The Moral Apathy of Atheism: Leaving it to the Snake

One of the saddest stories of the last five years was the decision of Paul Kurtz, under enormous pressure, to leave the organization he had founded in the early-eighties, the Centre for Inquiry and its two constituent groups, the Council for Secular Humanism and Committee for Skeptical inquiry.

There may be barely enough distance now to get some perspective on that event, which in various ways has been an occasional theme on this site since 2009 when New Oxonian was launched.  For those who don’t know about Paul Kurtz, he was a leader and chief theoretician of the secular humanist movement in the United States. He died in October 2012.

The reason for Kurtz’s leaving CFI—the famous final straw—was a gimmick promoted by the organization as a coup for “free expression”: the Blasphemy Contest and its successor event, the “Blasphemy Rights Day” contest closeted within a larger box, the Campaign for Free Expression .

Kurtz himself, like many European intellectuals who interpreted social freedom and personal liberty against the background of the Reich and the beginnings of Communism, was interested in blasphemy laws as a vestige of the dominion of religion over the thinking and speech of ordinary citizens.  In America, in a history that stretches back to the deists and Revolutionary pamphleteers, the right to insult and defame has been taken as a virtual absolute.  The extreme opposite of America’s vaunted liberty in this regard, at least in the late twentieth century, was the Islamic world, in parts of which even a rumour of insult to the Qu’ran or the Prophet could get you into very deep water, often without your head.  Islam thus became the natural whipping boy for the new atheists, a kind of illogical, apposite worst case scenario of what might happen if conservative Christianity ever got the upper hand.

To get to this First Amendment apocalypse, a kind of unwarranted conjunction had to be made, and was made, by new atheist writers like Sam Harris who decreed that there is no such thing as a harmless or benign faith, only degrees of toxicity, so that what can be said of Islam can also be said of Christianity, despite their very different pattern of historical development and social and political outcomes.  This meant that pars pro toto poking Christianity in the eye was also a blow for freedom of speech, because all “faiths” constituted the especial ogre now called, without discrimination of type or doctrine, “Religion.”  The muse of history had been slain by someone dressed up like the goddess of reason.  Besides, poking Christianity in the eye in Dubuque was a lot safer than poking a Muslim in the eye in Riyadh.

Blasphemy, however, was a nineteenth and early twentieth century topic.  By the time the Free Speech Movement happened at Berkeley in 1964, it was more or less taken for granted that you could say almost anything, even if there were still consequences to pay and, as George Carlin and Lenny Bruce famously proved, certain words that would get you bleeped by media censors–and certain topics that were considered impolite for public consumption in a country still edgy about religious differences and sensitivities.  Long before P Z Myers spiked a communion host (to use the official term), Bill Cosby in 1969 provoked thousands of Catholics by describing his first trip to a Catholic church and watching parishioners receiving “individual pizzas.”

That seems a thousand years ago. By the time Kurtz’s organization became interested in blasphemy (mainly in researching its history; the historian David Nash from Oxford was associated with the Center), the Simpsons had debuted, followed by the studiously outrageous South Park, with Muhammad dressed in a bear costume, and Family Guy—slightly distaff of mainstream entertainment that is broadcast even in the Arab world.  I can watch Family Guy on Dubai One, and last night it parodied the second coming of Jesus (pbuh) with a small Jew dressed in a linen cloth explaining to the dejected-looking crowds that people were shorter in his day. Lol.

It is hard to take blasphemy seriously nowadays because it is hard to take religion too seriously. If media can get by with this, what possible contribution can a “free expression” campaign make to the cause? It’s like the posse coming into town after the good people of Laredo have already been liberated from the Dalton gang  by a bevvy of marauding suffragettes.  CFI has a pattern of doing this: it published the Muhammad cartoons in 2006 ages after the real heat had been borne (not much) by other news media.

This mock bravery and swagger is all boots and no cowboy.  In 2013, almost any insult thrown at religion is a virtual ringer for a cheap shot.  Getting born of a virgin, walking on water, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven can be lampooned without fear of serious reprisal because only the most stalwart Christian believes in them literally.  Most liberal Christians have been laughing at Christianity–their own and their neighbor’s–since Tom Lehrer wrote Vatican Rag—in 1964:

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

As with South Park and Family Guy, funny goes a long way in knocking the stuffing out of religion.  And a primary audience for this are people who think religion needs to be knocked around a little.   Offensive is in the eye of the beholder.  And after all, didn’t Jesus knock the stuffing out of the Judaism of his day?  (Not the schlock Jesus the atheists have created for their derision—the real one.)  He did.

You may be way ahead of me.  I am trying to suggest that satirizing religion, even its most sacred doctrines, has a long and noble tradition in the west, going back to Boccaccio and Chaucer, and reaching a kind of climax in the great Catholic satirists of the Renaissance and seventeenth century.  Randy priests and lascivious nuns are nothing new to the history of parody.  And some of the woodcuts of the early reformation depicting the Pope as a tiara-sporting demon outdistance almost anything we could throw at the Vatican today.

I am not sure why atheists, especially the New variety, think that they are the first to attack religion. But I have a theory.   One is that they are jaw-droppingly stupid about the history of religion, especially (of all things!) the Christian and Jewish traditions where most of them, if they came out of anything, came from.  The Church used to call it the “pride of ignorance,” but to simplify, it just means that atheist needs to understand that smart religious people have been protecting the world from the edicts of an angry God and a greedy church for a thousand years.

