Imagining Unbelief




My grandmother was a sturdy soul.  Her life consisted of taking care of her demanding German husband, incessant cleaning of a spotless house, speculating about the conjunction of rain clouds and her arthritis, and calling the church rectory for updates on mass times and confession.  She came from a large, loud, tuneful Irish family, pronounced film as “filum” and laughed at jokes three minutes ahead of the punchline.  “Hey Nonnie,” I would say, “Did you hear the one about the priest and the chiropractor?”  The laughing would start ere the words were out of my mouth.

She was patient, gullible, superstitious, carping and kind.  She didn’t like dogs or most of her neighbors, squinted at dust, sermons about Mary, and occasionally at me.  If she had secrets or dark corners to her existence they were buried with her and will remain forever unknown.

She now exists in photographs–often with the image of my grandfather standing in the background with a slight frown–not wishing to be in the picture but unwilling to move entirely out of range.

The photographs are important because when they were taken–mainly in the 1960’s–pictures were a bit of trouble: camera models, film, exposures (as in number of), light and focus were part of the vocabulary. No snapping your cellphone at any stationery or moving object that caught your fancy and then uploading images of you and your best friends by the dozen for the delectation of complete strangers.

I have a theory that the less complicated picture-taking and image- making have become the less sophisticated our memories and imaginations have become–a complaint some social theorists have leveled at “comprehensive” museums and zoos.  Imagination is not stretched.  Memory is not exercised.  Connecting impressionistic dots, sometimes captured years apart, is not required.  We live in the eternal present of the utterly familiar and the easily available Now. History is not needed to explain the familiar.  We know all about it. Thus history is a primary casualty of the widespread feeling that the unfamiliar–especially the past–is alien to the Now.

The tandem growth of religious illiteracy and EZ atheism emerges from the same matrix, one where what is “new” is regarded as good and what is old, or requires time, patience and interpretation, is regarded as irrelevant.  As the cultural gospel of America has always cherished this principle anyway (“A country without history for a people without memory”) the imagination crisis is especially prevalent in the USA.   Religious crudity is nowhere cruder or saturates politics more thoroughly or with greater dull predictability.  Discount atheism, especially of the new and in-your-face variety, is nowhere more disagreeable or less philosophical.

Henry Ford: "History is bunk."

It is enough for the American Catholic to know when the pancake breakfast begins (“after the 9 o’clock”), never mind the aesthetic torpor that his church offers as a sedative for his under-active conscience or the essentials of the faith he never bothered to learn.  It is enough for the liberal protestant to know that a collection is being taken up for Tsunami victims and for the conservative Christian to live in the cozy knowledge of Jesus’ saving grace–which entails the belief that abortion means killing babies and that Democrats want to demolish churches and put up mosques. It is enough for the atheist to see the deformed opinions of the religious majority as proof positive that he is right: God doesn’t exist and religion is for imbeciles.

The fact is, all four of the above have developed their beliefs through packthink.  Stem cell research does not entail killing babies.  America is not a Christian country.  Believing in God is not the same as belief in elves, fairies, and the Loch Ness Monster.  To be fair, the Catholic did not arrive at her position by reading Aquinas or the Protestant by reading Jonathan Edwards or the Muslim fanatic by reading Ibn Rushd or the atheist by reading Julian Huxley (an atheist supporter of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit who had read Aquinas).  They got there by reading pamphlets and the back end of cars.

Julian Huxley

What each group seems to be happy with is the discounted version of the “faith” they have chosen to embrace.  Coming “out” atheist, a mildly cool social stance similar to coming out gay in the nineties, requires the same level of intellectual commitment as coming out Christian, a mildly cool stance of the 1970’s when unseen forces (in Washington) convinced the believing masses they were in for a new persecution by neo-pagans, secular humanists and freedom-hating liberals.

Our presentism, symbolized in the free flow of limitless images and text messages, no longer needs ideas to survive.  That is why bumper stickers have replaced chapters in books as the all-you need-to know summation of belief and unbelief.  “My Boss is A Jewish Carpenter,” “I Support a Baby’s Right to Choose.” “‘Worship Me or I will Torture You Forever’-God,” “Organized Religion: The World’s Biggest Pyramid Scheme.” The hostility among groups and even within groups is not about ideas but about what one side is prepared to believe about the other: fakery not fact, histories robbed of historical location and philosophical positions devoid of premises and analysis.  It is a contest for followers lifted out of the Forum and plonked down into the Colosseum–where both sides will eventually lose.

