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.


The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

Two articles on the “value” of Catholic education got me thinking about my own recently.

Both pieces are nostalgic and mainly wrong.  One, from former LA mayor Richard Riordan spearheads a drive for $100,000,000 for Catholic schools in his region, thrumping the well-known fact that inner city public schools have failed, that charter schools are expensive and aren’t much better, while Catholic schools send most of their graduates on to college and provide “beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education.”  Does anyone see a stop sign here?

What Riordan doesn’t want to stress is that in the last forty years, and in Los Angeles like everywhere else, Catholic schools lost all of their nuns (who, by the way, were indentured teachers), most of the curriculum that made their brand distinctive, fully half of their student population nationwide (in one Miami school, St Monica, from 368 students in 2004 to 196 in 2008 when closure was mandated), and much of the financial support of their parishes.  If there ever was a golden age of Catholic education, the age is long gone. New school closures, consolidations and transfers from parochial to charter school status are announced every month.

Rescuing parochial schools is not a way to rescue public education; it’s a way to sink both. My younger daughter, in fact, benefited from a “Catholic education” in the largely dysfunctional innards of Buffalo, New York, a few years ago.  That education set me back about $10,000 in a single year, not including loafers.  But this was not your average parochial parish school–the kind I  went to, virtually for pin money.  It was a private Catholic “convent” school for girls, a sister institution to the academically reputable Jesuit boys academy, Canisius  Prep. Even here, Catholic “identity” was a romantic notion: other than the school president and a confused and veilless retired nun  who showed up at special events, the convent was empty and Catholic consciousness was mainly limited to the school uniform and a graduation Mass.

The average downtown parochial school suffers from the same uncertainties, tensions, and personnel issues that most public city schools suffer from–underpaid faculty, multilingualism, economic distress, to which has to be added despair and increasing irrelevance.  Throwing gobs of money at the sinking ship won’t raise it. Throwing city kids into the remaining parish schools–a remedy that might have worked a generation or more ago–won’t work now.

But most of all, throwing Catholic values at the public system (without any discussion of what these values might be) is just a very bad idea–one which once upon a less desperate time would have met with stiff political resistance.

Better days?

Perhaps the cynicism of asking non-Catholics to entrust saving city schools to Catholic education is obvious.  Less obvious is the premise put forward by Paul Wallace in his reaction to comments made by Richard Dawkins concerning the religious “identity” imposed on children by parents.  Dawkins’s comments coincide with the founding in Britain of the first “atheist college” by A.C. Grayling and some of his associates (really an option for degree validation within the sprawling and often academically sketchy University of London) and, of course, the publication of his children’s book, The Magic of Reality.

The faith-values that Riordan thinks might benefit intellectual deadened and deadend “inner city youth” (and which Dawkins thinks amount to the imposition of magical thinking and indoctrination in unsupportable beliefs), Wallace says are essentially benign. Moreover, they are “values” that no child is going to avoid merely by receiving a  science-friendly education: the competition for attention and credence is intense in our culture, the argument runs, and “no child can stand above the fray of competing worldviews and let reason eliminate all but the best, like a cautious consumer.”

Recalling a classroom experience with a certain Father Kavanaugh who encouraged students to question the core premises of their belief, Wallace says,

Imagine it! Who are you? Do you disbelieve in God? Why? Do you disbelieve in God because your mother disbelieves in God? Do you believe there’s no God because smart people told you so? Precisely what God do you not believe in? Might there be another you could believe in?, etc.

What many Catholics know, and what Richard Dawkins appears not to, is that the idea of children moving through life without serious intellectual and moral direction—in this insane world, of all places—is a terrible joke and a recipe for social catastrophe.

In reality, Wallace’s argument is the intellectual equivalent of Riordan’s economic one: “Catholic education” offers students the tools for critical thinking: it begins from faith but does not ask people to stop with faith.  Catholicism, it’s argued, has a long history of asking questions about itself,  questions not substantially different, even if differently intoned, by atheists: Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Why do you believe God loves you? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? As the destination is at least as important as the starting point, why should a student choose unbelief over belief as the only right road for getting there?

It’s a fair but I think fatally flawed question and since others are answering it with favorite stories from their days at St Ignatius School for Recalcitrant Youth, let me have a turn.


I escaped from the designs of Irish-born nuns and randy priests unmolested (knuckles intact, surplice unruffled) but not unaffected.  My Catholic training–like the sort described by Julian Baggini in his little Oxford introduction to Atheism–was basically benign. In primary school, I loved religion classes.  In high school, what we had begun to call “theology,” (and now, where it exists, is called religion) and in university, philosophy.  It seemed a natural progression.

I make no grandiose claims or  accusations about the role of the Church in education. Catholicism contrary to popular belief did not “cause” the dark ages and without the university system incumbent in the medieval monasteries, things would have been dark a lot longer.

Professional Catholic-haters–and there are many–point not just to a history of psychological and physical abuse during the worst episodes of church history–Jew-killing, inquisitions, Magdalene laundries, and predatory pastors for starters–but to the ongoing role of the church in opposing scientific research, women’s reproductive rights, and the intimidation of Catholic politicians who differ from their Church’s theology on a range of issues that have nothing to do with Rome’s vaunted magisterium: its teaching “authority” in matters of faith (relatively unimpactful) and morals (the bedroom).

The acceptable modern argument against Catholic education, however, really goes back only to Pope Pius IX and his campaign against “modernism” (read: modern scholarship and science) in the Syllabus of Errors, promulgated in 1864.  It was then that Catholic universities took a southward turn, failed to promote the natural sciences, and found themselves in thrall to a papacy whose greatest contribution was to pronounce itself infallible.  There is no doubt that the legacy of Pio Nono was the Church’s most shameful intellectual moment since the Inquisition.  By the same token, it corresponded to the death throes of a church that had lost power, prestige, land, and authority all over Europe–the beginning of the secular era. Not coincidentally, Catholic or “parochial” education as it came to exist, especially as an alternative school system in Britain and the United States, dates from the same unpromising period.

Pope Pius IX

And yet. In a world where Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Martha Coakley can be threatened by their Church with excommunication for their stand on abortion –but not Rick Santorum (who is renowned for having introduced a dead fetus to his living children as their brother), or Scott Brown, a good Catholic boy from a lapsed family that had turned divorce into a recreational activity–the very idea that Catholic education produces mono-opinionated troglodytes is clearly absurd.

But it does seem to produce an unusual number of intellectual apostates and satirists.  I submit that the reason the Church has produced comedians like George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Julia Sweeney and Bill Maher is that Catholic training is a survival lesson in enduring contradictions. Would you walk across the street to buy a ticket to see a “Christian” comedian?  Not likely.  Protestant comedy is inherent in the seriousness with which its practitioners take their dogmas.  A Muslim funny man? Pfffft. Remember Denmark?

