Apostasy Now

So now come two more insiders railing against the new atheists--Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist and John Shook, who works at the Center for Inquiry.  Last week it was someone else, the week before someone else...it goes on and on.  Just in case there's a midterm on this stuff anytime soon, I thought it might be helpful to review.  What are all the charges against the new atheists?  Here goes--

(1)  Bad tone--sometimes being too militant, strident, disrespectful, insulting to religious people as well as to internal critics; name-calling, bullying, etc. etc.

(2)  Jaundiced view of religion--focusing only on worst cases, not appreciating the psychology and sociology of religion.

(3)  Alienating people--not so much saying religion and science are incompatible (see below) but saying it at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong people.

(4)  Incompatibilism--saying religion and science are incompatible, when they're obviously compatible (or why would Francis Collins be the genome whiz?).

(5)  Poor sense of proportion--harping on religion too much; overlooking more important problems like poverty, racism, climate change (the end of the world is nigh, but not because of religion).

(6)  Naughty Scientism--thinking science is the only way of knowing, rejecting Shakespeare.

(7)  Woeful ignorance of theology--presuming to settle the question of God's existence without understanding theistic arguments well enough.  Not spending enough time buried in the books of Swinburne, Plantinga, Van Inwagen, et al. 

(8)  Undermining humanity--promoting a dehumanizing picture of life, undermining wonder, optimism, etc, not believing in spooky mental stuff, which can be wonderfully uplifting.

(9)  Naive progressivism--believing life is forever getting better and better, not having the proper sense of doom and gloom; siding with (gasp) the enlightenment.

(10)  Being atheists--it's simply a bad thing, period.

You might be wondering if I deliberately put these charges in a certain order. Indeed I did.  From the annotations, you can probably tell which charges have some merit, in my eyes. The drop off starts after (3), and we gradually descend into the depths of nonsense. 

10 is a nice number, but if I missed something important, do let me know.


s. wallerstein said...

11. Failure to understand that in the real world, if everyone, including friends and allies, begins to criticize you, it's time to change your act and your attitude, because if you don't, you're going downhill. Basically, Andy Warhol's rule about 15 minutes of fame.

s. wallerstein said...

12. Exaggerating to an absurd degree the victimization of atheists in contemporary Western society. From some online new atheist posts, one gets the impression that in contemporary Western societies, atheists are the most oppressed minority.

13. A total inability to perceive their own aggressivity and an excessive sensitivity to criticism and to less than total adhesion to their cause. In other words, they can dish it out, but they can't take it. (I refer to the online new atheists, not to the original four-some).

14. A completely exaggerated view of the heroism of their cause. Yes, in Spinoza's and Voltaire's day it was courageous to attack religion. Today, in contemporary Western culture, I see nothing especially daring about it. In fact, religion is an easy target. If I were seeking a target which is easy to mock and attack and thus, permit myself and my followers to feel superior to it, I would select religion.

Gurdur said...

"From the annotations, you can probably tell which charges have some merit, in my eyes. The drop off starts after (3), and we gradually descend into the depths of nonsense"

Not quite sure what you mean here. Do you mean:
a) the charges are baseless
b) some are alleging those particular charges have been made, but they're wrong or over-reacting?

You see, I'm a vocal atheist mysef. The latest claim from a certain person is that the Gnu atheists are open atheists, and all else are secret atheists, which I know to be a load of bunkum.

I really don't see anywhere around from Caspar or anyone else in such a position that the New or Gnu atheists are bad just for being atheists.

"Last week it was someone else, the week before someone else...it goes on and on. "

I think the actual amount is rather over-stated; and I would compare it with the number of attacks on atheists by Gnu atheists. You mention the CFI; but the CFI and many of its staffers have come under a good deal of personal abuse and simply wrong criticms by people like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, etc.

I think the Gnu atheists are being more than a bit over-sensitive when their targets suddenly turn at bay and criticise them back.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm, Amos, all that really relates to internal politics, not necessarily new atheism itself, or its leading advocates. There is constant suppression of internal dissent, in lots of ways. It annoys me to no end, but I'm thinking I need to stop watching--it's endless, and repetitive.

Gurdur--I think that's the standard rap sheet. Those things are said regularly by a variety of critics, theist, agnostic, and atheist. As to merit--the problems with (4) onward are diverse.

About the word "gnu"-- yuck. There's something weird about people acting very groupish and then trying to dodge criticism of the group by pretending it's not really a group.

s. wallerstein said...


I tried to make clear, but maybe I didn't make it clear enough that I was referring to the online new atheist groupish non-group, not to the original four-some.

I also agree that I need to stop watching, that it's like when I got hooked on a Mexican soap opera on TV, the worst mixture of clich├ęs and stereotypes that one can imagine.

Finally, since this blog is widely read, I will make a confession. In one online new atheist blog, I felt that a door that I was trying to open with the best intentions in the world was slammed on my fingers, with glee, as a demonstration to the watching mob of the blog owner's ability to hurt and to bully.

