10/26/09

Have the new atheists become tiresome?

So says Lisa Miller, here in Newsweek.  I'm not sure if she's tired of atheism per se, or just the new atheism.  Which means:  all the pugnacity.  The argumentative tone that implies: agree with me or you're an idiot.  She says this is particularly marked on the internet--
The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.
Maybe she's not attacking atheism itself, since she quickly suggests as appealing alternative to the "three horseman" (poor Dan Dennett loses his horse in this rendering).  She likes Jennifer Hecht, author of Doubt: A History.
Hecht is as much of an atheist as Hitchens and Harris, she says, but she approaches questions about the usefulness of religion with an appreciation of what she calls "paradox and mystery and cosmic crunch." "The more I learn, the more complicated things get, the more sympathy I have with religion," she told me one recent morning by phone. "I don't think it's so bad if religion survives, if it's getting together once a week and singing a song in a beautiful building, to commemorate life's most important moments."
I actually positively liked at least 2-3 of the horsemen, when they first came flying out of the gate.  Their high energy was a refreshing change from the stealth and secrecy surrounding non-belief in super-religious America. Over time, I've become less and less a fan.  That has less to do with the horsemen themselves (I'm reading Dawkins's new book and loving it) than with those internet atheists who act like adolescent boys.  Yes indeed they do.

What I originally thought new atheists were demanding was a right to be "out" -- to take the position that there's no God and state reasons for that view, without being stigmatized for it.  What has developed is much more than that.  At least the internet atheists think coming out means coming out and saying that religion is horribly stupid.  I fail to understand why these folks don't see any conflict between demanding religion bashing rights for themselves, yet wanting an end to atheist bashing.

Well, anyway.  To be an atheist does not mean being a member of any angry mob. I think Lisa Miller does a favor to non-believers in America by pointing out the Jennifer Hechts among them. To be an atheist does not have to mean having no "sympathy" with religion or wanting to see it disappear.   It can mean lots of different things. I'd like to hear the calmer, more amicable voices more often.

*
Speaking of atheist voices, there's a new book out today:  50 Voices of Disbelief, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Shuklenk. Hopefully they've selected a nice wide spectrum of voices.  I look forward to having a look.

41 comments:

amos said...

Any group that continually harps on the same subject can get tiresome. However, given all the groups that repeat the same discourse day after day, why are the new atheists especially singled out for criticism? Internet is peopled by interest groups, by groups with an infinity of causes ranging from entirely valid ones to totally ridiculous ones. All of said groups repeat and repeat the same message. If so, why are the new atheists the villains? Is what the Pope says so original? Is what Karen Armstrong says so creative? Has the anti-war movement said anything new recently?

Peter said...

Amos,

Probably because the internet new atheists are self-styled rationalists, and (if they're right about that) really should be above acting like teenage boys.

Jean Kazez said...

Lisa Miller is the religion editor at Newsweek, so she talks about what's tiresome in the domain of religion. I don't think she's saying the new atheists outrank all other tiresome people in tiresomeness. No doubt other people would deserve that prize.

amos said...

Actually, Lisa says explicitly says that the new atheists, more than other interest group, repeat the same message. I merely suggest that the new atheists are no more or less creative than the anti-war movement or the feminist movement, etc.

amos said...

Actually, Lisa says explicitly says that the new atheists, more than other interest group, repeat the same message. I merely suggest that the new atheists are no more or less creative than the anti-war movement or the feminist movement, etc.

Jean Kazez said...

I read it again and don't see where she "explicitly" is comparing the new atheists to members of other groups.

Faust said...

Lots of stupidity on the intertubes, news at 11.

I do not like when people issue lines like this:

"Together they've sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification."

This is very very very bad writing. The number a books of author sells says NOTHING about the authors motivations in writing a book. It can tell you something about the public appetite for a particular set of ideas, or something about a marketing campaign. It can't tell you anything about "what the author is in it for."

How big is the Christian publishing industry? Does that tell us something about "what the Christian publishing industry is `in it for'?"

Honestly I find this kind of glancing, sly, ad-hominem smear to be singularly unhelpful and stupid.

I do think that a good deal of the discussion associated with recent atheist literature is frustratingly limited in its scope, but that only justifies a call to broaden and deepen it.

Jean Kazez said...

I agree, that remark about motives is really stupid.

