Atheism’s Little Idea

Lieber Gott: Bitte kommen Sie wieder. Wir sind sehr traurig. Ihre Gottheit steht außer Zweifel. Ihr, Faust.

I do apologize.  It seems that everything I write these days is anti-atheist. And who can blame my unbelieving brethren for assuming I am fighting for the other side.  Perhaps I should be, since modern atheism is hardly worth defending.

To be brutal, I cannot imagine a time in the history of unbelief when atheism has appeared more hamfisted, puling, ignorant or unappealing.

Is this because its savants are also described by those adjectives, or because their fans are just being fans, merchandising the cause: t-shirts, coffee mugs, quick fixes, blasphemy competitions, and billboard campaigns? (Axial tilt is the reason for the season: Honest Jethro,  I thought I’d never stop laughing). I mean, who are we unless someone is offended by who we are?  What good is blasphemy if no one is getting their knickers in a knot anymore, for Christ’s sake. How can we “come out” when there’s no one standing outside the closet to yell “Surprise!” at? And, by the way you churchy jerks: we are victims.

Atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important.  And that is a shame, because God was a big idea, and the rejection of the existence of God was also a big idea, once upon a time.

There was nothing “mistaken” about belief in God, and the fact that there is probably no god does not lessen his significance.  No distant galaxy of more intelligent beings has sent us an error message about the God thing. God is no more “wrong” than a carriage is wrong in relation to a JAG XKR-S.  Expensive strokes for modern folks, but as carriage is to sleek design and comfortable travel, so god is to modern understanding.  Notice: I did not say science.  I said modern understanding, because only a portion of modern understanding is shaped by science and god is not an object of scientific thought.  If the question of God could be reduced to a simple scientific verdict, the eminently nasal Richard Dawkins could shut his repetitive trap. As it is he has to keep talking.

Atheism has become a very little idea because it is now promoted by little people with a small focus.  These people tend to think that there are two kinds of questions: the questions we have already answered and the questions we will answer tomorrow.  When they were even smaller than they are now, their father asked them every six weeks, “Whadja get in math and science?” When they had children of their own, they asked them, “Whadja get in science and math?”  Which goes to show, people can change.

They eschew mystery, unless it’s connected to a telescopic lens or an electron microscope or a neutrinometer at the Hadron Collider at CERN. “Mystery” is not a state to be enjoyed or celebrated like a good wine or a raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes: it is a temporary state of befuddlement, an unknown sum, an uncharted particle, a glimpse of a distant galaxy, the possibility that Mars supported microbial life.

I get excited by all of these things, incidentally.  They are the sorts of things that put the sapiens (twice) in the name of our species.  Our ability to figure things out is almost mysterious, but not at all miraculous. In fact, a crucial part of modern humanism is the celebration of our continued and accelerating ability to make sense of the universe and where we are in it.

Strictly speaking we do not need to know as much as we already do to survive and there is no guarantee that knowing more will guarantee our survival.  So it’s wondrous indeed that we care enough to put knowledge at the top of the human agenda.  The same mysterious attitude it was that pricked us into turning the vast and starry skies into the creation of a divine being who loved us, cared for us, and saved us from oblivion.

We have gradually concluded that this is probably not true: there is no such being–yet the vast and starry skies remain.  But we have not yet learned to love the universe as much as we once loved God because, as Stephen Crane once said, we know the universe does not love us back.

We lived before there was science, and we may live at some distant point–come hell, high water, nuclear catatsrophe, plague, and asteroids that don’t miss–after it.  I do not regard an umimaginable future unlikely because nothing is more unlikely than that we should understand the world as well as we do now.

Atheism has been of practically no use in formulating this world view.  It is certainly true that a majority of scientists are either unbelievers (of some sort) or unconventional believers. But being an atheist was never a prerequisite to good science.  Understanding the natural world makes good science, a world in which the mysterious exists but the miraculous does not.

Science reified (with its consort, Reason) has become the convenient alternative deity of small atheists. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Most of the greatest advances in science were made by “believers.”  Without getting into the mud over Einstein (who whether a believer or not was not an atheist), Newton, Mendel, Galileo, Kelvin, Darwin, Faraday, Boyle, Planck, and on and on. But the score at the end of this risky game is not to stack theists against atheists.   Most smart people, some of whom are scientists,  are not religious in the way religious people want them to be religious or irreligious in the way atheists want them to be atheists.

Max Planck

When did atheism cease to be a big idea?  When atheists made God a little idea.  When its idea of god shriveled to become a postulate of a new intellectual Darwinism.  When they began to identify unbelief with being a woman, a gay, a lesbian, or some other victimized cadre.   When they decided that religion is best described as a malicious and retardant cultural force that connives to prevent us being the Alpha Race of super-intelligences and wholly equal beings that nature has in store for  us. When they elevated naturalism, already an outmoded view of the universe, to a cause, at the expense of authentic imagination.

Atheism has become a little idea because it is based on the hobgoblin theory of religion: its god is a green elf with a stick, not the master of the universe who controls it with his omniscient will. –Let alone a God so powerful that this will could evolve into Nature’s God–the god of Jefferson and Paine–and then into the laws of nature, as it did before the end of the eighteenth century in learned discussion and debate.

Atheism until fairly recently has been about a disappointing search for god that ends in failure, disillusionment, despair, and finally a new affirmation of human ingenuity that is entirely compatible with both science and art.

That’s the way Sartre thought of it. –A conclusion forced upon us by the dawning recognition that we are both the source and solution to our despair.  That is what Walter Lippmann thought in 1929, when he described the erosion of belief by the acids of modernity.  This atheism was respectful of the fact that God is a very big idea, a sublime idea, and that abandoning such an idea could not take place as a mere reckoning at one moment in time; it had to happen as a process that included hatred, alienation and what Whitehead saw as “reconciliation” with the idea of God.  That is what Leo Strauss meant in 1955 when he wrote in Natural Right and History that the classical virtues would save the modern world from the negative trinity of pragmatism, scientism and relativism, what Irving Babbitt (Lippmann’s teacher at Harvard) meant in declaring war on modernity and science in favour of the “inner check” of classical humanism.

In 1914, on the eve of World War I, a very young Lippmann surveyed the situation in America: “The sanctity of property, the patriarchal family, hereditary caste, the dogma of sin, obedience to authority–the rock of ages, in brief, has been blasted for us.”  A disllusioned soldier on the Western Front, Wilfred Owen asked poetically in the same year, “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” Ortega y Gasset observed that the goals that furnished yesterday’s landscape with “so definite an architecture” have lost their hold. Those that are to replace them have not yet taken shape, and so the landscape “seems to break up, vacillate, and quake in all directions.” And Yeats, elaborating on the kind of apocalyptic imagery he used in “The Second Coming” recalled: “Nature, steel-bound or stone-built in the nineteenth century, became a flux where man drowned or swam.”  We all know the verdict: “Things fall apart,” because the god at the centre could not hold.  The image was highly appropriate because it was atomic and prophetic.

My current Angst, to use that hackneyed word correctly, is that most contemporary humanists don’t know what classical humanism is, and most modern atheists won’t even have read the books mentioned in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.  Their atheism is an uneven mixture of basic physics, evolutionary biology, half cooked theories from the greasy kitchen  of cognitive science, assorted political opinions, and what they regard as common sense.  They fell into atheism; they did not come to it.

That’s the way  recent atheism has been, an old fiddle with one string and one tune to play: We are the world.  Get over God. If the almighty  being and his raggedy book are relevant at all, it’s simply as a record of all the stupid things human beings can think of: superstitious sorghum, toxic drivel that stopped being relevant in the century its superstitious, toxic tropes were composed.

Was it only ten years ago that relatively dumb people were saying “Duh” to obtuse comments that they were afraid equally dumb people might miss without the exclamation, usually prefaced with, “I mean like.…”   The fad was almost as annoying as the similarly valenced interjection “Hello?” which had to be said with the speaker four inches from your face, head tilted. Modern culture, this is to say, has survived the tyranny of not very bright bright-lovers, the opinionated, the anti-obtusity of the obtuse.  That’s what the atheist militia, the campaigners, the billboard mongers are: people who just say “Duh” when they are asked about the existence of God.

“In all philosophic theory,” said Whitehead, with Russell the author of Principia Mathematica and thus no slouch when it came to close reasoning and logic., “there is an ultimate which is capable of characterization only through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident.”  Hello?

Atheist Meeting?

As I completed this blog, a friend forwarded to me an appreciation of a recent meeting of a group called Skepticon, a confederation of compatible atheist groups.

