New Atheism's Critics Need to Suck it Up

Continuing with the process of getting caught up on things I should have blogged about a while ago, let's take a look at this bizarre article from Bryan Appleyard, published in The Guardian. It is a contribution to a familiar genre, in which the New Atheists are criticized for being so mean and nasty:

Two atheists - John Gray and Alain de Botton - and two agnostics - Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I - meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.

We could stop here, of course, confident that we will miss out on nothing for having skipped the rest of the article. Nothing that starts like that could possibly have any point worth taking seriously. For example, I assume I don't have to respond to the suggestion that a group of people composed primarily of scientists and philosophers is going to be uncomfortable with mathematics. And it's strictly amateur hour to contrast the genial dinner conversation between you and your friends with the cultish behavior of your critics.

That notwithstanding, let's sample some of this horrible, cult-like abuse Appleyard and co. have suffered:

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists' temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.” Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”

De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality. “To say something along the lines of 'I'm an atheist; I think religions are not all bad' has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?”

Are you crying yet? Anyone saying anything interesting on these sorts of topics can look forward to receiving nasty e-mails. I get them all the time, but I don't go rushing into print to whine about it. It is disappointing that atheists have their crazies no less than the religious fundamentalists, but it is the lowest level of cultural criticism to pretend that a few angry e-mailers represent the center of gravity of any popular movement.

That is a sideshow. The real action is that quote he presents from P. Z. Myers. You see, to someone as delicate as Appleyard, being criticized on a blog is tantamount to being on the wrong end of a fatwa. It is tyrannical. It relegates the critics to the status of a cult. And while de Botton might be mystified that some of us think the idea of an atheist temple is deeply silly, the sequence of events here is not really all that complicated. De Botton, in the course of promoting a book, presented certain ideas. Certain bloggers were unimpressed by those ideas and criticized them, sometimes using strong language. De Botton and some of his friends then got together at a Greek restaurant in London, whined about how put upon they were, and decided the less than enthusiastic reception of their ideas was indicative of a great sickness in society.

What a bunch of pussies.

Appleyard's article is fairly long. It is also so deluded that it is difficult even to find an entry point for correction. It hails from a familiar genre, in which grandiose, and mostly false, assertions are made regarding the beliefs of the New Atheists. For example:

Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist - indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” - and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.

I'm sure we're all grateful for the deifnitional lecture, but there's a reason Appleyard does not quote anyone prominent equating secularism and atheism. For what I assume are obvious reasons, atheists sometimes feel the importance of protecting secularism more urgently than do members of religious communities. But I am not aware of anyone prominent who equates the two. For example, since Appleyard singles out P. Z. Myers for special disapprobation, let me call your attention to this article, in which Myers wrote this:

If there were but one message I wanted to communicate, though, it would be that secularism is a progressive value; it is something we should be promoting as a core part of our identity, and an absolutely essential property of good government. Secularism does not in any way imply atheism or agnosticism, nor is unbelief a prerequisite for favoring a government that is completely independent of sectarian religion.

See what I mean about Appleyard making stuff up?

It only gets worse as it goes along:

It was in the midst of this that Fodor and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published What Darwin Got Wrong, a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought which concluded that the theory of natural selection could not be stated coherently. All hell broke loose. Such was the abuse that Fodor vowed never to read a blog again. Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading the book but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.

Fodor now chuckles at the memory. “I said we should write back saying we had no intention of reading his review but we thought it was all wrong anyway.”

What a bizarre paragraph! The condemnation of What Darwin Got Wrong among knowledgeable reviewers was so comprehensive that it amounts to simple lying to pretend the criticism was limited to a small cadre of militant atheists. Indeed, I cannot recall another science book (excluding obvious counterexamples, like books written by creationists) that was so thoroughly panned in every major science venue. Far from being seen as a sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought, just about every biologist and philosopher who reviewed it saw it as badly misinformed and ultimately without any substance. Perhaps all those critics were wrong, but for our present purposes what matters is that very few of them were among the New Atheists.

As for Myers trashing a book he never read, it should come as no surprise that Appleyard failed to provide a link. He probably means this post, but that can't be right, because aside from a brief mention at the start Myers does not discuss the book at all. He was actually discussing an article written by Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini that appeared in New Scientist, an article in which they presented the book's major argument. In Appleyard's world it is tyranny to say, “For the reasons I just discussed at great length, I found this magazine article to be so bad that I am not going to read the book on which it was based.” Here on Planet Earth that is called making sensible use of your time.