Which brings me back to the lessons we can learn from photographs.  It isn’t the case that religion has not evolved.  But it is the case that religion has been, in evolutionary terms, unsuccessful in explaining itself to the twenty-first century–and to much of the twentieth. The increasing drowsiness of the flock when it comes to core doctrines may be a blessing for beleaguered theologians who otherwise would have to go on defending what the faithful have ceased to care about.  “Average” believers have defaulted to ground where they are more comfortable–to social issues and sexual ethics, buoyed by a thin belief in scriptural authority and a woeful lack of information about the warrants and religious justification for their commitments.  As religion can only thrive when its explanatory mechanisms are coping with change, its explanatory failure will ultimately prove to be catastrophic, and no new theological idiom will arise to save it.  In my opinion, this has already happened, and not only in liberal and radical circles.

This should serve to make atheism triumphant, but it doesn’t.  If theology has lost its voice and credibility, atheism has lost its imagination and coherence. It has done this by offering, instead of a vision of the godless future, the absurdities and atrocities of religion as the sum total of its own rectitude.  There is nothing wrong with itemizing the failures and hypocrisies of religion; but it does get repetitious after a while, and then the question becomes the Alfie question: What’s it all about?

And there is this detail: The errors-of-religion-motif does not originate with atheists but with religion.  It goes back to the reform movements of the late Middle Ages, and to the Reformation itself, unique among the chapters of western civilization in its brutal treatment of popes, doctrines and sacraments.

Reformation cartoon of the Pope as Antichrist

Religion has traditionally been the best ensurer of reforms within religion, controlling the excesses and extremities of the religious appetite for a thousand years.  It did this and was successful in keeping the beast from devouring its own tail by offering better ideas, different “truths,” a simplified diet and an accommodating attitude towards movements that would finally grow up, leave home, and not write back–secularism and humanism to name two.  What it never did, or was never prepared to do, was to offer no religion in lieu of bad religion.  It has survived into an era where many opponents have joined the chorus that all religion is bad religion.

Yet for atheists to assume that their rejection of God is anything more than an opinion based on snapshots of what they know about Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants is a misshapen view of their accomplishment.

The aggregate outrages of religion do not constitute a proof of God’s non-existence, nor establish a moral case for atheism.  The accumulation and “sharing” of snapshots of things that are plainly ridiculous about religion does not enhance the claim that unbelievers are smarter than believers.  The documentation of error is not the same as the discovery of the truth.  Ridiculing the beliefs of our distant faith-obsessed ancestors or the profanity of violence that seems to soak the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and more recently the Qur’an, belongs to other centuries: it’s been done.  It’s good for a laugh, or a gasp, not for a lesson.

And a final thing. If the contemporary atheist is really interested in the harmful effects of religion, he is up against two truisms that run counter to evolutionary wisdom: the adaptability and survival of religion, despite texts and practices assumed to be harmful to human society, and the fact that atheism has so far struggled unsuccessfully to replace religion with a new diagram of human values.  Unlike Alvin Plantinga, I don’t regard these phenomena as real facts, as “evidential” of the truth of religion, or as reliable justifications of religion based on common sense.  This is because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it means for religion to be “true” in the sense analytic philosophy comprehends the term.

But I do have idea of what values religion expresses idiomatically and crudely in ways that have occasionally challenged the human imagination.  If religion has a survivability quotient, that can be expressed in evolutionary terms, it is a human quotient.  In their independent ways, the atheist Julian Huxley and the believer Teilhard got that much right.

Blessed are the peacemakers...

I personally believe that the survival of religion can be explained in purely rational ways, and with no guarantee of lifespan.  I also happen to believe that atheism, if it is an informed and historically critical atheism–aware of its own past as well as of the religious past from which it artificially emerges–can develop new templates for human value that test the imagination in the same way that the interpretation of images and artefacts from the human past test, and are resolved in, the imagination through religion.

