example of why Wikipedia shouldn’t be used as the main source for ones research.

  37. #37 MarkP
    January 7, 2007

    And what’s with this “new atheists” term? There’s nothing “new” here except that the Internet has provided atheists a new forum to congregate and speak out more. And it’s about time.

    That’s the difference. Until the internet, believers had us badly outorganized, for exactly the reasons we give for atheism not being a religion: unbelief does not give you much to bond around. Religions are a lot more than just belief in supernatural whatzits. But with the internet, we in the minority can find each other, and bond on ideas. And that’s why we are starting to win: we have more of those. Remember Dover: that would have been a lot different without the internet.

    The real underlying battle here is about tolerance. See, in religious circles, you are taught to be tolerant of other religions, which more or less means doing the doublethink dance of believing they are going to hell for disagreeing with you, but publicly never saying any such thing. Try getting a Christian you know to tell you that a Muslim is wrong about god: not different, not looking at it from another perspective, wrong. They’ll tell you an atheist is wrong, but other believers deserve tolerance.

    Many, if not most, atheists got that way because they tend to look at everything scientifically (in the guess/test/revise broad sense), and in science there is no tolerance. If you are wrong, you are wrong, and not only are you expected to yield to the data and change your mind, you are shunned for complaining about the criticism.

    So to your average Christian, we atheists are worse than even the Muslims, because the Muslims may believe differently, but they never tell the Christians they are wrong, and we nasty atheists do.

  38. #38 bernarda
    January 7, 2007

    I wonder if Schulman and the other WSJ guys and their readers use god and the bible to make their business and investment decisions. Well, apparently Ken Lay did and you see where that led.

    I can just see them, genesis xxx verse xxx says that we should sell Acme corporation short. Or, god spoke to me after church and told me that widgets are going to be the best thing since sliced bread. Or, hey, doesn’t that cloud look like the Acme logo; it must be a sign from god to buy.

  39. #39 Martin Rundkvist
    January 7, 2007

    Welcome to Sweden! Everybody’s an atheist here except for recent immigrants and a few Pentecostal kooks. And it’s no big deal.

  40. #40 Cody
    January 7, 2007

    “We must be effective to inspire such denunciations, and we must be striking deeply to cause so much obvious pain.”

    Teach the controversy!

    Er, sorry. Interestingly enough, when I hear the “X doesn’t appreciate theology” line, I always think about my experiences at Baylor, which happens to be the largest Baptist university in the world.

    You’d figure most of the student protesters would be protesting outside the science buildings for teaching evilution, but (save for one interesting exception) most student protesters I’ve seen have been outside of Tidwell, the bible studies building. A lot of the students are troubled by what they learn in the scriptures class, and the professors (as near as I can tell) do their best to foster these troubling doubts by introducing thorny theological issues the thoughts of which never entered the students’ minds.

    It’s actually quite amusing when I hear the professors ask a difficult question to the class, because I’d always think, “You know, there’s a really simple answer for this…”

  41. #41 Aaron Whitby
    January 7, 2007

    It seems to me that when the Schulman’s of the world, the ones who no doubt brand themselves as moderate, pragmatic, tolerant and reasonable observers, attack atheism in this way they show that they have no interest in religion at all but are rather defending their fundamental political support for obedience to traditional power structures and a passive acceptance of the status quo. To paraphrase- things are the way they are because they’ve always been like this and it’s smarter to think as the majority do, there’s no need for outrage, because if you love god you will be free of doubt and fear and pain, and certainly no use for independent thought as the way to god, and therefore happiness and (ahem) eternal life, is laid out for you in the Good(puke)Book.

  42. #42 Tukla in Iowa
    January 7, 2007

    I learned more about rational thought and philosophical defects in Christianity in my first two years at a Lutheran college than I ever did in 13 years of public school, so I don’t get where all of this “secular education = anti-religion” claptrap comes from.

  43. #43 jack*
    January 7, 2007

    This article fills me with hope. It’s just like the op-eds from earlier times when the powerful lamented the rise of the new organized labor (“Why won’t lower classes tend to their needy themselves like they used to instead of trying to rise above their station?”), or of the new civil rights activists (“Why don’t the new colored leaders defer to powerful whites like the ones we used to try to promote?”), or of the new queers (“We used to like the quiet homos who stayed in the closet and didn’t question their cultural suppression”). Now it’s our turn (“Boo hoo!”). I couldn’t be happier about clowns at the WSJ being made uncomfortable.