The piece reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in Roald Dahl’s The Witches where the hags come together, disguised under itchy wigs as ordinary housewives, to exchange ”recipes.”

We are assured that skepticism is “a humanism” by one of the keynoters, whatever that is supposed to mean; P Z Myers and Greta Christina justified their rancid approaches to belief by saying that religion “hurts human beings” (well, that’s something to suppose, which is better than nothing to suppose), and a writer named James Croft praised the meeting’s “profoundly humanist…no cop-out approach” while David Silverman, the head of the American Atheists warned that calling yourself a humanist is, in fact, a cop out.

I mention Skepticon because to my mind the meeting is further evidence of the crisis that besets atheism.  It cannot quite embrace humanism at the margins, the solution to which for certain ecumenical atheists is to fiddle with the definition of humanism by rolling out the dough ever thinner. It cannot represent skepticism in a methodological way because science and philosophy and even theology have been there and do it.  It cannot lay claim to helping people in a direct and positive (as opposed to a merely rhetorical way)  because it isn’t, after all, a social welfare movement.

It wants like Pirandello’s lost characters, a cause, an author, something that defines it and sets it apart: science, reason, empathy, concern for human health, but ends up sounding like a nightmare version of a Miss America contestant prompted to give her world peace response.

What atheism and humanism have needed for a long time and once came close to having was a think tank to deal with the theoretical issues of these different movements. It may say worlds about the nature of atheism that this project failed, under the name of secular humanism. Think, O ye of little faith and proud of it, how many temples of learning religion has built.  No don’t: you’ll get it wrong.

But for a think tank, you need thinkers. What the atheists are left with is a stage and a microphone.

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79 thoughts on “Atheism’s Little Idea

  1. Pingback: The Self-defeating Nature of New Atheism | eChurch Blog

    • You jest? I grew up in a secular little world without labels, aware of different faiths around me. I never needed to believe and reading history and evolution of these faiths in my cosy environment, probably ensured prevention of believing any of them anyway. I’m aware of what I know and what I don’t. However when I criticise new atheists and ‘movement humanists’, it gives them the impression that I’m batting for the other team. I always think it’s naively sweet of them to ‘accuse’ me of being ‘religious’, or often, identify me as a ‘Christian’ (whatever that means – sometimes nothing at all, just a label). I couldn’t have anything further from my mind. I’m aware of agnosticism in Christians around me and I’ll defend them for it. But I have no spiritual bone in my body (really bad metaphor). I could never believe. I’m just not ‘anti-religious’ – that’s all. I love tradition and ritual and talking to people about their ideas. Get a bit sick of the atheists though. They’re dull and boring and monotonous and their vocabulary isn’t very broad. And they don’t seem to understand the histories of their own ideas.

      As the author says: “[W]ho can blame my unbelieving brethren for assuming I am fighting for the other side”…

      Critical thinking and independent minds are anomalies in simplistic worldviews. “Everyone has observed how much more dogs are animated when they hunt in a pack, than when they pursue their game apart. We might, perhaps, be at a loss to explain this phenomenon, if we had not experience of a similar in ourselves.” David Hume, clearly pondering the new atheist phenomenon. “You are either with us or you are against us” (George W Bush). “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matt 12.30). Sweet of the new atheists and atheist movement ‘humanists’, to suggest he’s ‘fighting for the other side’ or suggest that he’s on the way to conversion and apologetics. But he’s not defending Church dogma, he’s opposing atheist and ideological simpletons, drama queens, whiners, screamers, appleheads, historically illiterate village idiots and tribalists. I wish they’d all shut their repetitive proverbial traps.

      All the world’s a stage,
      And all the men and women merely players;
      They have their exits and their entrances,
      And one man in his time plays many parts,
      His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
      Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
      Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
      And shining morning face, creeping like snail
      Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
      Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
      Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
      Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
      Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
      Seeking the bubble reputation
      Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
      In fair round belly with good capon lined,
      With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
      Full of wise saws and modern instances;
      And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
      Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
      With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
      His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
      For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
      Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
      And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
      That ends this strange eventful history,
      Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
      Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

  2. Could someone please explain to me how ‘modern atheism’ & ‘New Atheists’ differ from good old fashioned atheism & old atheists? Do the modern variety lack belief in a different way?

    Moving on, I wonder in what way ‘God’ (I presume this refers to the god of Abraham & his ilk, rather than the God of Spinoza et al) is as you suggest, a big, sublime idea. Certainly, I fail to see how it is anymore of these things than any other god or pantheon thereof.

    As an aside, serif fonts, like Times New Roman, and justified text (introducing anomalous spacing), conspire to make reading even more difficult for those of us with dyslexia.

      • I don’t think Chairman Bill suggested New Atheism was a cloak term for all modern atheists. He makes a distinction between ‘modern atheism’ & ‘New Atheists’ and I make a distinction between New Atheists and softer atheists who are not aggressive like New Atheists, the followers of the four horsemen, Myers, Coyne and co. We both made the distinction. There are different flavours in atheism today just as there always have been. However, Andrew Brown’s Guardian articles was good and still is.

  3. @Chairman Bill
    There is no ‘good old fashioned atheism’. Atheism is an idea, God is an idea, and all ideas have histories and evolutions. Charges of atheism were brought against people in ancient times who rejected the religion of the state and charges of atheism were brought against people in the Reformation who dissented from the denomination of the monarchy. As the emerging sciences evolved, so did skepticism and the idea of the rejection of the idea of God, and educated people reasoned upon things. In the last century, rejection of religion outright became more popular and tangled with ideologies and fundamentalist religion expanded and conflict eventuated. New atheists came on the scene post 2001 accompanied by a more robust and destructive anti religious historically ill informed rhetoric. But even today there is soft atheism as well which does not simplify faiths of religious people and mock it as new atheists do

  4. I know you’re not one for putting The Message on billboards, but, honestly: put this on a billboard — everyone needs to read this! Thank you for this terrific post and the numerous excellent points you made; there is wisdom here for both believers and non-believers.

  5. Pingback: The Reason for the Season (A Scientific Perspective) « Exploring Our Matrix

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece, and found myself agreeing with almost everything, even though some parts made me feel uncomfortable.
    But has atheism itself really become a very little idea, or is it that brand of ‘neo-atheism promoted by some outspoken people? I happen to agree that their behaviour is not useful, and creates more heat than light. But if they have stolen the name ‘Atheist’ what are we to do? Should we reclaim the name, or call ourselves something else? I rather like the name ‘humean’ to describe a particular form of Atheist Humanism. Pity it has apparently been claimed already by those studying David Hume.

    • You could try ‘unbeliever’ if you want a label. I know quite a few people, who if pressed, will say ‘yes, I’m an atheist’ but would not normally think about labels. I know more who just say ‘I don’t believe in God’. Most are probably ‘soft’ atheists or apatheistic. I don’t choose any label according to belief or unbelief. I never have, and I’ve never believed. I’m a humanist, but ‘atheist humanist’ is confusing because humanism doesn’t have anything to do with religion or non religion. Humanism has been hijacked by twentieth century political causes, ideological positions and social movements. But humanism, which comes out of the renaissance, is a cultural spirit and quest for knowledge and meaning through the works of human beings rather than God, and atheism is not a sufficient description of what it is. It doesn’t exclude believers whose beliefs don’t contradict the evidence of science but who also celebrate human achievement in all spheres of learning, art, craft, and ethics. So maybe you’re just a ‘humanist’ too (who doesn’t believe in an idea of God). :-)

  7. Pingback: The religious dilemma |

  8. I think that the main strawman in this piece is in identifying New Atheism as an intellectual movement. It isn’t. It’s a political and social movement. This is not a criticism of it. The anti-slavery movement or suffragette movement weren’t really intellectual movements either.

    It is hard for middle-class people living in the developed world outside the United States to understand why it’s an important social movement. You have to understand that for all the rhetoric of freedom and equality, the United States is a deeply prejudiced nation, and always has been. (You may recall that the US didn’t have universal suffrage until 1965, for example.)

    So while they may not be the most disadvantaged group, Atheists in the United States do need a civil rights movement, and theists should offer them any support (moral or otherwise) that we can.

    • The New Atheist heros, the four horsemen, Myers and co, perceive themselves as an intellectual movement, with Ph.Ds, not in history of religions or literature maybe, but in the sciences. Science and scientific evidence has effectively become the end goal or objective, (or the new ‘god’). I don’t think the author is suggesting that they actually are an intellectual movement. “Atheism has become a very little idea because it is now promoted by little people with a small focus.”

    • 1. I found no strawman in Prof Hoffmann’s piece. In fact, I found his characterization of the situation of modern atheism quite fitting. Just because there was a pejorative spin on Prof Hoffmann’s conception of modern atheism doesn’t mean that he was mischaracterizing it.

