Liberal Scarecrows, Shadows, and Atheist Internet-Experts

eorge Rupp, former president of Columbia and before that the dean of Harvard Divinity School wrote in 1979 that “Christian theology is in disarray; it has neither a goal nor a purpose,” trends follows fads with such dizzying speed, he wrote,  that the discipline is more like a carousel gone wild than an academic discipline.  If Rupp were observing the current state of New Testament scholarship in 2012, he might have written just the same thing.

Why has this situation arisen?  While generalizations are always more convenient than precise, I think it’s safe to say that three overlapping trends explain the current crisis in New Testament studies.

irst, of course, New Testament studies is simply a mess.  It is a mess because many otherwise conscientious scholars (many of them either refugees from or despondents of the Jesus Seminar) had reached the conclusion that the New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.  Accordingly, the “facts” were arranged and rearranged in sometimes ingenious ways (and sometimes absurd) to support personal theories. The harsh truisms of 100 years of serious “historical-critical” study (not atheism or scholarly extravagance) were largely responsible for the rubble out of which the scholars tried to build a plausible man, but the men they built could not all be the same character as the one described in the gospels.  They differed from each other; they differed, often, from the evidence or context, and–perhaps vitally–they differed from tradition and “standard” interpretations, which had become closely identified with orthodoxy–which in turn was identified with illiberal politics and hence ludicrous and bad. Having left a field full of half clothed and malformed scarecrows, the theorists packed their bags and asked the world to consider their art.

ECOND: the rescucitation of the myth theory as a sort of zombie of a once-interesting question.  The myth theory, in a phrase, is the theory that Jesus never existed. Let me say for the hundredth time that while it is possible that Jesus did not exist it is improbable that he did not. For the possibility to trump the probability, the mythicists (mythtics in their current state of disarray) need to produce a coherent body of evidence and interpretation that persuasively challenges the current consensus.  No argument of that strength has been proved convincing.  Moreover, there are serious heuristic questions about why many of the mythticists want the theory “proved,” the most basic of which is that many are waging a kind of counter-apologetic attack on a field they regard as excessively dominated by magical thinking.

Bruno Bauer

And the “proof”  is unlikely to appear. As someone who actively entertained the possibility for years, I can report that the current state of the question is trending consistently in the direction of the historicity of Jesus and partly the wishful thinking of the mythtics is responsible for the trend. The myth theory, in its current, dyslectic and warmed over state,  has erected the messiest of  all the Jesuses in the field, constructed mainly from scraps discarded by the liberals and so startling (perhaps inevitably) that it looks more like an Egyptian god than a man, less a coherent approach to its object than an explosion of possibilities and mental spasms. Like all bad science, its supporters (mainly internet bloggers and scholarly wannabes)  began the quest with their pet conclusion, then looked for evidence by alleging that anything that counted against it was false, apologetically driven, or failed the conspiracy smell-test. A survey of the (highly revised and hideously written) Wikipedia article on the Christ Myth Theory shows its depressing recent history–from a theory that grew organically out of the history-of-religion approach to Christianity (which drove my own work in critical studies) to a succession of implausibilities and splices as limitless as there were analogies to splice.

The prototype of the Jesus story?

Yet the myth theory is explained by the woeful history of liberal scholarship: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is a direct result of the mess liberal scholarship made of itself.  If the problem with “liberal” scholarship (the name itself suggests the fallacy that guides the work) is that a flimsy, fact-free, wordless Jesus could be a magician, a bandit, an eschatologist, a radical, a mad prophet, a sane one, a tax revolutionary, a reforming rabbi (anything but Jesus the son of God)–the mythical Jesus could be Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, a Pauline vision, a Jewish fantasy, a misremembered amalgam of folk tales, a rabbi’s targum about Joshua. In short–the mirror image of the confusion that the overtheoretical and under-resourced history of the topic had left strewn in the field.  If the scarecrows concocted  by the liberals were made from rubble, the mythtic Jesuses were their shadows. If the bad boys of the Jesus Seminar had effectively declared that the evidence to hand means Jesus can be anything you want him to be, there is some justice in the view that Jesus might be nothing at all.

he Myth Theories, in some respects, but not every detail,  are the plus ultra of the old liberal theories rooted in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant and Schleiermacher, abetted by the work of Strauss and his sympathizers. Perhaps that is why New Testament scholarship is so eerily quiet or so lazy towards them, and why the proponents of the theory feel betrayed when scholars who point them to their own scarecrows  suddenly say that while the scarecrow exists, the shadow doesn’t.  That is what happened (unmysteriously) when the very liberal Bart Ehrman, thought to be a “friend” to atheists and mythtics, decided to draw a ring around his neck of the field and say that a makeshift Jesus made of doctrinal rags and literary plunder is better than no Jesus at all.  It is not nice to be driven into a field, invited to choose the most appealing strawmen to reject, and then told that only scholars can reject scarecrows. New Testament scholarship defends its nominal field with a No Trespassing sign that invites the suspicion that there is very little to protect.

inally, the New Atheism.  In a minor scholarly rhapsody called Of Love and Chairs, I tried to suggest that not believing in God is not the same as not believing in Jesus.  In fact, it is only through making a category error that the two beliefs can be bought into alignment.  It is true that both God and Jesus are “discussed” in the Bible (though Jesus only in an appendix).  And it is true that later theology understood the Bible to be saying that Jesus was a god or son of God. But of course, very few scholars today think the Bible actually says that or meant to say that.  It is also true that the God of the Hebrew Bible walks, talks, flies through the sky, makes promises, wreaks venegance, gives laws and destroys sinners. And surely, that is a myth–or at least, extravagantly legendary. Thus, if God and Jesus occupy the same book and his father is a myth, then he must be a myth as well.

This reasoning is especially appealing to a class of mythicists I’ll call “atheoementalists,” a group of bloggers who seem to have come from unusually weird religious backgrounds and who were fed verses in tablespoons on the dogma that all of the Bible is, verse for verse, completely, historically, morally and scientifically true.  To lose or reject that belief and cough up your verses means that every one of them must now be completely false.

The New Atheism comes in as a handy assist because it came on the scene as a philosophical Tsunami of militant opposition to religion in general but biblical religion in particular.  NA encouraged the category error that the rejection of a historical Jesus was nothing more than the logical complement of rejecting the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa and the biblical God. Conversely, believing in the god of the Bible, or Jesus, was the same as believing in (why not?) a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The NAs were less driven by the belief that religion was untrue than that religion was all bad, that God is Not Great, that it is toxic, hostile to science (the true messianic courier) and a delusion, a snappy salute to Freud’s diagnosis.

While the books of all four NA “Horsemen” were roundly thumped in the literate press as hastily conceived and shoddily reasoned attacks–largely provoked by the anti-religion and anti-Muslim rage of the post-9-11 world–they became canonical, and strategic, for large numbers of people who wanted to take Dawkins’s war against religion from Battleship Mecca to Battleship Biblicana. It is intersting for example than in the Wiki article on the Christ Myth Theory referenced above, where almost anyone who has floated the notion gets a mention,  someone has felt it necessary to insert Richard Dawkins’s irrelevant opinion that “a good case can be made for the non-existence of Jesus,” though he “probably did” exist (God Delusion, 2006, 96-7).  –Irrelevant and non-supportive.

