Can we at least demand “Secular Communion”?

Here's another provocative article from the New Humanist titled "Holy Communion", a critique of two of the "New Atheists". It has an incredibly offensive illustration to go with it, but the article isn't quite that bad. It's not that good, either.

First, I have to confess: I'm not a humanist. I'm just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I'm not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid. Still, I sympathize with the aims of secular humanism and I'm willing to work alongside them, just as I'm willing to work with reasonable Christians and Muslims — I'm just not ever going to be one of them, and I'm not going to hold fire and abstain from criticizing them.

And this article has much to criticize. It begins with an explanation that the New Atheism isn't new and has been around for centuries, something we'd all agree on — I've never been keen on the term myself. I think it traces back to a Gary Wolf article in Wired that labeled Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett as the leaders of this movement, an article I didn't care for. Richard Norman in the New Humanist puts a new twist on it, though: it's the same old atheism and "we need to beware of fighting old battles in a world which has moved on". It has? Maybe from the perspective of Europe it has, but here in America, the world has moved backwards.

Further evidence of a skewed perspective comes in the next paragraph: "What kick-started the New Atheism was, of course, the attack on the Twin Towers." Complete nonsense, especially after we've just been told that the New Atheism traces its heritage back to the 18th century. We proponents of atheism have our roots in ideas established well before 9/11; I don't know anyone who was confronted by a terrorist attack and decided now was the time to make an intellectual break from prior religious traditions. And the only "of course" is the events that happened afterwards: an electorate that consoled itself with religious platitudes and rushed to favor any pious politician willing to wallop a bible. The "New Atheism" did not arise out of revulsion to Islamic extremism, but as a counter to growing public irrationality. The reason it has taken off to such a degree in America is because this is where that irrationality has been most firmly rooted and so prominently displayed. Remember, this is the country where Pat Robertson was considered a viable presidential candidate…in 1988. If you want to find the source that kick-started the New Atheism, you're going to have to look well before 2001.

The article then tries to identify a second development that triggered the atheist surge, and pins it on creationism. That's a little closer to the mark. Again, this is old stuff; there has been no sudden resurgence of creationism in the US, merely a long series of flare-ups that have been plaguing the country since the Scopes trial, exacerbated by the reluctance of proponents of science to tangle with the root cause, religion. I entered middle school at the time of Epperson v. Arkansas, I entered grad school to the tune of McLean v. Arkansas, I got to follow Ewards v. Aguillard while finishing up my thesis. Isn't it about time we got mad at this incessant idiocy from the ignorant religious apologists of our country?

Norman finally gets around to expressing his complaint against the New Atheists: they over-generalize. They damn religion without considering the breadth of religious experience, ignoring the fact that there are virtues to religion, or that certain religious beliefs may not be subject to their peculiar disdain. He singles out Hitchens and Dawkins, but I'll narrow it further to just Dawkins; Norman finds these quotes objectionable.

I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that, but it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children ... that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

I don't think Norman would like me at all, because I find both quotes too moderate. I'm not worried that moderate religion might lead to extremism, I find moderate religion itself to be too credulous, too lacking in intellectual rigor, too obeisant to the dull, dumb stupidity of "faith" to be an institution we should encourage. Even if it could be shown that being a calm Methodist can't ever lead to becoming a bomb-throwing radical (and I wouldn't be at all surprised if many religions were shown to be more soporific than inflammatory), it doesn't mean we should excuse these mainstream, temperate religions from criticism. Norman has been led seriously astray by his premise that the New Atheists are fired up against Islamic terrorism — personally, I'm fired up by the fact that religions have been spending millennia hammering the brains of thinking human beings into a dopey stupefaction like that of domesticated sheep.

Norman's rebuttal is to equivocate about the meaning of "faith". Reach deep into the reservoir of the dictionary, plumb the ambiguities of the English language, and sure, you can pretend that holding a religious belief is equivalent to accepting evolutionary theory. You just have to ignore the reliance on evidence and reason, and the willingness to revise ideas on the basis of new evidence, that is the hallmark of the provisional, critical acceptance of a science — a set of values that are absent in religion. The scientific view is not that one must accept the truth of evolution to be a scientist — it's that one has to follow the evidence whereever it may lead, to whatever conclusion best fits reality. We do not accept evolution because we personally enjoy the notion that we are the lucky products of undirected chance in an uncaring universe, but because that somewhat chilling answer is where the facts lead us.