I guess I liked the piece mainly for its description of internet atheists as acting like adolescent boys. Exactly. If you try taking even a slightly non-party-line position at one of these blogs, you immediately get mobbed by people whose confidence is inversely proportional to their philosophical acuity. It is really weird. (NB: not everyone is like that at atheist blogs, but a lot of people really are.)

Plus, Jennifer Hecht strikes me as a kindred spirit (but just in that paragraph--I haven't read her book).

amos said...

Sorry. The pot literally boiled over, the anti-virus scan took over the computer, so I couldn't answer, but according to Lisa: "the atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas." I don't see that. I belong to a group on Chilean politics, and most of the posts are so predictable than I erase them. Then I receive a daily email from Feminist Philosophers: totally predictable. Another daily email from Common Dreams: the articles against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan vary little from day to day, week to week, year to year. Causes are like that. In fact, the new atheists, being less established as a cause than the Common Dreams crowd (who haven't varied since the War in Vietnam), are more authentic, less predictable. Causes, even good causes, tire me, but perhaps their repetition is necessary to get their message across.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah...OK. I read it several times, but quickly every time. "more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators..." Well, it's a nice phrase, anyway. What I find more insightful is the word "adolescent." I believe there is something to that. Which certainly doesn't mean the atheist blogosphere is the only place full of adolescents or adolescent-like commenters. But it's especially remarkable, because (as Peter said), these people fancy themselves to be so rational.

Wayne said...

I kind of liken it to a political election.... When Hilary and Barack were running, they had to up the differences between them so that voters could make a choice between the two, even though both candidates were virtually identical in their positions.

On the internet, people are taking the same approach, except without having the virtually identical position. For the most part, we live in a religious society that doesn't think its a religious society. This requires the new atheists to be a little more vocal and redundant about their positions, since the redundancy of the religious has been going on for millenia.

Does it have to devolve to bashing? Probably not. But in our society nothing seems to get noticed unless its sexy or extreme.

I'm just waiting for the new atheists to start running around naked saying "I'd rather be naked than wear a cross."

Ophelia Benson said...

"At least the internet atheists think coming out means coming out and saying that religion is horribly stupid."

Really? All of them?

Apparently "the new atheists" are (for the purpose of this discussion) defined as "all the pugnacity" but then they also seem to be "the internet atheists" so - it's all just left a nice combination of vague and insulting. It's all, it's some, it's internet ones, it's pugnacious ones, but anyway, they're all horrible, so we can all agree about that if nothing else.

Jean Kazez said...

I do think there's been a gradual transition, from atheists demanding the right to "come out" (which means openly saying you're an atheist and giving your reasons) to their defending an atheist's right to attack religion in any terms whatever. I think this is actually kind of an important change, and worth noting, even if I don't have the time today to do a proper job of collecting quotes. The shift has changed me from once pretty much identifying with the NA movement to my now feeling definitely not a part of it.

By the way, some of those folks we were talking to at Jerry Coyne's blog over the weekend strike me as perfect examples of the "adolescent" atheist blogger. These people are philosophically very naive, yet extremely confident and full of insults for anyone they disagree with.

Jean Kazez said...

In case anyone's curious--

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/is-atheism-scientific/

amos said...

It is a nice phrase. Newsweek employs excellent writers or re-write editors. I used to buy it faithfully in the pre-internet days. However, I do recall that Newsweek (at least in its Latin American edition in English) did have a clear liberal religious line. They would often run cover stories with titles like "Was Jesus Gay?" Ok, a blow at fundamentalism, but the story, while not exactly affirming the divinity of Jesus, would never cast doubts (as I would) that Jesus was the wisest and most spiritually advanced of human beings.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean, well, yes, maybe there has been such a transition (or maybe it's more of a clarification). But if there has, that's probably because there have been so many people telling us we don't have the (moral) right to "attack" or rather criticize religion in any terms whatever. There's been a backlash, in other words, and the backlash has created a return backlash (is that a frontlash?). That would be because we think we do have the (moral) right to criticize religion in any terms whatever - just as we have to criticize socialism or libertarianism or any other set of ideas and practices.

I remember only one commenter who fits that description - and (as I've mentioned before, I think) I think it's a little odd to judge "new" atheism by irritable commenters on blogs. Blogs attract all kinds of people to comment, I really don't think large conclusions can be drawn from that.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't believe in a "moral right" to criticize things "in any terms whatever." For example, Glen Beck should take care not to scare people away from getting swine flu vaccines, and shouldn't gratuitously cause offense by calling Obama a racist. Sure, he has the legal right to say what he wants, but there are ethical standards we can measure him by. Ditto, people who talk about atheism, or atheists who talk about religion.