IBERAL scarecrows, mythicist shadows, and atheist internet-experts who argue history as though scholarship was a polticial slanging match of opposing “opinions.” That is not the end of a story but the description of a situation.  I do not believe that “professional” New Testament studies, divided as it still is, especially in America, by confessionally biased scholars, fame-seekers, and mere drudges, is able to put its house in order. Their agendas only touch at the Society of Biblical Literature conclaves, and there c.v. padding and preening far outweigh discussion of disarray and purpose.  I think the situation in New Testament studies has been provoked by a “Nag Hammadi” generation–myself included–who weren’t careful with the gifts inside the Pandora’s box, so greedy were we for new constructions of ancient events.

But as part of a generation that thought it was trying to professionalize a field that had been for too- long dominated by theology, Bible lovers, and ex-Bible lovers, it is disheartening now to see it dominated by the political interests that flow from the agenda-driven scholarship of the humanities in general–attempts to see the contemporary in the ancient.  The arrogance of the “impossibility of the contrary” has displaced the humility of simply not knowing but trying to find out.

I have to sympathize with the mythtics when I lecture them (to no avail) about the “backwardness ” of their views and how New Testament scholarship has “moved beyond” questions of truth and factuality–how no one in the field is (really) talking about the historicity of the resurrection any more. How the word “supernatural” is a word banned from the scholarly vocabulary, just as “providential” and “miraculous” explanations are never taken seriously in assessing the biblical texts. They missed the part where we acknowledged it wasn’t true, and so did the people in the pews. They want to know–and it’s a fair question–where it has moved to.  This is not a defense of mythicism; it a criticism of the stammering, incoherent status quo and failure to do what a discipline is supposed to do: look critically and teach responsibly.

Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar

I do not think, either, that the voices of dissent have much, if anything to offer.  I’m well aware that many of my colleagues are grossly ignorant of the history of radical New Testament criticism.  That being so, they are unlikely respondents in the defense of sound method. Perhaps that is why they are  unresponsive, in an era where non-response is always interpreted as a sign of weakness–especially in the gotcha culture of the blogosphere.

If the challenge to mythtics is to come up with something better than the more cognizant radicals had produced by 1912, the challenge for liberal and critical scholarship is to recognize that the mess that made the mess possible–the scarecrows that created the shadows–need to be rethought.  That’s what scholarship, even New Testament scholarship, is meant to be about: rethinking. That is what the Jesus Process is all about.

See also: “Threnody, Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project,” The Bible nd Interpretation, October 2009.


So, Atheism is Just a Belief?

ELL, what did you think it was?  Let me guess.  You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief.  And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.

Of course atheism is just a belief.  One of my favourite websites says it best:

Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.

The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.

So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions.  Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.

Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff.  This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”

Rosenau says that

 What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.

Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.

Atheists having their identity revoked in unbaptism: Fun!

Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine.  When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs.  When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing.  There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.

I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping.  Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus?  Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim.  But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.

Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own?  Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.

More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.

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.”

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’m coddling 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.

Is “Beyond Belief” Beyond Critique?

I don’t know Tristan Vick, the blogmeister at Advocatus Atheist, but I think I like him.

Back in April, when I wrote a series of articles criticizing New Atheism for being loud and obnoxious, Tristan said I was being loud and obnoxious and to put a lid on it.  I was being so persistently obnoxious, in fact, that if I’d replied to the article then I would have been even louder.  So I’m glad I waited. Time’s a healer.

Tristan points out:

Obviously Hoffmann doesn’t know anything about the education of the New Atheists. Sam Harris is a philosopher turned Neuroscientist, and holds a PhD in modern Neuroscience from UCLA. Richard Dawkins is a world renowned evolutionary biologist and he was the University of Oxford’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. Christopher Hitchens is an infamous atheist intellectual, a savvy journalist, and graduated from Oxford University. Meanwhile, Hoffman groups other atheists into this ‘unlearned’ category when he adds the abbreviation for and company (i.e., et al.) to his list of passionately despised New Atheists. So I can only assume he means other “uneducated” men like Dan Dennett (Philosopher, PhD), Victor Stenger (Physicist, PhD), Richard Carrier (Historian, PhD), David Eller (Anthropologist, PhD) among plenty of others. For the life of me I cannot seem to figure out how these men reflect the unlearned and unreflective side of New Atheism.”

Well, obviously I know (have always known) all of this, and leaving to one side whether credentials insulate you from being a jerk on occasion (it hasn’t helped me) a couple of other things need correction rather than apology.

The last 18th century wit?

First, I don’t passionately despise anyone–least of all any of the people in the paragraph above.   I hugely admire what every single one of them has done in their academic discipline–from Richard Dawkins bringing science into public consciousness to Christopher Hitchens’s sometimes lone crusade for sanity in the world of politics.

I cannot think of a single person mentioned whose scholarship should be impugned or their credentials questioned in their speciality.  And I am very grateful that Tristan knows and likes some of what I have written in the field of biblical criticism–which he’s obviously into in an impressive way.

The question really is whether when they (or yours truly) speak as atheists they deserve immunity from criticism, since there is not (yet) a professional qualification in the field that would entitle anyone to speak with greater authority on the subject than anyone else–not someone whose field is evolutionary biology, not someone whose field is anthropology, not someone working as a journalist.   Naturally a good knowledge base, like a second Pinot Grigio at lunch, is nice to have, but when we speak about atheism, we’re all amateurs.  If some atheists admire certain people as spokesmen because they’re “raw and rude” (I think I’m quoting PZ on how young people like it), there are others who like it medium-well and slightly tenderized.  You can substitute Chinese-food metaphors here if you like.

That fundamental point is already implicit in the discussion.  I’m guessing that Dr Coyne and Dr Myers don’t bring the language of the blogosphere with them to professional meetings. I don’t either.  One of the joys of blogging about things we’re all equally amateurs in is that we can release the verbal energy diffusely that we can’t use on colleagues directly.  You might want to tell old Dr Jenkins that as contributions to science his papers might just as well have appeared in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but you won’t say that to his despicable face.  That’s why it’s nice to have a cause you believe in–a mission– and a space to share it with people whose offices aren’t next door. Blogs make us prophets in small kingdoms.  But they still don’t make us experts. Popular atheists shouldn’t mind developing fan clubs and cohorts.  But fan clubs and cohorts should be careful about turning their enthusiasm for good ideas and sexy styles into appeals to authority.  I myself am working on a sexy style.

Without any backup for this, I’d guess that 80% of the best academics at the best colleges and universities embrace some form of unbelief and keep it to themselves.  And besides this, scholarship in most humanistic disciplines (including the study of religion) is implicitly atheistic–everything from history to philosophy to literature.  There’s no room for “supernaturalism”–and that includes God theories–in public or most good private universities. That battle has been won in methodology, if not in the classroom.  If you don’t believe me, try getting an article published in a peer-reviewed journal by arguing that Joan of Arc’s visions were real.

The larger, discussable, popular atheism that seeps out of the academy in the form of books, lecture tours, debates and blogs (no, I’m not saying it all originates there; but Tristan’s list suggests that it is a major pipeline for discussion and feeds into a thousand internet channels) isn’t subject to the same kind  of “peer review” that scholars expect when they are speaking or writing as professionals and experts in their field. That’s what makes the “raw and rude” atheism of the blogosphere different from the assumed and methodological atheism of the academy–even though the two forms aren’t opposed and not really in conflict–except as to tenor and style.