Norman rebuts Hitchens by arguing against what he calls the "headcount argument", that familiar line where proponents of one side or another tally up the number of historical fatalities or atrocities perpetrated by the other side, and declares victory on the basis of the other's propensity for murder. I agree entirely with Norman on this: it's a bad argument. Human beings have always done the full measure of both good and evil, and we can't blame it simplistically on their religious beliefs, especially since for the bulk of human history every one was religious to some degree. I am confident that if we could magically erase all religion from the Middle East, for example, and turn every Muslim, Jew, and Christian in that region to a rational atheist, they'd still be killing each other. We'd remove some particularly silly obstacles to reconciliation (who'd care about the religious significance of the Dome of the Rock any more?), but there'd still be plenty of historical and political and economic and social causes for war. Religion is a pretext that sharpens boundaries, nothing more.

But this does not excuse religion. I mean, science is a method that promises to improve our understanding of the natural world, and is constantly producing results: deeper knowledge of basic mechanisms, and material outcomes that create iPods and spaceships and microwave ovens and vaccines. It works, and it demonstrates its success within the terms of its domain. Religion claims to be a method that maps the human heart, that produces stability and contentment and soul-fulfilling reverence, and leads to immortality in an afterlife where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. It fails in its own terms. None of what it promises can be demonstrated, and the plethora of different religions all make different and often contradictory promises. It certainly doesn't seem to be promoting peace, love, and understanding, and those conflicting claims are often barriers to reconciliation.

I don't condemn religion because it causes extremism or evil actions. I condemn it because it is so bloodily and thrice-damned ineffectual at doing what it claims to do. Religion is an incompetent guiding philosophy, unifying principle, source of solace and wisdom, whatever screwy virtue you want to imagine it represents. All it seems to excel at is driving people to make excuses for its failures.

Norman concludes in a strange, and I think conflicted, way, asking everyone to put aside their differences on religion to work together. Besides being insipid, I disagree.

We have problems enough in the world. The threats of climate change, global poverty, war and repression and intolerance can never be countered unless we are prepared to work together on the basis of a shared humanity. Simplistic generalisations about religion don't help. In Dawkins's terminology, that means working with the "moderates" to counter the "extremists", but it's actually more complicated than that. Some of our allies against creationism may be deeply prejudiced against gays. Some of the best people working to combat global poverty may be Catholic anti-abortionists. Some of the Muslim allies we need to counter Islamist violence may have deeply sexist attitudes to women. It all demonstrates what a deeply contradictory phenomenon religion is. But we know that. And if religion is so contradictory, that's probably because human beings are a deeply contradictory species.

Here's a better idea: work together on common causes without silencing our disagreements. Norman even points out that Dawkins joined with the Bishop of Oxford to protest the promulgation of faith-based schools in Britain — does anyone think for an instant that that means Dawkins suddenly found transubstantiation to be a reasonable hypothesis? Of course not. I've seen Norman's line of reasoning a lot, and it makes this false presupposition that the atheists are incapable of working together with their fellow human beings because they also find fault with their flawed religious beliefs. We can do both! Watch us — where we find common goals, we will work together without a pang of regret; and where we disagree, we will forcefully argue. That's the way our world works. Get used to it.

It's a useful attitude to take. Unlike Mr Norman, we can work with someone against creationism without feeling compelled to avoid confronting their anti-gay bigotry. We can join with someone to combat Islamic extremism without overlooking moderate Islamic sexism. Perhaps Norman didn't intend this, but I read his conclusion and see a set of excuses for ignoring injustices; if I were a woman, for instance, I'd be bothered that he's saying we have to prioritize and fight intolerance, among other things, yet one of the things he's saying we ought be willing to set aside is disagreement over how Islam treats women. This is not how I want to face the problems of the world, with a selective filter that allows me to minimize issues as long as they are defended by the pretext that an imaginary man in the sky says it must be so.

Right now, I'm in Washington D.C. to work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I am completely behind their goals, and think they are an eminently commendable organization. Yet many of the people in this organization (including the head!) are religious to varying degrees! Does this mean I must moderate my contempt for religion? Hell, no. If the Rev. Barry Lynn asks me what I think about his religion, don't expect me to get all mealy-mouthed. But we're here for a different job, one where atheists and believers can agree, and I don't expect a battle over that irrelevant issue. That's how we work together.

At the same time that I can cooperate with AU, I can still urge everyone to throw off the shackles of their superstition, however. And I will, as will Dawkins, and Hitchens, and Harris, and the growing polity of outspoken atheists. I can also hope that many of the self-identifying Humanists will found common cause with us on that.

More like this

Our Octopus Overlord said:

Maybe from the perspective of Europe it has, but here in America, the world has moved backwards.

I linked an article a number of thread back. It, short form, said that in our parents generation, 5% of youth were atheists. This remained constant (basically converts cancelled each other out) over time. In our generation, the number is about 11%. In our children's generation, the number is 17%. These are, like our parents, expected to remain relatively constant as our respective populations age.

So, when you say that, I think it's not quite right.

