An Essay on Criticism

by admin Posted on December 8, 2011

”The right question is whether it is rational for the religious man himself, given that his religious experience is coherent, persistent, and compelling, to affirm the reality of God. What is in question is not the rationality of an inference from certain psychological events to God as their cause; for the religious man no more infers the existence of God than we infer the existence of the visible world around us. What is in question is the rationality of the one who has the religious experiences. If we regard him as a rational person we must acknowledge that he is rational in believing what, given his experiences, he cannot help believing” (Hick, Theology Today, pp. 86-87; quoted by Flew, The Presumption of Atheism)

One of the interesting things about the atheist response to criticism is that it apes the tactics of the anti defamation league of B’nai B’rith and the Catholic League, set up at a time when American nativism was at a high pitch and when anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment was rife.

So far I’ve been lighthearted about the tactics of the atheist commandos, comparing their choreography to ants, which I know is not flattering but also not altogether mistaken. Look at how their comments cluster around the cozy campfires of their top ten favorite bloggers. How their comments create a cushion of like-mindedness and encourage the renegade to return to mother. They can smell a picnic a mile off.

The anti-defamation movements had a nose for “slander” that eventually went beyond the limits of protected self-interest. Remember, WASP religion in 1912 needed no such protection, and fundamentalism, while it was embryonic, was nothing like as powerful as it is now. Even Unitarians hated Catholics. Who could have foreseen the day when Catholics and fundamentalists would vote the same ticket and the Bible belt would stretch from sea to shining sea?

A conference I chaired more than two decades ago at the University of Michigan on Jesus and the Gospels included a speaker who was on the ADL hit-list. Three days after the conference adjourned, I received an official looking letter from the organization saying that they were “looking into certain things that were said” at the meeting and would let me know in two weeks whether they would pursue a further investigation. I had no inkling what these “things” were, but as a young and terrified assistant professor at the time I wrote a quick apology, revised it, then found some courage, tore it up (yes, before email) and wrote another letter saying “Who do you think you are? This is a university and we do not promote religious orthodoxy here–only free inquiry.” I’m glad I did. I never heard from them again.

I am not suggesting that atheists don’t know who they are or even that their current cluster-bombing of critics is (necessarily) deliberate. They may honestly feel besieged–that they are the last best hope for a lost and errant humanity. They know at least enough to know when they feel they have been slighted or misrepresented, or that someone has built a straw man and called it them. Keep in mind, however, that one man’s straw man is another man’s exact replica.

But to really understand the swarm methods of the atheist minim and its need to defend itself from scurrilous critics (who aren’t even coming at them from the religious side), you would expect to find the same sort of doctrinal consensus you’d find in a religion. I mean, to quote Robert Frost, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out/and whom I was like to give offense.”

If you can’t say exactly what property you’re defending, why get so upset when someone trespasses on it? Clearly, brothers and sisters, I have trespassed. I just need to know on what. According to my critics, I am too busy examining my plumage to really care. But I do care. So tell me.

True enough, freethought is not the same thing as atheism, at least not this kind of atheism, and a thousand miles or more distant from humanism, at least real humanism. But given the claim of some to want engagement with me (though many more just want to ventilate), it is truly surprising that they don’t try to find the common earth beneath our feet. Instead, they mark positions they can’t quite define with rhetorical poison. If there is a position here, it seems to be equivalent to whatever is the opposite of what their critics are saying.

Can atheism be defamed? Judging from the responses I’ve seen it certainly would appear so. Especially from the group that tells me that I don’t get it, don’t understand it, and therefore am misjudging it. Naturally, I disagree with that–but not just because it’s the position I would be expected to take. I am told that atheism is not a little idea, that it is not an idea at all, and that the idea it repudiates is small as well. (Presumably the logic is, How can anything that doesn’t exist have volume or weight?) Those are assertions that we can argue. Argue them.

But even leaving aside observations like big and small, it seems to me that if atheism is a coherent idea, a set of (sorry for the word) beliefs and principles that can be stated economically in the way religions have stated their sometimes incredible, brain-busting beliefs, then we would have a starting point. ”Not getting it” doesn’t tell me what it is. Saying that I am missing the point seems to mean just that you have moved the target–if there is one. Or is that the point? Telling me (a thousand times) that atheism is “just not believing in God” (look back over my posts; you’ll see I’ve been there and written it) is like saying football is a game that just isn’t tennis. Help me: what do YOU think atheism is. Define it, explain it, defend it.

f you won’t then the idea is not just small and elusive, it has become microscopic. The more you trivalize the claims (and identities) of critics the more insignificant it is likely to be.