Jewish? of course, fellow sufferers in being smart, guilty, alienated and irreverent.  In fact the only difference between a Catholic comedian and a Jewish comedian is that the Catholic is told he has to feel contrition for his abuse of the Church while the Jew is simply plunged into a perpetual state of unforgivable remorse for not being Jewish enough.

But the key thing (and why isn’t anybody getting this?) is living with contradiction.  Catholics perfected this more than a thousand years ago when they started talking about faith and reason being compatible means of getting to the same intellectual end: certainty about God.

It was never an even match: Ubi fides est ratio fallitur (“Where reason fails, faith prevails”), and there was always a penchant for mystery when reasons weren’t at hand for particular beliefs–like the Trinity.  But reason had a place at the table, and reason was an honorable way to get to God.  It would take until the Reformation for faith to take center position and stay there in a way that leads finally to Michele Bachmann.

Faith is what made this country what it is.

In my academic work, I never miss a chance these days not to re-read Aquinas on the subject of faith and reason, and you can bet on the fact that most Catholics, whenever they passed through the system, but especially those who went through after about 1975, have never read a paraphrased tiddle of his work.  Yet it’s Aquinas whose transformative work on Aristotle still forms the fundament of christian doctrine in the Roman tradition.  Try these on for size:

Because we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not, we cannot consider how He is but only how He is not.  God should not be called an individual substance, since the principal of individuation is matter.

or this:

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.

–and especially this (are you reading Rick perry?)

Beware of the person of one book.

According to the most learned voices the church has produced, the human race is essentially ignorant of God’s attributes and the Bible is a book of poetry that cloaks his identity in allegory. Yet the Catholic faithful have had to wrestle with some of the most explicit images of God (and Jesus as his incarnation) ever manufactured–think Michelangelo, think Botticelli and a hundred others.  Catholic churches are stuffed with images ranging from the merely explicit to the grotesque–Jesuses hanging on the cross, weighed down with the sins of the world.  To complete the dramatis personae, there are images of his family (blessed, persevering mother, carpenter father) and an array of saints “who have done his will throughout the ages.”  Plenty to keep the eyes occupied and the mind numb.

This is an impressive explosion of love, though sadistic and highly invalued around the edges.  It is also highly specific.  Not taking account of regional variations and post-Vatican II injunctions about keeping things iconically simple, walking into a Catholic church is a little like taking out your family album.  You already know who’s in it because you’ve seen it all before.  But it’s nice to visit, nice to feed your memory.

God the father (1654) in papal attire with the whole world in his hands

Yet the official philosopher, that lover of wisdom and angelic doctor, Aquinas tells us that this God “is not even an individual substance.”  Not even knowable as an integer but only in terms of what cannot be said about him.  You see what I mean: contradiction–a long history of squirmy little boys and girls paying homage in the light of flickering candles to images and formulations that the church officially teaches have no greater relevance to the reality of the subject than the shadows in Plato’s cave to the world beyond.

Many of these children, with respect to what they think is the core of their religion, will remain children their whole life long.  The lucky ones will leave and become comedians. The unfortunate ones will become politicians and try to have their Church and leave it too.

It’s as if to say: Today class we are going to discuss Wisdom.  Wisdom is beauty in the mind. It is seductive.  It is desirable.  It is what we all long to possess, the object of all our intellectual drive and energy.  The only thing that will give us satisfaction.  Do you see this picture of a leggy brunette? Look closely.  Wisdom is nothing like that.


And that of course is just the problem;  Catholicism does not resolve the Platonic allegory for believers.  It preserves it.  It encourages it.  From the time of the church fathers, the founders of the church’s intellectual tradition, the church of the orthodox bishops was not the same church as the church of believers.  From time to time they would gently remind the flock (the word speaks volumes) that they were not to actually worship the images.  But in the same breath they would condemn to the pains of a nonfigurative hell anyone who refused to believe that a little bread and wine held aloft by a priest was, in actuality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

At the core of Catholicism is living with appearance and reality, with the contradiction between what our eyes and minds tell us and what we are told is true.

These contradictions are very old, and they have now become the familiar devotions of a billion people, more or less, around the world.  Their propagation does not render them harmless, and their historical success does not make them a recipe for educational practice.

Given that the educational goal set by Plato was for the prisoners to escape from the world of appearances into the world of knowledge where they would see the shadows for what they are, and the enforced darkness of an institution that still goads people to view the images as good enough, which model would you choose for your children?

Does Atheism Hate Women?

“The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. -Mary Wollstonecraft


There’s been a stir on the subject of misogyny within the atheist “community” lately, with predictable cracks and fissures between the male-guru caste of  new atheism and their anointed bloggers, and a number of outspoken atheist women who say, in a nutshell, Enough is enough.

Rebecca Watson

The origins of the latest tension are explored in an article by Julia Galef for Religion Dispatches.  In it she examines an “incident” involving Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson and an unnamed man at a July Skeptics’ conference.

Watson produced a video on the episode which has become a point of reference in a larger discussion of the status of women in the atheist and skeptics movement.

New atheist hierarch Richard Dawkins and outspoken anti-religionist P Z Myers responded to Watson’s concerns, Myers with unusual tenderness, and Dawkins by suggesting that “zero harm” had come to her in the “elevator incident” (Watson was propositioned), suggesting that (a) her situation could not be compared to the indignities foisted on women in Islamic theocracies (small comfort if not irrelevant) and (b) the incident itself had no specific relevance to the atheist community, being part of much broader social patterns of marginalization (read: the genus of sexism is not atheism).

The remarks were interpreted as male thuggery and seemed to lend credence to Watson’s complaint:  Even atheist men are Martians. Many of us back on earth were unaware that the simple profession of atheism had taken us to equality-heaven.

I knew this was coming.  A-many years ago, when Madalyn “Murray” O’Hair was dubbed the most hated women in America by no less a cultural beacon than Life Magazine, atheism was closely identified with the ridicule of religion, a kind of cultural side-show that seemed strategically incapable of making itself sexy and appealing to large numbers of people.  Those who watched her did so for the same reason they watched other freak TV sensations like Tiny Tim and the Loud Family.

There wasn’t much more to it:  Try repeating the mantra “There is no God” fifty times, eyes shut.  Feel better?  Of course not.  It’s like saying the rosary.

Madalyn O’Hair

Now try lighting in to some of the absurd beliefs that religious people want to perpetrate on non-religious people (some of them lost or dormant battles, but not forgotten): there’s a better life after this one, if you play your cards right; prayer and Bible readings in school,  creation science, God on the currency, myths of the “Christian” founders, selective ignorance of the First Amendment, especially in political seasons, and a dozen or so social and even economic policy issues for which the  engodded public think the Bible has the answer–beginning with the “right” to life, death with dignity, and harvesting stem cells in medical research (the last, not an issue in 1972).