What I think is that you're noticing the bellowing and ranting of the wounded, dying animal that is religion's power to influence. Sure, it's dying slowly. But it's clearly dying. And the animal knows it. So it strikes out, with it's full fury and might, at what it hates in order to give it a false sense of continuation and relevance.

Yet it's clearly not winning. More and more people are becoming irreligious. More and more people are drifting away from the so-called morality of religion and finding a new, more humane morality where humans are treated with worth and respect, REGARDLESS of their underlying attributes.

And so it goes.

Though there's no way to settle this, really, I'd say that 9/11 probably *did* "kickstart" the New Atheism (as a publishing phenom), in that it primed the publishing world to be amenable to the spate of new books. But of course there are other reasons, but 9/11 was one big jolt that was entangled with religious fervor.

I'm sometimes tempted to call myself a small-h humanist, because my own atheism is more rooted in the arts and humanities than in science (not that science isn't extremely cool). But then I find that capital-H Humanists can be absolutely insufferable twits.

Sometimes it seems like organized Humanism is just a particularly doctrinaire and extremist form of Unitarianism.

"Maybe from the perspective of Europe it has, but here in America, the world has moved backwards."

That caught my eye, too. From a purely statistical perspective I think Moses #1, is right. But that's not all there is to it. There really does seem to be an increasing trend for electing our leaders, not because they are the most competent, but because they're good hearted and believe in Jesus. The results have been disastrous.

I don't think we've yet seen the full ramifications of this.

By RamblinDude (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

If any change raised the profile of atheism it was the very public attempt, partially successful, of the religious right to exert exclusive control over American politics. That effort found its roots in the fervid anti-communism of Joe McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, the John Birch Society, and the like during the 50's and took root under Reagan. The final fling was under Dubya but what they found out was that secularists, atheists, and those who strongly support the separation of church and state eventually pushed back. 9/11 was just a minor event on the periphery of the ebb and flow of American politics. Although it was an event that gave Dubya and his army of handlers an excuse to scare the bejeebus out of the American people that the apocalypse might be just over the horizon. Thankfully cooler and more rational heads seem to be slowly gaining sway and will send Dubya back to clearing brush in Texas (the only task for which his talents are suited) and Darth Vader back to Wyoming where he can fire at will with much less risk of hitting anyone or launching another war.

You're right; that is a mean-spirited and offensive illustration. It mocks gay people, with a mincing and effeminate "out" Dawkins. It's as offensive as when The Nation magazine illustrated an article about the possibility that Abraham Lincoln was gay with a cartoon of "Babe Lincoln" as a big-breasted, corseted transsexual.

Sorry, Moses #2.

By RamblinDude (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

Excellent post -- though I should point out that, technically speaking, you (and Dawkins and Hitchens and the rest of the so-called "new atheists) are all secular humanists. I suppose that, like most things, it depends on how the term is defined. There are many competing versions and descriptions of "humanism" out there, starting with the original Renaissance meaning of humans being the highest pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being.

The meaning of the word has evolved, and secular humanists today don't meet that description. As now used, Secular or Scientific Humanism is an approach to life that has a provisionally Naturalistic view of the universe; reason and science as the best methods of understanding it; and an ethics based on a fundamental love and respect for freedom, the individual, and humanity.

Not all atheists have a natural, scientific outlook: there are atheists who are heavily into various forms of woo, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and other forms of nonsense. Not all atheists are in favor of free inquiry and human rights (ie Stalin and Pol Pot).

Humanists, like atheists, often disagree with each other. Both Dawkins and Hitchens have regular columns in the CSH mag.

I think the reason for the "let's not criticize racists, sexists, and homophobes" part at the end is because of a phenomenon we see all too often -- the religious can't take the criticism, and take their ball and go home. Norman is advocating the paying of intellectual protection money to the religion racket - the same thing you often hear about how more evangelicals would vote for some progressive measures if we would only stop being so strident. It reminds me of how diplomats talk to avoid insulting freaks like Kim Jong Il.

--but I think that Dawkins and Harris do explicitly list the 9/11 attacks as the reason they started writing their godless screeds. Remember "time to stand up"?

I think what kick-started my own atheism (which I had previously been aware of, but hadn't given a whole lot of thought to) was not the 9/11 attacks themselves but the American reaction to them. I remember listening to an NPR call-in program a couple of days after the attacks and being totally taken aback by a couple of comments:

  1. the host wondering if, after 9/11, there were any unbelievers left in the U.S.
  2. a caller prefacing his remarks by saying "I don't want to sound like an atheist, but ..."

So I thought to myself:

  1. What exactly is it about 9/11 that makes God's existence more likely?
  2. Why the hell not?

And *poof*, I was a "new atheist".

By noncarborundum (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

This is an outstanding post. Good job.