Unfortunately, the people-part of popular atheism won’t always cotton to the sometimes elitist-feeling, genteel-seeming atheism of the marble halls.  Ask anybody in the list above who has been in full-time academic employment and climbed the tenure ladder about the process: the answer will be roughly the same. No professor would last very long if she mimicked or abused the religious sentiments of a religious devotee during a classroom discussion–no matter how strongly she’s convinced that education means, among other things, getting over it.  When I see atheist comrades being a little too–how you say in your language–robust in this matter once freed from the shackles of classroom teaching, I have to admit my discomfort.  Easy enough at this point to let sparks fly: I seem deficient in my commitment to the truth. (As in Hoffmann coddles believers).  And my plainspoken colleague seems deficient in kindness and generosity.  But can’t we have, or try to have, both?

Within the last five years I was asked directly by a [here nameless] department chair (and I quote) “How does your atheism affect your teaching of history.”  I responded somewhat pointedly that if he had asked that question of a Catholic or a gay I would report it to the dean, but as it was about atheism I would let it ride.  He was curious, so I said, “Because even though there is no God,  he has played an enormous role in human history.” (He found it amusing.)


Does the fact that in popular atheism ideas are thrown onto the battlefield and caught in a crossfire mean that there should be no review or critique of what atheists say at all?  That doesn’t seem likely, does it? There has to be review, there will always be criticism.

But that doesn’t mean that atheists should leep quiet about each other when they find members of the home-side bending the rules of healthy discourse. That includes me. It needs to be said that not all outrageous statements, even if they’re funny, benefit atheism. And I think name-calling and petulance hurts all of us.  In saying this, I hope for agreement, not a dozen replies that begin “See, Hoffmann is learning.  There is still hope.”

Once upon a time, a guy could get excommunicated from the Church for calling a preist a bastard, even if the priest was one.  In some states (believe it or not) it is still a tort (libel per se, or something equally preposterous) to speak ill of (cough) a lawyer.  Academics have never enjoyed such privilege.  That’s a good thing, as long as we keep the discussion at the level of ideas.  Unlike priests and  lawyers, there is nothing sacred about being an academic, despite the fact some academics would like there to be.

So here’s the deal.  As long as we’re clear that academic credentials confer no privilege or special dignity in a discussion–a conversation that has to be democratic, no matter how close to the earth we walk–I completely agree that calling people “superjerks” is out of bounds.  We need to develop language that shows the big old largely religious world that atheism isn’t coming apart at the seams.  Again.  Tristan says,

“Criticizing atheism, mind you, is a good thing. It helps us persistent, loud mouthed, fundamental atheist types check our arguments and hone, refine, and improve them. Criticism only seeks to make us stronger critical thinkers. We can learn from positive as well as negative criticism, and criticism allows us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, perchance to grow better and learn to reason better. But Hoffmann isn’t offering advice; he’s being a dick.”

Can’t say I love being a dick, but I do love what he says about criticism. The worst thing unbelievers can do is split up into grumbling factions of science-atheists, humanities-atheists, and social science-atheists (talk about dicks: just kidding) to see whose atheism is the purest form of the product.  I think keeping the discussion going, even if it occasionally roils into disagreement and criticism, is better than sulking or going it alone. There’s a lot we have to talk about to each other in a world that winks at the grief caused by religious devotion but scorns the wisdom that unbelief represents.

So Tristan: while I can apologize for being a dick,  I can’t apologize for being critical, and don’t think you’d want me to.  When I am all grumbly and obnoxious, I really don’t mind your telling me.

We all need to get to know each other’s ideas a little better.

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.

Did Religion Give Us Doubt?


Professor Jerry Coyne asks this question while pretending to ignore me, and I assume he means it can be answered, and that the answer is a loud and obvious No: that religion, as the source of the world’s ugliness and ills, cannot possibly have given us doubt. Religion gives us faith–the opposite of reason–as everybody knows.

The previous post on martyrdom may raise Mr Coyne’s question indirectly.  

A number of people, mainly the cheering squad for Team Gnu, suggested that I was wrong and that atheists have too been murdered as atheists. That may or may not be true; the evidence (which is more on the order of information) looks highly problematical to me and the source cited–the New Encyclopaedia of Unbelief, is far from a disinterested or trusted resource for finding out.   When the Team finally settles whether they don’t need martyrs or do but want to call them something else I’m sure they will be in touch.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter since martyrdom and murder are not the same thing.  To analogize: martyrdom is to murder as baptism is to bath.  The key difference is that martyrdom can only happen when a church (medieval Rome and Calvin’s Geneva or the whole of Byzantion or the Islamic Middle East will do) or a state, where edicts of the church have the force of law (no good modern Western examples),  can be judicially enforced.  

Martyrdom is not murder; in context, pathetic though the context may be, it is the execution of justice.  Thomas More is a martyr becausehe was sentenced to death by Parliament, not because he was murdered in his sleep for holding treasonous opinions.  (He wasn’t.) If Gnus really care about the meaning of words and not just using them for stones, they might begin with this distinction.


But the cases that were cited, ranging from the posthumously burned John Wycliffe and the “heretics” William Tyndale, Miguel Servetus, and the completely incomprehensible Giordano Bruno–none of them atheists and all of them judicially executed when the term martyrdom could be applied by one side or another in a struggle against an oppressive Church, or specific repressive doctrines–does tell us something about “doubt.” It tells us that they were put to death for doubting, for skepticism ab0ut the doctrines of their religion.  So yes, clearly: religion gives us doubt.  It’s certainly given us scores of doubters.

And they aren’t the first.  The first time Christianity comes into contact with the term “atheist” is when the Christians themselves were derided as atheists.  Justin  Martyr and Tertullian both write “apologies” in the second and early third century defending themselves against the term. “Hence,  we (Christians)  are called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as the gods are concerned.” (Justin, First Apol., ca. 167).

Tertullian: The First Angry Christian, or Just Another Atheist?

Plainly, the accusation comes from their doubts about the existence of the Roman pantheon.  So when Richard Dawkins confidently proclaims that we are all “atheists” with respect to the majority of gods who have ever existed, it begins here–with Jews and Christians.  It begins with doubts about the tales and myths propagated by their Roman hosts. –And just for the record, neither Tertullian nor Justin fits the description of local yokels that Celsus and Porphyry tried to pin on the Christians.

We can quibble (and should) over what the term atheist might have meant that long ago.  A fairly substantial body of scholars feels that atheism in the sense of rejecting the existence of God doesn’t achieve its modern proportions prior to the encyclopaedist Holbach’s rejection of the idea of gods  in the eighteenth century.  But that conclusion, along with strata like like “positive,” “negative,” weak and strong (old and gnu?) atheisms are just intellectual squares in a bigger picture.

If you put the picture together from its fractious bits, it looks like doubt has a significant amount to do with its coherence.  To get from a lawyer-apologist like Tertullian to an atheist-materialist like Holbach is a long trip, and it is peppered (just like I said) by the death-scenes of dozens of martyrs (yup, that word again) who coaxed doubt and skepticism along–people who were called godless by others but would never have used the term about themselves.

Does it seem improbable to the New Atheists that a full-frontal atheist like Holbach, so explicit in his denunciation of religion that his view even frightened Voltaire, wouldn’t have known the long history of heresies about the trinity, the nature of God, creation, biblical inspiration, and particular revelation? Or will this continue to be a blind-spot in the essentially ahistorical view that they’re professing–one that, frankly cheapens the history of ideas and thus their own, big,  negative idea about God?  It would be pretty rare, I think, to discover a view that is free of historical development, predecessors, and mediators.

Do they really intend to continue spinning historical fantasies that are not only wrong but embarrassing.

Strawman: The other guys martyr

One of Professor Dawkins’s favorite talking points about faith-heads is that religion is their “default position.”   Weak in science, they can explain everything including the origins of the cosmos and life on the planet through the legerdemain of beliefs that take the place of hard science.