Strictly speaking, these issues are independent of the God-question and in some cultures where spiritual traditions and ideas of the divine flourish these issues are irrelevant.

But this is America, and to the degree that domestic atheism is at least as much about how religion expresses itself in real time as it is about metaphysics, women until very recently have been under-represented in the fray.

It did not begin with Rebecca Watson’s video, or a proposition in an elevator that could have as easily happened at a real estate brokers’ convention.  But the video has raised the spectre that big top modern atheism, as opposed to the atheism of the fringe solists like O’Hair, may have developed along hierarchical lines not altogether different from the religious structures it condemns: a community of bishops (like Dawkins), priests, and down-the-scale nuns with little to say about the agenda, the issues, or how the show is run.

It also raises the question of why God-denial requires or assumes any ethic at all, or at least one transcending what we expect of real estate brokers.


About the same time as Madalyn was doing the talk-show circuit in the seventies, another formidable presence, this one in England, was speaking out about atheism, sexuality, and secular values: her name is Barbara Smoker (b. 1923), and she presided with magisterial importance over various British humanist groups, including the National Secular Society, and at the post-biblical age of eight-eight is a current Honorary Vice Presdient of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.

Smoker, with whom I was once associated through the Council for the Critical Study of Religion in Oxford, far outdistanced her male contemporaries as an advocate for euthanasia, non-religious marriage and naming ceremonies, and separation of religion and state (which, recall, are not officially separate in the United Kingdom).

Hardly any work being pursued in these areas today by secularist and humanist organizations does not owe something to Smoker.  Equally outspoken humanist advocates followed in her footsteps–notably Jane Wynne Wilson in England and June Maxwell in Scotland.  If their sex, in any sense, marginalized them in the movement it did nothing to impair their organizational abilities or distract them from their goals.

The difference between Smoker and O’Hair is, or was,  a difference of cultural contexts and métier, as the French say.  O’Hair’s battle–to the extent it was ever coherent–was uphill and almost hopeless in God-besotted America.  What it gained in media coverage it lost in influence.

Smoker, with plenty of help from her intellectual consort Harold John Blackham (d. 2009) and dozens of friends within the British Humanist Association–many of them academics–worked at a distinct advantage.  –Interestingly, both Smoker and O’Hair were army veterans, neither “highly” educated, but tactically smart and possessed of a certain battlefield savvy that made them both personally formidable and able to stand up for their unbelief.

Whether their Gibraltar-like advocacy excited onlookers or turned them off is anybody’s guess–the Church of England and the Catholic Church had at least one thing in common in 1970: their hatred of Barbara Smoker.  And while atheist advocacy does not have a strong record of success in über-religious America, unbelief in Europe has been the result of cultural forces (collectively, “secularization”) which nourished humanist advocacy but are not explained by it.  Smoker prided herself on a terse and effective literary style; O’Hair (who was five years Smoker’s senior and a dismal prose stylist) on stump speeches, “encounters,” and interviews.  The clear impression is, however, where the atheism of the era was concerned, there be women.

Barbara Smoker


And yet. The new atheism  and even its weirdly named predecessor “secular humanism” has primarily been a man’s movement with female contributors, financial supporters, and fans.

I can point to a dozen names of personalities–Margaret Downey, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, and a range of younger women such as CFI’s Lauren Becker and Debbie Goddard, and Watson herself–who were energized for unbelief before the current wave of atheism washed onto the scene, beginning roughly, if not exactly, with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2005.

As other literati joined ranks the fan club grew.  That the team was half  British (Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the British side, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, though Oxford-educated, on Yankee Doodle’s) and highly intellectual situated its influence within the ranks of the university educated–especially young secularists,  the culturally disaffected, and those who were simply fed up with the nostrums of religion.  Its intellectual base distinguished it from the rough n’ tumble atheism of the previous generation, the names of whose promoters were conspicuously absent from the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Humanist groups, skeptical groups, and secular groups–whose edges often blur–were equally affected. And I think it would be fair to say that while the horsemen were men, the base included women and men in surprisingly equal measure.

Ophelia Benson

There are also some key women independent thinkers, who would probably prefer to be judged by their work rather than their political allegiance to a movement: Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose work on Doubt is a thoughtful exploration of the integrity of skepticism as an act of faith in human reason; Susan Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), who is on record as deploring indiscriminate nastiness towards all religion; and, above all, Rebecca N.  Goldstein, whose new work of fiction (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) is an ironic and deflationary account of philosophical atheism (and thus also of  faith) quite unlike anything that has hit the market before now.

Not all women atheists were movement atheists, and some, just like their male counterparts, were squeamish  about the requirement to self-identify with an atheism that was simply about hating religion.

There is, bluntly put, now as then, no shortage of women writing and speaking out on the subject of unbelief, though in my opinion the most eloquent and creative ones are not necessarily the ones that get the most attention, nor are they the ones who feel entirely comfortable with the intellectual constraints imposed by “movement atheism” and labels like new atheism.  They are also the ones least likely to think that their nuanced approach to the topic is in any sense less deserving of credit than the flatfooted atheism of their activist contemporaries.


At least some of the blame for the constraints felt by women involved closely in atheist advocacy has to be pinned on the movement itself and on organisations like the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) with their almost unpunctuated history of men on top.


The secular movements that were founded after World War II included theorists like Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz, who absconded from AHA to found the constituent bodies of the Center for Inquiry.  Collectively, along with other groups, like O’Hair’s former bailiwick American Atheists, they laid much of the groundwork that made (an ungrateful) new atheism possible.

Secular sectarianism (seculatarianism?) emerged early on between these groups and became entrenched in the way the organizations competed with each other for supporters and did business.

While women’s and later gay and lesbian rights movements swirled outside the doors, for example,  the humanist  movement paid only glancing attention to them.  The recipient of the 1975 Humanist of the Year Award and a contender for the title most influential feminist of her generation, Betty Friedan, went so far as to question whether humanism was suited to pursue the feminist agenda.  Part of her concern, as expressed in a 1988 address to the International Humanist and Ethical Union,  was that movement humanism did not seem fully engaged in the social and equality- battles of the generation–that secular humanism was theoretical while women’s equality and civil rights issues were practical.

Scores of atheist writers, intellectuals, poets, artists, musicians and others declined to self-identify as “atheist,” not because their unbelief was tepid, nor even because the position was politically unpopular and even, sometimes, economically risky,  but because the whole style of American atheism–in particular its science worship, religion-bashing, and naive view of cultural intellectual history–made the option unappealing.  In fact, the degree to which American atheism was marked by contrarian impulses and a odd kind of humanistic anti-intellectualism has yet to be fully explored–and won’t be here.

But turf was turf:  Paul Kurtz, to take one example,  was determined not to have secular humanism identified with the the bold, brash, ridicule-based (and gaffe-prone) atheism of Madalyn O’Hair, whom he more than once accused of giving atheism a bad name.  Thus was born the “Let’s not call it atheism” form of atheism, a move that created further divisions between full-frontalists (“Atheist and Proud of It”) and fig-leafers (“Ethically Disposed Philosophical Naturalist”).