      2. I don’t know how you think that the differences between ‘intellectual,’ ‘political,’ and ‘social’ can be so crystalline or how you can treat them as composite.

      3. I am realizing more and more that people don’t know how to talk about rights. Talk of political rights is talk of the ways that the state is obliged to its citizens. So in what way is the state not living up to its obligation to atheists?

      • You’re right Dan, and at the same time while ‘intellectual Darwinism’ is perjorative, it’s fitting, and he is not describing the movement as an exclusively intellectual movement. Simplistic characterisations of religion and narrow focus, do not constitute an ‘intellectual’ approach. Of course neither does the term ‘intellectual Darwinism’ exclude the political and social implications of the movement.

        Political rights of citizens include the right to vote and protest to the government. The web becomes more tangled with the American ‘democratic’ system and I’m not in a geographical position to comment as I’m a citizen with voting rights in countries outside America where I am free to express myself and have had the privilege of secular education and secular state… ;-)

  9. Well, as an example of the level of intellectual insights on this side of the pond to these questions try Stephen Law’s contribution:

    There was a time when the diagnosis of mental illness was thought to be the province of doctors, who might be expected to know something about it. That would, of course, require them to spend many years actually learning things.

    I should declare a personal interest here; my only child is a doctor who has spent many years learning things and who expects to spend many more years learning things.

    Stephen Law has shortcut this process; he claimed on his blog a couple of years back that he had spoken briefly to a psychiatrist who agreed with him, though naturally the psychiatrist who allegedly did so was unidentified. This may, or may not, be because the Royal College of Psychiatrists takes a dim view of its members diagnosing people they have never examined; on the other hand it is equally possible that Stephen Law hallucinated the entire incident.

    These are possibilities; I can, however, offer one certainty: the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a Position Statement on ‘Recommendations for psychiatrists on spirituality and religion’ in August 2011.

    Nowhere in that Position Statement is there any comment which could even remotely support Stephen Law’s claims.

    Admittedly there isn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of him actually having read it, since that would have required him to do some work, so we cannot fairly conclude that he is deliberately misrepresenting it. It’s just straightforward ignorance on his part of the Statement.

    There was a time when we could identify the creationists pretty easily; they were the frothing-at-the-mouth nut jobs, against whom we would woman the barricades with a smile on our lips and a song in our hearts.

    • Stevie, you know that position statement was written by a Christian who teaches in a theology department, don’t you? How is his view any less biased than Stephen Law’s? Why would he even bother to read something that is meaningless?

      • Chris Cook is a Professorial Research Fellow at Durham BSc, MB, BS, MD, MA, PhD, FRCPsych. He trained first in medicine, at St George’s Hospital Medical School in London, qualifying in1981, and then specialised as a postgraduate in psychiatry at the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guys and St Thomas’s, also in London. Following this, his clinical and academic interests in psychiatry have been largely in the field of addictive behaviour, and especially alcohol misuse. He held positions as Lecturer at University College, London (1987 to 1990) and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, London (1994 to 1997) as well as being Professor of the Psychiatry of Alcohol Misuse at the University of Kent from 1997 to 2003.

        His academic work in psychiatry has been broad in scope. His doctoral thesis was on genetic effects upon the predisposition to alcohol misuse and dependence and was very biologically based. However, I have always also been interested in treatment approaches, including those based in the mutual help movement (of Alcoholics Anonymous and affiliated organisations) and those with religious roots, as well as those that are more medically based.

        He is Director of the Project for Spirituality, Theology & Health. This project is collaborative between the Department of Theology & Religion and the School for Medicine & Health. It has collaborative links with health service delivery and spiritual/pastoral care.

        It appears he is well qualified to make a recommendations for psychiatrists on spirituality and religion.

      • Michael

        Steph has already humiliated you, and being a humanist I am reluctant to add to that burden, but I really must ask you if it even occurred to you to wonder whether the Royal College of Psychiatrists would put out a Position Statement which did not command the general support of the most senior members of the College, who are of all faiths and none. Actually, now I come to think about it, that’s mostly none.

        And yes, the Position Statement could be described as an argument from authority, but if you are making claims about mental illness then logically the people who have spent their adult lives studying mental illness are more likely to know about it than people who have not.

        Stephen Law himself claims that he derives support for his views from an un-named psychiatrist, thus invoking authority as his justification.

        He was offered the opportunity to put the boot into creationism on a national tv channel, and instead of doing so by citing the overwhelming abundance of evidence for evolution he instead provided frothing-at-the-mouth footage about mental illness which is already provoking, and will continue to provoke, hilarity on creationist websites.

        Admittedly, Stephen Law is a good example of the new atheist who doesn’t actually believe in evolution, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain…

  10. Interesting, but perhaps you should create a new moniker for those you are describing in this piece. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in deities and yes, simply a little idea. I suppose that one could hold all, or none, of the characteristics you ascribed to atheists in this article without effecting their lack of belief in any way.

    Face it, as a philosophy, the lack of belief in deities doesn’t even fill a paragraph. Of course, atheism isn’t a philosophy, nor does it need a think tank to determine what it means.

    My suggestion would be to keep this piece away from heat sources, or perhaps, change the title.

    • To RobertB: Your comment about atheism actually being a little idea is interesting because atheists can’t seem to get together on just how little or how big. But your comment suggests you only read the title to the essay. What you are really saying is that God is a little idea so atheism corresponds to it. I think I’d invoke Robert Frost:

      Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
      What I was walling in or walling out,
      And to whom I was like to give offence.
      Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
      That wants it down!” I could say “Elves” to him,
      But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
      He said it for himself.

  11. Pingback: Is Atheism Ever Not Boring? | Unequally Yoked

  12. Prof. Hoffmann

    You say, “most modern atheists won’t even have read the books mentioned in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.”

    You do not mention any books in the paragraph to which you refer; you merely include lines from poems and books.

    • “most modern atheists won’t even have read the books mentioned in the last paragraph…”

      They were ‘mentioned’ Veronica. This does not mean they were spelled out with full bibliographic references. You could include the previous one, two and maybe three paragraphs, back to and including, Thomas Paine who wrote among other things, ‘The Age of Reason’. You will see mentioned, Jean-Paul Satre, Walter Lippmann in 1929, Leo Strauss, in ‘Naural Right and History’ in 1955, Irving Babbitt, Ortega y Gasset in Revolt of the Masses perhaps, as well as allusions to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and W.B. Yeats….

      • steph

        Thank you for attempting to reply to my question addressed to Hoffmann. However, you are trying too hard. I will not “include the previous one, two and maybe three paragraphs.” I can read, and I am addressing what Hoffmann wrote: the books mentioned in the last paragraph.” Writers were mentioned in the paragraph that preceded the one where Hoffmann suggested that modern atheists may not have read. Writers are not books, nor are poems books.

      • Veronica, I think you are quite right that I do not spell out books when I say books, except for Leo Strauss, and he is two paragraphs back. So, assuming this is not a mere quibble but a request for pertinent reading: Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History; Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (New York, 1914), xvii ; Wilfred Owen’s Collected Poems but this one (“Move him gently into the sun”) is reprinted everywhere; Ortega y Gasset is a bit from an essay “Signs of the Times” in The Modern Themes [1921-22; rpt. New York, 1961], 79. Yeats is from his “Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Modern Verse [New York, 1936], xxviii, and Babbitt from a selection I posted on my site recently, called “What is Humanism” and which you can read here: I hope this clears things up and answers your concern. On the other hand, if I had only said “ideas.”

      • Veronica – if you try to pay more careful attention to what you read you will notice the link at the top of the post following this, the Atheist Rapid Response Manual, doesn’t link back to this post. It links to Atheism’s Little Idea on another website. You appear to have become confused. Even the comments are not the same but it seems that you can at least still count.

  13. It is with great trepidation I enter these febrile waters to say that you have entirely misunderstood (perhaps willfully) my post regarding Skepticon. It was not one of the keynoters at this conference who averred that Skepticism is a Humanism, but D J Grothe at a different conference who did so.

    He did not just assert that this is so, but gave a cogent and convincing argument. I recommend viewing the speech he gave on the topic.

    You are right that our movement needs a think tank. We are seeking to build one. If you would like to be a part of that positive, progressive attempt to shape a better world, by all means be in touch. If you would prefer to complain from the margins, keep writing confused posts like this one.

