Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

I’ve been puzzling for a few months now why the discourse between hardshell and softshell atheists has taken such a nasty turn. Can’t crabs just learn to live together–scuttling from side to side without disturbing each other’s tranquility?

True, when I first detected the trend among the leading atheist commandos (variously Gnus, News, EZs and Full-frontals) I said they were behaving like jerks, which of course got me called worse names by their fans.  All of a sudden I felt as unwelcome among the Baptism-revokers as Garp did when he stumbled into a meeting of the Ellen Jamesians.

Think of me as the little engine that couldn’t, the Doubting Thomas who tanked. I guess if I had been among the apostles on the day after the resurrection and had been invited to place my fingers in Jesus’ wounds, I would just have said, “Naw, I’ll take your word for it.”

I am a soft-shell atheist, someone who periodically lapses into doubt about the premises and sincerity of his unbelief. I am an unbeliever with a soft spot for religion–that’s the truth of it. In darker moments, I sometimes entertain the suspicion that there may be some kind of god. Then I look at my online bank balance, or a Republican presidential debate, and realize how foolish I’ve been.

But I’m also one who feels that atheism has a job to do: protecting believers from themselves and the rest of humanity from absurd and extreme ideas.  Atheism has to be outwardly directed at religion, its historical opposite, and isn’t at its best when it begins to obsess about degrees, vintages, and levels of unbelief. Even though these exist.

At first the debate within was between so-called “accommodationists” and “confrontationists.” I think the terms are imbecilic, but apparently the former are those who think conversation between believers and non believers can be civil.  The latter follow a somewhat different model of discourse, as between an annoyed pet owner shouting at a dog who’s just peed on the chair leg again.

Some accommodationists think that atheists should engage in interfaith dialogue with believers of various brightnesses, as long as both parties to the discussion are unarmed and everyone agrees that Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” is the best ice cream ever made and that Kristin Chenoweth’s version of “Taylor the Latte Boy” is awesome.  I’m not that extreme, of course–just a backslider who needs a little stained glass and Bach in his life now and again.

But confrontationists are tough.  They are the real deal. You can keep your ice cream and your god–and don’t even think about using the courtier’s reply when they call you out as a dick because they have that page in their Atheist Pride Handbook bookmarked, you conceited, theistic, knee-bending pillock.

All kinds of silly images come to mind when I read what the angriest of the atheist brood say, but the dominant one lately is a continually pissed off and ineffectual Yosemite Sam waving his pistols in the air and shouting “It’s time to stop pussyfootin’ around. You Bible-totin’ swamp cabbages and your lily-livered compadres better run for cover. Our day has come and it isn’t the rapture, varmint.”

Hard-shell Atheist in Uniform

The level of pure nastiness has now reached such comic proportions that the real danger faced by the hardshell atheists is the risk of appearing clownish and absurd without being especially funny.

That is a sad state to be in when you are supposed to be advocating for science and reason. So we have to ask why the “confrontationists” are in such a bad mood.  All we know is that ice cream won’t fix it.

I have a theory about this.  As often happens in the history of movements beginning with a-  they seem to be have learned how to behave from the movement they’re rebelling against. Hardshell atheists are behaving like craven theists.

One of the things that irritated ancient nations about the Jews was the CPT, the Chosen People Thing. Judaism at its peak was a tiny and exclusivist sect among the religions of the Middle East. Its purity codes and laws were famous for being as prickly and picky as their God was about who got to call him Father. Having conversations or social relations with non-Jews was not only not recommended, it was not tolerated. (It’s one of the charges against Jesus: a publican is a non Jew). Accommodation was not an option. The Egyptians hated it, then the Persians (a little less), the Babylonians and finally the Romans.  Later the medieval Europeans codified the hatred, and of course, the Germans decided to take matters into their own hands. The Final Solution is what happened when talking, compression, and eviction notices didn’t work.

The Christians got a version of the CPT by default when they canonized the Old Testament and proclaimed themselves the New Israel.  The Muslims had no choice but to follow suit: their religion is the end of prophecy and their way is the only straight way to God.

One of the things, I suspect, that most irritates atheists about the book religions is this sometimes implicit (and sometimes grating) ideology that you are either inside or outside the faith, and if you’re outside, forget you. But salvation was never about saving everybody.  In most denominations, God doesn’t want that.  He wants the ones who shine the brightest.