By Jeff Chamberlain (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

Why is it that civility always depends on atheists, or leftists, or middle of the road liberals (what the USA calls "far-left wing") shutting up when they get their turn to speak? Why is it that civility is never a problem when rightwing and religious jerks are saying vile things about us (and each other for that matter)?

I don't mean to side-track from PZ's latitudinarian experience, but the topic of humanism has driven me to post a newbie question:
When I began to deliberately identify as atheist I was encouraged by friends to attend humanist gatherings and I found I was generally put off by the tenets that promoted human proliferation. Although my run-ins with humanism (and Unitarianism) have given me a clear idea of what I don't believe, I'm still at a loss for what we call a philosophy that explicitly rejects speciesist views but still embraces rationality and goodwill as virtues among humans.
Unfortunately some good names like "naturist" and "objectivist" already connote their own unique philosophies. Don't get me wrong, I'm more than willing to sit with friends and explain the nuances of my beliefs, but there is something to be said for being able to name your philosophy. Whether as a means to find/establish community with others or just as a way to quickly distance yourself from another belief system (e.g., Humanism), the ability to succinctly name what you believe is important. What labels are there for non-humanist atheists to embrace?

What labels are there for non-humanist atheists to embrace?

Realist.

As an oldster, I'd say that atheism began becoming blatant thanks to the Internet.

Before blogs, the major media dominated all communication, shaping our culture and its agenda. Atheists were out there, but they were never heard from in a big way. Atheism would be mentioned in one mainstream media article which would be a boring story with some forgetable quotes from Madalyn Murray O'Hair and a couple quotes even less memorable from names you'd never hear from again, and then the entire issue would be closed for several years.

Anyone incensed with religious matters could write letters to the editor, but the letters would be filed, unpublished, or the letter would be deliberately edited to make the writer look like a nutjob. The major media strove to make atheism look like a shared shame, like mental retardation.

Now, with blogs, the letter to the editor is replaced by a letter to the world, and the entire planet (well, a good chunk of it) gets to read it. And respond to it.

Atheist blogging led to the realization there would be a market for books on the subject, and lo and behold, there are bestsellers out there on atheism.

Thanks to the Internet, atheists the world over are more informed about atheism, religions, and the politics of it all. In short, atheism is now great fun!

By RoseColoredGlasses (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

I entirely agree that "humanism" is a broad category and I might fit under some definitions. However, in practice what I generally see is groupings of agnostics, atheists, and deists who gather to engage in something that approximates the rituals of traditional religion, without the obligate god-belief. It's not something I personally care for.

thanks for the excellent post. i was very annoyed reading that damned article. and the illustration is extremely offensive!!
what the hell is going on over there?
anyway, that article is a load of crap. we do not need to sit idly by without criticizing all of religion. having moved from tennessee to england and now to germany in the past 6 years...i see a rise in fundamentalism everywhere i go. don't be misled into thinking that this is only an american problem. many of the europeans i talk to are always so surprised to see the rise of creationism and spread of more 'conservative' religions because they still think that will never happen here. well it's happening...not in a scale comparable to the US but it is happening.
and it's spot-on to say that religion in general...moderate religion...allows for fundamentalism.
you aren't going to see the religious stop trying to indoctrinate children around the globe so why should we stop speaking out against this bastian of irrationality the does so much damage to the to our world!

"over-generalizing" my ass!

By molecanthro (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

PZ, how can you possibly be so sure that there would still be bloodshed in the Middle East even if its inhabitants were all turned into rational atheists? You don't have any evidence; you're just saying what you think is warm- and fuzzy-sounding and politically correct. Please, enough of this stupidity.

There is so much in this post I agree with. Yes, we can be friendly with, and even work alongside "moderates" while simultaneously disagreeing with them. Why is that so hard for people to understand?

I also sympathize with your rejection of the Humanist label. Under the broader theoretical definitions, I certainly qualify. But they have managed to pack so many connotations into a little word that I, personally, don't feel comfortable with it.

Quoth PZ:
in practice what I generally see is groupings of agnostics, atheists, and deists who gather to engage in something that approximates the rituals of traditional religion, without the obligate god-belief. It's not something I personally care for.

Around these parts (Ottawa, Canada), people who want that sort of religion-sans-gods usually end up as Unitarians (or sometimes even in the United Church of Canada, whose Moderator once said "most of our membership has some sort of belief in a supreme being".)

The humanists I have encountered (since I joined the local group a few years ago) tend to be more into discussions of moral principles, promotion of secularism, rationalism and critical thinking. (Organizationally, they often behave a lot like church groups I have encountered, but that would be because they are *humans*, not because they are *humanists*.) I don't recall anyone ever pulling back from criticizing religion. (And I for one would personally welcome any cephalopod who wished to attend one of our meetings.)