Give me three atheists in a secure room, and put to them the following questions:

  • Name Boccaccio’s most famous work.
  • In what famous work does Luther attack the sacraments and the papacy?
  • Of all the priests and nuns on Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage, which one does he not bitterly mock?
  • When and by whom was the following passage written:

“Almost all Christians being wretchedly enslaved to blindness and ignorance, which the priests are so far from preventing or removing, that they blacken the darkness, and promote the delusion: wisely foreseeing that the people (like cows, which never give down their milk so well as when they are gently stroked), would part with less if they knew more…”

We could stretch this list from the 12th century to the 16th (the last quotation is from Erasmus in the sixteenth in his satire, In Praise of Folly), and we would have trouble finding a decade when the assault on credulity and superstition wasn’t a major theme of men who counted themselves to be pretty religious—often better Catholics than the pope and better protestants than Moses.  The prototype for the modern parody of religion and superstition are medieval and reformation parodies of superstition and religion.  And hear this: most of the most bitter critics—people like Erasmus himself and even Thomas More, died in the good grace of the church. And the latter became a saint.  There was a time when cardinals chuckled over their wine at a really good rip.

Monastic duties

So my first point is that modern atheism is late to the game, and very un-new, or new only in the sense that its movers don’t know the history of the game before them.

But the second point is larger:  the new atheists are terrible at satire.  They don’t do parody well.  I’ll give a pass to a few stand-up comics like Bill Maher, but even they are running dry with shtick and one liners. (“Hey ja hear the one about the talking snake?”) Outside the comedy clubs, atheists usually just resort to insult because they think that is what blasphemy is. And lacking the rhetorical know-how to do parody, they choose the easy road: the sort of outsourced unfunniness that made the CFI Blasphemy contest the travesty of good taste that it was.

When blasphemy was blasphemy, it was often serious philosophical or theological critique of sacred doctrines.  It wasn’t posted in the back of a hay wagon; it was ‘discovered’ in treatises by Christian mandarins who were designated as official blasphemy sniffers by Rome.  Blasphemy was a more direct assault on the core teachings of the Church than heresy, which was considered error, could still get you into the faggots before sundown, but might be the result of simply misunderstanding important truths.  But blasphemy was not mere ridicule.  It had a basis in its aversion to specific doctrines, notably the trinity and the divinity of Christ, a deliberate affront to the “fabric” of the faith, not a slip of the tongue.  Luther’s theology was heretical; blasphemy in the strict sense is limited to an attack on God, or God as the church teaches him.

Please understand, I am not slapping the wrist of the atheist billboard makers and coffee mug sellers who abuseth the temple of the Lord for not understanding the things they are trying to ridicule. I am just trying to suggest that perhaps they lack the satirical savoir faire to say anything funny about religion, to point up its central absurdities in ways that make people think rather than slap their leg.  Blasphemy must have annoyed the church, but it was not merely designed to get on people’s nerves.

But in addition to being incapable of anything except hipshot insult and calling it “free speech”   (really?—in 2013, this is what we fought wars to attain?) atheists also need to consider the motivation for what they think of as the right to blaspheme.

Is it payback for centuries of oppression by a religious monopoly?  Is it a useful measure to get people to think about what kind of speech should be (to use a word I hate) “privileged” and what kind isn’t?  Is it a cold splash in the face attempt to get people to sit up and pay attention to the ignorance of religious belief?  Or is it just an annoying plea for attention from a population that, frankly, doesn’t believe much of anything and doesn’t know very much about anything—whether science or religion—that isn’t sold at Wal-Mart.

When Paul Kurtz walked out of the front door of the Center of Inquiry for the last time, he did so feeling that certain principles he believed in had been trivialized by new and strangely infantile approach to the understanding of civil discourse and free speech.  Unfortunately, the rarefied atmosphere of the center prevented it from being in touch with some of the key intellectual developments happening in the wider non-atheist and academic worlds which surrounded it.

Paul Kurtz was internationally known for his work as a philosopher and writer who promoted secular humanism.

Just when it became ok to “blaspheme,” the anti-hate speech campaigns began to flow through college campuses.  Anti-gay, anti-woman, and neo-racist propaganda seemed to call for new ways of dealing with free expression within the context of a society that simultaneously valued the right to free expression and dissent, but claimed also to protect persons, choices, beliefs, and lifestyles that have historically been vulnerable or non-conventional.  It took professorial skill that movement atheism lacked to explain the difference between what they were doing and the hate speech that increasingly infected  schools, universities and the workplace.   No one was buying that insult could be repackaged as a pillar of free expression and thereby dodge the suggestion that free expression depends on non-provocative and civil disagreement, moral engagement rather than simple ridicule, not rhetorical kicks to the groin.    Even more crippled and contra-historical was the attempt to defend the rough tactics of the new atheism by saying that “religion” had dealt this way for centuries with non-believers.

What have we learned here, as the self-help gurus like to say.

(1)  Atheists need to know that most of what they are doing is nothing new.  They don’t know this because they don’t know very much about the history of religious dissent and anti-ecclesiastical parody.  As I often tell my classes, the first writer to make fun of the story of a high-flying Jesus being shown all the kingdoms of the world by Satan is the second century writer Origen, and some of the funniest barbs against Christianity are stolen by the pagans from Jewish sources.   The charge that Christians are superstitious and dim is two thousand years old. The charge that religion is greedy and corrupt goes back to Jesus’ rants against the doctors of the law and the publicans.

(2)  Second; atheists just aren’t funny—except perhaps to each other.  Go to an atheist meeting and you will notice that it has all the intellectual weight of a night out at the Elks lodge.  It is bowling team, and we’ve all heard Frank’s jokes before.  But what is even worse than not being funny is not being able to take a joke, to accept the corrective possibilities of satire.  ‘Tis a very bad cap’n what steers his ship towards the same gale that ate the three what went afore it.”  Historically, it is a problem of atheism not to be able to take correction and thus to steer its ship ever and again into the storm of unsuccess.