The elevation of atheism from opinion to something of much greater consequence begins when we see that belief and unbelief are aspects of the same reality.   Looked at in the starkest light, belief is only the other side of unbelief.  It is not a distinction that has the valence of right and wrong. It is pretty clear which came first, what images became dominant, which ones were lost in wars, through subjugation, and by assimilation.  Just like your family album when images were scarce, real and not easily improvable, the total picture of religion that the atheist is called upon to interpret is complex and requires a thoughtful charting of the distance between the rarefied image and the inquirer, a conversation between past and present which is more than an indictment of crimes.  It requires, as Gauguin said about imagination, “shutting your eyes in order to see.”

54 thoughts on “Imagining Unbelief

  1. Wow…this is the first blog I have ever read that has made me speechless. Incredible. I’m an atheist. I have fallen victim to everything you said over and over. Time to broaden my scope. Thank you for posting this.


  2. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting part of the message (it’s a couple hours past my bedtime and I’m on a Nyquil hangover), but it seems like you’re saying the sum of the atheist argument is that religion has done bad stuff.

    I’m sorry if I’m misunderstanding you, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Just like all Christians shouldn’t be lumped together, neither should all nonbelievers.

    I think comparing body counts is about the worst way to make a pro or con case for religion. Again, I may have missed something.

  3. The body count quotient wouldn’t be very useful, would it? I have commented before on its use–but if you go that route: Stalin killed 17,000,000 of his countrymen; Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge about 3,000,000, (etc., etc.) and what you have proved when you compare massacres occurring under secular or “atheist” regimes and massacres under religious regimes is that human violence seems to transcend particular systems and can be used for almost any ideological purpose. In fact it may be a part of the problem I describe that atheists seem to ignore r disown the twentieth century iterations of ideological violence on the atheist side just as religious people will say that violence under their flag is an aberration of the peaceful character of religion.

    • I don’t like the “guilt by association” argument either. It’s a sideshow.

      The whole argument is probably silly. It’s like two immovable objects pressing against each other.

    • In this case I do not think atheists bare any responsibility for the atrocities of the aforementioned dictators.

      Here we have corrupt and evil men, with very specific political goals in mind, who simply have reason to try to enforce a state of secularism. Whether or not their reasons are sound have nothing to do with nonbelief in deities or the supernatural.

      This cannot be said of those religious regimes which enacted crimes in the name of religion.

      This is why I like Richard Dawkins jest about having to concede to the fact that the dictator’s mustaches influenced their bad behavior just as much as their atheism. Because it highlights the discrepancy which is being made by those who take for granted the way beliefs influence one another and don’t.

      At the same time, bringing up secular atrocities as a demerit for atheists ignores the past two decades of research that shows that secular societies are more peaceful and prosperous and continue to grow so. This is perhaps a far better reason to ignore those who bring up such trivial points than to complain that they cannot make a connection. It simply shows we cannot take history deniers serious, because it amounts to arguing over misconceptions rather than real events.

  4. I’m suspicious that a lot of us atheists became atheists in a reaction to parents’ crazy beliefs. If I’d had more average Catholic parents, I might have had less to argue about despite the truth value of the religion. As it was, I had parents who had rediscovered Christ as adults. At the time, I didn’t see the metaphor of failing to understand the history of the belief they were about to devote themselves to.

    So, you’re right. Having more background and getting more into the questions of what does religion do for us (it clearly does something because I would argue it is clearly not a neutral phenomenon), and what’s the balance we’ll accept between acting on a collective or individual conscience versus following the secular rules of a situation is better for getting us to more reasonable positions.

    But I didn’t learn my atheism from a bumper sticker. The value I got from Dawkins was he was one of the first outspoken atheists I had run across. Just like the gay folk everywhere heard David Bowie’s “homosexual confession” as much more significant than the statement was to the speaker, the four horsemen are the beginning of thinking about those views in greater detail.