Quoth pappa p:
I was generally put off by the tenets that promoted human proliferation

I'm curious - were they promoting *literal* human proliferation? As in humans should make more humans? Most of the humanists I know are strongly (some even fanatically) in favour of human population control.

RoseColoredGlasses - Atheist bloggers' influence on the population is a good point. I must admit I was very surprised (and relieved) to find out there were so many atheists in the blogosphere.

In the conservative town where I live I thought my atheist family was the only one. Now I've noticed more and more atheists are coming out, and it's a small town.

... I was wondering how long the assumption behind the Out campaign that gay rights was inherently a good thing to be emulated would be prodded at at in some really disgusting fashion. Behold, I am answered.

I can't add anything beyond that to what's already been said.

Yes, exactly; why should this principle be hard to understand. On a given issue (say) presbyterians and Anglicans can work together, or protestants and catholics, or Christian and Jews. They can easily make common cause over X whilst disagreeing, perhaps strongly so, about Y. So why is it surprising that atheists and theists could work together on the same terms?

Now, I would say that, in those areas where comrades disagree, they should express their disagreements with courtesy (which does not mean pretending the disagreements do not exist!). But that is merely aesthetics.

I thought the conclusion of Norman's article was incredibly weak. He says we should hold our noses and enter into all kinds of strange-bedfellow coalitions with religionists who may be right about e.g. global warming but wrong about everything else. He admits they hold contradictory positions but says that's just because humans are contradictory, it's not at all a negative reflection on religion. But if our religious "allies" are guided by contradictions and irrationality, what's to stop them from stabbing us in the back without warning? Some coalitions just aren't worth while for people of reason to get into.

Over the last dozen years or so I've gotten into the habit of attending humanist, atheist, skeptic, and Unitarian Universalist conferences and events. What I've found in practice is that the skeptic and humanist groups are the most oriented towards method, reason, philosophy, and science. The atheist groups are a bit more political, and I always seem to run into at least one person who's into alternative medicine, psychic powers, or some sort of wacky conspiracy theory -- and thinks that because they are "rational" enough to be an atheist their other beliefs are of course rational, too. Very frustrating.

The UU's are much more like what PZ describes regarding the rituals and trappings of religion -- but they are also heavy on the pseudoscience, spirituality, and nicey-nice don't criticize religion because "we all have our own truths" bs. When it comes to pseudoscience, atheists are more diverse than secular humanists, but the Unitarians are really, really all over the place. Politically, though, the UU's are pretty much all on the same side on every issue. Not so for the others.

When it comes to working for a common cause on one issue with others who hold countering positions on other issues, I think freethinkers in general have a much easier time of it than religious types and authoritarians. After all, the freethinker world view is not to buy into some prescribed all encompassing world view.

Religion is much more tribal, with factional identity typically overriding any real basis for prescribed positions. Disagreeing on some particular issue, especially those issues used a tribal affiliation litmus tests, really does mean that they can't work together.

Anyway, getting freethinkers to work together is often compared to herding cats... And religious followers compared with sheep. Yes, sheep are much easier to herd, but they will also happily follow the herd off a cliff (or perhaps more realistically into a freezing river) to their death. I'll take the cats.

Is there anything wrong with having a atheists, agnostics, deist etc. take part in rituals similar to traditional religion? From where I'm standing, this is a good thing. You get the psychological benefits of the structure it brings to your life (not to mention the social benefits) without the irrationality, dogmatism and authoritarianism of organised religion.

I'm not going to hold fire and abstain from criticizing them.

The day PZ holds fire on anyone that calls for it would be a sad day indeed.

I'm off to our monthly humanist meeting in a few minutes. We'll have dinner, chat and hear a lecture about the ethics of genetic manipulations, something along the lines of PZ's recent post about post-humanism.

Based on the recent gatherings -- this'll be my fourth since I started going in the summer -- we won't be plotting campaigns to: promote non-supernaturalism in the media; lobby the education ministry to increase and enrich history of the Enlightenment, evolution and cosmology content in the school curriculum; lobby the universities to adopt a policy whereby theology courses that presume the truth of any specific religion would be ineligible for degree-earning credit. Of course this list could be longer.

As it is, however, the people are nice and it's pretty much the only game in town (Winnipeg, pop. 650k).

For those of us who want to do more than consume the intellectual entertainment offered by the on-line world, its educational value notwithstanding, and who aren't fond of pithy T-shirts, flesh and blood gatherings are essential. But goodness, we are far from being a robust community.

By Neil Schipper (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

However, in practice what I generally see is groupings of agnostics, atheists, and deists who gather to engage in something that approximates the rituals of traditional religion, without the obligate god-belief.