  44. #44 Sastra
    January 7, 2007

    So many of these tirades against “militant atheism” seem to position themselves against tone more than substance. I think Mark P has it right when he points out that what really seems to bother many theists is breaking the taboo against telling people they are wrong in their religion. Above all, you’re not supposed to tell people or even suggest that faith itself is a problem. Yet what other area — political, social, economic, philosophical — has this sort of taboo?

    The upshot of the backlash appears to be that atheism is wrong because atheists are RUDE.

  45. #45 Pierce R. Butler
    January 7, 2007

    PZ Myers: … does Mr Schulman think that it is not a subject for humor that many religious people believe the Earth is 6000 years old?

    It’s not a source of humor, it’s a $64.95 market opportunity!

    http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=52588
    … the author of the book frequently described as the greatest history book ever written, said the world was created Oct. 23, 4004 B.C. … In the 1650s, an Anglican bishop named James Ussher published his “Annals of the World,” … The book, now published in English for the first time, is a favorite of homeschoolers and those who take ancient history seriously. It’s the history of the world from the Garden of Eden to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. … It’s a classic history book for those who believe in the Bible – and a compelling challenge for those who don’t. … The entire text has been updated from 17th-century English to present-day vernacular … Cover presented in the style of classic literary works …

  46. #46 Anton Mates
    January 7, 2007

    To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission–like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it–and sympathized not only with atheism’s pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.

    Ah, yes. The author of “The Abolition of Man,” “The Space Trilogy,” and “The Screwtape Letters” is just so sympathetic and tolerant. Sure, he repeatedly writes about how atheist scientists and educators are all hellbound imperialist Satan-worshipping homosexuals who will end up literally stripping humanity of its morality and self-worth unless they’re stopped, but that’s just because he cares so much.

    Seriously, if Dawkins wrote one-tenth as dismissively and offensively about his opposition as Lewis did, someone would have tried to assassinate him by now.

  47. #47 Anton Mates
    January 7, 2007

    I hate to say PZ is dead wrong, but when he says:
    “Most of us do not focus on Muslim religious belief (which I’ll happily agree is just as insane if not more so than Christianity) because we do not live in a Muslim society, and criticism of Islam simply isn’t relevant.”

    No, islam is just as lunatic, and probably even more dangerous than christianity.

    Actually, it looks to me like you and PZ are in agreement there.

  48. #48 Greg Laden
    January 7, 2007

    Steve: The “moderate” and “liberal” religionists are a dying breed and they know it- that’s where the angst is coming from.

    Steve, that is a really good point! Being a “moderate” is getting tricky because you never know when your sect is going to go fundemental on you, or you are going to end up as the proverbial baby getting tossed out with the bathwater, and as you say, you are in the company of diminishing numbers …

    Asking for a redress or reduction in atheistic questioning of the validity of religion itself is exactly the expected reaction. Very nice observation!!!

  49. #49 AndyS
    January 7, 2007

    I don’t see any nuance in atheism. If fact there isn’t much at all to atheism, just a lack of belief in the supernatural. If you want nuance and substance look to humanism and naturalism.

  50. #50 cbutterb
    January 7, 2007

    Schulman seems pretty ignorant about the authors he criticizes. I don’t see how anyone could read Sam Harris and think that the “new atheists” have ignored Islam, nor how anyone could read Dawkins and think that the new atheists have overlooked the fact that Einstein said lots of things about God. I mean, Christ on a stick, but Dawkins spends the whole first chapter of TGD differentiating an Einsteinian awe at the beauty of nature from the superstitious religion he is criticing.

  51. #51 AustinAtheist
    January 7, 2007

    If it’s any consolation, an atheist got some ink in the Austin American Statesman’s faith columns yesterday. That’s right, an atheist in Texas! What a concept.

  52. #52 AustinAtheist
    January 8, 2007

    Well, well, well. Blane Conklin, the atheist I just mentioned, just showed up in the comments. Texas isn’t so big after all.

