Of Implicit Atheism – An Easter Meditation

It is time to worry about the sorry state of discourse  between believers, non-believers, and (my favourite category) “others.”

I’m especially worried about the war between implicit atheists–those who identify as unbelievers or agnostics, but draw no particular satisfaction from doing so–and explicit or new atheists who like their A’s red, their heroes scarlet,  and their language blue.

It is almost unimaginable to me that respected scholars need to taunt religious women and men with words like “faithhead” while others drive spikes through religious symbols and Korans–then  defend their actions as examples of the sacred rights and guarantees that keep us free and independent of religious tyranny.  WWJD?  Q: What would Jefferson do? A: It doesn’t matter.  But it is even more startling that explicit atheists see implicit atheists as religion-coddlers, sissies in the fight, traitors to the cause.  It really makes me want to throw my extra creamy rice pudding at them.

Yet criticize this mode in kind, with a little sarcasm tossed in, and (I promise) you will be called a faithhead too. Or a goddist. Or a troll.  Or a fabricant des hommes de paille, or a stirrer of pots,  or a closet priest.

You’ll be told your logic/principles/syntax/ethics/ suck. Probably your brainpower too.  You’ll be told that atheists aren’t interested in being kind, “accommodating,”  or engaging. (Not after all they have suffered, all the kidnapings, unsolved murders and broken down doors.) They are interested in being right.  The closest analogy, I’ve come to conclude, isn’t the academic seminar where most of the current language would probably get you sent to the Dean for a lecture on civility.  It’s the language of political partisanship.  It’s true home is the Town Hall Meeting of Teaparty activists. (Alcibiades to Socrates: Your dialectic’s no good here, cowboy.)

Where have we all gone wrong?  What is the new factor in our discourse that causes us to  “abjectify” our opponents before we come to terms with their arguments?  –Which of course, with an abject opponent, you don’t need to do. Is it merely that we’re all too busy to dignify stupidity when we can roll right over it and not worry too much about casualties.

The standard explanation for our invective approach to discussion (please notice I number myself among the sinners)  is that we are encountering an international discourse crisis brought on by the trigger-happy nature of internet communications: we click before we think, not considering that at the other end of the connection is another human being (also sitting in front of a screen) rather than a lead wall.  What Christian girl named Perpetua, finding herself alone in these rhetorical woods at night, would not run, clutching her Bible, to the nearest church?

Not unbelievers, though.  These woods are ours, and we can burn ’em down if we want to. –Plus there’s that little thrill, that tiny rush that comes from having just composed a long, churlish digressive paragraph and seeing it go live when we hit “Submit.”

When we discover that quick and correct are not the same thing, it’s too late.  We’re committed to the press-select-to-play choice of our latest rhetorical spasm, and because of the public nature of the interchange we have to fight back and fight on.  The digathon, as in heels in, is on.  Your oblation to the gods of unreason has been made; now just lie back and watch them revel.

I spent a whole hour of my short life a month ago trying to persuade a Big Red A-atheist “friend” (I’d never met) that the drunken priest  arrested out west for offering his staff to the arresting officers was (a) not a Catholic (b) was more pathetic than dangerous, and (c) was therefore a bad instance of the moral troubles with the Catholic church and its ministers, about which I have scarcely remained quiet. If you believe that as all religion is putrid,   details of its putrice are irrelevant and interchangeable puzzle pieces, then I suppose one detail is as good as another.  After all, we’re not doing science here are we?

The responses came from a large crowd of her commiserators who, in no particular order, called me a prick, a molester, an idiot, and “Just shut the hell up because this is what religion does to our children.” After suggesting that the arresting officers were probably over eighteen  I decided not to stay for drinks and courageously hit the Unfriend button. Scene: the gods of Unreason quaff and toast each other, laughing.

The same applies when we’re “right“:  It’s not enough that Hector is dead. He has to be dragged three times lifeless around the periphery of Troy, electronically speaking, to impress the watchers.  The internet has given us a new shame culture, and with that comes new mechanisms of insult and humiliation. You can’t be too dead when you lose a point: you have to be dead and ashamed, too.  (Comment being formulated by as yet unrevealed reader: “Right, Hoffmann: You should know.  You’re just making straw men again….“)  Note to self:  bring three more straw men up from basement to send to “friends.” Order new straw.

Given the nature of the back-and forth, what you will almost never see in a comments section is someone saying, “I never thought of that.  You have a point.”

It’s true that isolation plays a role in this nastiness: the computer screen is a real screen between us and others.  It keeps us in contact as a social network (the name says it all) of virtual strangers, and friends of strangers.  It is not a community because communities produce human relationships, forms of decorum, harmony (or at least courtesy) and the potential for fulfillment and happiness.  –But not social media. There’s  no need to risk real humanity or feelings in the bargain.  We can screen information and opinions and hasty judgments and challenges in and out.  It’s the community of Id. We can be vicious and count on no one to check the story against the facts–or more commonly, the fallacies alleged against the argument proposed. Best of all, we can count on viciousness back from others.  It’s just like a bad marriage, isn’t it?

