Uncourtly Crusaders: The Atheist War on Religion

Friar Edwin Kagin, Offering Debaptism

First you need some charismatic prophets, same as the Jews, Christians, and Muslims had. No one who quite fits the bill? Then get four angry magpies, train them to write books, wait to see what happens.

What happens first is the New Atheism. What happens next is a small army of craven unbelievers sworn to unseat the Powers of Fear and Superstition. Religion.

These are hard times for God, no doubt about it. His staunchest defenders are either inordinately stupid, like the Creationist klatch, or so liberally engaged and politically distracted by The Church that he is treated like a demented grandparent who can’t be trusted to run the business without misplacing the payroll.

Once upon a time there were hundreds of clever theologians to plead his case and keep the Unbelievers at bay or off guard. But today’s theology is navel gazing, not cosmic or philosophical: it’s all about priests, altar boys, canon vs. civil law, and of course whether women should be ordained. (Just a thought: why would they want to? Isn’t it a bit like signing on to the crew of the Titanic after the iceberg has been struck?)

Since Holy Religion seems unable to argue in its own defense, let me have a go.

ABC News reports that “At the annual American Atheists Convention, one of atheism’s premier provocateurs, Edwin Kagin, faced the crowd and raised high a hairdryer labeled “Reason and Truth.” The gesture was intended to offer newly minted Unbelievers a chance to renounce their baptismal vows, the dryer being a symbol of the purifying wind that cleanses the polluting water. Some attendees participating in the De-baptizing ceremony claimed that since they were subjected to the sacrament without their consent, baptism itself might be accounted a form of child abuse.

Well why not: everything these days is a form of abuse, isn’t it? Asking your teenage daughter to limit the sludge from her room to the hallway. Asking students (ever so politely) to find out for themselves (and not by email) whether they “missed anything in class today.” Telling the indifferent stewardess on the US Airways flight that you cannot endure a journey all the way to Los Angeles when the passenger next to you, at a weight of 275 pounds, is taking up more space than he paid for. Totus est probum. If you were baptized, dear reader, your civil rights were violated. Simple as that.

But this calculation is not why Edwin Kagin, “dressed in brown monk’s robe” (Franciscan unbaptism specifically?) is a silly old fart and why his message will only resonate with people as silly as he is. He is foolish because he is making atheism a sideshow, something not to be taken seriously by thoughtful women and men.

Fade to ABC: “Kagin, author of “Baubles of Blasphemy,” has a history of behaving in ways that elicit a rise from God-fearing people. He’s known to have asked female atheists to dress in burqas and perform a song, ‘Back in their Burquas Again,’ he’s referred to Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker and he’s called the Holy Eucharist ‘Swallow the Leader.'”

Vanity published in 2005 and topping the Amazon charts today at number 2,457,000, give or take a million, Kagin’s literary work is a splendid harmony of woefully bad writing, false wit and wrongness suitable only for the sort of people who laugh at baptism. It comes from the same creative impulse as the mutterances of pirates out to make a lady blush or a proper officer wince.

My complaint? Bad religion needs better satire. Unbelief needs better spokesmen. The cultic aspects of the New Atheism become more evident every day. Because only in cults does everyone laugh at the same jokes, applaud at the same cues, gasp at the same surprising revelation. Last time I looked, cultic unanimity was the opposite of freethought.

Some of us remember a point in the history of radical feminism where some very shrill advocates of extreme positions (e.g., all heterosexual sex is violent (or rape), Dworkin/McKinnon) accused men of inventing the shrillness. Men may well be jerks–maybe 75% in the last poll quoted by my daughter–but shrillness there was. Women are both reaping the benefits of the Women’s Movement and recovering from the extremism of the feminist sideshows attached to it.

The New Atheism by the same token has become both shrill, angry and ignorant of its target. It is uncourtly, a crusade without a call. As someone not known for his warm embrace of religious dogma, I am constantly embarrassed by the Kagins and PZ Myers and Hitchens’s–embarrassed not only by their militaristic attempts to squeeze all religious expression under the big top but especially at their shortsightedness in choosing objectives and strategies. In any case, atheism has had Shrill, Loud and Dumb before: Who remembers Madalyn Murray O’Hair (rip)? It didn’t work then.


