Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

by rjosephhoffmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard-shell Atheist in Uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But lackaday dee misery me.  This post will be greeted with the same disdain I have come to expect from atheists.  They will find a straw man in here somewhere and put a hat on him.  This will be called a screed or a diatribe.  I will be asked where my evidence is for saying these things. (Hint: everywhere)  I will be told that I don’t want dialogue, or that I’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.

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

  1. You are never better than when you are PZ-ed off about the newly bright, Joe. These most addictive writings deserve to be frontal and centre in the Guardian or some such refuge. Vitamins for my soul.

  2. Thank you. I don’t feel quite as alone. I get really tired of being thought a closet atheist by believers and a closet believer by atheists. Really, really tired. And, yes…you likely will get a nasty response, I’m sure. Nothing will piss a doctrinaire atheist off more than suggesting that they are behaving like the flip side of the religious coin. Nothing.

    My own feelings are closer to J.B.S. Haldane’s comment that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. And, granting the universe the same respect and deference I might show a creator god, I have to conclude there may be a thing or two of which I am unaware. Seems like keeping anything like an open mind is about the most unpopular thing there is.

    So, again I say: Thank You.

  3. “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation. I cannot cross it out with a stroke of a pen”, said Camus, to me.

    Another thing – Helen Clark said in defence at a regularly repeated attack, “Of course New Zealand is not anti-American”. It’s the only untruth I can remember of her. Too much power, too much influence, too much religion and that includes the anti stuff. Another world. SNTS, those that be in ivory towers, surprisingly are completely unaware of mythticism and the whole New Atheism phenomenon in America. That’s an appalling example of narrow agendas in particular disciplines, but I’m not surprised either.

    And the best always comes around again with seconds and thirds and again later on at night with a gin. Too memorable to forget and too good not to repeat. Thank you, welcome to the rest of the world.

  4. Lets forget the word religion altogether. Let’s take on all decisions and values in life based on the imaginary instead of the concrete. Would our governments run better? Would our food taste better? Would we have more orgasms during sex? I have no doubt that the answer is No. Basing one’s opinions on concrete reality has undeniable merits. When one lives in an imaginary pseudo-reality, one constantly refuses to see what is in front of our face, and constntly makes up “value systems” to sustain his/her imaginary world. I say this from a perspective you may not be accustomed to… I was atheist before the word was popular, I have never had any love for the wish-washy word ‘agnostic’, I really wish Huxley and his biased view of the world would have stayed out of this debate! My grandmother saw her life’s love thwarted by her religious parents (and his parents… of a different religion). My mother mother was turned over to an aunt and grandma left that god-fearing land called Newfoundland. Atheism has stuck in our family and everyone since has been free from that lunacy. So I’m certainly no new/gnu. But I must thank the gnu movement for allowing me to “come out of the closet” to a degree… I’ve not necessarily hidden being atheist from anyone, but I also did not express those thoughts EVER publicly, now I see the reason for speaking up. Religion in pseudo-secular countries such as Canada, or European Nations, is on the rise due to religious third world immigration for the economic provision of cheap labour. Religion is exactly like neo-liberal economy, it is growth driven, and growing it is, because we atheists have been silenced by politeness. Well I am polite on the topic no more. I call my self an ole’atheist, and the more agnostic/Humanists I meet, the more I want to place those in the same category as faithers… because of their belief that we can simply remove god from christianity, replace all instances of “god” with “human”, keep a majority of the dirty ole book, and all is good. But in fact, ‘god’ was just a front for power mongers, it has always been about humans’ pleasure/wealth/happiness first and foremost, above all other lifeforms. IMHO those atheists are wrong. There is absolutely no value in spending hours and days and months discussing atheists perspectives on the world, if we’re not really going to make a change. Why bother??? As for Jews… the Romans didn’t “start” anything. Jews have been complaining about “not being treated like god’s favourites by other human tribes” well before the Romans started pissing them off. Israel is the ultimate disaster for secular thought. Previous to WWI, secular-diaspora-jews (I can’t stand the concept of ‘secular-Jew’… that would make me a secular-catholic FFS!) fought for zionism, a principally nationalistic approach to being wandering semites throughout Eurasia, following the rise of Islam… the same way that Christians first escaped from the tyranny of Jews, but ex-Christians have not generally made a lifestory about their exodus from “the sacred land”. The Balfour agreement was brought about by a secular Jew basically by a “secular” chemist who was proposing to provide continued access to WWI bomb making ingredients in exchange for British support for the creation of Israel. The concept of a being Jewish without religion was developed around that time pretty much with the sole purpose of creating Israel. It’s only then that there was a ‘rapprochement’ between Jews and Christians. In fact, it was between war-making and Christianity.

    In the end, to say that atheists have no business in faith discussions is the wrong question to ask. The question is not faith, it is the control faithers have over our society. Personally I don’t really care what goes on in theocratic countries, it’s THEIR country, may they do with it what they wish… as long as their policies don’t have international repercussions. It is a battle of willpower, do people with imaginary friends control my country or do realists control my country. That is a political decision, and I’m quite happy atheists are finally a part of the political process, having been excluded from it for thousands of years.

    • Thomas Huxley and his grandson Julian contributed alot of value in the history of ideas. Creative imaginations and great insights. Considering Thomas didn’t even have the chance to bump into the Big Bang theory in his lifetime… “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats). As for sex and religion, I think Anatole France got it right: “Christianity did alot for love by making it a sin.”

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