    I’d solve this dilemma between pack led atheism and educated whatever-an-atheist-is-with-historical-perspective with a different bumper sticker. “Don’t believe in God. Read Julian Huxley”. In a generation used to being a click away from information, we can do the rest. Not only is that a good idea, I think I should youtube it. 🙂

    • Seth, as an atheist myself, I am of two minds of the matter.

      First of all, I do not think religion provides anything more than community. This in itself may be enough to make religion necessary for some, but not others. Beyond that, it offers very little in the way of anything practical or praiseworthy.

      People often cite art, architecture, music, etc. But these things have been made, and will always be made, regardless of whether or not we have religion.

      As to atheism being a sort of rebellion against one’s parents beliefs, I think this is true to a certain extent.

      It is true that religious parents indoctrinate their children early on, often from birth, and begin a long process of continuous inculcation afterward.

      Many kids simply grow up and start thinking for themselves, with minds of their own, and in this sense there is a moral outrage when we have been denied the basic right to make up our own minds.

      It’s like being force-fed as a baby well into adulthood, and that can be something which many atheists find worth rebelling against.

      But for me, it was more an issue of information and knowledge. Once I realized religion, all religion, could be explained via anthropology, psychology, biology, and socio-economics, it made more sense that this complex array of fields were human byproducts that explained religion as a completely human phenomenon, not some metaphysical one.

      After that, it was merely a matter of becoming acquainted with these, and gaining a better picture, and so too understanding, of the nature of religion.

      Once I understood the finer nuances, I was simply rejecting false assumptions and blatantly incorrect information and misconceptions.

  5. Maybe we should collaborate in a campaign for better bumper stickers. And I get what you are saying about the accessibility of information & ideas travelling faster. When they do. But this scarcely touches the point that most of what I see coming up on atheist websites (and they come in all shapes and sizes, some good, some truly awful) is just regurgitated Religion is Evil followed by a laundry list, or as a previous commentator calls it, body counts. It does not suggest that the web site guru has read widely or deeply no matter how fast the information flows. In fact my stats from Just war and Jihad is often used by the body counters to prove their point: — out of context. So I don’t see anything yet that counts against my central contention that atheism needs to do more than simply hate on religion to solidify itself as an alternative to the belief systems it opposes. Reflect on the fact that most of the good things Christians and other religious folk like to think about themselves have almost nothing to do with the proposition God exists, much less with the premise that people who don’t believe in God are going to hell, and to the extent that atheists still carp on this threadbare stereotype they aren’t displaying enough information to win the courtroom version of their case.

    • I agree with that stance. One of my thoughts on atheism is that it’s the first place to go on your way out of the craziness you came from.

      I stumbled on Kant and some writing about courage and understanding being the source of a good education because having the courage to use the understanding would get bad ideas debunked and good ideas strengthened faster than keeping them quiet. Modern atheism is a slightly better idea than modern religion because of the rebellion against unsupported mysticism. But it’s no place to stay because it isn’t a positive stance and if it feels no need to defend itself, it’s not in that cycle Kant was talking about.

    • Joe,

      There is a psychological aspect you seem to be ignoring here.

      Many atheists are in a process of healing. Religion has, in many cases, genuinely caused mental anguish and physical harm.

      Making a list of grievances is simply part of the healing process. And people are very different from one another. Some are able to heal faster. Some never get over the initial trauma.

      So it seems narrow minded of me, if you’ll excuse my candor, to expect all atheists to not be affected by religion–or conversely–affected all in the same way.

      But I do see your point about the bandwagon appeal to the more polemic driven atheism. Yet I do not see the expectation here. Religion has this in spades, and as human beings, we still are prone to biases and bouts of irrationality. So expect atheists to be immune from this is to expect atheists to be superior, at least to the religious, and I do not see this as a fair expectation.

      I get why people band together. Strength in numbers. And maybe the aforementioned atheists who are still hurting from the sting religion left them are simply latching onto perceived heroes, or titans, who have been more successful in knocking down religion and fighting back.

      Safety in numbers too.

      Although it can get bothersome, as long as religion doles out its abuses, there will be angry atheists.

      It’s that simple.

