I'm always trying to figure out how it could be that I liked the first books of the new atheists so much, but I'm so thoroughly not on board with the so-called "gnus"--the contingent that makes fun of the way new atheists are criticized for militancy by adopting a militant name. (Think gays calling themselves "queer.") Finally, a moment of clarity. Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson have posts today that make it crystal clear why I've gotten off the train.
But first, let's have a story--"The Emperor's New Clothes." The emperor marches along the parade route stark naked [ignore the green underwear in the picture], and the adults ooh and ahh about his finery. One brave girl speaks up and says, naively "The emperor has no clothes!" Good for her! Hurray!
I saw Dawkins and Harris, in the early days of new atheism, as that girl. We're not supposed to speak openly about religion, and what's wrong with it, but they did. I liked their books in just the way I like that girl.
Now we have the sequel: "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes." Other kids were impressed with the brave girl. They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!" Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal. They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.
Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so. But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"
This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting. So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.
Now, you may or may not like my second story. For you, the history of new-gnu atheism may be all girl, no follow-up kids. And so you may think the adults really are out of line. Yet, at least in general terms, the adults are right, and the "gnu" crowd doesn't even agree in general terms. They are downright dismissive toward the whole topic of communication.
That's where today's clarifying posts come in. Jerry Coyne chides Chris Mooney for boldly insulting Birthers, but then not being as forthright about religion. Well of course, it's a different communicative situation. Different topic, different tone. You couldn't both chide him for this and take the issue of how/when/why we communicate the least bit seriously.
Ophelia Benson offers a reason why communicative restraint on the subject of God is not required. It's because the non-existence of God is so obvious. Right, like the emperor was obviously naked. But obviousness is not a reason to dispense with communicative care. Lots of things are obvious (to me) but the way I communicate about them rightly varies from topic to topic, situation to situation. Of course.
Moral of the stories: be the girl, not the crowd. You have to take the issue of how/when/why we communicate seriously to make that distinction.