By the same token, even the erstwhile “Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism” (now the Council for Secular Humanism), wasn’t very “democratic” when it came to women.  I can remember any number of all-male meetings where the principals around the table wondered why more women weren’t signing on, why more women didn’t accept invitations to speak at CFI conferences, or why, if they did accept,  sometimes changed their mind late in the game.  When, in 2004, I organized a conference on the topic of religious violence which included eight women, all experts on the subject, out of a dozen speakers, a senior CFI operant at the opening cocktail hour asked, in all earnestness and simplicity, when the scholars  (already all present) were going to arrive.  No one savoured the moment more than the women.


And so, the question lingers, why have things not changed more quickly?  Why is organized humanism more like the Catholic Church than a big tent?

I have two answers.

One is that the primary targets of movement humanism and atheism were, in the early days, men–and the battle, like all battles, was joined (mainly) by other men.  It’s easy to forget that beginning with the unctuous born-againism of Billy Graham and the faith-healing Oral Roberts, America’s repetitive Great Awakenings in the latter part of the twentieth century were associated with protestant prophets: Graham himself, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and spit on the floor and call it polish charismatics like Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn,  and countless others.

Some, like Bakker, were merely crooks; the majority of others a Crayola box of charlatans.  The threat of extreme forms of evangelical protestantism in political terms (which was real then and real now) seemed to call for a response that was not “mere” atheism but mobilization of large numbers of  smart people who (before the rise of the “Moral Majority” and its lineal descendant, the Tea Party) thought that protestant fundamentalism existed only on the fringes of American Christianity.

Evangelical Fright

To their credit, Kurtz’s organizations rejected that premise and actively sought to combine a critique of religious dogmatism with education in the  democratic and secular values that the Christian Right regarded as un-American.

Women were certainly part of the demographics of the disaffected, the escapees, but ex-born-again protestant males formed a significant majority of converts to the secular humanist form of unbelief.  Former Roman Catholics, adrift from the dogmatism of their church and its sexist politics (since unmasked as a pedophile paradise) were the second largest demographic, with secular Jews coming in at a healthy third–and increasing numbers of ex-Muslims at the dawn of the new millennium.

There were women within each group–talented, engaging, brilliant women.  But the “authoritative” voices–the teachers–were still almost exclusively male.

The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of O’Hair and her family in 1995 and subsequent (2001) discovery of her chainsawed remains on a Texas ranch was the conclusion of a sordid chapter in the history of American atheism.  O’Hair’s estranged son William testified that his mother had a tendency to hire “violent atheist criminals” because “She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life.”  The net benefit to secular humanism, which had always seen her as a PR problem,  may have been minimal, but the damage to atheism in America, and perhaps also to large-scale women’s involvement in movement atheism,  courtesy its female prophet, was enormous.

Studies of religious cults in my own tendentious field are instructive: while women often form the backbone of support for the leaders of religious-social groups, the “authority structure” normally consists of a charismatic leader who achieves prophetic status and beta- and gamma- followers who perform secondary services, the value of which is determined by the prophet himself. (Think Jesus-disciples-women attendants.)  It’s easy to overstate the relevance of this sociology, but what Rebecca Watson experienced was at least a vestigial form of secular tribalism.

In my opinion, it used to be far worse–though to the extent prophets remain males, the potential for abuse will always exist.  If anything, the new atheism reasserted the primacy of male opinion about God, while at the same time elevating the discussion in a way that made the atheist “option” intellectually respectable, as it had not been under O’Hair.  Doubtless the male leaders do not (cannot?) see it this way because their status  depends on the willingness of women to acquiesce in their authority.  It’s an old pattern.

The second reason for the implicit misogyny of the atheist community is more complicated, more directly explanatory, and might be instead a reason why women have often bypassed atheism in favour of other, more pragmatic,  struggles.

As a graduate student at Harvard in the ‘seventies, there was never a time when I sensed that women were  “underrepresented” or voiceless.  The professoriate, still largely male, was changing–but the student body of the Divinity School, where most Godtalk was analyzed,  was equally or about equally divided between men and women.

Harvard moreover was a microcosm of the secularisation of liberal religion in America during that era, and also expressed the fact that in most Christian denominations the carriers of tradition and the demographic majority of adherents are women.  And while male voices still tried to dominate the discussion professionally (as in published books and papers), women had seized the conversation.

While O’Hair did what she did, hundreds, if not thousands, of women were radicalized–in the positive sense of that word–in the liberal divinity schools of North America in the seventies and eighties, which were more closely in touch with radical trends in European universities and European feminist theology and philosophy than any equivalent groups in America.  By contrast with the generation of women theologians concerned with questions of religion and secularization between 1970 and 2000, the contributions of women associated with movement atheism was, to be kind,  unimpressive.

Judith Plaskow 

With its visceral tendency to dismiss theology as intellectual chintz, both men and women atheists have habitually overlooked the fact that the best and the most scorching critiques of religion in the last third of the twentieth century were produced by theologians, many of them women.  Furthermore, they did this not just against the odds but within structures, both ecclesiastical and academic, where male authority had predominated for centuries.

For many, the question of God’s existence was yesterday’s news; it had been soundly laid to rest in the nineteenth century.  The burning questions were now about the social implications of that death for systems still governed by male privilege based (directly or indirectly) on metaphors of male sovereignty over women.

To name only three of dozens of these women: Mary Daly, who died in 2010, was one of the first Americans to bring the discussion of repressive patriarchal structures based on biblical and other religious images to English speaking readers.  Trained in Europe, her first book, the Church and the Second Sex (1968) drew on the feminist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, and her more popular book, Beyond God the Father (1973), challenged the authority structure of the Catholic Church directly as being an antiquated system of privilege based on outdated images drawn from tribal societies where God is an alpha-male who dominates others through physical stength, abuse, sexual dominance, and the demand for obedience:

“Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents…. Women who are Pirates in a phallocentric society are involved in a complex operation. First, it is necessary to Plunder — that is, righteously rip off — gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must Smuggle back to other women our Plundered treasures. In order to invert strategies that will be big and bold enough for the next millennium, it is crucial that women share our experiences: the chances we have taken and the choices that have kept us alive. They are my Pirate’s battle cry and wake-up call for women who I want to hear….• The fact is that we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic ‘civilization’ in which men collectively victimize women, attacking us as personifications of their own paranoid fears, as The Enemy. Within this society it is men who rape, who sap women’s energy, who deny women economic and political power.”