Odd, isn’t it, that the evangelical atheists have adopted a fairly toxic version of the same narrative toward members of their own tribe. Yet who can deny that their total commitment to the Non-existence of God is another outbreak of CPT.  They are behaving religiously, aping the worst features of the religious attitudes and behaviors they profess to condemn.

They–the hardshells–will call me wrong, of course, as well as seriously confused and (heh) accommodating.  They will say that I’m just being an idiot (again) for equating supernaturalism and superstition (= religion) with logic and science. Don’t I get why this analogy is so bad? It is so bad because this time the chosen have been self-selected by their ingenuity and intellectual excellence, not by some imaginary celestial power.

To which I have to say, in my defense, Don’t you get that the God who doesn’t exist now—the one you don’t believe in—didn’t exist then either?  The god of religious exclusivism is the god fabricated by people who already believed in the superiority of their ways, their laws, their customs, and their intrinsic value.  It’s the feeling right and thinking that because you are, you are also special and need not discuss your ideas with people who dramatically oppose you that leads to the mistrust, the suspicion, the animosity.  Atheists who wonder why they are mistrusted can begin with the anguish the Jews felt when the Romans began a centuries-long tradition of vituperation against the CPT.

But lackaday dee misery me.  This post will be greeted with the same disdain I have come to expect from atheists.  They will find a straw man in here somewhere and put a hat on him.  This will be called a screed or a diatribe.  I will be asked where my evidence is for saying these things. (Hint: everywhere)  I will be told that I don’t want dialogue, or that I’m coddling religionists, that this post is a troll in some endless private conversation among certified members about the evils of (all) religion or that I am arrogant (though arrogant prick is my favorite obloquy) or that I am an undercover agent for the Church of God. Actually, the last has not yet been suggested so feel free to use it.  And don’t let the fact that there are literally dozens of fairly intelligent people chiming in on this message to the atheist hordes; write it off to my envy at not being Richard Dawkins.  Damn.

Now for the best part. It may surprise you to learn that, for everything said here, I am not really a fan of dialogue with faith communities. As far as I am concerned ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are simply activities of groups that interact at a social level, without really getting into the nitty gritty of how they are different, or why they might be wrong. There are two kinds: the merely boring and the pissing contest, but both are ultimately ineffectual.

Atheism–just an opinion, mind you–has no clear place in such a discussion; to mean anything at all, it must be premised on some form of the proposal (a) that God does not exist (b) that this belief has social and moral consequences, especially in terms of human decision-making and (c) that the world we create through these decisions is accountable only to us—that we are the source and the end of our actions.  I personally agree with one of the most outspoken hard-shell atheist writers when she sees atheism as something that happens person to person and individual to individual.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to people who are religious.  But do you really need a committee (or a community) to do it in?

But I am in favor of atheists, hard- and soft-shell, being concerned about language, self-image, the quality of their critique of religion, and their capacity to describe their life-stance in a positive form.  I am interested in narrative control and a literary style that corresponds in form to methods and aims that have often (think Sartre) been elegant. That makes me an elitist, not a cowboy, I know. But the funny thing about Yosemite Sam is that he’ll always shoot first and ask questions later. And people begin to wonder about people like that.

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45 thoughts on “Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

  1. I’m Jewish and not looking for a fight, but a Jew who was looking for one could look askance at your suggestion that ancient anti-semitism and even, indirectly, the Holocaust were somehow brought on by the Jews’ sense of superiority.

    Do you really want to start a war on two fronts, against the GNU atheists and the Jews too?

    • The problem of religious exclusivity is a well known pattern; Try reading my Just War and Jihad. You seem to think that the CPT was not a factor in European attitudes–in fact from the time of Tacitus it was amain factor.

    • However, I might have said something about how the CPT becomes viral among adoptees–e.g., pretty obvious that the Germans had adopted a racial and social version of the same philosophy which the religious claims of Judaism rendered problematical. Probably worth a blog in its own right. I mainly interested in how the idea gets translated into various forms of religious and social puritanism.