Religion survived in no small measure because it learned how to take a joke, and then make jokes at its own expense.  It is the mark of the maturity of any social group to take it on the chin without crucifying your critics, in reality or in rhetoric.  Judaism and Christianity used to do just that, stoning prophets and dispatching inconvenient teachers like Jesus. But for the most part, on a world scale and even in America’s mainstream churches, they reached that point a long time ago. We wait for atheism to catch up and show us what it’s made of.

And finally an observation:   What is the market value of insult? When did it become fun to upset grandma or the lonely woman in the cancer ward whose religion is a source of consolation?   Do you really think reading her a few chapters of Dawkins or Sam Harris rather than the Sermon on the Mount or Psalm 23 would see her through to the end?  Atheists will say this is not their intention.  Some would say it isn’t their job.  They are mere servants of the truth (like Paul was a mere slave for the gospel?) and should not be judged by unintended consequences.

Atheism in its New form comes dangerously close to moral irresponsibility.  In an age where civil discourse is increasingly important among people and nations, it has decided to eschew it; in a world where forgiveness and mercy are in short supply, it preaches something like the get-even ethics of the Old Testament.  What this means for the long term, is that new atheism is bound to become old before it reaches maturity, and maturity is in very short supply.

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63 thoughts on “The Moral Apathy of Atheism: Leaving it to the Snake

  1. The blasphemy challenge is a way to break the psychological taboo. It’s a personal exorcism. It has never harmed a single believer. Believers have harmed blasphemers and still do.

    Atheists aren’t funny? Mark Twain wasn’t funny? Kurt Vonnegut? Douglas Adams? George Carlin?

      • He didn’t say Mark Twain was a New Atheist. He said Mark Twain was a funny atheist. I assume we was responding to your statement: “Second; atheists just aren’t funny–except perhaps to each other.” Did you mean to specify “New Atheists”? If not, do you include yourself?

      • Beau, Joseph Hoffmann said the following:
        So my first point is that modern atheism is late to the game, and very un-new, or new only in the sense that its movers don’t know the history of the game before them.

        But the second point is larger: the new atheists are terrible at satire.

        It would seem abundantly obvious that he is talking about new atheism,
        … first point … modern atheism …
        … second point … new atheists …

        Perhaps his failure to capitalize the term has confused you. I know that new atheism is a religion but I also refuse to capitalize the term.

    • Dadisfat,
      I think you miss some important points. Joseph Hoffmann is saying that
      1) New Atheism has become an enabler for hate speech;
      2) It is making a large contribution to the decline of civil discourse;
      3) It is contributing to the decline in tolerance;

      As he says, this is moral irresponsibility. My five year old child did these kinds of things on the playground, but he grew up.

      These are not small things that can be justified as a personal exorcism(you can do that in your own kitchen). This is harm to society at large.

      • Peter,

        Perhaps you didn’t notice. Joseph Hoffmann was the first to capitalize “New Atheism”; I only capitalized it in reference to his statement.

        No, I wasn’t pointing out a lack of capitalization. But thank you for pointing out two sentences that sit nine paragraphs away from the statements dadisfat was actually discussing. It’s clear that Hoffmann has a special place in his satire for “new atheists”. But he generalizes the term to “atheists” so often, it’s valid to question whether the “new”s are his only target.

        If new atheism is a religion, it is not one that I profess.

      • Beau, you said “But thank you for pointing out two sentences that sit nine paragraphs away from the statements dadisfat was actually discussing.

        I hate to have to point out the obvious. When the writer prefaces his statements with qualifiers like “my first point is” and “but the second point is larger” you can be sure that this is the meat of what he is saying. These are common techniques for directing the readers’ attention to the important parts of the posting. No amount of quibbling can hide the fact that it was abundantly obvious that Joseph Hoffmann was talking about new atheism and it is just as abundantly obvious that Dadisfat was careless with his terms.

        I see two broader issues here.
        1) when you don’t like the main message try to redirect attention by finding fault with a peripheral issue. It is a common but dishonest technique and we see it in these comments.
        2) atheist fundamentalists are remarkably sensitive to criticism. They are happy to dish it out but are unable to take it. I supposes this is a common fundamentalist failing. It is all part and parcel of being fundamentalist. Fundamentalists quite clearly have no sense of humour, irony or satire. I suspect that the effort of clinging to an extreme point of view is so great that it leaves no room for humour. Humour after all is a flexible state of mind that leaves room for other possibilities.

      • Peter,

        I don’t think you have much standing to complain about quibbling, when you have trouble even identifying who to quibble over the capitalization of “New Atheist”. (You didn’t even realize that it was Hoffman you were accusing of making a religion out of New Atheism).

        Seriously, though, why take the haughty tone? I’m not trying to quibble. I admire Hoffman (I’m not trying to distract), I don’t think this article breaks down quite so succinctly into “point one” and “point two”, and, honestly, the question of who is being criticized in the post is an important question, not a distraction, and one that I think is worth addressing. Adding the three letters “new” to “atheist” takes up very little space and clarifies immensely, but I think Hoffman may be leaving the “new” out intentionally from time to time. I find Hoffman’s criticisms of the contemporary atheist movements right on target most of the time, and I’m interested to know how he categorizes contemporary atheists.

      • Beau, you said “But thank you for pointing out two sentences that sit nine paragraphs away from the statements dadisfat was actually discussing.”

        Ah, now I get it. You are saying that his attention span is less than nine paragraphs. That explains a lot, especially the crudity of arguments by atheist fundamentalists. Ritalin or Modafinil might help though I won’t be holding my breath. No amount of medication can breath life into a dead argument.

      • Peter

        I’m not trying to make a case for atheist fundamentalists; what are you talking about?

        I see that you’ve responded to almost every comment on this post. I’m glad you’re interested in the conversation, but you seem to be acting as a self-appointed watch-dog for Professor Hoffmann. I really don’t think he needs your protection, and in your efforts to “counter-attack” comments that are not always intended as “attacks”, I think you may be missing the nuance of the conversation.