Rosemary Radford  Ruether, who along with Daly (in Gyn-ecology, 1978) styled herself an eco-feminist, was one of the first women theologians to apply the Reformation idea of freedom of conscience to the early debate about abortion in the United States, challenged traditional ideas about God, and implicated the Church (in her 1974  book, Faith and Fratricide) in the pepetuation not only of anti-Semitism (which, she alleges, it virtually invented) but in the modern  political plight of the Palestinian people.

As to Christianity’s record:

“Christianity is riddled by hierarchy and patriarchy… a social order in which chaste women on their wedding night were in effect, raped by young husbands whose previous sexual experience came from exploitative relationships with servant women and prostitutes. . . . Modern societies have sought to change this situation, allowing women education, legal autonomy, paid employment and personal freedom. But the sexual morality of traditional puritanical patriarchal Christianity has never been adequately rethought.”

The critique continues in the work of countless women theologians and religious studies scholars; Ursula King (Religion and Gender, 1995); Hedwig Myer-Wilmes (Rebellion on the Borders, 1995); Judith Plaskow (Standing again at Sinai), Luise Schotroff (Lydia’s Impatient Sisters, 2000), Elisabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, 1983, 1994), Phyliss Trible (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1978).

Almost every issue the religious right considered “pivotal” and defining for their understanding of Christianity is explored and deconstructed in these works,  perhaps most memorably in the work of my former Harvard classmate Daphne Hampson who was one of the first writers to use the term “Post-Christian” to describe the critical work in religion that future generations of theologians needed to do:

“I am a Western person, living in a post-Christian age, who has taken something with me from Christian thinkers, but who has rejected the Christian myth. Indeed I want to go a lot further than that. The myth is not neutral; it is highly dangerous. It is a brilliant, subtle, elaborate, male cultural projection, calculated to legitimise a patriarchal world and to enable men to find their way within it. We need to see it for what it is. But for myself…I am not an atheist.”

For many observers of the current crisis about women’s voices, the question has to become, Where are you looking, and what are you hearing?  Are you aware of these voices? Or is half a century of women’s thinking and writing about the very structures that atheist women are only beginning to consider irrelevant to your analysis of religion?  Does the fact that their battles were fought with the Church or within the repressive institutions they tried to change nullify their critique or make it incomplete?

If the complaint against their writing is that they did not go far enough, the question then becomes How far is far enough?  And since when is mere polemic a worthy substitute for profound analysis of religious belief and hardcore scholarship in history and anthropology?  What additional weight is achieved by self-identifying as an atheist when the concept and images of the biblical and koranic god have already been carefully and systematically dismantled and when the conversation has, frankly, moved on to questions about values and ethics ?

That is what the atheology of the Dalys, the Hampsons, the Tribles and dozens of others has provided, with intellectual rigour and sophistication.  Furthermore, there are virtually no male voices here to distract us from their project–no one to say, “Come up to my room and we can compare notes.”

I very much doubt that the paradigm for women in the atheist movement will be greatly enriched by simply accepting the bluff and underanalyzed paradigms of the male atheist polemicists–who, by the way, based on more than a glance at their bibliographies and footnotes, are equally unacquainted with this strand of feminist thinking about God.  Why am I not surprised? Forgive us our debts.

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.

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.

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.

Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

There used to be two kinds of atheists: those who lost their faith and those who never found it. The kind who never found it–people like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman–had fathers who actually never encouraged their kids to think there was anything to find.

Those who had it and lost it–people like Steve Allen, Julia Sweeney, Seth MacFarlane and George Carlin–seem to have been equipped by their church for a life of infidelity and enough material to last a lifetime.

There are atheists who came from the fields of course: the World Wide Church of God seems to be doing its share to produce them, and the nuttiest of the nutty brood will probably spin off dozens more by natural selection. Fundamentalism has been helpful in producing outrageous opinion and claims that have sent rational minds screaming from the congregation, and they deserve some credit for this.

The lesson in this highly informal typology is that “strong” religion seems to produce more unbelievers than mainline “soft” religion, for the same reason that oysters produce pearls. It’s the “grate factor.” –I hope I haven’t offended too many Episcopalians by saying that they are not doing a good job in this respect: the fact is, they are out in front on a number of social issues that wouldn’t be substantially improved by their becoming atheists. “God” is a small (very small in some cases) price to pay for social progessivism.

There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats. That is reason enough in my book to go easy on it. After all, there are enough yahoos out there in Wonderland to worry about without offending our friends. For that reason, it doesn’t worry me very much.

New wave atheism follows in the wake of the Dawkins Revolution and book tours that featured the so called New Atheists–but especially Dawkins himself. I don’t think for a moment that other new atheists aren’t charismatic, but of the lot, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who is the Hume and Dr Johnson of our time rolled up into one, take the prize for saying the kinds of things, in the right accent, that sound authoritative because they’re said in the tropes of Oxford, whence cometh our hope.

The bad reviews of The God Delusion and God is Not Great stressed that theologians had been having the conversation about classical arguments for the existence of God for a hundred years and had, basically, laid them to one side. They stressed that liberal and radical theology had long since moved beyond the ossified categories of Christian thinking: that no smart person took the Bible literally anymore. Aquinas? Who needs him? Ontology? Eleventh century stuff. Hadn’t theologians, the critics raged, especially in America and England, been using the term “post-Christian” for a generation? Perhaps, but almost no one had paid attention because no one reads theology except divinity school students and other theologians.

No one in any position to cause sales to jump was reading the “professional” books where radical theology had given up on God. And even if ordinary readers had read it, there was the honest sense that if you are at the point of saying that your theology is post-Christian, that Jesus is not the son of God, that miracles are hooey, and that the Bible contains ideas that have been retardant in our culture–you really ought to pack your bags and go away.

There was something elementally refreshing about seasoned scholars and journalists taking on the absurdity of some of the classical argumentation as though they had just discovered it, which for the most part they had. The criticism–which I made on this site as well–that journalists and scientists may not–odd to say–be especially well-qualified to talk about religion seemed petulant and jealous, which of course it was. Who wouldn’t rather have written The God Delusion than Defeasible Assumptions in Plantinga’s Epistemological Reliabilism Argument. I know I would.

So this is not really about getting to be an atheist by shortcutting: not all of us can have a radical Jewish father who wants to keep us away from Torah, or a run-in with Sister Mary Margaret (when there were Sister Mary Margarets) over the plausibility of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. (I was expelled for rolling my eyes).

It is about a rapid relocation of attitudes: people who have made a fairly quick progression from some belief (or not much of anything) to atheism without having at least some of the same background as the New Atheists themselves. It is about the danger of any kind of hero worship and fan-clubbism substituting for a critical assessment of sources. It is, frankly, about idolatry.

The conversation reminds me most of feminism, or rather the divide between first generation feminism and where we are now. The survivors of the sixties and seventies who broke down walls, challenged a sexist system, broke through ceilings and populated professional schools and academic departments with members of their own sex are now confronted with women who either don’t know the story or only know it as yawnable history. The world they have come to inhabit is not the world their grandmothers (yes, grandmothers) fought for. Judging from the number of African American Republicans maybe the same is true of that community: memory is short.