  6. “Dawkins’ idea that religion makes people do appalling things is absurd. Whatever is the favoured thought system at any time, people doing appalling things use it to justify themselves. Marxism was used in this way, monetarist ideology is the same. It’s all political. When you build it up to cosmic doctrines, you’re taking on a much bigger responsibility.
    Belief does not compete with science; it means different things. Dawkins is very angry with anyone who says there are mysteries, but science cannot answer some questions. We raise all sorts of questions beyond the material world. Then it’s understanding we’re after rather than information. These are not questions like “is there a box on the table?” but questions of inner life, that can’t be settled in the lab.”
    Mary Midgley The Independent 9-20-2007

    • Dawkins is right. Watch a few stonings on Youtube and come back to me on that. Religion isn’t the only thing going on but some atrocities are entirely institutionalized. In the case of stoning modern Jezebels, Dawkin is correct.

  7. For the second time in my life, I have sought to expand your readership with a little creativity. Months before I left Christianity and the ministry…I stumbled upon the Prometheus title (Self-Contradictions of the Bible by William Henry Burr in which you had written the introduction). I found this in the unlikeliest place in the Archives Bookshop in Pasadena, CA. I’d save my money and travel a few hundred miles to find great Christian books.

    I’ve always been frugal and found the above title on the discount rack for only a dollar. It probably didn’t belong there for many reasons but nevertheless, I took it home and devoured it! It was additional confirmation that gave me confidence in my radical departure from the ministry.

    A year later while browsing at another used bookstore owned by a casual friend of mine in Northern California…I found the same title again. My thought was if someone bought it…other browsers might not have the same opportunity to browse like I did. So, I approached my friend with this idea. I asked Tom to put a ridiculously hefty $25 price tag upon the book to make it less likely to sell. This would buy it more “shelf time” and thus looks before it eventually found a buyer. Both of us laugh at the story and it accomplished our goals!

    Now, the other thing that I have done is to place a link to your blog under my Best Blogs on the front page of my Ex-Minister website. You’re an excellent writer, thank you!
    Brian Worley

    • Brian: I agree with your view of the author’s writing – he’s consistently enlightening, bright, flowing with eloquence and wit, but always saying things that need to be said with such incisive clarity. I enjoyed your story too – you’d be an excellent partner in a secondhand bookshop venture. I had such a thing back in NZ. Set it up and ran it, and you demonstrate those essential bookshoppy skills: scavanging (we scavanged NZ from top to toe regularly – fairs, estates, garage sales etc) and sneaky pricing tricks. I used to stick outrageous prices on books I didn’t want to sell, but they enhanced the quality of stock by living on the shelves. Bookshopping was a great way to have our own library – we specialised in religions and philosophy and collected other rare and valuable books. I did get even thinner than I already was though… but then we did practise philanthropy to a certain extent and even gave books away to people who needed them. And we slept at the back of the shop on bookshelves for quite a while.

      • Steph: I’m so appreciative that Nathan posted a link to one of the author’s previous articles on his Facebook page. Otherwise, I wouldn’t had known. Now that I do, I wanted to do my small part by linking so others get the notice that the author has something important to share.

        Yes, love the books and your story! If your in NZ, hope your managing the aftermath of the quake. The pre-quake pixs of NZ are beautiful. If I ever get to go there, I’ll need a bookstore referral…OK?

      • It’s still just as beautiful – just poor ChCh city is in a mess. I’d be very happy to give you all the tips and referrals you need. I do the facebook thing with Joe’s posts too and really hope people read them … and I noticed Nathan did the facebook thing with your ex minister website, so I ‘liked’ it. 🙂

  8. My new shorthand for “the new atheism”: EZ Atheism. This captures it — to my mind at least — perfectly. They can keep Gnu.

    • Oh jeepers – I’ve just realised! ‘It captures it [to my mind too] perfectly’! I’ve been pronouncing it wrong. It’s not E-Zed, it’s E-Zy prounounced Easy. I thought it was just a joke on 3.0 and new and gnu and any other flavours that struggle to be, but it’s got the extra clever (of course it does). You’re right Nathan – it epitomises everything that’s wrong in one word.

      • Gets complicated down in Alabama (where Groucho says they take elephants for the ivory because their Tuscaloosa…) and where they don’t say tomaytow or tomahtow but ‘mayters and tayters.