    • D.J. Grothe, in his dull, repetitive, inaccurate and opinionated NECSSON lecture, claims Skepticism is a movement for which there is evidence and he claims that Skepticism is a Humanism. He claims the word comes from a Greek word ‘skeptikos’ meaning ‘to inquire or find out’, but he defines it as “saying no to nonsense beliefs… saying no, to others’ beliefs that you find nonsense.” Then he says that this definition is not sufficient, therefore “it’s just ‘ordinary common sense.” His ‘minimal’ definition of humanism is “a naturalist as opposed to supernatural ethics, focused on human wellbeing”. He claims that it is ‘presocratic’.

      You claim that Skepticon had a profoundly Humanist series of speakers (speakers at Skepticon included Dan Barker, Richard Carrier, Greta Christina – who gave a “fantastic talk, “Why Are Atheists So Angry?””, blasting religious practices – J.T. Eberhard, David Fitzgerald, Julia Galef, Spencer Greenberg, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, PZ Myers, Joe Nickell, Darrel Ray, David Silverman, Sam Singleton, Rebecca Watson, Eliezer Yudkowsky), speakers who on no account “copped-out” of their responsibility to skeptically scrutinize beliefs and actions, and who had their eyes firmly on the use of skeptical tools to promote human welfare.

      Is this what humanism is about to you? You say that, as Grothe avers, Skepticism is a Humanism and call it a ‘truth’. You say that P.Z. Myers is absolutely right to say that religious practices and beliefs are a proper target of the skeptical movement and link to his post “Atheism is an essential part of skepticism.” You say the fourth Skepticon was a huge success, and contributed much of value to the Humanist movement. It’s irrelevant that Grothe, whose claim that Skepticism is a Humanism, wasn’t there. You assume that the Skepticon conference confirms his claim. Professor Hoffmann has understood your messy writing entirely sufficiently and your celebration of Skepticon perfectly accurately. His critique comes from the heart of humanism – your pretentions and pride creep round the margins, James.

      • Of course you made no coherent argument James. You made various claims and value judgements on the basis of your inflated effusive praises of the speakers at Skepticon as “profoundly Humanist” and of Grothe’s and P.Z Myer’s opinions. I repeated your claims. You claimed Skepticon was a huge success, and contributed much of value to the Humanist movement because you think Grothe’s opinion that Skepticism is “a Humanism” is a “truth” – but that idea makes a nonsense of the word humanism. You made bold claims, not “arguments”.

        Your ideas about humanism correspond to the so-called humanisms of the late twentieth century with their entanglements in political causes, ideological positions and social movements. In its historical evolution as a mind-set, the humanist spirit contributed to the development of science, but science is not its end or goal. As a cultural spirit, it focuses the quest for knowledge and meaning on the works of human beings but atheism is not a sufficient description of its content and the association of humanism with secularism has eroded the positive meaning of the term even further. Equating humanism with special ideologies and interests is a corruption of the humanist spirit. You are naive enough to equate critique with complaining and you are conceited enough to assume that Professor Hoffmann would even entertain the idea of getting in ‘touch’ with your ‘movement’.

        But you’re screaming again James. Over indulgence in exclamation marks and many things is characteristic, isn’t it.

  14. The need for a think tank at least emphasises the kudgmen that atheism and humanism have not gotten it right. (“it”) being the the soution to the human condition. “It says worlds about the nature of atheism that this (its?) project failed under the name of secular humanism”.I take this to say because atheism and humanism deny theism. Might not the real issue be the nature of science and religion? (True religion is mysticism – a quaification necessary because religion is so corrupted by its association with institutional church).

    “But for a think tank you need thinkers” even the worlds best thinkers. One can safely say the worlds greatest physicist, the founder and grand theorists of modern (quantium and relativity) physicis qualify as the worlds best thinkers: Einstein, Scchroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Plank.
    Thus in the midst of these different movements “dealing with the theoretical issues” it seems a good idea to consult with them on what they thought about the nature of science and religion. The significant fact is that a very general commonality emerges in the world view of these philosopher- scientists: certain strong and common conclusios were reached by everyone of these theroists

    Eddington speaaking for the group: “It is generally recogized, and the scheme of physics is now formulated in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a partial aspect of “something wider”. However about this “something wider” physics tells us – am can tell us – nothing whatsover. It is exactly this failure of physics, and not its supposed similarities to mysticism, that paradoxically led so many physics to a mystical view of the world.”

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  16. I concluded a while back that the elephant in the room with the new atheists is that they do not actually believe in evolution. They certainly say they do, and they almost certainly believe that they do, but they don’t. What they believe is a mishmash of Darwin at his most melodramatic mixed with an ample supply of Spenser’s creed of science.

    Having concluded, along with Darwin and Spenser, that human beings are the top species because we deserve to be, the new atheists apparently find it impossible to believe that something might go wrong. They find it impossible to believe it even when scientists are telling them so, hence the total absence of any meaningful comment on any of the new atheist websites on the impending end of -at least this- antibiotic era. The irony is that the scientists are doing their best to explain to the general public that antibiotic resistance is evolution in action, and therefore cannot be avoided, whilst the people who claim to believe in evolution are resolutely ignoring them.

    I most certainly do believe in evolution, the real kind, but then my lungs are colonised with a hyper-mutating pan-resistant strain of mucoid pseudomonas aeruginosa, which concentrates the mind wonderfully. Bacteria in general, and those carrying the NDM-1 gene in particular, do not give a toss about the topics raised at Skepticon; Croft et al can be an oppressed minority to their hearts’ content but it isn’t going to do anything for their life expectancy…

  17. Lieber Gott: Bitte kommen Sie wieder. Wir sind sehr traurig, daran zu zweifeln Sie. Ihr, Faust.

    Out of curiosity, could you tell me where this quote comes from? Everything after “wieder” is just gibberish. (FYI, I am a native speaker of German.)

    They are the sorts of things that put the sapiens (twice) in the name of our species.

    Actually, our species name is just Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens sapiens would be a subspecies name, if we consider the Neanderthals to be another subspecies of the same species instead of their own species. (FYI, I am a taxonomist and systematist.)

    • A native speaker? Really? “FYI” I reckon that’s odd. The separable verb wiederkommen means come again, just as zuruckkommen means come back; and homo sapiens sapiens is indeed the name of our subspecies, which is a kind of species. But I reckon you didn’t get it, did you.

      • The sentence “Bitte kommen Sie wieder” is well formed, if a bit unusual in employing the formal ‘Sie’ when addressing God. What follows, though, smells of machine translation. I get what it is intended to mean, namely something along the lines of: “Wir bedauern, an Dir gezweifelt zu haben”, but as it stands it is indeed nonsense.

      • A few grammatical notes for atheists who were too busy babblefising the fake “Faust” citations to read the article: Those of you who said (!) you were native German speakers missed out the day your teacher discussed separable verbs: wiederkommen is such a verb. wieder goes to end of the sentence and kommen doesn’t come. The use of ‘Sie’ is dictated by the epistolary style. This is a letter addressed to Dear Sir, not a prayer where the more intimate you (Du) would be used. The use of Ihr is perfectly usual: what would you say to God? Bis bald or Herzliche Grüße? If it’s a little archaic, so was Faust. The use of “daran zu zweifeln” is a very conventional expression meaning “about all of these things.” But I thank you all for this very tedious and hugely irrelevant and wrong round of speculation because when I think about it the sentence doesn’t say quite what I wanted Faust to say so I have a new one for you to look up! And no, it’s not in Faust I or II.

      • I’m also curious, having by now seen a lot of the speculation about it on other sites (is it a quote, if so from where, is it made up, what was the real intention of using it, was the phrasing that made it look like a machine translation from English intentional?). Though I do consider myself part of the group of which this blog post is so critical, please note that my question does not focus on those disagreements and is being politely put. I hope I will be able to receive an equally civil reply; steph’s reply to Alex SL did not relate, even obliquely, to the main question of the quote’s origin, was distinctly sarcastic and I am genuinely not fishing for sarcasm here.

      • Stewart – Sorry, I laughed at it – it’s supposed to be a joke I think. Dear God, Please come again. We’re very sad to doubt you for this reason. Your Faust. It’s a joke, not meant to be taken as a quote.

    • @rjosephhoffmann Es ist ja sehr schön zu erfahren, dass Sie wissen, wie mit zusammengesetzten Verben umzugehen ist; der betreffende Satz ist allerdings nie moniert worden. Wie ich sagte, er ist – beziehungsweise war – grammatisch wohlgeformt. Dasselbe ließ sich allerdings nicht von der folgenden Konstruktion behaupten. Korrekter wäre es hier gewesen, unter Beibehaltung des Honorificum, zu sagen: “Wir sind sehr traurig, an Ihnen gezweifelt zu haben”, d.h. “We are very sad to have doubted you.”