But the dues-paying comparison doesn’t work perfectly.  There are doubtless atheists out there who feel they earned their right to disbelief.  But a strong tranche of movement-atheists would argue that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just so you get there. There are no dues to pay. Atheism is not built on the abuse, bones and ashes of courageous predecessors, as was the case with the women’s movement or civil rights. If you get there from reading market paperbacks or children’s stories by Philip Pullman (who is a friend, by the way) or a couple of titles by Dawkins, so be it. It will do.

What matters to movement-atheists are the numbers, getting that meager 5% or 6% of professed unbelievers up to 10 or 15 percent– where it can claim some political advantage, and not be relegated to the irrelevance that has always been the lot of American atheism. As a movement, the American idolatry of the British atheist “style” has helped–so much so that bus campaigns and bumper stickers are now studiously modeled after the campaigns of the British Humanist Asociation, which itself promotes and benefits from the work of Dawkins and his comrades.

I feel terrible quibbling about this because soon enough it sounds like a quibble about being a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. Do you go to Mass Sundays? Great. Wednesdays and Fridays too? Even better. Hate abortion to the point you’ll march and picket? Best. It ought to be a cardinal tenent of the tenentless philosophy called atheism that no such gradients should arise within the movement. As in Islam, you really only have to believe one thing–or rather, disbelieve it.  In that sense, atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian.  Atheists often write to tell me that I confuse their exquisitely simple position about God with more comprehensive philosophies like humanism, where gradients are possible.  Yet exquisitely simple atheism has long been the sine qua non of movement humanism, especially in England.

But my quibble is not with cynical efforts to jack up the numbers or the promotion of heroes as magnets to the cause. That’s the way movements work.  It’s the way religious denominations work as well, and they haven’t had a hero for a very long time.

My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question.  It is a destination without a journey behind it.

The Bible is considered toxic, in toto; religion, a long history of superstition, distress, and violence–even some of the art, music and literature of the western tradition, expendable expressions of priestcraft and supernaturalism.  In the most extreme cases, the present is regarded as having a juridical role to play toward the past, when people believed silly things.  History becomes a series of mistakes with respect to scientific outcomes and has nothing to teach us but the error of our ways.  What has been tainted by religion is not worth our time, not worth investigating because our vantage point makes it ridiculous. When this attitude takes hold, it is not just God who is disbelieved in: it is culture.

At this point, the debris of the Dawklins revolution becomes problematical on two counts. On the one hand, it permits the new wave atheist to reduce everything to a single proposition: God does not exist; and then to evaluate the entire history of western civilization according to an opinion that has been reinforced by similar opinions but never really tested against the sources. The opinion that God does not exist is an important one. It deserves scrutiny. But it does not deserve doctrinal security as though infallibly propounded by a secular pope.

We cannot cast off the literary and artistic history of our civilization, from Plato to Nato and Bible to Blues without knowing at least a little something about the creators.

In 2002, a number of students enrolled in my course in Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut walked out of the classroom, in a staged protest, as we began to examine the book of Genesis. It was a book that had been excluded for a dozen years from the syllabus because it raised the temperature during the long Lebanese Civil War. I had made it plain that the story was a story; that some people thought it was historical, but that scholarship had shown it was a typical Near Eastern creation myth with a half dozen well preserved cousins from earlier in the millennium. But my careful historical framing was of no consequence. The students who protested were not Muslims; they were Lebanese Christians who regarded the Old Testament (which of course is in their Bible too) as “Israeli” propaganda.

The point is, of course, that an educated and informed atheism is a very desirable perspective. But an atheism that depends on the authority of others is no better than the political opinion that excuses Arab Christians from knowing something about the ancient history of the part of the planet they occupy.  Unfortunately for the new wave,  atheism has a long history–one that goes back far before 2005.


Matthew Arnold used the term Philistine to describe a set of values prominent among people who despised or undervalued art, beauty, and intellectual content. Despite his problematical approach to the Bible, which was neither credulous nor entirely respectful, he retained it as a key text in his educational canon.

The worst trait of the Philistine as Arnold painted him was his materialism, the preference for quick and easy fixes, a mass produced painting instead of a developed aesthetic sense.

Quick fix atheism is that kind of atheism. I think it needs to be worried about ever so little.

Cleopas the Atheist

The dilemma for thoughtful people who find much to commend in serious unbelief is brought about by unthoughtful and (often) unserious people. Even if their intentions are good (as in nice, not naughty) their tactics are terrible. I quote me:

My real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests — whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why atheists feel they have the right to feel more agitated and annoyed by the noise of the religious right, which after all is simply a bigger and more influential sideshow, than liberally religious, studiously ethical, or indifferent men and women — where I think the real and growing numbers of “converts” are. Most absurd of all is the persistent effort of younger new atheists, the Dawkinsians and Flying Spaghetti Monstratarians, to see their “cause” as equivalent to the civil and sexual rights movements of the twentieth century.

Ophelia Benson has claimed that it’s now fashionable to kick the new atheism around: it’s so first-half decade of the new millennium.

She is probably right. Nothing is more fun than to trample on icons when they’re already on the ground, whether it’s Lenin or Saddam Hussein, or the dude you were rooting against on Survivor Nicaragua. There is something immensely satisfying about knocking the hubris out of heroes who only yesterday were treading on red carpets, as the Greeks discovered when Aeschylus sent Agamemnon for a bath. If you ever wondered about the phrase “kicking Johnnie when he’s down”–it’s all relative to how far up Johnnie was when he fell.

Time marching on

And I have done my share of kicking–even before the final Act of Pride when four mediocre thinkers, none of them especially knowledgeable about religion, dubbed themselves “new” (as in atheism) and imagined themselves riding like Durer’s Four Horsemen against the horizon of the new age of unbelief. In fact, modus-operandically, they were much more like the Four Evangelists, telling much the same story: God does not exist; Religion is awful; People who think otherwise have IQ’s somewhere lower down on the evolutionary scale they don’t believe in.

Messiahs over Perrier

There was absolutely nothing new about new atheism except a naive confidence on the part of certain organizations (here nameless) that their messiahs had come. Unable in their own right to be anything but small, they found a role as booking agencies for the rock stars of the atheist wave.

The funny thing about messiahs, religious and political, is that they both come and go. That’s why Christians have always held to the second coming–the really important one, when all the things that were disappointing about the first one, especially the non-recognition of the savior and his untimely death before his work was done, will be put right. In the case of the new atheists, messiahship even came with choice: a couple of professors, a plain-spoken but slightly mystical graduate student (then), a sharp-penned intellectual. It was an embarrassment of bitches.

But it could not last. And now the question is, what was it all about, this shining anti-Christmas star that adorned the secular heavens for five years, give or take a year.