Appleyard and his cohort remind me of so many creationists I have met. When preaching to their choir they affect an air of toughness, and of standing firm in the service of truth and light and goodness. But upon receiving even the slightest criticism they curl into a fetal position and blubber about how abused they are. A few snide blog posts are enough to get them talking about fatwas and tyranny and a mob mentality. The New Atheists are lucky to have such incompetent critics.

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So says NPR: Last month, atheists marked Blasphemy Day at gatherings around the world, and celebrated the freedom to denigrate and insult religion. Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And in Washington, D.C., an art exhibit opened that shows,…
Kevin Myers is some wackalooney Irish commentator who, as far as I know and as fervently as I hope, is no recent relation to this Myers — the only thing I can commend him on is that he manages to spell his last name correctly. Oh, we do have one other thing in common: we're both atheists. He's an…
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Great stuff, and always good for a chuckle. Thanks Jason, can you please post a bit more often?

You'd think they'd be able to find something beyond trashing other voices as a sign of cultish behaviour. Does the trashing of the new atheists mean that there's a cult of old atheism?

I read the article too. Pathetic is the only word to describe it.

I find the crypto-theists, or as I call them Christian atheists, all the same...they are all Platonists and moral realists and have to qualify their purile atheism with 'but of course I'm not a moral relativist or nihilist.' Which somehow absolves them of the sin of atheism and makes them a 'good' person like the theists.

They are the sort of people who think that there are other non-scientific ways of knowing like 'moral facts exists and intuition tells me what a moral fact is' or '2+2=4' so there exists non-scientific truths.

They just don't want to take science seriously.

The other question is why does the editor of Arts and Letters Daily have such a bone to pick on this topic? I read the tripe sandwich you refer to a few days ago because it was on ALD. Indeed, any given day, ALD with serve up something such as this article, and if it involves de Botton, so much the better. I'm waiting for the site to find the blog of a certain self-professed thought criminal so they can inflict the wider world with that blithering nonsense.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 09 Mar 2012 #permalink

Dear fatheists: people on the internet can be nasty. Welcome to 1992.

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that. tas branded

By john andrea (not verified) on 09 Mar 2012 #permalink

Appleyard also lauds Rupert Sheldrake just because Dawkins doesn't.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 09 Mar 2012 #permalink

'This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head.'

Atheists can learn a lot from religion.

We can't even do a proper fatwa. There haven't even been any death threats. No wonder Appleyard is rolling his eyes at the inability of New Atheists to learn from religion.

I mean, come on guys. Fatwa's aren't hard to do. Look and learn from the experts.

If New Atheism is going to learn from religion, then at least learn how to do a basic no-frills fatwa.

New Atheists just can't seem to get the hang of this 'militancy' thing. No wonder they are not as respected as a religion would be.

By Steven Carr (not verified) on 09 Mar 2012 #permalink

'âI am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,â wrote Myers

PZ rolled his eyes!

You have to remember that in British society, rolling your eyes is considered a great insult, the way throwing a shoe at somebody is a great insult in other societies.

PZ can be a real bastard sometimes. Appleyard expected many things from militant New Atheists, but even he never dreamed that they would roll their eyes.

By Steven Carr (not verified) on 09 Mar 2012 #permalink

First time reader, thanks for this, great read.

"The New Atheists are lucky to have such incompetent critics." Ouch!

And how true. We can't even hope for an afterlife where we are burned at the stakes to finally provide some heat for the critics.

I demand better criticism! Whatever happened to the Enlightenment, to provide such boneheads for intellectuals that they can't formulate a cogent model of what and who they criticize?