I couldn’t agree more with the diagnosis.

But surely a big part of the ignorance afflicting faithheads is that they do not study history: They make it up, or they rely on a few convenient truths that they find useful in protecting their faith.  One such view is that history is negotiable and about things that happened a long time ago, so there is no real right or wrong–just viewpoints.  They see the time of Jesus and the modern world as overlapping periods punctuated but not punctured by science and critical history.  
I personally find this tendency the most distressing, head-banging feature of the fundamentalist mindset.

And what does New Atheism do with the fantasies of faith-heads?  They create an alternate fantasy in which the history of religion becomes a caricature of intellectual and ethical developments: a static church with undifferentiated teaching about a God who is entombed in a book that has never been interpreted, challenged, attacked–or doubted.  It’s pure drivel.  Why do they do this?  because it’s convenient; because it has become their default position.

It would be a huge tragedy if the wishful thinking of some atheists became a template for understanding where doubt comes from.  It doesn’t come like Meals on Wheels  from Sextus Empiricus and covens of atheists who managed to survive the onslaught of “religion” and the “Dark Ages” in caves above Heidelberg. It comes like everything else from the cultures that we have shaped.  

In none of these cultures has anything like the 4% (or whatever minuscule number) of hardcore atheists been influential in moving doubt and irreligion forward against the thundering tide of dominant religious orthodoxies. That role, as I’ve already said, has been taken by men and women of terrific stamina, courage and imagination.  And doubt.

Doubt has everything to do with religion,  Professor Coyne.

Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to me.

If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.” (Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2001)


Roger Bacon, 1220(?)-1290



Have there been atheist martyrs–women and men who suffered and died as a consequence of their rejection of God?

This thoughtful question came up when I recently suggested that I detect a trend in the small but dwindling new atheist community to pad the bona fides of their young tradition with things that didn’t really happen.  We know that real Gnus love science and aren’t too keen on history, especially a history that suggests that Once upon a Time there was a lonely wood-cutter living good without God by the edge of a forest outside Düsseldorf who kept his opinions about God to himself and was never molested, his humble house never burnt down. You have to admit, that’s pretty dull reading.

The Church did not invent martyrdom, but it perfected it in the ancient world. Christians seemed to thrive on persecution, or at least stories about persecution.  The habit of naming churches after saints originates at the gravesites (real and legendary) of the sacrificed.

Every first year divinity student knows two things about the early Christian writer Tertullian: He said something like “I believe because it is absurd.” (Although he didn’t actually say it that way.)  And he said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church…the more we are mown down by you [pagans] the more our numbers grow,”  which he did say.

Tertullian was an arrogant, heretic-bashing codpiece who was always unfair in rhetorical battle against his heretical opposites, most of whom were dead when he wrote about them.  He would feel right at home in today’s climate. He still has his admirers.

Because they were certain they were right about the religion thing, Christians developed “martyrologies”–stories about martyrs and their brutal torture and dismemberment and rape at the spearpoint of their pagan oppressors.  This no doubt helped fertilize the field of converts in the way Tertullian intended.  After all, what is a martyr but an imitator of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial victim?

Death of a martyr ca 203

To die like Christ was to be holy–a saint–so that the terms (martyr-saint) became virtully synonymous in the early church.  It was a short-cut, a virtual guaranteeing of heavenly bliss.  It could only be compared to patriotism–dying on the field of battle.  Furthermore, Christians thought it drove the Romans crazy, this immense bravery in the face of torture.  –Except in the little that’s survived by way of commentary, the Romans actually thought Christian bravery was a sham because they expected, like the martyrs in the Middle East today, to wake up in glory and bliss before God’s throne.  That was the payoff, to quote Marcus Aurelius, loosely.

It took until Gibbon’s day, in the eighteenth century,  to sort out the strew.  As the Catholic Church was fully in charge of its own story, he reckoned, the number of martyrs was far smaller–even during the reign of the most vicious of the so-called persecuting emperors, Diocletian (d. 311)–than the Church claimed.  Only when other measures at control failed–normal things like ridicule, calling their men yokels and their women prostitutes, did things turn ugly.  The result?  Less than two years after the death of Diocletian the first edict of toleration was passed and by the close of the fourth century the Church was everything Tertullian hoped it would be.  –Including powerful enough to initiate persecutions of its former oppressors.  What goes around.

But the tendency remained strong in Christianity to use martyrdom as a kind of proof of dues-paying authenticity. There were Protestant martyrs–the famous “Boke” by John Foxe (1563) repeats the early Christian stories and then tells the rest as the tale of the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants down through the sixteenth century, creating the standard stereotype of the Catholic Church as the reincarnation of Old Rome. The competition to chalk up numbers continued:  Joan of Arc (French, Catholic, a witch to the English cause, a protectress to the French); Miguel Servetus (a rationalist, executed by Calvin’s order in 1533); Johan Hus (Czech, who condemned indulgences, the Crusades, and lobbied for the liberal ideas of another heretic)–namely John Wycliffe, who escaped execution by sleight and a loyal troupe of students and was dug up after his death and his bones burned for his views on the papacy, the nature of the universe (he admired the atomic theory of Democritus) and his ashes scattered in the river Swift.

Execution of William Tyndale, for translating the Bible into English

There are dozens and dozens of Wycliffes and Hus’s who were treated as badly by decress and councils and the Inquisition.  What the Church seems to have learned from its own exaggerated history of martyrs is that, for organizational reasons,  it paid to be more like the Roman persecutors than like the suffering saints.

But I stray.  Surely if Christians preyed on the doctrinal irregularities of their own, they must have sniffed out the most radical opinion of all and punished it? I mean, of course, the “God question.” As well they did.  But the most radical opinion of all as late as the seventeenth century was that God was not a trinity–Socinianism (early unitarianism) named after two Italian thinkers, the uncle-nephew team of Laelius and Fausto, who if they lived today would run a cake shop in Brooklyn.  Both thought the trinity was non-biblical.  Faustus, the nephew, escaped to (then) religiously liberal Poland to be out of the reach of church scrutiny and died there in 1604.  The theology of the Spanish physician Miguel Servetus (mentioned above) was less accommodating but equally severe: he called the trinity a three-headed dog.  Servetus was sentenced to death simultaneously in Geneva by the protestants and by the Catholic Inquisition at Lyons making him officially the first man without a country.

Not far away, or much removed in time, Giordano Bruno died in 1600, a Domincan priest and by all accounts a brilliant scientist.  Bruno taught a version of the Copernican theory and taught it well enough to find himself in exile all over Europe.


Hounded by a reputation for being sarcastic and unable to keep quiet about his unorthodox views, he did what Servetus did: went to Geneva thinking that the Protestant “capital” would be nore liberal than the largely autonomous cities of the Catholic world. Then to Paris, where he was spotted as an excommunicate; then to Oxford and London, where he may have worked as a spy for a very nervous Elizabeth’s secretary of State, Walsingham.  Then to Frankfurt and Padua, where he was denied a chair in mathematics (it went to Galileo) and finally to Venice, where the Church lost patience with his maneuvers and had him hauled back to Rome for trial.

Bruno’s scientific views were not as well devloped as Galileo’s: at his trials in Rome, he was accused of denying the trinity (by now a favourite charge against intellectuals), believing in metempsychosis (reincarnation), denying the virginity of Mary, and the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist.  These were garden variety charges that could be trumped up against almost anyone who had become inconvenient to the Church, so the radical nature of his opinions is difficult to discover.  He was probably also a pantheist and almost certainly a mystic and magician.