      • Your account of the effect on the CPT on others seems implicitly to steer very close to what is called
        “blaming the victim”, in this case, the Jews.

        Your sources are Babylonians, Persians and Romans, all of which were imperialist powers at the time, and imperialistic powers do tend to rationalize their conquests and domination by self-serving accounts, in this case, that irritating Jewish sense of superiority (the CPT). Tacitus, whom you cite, was a Roman historian: I imagine that a Jewish historian would have seen things from another point of view.

        In reality, Babylonian, Persian and Roman aggression against Jewish Palestine probably had economic and geopolitical motives.

        I’m not claiming that the CPT does not irritate non-members of the CP or that Jews are always good and that those who attack them are always bad. Life is not that simple.

        However, blaming the victim is not only politically incorrect, but also it at times leads us to forget that
        someone attacked someone else and that even if the person attacked “asked for it” or was hopeless obnoxious, that is no justification to attack others.

  2. Ah, Joe, you don’t have to try so hard – I’m always ready to learn from you!

    There’s one exception though – this business of the “capacity to describe their life-stance in a positive form.” No, I’m sorry, that’s asking too much. My life-stance forsooth! And in a positive form. No no no; there’s a limit to everything.

    I must say I never took you for a life-stance describer in a positive form. I’m a little disappointed.

  3. Great art! Reminds me of ‘how thou’ and ‘speeches to the (un)cultured despisers’: those ‘enlightened’ despisers whom Friedrich’s friend Friedrich (Schlegel) referred to as ‘harmonious dullards’. They comprise so many social sub groups, gangs, tribes, movements and fraternities or sisterhoods (maternities?) all with apologists agonisingly defending and clinging fans. Some are compromising and others are not. There are those who cuddle and those who coddle and those who converse or just concentrate on being angry instead and hate huggles wholeheartedly. Much better to be free on the outside and be considered an honorary apatheistic citizen of the planet and go wherever people don’t get quite so uptight about people with other ideas and you can hear liberating Bach cantatas bounce of stained glass and find less to distrust and more to celebrate. (I’m not sure how ‘atheism’ .. “happens” – but I don’t really care – too fluffy)

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  5. The tendencies may well be innate in most religions, as you say, but you do specifically refer to the Jews, and Jews tend to be sensitive about being the objects of persecution, for reasons that we both know all too well.

    Here’s a Jewish story: a well-intentioned lady asks the violinist Isaac Stern why so many Jews play the violin.
    Answer: it’s easier to flee the country with a violin than with a grand piano.

    • Well Sam, of course I refer to the Jews because the texts make specific and clear reference to the ideology of chosen people. You seem to imply that I am suggesting this ideology deserves the treatment it got, to oversimplify your point, whereas the point is that outside perceptions created conditions of intolerance that led to systematic persecution. The leitmotif in Judaism is better developed than in other religions, even religions like Xty and Islam that exploit it. But (since I am theoretically a scholar in these matters) have a look at Deut. 14.2; Exodus 19.5; Gen. 17.7; Exodus 19.6; Deut 7.7-8; and Amos 3.2 — just the tip of the iceberg. Any judgements people make about such texts in the wake of the holocaust are naturally going to be seen in the light of that catastrophe, but we need to begin not with Isaac Stern but with the phenomenon of exclusivity, which is what this post was about–and the tendency of atheists of a certain kind to accept. the same posture. Try also to understand that any suggestion that the Jews “got what they deserved” is a complete misinterpretation of isolating this theme in Judaism.

  6. I’m Amos. I never claimed to be Sam. Dr. Hoffmann began to call me “Sam”, since I had only left my initial “s” and I liked the name.

    When I began to use my last name and first initial online, that is, “s. wallerstein” instead of my middle name “Amos”, I explained my motives at length in the TPM blog, in the Feminists Philosophers blog and in Jean Kazez’s blog, so it is far from a secret.

    • Sorry–Don’t know where I got the Sam from, Amos. Amos is very fine prophet. Perhaps the best exponent of the CPT. Samuel, not so much.