      Ihre Neuformulierung ist soweit in Ordnung, mit Ausnahme des ‘Gottheit’ (godhead, godhood), das vielleicht besser durch ‘Göttlichkeit’ (divineness) zu ersetzen wäre.

      • Dear Sir:

        One would never translate ““Wir sind sehr traurig, an Ihnen gezweifelt zu haben”, d.h. “We are very sad to have doubted you.” into proper idiomatic English as “sad” even though “traurig” bears that meaning in another context, but it is dative [lit., to have doubted in you] and just means sorry. I think we are stuck with “Wir bedauern sehr…” or something like that. Also, it is not correct to say “mit Ausnahme des ‘Gottheit’ (godhead, godhood), das vielleicht besser durch ‘Göttlichkeit.’” The latter expression might be used of the divinity of Jesus but you cannot talk about the divinity (godliness/Göttlichkeit of God). Ihr (smiling) Joseph Hoffmann

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  19. Thanks. Since it didn’t seem to be from any version of Faust I could find, a joke appeared to be the most likely option. Despite the problems with the German, I got the surface meaning (my German is not as good as my English, but it’s actually my first language). Obviously, explanations are fatal for jokes, but if I were to try to reverse engineer it, I would assume the German is there to provide mock-authenticity for Faust, who is there because his bargain with a darker power is a turning away from god, but beyond that I do get a bit lost as regards what was really meant – unless, perhaps, no god was really intended and the contrast between god and darker powers is supposed to reflect the contrast between “old” atheists with some respect for religious ideas with which they disagreed and the “new” who have broken off dialogue and resort only to mockery. I trust you can see why it wasn’t necessarily obvious that it wasn’t meant to be taken as a quote. The movie poster, which, when I search for “Faust,” comes up in the second row of images, was presumably just there as an atmospheric illustration, but it conjured up a specific, rather than a general, connotation not just for me (I have an 8mm print of it on a shelf about two feet away from where I’m sitting), but for others as well.

    • Lieber Gott… Ihr Faust?! Of course it was a joke. It was the first laugh launching into a hilarious parody. I think it got even funnier the more miles they got out of taking it literally, avoiding the lateral (or lacking the ability to think laterally) and in their extraordinary efforts to criticise the author, they didn’t get it. And they tried so hard to remain so solemn and self righteous. It doesn’t really demand a great deal of sophistication to get it. Of course the best way to attack an essay that claims that atheists are under-educated is to claim the author is over educated – a ‘pompous elitist in his ivory tower’ – and then attack his learning as wrong. They complain it isn’t Faust when it isn’t supposed to be and then claim the German is wrong but need a translating tool, which doesn’t know it, to translate it, and appeal to someone who claimed to be a ‘native German speaker’ who apparently didn’t get it either… it just seemed so ludicrous.

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  21. I grew up in a secular little world without labels, aware of different faiths around me.

    Not everyone did. Many grew up in worlds where they needed to believe in order to be accepted as a decent human being. When they finally accepted that they could not believe, they also had to accept that they were alienated from the world in which they grew up. In such circumstances, the value of realizing that there are voices in the public sphere who speak in support of one’s understanding is tremendous. When I was a kid, I found Julian Huxley, and I remain grateful. Today, that might be Ophelia Benson.

    I don’t expect the author to appreciate this perspective, nor to cease disparaging those who offer support to those who can no longer believe. After all, it’s not his world.

    • Exactly – I distinguished my world as little from the rest of the greater world because I am acknowledging the far more difficult experience of growing up where individual freedom and thought is restricted. I am distinguishing the difference because I acknowledge the pressure placed on so many people to conform to the religious beliefs of their families and communities. I acknowledge the difference between living in a multi cultural diverse society and one in which one particular religion saturates politics, education and society, for example. I know of the types of rejection received from entire families, friends as well as workplaces and society, when individuals ‘come out’ as ‘atheist’ or no longer believe. Deconversion experiences, especially in more conservatively religious environments, can be emotionally and socially crippling in so many different ways. We all live in and share the same world. The author is one who is particularly aware of this, and he does empathise.

      Help and support comes in many shapes and forms and is thin on the ground in religious societies. Julian Huxley was a treasure to find and you are to be congratulated for taking him on board and fortunately he is still vitally relevant for unbelievers today. He was a profound and sensitive thinker. You have an independent mind and are free to choose the support you find most helpful. Support can be found in all shapes and forms and some is more constructive than others and more understanding of history, diversity in culture and people. Best wishes for the future.

  22. I posted this over at B&W. What do you think?

    December 3, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Pretty watery stuff, Ophelia. I mean, as long as it’s up to you to cut the God-pie, you can decide how big or small the pieces are. If your slice of God-pie is too small, that’s because you cut it that way. If you think the pie tastes boring, that’s because you made it that way. That’s the thing about the God-pie: You get to pick the recipe and cut the pieces. You shouldn’t make and serve yourself a God-pie just to complain about it — that’s tacky. (I think I’ve found my way to a fair restatement of Joe Hoffmann’s point.)

    I think that Joe was trying to get at something else. Pre-modern religious history has been a succession of debates about the right recipe for the God-pie; people fought and died about what ingredients go in it and in what proportion. Then the Renaissance raised the awareness that we have a surfeit of ingredients for God-pie. Then during the gilded Enlightenment, we tried making different kinds of pie out of the same ingredients (Fascism- and Communist-pies were horrible variations of Hegel’s God-pie.) Then Post-WWII, we realized, after the horrors wrought by Fascism and Communism, that we are fated to make God-pies — even if it is just to complain about how small the pieces are or about how boring it tastes — because we aren’t left with the ingredients for anything else.

    Religion has made some horrible God-pies; toxic, bitter things that are best to be rid of. The response of atheism, however, shouldn’t be to offer sugary cereal in place of bad recipes. We should be offering real intellectual nutrition. As long as atheism doesn’t take the concept of God seriously, it won’t be able to do it. That is what I believe that Joe is trying to point out.

    I agree with him.

    • Dan, I like cake better than pie until I read your amazing assessment. I’m glad you agree with me, but you also get the fact that atheists are in a terribly self destructive spin, spastically fighting not just religious fundamentalism and godism, but using ridiculous commando tactics to make what is essentially a concept into a liberation movement. I have never said that atheism is for pointy headed intellectuals. Ever. But it would not exist (as you comment) without them. The really destructive idea that atheism is a conclusion forced on us by science, or civil rights or (fill in the blank) is something that needs to be considered; but what I do know is that the study of religion and not science is what forces us to accept a worldview without God. It’s a bit like wanting dessert before dinner, isn’t it–or pie before you finish your vegetables. Thanks.

      • I’m glad that you liked it. I expected my comment to be roundly criticized over at B&W, but so far I haven’t seen any impressive objections to it. So far, I think that the analogy is a keeper.

        On to a different matter. Would you ever consider turning your Ph. D. dissertation into a blog post? I, for one, would be incredibly interested to read your arguments in support of the thesis that Marcion was the author of Mark.

      • They probably misunderstand the purpose of analogy Dan, because they read it literally, and don’t read in context or think laterally. Even the Faust is taken literally and not seen in context of the essay so they miss the point of the joke. I never believed in gods or religions but the whole reason for my choosing to study history and the history and evolution of human ideas, religions and the human search for knowledge and meaning in life, is to understand the world today. I’ve never eaten pie that I can remember (or MacDonalds) – I’m a fruiterian. But I learned to cook and love to cook for others. I cook all sorts of things from pie to cake to roast beef in puff pastry with bacon and brandy.

        The (outstanding) 1982 Oxford doctoral thesis on Marcion is 373 pages long (not including endnotes) and the second edition will be out in 2012. I don’t think even the conclusion could be summarised in a blog essay, and even if it could it would compromise argument and evidence which is what makes the thesis so convincing. I’m looking forward to the second edition. :-)

  23. Dear Sir,

    Are you just seriously deluded?
    Or do you really believe all the tripe you have just written?

    OK, try this for size, since you are so keen on Invisible Big Sky Fairies, and claim to be phiolosophical is some form or another:

    A set of testable Propositions

    1. God is not detectable (even if that “god” exists)
    2. All religions are blackmail, and are based on fear and superstition.
    Corollary: 2a ] Marxism is a religion.
    3. Prayer has no effect on third parties.
    Corollary: 3a ] There is no such thing as “Psi”.
    4. All religions kill, or enslave, or torture.
    Corollary: 4a ] The bigots are the true believers.
    5. All religions have been made by men.

    All the above are testable, by both observation and experiment.
    Unless and until they are shown to be false, they must be taken as true, or at least valid, statements.