As far as commenters go, why discount the rank and file? I think you learn more about the atheist movement by reading the comment sections of blogs than by just reading the bloggers. The the occasional atypical wacko does have to be ignored.

amos said...

But the original issue is whether the new atheists are any more adolescent than other internet interest groups or other internet causes. For example, there is a group called Feminist Philosophers, which I believe that you linked to, either from here or from the TPM blog. One day they were talking about "men": I remarked that they could not generalize about "men" in general: there are sexist men and less sexist men, not to mention gay males who many times are more "feminine" than most women. They paid me no attention, and I tuned out. Now, these women are professional philosophers. I admit that the new atheists, not the best ones (our friends, OB, Russell, etc), often talk of "religion" with the same level of hopeless generalization, but that just seems like something to be expected in a cause.

Jean Kazez said...

I think many commenters on atheist blogs are noticeably like adolescent boys in the way they combine very high confidence and abrasiveness with low reflectiveness. Certainly they're way more adolescent than commenters at Feminist Philosophers. I actually don't agree that there's "hopeless generalization" over there. In fact, discussions are usually very focused. I remember the comment you're talking about. It was on the issue whether women do all the cooking. You said that you do the cooking in your household, and nobody responded. I took it that was because you're just one person--how could your experience tell us much about who does the cooking? In fact, I've read the book they were discussing ("Catching Fire," by Richard Wrangham). He talks about the massive amount of data showing that around the world, women are almost always responsible for cooking. Also--it takes a while to get "noticed" on a blog. You can't draw a lot of conclusions from the mere fact that your occasional comment gets ignored.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos--Another thought about this. Some blogs are "ideological." Almost all commenters agree on a set of things. If you step in and deviate you get "corrected." What varies is how narrowly the ideology is defined, and what happens to the renegade. This is where I think many atheist blogs are stand outs. Compared to other blogs I read, they are particularly narrow and the take-downs are particularly nasty.

amos said...

Actually, I know lots of males who do the cooking and the food preparation and I think that I did
point that out. You have an excellent memory, in any case. Yes, some internet spaces are more ideological than others, and I generally don't feel comfortable with them. Are the new atheists nastier than other online groups?
Couldn't it be that we (both of us as well as others) have personally experienced their nastiness and their adolescent lynch mob tendencies and so it hurts more than when someone in favor of more troops in Afghanistan is lynched in an anti-war blog? One's own wounds do tend to hurt more than those of others.

Jean Kazez said...

Nah. The atmosphere at atheist blogs has been noted by many people. It's not just me nursing my wounds. I don't feel that wounded--actually, more just amused.

Faust said...

I dunno, I frequent political blogs and takedowns there can be severe. There is plenty of talk about "crazy" and "stupid" and "evil" to go around. And yet despite that there is something to the point you are making. I'm just not sure how to articulate it in a way that I find satisfactory.

It might have something to do with the way the discourse tends to curve back on itself in a way that politcal discourse doesn't. If I'm a leftist and a right winger comes around and starts talking about "you libruls" and the usual sillyness ensues, there really isn't a meta-level to the conversation. It's usually not more complicated than the conflict at a sports game. Booooooo! Your team is bad bad bad!

On the other hand in recent atheist discourse a great deal of the discussion is centered around the value and importance of reason. So when people who claim to be on the reason bus launch into non-rational diatribes...it's extra jarring.

Example: Coyne's "Atheists are funnier" post. It did make me laugh. I'll say that.

amos said...

If you'll take a look at B & W, Jerry S. made the error of reminding people that under British libel laws, he is legally responsible for what people say and he is now the target of just indignation against his cowardly appeasement of Mooney and Co. I'm off to prepare food again.

Jean Kazez said...

I think maybe that's it--the pretense of High Reason (not to be confused with High Treason). A discussion about religion inevitably gets into rather complicated issues of epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, law, etc. And then there's the ideology at these blogs--what must be said, according to some invisible playbook. What is jarring is the supreme confidence and anger with which people support what's in the playbook, even when they clearly have not carefully thought about the associated philosophical issues.

Case in point--that discussion at Coyne's blog over the weekend. Apparently it says in the atheist playbook that God's non-existence can be proven just as a matter of science. Just science, not philosophy. I wondered for a while why that was in the playbook, but it's apparently because science has higher prestige. It's better politics if you can say that God doesn't exist, just as a matter of science, philosophy being all spooky and mushy and all. So certain anonymous people were insisting on this with great confidence, though (I have to say, though it sounds snotty), not with great philosophical acumen.