I'm not a Christian, and I vowed to revenge myself. I waited for the right moment and I did.

That being said and done, I'll not belabor the theme of the online new atheists anymore, neither in your blog nor in other online spaces. Not only is the thrill gone, but the thrill of revenge is also gone. Thank you.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I don't remember the sequence of events, but I guess you criticized She Who Must Not be Named, and that is a no-no. The reaction was to go nuclear...not quite proportional, I wouldn't say. I didn't read all the nastiness--it got too nauseating. I think that has more to do with her, personally, than the new atheism as a general phenomenon.

As to your analysis of the online atheists--yes, there is an exaggerated sense about how badly atheists are abused, but there is real discrimination. I know it, because I see it first hand here in Dallas. (Dallas = South Dakota, where these things are concerned.)

The way this is being used to shield the new atheists from criticism is pretty feeble. The story is: outrageousness against religion is fine--no need to worry how that might affect the perception of the poor, vulnerable Dallas atheists on the front lines.

Criticism of outrageousness is another matter--the critics are responsible for "piling on" and increasing animosity against the vulnerable Dallas atheists.

Agh. As one of these vulnerable types--or at least as someone in close contact with vulnerable types--I think I know something about this. What needs to happen, for atheists in Dallas/South Dakota to be accepted and respected is basically two things--atheists have to come across as respectful of other ways of thinking. The interaction between atheists and the religious has to be like that between different religious groups--Jews and Christians, for example.

Second, there needs to be a rejoinder to this idea that God is necessary for morality. I'm very much looking forward to Sam Harris's book on that subject--coming out next week.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, when the door was slammed on my fingers, far from criticizing someone who cannot be criticized, I was saying the type of things that we wimps say to people who cannot be criticized like "we basically agree".

In the world I live in, vegetarians are much more likely to be socially ostracized, much more likely to suffer negative consequences than atheists. I can imagine a junior faculty member invited to a barbecue prepared by the department head, who refuses to enthusiatically swallow the meat: that guy will pay the consequences.

Also much more likely to pay for their opinions are those who suggest that life-style changes (smaller cars, less heating) are necessary to combat global warming and those who dare to affirm that
we can communicate by computer with such speed because people in China work for less than living wages and that if we pay decent wages in China (or Bangladesh, etc.), we'll not be able to buy a new computer every few years.

That's why I say that religion is an easy target. We can attack religion without changing our diet or living with slower computers.

For me, religion is like sports (your analogy). It has never interested or irritated me much.

I had a long relationship with a woman Zen Buddhist and at times I accompanied her to Buddhist meditation, without problems.
Another long relationship with a nominally Catholic woman, and although Catholic rites bore me,
they don't enfuriate me. The relationship with the New Age woman was more trying: I genuinely detest New Age nonsense.
I currently have a relationship with an agnostic: in over 5 years of living together, we have never discussed the subject of God and we converse a lot. In fact, I only noticed that she was an agnostic when I glanced at her Facebook page one day.

I only got into this religion stuff because when I got wide-band internet in 2005, I looked for stuff about philosophy. In 2005 if you had asked me to name a contemporary philosopher, I would have probably said: Wittgenstein. To my surprise,
the philosophy blogs instead of debating the private language argument (which I don't understand) were debating atheism, which I had not debated since I was 17. So, to participate, I joined in, but it's not my obsession. Typing on a computer made by people paid slave-wages is more my type of thing.

Thanks once again.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I think there's a lot of "history" here, going back a couple of years. Sometimes saying "we basically agree" can be irritating. If you're swinging back and forth rapidly between peace-making and criticism, it all starts seeming insincere. That's particularly a problem if you don't really care about these issues a lot (as you said above), and if that comes across in the way you talk about them. None of that excuses excessive force in response...but I want to try to be fair here.

s. wallerstein said...

Google swallowed my first reply.

I understand how my tendency to opine when I have no fixed opinion could be considered insincere or sophistic to those who have firm convictions about an issue.

However, in the case in question I was trying to explain my thoughts about unconscious motives, a subject which has fascinated me for years and about which I have no fixed opinion, not because of my inherent sophism, but because I have wrestled with the problem without finding an easy solution. Having the door slammed on my fingers in that instance hurt much more than a slap on the wrist for an off-hand sophism.

Here is a link to the dialogue in question.

Thank you for your frank criticism of what we may call my tendency to sophism. It is interesting to learn how I appear to others.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah...ancient history. To be very honest--I think you were trying too hard to fit in and not offend, and thus talking in a false-seeming way ("for the record" etc.) That's probably what was found irritating, but I'm just speculating.

s. wallerstein said...

Trying to fit in never works very well. You either fit in or you don't. The child who tries to fit in (without succeeding) is more likely to be bullied in the play-ground than the child who keeps his or her distance.