      • Beau, “I see that you’ve responded to almost every comment on this post. I’m glad you’re interested in the conversation

        I grew up in an environment of stimulating debate, it is its own justification. Yes, of course, Hoffmann needs no defending. As a theist I’m not here as an exercise in bias confirmation, I’m here because I enjoy Hoffman’s erudition, his sparkling insights and his expressive prose, even though we stand on opposite sides of the theism divide. I enjoy entertaining contrary points of view that are intelligently expressed.

        I was a keen rugby player and well remember our coach drilling into us the mantra “play the ball and not the man”. A wise sentiment.

        Perhaps you would like to explain the nuance that I am missing?

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  3. I like criticism like this. It seems absurd to say it but so much of online culture has deferred to outrage and shame in lieu of actual constructive (or interesting) criticism. How refreshing.

    Chaucer knew the proper use of a fart joke too. You won’t get many of those with Harris or Dawkins. (Fart jokes, I mean. Obviously you’ll get farts from both of them – they’re only human.)

    • I agree – this is a helpful reminder to step back and evaluate the broader perspective of what our goals are, what the end game is, and what we might inadvertently (or advertently) trample over along the way. Plus, a reminder to be smart, good-humored, and good-natured along the way.

      My biggest point of departure is that with a variety of non-believers will necessarily come a variety of approaches, arguments, and senses of humor and art. That’s a good thing. Dawkins, HItchens and Harris are well known precisely because their personal styles have resonated with a vast audience. I see Hoffmann’s cautions here as an exhortation to find new voices and raise the bar even farther if possible.

  4. “One is that they are jaw-droppingly stupid about the history of religion, especially (of all things!) the Christian and Jewish traditions where most of them, if they came out of anything, came from.”

    You exhibited poor syntax and a sophomoric failure to distinguish between intelligence and knowledge. Not knowing something has nothing to do with stupidity. Think about it, if you are right, then you are stupid.

      • This is itself a sophomoric response based upon some type of infantile attempt at role reversal. There is absolutely nothing “stupid” about not knowing the history of anything, and now that it has been pointed out and you are still asserting you are correct, the appellation can now be applied to you. Loading your poorly constructed text with insults is a poor way to make your point.

      • Here is an example of a more mature response you could have given (but didn’t):

        “Simon, you are correct. I should have said they are jaw-droppingly ignorant about the history of religion. Thanks for the correction.”

        Was it that difficult?

      • Simon,
        sigh, you seem not to have read my comment.
        Let’s spell it out in detail:
        1) there are people ignorant of certain facts;
        2) some arguments require knowledge of these facts;
        2) it is stupid to make such arguments without obtaining these facts;
        3) there are people who make such arguments without knowledge of these facts;
        4) these people are stupid.

        Joseph Hoffmann said all of this more elegantly and very succinctly. I suppose Oxonians are accustomed to dealing with mental agility.

      • Peter Smith,
        If one makes an argument without knowledge of certain key facts, their argument may be flawed, but it doesn’t demonstrate that he/she is stupid. When enough good contradictory evidence is availed, it’s wise to revise your beliefs on the matter (provisionally), but even if you don’t, you may not be stupid, but rather predisposed to motivated reasoning/confirmation bias. There’s evidence that high intelligence can sometimes be correlated with the ability to justify unsubstantiated beliefs, as it takes mental agility to be both self-convincing and incorrect.

      • Craig,
        making a good argument requires a certain amount of due diligence, such as gain the necessary skills, check your premises, collect the relevant facts, review the opposing arguments, etc. Of course an intelligent assessment must be made as to the degree of due diligence required. Complex and deep arguments require more due diligence.

        The stupidity creeps in from a failure to perform the degree of due diligence required and thus to launch an argument from trivial or insufficient facts. Where there is a large gap between the knowledge required for the argument and the knowledge exhibited then it is especially apparent that stupidity is involved. This is exactly the point that Joseph Hoffmann is making.

        For example, I might launch an attack on quantum physics on the basis of my knowledge of school physics. Every physicist from Hawking downwards would call me appallingly stupid for doing this, and so they should. On the other hand, some highly trained and very well informed physicists have attacked quantum physics(every field needs its querdenkers). The consensus is that they are wrong but not stupid. They have done their due diligence, have the necessary knowledge but have come to different conclusions.

        Another example of this stupidity is the claims of the so-called mythicists. They claim that Jesus Christ did not exist. Amateurs making claims against a large body of knowledge in a field that requires many years of deep study is stupid indeed. But let’s not ignite another debate. It is enough to quote Bart Ehrman who rather more charitably says:
        …the mythicist position is not seen as intellectually credible in my field (I’m using euphemisms here; you should see what most of my friends *actually* say about it….) – no one that I know personally (I know a *lot* of scholars of New Testament, early Christianity, and so on) takes it at *all* seriously as a viable historical perspective (this includes not just Christians but also Jews, agnostics, atheists – you name it)

  5. Yes, we must counter “socialist Kenyan Muslim” talk from our foes, but we must do it with class. No more calling Tea-party fundamentalists “Fuck-Tards”, we must calmly and tastefully rehash their creationist arguments ad infinitum, even in 2013, because someone made fun of the pope hundreds of years ago. I mean, why fight “God hates fags”, when someone made fun of the communion “pizzas”. Who cares if they are mutilating baby boys genitalia, we have to be nice because this guy knows about some fact about a work of art from 300 years ago…

    Fuck those who still suffer at religions hands, we must take the high road because they called themselves names a few times a while back?

    They are doing a mighty fine job keeping creationist congressman out of the Federal Science and Technology Board?