Huh? I can't speak for all branches of humanist philosophies, but outside of Fundy Christian rhetoric, I guess I've never heard of secular humanist rituals. I've been to picnics, attended some rallies, listened to lectures and even emceed for a couple events, but never was I invited as a rather public secular humanist to participate in any "ritual". Either times have changed since I left Minnesota, or you're thinking of the UU's... or something is getting lost in translation...

For that matter, I have a hard time understanding the antagonism to secular humanists. Are we really in the same category as Christians and Muslims in your eyes? Seriously?! It's not like secular humanists have to swear allegiance to Homo sapiens sapiens and forgo all other concern for other life forms. I'm really struggling to think of a reason why you wouldn't count yourself as one of us.

By j.t.delaney (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

j.t.delaney: For that matter, I have a hard time understanding the antagonism to secular humanists. ... I'm really struggling to think of a reason why you wouldn't count yourself as one of us.

Well, it would spoil his reputation as a cephalocentric curmudgeon! :-)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

What labels are there for non-humanist atheists to embrace?

Scientist.

Seriously. It's almost 2 at night, so I won't give it any deeper thought and just say that all philosophy other than science theory is useless.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

David Marjanović, OM:

I know how you feel. I tend to look upon philosophizing as nothing more than mental doodling, but not all of it is useless in the real world.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was a very deep thinker, and very worthwhile reading.

Of course, I'm not sure you could, strictly speaking, call him a "philosopher"

By RamblinDude (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

> What labels are there for non-humanist atheists to embrace?

> Scientist.

Mostly, I just think of philosophy as a bunch of really hard to read books.

But there is something there. Science can't be the simple answer to everything. Science doesn't give me a reason to give a crap.

When I eventually admitted to myself that I was an atheist, it enabled me to answer a lot of difficult questions. But without an invisible man in the sky, I need some other place to root my values and beliefs.

So here it is: Human suffering is bad, and human happiness is good. I think that's all I need to be moral. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that makes me a humanist. I'm big on principles and reason, not so much on labels.

I hope the lecture on the ethics of genetic manipulation does not rely on so-called "moral intuitions" that can be traced back to socialisation within a society which has long been influenced by Christian notions of morality and virtue. I'm just saying ...

I mean, maybe the person giving the lecture will be a hardline transhumanist. That would be refreshing. But there are too many biocon irrationalists like Leon Kass, Jurgen Habermas, Margaret Somerville, Francis Fukuyama, Bill McKibben, etc., etc., floating around, all claiming to base their views on secular thinking (and all, surprise surprise, at least deferential to religion).

The Hammer has spoken and the ring of truth is heard far and wide. Oh my brother you have become hard. Excellent post PZ. Many are grateful. Please never cease to tell it like it really is. Us "softies" stand in awe.

By bluthetan (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

Every time I've seen this term, New Atheists, I want to say: helloo? Bertrand Russell anyone?

The scientific world view (for that's what they're really talking about) is not new, but its penetration into mainstream culture is.

I don't think 9/11 had anything to do with it. A challenged faith may take refuge in fundamentalism. The whole Moral Majority and Evangelical loony-tune show arose of a backlash to an increasingly secular culture. Of course, they've ended up running the whole show...

Dawkins, Harris, et. al., along with their opportunistic publishers, realized this was a fine time to strike back. They're not saying anything terribly different. What's new is the demand. There's a lot of people out there who want to hear it, more than ever before.

As religious moderates, those with some intellectual integrity, become agnostics and atheists, the remaining faith-heads are forced into crazy-town. Bonkers-city. Metro-nutsville. They're takin' the Deranged Highway to Crackpot Central Station.

Desperation begets righteousness.

Forgive me if I haven't been keeping up with the discussion enough, but why have I never heard the argument that's the reverse of "You strident atheists should keep your mouths shut or you risk alienating the moderate Christians"? That is, something to the effect of "You moderate Christians should stop being overtly offended when the strident atheists criticize your religion, or you risk them not caring about what you think."

And I think that the reason behind this is that, for the most part, moderate Christians don't seem to care too much about whether or not irrationality gets into our schools. If moderate Christians were such wonderful allies, *they* should be leading this movement, not us. After all (and this is the reason why we shouldn't "offend" them), their numbers are a whole lot bigger than the strident atheists. And yet, I would say, the majority of the leaders of the anti-creationist movement seem to be atheists, strident or otherwise. If moderate Christians were such wonderful allies, the atheists should not comprise the majority of the leadership. And the fact is, as long as the Christians have allowed some measure of irrationality into their lives, their response to irrationality in the schools is going to be tepid at best. It's all symptoms of the same disease that has to be rooted out.

Until the moderate Christians really get up off their asses and start doing something about creationism, I fail to see why we should care at all about what they think.

First, I have to confess: I'm not a humanist. I'm just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I'm not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid.