  53. Unfortunately I’m familiar with the WSJs ludicrous opinion page, including another “bitter rant”, but against our current president.

    I’d consider myself a militant “new atheist”, and I take offence at Schulman’s comment:
    “Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent.”
    Firstly, the authors cited are not 21st, but 19th-20th century (in which case, ignoring a “militant atheist” like Bertrand Russell would be a “sin”), and secondly they ignore people like PZ Myers whom I only started reading recently, driven by curiously reading a reference on Wikipedia stating this was the most read science blog (talk about exciting blogs).

    Nevertheless, I did want to highlight that it’s very different to be a militant atheist in a third world country where vast segments of the population lead lives in poverty and scarcity and hardly have elementary school education…

    A maid who works at a friend’s house recently became a “born again Christian”. She seems happier and as if finally with a purpose in life. The “opiate of the masses” can serve to palliate the difficult life endured by the poor in a way only massive economic redistribution probably could.

    My militant atheism is not directed against those segments of the population, but against those “educated” segments which run Congress and the courts and would ban a “morning after pill” in a country where clandestine abortions are a significant cause of death amongst young women.

    It seems to me that they are whom the “new atheists” target and that is why they fear and attack us so much.

    But to end this long soliloquy, I do disagree with a Bertrand Russell quote that appeared on your random quote generator:
    “Roughly, science is what we know and philosophy is what we don’t know.”

    As Mario Bunge has eloquently argued, science is the best method to attempt to understand that which we do not know. And philosophy’s aim should be to explain and understand what science has demonstrated.

  54. Unfortunately I’m familiar with the WSJs ludicrous opinion page, including another “bitter rant”, but against our current president.

    I’d consider myself a militant “new atheist”, and I take offence at Schulman’s comment:
    “Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent.”
    Firstly, the authors cited are not 21st, but 19th-20th century (in which case, ignoring a “militant atheist” like Bertrand Russell would be a “sin”), and secondly they ignore people like PZ Myers whom I only started reading recently, driven by curiously reading a reference on Wikipedia stating this was the most read science blog (talk about exciting blogs).

    Nevertheless, I did want to highlight that it’s very different to be a militant atheist in a third world country where vast segments of the population lead lives in poverty and scarcity and hardly have elementary school education…

    A maid who works at a friend’s house recently became a “born again Christian”. She seems happier and as if finally with a purpose in life. The “opiate of the masses” can serve to palliate the difficult life endured by the poor in a way only massive economic redistribution probably could.

    My militant atheism is not directed against those segments of the population, but against those “educated” segments which run Congress and the courts and would ban a “morning after pill” in a country where clandestine abortions are a significant cause of death amongst young women.

    It seems to me that they are whom the “new atheists” target and that is why they fear and attack us so much.

    But to end this long soliloquy, I do disagree with a Bertrand Russell quote that appeared on your random quote generator:
    “Roughly, science is what we know and philosophy is what we don’t know.”

    As Mario Bunge has eloquently argued, science is the best method to attempt to understand that which we do not know. And philosophy’s aim should be to explain and understand what science has demonstrated.

  55. #55 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 8, 2007

    with the internet, we in the minority can find each other, and bond on ideas.

    It is important (it has surely helped me to articulate my ideas), and it is also part of the reason for the backlash. It must be unsettling to realize that there are people who consider your worldview a superstition. Informed religious people has known that one can be an atheist and be a good and happy person. Now everyone can see that it may be true, incidentally grasping that the moral argument preached to them could be a lie.

    Yet what other area — political, social, economic, philosophical — has this sort of taboo?

    Disregarding the special pleading of religion (the courtiers response) is robbing it of its foremost weapon. And if the clergy isn’t noble (since some preachers rape your children then they get the chance) and there is nothing that says religion itself is especially noble, its claims must be scrutinized for what they are. And that messes of internal and external contradictions that are most practiced faiths will not fare well.

    is there a secret plan that I don’t know about in which Christian is not capitalized- so as to reduce its status

    Speaking for myself, the english speaking habit of capitalizing words seems odd in some other languages. It doesn’t read or write well for me to capitalize every other word. I prefer to write Planck’s radiation law but planck length, Buddha but buddhism and atheism. So I think of it as not specially elevating religious status.