    • Sorry Amos – I like ‘Sam’ too. Fond of a nephew, Sam. Like me, he loves the sea but surprised us all by becoming a chef. He cleaned up proper, married a nice Scottish lass and is living somewhere up in the highlands with a brand new baby. Recently he cooked for the Queen and the Pope who dined together, but like me, a hopeless Antipodean pacifist, he missed the perfect opportunity to get rid of them both. An Amos like the prophet might have done better. (apologies to loyal royalists)

  7. I personally think that biology makes it thus. Humans are band primates; we separate into groups and struggle against each other. Morality is whatever benefits the bands; evil is what the other band does. Like all traits, the urge to belong and struggle is biochemically distributed, stronger in some, weaker in others (the latter including Dr Hoffman, it seems).

    As a universalist Christian, I think-or to be more accurate, I hope-that this is what we are most saved from, that in the end God has no band, but all.

  8. Dr. Hoffmann:
    I’ve noticed your elegant verbal sword play. I’ll try to keep a few meters between us.

    Steph:
    With the years, my bomb-throwing, Stern Gang, tendencies are ever weaker . So I probably would have asked the Pope to autograph a copy of his latest encyclical.

  9. I don’t really get this analysis. You’ve got the chosen people thing, but then there’s also the evangelical thing. Chosen people feel superior, but just want self-determination. They want to be left alone. Evangelists feel superior and want to spread the word. They think there’s evil out there and they win points by hunting it down and eliminating it. If you’re going to explain the problems of Jews, it would be grossly unfair to point a finger at the idea of chosenness and not at the very different, and Christian, tendency to evangelism. Where do new/gnu/whatever atheists fit in here? No, they’re not Jewish in attitude, they’re Christian. They think they’ve seen the light, and they want everyone else to see it too. Not even all fellow atheists are enlightened enough–they must first convert all atheists to the right kind of atheism, and then they can march onward and save everyone else from the sin of religion. They have missionary zeal, and Jews don’t.

    • Where do you get the idea that the CPT was about isolationism? It was expansionist and aggressive–as in Land of Canaan and making Abraham’s descendants as numberless as the stars in the sky. It didn’t work. Later, (think Ezra and Nehemiah) the refrain is the Jews built a hedge around the law–after sound drubbing by the nations mentioned in the piece. But they certainly didn’t develop the original triumphalism a la David and his cohorts because they “wanted to be left alone.” You seem to be impacted by the post-1st century condition of the Jews as a denationalized people who were forbidden to proselytize.

  10. But you’re using choseness to explain things done to Jews in the 20th century and to describe today’s new atheists. Surely that makes it sensible to think about what choseness has amounted to over time, and not just pre-1st century. In any event, even pre-1st century, where’s the evangelism? Triumphalism isn’t the same thing. Growing by leaving descendants is completely different from converting surrounding peoples. Killing the Canaanites is also not the same as converting them. I don’t see any evangelizing here–Jews have never wanted to turn non-Jews into Jews, but new atheists definitely wanted to turn non-new-atheists into new atheists. It seems to me the more apt comparison is between new atheists and Christians, not new atheists and Jews.

    • No: Just a religious “motif” that begins a long time ago and affects groups throughout time. The chosenness for all I care could be Mormon misssionaries in Bangladesh. It isn’t the case that the Hebrew tribes didn’t try to “grow” their religion–but the word you use–evangelization–as in preaching and persuasion–doesn’t apply; conquest does, and it is more accurate to use the term Hebrews anyway, at least up to the fatal fall with the Babylonian captivity. That is when expansion was well and truly over, when Judaism becomes a “religion” rather than an autonomous, national, post-tribal thing. When you say “the Jews never wanted to convert anybody” (make Jews of non Jews) you have a whole lot of Hebrew history to overlook: but it IS true that Judaism becomes non proselytic over time, for the same reason Xy in Islamic countries does: as a stateless minority within a huge religious world they were constrained from doing so, and made a religious virtue of political necessity. But I detect a certain parochial belief behind your comment about this–as in “I asked a rabbi how I could become a Je and he told me to go away.” A lot of Jews as a purely religious matter are very proud of the the “fact” that they belong to a faith that doesn’t want to propagate itself through conversion, but this is an historical outcome, not the explanation for what the the original sense of “righteousness” and election came from. I do agree, however, that if it takes this much background to explain an analogy the analogy must be horrible.