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 10 Mar 2012 #permalink

Over the years i have developed some heuristics to help me decide whether a web site was being run by a fundamentalist or cult group

the most useful rule (though i admit not always an absolute identifier) is whether or not:

1. comments are allowed on posts or pages
2. comments are moderated so that only supporting views are published or survive

i guess that if you are advocating or defending balderdash you'd not want to be swamped by those with dissenting views that they can be backed up with not only a lot of attacking comments but a whole fields of science and public opinion

it's not an absolute as i admitted above - there are indeed a few wacko religious sites that do allow comments and don't delete comments unless they are downright rude or are flaming

however, as a rule for identifying if those running a site are fundamentalists (of any ilk including religious, political) it has worked for me - if you post a dissenting comment and your comment gets deleted and worse, if you are from that point banned form posting, you are probably dealing with a fundamentalist group

with that as a working rule of thumb it means that some "atheist" sites like are fundamentalist sites

the only difference is in what is believed

lucky for me that i'm open minded enough to realize that such sites need such defensive measures to survive

after all, surviving on their message alone might be too risky eh


I think in the UK there's always going to be this kind of attitude to towards New Atheism simply because atheists in the UK have a completely different experience than those in the US. In the UK there is pretty much zero discrimination of atheists, something like the Jessica Ahlquist situation is unthinkable.

Also fundamentalist Christianity is barely anything more than the butt of a joke to most people apart from the ocasional situation such as at the moment as the government prepares to institute full gay marriage. While there is a loud and vocal opposition campaign forming I don't think there's any doubt in anyones mind it will be completely unsuccessful.

Consequently you get a lot of "I just think Richard Dawkins is being rude to religious people what have they done to him?" etc.

Chris H @ 14: I forgot that the UK doesn't have faith schools, people arguing that it's always wrong to criticize sexism or other bigotry and discrimination if those practices are identified as "religious," an explicit religious test for the head of state, or religious leaders who are members of Parliament because they are religious leaders.

I'm not saying there's no problem with religion in the UK but it's obviously nowhere near as bad as the US.

Things like the existence of faith schools (rather than the practice of some of them), the religious aspect of the monarchy and bishops in the house of Lords aren't obviously something that would make people hostile towards religion as a concept or the beliefs of religious people. And when I say obviously I mean in the perception of most people who aren't going to pay a massive amount of attention to the issue.

"The New Atheists are lucky to have such incompetent critics."

Are we? I think it's better, for everyone, to have competent critics. In this sense, the creationists / religionists have all the luck in the world.

As with the poster above, I also demand better criticism!

âFor the reasons I just discussed at great length, I found this magazine article to be so bad that I am not going to read the book on which it was based.â Here on Planet Earth that is called making sensible use of your time.

And here in the DC area, it's called intelligence analysis.

Rus Bowden wrote:

Uhm, Jason. Go back to mathematics. Forget about these atheistic arguments. You are outclassed.

Not by Bryan Appleyard, he ain't.

The Peak Oil Poet wrote:

with that as a working rule of thumb it means that some "atheist" sites like are fundamentalist sites

RDNet does this? I did not know. I've never had cause to post there, and I haven't even looked at the place in years, but I still find it surprising.

By Valhar2000 (not verified) on 12 Mar 2012 #permalink

Rus Bowden:

Go back to mathematics.

Are you new here? Jason's blog has never been exclusively or even primarily about math.

This is to those who question my comment, so Jason will be spoken of as the third person. But let me first note that no, I am not new here. I have been on this planet for some time now . . . or did you mean that this is a private club of some sort, and so I might be some sort of new guy?

The article by Jason is written as an insult, with no arguments to back it up. It is therefore cultish, in that it is meant to appeal to those others who themselves would like to find areas and ways to insult. An Appleyard paragraph or two is cited, followed by a negative emotional statement, emotions that maybe other bloggers here share. Nothing is gained by any of this, except that those who aren;t new here get to have a bashing party.

Point two: as a mathematician, Jason will get no respect from the biologists who feels they are the ones who know this evolution business, that they are Darwin's bishops. Part of the power motivation behind Myers' and Dawkins' writings are to get themselves a place in the history of ideas, an evolutionistic immortality of sorts.

But more importantly, Jason advertises that he got his PhD from Dartmouth, and so at all times he represents that fine school, and an amazingly fine school it is, possibly the best in the world. Where's the math? What can he add to scientism that will knock our socks of in this discussion? Because there's no trace of anything in the above article. If for nothing else than school pride, he should not be writing insulting blogs, but using his acumen, learning, and background to bring ideas to the fore. Reading this, it is like he quit on himself and is forsaking his good background.


I have been on this planet for some time now . . . or did you mean that this is a private club of some sort, and so I might be some sort of new guy?