The atheist crusaders may have the best of reasons for organizing their atheism as a campaign to belittle, insult and demean religion (they seem to be under the mistaken impression that atheism, as opposed to heresy, has suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Church for its failure to blossom), but they are driving reasonable men and women–wishers, seekers, explorers, and the merely confused–away in droves.

Worst of all, they have been willing to give atheism a bad name, as an extreme rather than a reasonable position based on a thoughtful discussion about God and religion. They have rejected dialogue: Kagin sees atheism and belief as the kindling for “a new American Civil War.” They have forgone educating themselves about religion and the history of ethics–probably because, when you get right down to it, men like Kagin are really rejectionists, victims of priests or some iteration of Calvinism themselves, rather than real thinkers. They’re really not into information. They’re into developing a following.

Whatever the outcome of this risible crusade, let’s hear it for Baptism. I am proud of mine, though I had nothing to say about it at all. If I screamed like a banshee when the water hit me (as a certain Cambridge Boxterman, a Kagin acolyte claims to have done in her Debaptism testimony) it is not because I was instinctively responding to the sacrament but because I am always grumpy when wakened out of a sound sleep, or when my nappy is dirty. Same effect. The Catholicism into which I was involuntarily cast was benign and helpful. And even though it was, alas!, not that way for everyone I shudder, given my deep South surroundings, to consider what the secular alternative might have been.

There is a final reason to be suspicious of this fool’s crusade against the devil Religion: It will backfire. Kagin culties and their allies will scare the bejeebers out of kindly and smart Catholics, Jews and Episcopalians, and send wavering Muslims right back to Friday Prayer.

And why not? Why should I feel at home among people who claim to be “over it” and regard those who aren’t as defective? In a weird kind of apposition, I have been told by converts to Catholicism that they liked everything about their decision until they attended their first pro-life rally and were handed a rosary.

Imagine being an “inquiring” atheist at friar Kagin’s church. Do they send Welcome Teams to your house with pies? Or given the nugatory nature of the cult, just empty pie plates? Do they play Ognib on Friday nights? Unfry fish? Enlightened as they are, they should at least offer unsubscribers a towel instead of the Conair–to reduce their carbon footprint.

Why trust a silly old fart dressed up like a monk, waving a hairdryer aloft more than the God who does not answer my prayers? Especially when he can’t do un-Circumcisions.


38 thoughts on “Uncourtly Crusaders: The Atheist War on Religion

  1. Simply superb fantastically brilliant piece – hilariously funny and agreed with absolutely every single eloquent word … do they think I could blame every mishap in my life to child abuse perhaps? I can’t be certain but I think my parents might have put me through some anointing of the forehead ceremony in babyhood – was that molestation? My poor old ma and pa. They’d be devastated. Poor old God.

  2. It reminded me of this

    A Question
    A voice said, Look me in the stars
    And tell me truly, men of earth,
    If all the soul-and-body scars
    Were not too much to pay for birth
    Robert Frost

  3. I loved the fact that Kagin’s son became an evangelical Christian minister. I’d like to think it had something to do with having humorless narrow-minded intolerance modeled at home.

  4. “The cultic aspects of the New Atheism become more evident every day. Because only in cults does everyone laugh at the same jokes, applaud at the same cues, gasp at the same surprising revelation. Last time I looked, cultic unanimity was the opposite of freethought.”

    Ever think that maybe what you’re seeing is the group of people among the wide variety of freethinkers who happen to *agree*? Nothing cultic about it, any more than there is anything cultic about a national political party convention. This is just silly.

      • I think it would have been more accurate to say “only in cults does everyone laugh at the same bad jokes. ” Back when I was in the altar boys in sixth grade, we made funnier jokes about religion. “Swallow the leader” might have gotten a laugh, but not much else.

      • Agree on what? How about… politics, or philosophy, or their sense of humor, or… anything?

        Yes, it’s ridiculous to say that since a subset of the whole of atheists is behaving similarly, their behavior is cultic. It’s absolute nonsense. You may as well say that a trade union is a cult.

  5. One of the central ideas in “At the Origins of Modern Atheism” is the idea that the content and form of any atheist expression is set by the religion to which it corresponds. I have long mulled on this. In your example, Kagan as stupid old fart is perhaps no more than the mirror of the stipid old farts in their corresponding peacock robes who have just declared women priests to be as ‘evil’ and sex abusers. Flippancy aside, perhaps the fact that atheism is resorting to comical indifference is the position it has been forced to adopt by an insipid Christianity with little by way of identity or public significance.