  11. OK, in some periods Jews have tried to expand, but by reproducing more, driving other people off of land, killing people, etc. They haven’t tried to expand by changing people’s minds, making Jews out of non-Jews. Have they? What’s the “proselytic” period of Hebrew history that you think I’m overlooking? On the other hand, converting people has always been a strategy for Christian expansion. Christians want to save others, not just expand themselves. Ditto, new atheists. They are worried about how religion is poisoning everything–harming everyone else–and want to save people from all these horrors. So it’s not a matter of a tribe wanting to expand itself (the Jewish goal), but there’s something essentially other-regarding about new atheists. No?

    • Jean: I can’t disagree with this because you say “Jews” and that frames it a little differently. Plus you have converted me to the obscurity of this analogy. Plus, I like the way you improve certain points of my argument–and yes I think New atheists are far more evangelical in their sense of rightness. In exchange for these concessions I expect you to friend me on Fb.

    • Jean:
      Methinks that the salient feature of Judaic “reproduction” was their policy to marry only within their own kind. This overt genetic strategy retained Semitic features that allowed outsiders to isolate them physically in Europe, when the Middle East was rarely viewed positively. Any bird that is different is pecked to pieces, and that has to be part of it, if we truly try to understand their debacles now and then.

      Still, what a gruesome subject within Joe’s wonderful screed. I just try to browse here and get drawn in to his superb grasp of the language with all of its vernaculars and paeans to lost piety – keep it up, for dog’s sake, all of you!

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  13. I enjoyed this post a lot… and can empathise with two points espectially:

    1) I am an atheist-agnostic, yet I have little-to-no interest in science. That is not the same as saying that I do not find the most interesting bits of it fascinating, or that I doubt its validity or usefulness… I am simply saying that dialogues about science and scepticism do not particularly interest me. I would rather talk about theatre, literature, current affairs or, dare I say, religion. I always feel that when I am within ‘non-’ or ‘anti-religious’ circles that I am being implicitly looked-down upon for not being interested in evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics etc etc.

    2) I have never really understood the point of inter-faith dialogue… I don’t know what it achieves. But I guess it is better for people to be talking than not talking…

    • R & M:

      You’re not the only atheist who has not glanced at a science text since secondary school physics. I assimilated my atheism from Camus’s The Stranger and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

      Why atheist debate has been hegemonized by the science-people is a question I cannot answer. Behind the scientific-atheists, often seems to lurk a certain hostility to or sense of superiority over us poet atheists. Maybe they are settling old scores, dating back to the long-gone days when poetry was cool. As Auden’s poem says, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”.

      Dr. Hoffmann has a good eye for how social phenomena arise and he may be able to illuminate this question.

      • I do completely agree with Jean that America has lots of songs. Maybe that is the issue: so many songs that we can’t even talk about patrimony, and that means when people have to sing their history they can only sing in sections. No “I Vow to Thee My Country” or “Jerusalem” is even remotely possible. Best Loved Songs of the American People–forget it. God Bless America–forget it. It’s got to be George Gershwin or Cole Porter or Richard Rogers or…..(carry on) until you arrive at your comfort zone. If I were vain (patriotic) I’d say: This is America, eat our dust. But what i say instead is, Can you sing our common inheritance? Sho’ ain’t jes English Mr Interlocutor. Try Swanee. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tngIiaV3BFo

      • “Why atheist debate has been hegemonized by the science-people is a question I cannot answer. Behind the scientific-atheists, often seems to lurk a certain hostility to or sense of superiority over us poet atheists. Maybe they are settling old scores, dating back to the long-gone days when poetry was cool. As Auden’s poem says, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”. ”

        I heartily concur!

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  15. Call me Sam or Amos, whichever you prefer.

    As to music, I’m completely tone deaf, but from time to time, I find myself singing Bob Dylan songs to myself:
    The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Chimes of Freedom, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna……

    Otherwise, the only song I know is je ne regrette rien.

  16. I’m intrigued by your view of interfaith dialogue. I was not myself a fan until I tried it – I found it valuable simply because it helped me put a face to certain religious opinions and therefore made it more difficult for me to dismiss them in quite the same way. It seems to me that humanizing the other is a goal to be sought for its own sake, and that interfaith dialogue will help us achieve that.

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