    • Dear Sir,

      Did you seriously not read the post? Perhaps you could try reading it and then read this post:

      and then discover yourself in this:

      As for your propositions

      1. God is not detectable (even if that “god” exists)

      It depends what is meant by the term “god”

      2. All religions are blackmail, and are based on fear and superstition.

      Prejudiced and subjective claim devoid of any comprehension of historical evolution and nature of religions and ideas.

      3. Prayer has no effect on third parties.

      Knowledge by third parties that people pray can sometimes help give them emotional comfort.

      4. All religions kill, or enslave, or torture.

      No religions are capable of such things. People exploit religious traditions and ideologies to justify all sort of evils.

      5. All religions have been made by men.


      • I couldn’t be bothered quibbling over archaic or politically incorrect language – it generally doesn’t bother me greatly. Human beings, men and women, have created and developed religions.

  24. Steph
    Thanks – a THINKING response!
    What happened?
    I usually get rabid ad hominem attacks, and weaselling-out to that list….
    1. “god” normally defined as some form of omniscient (how do the messages transmit to-&-fro?) being or entity, apparently posessed of some intelligence, usually thought capable of “intervening” (unspecified – how convenient!) in the natural world. And often thought of as “supernatural”.
    Unfortunately, there are NO attested cases of supernaurality evident, anywhere (or science, and sciemce-based machinery and techniques – like these computeres we are usong – would not work – oh dear, err, now what?)
    Based on simple observation of the behaviour of religions.
    The fear of “going to hell” the real fear of the inquisition/Calvin’s spies/the NKVD/social ostrcism/burning at the stake etc … the list is VERY long.
    They are deluding themseleves.
    Please note the original phrasing:
    “No effect on third parties” – people out of hearing, unaware of the prayer.
    All I’m saying is that “prayer” is a form of “psi” – afraud, in other words.
    Weaselling, I’m afraid.
    All the major religions have done this, the moment they have acquired any sort of political power ..
    Persecute all the OTHER sects and religions, and institute a reign of terror.
    A very short read of history will comnfirm this.

    • 1. You’re out of touch. The concept of ‘god’ has evolved for many religious people. You’re not alone though. An atheist blogger wrote something today or yesterday: “But this is the usual cheat, which relies on pretending that all or most believers don’t really believe in Official God [whatever that ever was - compare Buddhists, Hindus, different religious denominations etc]. As Julian is finding out, that just isn’t true.” If it’s Julian Baggini she’s referring to, he is a journalist anyway. And apart from atheist readers of this essay having missed the point of the big idea of ‘god’ being a big idea historically, the social sciences are drawing upon research today in the UK and even in America, and concluding that the idea of ‘god’ (or not) and religion is very broad in scope. Theologians in the Antipodes (Lloyd Geering, James Veitch etc) have been aware of it and writing about it for decades. There is a very broad spectrum of ‘god’ ideas among ordinary religious people today and belonging to a tradition means different things to different people. Try these interdisciplinary studies and researchers for example.
      You have limited your criticism to conservative religion, still clinging to literal interpretation of biblical imagery. God for many people in the world is a metaphor, an expression, to realise life in nature, love and beauty in human existence etc, but the god idea is no longer a noun for an omniscient being, or an intelligence. The idea of a god intervening in the natural world is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of religious texts. Most ‘religious’ people do not believe in the supernatural. Supernatural is not even a term used in critical approaches to the social sciences. In fact the idea of ‘existence’ or ‘non existence’ of ‘god’ ideas, is irrelevant to many modern religious people’s lives today. The evidence of science doesn not contradict ideas and beliefs held by many religious people today. Try reading some modern theology, natural theology, studies about secular religion and Christianity without ‘God’. Lloyd Geering is an easy read.

      2. That ‘All religions are blackmail, and are based on fear and superstition’ is a completely biased and false claim. Buddhism is a religion. Religions are fundamentally codes of living for human beings, created by human beings in order that they can co-exist and survive together. As religions evolved through history, ideas developed and beliefs in ideas also developed. The idea of hell did not develop in Jewish tradition until the later Jewish texts. As the sciences emerged and then the Englightenment happened, many perceived realities dissolved for some religious people and many Christians now do not believe in a literal hell. Of course this is not true for biblically illiterate fundamentalists and ultra conservatives who make up the majority of Christianity in America.

      3. If those being prayed for are unaware of the prayer, then the only comfort is for those praying, who believe they are helping with their prayer. But while prayer has no proveable benefit on a third party, it is not fraudulent. It is more often a reflection of hope or belief and if it is mistaken, it is not fraudulent. Fraudulent implies that there is deliberate deception which there is not. Fraudulent is an anachronism, just as your interpretation of religion (which seems limited to Judeo Christian traditions) is anachronistic too.

      4. I’m afraid you’re being selective, as is your reading of histories which is far too short. Political power is the problem, not religions. Some people in power use whatever tools they have to justify killing and torturing people of other beliefs and ideologies and cultures. You appear to be ignoring non religious and even anti religious bigotry. This is not just mildly ironic.

      I’m not surprised you usually get rabid ad hominem attacks if you respond to essays and blogs in the way you did here. You were extraordinarily rude when you responded to this essay, and attacked the author with ad hominem, with the irrelevance and rudeness of your comment clearly demonstrating that either you had not read the essay or completely misunderstood every word. I suggest you read some critical studies of the history and evolution of religions and ideas before you next ‘weasel out that list’, and make rhetorical broad brush slanders against all religions and religious people.

      And by the way, human beings, not just ‘men’, created and developed religions and ideas.

  25. I think that I won the argument that I started over at B&W. It’s amazing to see people — not Ophelia, but her readers — who are unable to argue for sport. I suppose one of the downfalls of the internet is it dulls peoples capacity to analyze arguments in anything other than an emotional register. Oh well.

    • Dan

      I’ve already written 2 replies to you this and trashed them because, whilst kicking people when they are down is indisputably more efficient than giving them the chance to recover their feet and kick you back, I still feel a degree of pity for the people on B&W who cannot argue for sport.

      Many of them are profoundly ignorant of the way the world works; they have been indoctrinated in a worldview that says they are indisputably intellectual giants, and they don’t even have to do anything at all to prove this since the mere statement that they are atheists proves that they are indisputably intellectual giants.

      It is unsurprising, therefore, that they cannot string words together in a coherent sentence and that they believe multiple exclamation marks is a sure fire path to the Nobel prize; nobody told them any different…

      • Old Mack’s posts are hilarious (he’s written a third one now referring to Berlinerblau). As for the second, it made me cringe and feel embarrassed for him. He did bleed so publically. But his introduction is funny – it’s farcical and full of contradictions. He seems to talking about himself in all three posts – “a kind of showing off, with very little substance at the centre, something squishy and unpleasant.”

        “The biggest problem with R. Joseph Hoffmann, if it isn’t his pretence that he’s a sophisticated academic, and we, poor dears, are just scum in the gutter, is that he nearly always gets it wrong. I won’t go out of my way to show that, but practically everything of his that I read seems to be a kind of showing off, with very little substance at the centre, something squishy and unpleasant. The name of his blog really gives the game away –well, after all, the New Oxonian! All one need do is point to the presumption in the name — and to the fact that Hoffmann probably banks on the idea that most people will not connect ‘Oxonian’ with ‘Oxford’, thus showing how hopelessly puny, pathetic and puling they really are. (He probably depended on people not knowing what ‘puling’ means either!) What’s in a name? A rose by any other would smell as sweet. Possibly. But a blog by any other name wouldn’t, you might think, have set itself up so self-preeningly, like a peacock fanning its ridiculously luxurious tail, angling for praise and adulation, as one that uses (or abuses) the name of a great university, and covets the standing that actually speaking of and for the real Oxford, not his new one, might give him.”

        “Pretence … nearly always gets it wrong … showing off … presumption”? Who? Mack, with crooked pretention, gives his game away, knowing nothing about Oxford!! He can’t write, but he can toffee waffle. So what? The author of this essay has a doctorate from Oxford, the “great university”. But why else would The New Oxonian be called the New Oxonian? So nobody would guess? Does Mack think people haven’t heard of an oxonian? Maybe Mack hadn’t. Yet the author, whom Mack claims to have “almost forgotten, most pleasantly”, irritates him so much, he’s desperately plucking out things to pick at, from an essay he apparently doesn’t understand. He embraces a suggestion by Alex, that the author got it wrong, in a nonquote from Faust.