    Welcome to Sweden! Everybody’s an atheist here except for recent immigrants and a few Pentecostal kooks. And it’s no big deal.

    I’m not sure that is correct. While we have few remaining churchgoing lutherans, 2 – 4 % I believe, IIRC there are 3 – 5 times, 5-10 %, as many left. The number of people engaged in sundry personal faiths have come to be substantial. Quite a few people seems to have a need for it a non-aggravating form.

    But as you say, for good or bad (lack of criticism), it is not a question that interest many. The debate of what television show is best can make a heated argument, but I have never heard someone argue over personal beliefs outside a church.

  56. #56 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 8, 2007

    with the internet, we in the minority can find each other, and bond on ideas.

    It is important (it has surely helped me to articulate my ideas), and it is also part of the reason for the backlash. It must be unsettling to realize that there are people who consider your worldview a superstition. Informed religious people has known that one can be an atheist and be a good and happy person. Now everyone can see that it may be true, incidentally grasping that the moral argument preached to them could be a lie.

    Yet what other area — political, social, economic, philosophical — has this sort of taboo?

    Disregarding the special pleading of religion (the courtiers response) is robbing it of its foremost weapon. And if the clergy isn’t noble (since some preachers rape your children then they get the chance) and there is nothing that says religion itself is especially noble, its claims must be scrutinized for what they are. And that messes of internal and external contradictions that are most practiced faiths will not fare well.

    is there a secret plan that I don’t know about in which Christian is not capitalized- so as to reduce its status

    Speaking for myself, the english speaking habit of capitalizing words seems odd in some other languages. It doesn’t read or write well for me to capitalize every other word. I prefer to write Planck’s radiation law but planck length, Buddha but buddhism and atheism. So I think of it as not specially elevating religious status.

    Welcome to Sweden! Everybody’s an atheist here except for recent immigrants and a few Pentecostal kooks. And it’s no big deal.

    I’m not sure that is correct. While we have few remaining churchgoing lutherans, 2 – 4 % I believe, IIRC there are 3 – 5 times, 5-10 %, as many left. The number of people engaged in sundry personal faiths have come to be substantial. Quite a few people seems to have a need for it a non-aggravating form.

    But as you say, for good or bad (lack of criticism), it is not a question that interest many. The debate of what television show is best can make a heated argument, but I have never heard someone argue over personal beliefs outside a church.

  57. #57 Bob O'H
    January 8, 2007

    Torbjörn – obviously you have Lutheran atheists, Catholic atheists, Orthodox atheists, and presumably a few weird atheist sects like the Laestadians.

    Bob

  58. #58 EM
    January 8, 2007

    I’d like to know what “freshman dormitor[ies]” he’s been watching, because frankly you’d be hardpressed to find any sort of intellectual discussions in such places.

  59. #59 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 8, 2007

    Bob – true, we have even God’s word atheists in large buildings reminding of US church complexes. They claim that when you are sick you have non-sinned, and they are silent in tongues.

  60. #60 Torbjörn Larsson
    January 8, 2007

    Bob – true, we have even God’s word atheists in large buildings reminding of US church complexes. They claim that when you are sick you have non-sinned, and they are silent in tongues.

  61. #61 David Marjanovi?
    January 8, 2007

    The “first atheists” bit is all wrong, too. First ones: Carvaka and Lokayata in India, 600 BC.

    And they weren’t exactly silent either.

    “O Rama, be wise, there is no world except this one, this is certain!”

    I forgot which humongous epic this is from (Mahabharata…?), and it’s an interesting irony that the Rama in question is an incarnation of the god Krishna, but the quote is impressive, isn’t it?

    The lack of deities in (most kinds of) Buddhism also comes from this atheist tradition.

    The “moderate” and “liberal” religionists are a dying breed and they know it- that’s where the angst is coming from.

    This situation is peculiar to the USA, because there, large masses of fundies actually exist. In the First World the religious masses are becoming more and more and more moderate…

  62. #62 David Marjanovi?
    January 8, 2007

    The “first atheists” bit is all wrong, too. First ones: Carvaka and Lokayata in India, 600 BC.

    And they weren’t exactly silent either.

