”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.