      • Yegawds – but they’re still consistently all-american sounding with the alphabet, including the vowels, and Zee not Zed. Maybe Groucho would elongate the EZy to EZyloser. (Even the Brits and Antipodeans say taties instead of potatoes and marties for tomahtos).

  9. @Ken: I think we all know people who say some ideas are worth dying for. I’m not so sure–historically ideas like Christianity, Communism, the Union, King and Country, and the State have just been slogans for power structures to hide behind and the people who died, from Marathon to Waterloo to Iraq were just toadies duped into thinking they had served a higher cause. The same goes for many of the Islamic militias. The rhetoric of war and religion aren’t just coincidentally linked.

    • Yes, I understand that. My point is that no other species kills in the name of ideas. They may kill for territory or mates or food, but we add the whole panoply of ideas into the Bouillabaisse which magnifies the difficulties.

  10. [ds] [ts] zeta and zed
    make a zane perzon
    ztand on hiz head.

    [ds] [ts] zeta and zee
    sort of like asking
    Coffee or tea?

    Like luv, it’s complicated but I seem to recall that in the 16th century the lusty puritans who sailed away in the mothership came with Zee and zo is has remained. I do love these conversations. Once being corrected for saying “I’d forgotten that,” instead forgot [but any got will do] I was asked where I’d learned such Americanisms. In America, I said, where people still worship God’s only begotten son. All of which is dull because I say Zee and Zed with unpredictable, interchangeable gusto depending on my mood.

    • I love such complicated details and sophisticated and wildishly emotional unpredicabilities. And neologisms. They are what make life funful and fascinating. I’ve always said ‘I’d forgotten’ and ‘I forgot that’ though – twuz the way I was dragged up. Now I’ll practise saying Zee with tea and Zed in time for bed. Variety is the spice and desirability of Zoe.

  11. “So I don’t see anything yet that counts against my central contention that atheism needs to do more than simply hate on religion to solidify itself as an alternative to the belief systems it opposes.”

    Who says atheism has to solidify itself as an alternative to the belief systems it opposes? I certainly don’t. How would that even work? I’m not a Republican. Is not being a Republican an alternative to the belief system it opposes? Of course not.

  12. Joe, what is it that you expect, anyway? Entrance requirements for atheism?

    So there are a lot of barely-educated atheists, especially among the young. Well no kidding – there are a lot of barely-educated everythings, especially among the young. So what? Are you claiming that there are zero educated or interesting atheists? That all “new” atheists are uneducated and uninteresting? That all atheists should shut up about atheism until they become educated and interesting? Or what?

    I take it you dislike “new” atheism. Well you and 40 thousand pundits and newspaper blowhards and talk radio hacks. “New” atheism may be a bandwagon but so is hating on “new” atheism.

    • “Well you and 40 thousand pundits and newspaper blowhards and talk radio hacks.”

      Can all of these thoughtful, perspicacious, and insightful observers of the cultural scene (blowhards as you call them, some of them even former colleagues of yours) be wrong, Ophelia? Is there nothing of value to their observations? Are they all just interested in “hating on atheism?” Remember, many are nonbelievers themselves.

      • Ophelia, I can see by your reaction that the message has gotten through! But calling us blowhards? I’d expect this from PZ, but not you!

        Religion is actively engaged in confronting the root causes of world’s greatest problems such as the love of money (greed), pride, and vanity. EZ atheism has no remedy or plan to solve these and you want to kill religion off?

        Let me hear your plan and I might re-think my shallow assessment of EZ atheism. Until then, Joe has leveled some very intelligent criticism and has bested all naysayers

      • Oh no, no “message” has “gotten through.” Nathan (as he very well knows) has no business prattling to me about “former colleagues.”

        I didn’t call you a blowhard. I’ve never heard of you.

        You didn’t answer my question. What message of hate? What spreading hate?

      • Ophelia, can you not take ownership of your statements? I feel as if I’m in grade school by having to re-paste YOUR words…Ophelia Benson on March 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm said:
        “I take it you dislike “new” atheism. Well you and 40 thousand pundits and newspaper blowhards and talk radio hacks.”