    • If one makes an argument without knowledge of certain key facts, their argument may be flawed, but it doesn’t demonstrate that he/she is stupid. When enough good contradictory evidence is availed, it’s wise to revise your beliefs on the matter (provisionally), but even if you don’t, you may not be stupid, but rather predisposed to motivated reasoning/confirmation bias. There’s evidence that high intelligence can sometimes be correlated with the ability to justify unsubstantiated beliefs, as it takes mental agility to be both self-convincing and incorrect.

  6. As an atheist I don’t feel I need to do extra research into Boccaccio or Luther or Chaucer to have some justification to say or write something that the religious would find blasphemous.

    Just as I don’t need to read the Bible or the Koran to know that they are silly, supposedly magic books that I can just dismiss as such. Better use of my time to take the word of someone like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens who I know have read them and I trust to give a well informed opinion. Religion is that easy dismissed and will remain so until some proof is given that turns the ridiculous claims into truth and fact.

    I have put some thought into this and decided for myself based on evidence presented and it is not wilful ignorance on the part of an atheist to decide not to keep looking in more old books for more information. Not like the theists that have been brainwashed and will believe stupid stuff because they have been told to.

    • David, you said
      >>it is not wilful ignorance on the part of an atheist<<

      You are quite right, it is not ignorance but anosognosia.
      See this delightful NY Times article about the subject:
      The Anosognosic’s Dilemma

      • Just as I don’t need to read the Bible or the Koran to know that they are silly, supposedly magic books that I can just dismiss as such.

        You don’t need to read them to know that people who approach them with a fundamentalist attitude are silly. You don’t need to read them to know that they contain a lot which is out of date, and even monstrous by modern standards. But I think you do need to read, and you need to do so critically using the best research that we have on them, before you can dismiss them with the single word “silly” for most reasonable definitions of “silly”.

        Those two particular books (technically the Koran is a book, and the Bible is an anthology) have influenced, both directly and indirectly, quite a lot of history and thought. You really do need to read them to understand all that. And more to the point, not having read them and understood them disqualifies you from using that in an argument.

        Of course, if that sort of thing doesn’t interest you, then that’s fine. But in that case, I’m curious to know what you’re doing reading this blog.

        Similarly, if by “silly” you’re only making an aesthetic judgement, then that’s also fine. There’s no arguing over taste.

        I think it was James McGrath who told the story of a fundamentalist and a new atheist arguing over Aesop’s Fables. The fundamentalist said: “Isn’t it amazing how there were talking animals in Ancient Greece!” To which the new atheist replied: “Isn’t it amazing how stupid the Ancient Greeks were, that they believed in talking animals!” Which of these two people, would you say, understood the text better?

    • “Not like the theists that have been brainwashed and will believe stupid stuff because they have been told to.”

      Aren’t you being brainwashed and believing stupid stuff because you have been told to? Are you not justifying your statements upon the apparently inspired authority of another? Are you not unwilling to give your intended victim a day in court? Is the irony lost on you?

  7. Courtesy, civility and respectful discourse between theists and atheists is sufficiently rare that when it does occur it should be noted and celebrated.

    Please see this fine example in the ongoing debate between Robert Oerter and Edward Feser:

    Feser and Oerter have been debating the Ross/Kripke argument for the immateriality of thought.

    This is a serious and important debate, well worth reading carefully. Here is Feser’s last post, he links to the other posts.

  8. The way I look at it is athiesm is just another religion as is the work of Nassim Haramein and the astro physicists or the attempt to understand the unified field theory as the union of the microcosm and macrocosm….The only bet i have is that sooner or later the gateway either the human brain or the gateways that exist perhaps in all the suns and blackholes in our infinite universe will take us to the underlying reality of this master knowledge and answer at least some of our questions.Meanwhile the controllers seemingly of our dying world will become less and less convincing as our oxygen and Oceans will die.So perhaps its wait and see.

    • Atheism is a religion in the same way that OFF is a TV channel. Have a look in the dictionary and see what the word atheism actually means Dan.

      Religion requires you to have a belief and atheism is when you don’t have a belief in any of the gods that have been invented.

      • When I enable OFF on my TV set I get silence, blessed silence but when I turn to the Atheism OFF channel I get an unpleasant, aggressively insistent cacophony that intrudes everywhere.

        Nope, your analogy fails horribly. I wish you were right.

      • I must chime in to agree with Peter: the “off”-analogy doesn’t work because off isn’t convertible with denial. Denial is the active rejection of a premise, so the question of moral apathy has to be whether an intellectual position has any moral consequence. I don’t think the rejection of God as a postulate has any moral weight, unless you accept beyond the mere premise of God’s existence a whole lot of theological doctrine, but the mere postulate God exists remains what William James called in Will to Believe a living option ( “a living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones”), not dead air. I actually agree that atheism per se is not a religion; but as a movement as opposed to a mere philosophical or moral position it certainly exhibits organizational tendencies which look like religion in an immature phase. i wonder if the new atheist dominionism which enslaves itself to reason isn’t bit like the Islamic awakening of the 7th century or the church of the Middle Ages or the Biblicism of the early reformation, an all or nothing approach that creates insiders and outsiders. Religion excelled in doing this; movement atheism seems to be following a similar pattern using polemic, as religious groups once did, as a weapon. Is this what “off” looks like?

      • Any useful belief system is defined not only by its intellectual content but also by its moral content and emotional content. These reinforce the belief system giving it a clear identity, greater cohesion and persuasion. The moral content gives it intrinsic value that make it admirable and worth caring about. The emotional content motivates, mobilizes and gives the movement force and persistence.

        New Atheism has built up a useful body of intellectual content (even if I disagree with it) but lacks any useful moral content. The emotional content of New Atheism is of a negative and destructive kind, based on hatred.

        The absence of inherent moral content and the negative emotional content of New Atheism condemn it to be for ever a fringe movement, attractive only to the angry and discontented.