I think what was meant by, 'are you new here', is have you read Jason much in the past? He's not under any obligation to regurgitate every argument he's had for years now about this topic when you can just search his archives if you don't think his arguments here are adequate. I'd be more interested in your claim that he is 'outclassed', which, like you falsely accused Jason of, you provided 'with no arguments to back it up'. There might be an interesting conversation there if you could offer some detail about what you mean, but to me your post @21 is an irrelevant tangent, especially since it can be refuted with what should be painfully obvious: Jason can write about any subject he wants to on his own blog.

What's sad is that this is an example of the best that Rus Bowden is capable of writing. Similarly with Mr. Appleyard.

They've aimed for mediocrity and clearly been unable to reach the mark.

The difference, the reason why my explanation above and also Bryan's article in the first place are better written is they do not stoop to vomit metaphors nor insulting. Now, the urge to insult is what makes up Jason's article. But notice how Xuuths starts with "What's sad" and does nothing but insult. In circles outside this little petri dish of a blog, these are not arguments.

I directed my attention to this particular poorly article by Jason. I don't have to know every test he ever took, every essay he ever wrote, nor theses he ever developed on the way to his PhD in mathematics, in order to comment here on this blog of his.

rus bowden wrote:
I don't have to know ...

How about providing a shred of evidence to rebut any of Jason's arguments? For instance, Appleyard claimed that Fodor's book was "a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought..." Jason pointed out that virtually every biologist and philosopher who reviewed the book not only disagreed, but thought the book was uninformed and amateurish. Can you rebut that - cite a few favorable reviews, perhaps? (Preferably not creationist web sites.) Because I read almost all the reviews and Jason is absolutely right

Appleyard also claimed that PZ Myers spent 3000 words trashing a book he hadn't read so Jason pointed out that Myers wasn't reviewing the book at all, but an article that contained the book's major argumnet. Can you rebut that?

Your posts are totally content free, with nothing to say about the arguments in the original post. You simply complain about the tone of the post. Why bother?


I already pointed out how poorly the article above is written. The method is to take a section of Bryan's article, and follow it up with insults. That is nothing that cannot be done when any one of us is drunk.

You cannot now redeem Jason's blog by wishing it were written cogently or pretending so, and then asking me to then respond to a cogent point. And let's face it, Myers' response to Bryan's article was flatulent (…). At this point, citing another drunken writer does not help Jason's cause.

My point is clear and stands. Saying that it is not will not make it so. Saying how smart Jason is or has been in the past does not redeem this blog. Saying how others agree with him is no argument at this point. Indeed, it is not Myers who agrees with Jason, but quote the reverse. Politically, Jason is a follower of Myers, not reverse, nor are they peers in scientism. Jason does not have the biological credentials of a bishop in the cult.

Or, in other words:

rus: "No, I can't".

"I forgot that the UK doesn't have faith schools"

And you forgot to say why you say that.

"people arguing that it's always wrong to criticize sexism or other bigotry and discrimination if those practices are identified as "religious,""

Or indeed that.

"an explicit religious test for the head of state"

Or that.

"or religious leaders who are members of Parliament because they are religious leaders."

Or that.

Because you're an idiot.

Please study the culture before you spout off a load of crap next time.

Thanking you in advance.

A UK resident.

You guys want me to come in here as a newbie. You want to sit me down in a chair with a hot bright light in my face, so that you can interrogate me and fill me with the analysis and reasons why you have all become mixed up and set.

I look at what Bryan did for what it is worth. He injected new ideas into the argument. That is being rejected, not with cogent argument but by insult.

The commenters here have become like cement, mixed up and set. Your analysis is only in service to your set beliefs. What Bryan did was magnificent rhetorically, to bring in those who would disagree and disagree with you, and show them in a new light.

It's so political. It's like the presidential campaigns lately. No one even has to argue, as everyone knows when to call someone an idiot. Like it or not, this is how Obama won, with creative rhetoric. The worse thing opponents could do is try to win this election by calling him an idiot who is farting. They may think they are winning the argument, but they will belonging miserably.

And it's not that I don't think that Jason and some of you may be capable of more. It's just that you are in a rut. Like it or not, that rut comes across to anyone on the outside as being cultish and protectionist.

"You guys want me to come in here as a newbie."


You come in here as a noob trolling away.

But you're in trouble because you NEED to be persecuted. You're being DENIED your martyrdom. Therefore you see persecution everywhere.