        You were replying to Joe, his position and 40,000 other pundits…”you and” sounds very inclusive to me.

        Your hate comment:…Ophelia Benson on March 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm said:
        “So I don’t see anything yet that counts against my central contention that atheism needs to do more than simply hate on religion to solidify itself as an alternative to the belief systems it opposes.”

        I hope this answers your questions…now will you retract your blowhard statement and issue an apology?

      • Mr Worley –

        I was quoting Joe – that’s what the quotation marks mean – that I’m quoting from the post. I didn’t say anything about hate myself. You didn’t paste in my own words; those are Joe’s words.

      • Are you kidding me? You’re calling me a liar now? For pointing out, truthfully, that I was quoting Joe? It’s in his comment March 17 at 10:55 a.m.

        And what is this “insulting us” – as I said, I’d never heard of you. That’s not spin. I’d really never heard of you. I couldn’t have been insulting you, because I was unaware of you.

      • Ophelia, I appreciate your going back a day (into the comments rather than the article) and showing me that you were indeed quoting Joe. I stand corrected, please forgive me. You’re still on the hook though for the blowhard statement!

        I know little about you except that you were touchy with valid criticism of EZ atheism. EZ atheism is deserving of that criticism and is oblivious by nature to what the real #1 issue between religion and secularism is. I’m not going to able to comment after this (I work some very long hours for the next 4 days)…but I wrote about that issue, “Will secularism destroy society?” on my Ex-Minister website.

  13. @Ophelia: I certainly don’t hate anybody, or if I do it’s religious zealots. I don’t call criticism hate–I call it missing, and it seems to me it’s needed for atheism to claim to have the better intellectual position, which I think it has. Immunity from self-criticism is a key ingredient in Islamism, that and a complete lack of humor about itself. I took this down in 2009 when I was told that you didn’t get paid for being a martyr unless you get a blessing in advance: but it’s now public again. Entrance requirements–tempting though that is, but No. But there comes a point where the inventories of religious error and jokeiness I see spreading in some sectors of movement-atheism make it difficult to distinguish the serious and the farcical. I’d regard atheism in deep trouble if my attempts to wake it up or offer it a book are considered the worst trials it has to face.

    • Criticism is missing? You must be joking!

      But most of it is crude and stupid, and I’m always saying it would be nice to see some intelligent criticism, so from that angle I should welcome yours. On the other hand, the torrent of crude and stupid criticism tends to make it difficult to see the better kind impartially – it tends to seem like piling on. But maybe that has more to do with Facebook than this. Ha!

  14. A tour de force, Joseph. Magnificent language, all of it morphing supportively around, not points that need to be made, but the only points worth discussing.
    And none discuss them better than you. Bravo as always.

  15. Dear Ophelia,

    You brought up hate in your sentence ending with “hating on atheism.” I note, however, that you really didn’t respond to my question, you just reverted to a bullying posture — as you are wont to do (i.e., “I didn’t call any former colleagues of mine blowhards. I didn’t mention any former colleagues of mine. Don’t try to stir up trouble.” “Nathan (as he very well knows) has no business prattling to me about “former colleagues.”).

    Now, as for those “former colleagues” that I have no “business prattling” to you about, they also happen to share the same designation in relation to Joe and Paul Kurtz, so I think I will hold my head up quite high, even though I suppose you meant that as a shot below the belt. (You have a knack for that kind of thing, seriously….as all to many know 😉

    Finally, your reference to “blowhards” didn’t seem to distinguish one from the other among the myriad critics of “EZ atheism” (my new name for your Gnu) so I apologize if I read you as condemning them all to blowhard status.

    • Nathan, I was quoting Joe from the post. I did not bring up hating.

      Former colleagues of mine who are also former colleagues of Joe’s and PK’s? In that case I have no idea what you mean.

  16. Delightful writing, well worth re-posting. Coming from an a lapsed atheist, now devout Catholic, that is praise indeed.

    I often wonder whether the uninformed unbelievers are the result of a kind of self-selection for bullying. The one property that they have in common and in abundance is a limitless capacity for bullying. Are these people natural bullies, driven by their pack instinct, seeking easy targets?