From the Church’s point of view he was another heretic at a time when the Church was fighting both ends against the middle, fragmented in Europe, unable to exercise its will against major problems like Luther, and now a spawn of lesser opinions that might have been greater had they developed into full-fledged movements.  Bruno’s challenge like Wycliffe’s involved early scientific ideas that were echoed in the revolutions of Bacon and Newton, neither of whom, alas, had very revolutionary ideas about religion. Before Bruno was burned alive at the Camo di’Fiori, his tongue was nailed to the roof of his mouth “for all the wickedness he had spewed.” The Cardinal who tried Bruno, Bellarmino, was the same who summoned Galileo to the Inquisition sixteen years later.

Bellarmine, the face of Catholic tolerance

Bruno, like Servetus, and Wycliffe, and Hus, and later on the deist Thomas Aikenhead (d. 1696 in Edinburgh) should be commemorated as pioneers in the rationalist tradition that leads from faith and credulity to shades of unbelief and finally to outright atheism. It is a slow progression, and atheism is a consequence, not the match that starts the fire.

Philosophically, these thinkers (even in the case of Hus and Wycliffe) don’t constitute a single opinion but  grades of skepticism that move steadily from rejection of the core doctrine of the Christian faith for 1200 years–the trinity–to a much wider indictment of the Bible, superstition, the papacy, miracles, and the stranglehold of Aristotelian science.

Aikenhead at his trial was accused of all of this: “[He has taught] That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”

“No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: “that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.” He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January…before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows. He was said to have died Bible in hand, “with all the Marks of a true Penitent”.

So to the question: Have there been atheist martyrs.  I think the answer is a conditional rather than a resounding No.  Social marginalization and suspicion is not the same thing as martyrdom, not the same as systematic legal persecution.

I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered.  But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. And it neither diminishes atheism nor requires it to “credit” its existence to religion in order to acknowledge it.

Medieval (14th cent) illustration of a spherical earth

Yet this puts atheists in the difficult position of celebrating the work of people they regard as deluded, “faithheads,” to use the aspersion, as though history begins with Hume (maybe a deist, fundamentally cagey), Voltaire (a deist), and Tom Paine (not just a deist but one who wanted to surgically remove Jesus from the atrocity of the gospels).  But none of these men died for their secular, anti- ecclesiastical and anti-Biblical ideas. They held a shred of faith disconnected from the realities of religion.

If we scour more thoroughly, we get Socrates and Jesus and maybe Anaxagoras.  All three were charged with impiety by the dominant religious power of their day.  If we believe Xenophon, Socrates took comfort in the fact that the gods would be pleased with his tranquility and that he was pious throughout his life.  Anaxagoras chose the option of exile to Lampsacus for teaching “odd things” about the nature of matter and mind, that the material world was composed of “a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same–a subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, especially seen ruling in all the forms of life” (Lucretius).  But in either case, “piety” and impiety were connected to performing acts of ritual devotion, not to an intellectual conclusion about the existence of “God.” A great many historians and psychologists have puzzled that it may not have been psychologically possible, prior to this long progression of ideas, to entertain the sorts of doubts about the gods’ existence that is possible in the modern era. ( I disagree with that, but it’s another topic.)

That leaves Jesus, before he became one–a god that is. Radical doubters and dissenters like Paine, Renan, Loisy recognized Jesus as one of their own. The eminently sensible Matthew Arnold, no friend to biblically-based dogmatism, praised his “sweet reasonableness.”

In so many words Jesus rejected much of the Torah and hardly mentions other sections of the Hebrew tradition at all–though he is accused of violating it.  He substitutes an ethic of love and forgiveness for one of pay-back and talion.  He excoriates wealth in a culture that saw material possessions as a mark of divine favour.  He mingles with women and “sinners” in a time when purity laws were scrupulously enforced and fear of contamination had reached superstitious highs.  He shows compassion for people at the margins of a society that disowned the sick as being stricken by God as punishment for unknown sin.   He, foolishly perhaps,  argues his case openly, even when (like Socrates) he is cautioned not to.

Even if only a shadow of a shade of this story is respected, Jesus is an historical event, at least as much of an event as the historical Socrates who also suffers from his own “biography.” Knowing that his words and deeds are going to get him killed, he presses on.  He’s only human after all. From the standpoint of first century Judaism–which is the only way history can fairly view this event–he dies a blasphemer and a heretic.

It seems to me that atheists should acknowledge that the private thoughts of a lonely woodcutter outside Düsseldorf do not form part of the progression of ideas that get us from Epicurus to Bertrand Russell.

When Professor Dawkins in his now famous remark says that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is right in one respect (as well as funny) but wrong in another. Because the process of rejecting 99% of the gods and most of what has  been believed about the remainder is not a conclusion that atheism has forced. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides;  in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments;  in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking.  In so much more.  Perhaps to state what is too obvious to be obvious to many people: in the fact that the transmission of knowledge through books was the labour of clerics and monks.  Atheism historically–where and through what means–the gods began to be disbelieved in–has not been a conversion-experience, a single moment, or a shuddering recognition on a Tuesday that everything you have been taught is wrong.  It’s also got to be about the freedom to reach that conclusion on the shoulders of the very bright people who suffered along the way, none of whom, as far as I can tell, would qualify as atheists today.

Bacon's illustration in his Optics, 1250

It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.

Scipio and the New Atheism

Mathilde‘s opens at 10 on Sundays, so Scipio and I usually meet at 9:55 sharp so that we can watch people scurrying to the service at First Church.  Scipio enjoys this much more than I do. Today a mother with two over-polished kids in tow pushed past us without saying excuse me.

Then she turned.  “What did you say?,” she said.

“Nothing,”  Scipio said, with that perfect little way he has of meaning something when he doesn’t mean it.  He looked at me slyly. “I didn’t say anything.  But you might have said ‘Excuse me’.”

“Actually,” she said, “I’m English. We normally say ‘sorry’ and slog on. So, sorry”

“I hear it now,” Scipio said. He did hear it because he tries hard to sound British, a habit he picked up from having attended a summer school session at the University of Leeds.

“So, sorry,” she said again, casting a faint smile, and rearranging her children on the sidewalk.

“I don’t mean to pry,” Scipio said a little menacingly, “but what actually goes on in there?”

“You mean church,” she said slightly amazed. “You’ve never been to church?”

“Oh sure,” he said, looking sideways at me for enouragement. “I went to my uncle’s funeral, but that didn’t count. I was only eight, so I thought church was all about people crying and sniffing floral bouquets.”  He laughed appreciatively, and expected her to laugh back at his little joke.

“Well, ” she said, “We sing a little, pray a little, listen a little, usually to some dreadful sermon about how we need to do more to alleviate poverty and teach our children about love and kindness. This lot could use a little of that.”

“Why do you sing?,” Scipio said, looking at me to nod in agreement at his line of questioning. “Can’t you do that in the car?”

“Well, last I looked it’s hard to get a hundred people in a Subaru. Besides, I like the words.  Look, you’re free to come along but I’m going to be late. Nice chatting,” and with that the small troupe was off and running toward the front steps.

“Pathetic,” Scipio said. “‘I like the words’ and she ‘prays a little‘ and listens a little‘.  What she’s really saying is that she likes talking to herself and having her kid’s brains washed out with  lies.  Soap, lye: hey that’s pretty good.”

“She’s not so bad,” I returned. “I pray a little before every class and hope that the students will listen a little.”