We are the gods of applications: we can be seen and unseen. Friend and unfriend at a whim.We can climb into the ring of an unmoderated slug fest or play on sites run by an austere figure named Moderator, as in WTF Moderator.  We can keep controversies alive for days beyond their shelf life by sending Just One More Comment.

When you’re isolated from real conversation and discussion the Q. is: who knows what the last word is? (A: It’s when I stop hitting submit.)  We can invade, evade, withdraw, disappear.  But we cannot do the one thing that real intellectual encounters often require us to do: change our minds.

In the discussion that most concerns me right now, the quarrel between unbelievers of an explicit and implicit variety, the debate also seems to be about men and women who see science as the basic cipher for human satisfaction–including moral good–and those who have a wider humanistic outlook that also, often includes a certain respect for religion, or at least an awareness of its social and cultural significance.

The “soft atheists” are men and women who aren’t afraid to accept the notion that they are unbelievers, but they make this choice on humanistic, existential or historical grounds–not because they feel the conclusion is forced on them by science.

At the risk of rousing the guard, I think thousands of intellectuals, scholars, artists, scientists, and ordinary folk fall into this category. The “atheism” they assume but do not profess or press can only strike the full-frontal atheist as quaint and hypocritical. When I say this, the default reaction toward the critic is to impute a deadly sin: Critics are always merely jealous of commercial success.  That explains everything. The logic: whatever sells is right.

My favourite “example” of the implicit atheist made no secret of her atheism.  Whenh Susan Sontag was told she was dying of cancer, that it was inoperable, and that what was left to her was “faith,” she said  that she believed in nothing but this life, that there was no continuation, and that in any event she took religion far too seriously to think she could embrace it at the last minute to get a sense of relief.

Implicit atheists are not intellectually soft, but the conclusion that God does not exist does not seem pivotal, life-changing to them because they neither read it in a newspaper as data nor in a book called Wake Up You Slumbering Fools: There IS NO God. Most of them have come to a position of unbelief through a culture in which religion inhabits ideas, spaces, patterns of thought, modes of conduct, art and music.  Who can say that this is right or wrong: it’s the world we’ve got.

I suspect that implicit atheists are especially repugnant to New Atheists because they are seen to have arrived at atheism using discount methods. They lack toughness.  Apparently (as a commentator opined) I don’t have cojones.  Damn.

Their (our) “decision” looks like indecision.  Maybe they should have to wear a red Question Mark for three years until they realize that it’s science that confirms your unbelief–sort of like the Holy Spirit confirms your being a believer in Christianity. Earn your A.

But it does seem to me, beyond this, that the implicit atheist does not entirely reject religion.  How do you reject whole chapters of the human story? Your distant grandmother probably said the rosary, or wore a wig, or a veil.  Your grandfather fifty generations ago might have slaughtered Jews en route to Jerusalem or Muslims after he got there. So many possibilities.  You can’t tear their superstitions out of your family album, can you– an impossibility made less critical by the fact that you have no idea what they did.  History has transformed them into innocuous unknowns in the same way that it has rendered the most noxious forms of religion impotent.  The Old Testament God that most new atheists like to rant on about is a God that implicit atheists gave up on years ago. No cojones.

This comes to them inductively, though a process of intellectual growth and assimilation.  What they call religion has historical context and historical importance.  But the key word is “context,” because the humanistic unbeliever lives in a context where religion is no longer the magisterial authority for how we understand the physical world or how we lead our lives within it.

Many such implicit atheists will feel some degree of sadness about this, not because they feel religion doesn’t deserve our skepticism, occasional contempt, and criticism, but because they know from poetry, art, music, and philosophy that the project to create a secular humanity from the ashes of our religious predecessors is a tough project and that the nasal chorus, “God does Not exist” (option one: “Religion is Evil.”)  is really a wheel-spinner when it comes to getting things done.

The anger of many hardcore (explicit?) atheists comes down to this: their belief that an atheism which is not forced by science is inauthentic. Why? because a humanistic, existential and historical unbelief does not acknowledge the apriorism of scientific atheism.  It–implicit atheism–sees science as a mode of knowing, not the only mode.  Soft-core atheism (I number myself as a proud member of this club) does not blame the Bible for being a very old book, or religion for its historical overreaching.  It forgives the Bible for being a book of its time and place and asks that we regard it merely as a souvenir of our human struggle for answers.  Anything more–like ethical rectitude or scientific plausibility–is too much.  That goes for the Qur’an, too.

There is no reason to villify God and religion, historically understood, for excesses that, as humanists, we slowly recognized as human excesses and finally learned to combat.

If we accept the principle that we made God in our image, as well as his holy and diverse books, then surely the burden is on us to clean up our mess–not to reify it merely by asserting its non-existence.

Everything from Eden to the Flood, to Sodom to the Holocaust to 9/11 was us.  Not mystical religious others: Us. Science does not explain this and does not solve it for us.  When the New Atheists are willing to accept real human responsibility for the abominations they attribute to a mythical beast called religion they will have taken a giant leap forward.