Tell it to someone who cares.

You are just a lunatic with delusions. Accept it and either give it up or sit with the rest of the deluded, backslapping each other. Truly we don't care.

Hmmm . . . rus bowden wrote @24

I directed my attention to this particular poorly article by Jason.

and then @26

I already pointed out how poorly the article above is written.

I submit this as evidence of Dunning-Kruger. (rus bowden, that means you have demonstrated by your own poor writing skills that you are not qualified to judge the writing skills of someone else. Yet, you still operate under the delusion that you are qualified to do so.)

rus bowden wrote:

I already pointed out how poorly the article above is written.

So what? Who cares how it was written? Arguments are what matter and you haven't answered a single one.

" I already pointed out how poorly the article above is written.

So what? Who cares how it was written?"

Plus: So What?

You may have pointed it out, but you've not said how you arrived at that conclusion nor proven this sufficient with all contrary evidence to still arrive at that conclusion.

We have pointed out you're an idiot. This, however, will not be accepted by you until we prove it.

I am not here to be a martyr, nor have I become one. Nor am I an idiot.And I am not here to make anyone else's point. I am not here to support you all in your group rut.

You people cannot make a statement without being insulting. That gets you nowhere. And it shows you are stuck and narrow.

My main appeal is to Jason, though, to urge him not to bring himself down any further, but remember where he comes from, and make Dartmouth, his family, and ultimately himself proud. Just stop focusing on scientism. It gets him nowhere, and other than the group here that comes to his defense with more insults, it garners no respect. I believe he knows what I am talking about. He is better than this blog post, or used to be better.

Its odd the insults seem to come from the one complaining (methinks too much).
And if one says "scientism" often enough, maybe it will become real, like my sky buddy.
Quack Quack

Hmm. Dogwhistle alert. Rus is AMC?

Same persecution complex, same avoidance techniques, same anti-"scientism" jihad.

"I am not here to be a martyr, nor have I become one."

We know. And it's driving you nuts. You're being DENIED your martyrdom. Seems your grasp of english is as bad as AMC's.

I am not here to support you all in your group rut.

"You people cannot make a statement without being insulting." compare and contrast: "I am not here to support you all in your group rut." And "It is therefore cultish"

Lunatic fundie. Gotta be AMC.

This entire group gets rid of people who disagree with you, just by the tediousness of your insults. I don't want to post here any longer, just for the tediousness and inanity of your insults. And there is no one commenting here who does anything else.

You've all found each other, and you keep everyone else out. There is a real sense that commenters here believe the insults are winning arguments--if they make people go away. You have convinced yourselves and each other that people leaving means you believe you have had the better argument---part of the reason why it matters so much if someone commenting here is "new". But I am leaving because there is no good discussion to be had here, and how tedious the bad discussion is, just like many must have before me.

It's also true that university mathematics courses get rid of people who disagree about the total of 1+1 being other than 2. You need to prove that your disagreement is based in any form of reality.

And you found us.


You've all found each other, and you keep everyone else out.

Well you're OBVIOUSLY new here. There's plenty of theists who keep coming back to try to pick apart Jason's arguments on the subject of atheism (which go back a ways; maybe you should try to catch up?). They don't seem to worry too much about insults; some of them give back as good as they get.

There is a real sense that commenters here believe the insults are winning arguments--if they make people go away.

No, the insults are irrelevant. You can just ignore them. Pay attention to the actual arguments/. tomh even boiled the article down into the fundamental arguments Jason made as to why he thinks Appleyard & co. are overreacting to criticism.

On the other hand, you haven't made a single argument. You just keep saying "You people are a cult" which is itself an insult, not an argument. So in other words, you're ignoring the arguments made by Jason and responding to them with insults and NO arguments. To put it yet another way, you're being a hypocrite.

Or, to make it clear why you're getting a less-than-friendly reception here, let me give you a taste of what your first comment in this thread would have been like aimed at you:

"Hey Rus, your blog totally sucks. Don't quit your day job." Not very nice, is it? Maybe even a little...INSULTING?!

I'm actually a little ashamed you're from Lowell, you're giving my birthplace a bad (or, more accurately, worse) name.

I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post's to be exactly what I'm looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content available for you? I wouldn't mind composing a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write about here. Again, awesome blog!

By replica oakleys (not verified) on 05 Aug 2012 #permalink