There’s a tragic side to this discussion. Jacques Berlinerblau mentioned it in spring of 2011 and was promptly thrashed for saying that atheists seem determined to self-destruct by alienating heretical voices from within, even the voices of people who share 80% of their views. I agree with that, profoundly: this primal urge to be unpopular because you hold a view that is, in its most radical form, unpopular will guarantee that atheism will remain a pitifully small and intellectually marginal movement for decades to come.

This will show up mainly in the political sphere, where already a discourse is developing of atheist victimization. And partly this is true: atheism and atheists are disliked and few have a shot at public office. Now: look in the mirror, and look at your language, your tactics and your movement. Questions?

Atheists can’t have it both ways. If atheism is a proud tradition of unbelief with ideas and science and history and everything but God on its side, then act as though you have the upper hand and try to take criticism on the chin.

Be charitable to the ones history will leave behind–because they will be left behind. Work on developing the next act of your drama: we’ve seen this one. It isn’t very good.

If atheism on the other hand is a recovery group of people who have felt isolated, rejected, and abused by self- righteous God mongers, so be it. If it’s a little of both and then some, making allowance for the village atheists, angry old men and women, bitter ex-priests and clear-headed ex- ministers, and people who just need an ideological–we won’t say spiritual–home that isn’t a church, then the problem isn’t the need for a strong atheist movement. You have that, or seem to. It’s a problem of bringing these voices together into one choir. I apologize for the ecclesiastical analogy.

What I see right now is a discordant movement that can only come together as a pretext for attack, and so needs attackers. I do not see a movement with anything worth promoting anymore, except a vacant belief that religion is bad and no religion is good. Please don’t say duh.

There is no history in that kind of judgement. There is no nuance, philosophy or real sense of the past. There’s not even a keen sense of the present or of where you want to take this after the Peoria billboards come down. My critics have said that I want atheism returned to the senior common room at Oxford where it can’t do so much damage. That’s rubbish: it hasn’t been there for a long, long time, and it isn’t doing much damage in its current state except to itself.

17 thoughts on “An Essay on Criticism

      • “It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation.”

        Why don’t you consider at an act of courage and moral bravery for an atheist to embrace the life and doctrines of Christ? Why is that you believe that he has nothing to say to people today? Why don’t you acknowledge that many people have never seen him as a god, and yet pay him full honour as a man?

      • The author doesn’t say what you accuse him of saying, ie: “atheists who don’t want to “let go” of Christ are gutless.”

        When I read your first comment yesterday I wondered if you were making inferences from ‘Letting Go of Jesus’ reposted here three weeks ago. I checked it and wondered if it was that exact sentence you quote above, from which you were making the inference and assuming the opposite was implied, ie that embracing God and Jesus and the whole trinity wouldn’t be ‘courageous’ and/or therefore that not letting go of God and Jesus was necessarily demonstrative of cowardice in some way. That is, you inferred an idea from the essay that is neither explicit nor implied, and was irrelevant to the idea discussed in the essay in any case. The author did not say what you accused him of, and there was absolutely no suggestion of any ‘gutlessness’. The essay was as the title suggested, about letting go of Jesus, not embracing religion.

        However I suggest you read the latest essay, Genetics 101. Changing one’s mind can go either way, or swing. There are equivalences between the two different directions, ie the direction from believing to no longer believing, and coming to believe from not believing. “Atheists have, theoretically, the ability to become believers. Believers have the power to become atheists. I know people who have gone in either direction and swing, like me, both ways. That’s the routine.”

      • @BP:Do you mean why don’t I say this or why don’t I think this. The problem is your word “acknowledge.” Not affirming something is not a failure to acknowledge something is it, much less a denial I would acknowledge it, actually, if you mean those teachings of Jesus associated with peace and love. “Christ” is not the name you want: it refers to the divinity of Jesus. Some atheists have done just this, especially in the 18th century. Modern atheists seem less inclined to do so, probably because their agenda is more profoundly anti-religion and they include Jesus in it. I would personally think that it would take some courage to defend the teachings of Jesus, the man, in the current anti-religion climate–sure. And as a historian with some knowledge of the topic, even harder to decide what those teachings are.

      • “Christ” is not the name you want: it refers to the divinity of Jesus.”

        Not necessarily:

        Even Jesus’ most familiar role as Christ is a Jewish role. If Christians leave the concrete realities of Jesus’ life and of the history of Israel in favor of a mythic, universal, spiritual Jesus and an otherworldly kingdom of God, they deny their origins in Israel, their history, and the God who has loved and protected Israel and the church.—“What Price the Uniqueness of Jesus?” by Anthony J. Saldarini. Bible Review, Jun 1999, p. 17.