        Humanism addresses the moral content but, it seems to me, carries little emotional conviction. In answer to this problem, some have written about the necessity of bringing back a sense of awe and reverence into the movement. But is that enough to provide the compelling motivation experienced by theists and New Atheists?

        My personal view is that theists and humanists should do more to make common cause in working together to address suffering and working for better governance. We can agree on our goals even if the underlying motivations are different.

        I can’t see any future for New Atheism in this. The negativism of New Atheism contributes nothing useful and it quite simply has no moral foundation.

      • But atheism, itself, is clearly a belief system. The atheist responds as an atheist. He or she doesn’t rediscover atheism anew each morning with the rising sun. Indeed, like the religionist, the atheist creates and nurtures a self image based on the belief. He responds and identifies himself as “being” an atheist (whatever “being” may mean in that context, and I suspect from my study of Buddhism that it means nothing, apart from a bundle of memories with which we identify and to which we are compulsively attached).

      • Ken wrote: But atheism, itself, is clearly a belief system…Indeed, like the religionist, the atheist creates and nurtures a self image based on the belief. That may be true of movement atheists, but for some of us despised accommodationists atheism is peripheral to “self image.” Rather I like to think of myself as someone willing to read “silly, supposedly magical books” (and also as someone ferocious and quite good-looking).

  9. The author takes religion too seriously, like one has to pay attention on how to make fun of it. Religion is idiotic no reason to be sophisticated about it. And after all the intellectual somersaults in the main part of the essay, the author ends with the usual idiotic comments the value of religion being in consoling old women in a hospital ward (yes, let’s tell people lie to console them). Religion doesn’t deserve anything else than contempt and the most vile of ridicule.

    • This is an interesting perspective: religion is so self-evidently bankrupt that anything you can say to demean it is true and justified by the “idiocy” of those who believe. I think this is the closest to a succinct statement of new atheist philosophy that I have seen. Thanks.

      • No problem you are welcome. And the attacks on religion are not on the people, it is not that the believers are idiots. Evidently you are not. It is about the idiocy of the belief. And saying the belief is not to be taken literally means nothing. Then go ahead and say it is all about symbols, but symbols of what? And how symbols can really console people? When people are in a hospital ward praying for their dear ones to be helped in their dire circumstances or mourning for a loss of a family member they hope for a real chance that there is somebody to hear their prayer and a real afterlife. These are false hopes nothing else, lies. The atheists are pointing out that leaving behind these false hopes would represent a great advancement in the human condition as equivalent to what we experience when we grow up and we realize fairy tales are not real, they still can be enjoyed as story telling (I enjoy classical sacred music or the great masterpieces of Christianity inspired art) but not to be relied on to solve practical problems in life like illness or death. Science and rationality has done million times better in solving these problems in just few decades that all the religions combined in thousand of years. And still some many people thank god instead of the doctors when somebody comes successfully out of an intensive surgery.
        It is better to laugh than to cry at situations like this.

    • Giovanni, you said “ Religion doesn’t deserve anything else than contempt and the most vile of ridicule.
      I am sure that is a most comforting sentiment for those trapped in the self-sustaining, self-confirming hothouse of atheist fundamentalism. There are however people outside your hothouse, looking on, the majority actually. They have a sense of fairness and decency and when they see the ugliness of atheist fundamentalism they view you with the contempt you reserve for religion.

      Or to put it more simply, your tactics are counterproductive because they harm your own cause more than they harm religion. You should also remember that religion is not sitting still. In response to your attacks they are sharpening their arguments and reforming their practices. If you abandoned your ‘vile ridicule’ for even a moment you might notice this and even notice that they are being very smart about it. It is called the law of unintended consequences.

      The bottom line is that attacks and persecution strengthen Christianity. Benign indifference and apathy are the real enemy of Christianity. That is the line you should follow if you wish to harm Christianity. But then that would not satisfy your emotional needs to subject your hate targets to vile ridicule. From a Christian point of view all I can say is, please continue to give free expression to your emotional needs, it is exactly the shot in the arm that Christianity needs to become stronger and more relevant.

      • The bottom line Peter is that religion is nonsense. You can go around as much as you want, come up with more arguments but there are none. Science is revealing the world to us, not just the external world but the inner one of our consciousness and mind. There is no god, there is no soul, there is no afterlife. It is a fact. We have enough science to show that is the case. Just people that ignore these facts still believe in religion. It would be an easy shot to say it is because the “ignorance” of the religious individual in science (paralleling Joseph accusation of ignorance in history against the atheists). What is confused also in the mind of religious people that atheism has nothing to offer in the moral or philosophical front and that is not true. Once we abandon our superstitions, our false beliefs and hopes, we can focus on finding worth goals for ourselves as Carl Sagan said in his magnificent speech. We can build a rational society that has moral values, great perspectives about the meaning of life (that is not out there but given and chosen by us with our thougths and actions) and would give inspiration and motivation to all of us in a more universal way that religion has ever done. Here Sagan’s Worthy Goal speech:

      • Giovanni,
        so you rehash all the stale arguments in the crude form used by atheist fundamentalists.

        But what is the point when your smokescreen fails to hide the fact you have answered none of my points, in my comment above?

      • What is crazy about this? Take out all the myth, the astrological references to the christ “sun” of god, the forced fitting of prophecies in the story, the evident hagiography and fisherman story telling and what you have left? Who was the real Jesus? Even if you don’t want to believe the theories of who says Jesus is just a myth, how can you distinguish the “real” Jesus from such myths? Impossible. They are one and the same.

