Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist
I’ve been puzzling for a few months now why the discourse between hardshell and softshell atheists has taken such a nasty turn. Can’t crabs just learn to live together–scuttling from side to side without disturbing each other’s tranquility?
True, when I first detected the trend among the leading atheist commandos (variously Gnus, News, EZs and Full-frontals) I said they were behaving like jerks, which of course got me called worse names by their fans. All of a sudden I felt as unwelcome among the Baptism-revokers as Garp did when he stumbled into a meeting of the Ellen Jamesians.
Think of me as the little engine that couldn’t, the Doubting Thomas who tanked. I guess if I had been among the apostles on the day after the resurrection and had been invited to place my fingers in Jesus’ wounds, I would just have said, “Naw, I’ll take your word for it.”
I am a soft-shell atheist, someone who periodically lapses into doubt about the premises and sincerity of his unbelief. I am an unbeliever with a soft spot for religion–that’s the truth of it. In darker moments, I sometimes entertain the suspicion that there may be some kind of god. Then I look at my online bank balance, or a Republican presidential debate, and realize how foolish I’ve been.
But I’m also one who feels that atheism has a job to do: protecting believers from themselves and the rest of humanity from absurd and extreme ideas. Atheism has to be outwardly directed at religion, its historical opposite, and isn’t at its best when it begins to obsess about degrees, vintages, and levels of unbelief. Even though these exist.
At first the debate within was between so-called “accommodationists” and “confrontationists.” I think the terms are imbecilic, but apparently the former are those who think conversation between believers and non believers can be civil. The latter follow a somewhat different model of discourse, as between an annoyed pet owner shouting at a dog who’s just peed on the chair leg again.
Some accommodationists think that atheists should engage in interfaith dialogue with believers of various brightnesses, as long as both parties to the discussion are unarmed and everyone agrees that Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” is the best ice cream ever made and that Kristin Chenoweth’s version of “Taylor the Latte Boy” is awesome. I’m not that extreme, of course–just a backslider who needs a little stained glass and Bach in his life now and again.
But confrontationists are tough. They are the real deal. You can keep your ice cream and your god–and don’t even think about using the courtier’s reply when they call you out as a dick because they have that page in their Atheist Pride Handbook bookmarked, you conceited, theistic, knee-bending pillock.
All kinds of silly images come to mind when I read what the angriest of the atheist brood say, but the dominant one lately is a continually pissed off and ineffectual Yosemite Sam waving his pistols in the air and shouting “It’s time to stop pussyfootin’ around. You Bible-totin’ swamp cabbages and your lily-livered compadres better run for cover. Our day has come and it isn’t the rapture, varmint.”
The level of pure nastiness has now reached such comic proportions that the real danger faced by the hardshell atheists is the risk of appearing clownish and absurd without being especially funny.
That is a sad state to be in when you are supposed to be advocating for science and reason. So we have to ask why the “confrontationists” are in such a bad mood. All we know is that ice cream won’t fix it.
I have a theory about this. As often happens in the history of movements beginning with a- they seem to be have learned how to behave from the movement they’re rebelling against. Hardshell atheists are behaving like craven theists.
One of the things that irritated ancient nations about the Jews was the CPT, the Chosen People Thing. Judaism at its peak was a tiny and exclusivist sect among the religions of the Middle East. Its purity codes and laws were famous for being as prickly and picky as their God was about who got to call him Father. Having conversations or social relations with non-Jews was not only not recommended, it was not tolerated. (It’s one of the charges against Jesus: a publican is a non Jew). Accommodation was not an option. The Egyptians hated it, then the Persians (a little less), the Babylonians and finally the Romans. Later the medieval Europeans codified the hatred, and of course, the Germans decided to take matters into their own hands. The Final Solution is what happened when talking, compression, and eviction notices didn’t work.
The Christians got a version of the CPT by default when they canonized the Old Testament and proclaimed themselves the New Israel. The Muslims had no choice but to follow suit: their religion is the end of prophecy and their way is the only straight way to God.
One of the things, I suspect, that most irritates atheists about the book religions is this sometimes implicit (and sometimes grating) ideology that you are either inside or outside the faith, and if you’re outside, forget you. But salvation was never about saving everybody. In most denominations, God doesn’t want that. He wants the ones who shine the brightest.
Odd, isn’t it, that the evangelical atheists have adopted a fairly toxic version of the same narrative toward members of their own tribe. Yet who can deny that their total commitment to the Non-existence of God is another outbreak of CPT. They are behaving religiously, aping the worst features of the religious attitudes and behaviors they profess to condemn.
They–the hardshells–will call me wrong, of course, as well as seriously confused and (heh) accommodating. They will say that I’m just being an idiot (again) for equating supernaturalism and superstition (= religion) with logic and science. Don’t I get why this analogy is so bad? It is so bad because this time the chosen have been self-selected by their ingenuity and intellectual excellence, not by some imaginary celestial power.
To which I have to say, in my defense, Don’t you get that the God who doesn’t exist now—the one you don’t believe in—didn’t exist then either? The god of religious exclusivism is the god fabricated by people who already believed in the superiority of their ways, their laws, their customs, and their intrinsic value. It’s the feeling right and thinking that because you are, you are also special and need not discuss your ideas with people who dramatically oppose you that leads to the mistrust, the suspicion, the animosity. Atheists who wonder why they are mistrusted can begin with the anguish the Jews felt when the Romans began a centuries-long tradition of vituperation against the CPT.
But lackaday dee misery me. This post will be greeted with the same disdain I have come to expect from atheists. They will find a straw man in here somewhere and put a hat on him. This will be called a screed or a diatribe. I will be asked where my evidence is for saying these things. (Hint: everywhere) I will be told that I don’t want dialogue, or that I’mcoddling religionists, that this post is a troll in some endless private conversation among certified members about the evils of (all) religion or that I am arrogant (though arrogant prick is my favorite obloquy) or that I am an undercover agent for the Church of God. Actually, the last has not yet been suggested so feel free to use it. And don’t let the fact that there are literally dozens of fairly intelligent people chiming in on this message to the atheist hordes; write it off to my envy at not being Richard Dawkins. Damn.
Now for the best part. It may surprise you to learn that, for everything said here, I am not really a fan of dialogue with faith communities. As far as I am concerned ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are simply activities of groups that interact at a social level, without really getting into the nitty gritty of how they are different, or why they might be wrong. There are two kinds: the merely boring and the pissing contest, but both are ultimately ineffectual.
Atheism–just an opinion, mind you–has no clear place in such a discussion; to mean anything at all, it must be premised on some form of the proposal (a) that God does not exist (b) that this belief has social and moral consequences, especially in terms of human decision-making and (c) that the world we create through these decisions is accountable only to us—that we are the source and the end of our actions. I personally agree with one of the most outspoken hard-shell atheist writers when she sees atheism as something that happens person to person and individual to individual. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to people who are religious. But do you really need a committee (or a community) to do it in?
But I am in favor of atheists, hard- and soft-shell, being concerned about language, self-image, the quality of their critique of religion, and their capacity to describe their life-stance in a positive form. I am interested in narrative control and a literary style that corresponds in form to methods and aims that have often (think Sartre) been elegant. That makes me an elitist, not a cowboy, I know. But the funny thing about Yosemite Sam is that he’ll always shoot first and ask questions later. And people begin to wonder about people like that.