    • Can’t disagree. Maybe we should coin the term pontifical atheism to describe the absurdity on both sides.

      • The soft spots in religion have always been doctrine rather than liturgy. (Two business partners trying comfort each other in Hell: one says to his morose friend, “Sure it’s hot, but its a dry heat”)– things even religious people can laugh at. I would have thought Swallow the Leader was pretty funny when I was an altar boy, too. Maybe you put your finger on it: Kaginism is just too juvenile and its premises don’t rise above the antics.

  6. No a trade union is not a cult because a trade union has nothing to do with religion; an atheist klatch because it has everything to do with religion cannot escape the classification. It’s not just behavioral; it’s categorical.

  7. This is less of a “thoughtful intellectual piece” and more of a “cool story, bro”.

    There is absolutely no evidence backing up the belief that the New Atheists are turning people away from atheism or damaging the “reputation” of atheism among people who were otherwise neutral or in favor of it.

    Perhaps some people dislike confrontation more than they value facing facts. Perhaps some people don’t want to engage in an argument about atheism because they don’t actually know why they claim that belief. Whatever the case, unless you have something to say other than “well, some dude I don’t know turned into a Christian and his parents are atheists, so it must be Dawkin’s fault”, why do you bother?

    • Thanks. Who said it was meant to be intellectual and why is that quotes, bro? The evidence that militant atheists are turning people off is everywhere. Not sure that the coven aprroach has anything to do with dialogue. I am not blaming Richard Dawkins, or any one else: because they are engaged in a monologue, like you, against religion. Btw, do you read what I write, or just react to it? And do you really think a case can be made by turning atheism into a parody of religion? Anything else in your toy bag?

  8. This is so, so excellent – I’ll be sure to spread it around. I was actually at the convention and have blogged about it a few times at my blog, nonprophetstatus.com. And my mom made the same uncircumcision joke – but thanks to her I don’t have to worry about that!

  9. Aren’t you aiding and abetting the most extreme elements of the new atheism when you write, “I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus”?

  10. You mean that you work with people like Richard Carrier and you don’t see the importance of the historicity of Christ to him and his fellow travellers? How about Robert M. Price? Even Dawkins flirts with the subject in _The God Delusion_. As far as I can see, you are the only scholar currently asserting agnosticism as the only valid position on this question. This could well make you a darling among the new atheists.

    • But I don’t think it is the “only valid position”; it is simply my verdict on the evidence. I just need to know what’s new in Jesus studies that would make the historicity of Jesus irrefragable.

  11. That’s not true Barrett. The historicity of Jesus isn’t a feature exclusively atheistic. As an agnostic, I can’t be absolutely confident in the reliability of our sources even though my thesis explores arguably plausible options. So I am agnostic about Jesus at the end of the day. There are other agnostic scholars of religion who wouldn’t touch the historical Jesus because of such uncertainty.

  12. I’m just saying that this emerging nexus of all kinds of people who are agnostic or disbelieving in the historicity of Christ makes for some strange bedfellows, what with yourselves and at least some of the new atheists. Perhaps we shall see a counter-nexus of theists and atheists who do assert the historicity of Christ.

  13. I know ‘atheist’ scholars of the New Testament (not necessarily wearing their ‘atheism’ like badges, probably precisely because of the existence of the ‘new atheists’) who assert the historicity of Christ. What’s so bedfellowish anyway? I know plenty of atheists and theists who share similar ideas on all sorts of things.

  14. I am confused, but it may be mere theology– which always confuses me. Is the major premise here, “Jesus is God,” rather than “Jesus exists”? I do not see how atheism touches the latter premise, and much of “classical” atheism does not touch the former. The denial of the historicity of Jesus is like denying the historical existence of Ned Ludd (an interesting article by Arthur Droge on jst that parallel, btw). The denial of the divinity of Jesus, even if it could be maintained that the writing of the gospels is fundamentally tied to asserting his divine nature, may or may not presuppose his historicity. It is much easier of course to assume the divinity of a non-historical being: God for example is not historical while his revelation is thought to be. Do you see the problem? Or perhaps this is a good excuse for another blog. What I do maintain is agnosticism as to the probative value of the sources as to an historical question. “Agnosticism” as to the divinity of Jesus is not a historical question.