“Don’t start,” Scipio said.  “I know you agree with me about religion.”

By then the new barrista had arrived, leaned her bicycle against the wall, took off her helmet and let her hair fall freely over her shoulders. She was even lovelier in the sunlight, prettier than she seemed the day before.

“Hi guys. Be with you in a minute.” She went inside.

Scipio shook his head in a depressed kind of way.  “I used to think that religion was irrelevant,” he said. “But when you see smart-looking people demeaning themselves–it’s sick. It’s just sick.”

“I don’t know,” I said flatly, There are worse things you can be than a waitress.”

Scipio did not look amused. “You know who I meant.  And not just that, her kids have to drink the same poison.  If you ask me, parents who go to church should be required by family services to leave the kids at home and give them a course in logic.”

“Do they get to sing after they do their syllogisms?,” I said. “You mean that poison about kindness and caring about starving children in Bangladesh?”

“I mean that poison about God and Jesus and being saved and not having abortions and voting Republican,” Scipio said. “Probably being spouted by some guy who screws little boys.”

Canova, "feeding the Hungry"

“Wow,” I said. “So that’s what’s going on at the First Congregational Church in Marblehead.  You’re right. I’ll call 911.  Maybe no one notices because of all the singing.”

Scipio stood up very straight and looked at me as though he wanted to punch me.

“You know what’s wrong with you Cleanthes? You’re apathetic.  You don’t care that people are being taught rubbish.  You don’t care that religion is poisonous.  You don’t notice that the whole culture is sick and that religion is making it sick.”

To make him angrier, I feigned a yawn and looked at my watch.

“Scipio,” I began, “I don’t think you’re talking about religion. I think you’re talking about what you think about religion, which frankly isn’t very much. I think you’re talking about dogma–or something like that.”

The barrista had raised the shade, smiled through the window, and raised her hand with five fingers spread to indicate we would be standing outside having this discussion for five long minutes.

We were downwind from the church and the front doors were wide open. Two ushers were still allowing latecomers in. But the singing had begun.

I’d always liked hymns. I’ve always liked singing. I recognized this one from years before when it wouldn’t have been unusal for me to be standing inside joining in rather than outside having an unpleasant quarrel with an angry associate professor of psychology.

It was Lowell’s poem, Once to Every Man and Nation.  Congregationalists love to sing this. He wrote it to protest the United States war with Mexico in 1845.  If only we’d had a million more like him, I thought, the immigration issue would be off the table.  They had just arrived at verse two –

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

I was going to ask Scipio if he knew it, but even if he did he wouldn’t have said so, and the reference to God in the last line would have soured him on the idea that religion is an important force in social protest. He would have said something to spoil the majesty of the sentiment.  Probably that if God had any interest in the future he should have intervened in 1845.  I had a whole lecture in my head about that.  But by now Scipio was tapping his shoe and it was 10.15.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said.  “Maybe we should just shut them down, places like this.  Toxin factories.  I know if we did, wars would disappear and the economy would heal itself because we’d know that miracles don’t happen.  The schools would get better. I’l bet that if we’re being honest about it, our future depends on getting more atheists elected to congress and outing the ones who are already there. I always look forward to our discussions Scipio.  You’re always right about these big questions.”

He smiled appreciatively. “Well, maybe not shut them down. But tax them for sure. Make them pay for the harm they do–like cigarette sales.”


The barrista opened the door smiling slightly nervously. “Sorry guys,” she said, “The machines weren’t cooperating.”

“No problem” I said, “it was worth it just to see you smile. She smiled again.

“It’s way after 10,” Scipio said. “There’s hardly any time for me to enjoy a cup of coffee now.  I have yoga at 11.” He pushed past her and moved toward his usual table as far from the window as possible.  Scipio has a theory that watching people move past windows affects the optic nerve in unhealthy ways that may lead to early Alzheimer’s.  He’s never expanded.

The barrista and I were left on the sidewalk.  The children were being ushered down the front steps to the lower part of the church where they would color pictures of the prodigal son or the feeding of the 5000.

They would be told that this really didn’t happen, but that it’s a parable of why generosity to starving people is important.  At least that’s what I was taught.  The upstairs crowd, mainly young parents and old, probably wealthy, veterans of a lifetime of religion had moved on to a Whittier hymn, “Forgive Our Foolish Ways.” He  was a Quaker. He hated slavery.  Slavery was a sin, he thought.  That’s about all I knew of its history.

“I love that one,” said the barrista. “We sang it when I was a kid.”

“Me too” I said, “but don’t these people ever stop singing?”  She smiled again.

In the background, Scipio was calling out. “Oh Miss? Excuse me, Miss”

Scipio Returns: An Allegory

I met Scipio at Mathilde’s yesterday.  He was late and huffing–and amazing for a March day in Marblehead–was actually breaking a sweat.

He was carrying a load of blue books he said he hadn’t had time to grade over the spring break.

“You know,” I said with just a hint of disapproval, “It’s harder to do when there’s no time than when there’s a little time.”

He ignored me and looked toward the barrista.  She was new: long blonde hair, a runner–you could tell from the way her underarmor outlined her legs–and took an instant dislike to Scipio as soon as she saw him.  I guess some men would find her attractive.  Scipio did.

“You’re too obvious,” I hissed.  “It’s getting embarrassing to come here with you.  I think the last waitress left because you wouldn’t stop staring–what was her name…”

“Maria,” he said without a pause.

“Maria, right. She’s working at the Salvation Army Store on Boylston because she thought you were stalking her.”

“These tables are really too small,” Scipio said. “There isn’t room for my bluebooks on the top.”

He tried to focus on me, but his eyes wandered toward the counter, and inevitably settled on the barrista’s bulging calves.

“I suppose you got all your marking done,” he said with a slight curl on his lips.

“Every bit.  I don’t want to mix break and work.”

“You make no sense,” he said. “If you’re grading during break you’re working. So you’re mixing.  Make up your mind.”

Scipio has always been good at trying to change the topic from his faults to mine.

“So, I guess having the work hanging over you during a vacation isn’t a little distracting, a little getting in the way of fun- time distracting. A little Oh gosh, what can I put off now that will cause me infinite pain in a week distracting. You make up your mind.”

The barrista had arrived.  I ordered my usual.

“I just started,” she said, “excuse me if I don’t know what your usual is.”

“I’ll have a double espresso.  My friend will have bubble tea.”

Bubble tea?” she shot back. “Did you say bubble tea.”

“Exactly.  Double espresso for me.  My friend doesn’t believe in coffee after noon.”

She stood fast.  She looked first at me and then at Scipio.

“You fucking don’t believe in coffee? That’s amazing.  I don’t believe in God!” She had used the line before.  She waited for a look of surprise–any reaction at all.  None.

Scipio looked plaintively at me as though begging for instructions.

“I didn’t say I didn’t believe in coffee, strictly speaking” he said. “He did. I’d say I don’t believe in coffee after lunch”

“So you do believe in coffee?”  Disappointment at not getting a gasp about the God comment had now turned into teasing.

Scipio was melting.  She had him fixed in her blue eyes.  I could almost feel his resolve leaking away.

“I mean, coffee is fine for morning but it’s almost three o’clock. So I prefer bubble tea.  It isn’t that I don’t believe in it.  In principle it’s fine” He coughed and laughed at the same time creating a thread of scum in the corner of his mouth. “It’s just not good for me.”

“Why is bubble tea good for three o clock.” She positioned herself near his elbow, her thigh against his stack of bluebooks that by now were in danger of spilling onto the floor.

