What do you get when you cross a new atheist with a Jehovah’s Witness?
Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.
This will be brief. Blasphemy Day, God love it, has come and gone. Soon the giggling will stop. Dogs, horses and Episcopalians will be left wondering what the point was. The few Pentecostals who can read a newspaper will say, “See, told you so,” and head for the basement before the anti-Christ rides through town.
I was musing yesterday why, as a pretty fervent Roman Catholic in the 1960’s, I fell on the floor in paroxysms of laughter when a friend (also Catholic) played Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” for me for the first time. I still laugh when I hear it, even though most twenty-first century Catholics don’t know what a kyrie eleison is or bother to stand in line for confession. In college, a little less fervent, I knew priests (many of whom aren’t any more) who knew the song from front to back. We used to break it out on cue at Charlie’s Beef and Beer (RIP) at Harvard.
So if irreverence can be funny (and I love irreverence as much as I love Mahler) why do I think Blasphemy Day was such a fuckwitted idea?
Well for one thing, as I said in my two posts on the topic, bad art, bad jokes, and behavior designed to be stupid and offensive are seldom funny except to insiders.
A competition to see who can come up with the worst art, the worst joke, and the most self-referentially stupid behavior will have to be judged by how funny the insiders think it is.
I’m guessing the atheist insiders peed their pants. As for those standing outside the circle (those dogs, horses and Episcopalians), let the cattle judge.
An NPR story on the subject tried to link the Center for Inquiry-sponsored event to a growing rift between old school and new atheism.
If I bought the distinction, I would be expected to say that the “old atheism” as represented by ardent secularists like Paul Kurtz was warm and cuddly whereas the newer form, usually thought to be incarnate in Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (et al.) is tactically less subtle, more aggressive, unkinder.
But I don’t buy it. The old atheism was full of cranks and angry old men, but some of them were clever. Many of them (as my grandmother used to say) knew a thing or two. The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective. At its worst, it was purely negative, abrasive and sometimes nihilistic.
The best form of the old atheism had a lot in common with certain theological trends, ranging from nominalism to religious realism and minimalism–the sort of stance you get from Don Cupitt’s best writings. The worst, rejectionist stream of atheism, was marked (or marred) by intolerance and a lack of table manners. It was an atheism for the unsophisticated young and the dispirited old. Wedged between were Philistines of all ages, one big unhappy family.
What’s now being called “new atheism” or atheist fundamentalism is really nothing more than the triumph of the jerks. Unsubtle, unlearned (but pretentious), unreflective (but persistent). They have heroes in super-jerks like PZ Myers (yes, the one who drives spikes through communion “crackers” as he calls them, and Korans) because
Edgy is what young people like….They want to cut through the nonsense right away and want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I’m sorry, the old school of atheism is really, really boring.
Did you get that: really? Presumably Mr Myers has tenure, but I for one would love to see his teaching philosophy unpacked when it comes out in book form. Students may also like it raunchy, naked, and loud. And that’s why we used to think a university was a good place to lead people out of the tribe and toward civilization. Not PZ. Give him a hammer and he’ll follow you anywhere.
Almost as bad is the point made by CFI executive Ron Lindsay who says that his “research” organization will “take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.” Sounds strangely like Jesus, except the bit about the low road.
To the extent this highways and hedges approach works, imagine the good news: “Rejoice greatly: for unto you this day is born in the City of Right Reason…absolutely Nothing.”
Here is my prophecy. The raw atheism of the raw atheists who have given us Blasphemy Day and probably have other delights in store for us is loud because they already know no one is listening, at least no one who matters.
The shrill tones of the movement have to be amplified for the same reason cinemas now have to pump up the volume to drown out the hundred private conversations that are going on during the film, person to person, cell phone to cell phone, tweet to tweet. It is shouting, pure and simple because loud wins. Stupid and loud is even better, and outrageously stupid and loud is best.
But while all this is going on, there are many who style themselves humanists and are not believers in any conventional sense who want to say, “Shut up-I’m watching the movie.” (More precisely, “Shut up, we’re trying to think.,” or maybe read. What we need is an intellectual resource for thoughtful humanists, the thoughtful seekers who don’t think it’s cool to “repent” of your baptism by having a hairdryer pointed at your head.
What I miss about the old atheism–even though I still find its central premises wobbly and unconvincing–is that thinking was permitted. The conversation continued. There was no infallible source of confidence. Skepticism reigned.
The new atheism is a catechism of conclusions reached, positions taken, dogmas pronounced. It is more like the Catholicism I giggled to see parodied, a church too sure of itself and its exclusive ability to save souls and reveal the kingdom.
Oh Thou who hast no name and many…and may not even be there:
Bring back clever.
Smite with a bolt of intelligence all enemies of parody and good satire.
Bring low the self-assurance of the Brights, and unto the Dims give light.
With a stroke of your mighty pen lay waste the stupidity of your deniers and confound the certainty of your defenders.
Render mute, O heavenly Conundrum, the loudness of the gainsayers and the loudness of the speakers in tongues. Do it soon.
And do Thou, O King, or Something, of the Unseen Regions of my Brain, grant me the endurance to suffer religious fools as gladly as I suffer the Atheist. And failing that, send a scorching fire upon the earth, if it isn’t asking too much.