    “O Rama, be wise, there is no world except this one, this is certain!”

    I forgot which humongous epic this is from (Mahabharata…?), and it’s an interesting irony that the Rama in question is an incarnation of the god Krishna, but the quote is impressive, isn’t it?

    The lack of deities in (most kinds of) Buddhism also comes from this atheist tradition.

    The “moderate” and “liberal” religionists are a dying breed and they know it- that’s where the angst is coming from.

    This situation is peculiar to the USA, because there, large masses of fundies actually exist. In the First World the religious masses are becoming more and more and more moderate…

  63. #63 David Marjanovi?
    January 8, 2007

    And philosophy’s aim should be to explain and understand what science has demonstrated.

    IMNSHO most of philosophy consists of completely unjustified extrapolations way beyond what science has demonstrated. There are few exceptions, such as science theory.

    A maid who works at a friend’s house recently became a “born again Christian”. She seems happier and as if finally with a purpose in life.

    There seem to be lots of people who want a “purpose in life”, but I’ve never understood that. Do people really want to have a purpose? As in being a wheel in a machine? As in being a tool? I don’t get it.

  64. #64 David Marjanovi?
    January 8, 2007

    And philosophy’s aim should be to explain and understand what science has demonstrated.

    IMNSHO most of philosophy consists of completely unjustified extrapolations way beyond what science has demonstrated. There are few exceptions, such as science theory.

    A maid who works at a friend’s house recently became a “born again Christian”. She seems happier and as if finally with a purpose in life.

    There seem to be lots of people who want a “purpose in life”, but I’ve never understood that. Do people really want to have a purpose? As in being a wheel in a machine? As in being a tool? I don’t get it.

  65. #65 AC
    January 8, 2007

    There seem to be lots of people who want a “purpose in life”, but I’ve never understood that. Do people really want to have a purpose? As in being a wheel in a machine? As in being a tool? I don’t get it.

    I’d say it’s more of a desire for one’s life, efforts, etc. to not be in vain. We all know that we will ultimately die. What easier way around these problems than to invent a god and believe that it loves you personally, preserves you “in spirit” after death, etc.?

    It’s a lot harder to honestly and fairly win approval from others, build and maintain self-esteem, etc. There is much succor for the lazy in religion.

  66. #66 Evoken
    January 8, 2007

    It is obvious that Christians are getting desperate. They do not like it that people are now free to express their views and point out the problems of their religions in public. And they can’t control the situation.

    Christianity has managed to survive for so long because it had the ability, till not so long ago, to censor opposing viewpoints by force. But now they can’t do that and must actually defend their faith against the coming tide of reason and evidence that is raising against it. They are ill equipped for that, this article is a clear example of such a “defense”.

    Freedom of speech along with the internet and the mass media is what will sink the titanic of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Christianity cannot survive in a free marketplace of ideas.

    The cracks have been opened and the water is flowing in. It is just a matter of time.

  67. #67 Larry Hamelin
    January 16, 2007

    This is the crux of the biscuit:

    I have a different solution. Let’s build a community of atheists who are outspoken and willing to happily announce their skepticism. We could have a few prominent advocates who are successful in their fields and act as great role models.

    This is a good idea, but how? American Atheists hasn’t worked; the attendance at the San Francisco chapter is down to a dozen or so old fogeys (an old fogey myself, I hope I can say this without giving offense).

    There are a gazillion tiny groups out there: JREF, Secular Life, etc.; sometimes I feel like I’m in a Monty Python movie. There’s nothing holding us all together.

    You (so I’m told) and I both have left the Internet Infidels; they don’t appear to want much to be the nucleus of an atheist community.

    The Unitarian Church just packages the same old platitudes and tropes in equivocal language; they’re hardly an active force for rationality and sensibility.

    An atheist community is a great idea. There are a lot of small groups, but no one has succeeded in bridging the differences which seem as trivial as those which divide the religious. Atheism is still taboo even among people who really don’t have any meaningful religious belief.

    Madelyn failed. Bill Shultz failed. But if you think you can succeed, I’ll support you.

  68. #68 Larry M
    February 1, 2007

    Larry Hamelin et al should check out the Brights movement. BTW, Dawkins is a Bright.

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