Sure...that's got to happen at other blogs too. I'm not saying atheist blogs get first prize in this department. They're just notable--perhaps just a very good example of a general trend.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I think the indignation is just, not because he's an appeaser of Mooney & Co., but because he made it sound like he's lurking in an alley somewhere, waiting to break someone's bones.

Ophelia Benson said...

amos, Jerry S "made the error" of reminding people about UK libel law with what could be considered excessive harshness, given that there's no reason to think they already knew about UK libel law and its implications for commenting on B&W. The putative "just indignation against his cowardly appeasement of Mooney and Co" comes from all of one person, the one who was rebuked with what could be considered excessive harshness. That doesn't really seem like much to generalize about, especially when you don't know the background. In short it's just a rather irritating bit of gossip and finger-pointing, which I could do without.

amos said...

I don't always read B & W, so I don't know how many times J has reminded people about U.K. libel laws, but he has done it before in threads which I have read. That may be why his tone is harsh. It's a bit like the tone I use when I'm forced to remind people for the 15th time that there is a problem with the wall of the shower in my apartment. I'm the one who is going to have to fix the wall or pay someone to fix it. Us property owners stand together.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean

"I don't believe in a "moral right" to criticize things "in any terms whatever." For example, Glen Beck should take care not to scare people away from getting swine flu vaccines, and shouldn't gratuitously cause offense by calling Obama a racist. Sure, he has the legal right to say what he wants, but there are ethical standards we can measure him by. Ditto, people who talk about atheism, or atheists who talk about religion."

But I didn't talk about a moral right to criticize things in any terms whatever - I talked about a moral right to criticize one "thing" in (to use the term that you introduced) "any terms whatever" - to wit, religion, and extended that to one kind of thing: sets of ideas and practices. You're right that I wouldn't actually (when pressed) endorse any terms whatever - systematic misrepresentation, for instance - but then you're the one who introduced the term in claiming that atheists have made a transition to "defending an atheist's right to attack religion in any terms whatever" - which is actually an overstatement. (Have you seen any atheists defending an atheist's right to attack religion via systematic representation?)

"As far as commenters go, why discount the rank and file? I think you learn more about the atheist movement by reading the comment sections of blogs than by just reading the bloggers."

Because that's not what's generally meant by "the new atheists" so it muddies the waters. If you talk about "the new atheists" meaning mostly the tone set by the worst commenters on atheist blogs while people read what you say thinking you mean Dawkins-Dennett-Hitchens-Coyne-Myers-Blackford and co - then the latter set is tarred by the association with the former set. I think it's unfair, frankly. I agree with you about the tone, believe it or not, but I think it's awfully misleading to talk about "the new atheism" and that Newsweek article if what you really have in mind is a couple of commenters on blogs.

OB said...

amos - you don't know anything about this, so you shouldn't opine about it.

Jean Kazez said...

When I said "in any terms whatever" I had in mind somebody like Christopher Hitchens. From a recent NPR report--

Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book God Is Not Great, told a capacity crowd at the University of Toronto, "I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right." His words were greeted with hoots of approval.

OK, so he's not claiming the right to misrepresent religion. He's just claiming the right to treat it with "ridicule, hatred, and contempt."

I take it that's the kind of right you want to assert as well, but specifically when it comes to talking about religion. If it's a matter of talking about other topics, like atheism, then there's no comparable moral right (I assume you are saying).

I think this is at the very least very bad from a pragmatic standpoint. People are just going to laugh at atheists who assert a right to treat religion with "mockery, hatred and contempt" and then complain that atheism is treated with ...well, mockery, hatred, and contempt.

Basically, nobody's going to take you seriously unless you have a content-neutral ethics of speech, one that you're willing to adhere to when you speak about religion, and you want others to adhere to when they speak about atheism. I don't think that ethic is going to look kindly upon the gleeful hatred of Mr. Hitchens.

As to looking at comment sections of blogs--

If someone wants to understand the atheist movement that's developed over the last 5 years, I think they'd just be ignoring data if they focused on book writers and not bloggers. They'd be further narrowing their vision if they looked at bloggers and not commenters. People invest alot of time and effort in blog commentary (as an amusing NYT article from about a year ago pointed out). Those who comment frequently reveal something about the nature of the movement. Obviously you're not going to look at "a few bad apples" but at trends. I think the trend of "adolescent male" abrasiveness, hyperconfidence,and unreflectiveness is hard not to notice. The only really question is whether it's just typical of the blogsphere or something special.

Plus, a student of the movement is going to look beyond the internet. I find that NPR report much better for the way they report the "hoots of approval" when Hitchens claims his right to mock, hate, etc. If you only knew he had said that, but not how the audience reacted, you would know less about the atheist movement.

amos said...

Jean: Maybe part of the problem with the new atheists is that they haven't decided if they are an intellectual/philosophical tendency or a political movement. The rules for philosophical tendencies involve polite discourse and rational argument, while the rules for political movements involve lots of shouting of slogans and relentless attacks on your opponents.

OB said...

"I take it that's the kind of right you want to assert as well"

No, not really; I didn't like that way of putting it when I read the NPR story last week. I would call it a story, by the way, not a report - it got a lot wrong and it was very loaded - as stories about "new" atheists so often are.

"If someone wants to understand the atheist movement that's developed over the last 5 years, I think they'd just be ignoring data if they focused on book writers and not bloggers."

Fair enough, but I still think that needs to be spelled out; I still think that if you just write "the new atheists do X" readers are not likely to realize you have commenters on blogs in mind. I certainly didn't realize that when I read your post. I agree about the trend - but then I've already said that. I agree that there's a recognizable vein of mere bluster - but then I also think that's an internet/geek/fanboy kind of thing more than a new atheist kind of thing - or maybe a mix of the two. I'm not sure of that, but I do see mere bluster in other places.

I still think you're overlooking the reactive aspect of all this, and that that aspect is important.

It's true about the tension between epistemology and politics. I veer between the two a good deal myself. Maybe I should train myself to write in different colors for each polarity.

OB said...

Oh, and I missed something.

"take it that's the kind of right you want to assert as well, but specifically when it comes to talking about religion. If it's a matter of talking about other topics, like atheism, then there's no comparable moral right (I assume you are saying)."

No; on the contrary; and I don't really see why you assume that: I said: "But I didn't talk about a moral right to criticize things in any terms whatever - I talked about a moral right to criticize one "thing" in (to use the term that you introduced) "any terms whatever" - to wit, religion, and extended that to one kind of thing: sets of ideas and practices." Mind you, atheism isn't exactly a set of ideas and it's considerably less a set of practices (but I threw the practices in to mollify Karen Armstrong) - but it's close enough for this purpose. I certainly meant to indicate symmetry, because that was my whole point - I don't think religion should have special exemption from frank criticism, any more than other sets of ideas do - certainly including atheism. I don't think any of them should have exemption.

amos said...

I agree that neither religion nor any other body of ideas should be
exempt from frank criticism, but should they be treated with "ridicule, hatred, and contempt"? (Hitchens' word cited by Jean above) Perhaps some religions should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, just as some ideologies: we both will probably agree that the Talibans and Nazism deserve no more than ridicule and contempt. I'm not sure about hatred, but should one treat the philosophy of Aquinas or Blaise Pascal or Kierkegaard or Charles Taylor with ridicule, contempt and hatred?

Jean Kazez said...

The distinction between a movement and an intellectual debate is useful. I think that's what sometimes throws me. I want debate, but what I get treated to (when I participate) is often more like movement rhetoric.

OK--a symmetrical rule. I like that. But then, what is it? And can it really be true that all the rough treatment of religion at atheist blogs is really within the rules, but that comparatively delicate NPR report/story violates them?

Hmm. Truth is, I'm not sure what that symmetrical rule is.

Ophelia Benson said...

Well no, of course not, but I don't think I implied that.

On the other hand - an NPR story, obviously, has a lot more influence than does a comment on a blog.

amos I already said I wasn't crazy about Hitchens's remark, so why bring it in again?

amos said...

Ophelia: I'm just clarifying our positions. My mind works more slowly than yours.

Ophelia Benson said...

Mmph. Sure, amos. :- )

amos said...

Ophelia: Thanks for the indirect compliment. Your mind does work fast. In any case, I finally had a moment to go back and read your prior comment about Hitchens and you did not explain completely in your first post on the subject why you feel uncomfortable about his remarks, so my call for more clarity was justified.

backoffscience said...

Hey this is awesome, have just started blogging and taken a while to find better than the "adolescent atheist", its a nice way of putting it. Glad there are some atheists who aren't so angry and who don't see things so simply.