Scipio frowned. “Look Miss,” he said, using a word I have avoided for almost ten years, “I didn’t ask you why you don’t believe in God or the tooth fairy. Please don’t inquire after my drinking habits.”

She moved away, feigning a pout, then pivoted and looked squarely at me.

“So you, you believe in coffee?”

“I do,” I said. “With all my heart.  Why would anyone want bubble tea at three o’clock when there’s espresso on earth?” I tried to smile.

“Bubble tea’s more like the tooth fairy. I don’t believe in that either,” she said.

I was feeling a strange excitement at this development. Ten years coming to Mathilde’s, no one had shown the slightest interest in my usual. It didn’t matter what Scipio didn’t believe in after noon.

All that mattered is that I believed in something dark, concentrated, thick, bitter, and expensive. And it came with lemon peel and a tiny brown sugar cube to make it nicer.

“Can I have your number,” she said.  She didn’t mean it of course.  At least I don’t think she did.

But it was worth it just to see the expression on Scipio’s face.

The Orthodoxy of Just Not Believing in God

We seem to be witnessing the rapid development of atheist orthodoxy.

I say that as someone who has fallen prey to zingers used about the heretics in the fourth century Empire: According to my disgruntled readers, I am confused, angry, unsettled, provocative, hurtful and creating division, which in Greek is what heresy means.

The word ATHEOs (atheist) in Ephesians, 3rd century Papyrus 46

No one has come right out and said what this might imply:  that the New Atheists having written their four sacred books (a canon?) are not subject to correction.  I haven’t been told that there is nothing further to study, or that the word of revelation came down in 2005 with the publication of The God Delusion. I have been told (several times) that I am mixing humanism and skepticism and doubt into the batch, when the batch, as in Moses’ day,  just calls for batch.  Or no batch. I have been reminded (and reminded) that atheism is nothing more than the simple profession of the belief that there is no God, or any gods. Credo in Nullum Deum. And I have been scolded in response to my challenge for atheists to be better-read and less cute to the effect that “Many of us have read…Hitchens’s excellent The Portable Atheist.  But for Berlinerbrau [sic] that’s not nearly good enough.” An odd rejoinder since it is precisely Berlinerblau’s criticism that Hitchens’ anthology is not very good. And, much as I enjoyed reading its predecessor,  God is Not Great,  it isn’t.

When the first heretics were “proclaimed”  (as opposed to pilloried by various disgruntled individual bishops) in 325–when the Council of Nicaea “defined” God as a trinity–a particular heretic named Arius was in the Church’s crosshairs.  He believed that Jesus was the son of God, in an ordinary sense, if you can imagine it, and not eternal. The growing cadre of right-minded bishops, including his own boss, a man called Athanasius, was committed to the popular intellectual view that everything God was, Jesus was, so Jesus had to be eternal too.

Read our orthodox lips

Was Jesus always a son, Arius asked.  Yes always, they replied.  Was God always a father?  Yes, always, they said: God does not change.  Then what, asked Arius, is the meaning of terms like father and son?You are irredeemable and anathema to us, they replied. Once a group rallies around a position, in other words, it becomes very difficult to ask questions or blow whistles.  Just like academic politics.

To this day, the only bit of the Nicene creed Christians won’t find in their prayer books is the last clause: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” It would spoil the family atmosphere to end the prayer on a rancorous note.

I have always felt that the more you know about the history of ideas, the less likely you are to be a true believer.  Studying science can have the same effect, but not directly (since science does not deal with religious questions directly) and usually (for obvious reasons) in relation to questions like cosmology rather than questions about historical evolution.

But that “challenge” kept me interested in history and to a lesser degree in philosophy, rather than causing me to throw my hands up and say “What’s the point?”  I did not become an historian in order to vindicate any sort of belief, religious or political.  But by becoming a historian I learned to recognize that all ideas, including God, have histories, and that the ideas of god in their historical context leave almost no room for philosophical discussions, however framed, about his existence.  In fact, even having taught philosophy of religion routinely for two decades, I find the philosophical discussion almost as dull and flat as the scientistic hubris of the new atheists and their disciples.

When I took up a position as a professor of religious studies in Ann Arbor in the 1980’s, students in the large-enrollment lectures immediately spotted me as a skeptic.  When I touched on biblical subjects, bright-eyed students from western Michigan would often bring Bibles and try to trip me up on details.  I would always say the same thing, after a few volleys: “We are not here to test your fidelity to the teaching of your church nor my fidelity to any greater cause. We’re here to study history. God can take it.”  I wish I had a better message after twenty-eight years, but I don’t.

There are two chief problems with orthodoxy–any orthodoxy.  Once it establishes itself, it kills its dissenters–if not physically, then by other means.  It got Arius (not before he’d done commendable damage however); it got Hus, it got Galileo, and it might’ve gotten Descartes if he hadn’t been very clever in the Discourse on Method by creating a hypothetical pope-free universe.

Scientific orthodoxies had fared no better until the modern era, the advantage of modernity being that science learned the humility of error before it began to be right.  It did not promote itself as timeless truth but as correctable knowledge. It would be remarkable if science, in its approach to religion, did not follow the same process, and I’m happy to say that in most cases it does.

For all the confusion about the new atheism attributed to me in the past few days, it seems to me that atheism is not science. It is an opinion (though I’d grant it higher status), grounded in history, to which some of the sciences, along with many other subjects, have something to contribute.

Almost everyone knows not only that the non-existence of God is not a “scientific outcome” but that it is not a philosophical outcome either.  So, if it’s true that at its simplest, atheism is a position about God, and nothing else, then atheism will at least need to say why it is significant to hold such a position.  It can’t be significant just because atheists say so, so it must derive its significance from other ideas that attach to the belief in god, ideas that nonbelievers find objectionable and worth rejecting. (The gods of Lucretius can’t be objectionable because like John Wisdom’s god they are not only invisible but indiscernible). Consequently, atheism can not simply be about the nonexistence of God; it must be about the implications of that belief for believers.

Some of those beliefs matter more than others.  For example, the belief that God created the world.  In terms of the number of people who believe this and the vigor with which they are willing to defend that belief, this has to be the most important idea attached to belief in God.

Atheists who care to argue their case philosophically,  will maintain that evidence of an alternative physical mode of creation defeats demonstrations of the existence of God.  In fact, however, the evidence is a disproof of explanations put forward in a creation myth; and that disproof comes from history long before it comes from philosophy and science. The evidence is nonetheless poignant. But it takes the question of God’s existence into fairly complex argumentation.

Biblical Cosmos

Atheists might also argue that belief in the goodness of God is contradicted by the existence of natural and moral evil (theodicy) or that belief in his benevolence and intelligence (design, teleology) is disproved by the fact that this is not the best of all possible universes. These quibbles are great fun in a classroom because they get people talking,  thinking and arguing.  But as you can see, we have already come a long way from the bare proposition that atheism is just about not believing in God, full stop.

This recognition is unavoidable because you cannot disbelieve in something to which no attributes have been attached–unless like St Anselm you think that existence is a necessary predicate of divine (“necessary”) being.  But that’s another story.  When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational grounds–an atheist who holds a belief to be irrefragably true only because she or he has faith that it is true.

Most atheists, of course,  do not establish their positions that way, e.g., Williams Hasker’s “The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist” (1986) and Michael Martin’s “Critique of Religious Experience” (1990) or the famous discussion between Basil Mitchell (a theist) and Antony Flew (an atheist) called “The Falsification Debate” (1955) provide important indicators about how the existence of God can be defeated propositionally.  No atheist who now swims in shallow water should feel overwhelmed by reading these classic pieces.