        “Ah, yes, Alex. I too am a bit surprised with what I read over at Hoffmann’s place. I still don’t get the joke, which makes me unsophisticated too, but since Hoffmann has a clone, there’s really not much point in commenting over at his grandiosely styled blog, so I keep it to myself. But why, with a picture of Faust nearby, we are not to think that the words, ill-formed as they are (and I feeling that I must try to make sense of them, though I couldn’t), were written by Goethe, I cannot say. And as for it being a joke, what was funny about it, other than the fact that Hoffmann apparently doesn’t speak or read German any better than I?”

        Perhaps he really should have kept it to himself, but instead he read it literally. “But why, with a picture of Faust nearby…” he says, but misses the parody directly following. How on earth did the author teach the complex topic of classical philology to his German students while teaching at Heidelberg? He’s multi lingual, and he’s taught all over the world from the Antipodes to the UK, into the thick of the Middle East and down to Zimbabwe. Of course he speaks German fluently, and far too rapidly for me. He even writes and reads it too. Yet old Mack thinks he can speak German as well as the author, when Mack hasn’t got the intellectual capacity (sorry – sophistication) or wit, even to understand a joke, in German, which is a mock Faustism, because of his narrow view of language and logic. And someone said the author is “angry” because he’s “pissed his life away” with religion. But maybe that was an inference to wine in the colloquial sense. Maybe the old Mack was trying to be funny suggesting the author “apparently doesn’t speak or read German any better than I?”. That is, after all, a pretty hysterical idea.

        Puzzling over the archaic address “Ihr”, they’re totally oblivious to the obvious fact that the author deliberately put it on the lips of a long dead Faust. You’d think they’d twig. Faust’s tongue wasn’t a twenty-first century American one. And then there is a string of suggestions that the author, who “pretends to be sophisticated”, hasn’t read Faust because the “quote” (which isn’t one), isn’t in Faust. If they’d read Faust they’d know Faust wouldn’t have said it, and as the author has read Faust in German, it’s easy for him to make up a Faustian ‘quote’ to fit an essay or rather parody, that the author, not Faust, wrote. It’s such a pity his pretence at sophistication is almost convincing.

        Dense old Mack sounds so utterly confused: “I assume the quote is from Goethe’s Faust, and it is not completely gibberish. … But perhaps a German speaker could help us out.” It’s a joke Mr MacDonald! Yet he has claimed to have read all the books mentioned and then he quotes Philip Larkin to prove what a widely learned intellectual he is. Old Mack manages to squeeze in the simplest Shakespeare (he’s very sophisticated really), much to Shakespeare’s despair, who seems to attempting a suicidal leap out of the text. Trapped in the waffling toffee text, poor Shakespeare feels stickily out of place.

        As an ex bible bleating church leader, old Mack continues to read things literally. He doesn’t think laterally or recognise things in context. It obviously wasn’t Faust but he must have forgotten his Faust. After all, some books he claims to have read “many years ago” so what would the much older Mack remember.

        Old Mack thinks because the author didn’t laugh at the axial tilt and seasons thing, he didn’t “get it”. Why does he think the author included the tilt in his parody? It’s a typical anti-religious ‘blasphemous’ sneer, and it’s so dull, it just makes our eyes roll. That’s why it’s included. It’s hahaha not clever or funny. Maybe the author lacks the sophistication to think it funny. Or is he over sophisticated? Is he just too sophisticated to think it’s funny? What a discombobulation.

        Old Mack’s suggestion that the author lives in a bubble is amusing. Isn’t it the ‘gnus’ who exist in a transparent bubble, posing noisily on a stage so we can view them? Isn’t it the gnus who are the ‘atheists’ so despised by everyone? The gnus despise everyone except the reflections of themselves in their bubble. They’re dying but it’s OK – they think they’re terribly popular, swelling, and vitally important. Nobody understands them, old Mack complains. They miss a sociological understanding of who the gnus really are. The way to make friends and influence people, is not by being gnu. Most people have twigged. The gnus haven’t a clue.

        PZ has a doctorate, but who knows how his thesis is rated or who gave him the doctorate. His writing is appalling and his ‘science’ is lame – he seems to market to the popular audience. Does he do a lot of scientific research to advance human knowledge? He lives on the internet. He did well to proclaim himself the Paris Hilton of atheism.

        As for the other two, Old Mack and O.B., in the irritated triad of atheist bloggers, do either have advanced degrees? O.B. admits she doesn’t, but she still considers herself a “pointy-headed intellectual” despite not having advanced degrees. And indeed, she concedes that she does “define intellectuals pretty broadly”. She appears to include a lot of her minions who haven’t the – something – capacity to understand the difference between literal report and parody. Their lack of appropriate analytical skills suggest they need a little more of the pointy headed intellectualism.

        O.B. says “God is almost never a character in literature, and when it is it’s boring.” Eh? So she’s dismissing poetry, and Shakespeare, not to mention Shelley who really was an atheist? Allusions and appeals to ‘God’ and gods, saturate classical literature and new. She says “The only way to make it not boring is to make it like a human – which just shows how boring it is as itself.” Fair enough, if that’s a self-referential allusion. “God is nowhere near as interesting as Hamlet”. Despite Hamlet’s Ophelia dying, where would Hamlet be without God? And then she says, “And I’m still not a bit sure Hoffmann believes a word of what he wrote, himself”, which demonstrates she just didn’t understand a word.

        The other thing is – it really doesn’t take a great deal of sophistication to read things in context and apply a little lateral interpretation, simultaneously. But there is something about ‘atheism’, the sort that appeals to gnu-dom, that finds it too demanding. In fact it seems for them, to be quite impossible. It seems such a shame their appreciation of humour is limited to nifty crass little slogans like ‘seasonal axial tilts’.

        That’s entertainment in Atheblogville.
        Signed: the slobbering, fawning, clone. :-)

      • I need some time today to decide whether I am overeducated and overbearing or undereducated and overbearing. Either way, I am overbearing and that is something to cling to. Important if you are a peacock fanning its ridiculously luxurious tail. But wouldn’t the peacock need a fake tail to keep the image straight? or a really small tail that he just screeched was a really big tail. It make a lot of sense to count on people not knowing what an oxonian is in order to abuse the name of Oxford. My original plan was to enroll in the university of Arkansas program in dairy science and call the post the New Kentucky Review, but this works just as well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to figure out a way to put my tail away so that I can go an angle for praise and adulation, and failing that I’ll buy some sweet smelling roses by any other name.

      • Thank you for your replies, but I left that thread feeling quite in tact. Ophelia thought she could weasel her way out of losing through chopping logic: “Sure, the idea of God has a wide effect, but considered in itself, the idea is tiny.” Nice one, OB. One can say the same thing of the idea of chairs, or the idea of poetry; one can throw as many ingredients into those ideas as one wants, or cut them as small as one wants. She has by her statement only proven my point that the ways we construct ideas correspond to our uses for them. If she wants to continue arguing, she can go to my first comment and proceed from there in my real absence.

        The idiot named Sawells can claim victory all he wants. He was frothing at the mouth to pull me into a debate. Even after I pointed out that his since argument relied on denying the antecedent, it was a bad argument, he still insisted that I answer it. What was that George Santayana quote again?

      • “God is almost never a ‘character’ in literature and when he is it’s boring.” Let’s assume for the minute she really means what she says. Then let’s limit our discussion to the God she means and not other gods, like Zeus, since then we’d have to include the Iliad and the Odyssey and most of Greek drama. Not a good place to start if you’re saying god is boring.

        That leaves us with: The Bible, The Divine Comedy (implicitly throughout, Paradiso explicitly), Paradise Lost, most of the medieval religious lyrics cast as prayers (oh that she says: really boring), and leaving aside the fact that Pilgrim’s Progress and tons of other literature are about journey’s to God who is indispensable even without a speaking part, I can’t see the relevance of saying this. Maybe the relevance of saying it is that she is pre-committed to the idea that God is little, so that a retroactive overhaul of his influence on ideas includes a need to remodel western literature, which (how can I have missed it) has nothing to do with him. A premise like (a) god isn’t a character is insupportable enough until you define character as a center stage role, but the rear-guard action (b) when he is it’s boring is just poisoning the well: for fans of informal logic, Johnny only played two games last season and when he did the team lost. I’m not sure that the Godot is who’s being waited for in Godot is God–Beckett was mischievous about this–but the play is certainly about his absence. God is not a character in Portrait of the Artist, but imagine Stephen Daedelus without him. God is a character in Marc Connelly’s delightful 1926 play The Green Pastures, which is anything but boring: it’s the one where creation begins with a fish fry and God tastes the custard, deciding that to be just right it needs more ‘firmament’–not just a little bit a whole lot. I could carry this on for a long time, but life it short, and it may be that the atheist would rather re-write history than learn it, or simply go on making bumbling statements and generalizations about how pointless it all is.