  10. The fact is though that atheism is winning, slowly but it is winning. And the making fun of religion in part is responsible for this winning given the new tools of expression people have available through digital media. Many people find liberating to make fun of religion by for example posting a blasphemous meme on religion on their FB page. It takes courage at the personal level to do so notwithstanding blasphemy being not a new thing. It is new for the person that does it. Even in our days one has to go beyond the possible backlash of family, friends and coworkers. That is what is extremely new that while few courageous intellectual figures could afford to make fun of religion and survive because of being appreciated for their overall value as artists and thinkers most common people could not express so publicly their feelings. What is also new and liberating is to find that there is a community of people that think alike and come out together to support each other. There are many similarity between what happened to the gay community and the atheist one in this regard. The criticism of the author here is out of place because he doesn’t recognizes this aspect of the phenomenon at all.

    • Winning? What would Plato say? Plato understood something that many of the NAs fail to understand: that being a philosopher is being one who loves truth more than his own opinions. In Plato’s day, sophistry was the enemy, an enemy that Plato found wholly repugnant, an enemy that colored all of his interests; yet he was bid to stop and ponder the possible truth of those who would deny its possibility. That may be the greatest charm of philosophy: for it is perhaps the only serious undertaking of man which includes, indeed honors, those who deny its relevance and possibility. Shouldn’t we?

      “That is what is extremely new that while few courageous intellectual figures could afford to make fun of religion and survive because of being appreciated for their overall value as artists and thinkers most common people could not express so publicly their feelings.”

      I think you are underestimating the value of certain beliefs. All cultures and societies and communities have their unchallenged assumptions, and are subject to a certain amount of upheaval when those assumptions are challenged.

      “There is no god, there is no soul, there is no afterlife. It is a fact.”

      Do you not know that laughter is a moral virtue, a reflection of Socratic ignorance? You should learn to laugh, my friend.

      But, most of all, atheism is not winning, whatever that means.

      “The percentage of the world that is religious continues to increase, according to the study titled “Christianity In Its Global Context, 1970-2010,” conducted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.

      In 1970, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population was religious, and by 2010 this had grown to around 88 percent, with a projected increase to almost 90 percent by 2020, the report states. The growth of religious adherence can largely be attributed to the continuing resurgence of religion in China, it notes.

      In 1970, agnostic and atheist populations together claimed 19.2 percent of the world’s total population, largely due to communism in Eastern Europe and China. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of the nonreligious returned to religion.

      According to the report, projections to 2020 indicate a sustained decrease of the global share of the nonreligious, mostly because China is witnessing a resurgence of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions, and Christianity is also growing in Eastern Europe.

      “If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world’s population in 2020 than they were in 2010,” says the report. “Although the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world, the current growth of a variety of religions in China in particular (where the vast majority of the nonreligious live today) suggests continued future demographic growth of religion.”

      Christianity and Islam dominate religious demographics and are expected to continue that dominance in the future, according to the report, which notes that the two religions represented 48.8 percent of the global population in 1970, and by 2020 they will likely represent 57.2 percent. The study also predicts that there will be 2.6 billion Christians by 2020.

      However, the fastest-growing religions over the next decade are likely to be the Baha’i faith which is growing by 1.7 percent yearly, Islam at 1.6 percent, Sikhism at 1.4 percent, Jainism at 1.3 percent, Christianity at 1.2 percent, and Hinduism at 1.2 percent. Each of these is growing faster than the world’s population at 1.1 percent.”

      When you see things in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites the intermediate shades only serve to complicate reality, am I right?

      You say: “Science and rationality has done million times better in solving these problems in just few decades that all the religions combined in thousand of years…It would be an easy shot to say it is because the “ignorance” of the religious individual in science…Once we abandon our superstitions, our false beliefs and hopes, we can focus on finding worth goals for ourselves as Carl Sagan said in his magnificent speech. We can build a rational society that has moral values, great perspectives about the meaning of life (that is not out there but given and chosen by us with our thougths and actions) and would give inspiration and motivation to all of us in a more universal way that religion has ever done.”

      I say you and the NAs have little awareness of, in the words of Said, “the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time.” No understanding that knowledge can, in some sense, be the cause of corruption. Isn’t that what Said demonstrated in his “little” book? The scientistic view is one where science is impervious to disturbing mutations, that knowledge itself is innocent. How very naive and very dangerous, I think. There is no historical law of the intellectual development of mankind. Contrary to what Comte maintained, any such law is an act of faith in disguise; it is not a scientific discovery, but a scientistic dogma.

      Bacon, Descartes, and the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century dreamt of improving the condition of mankind by harnessing the powers of nature. They were heralds of a new age, if you will. And they pictured their efforts as the mechanism whereby man would be loosed from his chains and the drudgery of difficult work in an unfriendly environment. Of course, they did not, and I do not blame them for it, foresee the consequences of thinking in this way about the world, consequences that would lead to a world where the ruthless exploitation of natural resources could one day lead to an even harsher environment.

      The march of science has been triumphant, of course, but do we not run the risk of being crushed underfoot by our own Monster, one far less human than Dr. Frankenstein’s? We capture the energies of nature to the extent of concentrating them in metal cylinders whence, if simultaneously released, would spell the destruction of our species and, most likely, all of class Mammalia. We should know by now that knowledge without wisdom, power without self-discipline is much more dangerous than nature in its rawest form ever was. Perhaps, Blake and the Romantic poets had a point about the dangers of scientific innovation.

      The modern-day colonialists are the ones who are unwilling to question the myth of automatic progress associated with modern science, scientizers who want to play at controlling the destiny of mankind, nay, even play at Providence himself.

      “We can build a rational society that has moral values, great perspectives about the meaning of life (that is not out there but given and chosen by us with our thougths and actions) and would give inspiration and motivation to all of us in a more universal way that religion has ever done.”

      Hubristic NAs who want to create value ex nihilo out of the blindness of process. I have little time for such a pessimistic view of being and such an optimistic view of man, it is both self-contradictory and unempirical.