Recent articles by Jacques Berlinerblau and Michael Ruse have raised the broad concern that the effects of the “New atheism” might actually be harmful. Why? Because it creates a class of followers who (like the early Christians) are less persuaded by argument than by the certainty of their position.  It produces hundreds of disciples who see atheism as a self-authenticating philosophy, circumstantially supported by bits of science, and who, when challenged resort to arguments against their critics rather than arguments in favour of their position.  A common criticism of the new atheists is that their journey to unbelief did not provide them with the tools necessary for such defense, or that they have found polemical tactics against their critics more effective than standard argumentation: thus,  a critic is uninformed or a closet believer. Criticism becomes “rant,” diatribe, hot air; critics are “arrogant” and elitist, or prone to over-intellectualize positions that are really quite simple: Up or down on the God thing? Points of contention become “confusion,” “divisive”; motives are reduced to spite and jealousy rather than an honest concern for fair discussion–epithets that were used freely against people like Arius and Hus, especially in religious disputes but rarely in modern philosophical discussion.  The intensity with which the EZ atheist position is held might be seen as a mark of its fragility, comparable to strategies we see in Christian apologetics.

A year ago,  my position on this issue was less resolute: I would have said then that new atheism is just a shortcut to conclusions that older atheists reached by a variety of means, from having been Jesuits to having been disappointed in their church, or education, to reading too much,  or staying awake during my lectures. (Even I want some small credit for changing minds).

It is a fact that few people become atheists either in foxholes or philosophy class. But having seen the minor outcry against criticism of the New Atheist position by their adherents, I have come to the conclusion that Ruse and Berlinerblau are right: the new atheism is a danger to American intellectual life, to the serious study of important questions, and to the atheist tradition itself.

I have reasons for saying this.  Mostly, they have nothing to do with the canonical status of a few books and speakers who draw, like Jesus, multitudes of hungry listeners.  At this level, emotion comes into play, celebrity and authority come into play. Perhaps even faith comes into play. The bright scarlet A of proud atheism as a symbol of nonbelief and denial becomes an icon in its own right: The not-the-cross and not-the-crescent.  And again, as we reach beyond not believing into symbolism and the authority of speakers who can deliver you from the dark superstitions of religion, without having to die on a cross, we have come a long way from simply not believing.  That is what Professors Ruse and Berlinerblau have been saying.

But the real disaster of the new atheism is one I am experiencing as a college teacher.  Almost three decades back I faced opposition from students who denied that history had anything to teach them about their strong emotional commitment to a belief system or faith. Today I am often confronted with students who feel just the same way–except they are atheists, or rather many of them have adopted the name and the logo.

I say “atheist” with the same flatness that I might say, “evangelical,” but I know what it means pedgaogically when I say it.  It is a diagnosis not of some intellectual malfunction, but a description of an attitude or perspective that might make historical learning more challenging than in needs to be.  It means that the person has brought with her to the classroom a set of beliefs that need Socratic overhaul.


An atheism that has been inhaled at lectures by significant thinkers is heady stuff.  Its closest analogy is “getting saved,” and sometimes disciples of the New Atheists talk a language strangely like that of born agains. I hear the phrase “life changing experience” frequently from people who have been awakened at a Dawkins lecture, or even through watching videos on YouTube.  It would be senseless to deny that the benefit is real.  And it is futile to deny that leaving students in a state of incomplete transformation, without the resources to pursue unbelief–or its implications for a good and virtuous life beyond the purely selfish act of not believing–makes the task of education a bit harder for those of us left behind, in a non-apocalyptic sort of way.

I suspect this is pure fogeyism, but life-changing gurus have minimal responsibility after they have healed the blind.

I could site dozens of examples of the challenges the new atheist position presents.  Two from recent Facebook posts will do.  In response to a Huffington Post blog by a certain Rabbi Adam Jacobs on March 24, one respondent wrote, “Thanks Rabbi. I think I will be good without god and eat a bacon cheeseburger and think of you cowering in fear of the cosmic sky fairy…” and another, “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept the manifestly false premises of religion just because it would create a cozy set of moral fictions for us, which is what the author seems to be saying.”

The cosmic sky fairy, a variation presumably on Bobby Henderson’s (pretty amusing) Flying Spaghetti Monster, doesn’t strike me as blasphemy.  Almost nothing does. But it strikes me as trivial.  A student who can dismiss a serious article about the relationship of science, morality and religion, asked, let’s say, to read Aquinas in a first year seminar would be at a serious disadvantage.  A worshiper of Richard Dawkins who can’t deal with Aquinas because he is “religious” is not better than an evangelical Christian who won’t read it because he was “Catholic.”  That is where we are.

The second comment suggests that atheism is “de-moralizing,” in the sense that it eliminates one of the conventional grounds for thinking morality exists. The writer doesn’t find this troubling as an atheist, because he see the post-Kantian discussion of morality as high-sounding but fruitless chatter: “There is no higher justification for any moral imperative beyond ‘because I think/feel it’s better.'” –I actually happen to agree with him.  But I can’t begin a conversation at the conclusion. His honesty about the question is pinned to a view of atheism that, frankly, I cannot understand.

The essence of EZ atheism is this trivialization of questions that it regards as secondary to the entertainment value of being a non-believer, a status that some will defend simply through polemic or ridicule of anything “serious,” anything assumed to be “high culture” or too bookish.

I am not questioning the robustness of the movement, its popularity, or the sincerity of the followers.   I am not trying to make new atheism rocket science or classical philology. I have never suggested it belongs to the academy and not to the village, because I know that nothing renders a worldview ineffective quite so thoroughly as keeping it locked in a university lecture hall.  The idea that there is no God, if it were left to me, would be discussed in public schools and from the pulpit.  But it won’t be.  For all the wrong reasons.  When Harvard four years ago attempted to introduce a course in the critical study of religion into its core curriculum, its most distinguished professor of psychology, who happens also to be an atheist, lobbied (successfully) against it because it was to be taught as a “religion” course.  Almost no one except a few humanists  saw that atheism lost a great battle in that victory.  And it lost it, I hate to say, because the professor responsible sensationalised the issue as “bringing the study of religion into the Yard” rather than keeping it safely sequestered in the Divinity School.

I want to suggest that the trivialization of culture (which includes religion and religious ideas), especially in America where trivial pursuits reign, is not especially helpful.  And as I have said pretty often,  that part of this trivialization is the use of slogans, billboards, out campaigns and fishing expeditions to put market share ahead of figuring things out.  Truth to tell, there is nothing to suggest that these campaigns have resulted in racheting up numbers, increasing public understanding of unbelief, or advancing a coherent political agenda.  They have however potentially harmed atheism with tactics that simplify religious ideas to an alarming level (all the better to splay them) and by confirming in the minds of many “potential Brights” (Dennett) that their suspicions of atheism were well founded.  Adherents of the New Atheists need to make a distinction between success as a corollary of profits to the authors and the benefit to the movement or, to be very old fashioned, the ideals of an atheist worldview.

Julian Huxley

After a long time as a teacher, I am surprised to find myself writing about this.  I have often found myself thinking, “If only half my students were atheists.  Then we could get somewhere.  We could say what we like, just the way we like it.  We could follow the evidence where it takes us–no more sidestepping ‘awkward issues’ so as not to injure religious feelings.”

If only it were that easy:  I may spend the remainder of my time in the academy imploring the sky fairy to smile on my efforts and deliver me from orthodoxy of all kinds.