  15. Just to clarify – I meant to say ‘historicity of Jesus’ because that is the question. I got distracted by the reference to ‘Christ’ in the comment by Barrett. Theology and supposed divinity of any historical figure are a different thing altogether.

  16. The question of historicity is of a man called Jesus. Whether or not a historical Jesus called himself the messiah or ‘christ’ is a separate question. His divinity belongs to theological discussion.

  17. I can certainly agree that the Four Horsemen, plus assorted ostlers, have done a great deal of damage; one particularly pernicious aspect of it is that the web is knee-deep in people who profess to be so convinced of the virtues of the scientific method, and the value of evidence based reasoning, that they feel it is unnecessary to show any signs of actually practising it.

    For example, Science-Based Medicine asserts on its website that it’s run by people:

    ‘alarmed at the manner in which unscientific and pseudoscientific health care ideas have increasingly infiltrated academic medicine and medicine at large’

    Unfortunately, they are not so alarmed as to actually provide any evidence that unscientific and pseudoscientific health care ideas have increasingly infiltrated academic medicine and medicine at large, which is a rather serious flaw.

    In these circumstances it is not terribly surprising that intelligent people notice the disconnect between reality and assertion; the deification of Science doesn’t look that different to the observer than the deification of Vespasian, who was at least capable of joking about it…

  18. You’re, right. He is a silly old fart.
    I always look forward to your posts, Mr. H.
    As a lapsed Catholic, and belonging to a freethought group, I am often struck by how unfamiliar “born-again” atheists are with any religious writing or interpretation outside their own limited background. All their arguments are directed to the old creed of Christianity and monotheism. As you have rightly pointed out time and again, they seem to know nothing about theology. Have they ever read the Dhammapada, or the Analects of Confucius, or the Tao te Ching? Let them try wrapping their heads around some of the Upanishads. They could at least read The Varieties of Religious Experience by James, or the Perennial Philosophy by Huxley.
    I’m not claiming any of these as legitimate, but I deem them worthy of attention.

  19. ‘The denial of the historicity of Jesus is like denying the historical existence of Ned Ludd ‘

    Hoffman is right. After all, who claims that Ned Ludd really did exist?

  20. You see your inherited and cherished Catholicism as “benign” and “helpful.” I see my inherited and discarded Catholicism as a malevolent, ridiculous on-going waste of human effort. I see no reason to “study” theology, nor haruspiscence, nor astrology, nor Jesuit pottery, yet the accommodationist wing of the formerly deconverted persists in calling for priestly fascinations with religious ritual, religious philosophy. Just be a good boy, is the reigning thought of the Atinos, and you’ll get a cracker.
    Your writings here echo the blog Pat Boone maintained when the Beatles hit. He just couldn’t stand it. He just kept attacking John and Paul, and Ringo, especially, and yet the Beatles never, never once fought back in public to react to his defensive, frequently loony obsessions. Boone did, though, score when he blogged against Arthur Brown for his hit “Fire” -yeah, it was kind of Kaginesque, that song, the commenters said, but not everything about the British Invasion stood the test of time, nor the New Wave that followed it, nor Power Pop, nor…

  21. rjosephhoffmann: Do you see a problem in trying to cast an intellectual conclusion (there’s likely no gods) as a social movement?

    The way I see it, atheists need not agree on much of anything other than that gods or similar supernatural beings don’t exist. The best of atheists will try to educate themselves on science and history and life in general.

    I’m not really sure if atheist organizations — at least when they function as mere social groups – are needed at all. I mean, I don’t go to monthly meetings of the local educated people’s party, even though I certainly want to be educated. Why should I look at my atheism any differently? If the goal is to mobilize atheists, what exactly are they being mobilized for?

    I kind of agree with Sam Harris that the atheist label is really no more important than the “a-astrologist” label. It’s just that God-belief is a more widely held superstition, and so might warrant more attention as a consequence of that reality.

    To me, it’s more important to get people thinking critically, and then the atheism will just follow naturally. That’s one reason I’ve liked organizations like the Center for Inquiry or Skeptics Society but none of the other organizations have appealed to me at all.

  22. Pingback: Uncourtly Crusaders: The Atheist War on Religion

  23. Pingback: Living Without Religion « The New Oxonian

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