I have never been able to resist analogies to religious experience because, whether atheists like it or not, religion and irreligiosity have a lot in common. In fact, as atheism has everything to do with religion, only religious analogies are apt. Here is one:

In a piercing note of disappointment recorded in the Third Gospel (Luke before you peek), a group of wayfarers returning from celebrating Passover in Jerusalem encounter Jesus incognito on the road. It is, suggestively, three days after the crucifixion. Jesus asks them, in so many words, “Why the gloomy faces?” And a certain Cleopas proceeds to recount the events of the last few days, including reports of the empty tomb. Cleopas also registers his own disappointment:

“We had been hoping that he was the one who would liberate Israel.”

The story has been overwritten by a heavy hand with no appreciation for the irony of Cleopas’s belief that they had it wrong: that Jesus was not the messiah after all. The story does not end there, though it should have.

Before atheist pecksniffians point to the improbability of this little scene: I do not believe this encounter ever happened. But I do believe the scene is instructive far beyond its grounding in folklore and legend. Stories are funny that way. Less than a century after this piece was composed, the Jews of Palestine had found a new messiah and went down to defeat, once again, by choosing the wrong man for the job of deliverance. If they had only had two-year election cycles they could have chosen many more and been spectacularly wrong each time.

Bar Kochva

The early Christians developed their faith without books, on the basis of stories that eventually got written down and much later canonized.

The fame of the new atheist messiahs followed a far more rapid course: They began with texts, four of which became virtually canonical within four years.

Their following developed as “book events,” helped along by media, and driven by sales. It’s the difference between a reputation culminating in a book and books culminating in reputations. And yes, for purposes of my little analogy, it does not matter that the reputation of the former is sparkling with stories of the miraculous and the improbable, anymore than it matters that the books of the latter are derivative and repetitious.

The atheist authors, without pressing the analogy to its pretty obvious margins, enjoyed immense stature. Extravagant claims were made, not least in titles like The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell.

Of course there was nothing to prevent religious apologists from writing back, and they did–in droves–books that with one or two exceptions were even worse than the books that evinced them. The intellectual battle was really fought in the reviews and even in the blogosphere, much of which was acidly critical of language, argument and methods–including my own review of Daniel Dennett’s book. But nothing stood quite as tall, for a while, as the icons their followers erected to them in the naked public square. Nothing seemed to pierce the aura of the atheist olympians. Except time.

The key similarity between Christian messianism and atheist messianism is the idea that “at last” things are going to change. That liberation is at hand, achievable in the work of others. It just takes knowing who to trust–who the real deal is. I would be the first to say that the resumes of the canonical new atheists were impressive–a bit like being born of Jesse’s lineage, David’s son. It is interesting that we require our messiahs to be credentialed–either by signs and wonders, priestly and preferably royal lineage, or failing that an Oxford degree.

But at its heart, messianim is all about people wanting a change–people who feel they’ve waited long enough. People, to put it bluntly, who are feeling a bit desperate, outnumbered, isolated.

Atheists in the last century have relished being a minority, in the same way Christians basked in their minority status in the Empire. Small is good when big is bad. David and Goliath, the short guy taunting the big bully–archetypal, isn’t it, but fraught with danger.

It is hard to imagine that once upon a time Christianity (the world’s largest religion) had that kind of radical reputation, an immoderate sect, a philosophy, to quote the emperor Julian, that turned the world upside down, and from an earlier period even the stigma, according to Tertullian, of being organized atheists. But it did.

We live in a twenty first century global village, not first century Roman Palestine, so what counts as radical and revolutionary will obviously be different from the faith of the ragtag confederates who “believed the gospel.” What they believed in their time we will never quite be able to comprehend. That includes people who think they believe it now as well as people who don’t believe it because, sensibly, they think its shelf-life has expired. Those who think they know, don’t. Those who feel they are brighter than those who think they know fail to understand the unavoidable intellectual boundaries of the ancient world. This is no one’s fault exactly. The surety of the fundamentalist Christian and of the atheist are equally based on a marked indifference to the weird nexus between history and imagination, myth and reality. I can honestly say that I have no real sense of what made someone a Christian in the year 50CE other than what I know about frustration and a gnawing feeling that my time has come. And I think that no first-century Christian would make it even as far as the writings of Augustine (which they would not have been able to read) before he would find Christianity unrecognizable. Time wounds all heals.

The early Christians were “atheists” because they rejected the imperially-approved gods, making them the religious minimalists of their time. –Richard Dawkins’s over-quoted quip that some of us go one step further performs the inadvertent service of pointing out just how radical the church was in its day.

Yet I have to admit that I’ve always found it remarkable that the Christians not only survived the execution of their leader but turned the symbol of his humiliation into a symbol of their success. Ever wonder why the icon of choice isn’t some crude rendering of an empty tomb? Yes I know: crosses are easier to make. But even before they were made as amulets to hang around Christian necks, Paul comments on the fact that the death of Jesus, not his life, brings about that apparently most desirable of states, salvation. And this is because in the theology he strives stutteringly to adapt to his non-Jewish listeners, instruction, even a literal physical resurrection of believers counts for nothing. Death? Sacrifice? Immortality as a bonus? Now you’re talking. But what is key is that you can’t do it by yourself: the Christian is in an utter situation of dependence on the deliverer from sin and death.

Paul of course had the salvation myth of the mystery religions in view, a kind of thinking that has not made much sense or borne scrutiny for over a millennium. His huge disservice to humanity is that he taught people to distrust themselves–that the empty tomb was a real promise, a symbol, of eternal life, not an image of a life that has to be lived here and now, built block by block and choice by choice. His whole message pivots on the Old Testament idea that salvation comes through a heavenly other, not through human effort. Even an amateur like George Bernard Shaw knew that Paul’s “monstrous imposition upon Jesus” had profoundly negative effects on the course of civilization. It still does. They don’t know it, but when unbelievers begin to disbelieve, it’s Paul they disbelieve in.

But as a post-Christian radical theologian I have my own interpretation of what the gospel means. As a humanist, I believe it means no God will save you–us. The life of all messiahs ends in the same message: Do it yourself. It does not matter whether the message is oral or written, offered in philosophical jargon, rendered in code. It’s all the same. People who put their faith in deliverance by others will ultimately have to find their own way out of every mess.

Religion has not been the solution to the troubles of humankind–we all know that–and it has created conditions of war and poverty that don’t resemble, to any recognizable degree, the angelic salutation of Christmas night. It should come as no surprise therefore that Christmas night was no part of the original story, and despite the annual maniacala of the holiday season, Christianity has almost nothing to do with Christmas.

It has much more to do with Cleopas’s disappointment, or, in Mark’s gospel, the shuddering awareness of the women that the tomb is empty; Jesus was not there. They were alone. Maybe he had never been there. They had certainly always been alone.