We are all human beings here - well, most of us anyway - whether we like it or not. Are we in any way special? In the absence of a god, who is to say?

Well, actually, we can if we choose.

That human beings done things of which they should be ashamed is, I would say, beyond question. Is it equally true that they have achieved things in which they may take justifiable pride? I would also say: yes, they have.

Does any of that makes us special? In some ways, but not as much as does our capacity to ask such a question.

And this article has much to criticize. It begins with an explanation that the New Atheism isn't new and has been around for centuries, something we'd all agree on -- I've never been keen on the term myself.

I am inclined to agree now. If you want a distinguishing label it would be better to describe them as New Wave Atheists. What you seem to have are a generation of atheists who are prepared to be more outspoken than their predecessors about atheism and the irrationality of religious belief and who have been pleasantly surprised to find a larger and more sympathetic audience for their message than they expected.

...personally, I'm fired up by the fact that religions have been spending millennia hammering the brains of thinking human beings into a dopey stupefaction like that of domesticated sheep.

Religion itself has not done that. People using religious belief as a means of influencing others have done that. And the fact that it has survived very successfully over the millenia suggests that it is meeting some deep-seated and persistent human needs.

If you tried to build a religion around Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, you probably wouldn't get very far - although in some parts of the US I'm not so sure - but offer something that will help people weather the worst life can throw at them and promise them a better life in the hereafter and you are on to a winner.

Most people are philosophically naive and scientifically illiterate. If you want to displace existing faiths you will have to change that - although the likes of Ken Miller are evidence that an excellent scientific education and a career in research are not proof against faith. Either that or offer them something even more appealing at an emotional level.

We do not accept evolution because we personally enjoy the notion that we are the lucky products of undirected chance in an uncaring universe, but because that somewhat chilling answer is where the facts lead us.

Now that is a truly excellent statement which deserves to become an oft-repeated quotation.

I don't condemn religion because it causes extremism or evil actions. I condemn it because it is so bloodily and thrice-damned ineffectual at doing what it claims to do. Religion is an incompetent guiding philosophy, unifying principle, source of solace and wisdom, whatever screwy virtue you want to imagine it represents. All it seems to excel at is driving people to make excuses for its failures.

Except that it isn't ineffectual. It survives because it is good at what it actually does. No, it is unable to provide any evidence to support its claims but it does give people what they want which is hope, meaning, a sense of belonging, of not being alone. Science and reason cannot offer any of that.

At the same time that I can cooperate with AU, I can still urge everyone to throw off the shackles of their superstition, however. And I will, as will Dawkins, and Hitchens, and Harris, and the growing polity of outspoken atheists. I can also hope that many of the self-identifying Humanists will found common cause with us on that.

A noble ideal and one with which many can make common cause.

But the question which all advocates of science and reason must answer is this: if religion is successful because it addresses and satisfies deep-seated emotional needs in people, how can science set about changing that? What is the most rational approach? Deriding the contradictory and absurd nature of religious claims may be satisfying to atheists who have been intimidated by the relious majority for so long but is it the most rational way of achieving your stated goal?

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

PZ sez: First, I have to confess: I'm not a humanist. I'm just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I'm not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid.

The author of the article critiqued here, Richard Norman, has a book On Humanism which is actually very good on clearing up this point, as well as on many other things, and I heartily recommend it. Julian Baggini's What's It All About? is also good.

I doubt that Norman's tactical advice at the end of his article is all that different from what PZ is applying himself at AU.

Secular Communion? Even the Humanist-Ethical Union in Norway hasn't gone the route of red wine and wafers yet, AFAIK. But they have their naming ceremonies and funerals and offer a very nice civic course for 15-year-olds in preparation for a festive ceremony called "Confirmation"! I don't know if such ceremonies are "necessary" for us as humans, but I think they are a necessary transitional phase in a traditionalist society where simply not christening or not confirming your child is still too radical. The ceremonies are very nearly obligatory; removing god from them is becoming acceptable.

What a silly article. Norman states: "Some of our allies against creationism may be deeply prejudiced against gays." How about: "Some of our allies against creationism may not believe in gods." Why do the atheists have to do all the compromising? And in a piece criticizing the New Atheists in which the presumable point is that "The New Atheism" is bad because it somehow prevents cooperation, he points to Dawkins as an example of how they can form alliances. "New Atheists like Dawkins shouldn't be such jerks, they should act more like that guy Dawkins."

By Citizen Z (not verified) on 11 Nov 2007 #permalink

in practice what I generally see is groupings of agnostics, atheists, and deists who gather to engage in something that approximates the rituals of traditional religion, without the obligate god-belief

You know, I can see the appeal of appropriating some kind of ritual element to your non-God-belief weekly meetings, but of all the rituals developed by human beings over the last umpteen thousand years, why oh why appropriate the rituals of boring, stupid mainstream Protestantism?

