Mr B and Miz B sat upon their porch, watching the New Atheist parade go by.
It was quite a large parade, chaotic, disorganized, and enthusiastic, more Mardi Gras than Macy’s. There were clowns and jugglers, serious men with bullhorns making serious speeches, small groups chanting anti-clerical slogans, people just out dancing in the streets, and the occasional well-designed float flaunting an anti-religion or pro-science message. They even had a big red steam-powered Noise Machine. Scarlet A’s were waved on banners and flags and t-shirts. Some participants looked angry, most were just happy to be free and participating, but they were all turning out in large numbers. Huge crowds line the streets as well, watching — many were amused, some were confused, and a few looked aghast, shutting their eyes with their hands over their ears, and some waved their Bibles and roared their disapproval of the spectacle. And often, scattered individuals would leave the crowd of spectators and happily join in the parade.
Mr B and Miz B just sat in their rocking chairs, scowling.
“Well, I never,” said Miz B. “So disrespectful! So loud! What ever do they hope to accomplish with this kind of rude display?”
“I don’t know for sure, since I haven’t read any of this New Atheist nonsense myself,” said Mr B, “but I do know this: they’ve got atheism all wrong, and they’ve got religion all wrong. I’m an atheist, too, you know.”
“Oh, I know that, Mr B. But you’re a good atheist, the kind that respects religion, and would never raise this kind of ruckus.”
“Exactly! These rowdy hooligans and their uppity airs, thinking their ideas are all better than thousands of years of serious theological reasoning…they’re just cocky. Mark my words, atheism will never get anywhere with this kind of attitude.”
“Yes, Mr B. Think how much better this parade would be if Christians and atheists were marching arm in arm, affirming their respect for each other, and if only the atheists would stop crowing about how wrong religion is. It’s offensive, that’s what it is. Why do they have to keep picking on people’s beliefs?”
“I quite agree, Miz B. I’ve long espoused a positive atheism that simply ignores religion, and concentrates on its own private values. Why, in my day, atheists would just sit quietly at home, not making a fuss, living in a solitary state of quiet virtue. And it was good. None of this outrageously flamboyant “coming out” foofaraw. And we got things done! We were so much more atheist than these parvenus! We were thoughtful, and we respected theology!”
“How can they hope to discuss faith seriously if they don’t think it is a good thing, Mr B? How can they possibly win over people if they refuse to accept the ground rules set by religion?”
Miz B rocked in her chair a little more rapidly to demonstrate her willingness to work for the cause. In the distance, a cheer rises up from the crowd as four horsemen trot into view.
Mr B shook his fist. “Look at that! I’m an atheist, too, and I have wisdom to dispense! Why are all those people lining the street, when they could come up to our porch and have a quiet conversation with us? We won’t be rude! We won’t mock Christianity or Islam, we won’t challenge dogma at all! We’ll all get along!”
“I know, Mr B. There is no justice in the world. How about if I invite the vicar over for tea? He’s always so pleasant.”
“Fine idea, Miz B. We always get on so well with the vicars. Quite unlike these nasty little New Atheists.”
The parade, of course, keeps on moving along, and seems to be growing — no end is in sight.
I have been reading the latest sorrowful cluckings from Madeline Bunting and Julian Baggini, I’m afraid, and the image that keeps coming to mind is of two old prunes reassuring each other that their wizened ways are the only path to reason, all the while they sit alone, ignored. It would be amusing if it weren’t also a bit sad and pathetic.
Bunting, as usual, is shrilly defensive — she’s the kind who will, on one hand, claim to be defending Darwin by shielding him from ungodly atheists, while also quoting creationists approvingly. She’s no friend of reason or science, but only pretends to be so as a rhetorical tool to defend her real sacred cow: faith. She’s a bit deranged in that regard.
Baggini, though, is a more interesting case. He really is a serious atheist philosopher, and I think some of his ideas have merit, which makes it a particular shame that he has gone down this crazy road of finding common cause with a cuckoo like Bunting. In particular, my estimation of the fellow plummeted on reading his blanket dismissal of the New Atheism as “destructive”, in which the first thing he admits is that he has read none of the popular works of the movement!
The way he justifies this is to argue that he can judge on the basis of the New Atheism’s effects, which he claims bring atheists like him into disrepute. That is a remarkably insular sort of claim: does he truly believe that before Harris and Dawkins and Dennett and Hitchens wrote their books, we lived in a magical world where atheists were beloved scholars, respected by all, and that serious theologians were dealing only in reason and logic?
He’s entirely wrong. What the New Atheism has brought is more openness, and a surprising amount of atheist pride. Yes, it means we’re louder (Bunting talks of “foghorn voices” as if it were a bad thing), that we have a more diverse body of infidels that has to include many with whom we as individuals may disagree, and it gets more media attention and more popular enthusiasm. Rather than making me feel like I’ve drawn the enmity of the people, I think it’s great, and gives me real hope for the future—we are building a lively community of the godless that’s a bit less bloodless and doesn’t always smell of mothballs.
And guess what? Nothing in the New Atheist movement will prevent Julian Baggini from inviting the vicar over for afternoon tea in his quiet little house. Go ahead, Mr B. Nothing is stopping you from pursuing your goals.