  11. Today’s New Atheists don’t seem to realize the philosophical error they make when they lump traditional beliefs about observable human behavior in with superstitions about things we can’t observe. Consider the status of patriarchal beliefs, for example. We can’t communicate with, or observe, our tribe’s supernaturals, despite what the people on those foolish “ghost hunting” shows on cable claim. But men have had to live with women all along and keep the human species in business in a harsh and dangerous world. If the resulting body of experience we’ve accumulated from this relationship tends to put women in a bad light – well, you can’t blame that outcome on the gods, now, can you?

    Case in point: Our ancestors’ allegedly “superstitious” priests who advised young women to save themselves for marriage had good pattern recognition about women’s sexuality after all. The social science data confirm the observation, wrongly dismissed these days as an arbitrary prejudice, that women’s premarital sexual adventures erode their character and spoil them for stable marriages:

  12. Well said, Giovanni – I agree 100%. Except that you say Atheism is “winning, slowly” – it’s not, it’s winning quickly. Its membership has doubled in the last decade…

    Sorry Joseph – your essay comes off as snobbish, but worse than that – you don’t recognize that atheism is succeeding precisely because it has been ridiculing religion. Stand up comics bash it regularly, with audiences laughing, and agreeing. Atheists are funny, and far far more tolerant than the religionists…

    • I have been looking at the polls for some time; it is certainly true that atheists are asserting they are “winning” but the Pew and Barna (and related polls) show about a 1% increase in “atheism” and a slight increase in the number of people who claim to be “nones”–not belonging to any organized religion. I have no reason to wish that atheism fail, but I do not think it will succeed by trying to suggest the absurd notion that it is winning “quickly” because of the flatfooted insult tactics of the Gnus. What’s the lesson to be learned, even if that were true– Rude wins?

      • Giovanni (and Hank) Mocking religion and its believers tends to reinforce the religious beliefs of believers. Critical thinking and questioning ‘truths’ held by religions, has developed more since the Enlightenment. Religious beliefs dissolve with education when the evidence of the emerging sciences contradicts them. Balanced education including the arts and history leads to the appreciation and celebration of the achievements of humanity and evolution of ideas through the ages. It is intriguing that non believers are more inclined to identify as ‘atheists’ when their society’s religions are more intrusive in their society’s education and politics, and religions are practised more overtly. In societies where religion is more a personal ‘thing’, non believers are less likely to mock religion or identify as a-theist as religion is not ‘in their face’. Perhaps, after all, they are more interested in ideas… and history. Atheism is not ‘winning’. Critical thinking is growing with a little positive encouragement and improved education. Finally, once a fundy, always a fundy – just batting for the ‘other side’. One set of convictions held without argument or evidence, is merely passed up for another set of convictions, similarly held without argument or evidence.

    • I don’t know about the rest of the world, but the largest, and fastest-growing, religious group in the English-speaking world is people who self-identify as adhering to a religion (most commonly Christianity) or as “spiritual but not religious”, and do not regularly attend a place of worship.

      There are a lot more people who self-identify as atheist than there used to be, but there are far more who seem to want to retain spirituality/mysticism/faith and lose the institutions.

      There is “atheist”, and there is “religionist”, and then there is the majority.

    • Hank,
      It is difficult to support the claim that atheism is winning anything when it returns poll numbers like these: Atheist Disapproval Rating vs Other Groups in the US

      Atheists have become the most disliked group in the US with 87.2 % disapproval vs. 59.8% disapproval for Muslims and 20.4% disapproval for conservative Christians. Compare this with the base-line disapproval of 4.5% for white Americans and you will see the vast gulf.

      Most people like fairness and decency. They are turned off by crude, rude, insulting behaviour and this shows in the dreadful poll results that atheists get.

      And please don’t call yourself tolerant when you are so utterly intolerant of religion.

      • Hank, to illustrate my point, let me quote verbatim from Dawkins, the so-called “public intellectual” and thought leader for atheist fundamentalism. He was commenting on the sexual harassment that Rebecca Watson suffered at TAM. With behaviour like this and values like these what chance does atheism have?

        Dear Muslima
        Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

        Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

        And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

        With this level of insight, compassion and intelligence it is clear to me that atheist fundamentalism is a self-limiting phenomenon. You may gain a few percentage points as the remaining angry, resentful malcontents flock to your cause but good, decent people will stay away. Remember that this is a quote from the great(harrumph) Dawkins, not some rank and file member.

      • Dawkins cares about Muslim women? Has he ever talked to a Muslimah? Has he even visited a masjid? He probably thinks shari’a is about chopping people’s hands off. Alas, every society needs an Evil Empire. When no obvious candidate fills the bill, we will conjure one up in the vain hope that somehow it will make us feel better about ourselves.

  13. Having stumbled across this site for the first time and finding myself absorbed for an evening, I felt compelled to comment since both Peter Smith and Prof. Hoffman make compelling arguments.
    It’s essential to remain informed in order to engage or argue cogently and make critique in any debate. Christians that refuse to read non-canonical texts let alone dare expose themselves to the writings of Dawkins are as blinkered as those atheists who dismiss examining any faith-based scriptures or exegetical texts.
    The importance is to differentiate between any fundamentalist dogma and a mindful belief-system which seeks knowledge and truth. Faith must surely always be a partner to doubt. This is why it’s essential to question both modern-day ‘scientific theory’ as well as ancient ‘traditional wisdom’.
    It’s also important to separate religions that impose socio-political ideologies (and even theocracries) from those creeds that don’t claim a monopoly on absolute truth or seek to proselytise. The danger surely has always lain in the institutionalisation or political hijacking of philosophies by elites or nation-states in order to subjugate and oppress.
    This is not to suggest a moral or ethical relativism, since I would suggest there are universal truths and human rights that need upholding. The problem seems to be intellectual arrogance and the lack of any common ethic or value system amongst new atheists who can seem committed only to individualism.

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