What I'm looking for is some kind of atheist/humanist congregation that appropriates, say, the majesty and mystery of the Orthodox mass and Shinto, the music of the Apostolic Holiness Church and Tibetan Buddhism, and the autohypnotic frenzy of Vodoun and other syncretic religions. Now that would be worth getting up early for.

And also trombones. You gotta have trombones.

Who's with me? It'll be like an art project. Oh, and we'll need a good tax lawyer.

Comment #39: Bravo and well put - I hadn't noticed the distance between rhetoric and action on the part of all these moderates until you pointed it out. Thanks.

"Besides being insipid, I disagree."

A memorable statement, PZ, but are you sure that's what you meant to say?

Hm. For several reasons (which I could expand on if challenged) Dr Myers has always struck me as being more of a 17th century than an 18th century kind of atheist.

HP quoth:

What I'm looking for is some kind of atheist/humanist congregation that appropriates, say, the majesty and mystery of the Orthodox mass and Shinto, the music of the Apostolic Holiness Church and Tibetan Buddhism, and the autohypnotic frenzy of Vodoun and other syncretic religions. Now that would be worth getting up early for.

Let's appropriate Burning Man.

I, for one, couldn't help laughing seeing the cartoon. I think that it's quite funny, in the same way that inappropriate jokes often are.

Personally, I don't care about offending the moderate Christians and losing them as allies, because I think that a lot of them don't make effective allies. Now, I can only speak from personal experience, but a lot of moderate Christians seem to be moderate because they simply don't care either way. They grew up with their religion, they like the traditions and stuff, and that's it. They don't care about the fundie wingnuts making a mockery of their religion.

I sometimes post about creationism and religious fundamentalism on my blog, and I can count on the religious moderates on my friend's list to say "...yes, but we're not all like that.". I've taken up the habit of replying to that kind of comment with "well, they why don't YOU start protesting the wingnuts? I'm not the one whose religion is warped by them, so why am I the one making all the noise?". The only response I've gotten to that, so far, is silence. They simply don't care. If the really did, they would be out there holding counter-protests, or making petitions. So why should I care much about making allies with them?

By Darwin's Minion (not verified) on 11 Nov 2007 #permalink

"And also trombones. You gotta have trombones."

In fact, let's just ditch the mystery and majesty and all that and just skank to ska music for an hour.

The claim that 'New Atheism' (in so far as such a term is meaningful) started with 9/11 isn't actually all that implausible, if you look at it from a publishing point of view.

Hitchens' and Dennett's books, we know, were inspired by Richard Dawkins'. Dawkins had been trying to get his book published for years. It was only the run away success of Sam Harris' book which allowed him to get it published. And what was one of the major selling points of Harris' book? That it dealt with atheistic arguments against fundamentalist Islam in a ardent and forthright fashion.

If you think, as I do, that growing interest and concern with Islamic extremism following 9/11 was an important factor in getting /The End of Faith/ punished then this had the knock-on effect of allowing /The God Delusion/ to be published, which inspired /Breaking the Spell/ and /God is Not Great/. So if 'New Atheism' is coherent (which I doubt), and it is best identified with its prominent authors: Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett - then the argument that it began with 9/11 when looked at in publishing terms isn't that implausible after all.

We've picked up on this debate on the New Humanist blog, where we'd like to see it continue. Both strands of this debate (1. on the substance of Norman's article, and 2. is the cartoon offensive?) have also broken out on the Dawkins site (http://richarddawkins.net/article,1860,Holy-communion,Richard-Norman-Ne…)

We've posted about it on the New Humanist blog along with a poll on whether the cartoon is offensive. It'd be good to get some comments. It's all here: http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2007/11/new-humanist-cartoon-controversy…

PZ seems to have an assumption that all Humanists are of the authors variety, which he views to be apologetic of religious belief (if it is moderate). I consider myself a secular humanist but I am not at all for holding back on criticisms of religious belief - whether it be the vague beliefs of a goofball hippie christian or the absolutists beliefs of a fire and brimstone extremist. There is no humanist dogma that says we must take it easy on the moderates who DO lend legitimacy to the literalist nut-jobs. Pharynxzula or whatever is making generalizations about humanism based upon the predominance of this type of writing coming from humanist publications - Just as the author of the original piece makes the generalization that because those who call themselves atheists and admire the so-called "new atheists" criticize even liberal believers they cannot work side by side with religionists in helping their fellow man. Pharyngzilla makes no valid points against the Humanist label.

What labels are there for non-humanist atheists to embrace?

Scientist.

Seriously. It's almost 2 at night, so I won't give it any deeper thought and just say that all philosophy other than science theory is useless.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink