The Poll... and a Visit to Gnufunland

After pondering for a while... I think I've got to agree with the majority, who say believers get more pleasure out of Handel's Messiah. There were some convincing arguments in the "Christmas Poll" thread, but I would add The Argument from This Land is Your Land.   Surely part of the enjoyment comes from having the thoughts about America the song inspires. Ditto, the Messiah.  Can't exult?  Then there's got to be at least a tad less enjoyment.


I checked in on the "gnus" yesterday and found the question du jour was whether "gnu atheism" is helping (more here today). I attempted to have an opinion, but then I got confused by the terminology. Is the question about open atheism in general--with all its diverse representatives?  Or is the question about the particular brand of atheism espoused by people who refer to themselves as "new atheists," like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett? Or is the question about the even smaller subset of "new atheists" who call themselves "gnu atheists"?

I'll give credit to the entire category--open atheism--for helping atheists come out of the shadows.  I have too much anecdotal evidence of that to ignore it. As for the effects of smaller subsets (the News and the Gnus), and effects besides greater openness...who gnows?


Hope your holiday is proceeding merrily.


amos said...

Happy holidays.

I stared at the link to the world of the GNU atheists, but I didn't click.

Perhaps this review, which you undoubtedly already read, signals a new paradigm.


The new paradigm says as all new paradigms do that the world is more complicated than the old one indicates: in this case, that's is not religion versus reason nor does the conflict between religion and reason move the universe nor is religion one single entity.

Woody Allen says that he missed the 60's: he never had long hair nor smoked pot nor went to Woodstock, etc. I wished I had missed the New Atheist and I almost did. Throughout the 60's, Woody Allen, unlike many of us, continued being himself, without letting himself being carried away by the mass hysteria. That ability to reserve himself is one of the secrets of his creativity.

Is it so great that atheism is much more transparent now? Doesn't that mean that atheism is adopting what I may call "the culture of the bumpersticker". "Honk if you love Jesus" is replaced by "honk if you adore Darwin".

After the New Atheism, I've begun to refer to myself as an agnostic.

amos said...

email follow-up

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Amos, Happy holidays to you too. Thanks for the link. My link goes to Josh Rosenau's blog, where he does a rather nice job of responding to being sliced and diced by Jerry Coyne.

I sometimes do think it's great for people to be more open about atheism. That's when I'm comparing openness with shamefulness--and yes, here in Dallas, Texas, atheism is sometimes treated as shameful. I once had a student tell me it was wrong of me to cover it in a class. Agnosticism was an OK topic, but not atheism.

Then again, when I was growing up, it was just nothing being a non-believer. It was kind of like the color of your underwear--not something to show everyone, but not shameful either. That seems like the best situation, because openness leads people to think of atheism as an identity, which is odd.

amos said...

As I was growing up, I was not aware that my father, ostensibly a observant Jew, did not believe in God, as presented in standard Judaism. My father's reticience to talk about his inner convictions about religion may influence me in my rejection of making one's beliefs into a bumper sticker.

We live in a "tell it all" culture, where people force you to hear about their weight problems, their surgeries, their divorces, their sex life, none of which are especially interesting, since people, while loving to tell it all, tend to not be especially honest when they tell it all.

I for one am not interested in hearing about everyone's religious beliefs.

I understand that as Sartre outlines in his book, On the Jewish Question, there are situations in which a group is singled out for oppression or discrimination and to live authentically (whatever that means) is obliged to assume the definition of identity that the oppressor defines them with.

Contrary to what the GNU atheists claim, I don't see atheists as that kind of oppressed group. While certain individual atheists may be oppressed by their families or their community, I just don't see atheists qua atheists being oppressed as a group in the general culture.

Yes, a forthright atheist is unlikely to be elected president, but so is a forthright cynic or a person who is forthright about disliking children and dogs or a forthright introvert. I am very very introverted, and that produces rejection in society, since I don't attend parties or sing happy birthday, but I'm not going to form an Introverts Liberation Movement.

The fact that fundamentalist religious groups have entered the public debate is unfortunate, but that hardly entails that militant atheists should enter the public debate. In fact, religious convictions or lack of convictions
should not influence public political debate.

Finally, insofar as possible, the art of living well dictates that people develop their own identities through the process of trial and error, of being with others and of being without others, instead of selecting pre-fabricated identities from internet.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think the "introvert" analogy works so well. It makes sense that introverts can't do so well in politics--that's the logical outcome of having that character trait. But it's ludicrous that you should have to believe things about deities to do well in politics. It makes no sense whatever. I think it makes sense to resent that situation and try to do something about it. In situations where people are open about being believers (for better or worse), it's got to be possible to be open about being a non-believer. It's just basic fairness, etc. etc. So I'm on board with that objective. But that just puts my in league with "open atheism"--the largest category. "New" and "gnu" involve other attitudes, many of which I don't have.

amos said...

I agree that an atheist should be able to be elected to public office.

In Chile they are, except that they call themselves, "agnostics", which goes over better.

The two previous presidents, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, were declared agnostics, although they may well have been atheists.

Yes, the world would be a better place if one did not have to present a false image to be elected, but in fact, one has to love dogs, joyously stuff oneself with the national cuisine, enjoy sports, project the image of a happy, united family, hide any possible previous psychotherapy, dance certain dances (Clinton danced La Macarena), etc., so given the whole circus, the fact that one cannot be wholly open about one's religious beliefs fails to move me.

Obama may well be a closet atheist or agnostic: does that matter?

Jean Kazez said...

It matters to me that atheist students sometimes feel like they can't openly say what they believe, even in a philosophy class. That's not good for them or for the intellectual health of the class. It also bothers me that atheist teenagers have to stay in the shadows, when other people are broadcasting their religious identity, and even saying insulting things about atheism. These aren't the world's worst atrocities, but they're bad things.

In politics the issue is a bit more complicated. The issue is not just about candidates getting the pleasure of public confession (yes, they have to be fake about lots of things) but about who runs the country, and with "faith" or "reason."

amos said...

It's a crime that atheist students
feel inhibited about stating their views in a philosophy class.

By the way, could a out of the closet vegan or vegetarian be elected President in the U.S. or in Chile? If not, why isn't that as tragic as the fact that an out of the closet atheist cannot?

In fact, if I judge from his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama had at age 30 quite radical views. He mentions two philosophers as having influenced him, Sartre and Nietzsche, both atheists. Who knows what Obama really believes?

I agree with you completely that it is crucial that a country be governed by reason, not by faith, but do you have any evidence that previous U.S. presidents, who were believers,
were less competent because of their belief? Carter was a born again Christian, but that did not seem to inhibit him from
exercising reason while in office.

As we've observed in the debates about the compatibility of science and religion, scientists (and politicians) are quite capable of compartimentalizing their faith from their professional duties.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not saying it's impossible for believers to be good candidates--of course not. I'm saying you do wind up with worse candidates, on average, if skeptics are excluded, and religiosity is regarded as a plus.

Sure, it's a bad thing if candidates can't be openly vegetarian, but open vegetarianism isn't as much of a problem as open atheism. Last time I was at Barnes and Noble I noticed there was an entire section of vegetarian cookbooks--maybe 20-30 times as many as there are books about atheism.

amos said...

In Chile it's the other way around.

I can imagine an atheist president, but not a vegetarian one.

All of political and business socializing revolves around barbecues (asados), in which one who does not eat meat is considered "weird".

What's more, politicians participate in an infinite number of ceremonial events, during which they have to make a show of eating national dishes, all of which feature meat.

The children of a generation of Marxist-Leninists (the 60's) inherited their parents' atheism, if not their faith in the revolution. Everyone family has a uncle who once was an atheistic communist, so it's not so weird.

Faust said...

I think some very significant credit needs to be given to the initial wave of argument, especially "The End of Faith," and "The God Delusion," for changing up the conversation and "helping," by which I mean outputing net positive results.

We can call these two books (and their attendent books and phenomena like Hitchens slaughtering people in live debates), with doing a couple things:

1. Popularizing and invigorating a conversation. While there is plenty I don't like about the "new atheist" books, they generated an enormous ammount of conversation. Conversation is almost always a good thing. Speaking for myself, some of that conversation has been very helpful to me in formulating positions I would not have otherwise developed. In particular they helped me realize that I no longer find the term "atheism" particularly helpful or useful in describing my own position on these matters. Indeed, I think most "atheists" would do well to abandon the term. There are reasons, however, that this will not happen, foremost being that it is rhetorically convenient and simplifies the conversation.

2. There is empirical evidence that supports the theory that the recent conversation has bolstered the ranks of self proclaimed non-believers, and promoted belief in (naturalist) evolution. Example: I was looking at a gallup poll the other day showing an uptick trend over the last 5-6 years in people who believe in straight up (naturalist) evolution, this upward trend coincides with the beginning of the "new atheist" movement. I don't think this (and other similar statistics) are a coincidence.

There are probably some other good things to say here, but the net effect of this stuff has been quite positive. I don't think there is much evidence that recent atheist activism has driven any believers to be MORE crazy and dogmatic than they already were.

In other news, Happy Holidays!

amos said...


Conversations, as you say, are good, and they are scarce: if I could converse with my neighbors, I'd not be talking to you in internet.

The new atheists opened a conversation, such an interesting one that lots of people wanted to join in, Mooney, Jean, Rosenau, and others but just when the conversation got good, the new (or GNU) atheists got scared and tried to put the lid on things.

It is ironic that we could not be having this conversation if not for the new atheists, but this conversation could not exist in any GNU atheist blog, since we both would be hooted down as traitors, sell-outs or brain-dead.

I guess that, for better or for worse, most of us tend to have a more negative opinion of those who start conversations and then shut then down then of those who never start them: given my previous dealings with the Catholic clergy, I never expect to have a decent conversation with
priests or monks, but I and others had hopes of continuing that conversation started by the first new atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I agree about #1, but as to #2--even if there are more non-believers, what's the evidence that that's due to new atheists like Dawkins? It could just as well be because of the scandal in the Catholic church, which makes religion look bad. Or because of Islamic extremism, which also makes religion look bad. Even if it is because of atheist writers, why give Dawkins the credit, and not other atheist writers? I am a big Dawkins fan, and don't begrudge him an impact--I just don't see the evidence for it.

amos said...

Another reason there may be more declared atheists today than six years ago is that six years ago Bushism, closely related to a simplistic religious view, was triumphant.

In fact, the first New Atheist books more or less coincide with "Mission Accomplished" and with the so-called reelection of Bush 2 (he was really only elected once.)

As the ship of Bush began to leak and then sink, people left behind not only support for Bush's global war on terror and his mishandling of the economy, but also his religious outlook. Nobody loves a loser, and Bush went quickly from top of the charts to no one knows his name.

In that sense, the spike in religious fervor in the early years of this century would be a minor deviation from the basic historical trend towards a less religious society, a trend which begins about a hundred years ago or maybe before: it's been almost 130 years since Nietzsche announced the death of God.

Jean Kazez said...

I never thought of that- yeah, the feeling in 2005 was that the worst sort of religious conservativism was being put in control of world affairs. That backdrop made the message in new atheist books very, very welcome to a lot of people. If you want to sell ideas, it helps a lot to have an enemy.

Faust said...

Amos raises a good point, but I think perhaps it overstates Bush and understates 9/11. Now that he mentions it, Harris explicitly calls out 9/11 as a motivator for writing The End of Faith. So Amos has a point here.

To what degree was there a sense among the secular, subsequently codified and consolidated by activist atheists, that dangerous global religious conflict was a real and present danger to civilization?

To answer your question, Jean, my privileging of Dawkins/Harris is mostly anecdotal, it's simply been my experience among all my recollections and conversations that when people do refer or claim to have been influenced by the relevant authors they typically say that it was either TEOF or TGD that impacted them the most. Not conclusive, but it drives my sense about it.

I also conceed that #2 has not been proven, and that correlation does not equal causation. But I also think it reasonable to view the surge in activist atheism as part of, at a minimum, a feedback loop, and neither pure symptom nor cause. In which case #2 would have some measure of validity, though work would need to be done to locate it precisely within that feedback loop.

I will say this overall: at this point I just classify "new atheistm" as an activist movement just like any other. Again and again I am struck by the parallels between atheist blogging and political blogging and animal rights blogging and so on and so forth. The way the groups get distributed into varous camps defined by their ideological purity is really remarkable. It's enough to make me think there are Platonic Forms at work here.

Of course in this case part of the war is over ontology and epistemology as such so it's extra juicy.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I'm also a fan of TGD and TEOF, but it could be that this sort of writing gets people in the door, and then other authors do the persuading. You read Dawkins because he's such a great writer, then want to read more atheist writers, and it's not really until you read someone else that you're persuaded. The someone else could be someone not affiliated with "new" atheism at all. It's possible!

I like the parallels too. All very fascinating, especially the parallel between vegan/vegetarian battles and gnu/accommodationist battles.