What does all of this have to to do with new atheist messiahs? Curious isn’t it that so many atheists had waited in the dark for so long for light to shine in their darkness. Every secular organization was ready to hitch its wagon to their rising star. Every evangelical pharisee was ready to pounce on their message of liberation from the darkness of superstition and credulity. The defenders of the old religion, especially in what had come to be called the “post-9-11 world,” almost guaranteed their prominence. The unchurched created a virtual church around them. At its most extreme, and fair to say mainly among the organizations who exploited their work, religion became the very devil and “science and reason” sacraments of deliverance.

The stunts and gimmicks like Blasphemy Day, for anyone with a little historical savvy, resembled nothing so much as the pageant wagons that rumbled into medieval European villages with their stock of stereotyped nasties: Herod, Caiphas, Pontius Pilate, the Devil himself. Whatever the new atheists were, the atheistism they spawned was part polemic, part simple buffoonery, mainly humbug. It was strangely suited for an illiterate age in which the movers and shakers themselves, like false messiahs throughout time, thought they were original and promised goods they couldn’t deliver.

Popularity is the death of every radical movement, or rather the death of its radical nature. New atheism didn’t die because fundamentalists were “right” or because evangelicals crucified it, or even because philosophical critics (maybe that’s my niche vis-à-vis this movement) warned that it wouldn’t last for long.

It set itself up for a free fall proportionate to its quick rise because its messiahs accepted the title–relished the title. Not a bit like the Jesus who, in one account of his interrogation anyway, demured by saying, “Call me what you want to.”

What is required of any believer and every atheist is the frank acknowledgement that the tomb is empty. The harvest is passed. The summer is ended. The messiah has never come and will not come. And we are not saved. But that is the challenge, not the end of the story.


The Empty Cup Theory of Everything

Scipio came to coffee yesterday at Gimme and said he was amused by the debate going on between atheist confrontationists and another group he called accommodationists.

“What debate?,” I said distractedly, noticing that the coffee barista had given me three eyedroppersful of espresso in my cup, because she hates me.

He named names. I had never heard of most of them, so I asked Scipio to cut to the chase and tell me what the Big Deal was.

“Most of the confrontationists want atheism to be the Big Bad Wolf. Think of religion as the three little pigs.”

“That’s a terrible analogy,” I said. The whole point of the story is that the dumb little pigs get eaten but the smart pig survives and the wolf gets killed.”

“That’s not the way it ends,” Scipio said slurping away at his cup, filled halfway to the top with a lovely espresso emulsion. “All the pigs survive.”

“No, ” I said, “That’s Disney. They get eaten. One survives. And the wolf dies a hideous death.”

Scipio frowned. Nothing distresses him more than being bested in a controversy about folk tales, unless it’s being accused of a bad analogy.

“But I see your point,” I said, trying to soothe his feelings. “Maybe at the end of a confrontation there’s a pot of boling water just waiting for you. Never underestimate your opponent. Accommodation reduces the chances of humiliation. But honestly, Scipio, before I worried too much about tactics, I’d want to know how solid the ground was under my confrontational feet–or how solid my house was, if we stick with fables.”

He seemed cheered by the comment. “Let me ask you a question. If you had the choice between telling an atheist he is right or telling him he is wrong, what would you say?”

“It would depend,” I said. “If the atheist said that men are smarter than women, I would say, ‘You’re wrong. You cannot prove a thing like that because the word smart only possesses connotations, not an absolute meaning like ‘the freezing point of oxidane’.”

“Why would you get into a conversation about water with an atheist,” Scipio said, clearly annoyed.

“Why would I get into a conversation about the three little pigs?” I asked.

“If the question was the question of God–which is the only issue you would want to discuss with an atheist, would you tell him he is right or wrong.”

I stared at the darkish brown, scarcely damp bottom of my empty cup. “Scipio,” I said. “Would you agree with me that this cup is empty?”

“Yes,” he said cautiously. “I think we might agree on that.”

“Not so fast. What persuades you?”

He hated this game. We have played it for years, sometimes several times a day. “Our agreement or something else?”

“The evidence is the emptiness of the cup. Our agreement is simply a result of our examination of the evidence, an assessment.”

“But there is no evidence,” I said playfully. “There is only an empty cup. You’re sounding like a theologian: you believe “in all that is visible and invisible?”

“You’re going to lecture on cups now,” he said unhappily, “potens and form and substantia and all of that…please can we get through an afternoon without Aristotle.”

“There is no such thing as an afternoon without Aristotle. There are only geese who think there are. You have to agree that the only way of concluding the cup is empty is to evaluate the nature of the cup–a cup–which is meant to hold things, even though mine held almost nothing and yours held a lot and came with biscotti.”

“Can we talk about the barista instead,” he said, “I think she likes me.”

“No,” I said. “At most she’s an instrumental cause related to fullness and emptiness, and if you ask me, more the latter. But we can talk about the universe,”

“Sweet,” Scipio said. “From coffee cups to the cosmos. Another one of your horrid analogies.”

“Is it full or empty?”

“Please don’t go where I think you’re going or I’ll start quoting Stephen Hawking to you.”

“Until he has his theory of everything figured out, quote away; what do you think he would say to the question?”

“I think he would probably say it depends on gravity, but that the existence of the strong force, electromagnetism, weak force, and gravity point to the fact that it is not empty.”

“God, Scipio,” I squeaked. “You are so…careful. ‘that it is not empty’ is not an answer, it’s a whimper, a pule. I’m not trying to get a Creator out of this conversation, just some fun. -So is it full or not.”

“It’s not full in the eighteenth century sense of full because if it was–I know you–you’d start talking about creation and chains of being. Besides, full is a word like smart, isn’t it? Is it full if it has stuff in it or full if it can’t hold an iota more?”

“Is it full in any sense,” I said, seeing Scipio had also drained his cup.

“I don’t think we can know that, because the universe is not a coffee cup.”

“You mean we can’t look down into its bottom or that we can’t see the limit of its top?”

“Ok, for the sake of an argument that is really becoming tiresome, I’ll grant you that it is full if full means that it is not empty and if it has limits and if we can know something about its limit by observing events. It doesn’t matter that we can see edges, tops, and bottoms because we can know about events and forces. And there aren’t any real edges, anyway.”

“But I disagree. I think it isn’t full. I think it’s as empty as this coffee cup and the microscopic particles that are still invisibly occupying space down below are to full what the planetary masses are to the totality of the universe. Isn’t that what you’d want in subatomic theory anyway? I agree with Richard Feynmann: no one understands quantum mechanics. Not even Stephen Hawking.”

“Listen mate,” Scipio said testily. “I asked a simple question. Would you confront an atheist or accommodate an atheist on the question of God’s existence?”

“I answered your question,” I said, summoning the barista. She pretended to be busy polishing the bar glasses, but smiled at Scipio.