        The Jesus-mythers are simply extending to its maximal point the general trajectory of Christian hermeneutics by stripping Christ of his Judaism and substituting it for a pagan godman.

  1. Internet forums, blogs, and message boards certainly detract from the quality of critical exchanges. In an environment that demands that one show up to every argument ready with a response, it is hard to find the time to reflect properly on what is being said. If you take the time, you end up losing by default. In other words, the internet turns what should be a chess game into Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots: Don’t bother with strategy, just keep punching until you land a good one!

    • Sniping, Ophelia? — Really? — “Atheism’s Little Idea” was painted with a pretty broad brush. It didn’t capture the opinions of any one person; it captured the general ideas (here they are again!) of a populist movement. The “sniping” started in response to it. (“Sniping” doesn’t seem like a fitting verb, if anything because you know from whom the shots are coming.)

  2. It’s certainly true that not all atheists are former theists and not all atheists who were theists, were fundamentalists. Despite that, ironically, they do seem on the whole, to read like biblical literalists.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, in lusciously lyrical flowing prose, wrote lectures about great men from Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napolean to Geothe, which are collected in a book of essays, “Representative Men”. In Chapter 4, “Swedenborg, or the Mystic”, Emerson describes Swedenborg’s perception of symbols and biblical allegory, the poetic construction of things, and his interpretation of nature. He writes, “Nature avenges herself speedily on the hard pedantry that would chain her waves. She is no literalist. Every thing must be taken genially, and we must be at the top of our condition to understand any thing rightly.”

    With his ideas on language in his essay “Nature” Emerson writes “[G]ood writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories … the whole of nature is a metaphor for the human mind… [and] The Imagination may be defined to be, the use which the Reason makes of the material world.” He demonstrates Shakespeare’s command of language and the power he had of subordinating nature for the purposes of expression, beyond all poets, and “power which he exerts to dwarf the great, to magnify the small”. From “The Tempest”, Emerson quotes (yes really quotes) Ariel:

    The charm dissolves apace,
    And, as the morning steals upon the night,
    Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
    Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
    Their clearer reason.
    Their understanding
    Begins to swell: and the approaching tide
    Will shortly fill the reasonable shores
    That now lie foul and muddy.

    The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind … magnify the small to dwarf the great. Like ants to atheists.

    Meanwhile, the ant antics plunge to pedantics in their persistent clamour to contradict critique. And as you say in this essay, they can smell a picnic a mile off. “‘Ere, ‘ere, dear, what’s the disturbance!” the chief commander inquired.

    Ihr, a Deer.

  3. I think that the snipers really do not understand that you are dismayed at the dumbing down of atheism because you can see the inevitable consequences of that dumbing down, and they aren’t pretty. Andrew Brown, in similar vein, charted Richard Dawkins’ Big Idea of substituting ridicule for reason; once you abandon reason there isn’t anything left to attract anyone with an IQ which reaches 3 figures.

    Add to that the bizarre cultural status in the USA of victimhood as apparently somehow desirable and those of us in the secular world of Europe roll our eyeballs and pass on by. We are not going anywhere which requires ritual purity; in a rather neat transposition the ritual purity is now required by Ophelia Benson and her ilk, which is why you are being excluded from the ranks of the chosen…

  4. New atheism is memetic rather than rational, which is why it’s so small. And also why it actually has a shot at competing with mainstream religion.

  5. TThanks for the Hick quote. I find it to be irrefutably confirmed in the thought of “the founders and grand theorists of modern (quantum and relativity) physics: Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddingington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Plank. As Eddington crefully esplains: ‘Briefly the position is this. We have learnt that the explanation of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating. Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point in human consciousness – the one centre where more might be known. There (in immedate inward consciousness) we find other stirrings, other revelations than those conditioned by the world of symbols… Physics most strongly insists that its methods do not penetrate behind the symbolism. Surely then that mental and spriitual nature of ourselves, known in our minds by intimate cONtact transcending the methods OF physics, supplies just that which science is admittedly unable to give”.

    • Very nice Ed. This reminds me of John Keats’ theory of negative capability, which he expressed in relation to natural beauty and mystery in his early nineteenth century world. Negative capability was something he claimed Shakespeare possessed and Coleridge, whom he thought sought knowledge over beauty, didn’t. He described this theory in a letter to his two brothers (1817): “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”, as if while the artist is receptive to the world and its natural phenomena, he was rejecting those, who try to formulate theories or categorize knowledge, rather than being content with beauty and mystery which cannot be explained but which the poet can translate into art. Arthur Eddington, philosopher and physicist was writing in the early twentieth century.

    • It must go without saying that Eddington is describing the experience of Ultimate Reality, that of a God of universal love that is the origin and end of all that is or ever wil be”.

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