  26. Pingback: The Political Future of Atheism in America: Don’t Go it Alone - Brainstorm - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  27. Pingback: Being human in a world without gods « Choice in Dying

  28. What I find odd about this piece, and many others I have encountered like it, is the pervasive nature of this suggestion that atheism is inherently depressing, and thus that there has to be something wrong with, or something irrational or shallow about, people who don’t recognize that within it.

    I found atheism to be tremendously freeing, something that evaporated much of the angst (to use that mundane term mundanely) that I had felt about a world in which human beings were merely actors in God’s play. When I look at religious practice, contemporary or traditional, “liberal” or “literal”, on the grand or the small scale, I see much that is trite and shallow. I see much pettiness, on both the individual and tribal levels. And I see conceptions of God that reflect that consistently shallowness.

    And those conceptions of religion that come from the religious are invariably self-serving. There is much hemming and hawing about mystery and purpose, even these do not actually, inherently follow from traditional supernatural beliefs, except via tradition itself. When reading about atheists who felt that giving up God meant giving up these things, that doesn’t strike me as a solemn appreciation of the human condition. It strikes me, rather, as an expression of an internalized prejudice against disbelief, an inability to rise above the pervasive assertion that God adds something special and unique to human life, and that if there is a God, one’s cultural practices become justified, and the threat of nihilism evaporates.

    Well, the world has seen black men who claimed they were happier as slaves, women who claimed they were happier when forced to be housewives, and gay folk who feel that being gay was the worst thing that could have happened to them. But at least in those cases we have the good sense to recognize this as a difficulty in adaptation, not a measure of profundity. Not so, it seems, with atheists who, losing the belief in an actual God, still attributes an unqualified and poorly examined meaningfulness or reassurance to the God concept, or who thinks that it can act as a stand-in for some aspect of the human condition to which it is only incidentally linked.

    But it is is no less rational to feel that God is Terror. To me, there is no form of despair that compares to the idea of a world that is merely a plaything in the hands of a mad tyrant, a tyrant with whom no meaningful disagreement is possible, however bizarre his actions or demands. And a mad tyrant who styles himself as “loving” is, if anything, more terrifyingly alien, and more inescapably withering. It is the strict father who ages and ages, immortal, from whose presence you can never remove yourself for even an instant. It is the leviathan upon which we are parasites, from which we must feed or perish.

    That is the being that monotheists hold as the greatest good. This is the “big” version of the God idea. That is the being that I grew up worshiping, and that I once spent all my philosophical efforts on trying to justify, defend, and rehabilitate into some semblance of rational and moral and emotional acceptability. The closest I came to succeeding was when I stopped thinking of God as a person, or being with any intentions at all. At that point I was more or less an atheist in any case.

    I have never actually hated God, insofar as I have never faulted any particular conception of God and believed in that entity at the same time. But I wouldn’t be caught dead wishing that there was one. The tiny, “hobgoblin” sort of god would perhaps be acceptable, but not the abstract, omnipotent, omnipresent, vast, looming thing that theists gesture at, subtly glinting behind the veil.

    Leaving religion was not a disappointment, and not merely because I’m too ignorant or shallow or haven’t read enough to have bought into this prejudice that God is such a big idea that it is tragic to lose it. Leaving religion was not a disappointment because I found something better.

    I found a conception of the human being as a flawed but ultimately noble creature, something that I could appraise objectively and not merely discount as falling short of perfection. I found ethical systems that were far more nuanced and reasonable, the problem not being moral nihilism, but rather too many different types of ethical reasoning to choose from. And I found that, in fact, I was vastly more comfortable with the responsibility of choosing my own purposes, than the slavery of justifying my every desire by referencing someone else’s.

    This may sound cheesy, but that has no bearing on whether it is valid or sensible to value such changes.

    Whether one calls oneself an “atheist” or not, living without constantly attributing one’s values and experiences to God is a quality of adulthood. Growing up may be uncomfortable and unpleasant for many people, but there’s very little to respect about someone who grieves about not being able to remain an infant forever.

    As for these slights against the atheist and skeptical communities, well, yes, they are centered around politics, social welfare, and, yes, entertainment. Is that such a bad thing? Is that even slightly unexpected? The world is full of Old Codgers (usually not so old) who see moral and aesthetic decay in every bit of light-heartedness, and in any new habit or practice that is not filled to the brim with solemn intellectual quality. To look at a popular social and political movement (any movement!) and complain that they have unfunny bumper sticker slogans is to be comically over-judgmental. To look at a largely grassroots movement, which has experienced rapid recent growth, and which is defined primarily by the beliefs that its members don’t share (and implicitly one’s willingness to disagree with others), and complain that they lack a single, unified, intellectually coherent message? Ha.

    Why should they? Are you sure that this is even a major goal for those involved? For most of the people who attend these sorts of conference, skepticism is a hybrid between a personal interest(/hobby), a (type of) personal philosophy, and a political movement with a narrow focus. Perhaps that’s not as good as if every one of those people demonstrated exceptional intellectual capability and dedication and seriousness at all times. But it seems rather better than a much smaller movement that has even less lasting impact.

    If we’re going to make some comparison to a older conception of secular humanism that has “failed”, why not talk about why, exactly, it failed? What are we supposed to get nostalgic about when discussing a social movement (if it was, in fact, a movement, and not a purely academic program) that apparently was too unappealing to grow and accomplished so little as to be labeled a failure in the first place? Why should we credit an Old Codger who seems to hate everything about a movement that reflects its popularity, while wistfully yearning for the days when a related movement was so unpopular and so unsuccessful that only dedicated intellectuals were visible within it?

    You can explain how, realistically, a popular social movement can live up to certain standards, or you can admit up front that it’s unlikely that any such movement will. But if you try to do neither, and then gripe about inadequacies, the “Have you done any better?” question arises. It comes off as uninformed and petulant, if not reeking of outright disdain for those who are vulgar enough to be politically involved despite not really being “thinkers”.

    Of course the piece ends with the actual comment about atheism having a stage but not having thinkers. I suppose it would sound absurd to resort to grade-school insults, but the conclusion here is effectively the same thing. It would be equally informative to close with: “But these atheists can’t do anything right! They’re just stupid loudmouth jerks!”

    • “What I find odd about this piece, and many others I have encountered like it, is the pervasive nature of this suggestion that atheism is inherently depressing, and thus that there has to be something wrong with, or something irrational or shallow about, people who don’t recognize that within it.”

      Did you read this at all? The word depressing is not used. On the contrary, I think there is something very exciting and exhilarating about atheism, and I share that with other unbelievers.

      • I mentally fit you into a pattern that you probably do not rightly belong in due to the section surrounding this sentence:

        “Atheism until fairly recently has been about a disappointing search for god that ends in failure, disillusionment, despair, and finally a new affirmation of human ingenuity that is entirely compatible with both science and art.”

        There are still advocates for this view of atheism today, and more than a few theists who claim that not only is this the only intellectually honest way to discuss atheism, but that in fact the last step is not even possible. The implication is that if you have never felt a deep and yielding despair about atheism, you haven’t understood it. I don’t, in re-reading, get the impression that you were actually promoting the same line of thought, and I retract that implication.

        Nonetheless, in my rambly irritation, I did have two more central points. Firstly, many theists don’t seem to have any “bigger” of an idea of God than the hobgoblin one. Even an ostensible omni-being can be portrayed as a petty and foolish being (albeit with the petty foolishness ignored and relabeled). Someone is used to interacting with such views may have never had a reason to discuss any more sophisticated view than this.

        Secondly, for many of us who did or do take a “big idea” version of God seriously, this view of God is actually the less charitable one. A limited God is less dangerous and less responsible than the monumental arbiter of all reality.

        Also, I did have another point I neglected to make, which is that you seem to dismiss out of hand the possibility that there’s a problem with atheist prejudice or that coming out can be hard. You don’t say why, and as someone who has received threats and harassment (in real life from people I know well, not anonymous strangers), I think I have every reason to condemn a dismissal that just sort-of-assumes-in-passing that there’s no real problem and that atheists just have a victim complex.

  29. Hello there! This article could not be written much better!
    Reading through this article reminds me of my
    previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this.
    I’ll forward this information to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a great read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

  30. Pingback: The Political Future of Atheism (Jacques Berlinerblau) | The New Oxonian

  31. Hi Dr. Hoffmann. Seeing that the pingback failed to appear, I’ll leave this comment as notification that I already published a greek translation of this article here. Intriguing critique! It has already generated quite a discussion on the Greek Atheists Facebook forum.

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