  17. Personally, I wouldn’t dismiss the New Atheist wave of atheism so quickly.

    Listening to some old recordings of Bertrand Russell debating certain key theologians, his tone was just as sharp and in-your-face as today’s atheists. Going back to the Golden Age of Freethought, and re-reading the works of Thomas Paine, Robert G. Ingersoll, and G.W. Foote, I find them even more brash, confrontational, and conviction driven than today’s atheists. Going back to the great French thinkers and Scots of their respective enlightenments, and you find more of the same.

    The tone and position of today’s atheists isn’t anything new.

    I often wonder why people act so shocked by it.

    And the only conclusion I can make is that there are two things we need to keep in mind. First, most people are not aware of any of the atheist movements I mentioned above, let alone the authors and their works. Second, religion, especially in America and in Muslim countries, have enjoyed a privilaged status for the past two-thousand years where the voice of descent was such a small minority that they never took it seriously.

    If anything, the really people who are guilty are those who find anything wrong with the New Atheists and consider them a fad, or merely some village idiots grouping around some cynical and sarcastic leader good at knocking down the strawmen of religion, because although there is some of that too, it is perhaps too much of an over-simplification.

    One which adheres to the aforementioned ignorance surrounding the overall history of atheist writer’s and their works.

    William James, one of my favorite thinkers, was a staunch atheist. Reading his letters to major theologians, such as Maurice Blondel, really opens your eyes to the variety of theist / atheistic dialogs which one could have.

    But the sad thing is this, we do NOT have theists as brilliant as Blondel nowadays. In otherwords, atheists only have second rate apologists to argue with, and the real theologians are a dying breed.

    I’d love to have a discussion with John Shelby Spong, because here is a man I feel, as one of the New Atheists, I could have a mutually beneficial discussion with, in which we would both learn from one another.

    But instead, many of the New Atheists get stuck having to argue against the position of the likes of Randal Rouser and William Lane Craig, who although have theology degrees, represent the common, unthinking, dogmatic certainty of the apologist.

    Atheists of course could choose not to engage these theological nincompoops, and we could go back to twiddling our thumbs as we wait for a real serious theologian to show up, but with how much religion has been politicized in today’s world, I simply do not think such a hope is realistic.

    Atheists have to play the dual role of attacking religion for its absurdity, and this of course entails a fair bit of polemical rhetoric, and at the same time we must be aware of our own beliefs as well–and simply not become the dogmatic reflection of the religious right.

    My point is this–while the religionist can continue to hammer home his blind conviction without giving a second’s consideration to the validity of his belief assumptions–today’s atheist and nonbelieving skeptic must battle such positions with at least an equal force while realizing that it is silly to do so.

    If anything, the new wave of atheism is paradoxical. On the surface it seems superficial, but get to know some of today’s atheists and what they truly believe, and how they came to their conclusions, instead of simply their hard hitting op-eds and blog whoring diatribes, and you may come to see the paradox yourself.

    But I think you may simplify atheists in the same way you accuse atheists of simplifying the religious. I know many atheists who grant that religion is much more nuanced, funny that I rarely run into anybody who grants this of atheism as well.

    • There are a rather large number of transpositions and errors here. Paine was a deist, not an atheist, and deism is mainly a rejection of supernaturalism. William James is also one of my favourite writers, but he was not confrontational, merely analytical, and he was not an atheist by any stretch. Etc.

      • Errors, not so much.

        Maybe I simply didn’t make myself understood.

        It’s true, I grouped Paine in with the Freethinkers, as he was part of sparking the movement (at least in America). He was certainly and anti-theist in the same way Christopher Hitchens was an anti-theist.

        It’s not a mistake to say their tone and candor were on the same level.

        I know he was a deist with regard to the nebulous concept of a supreme deity, but he did not believe that such a deity was at all represented by the Judeo-Christian god. With that regard, he was assuredly an atheist to Christianity.

        What I meant with regard to William James tone is that he was most certainly confrontational because he criticized and took apart other peoples beliefs, which is what many atheists do today, often times using James’ same analytically approach. But the atheists get vilified for daring to talk about religion from experience and with as much as a vested interest as anyone else.

        It seems to me the religious do not want atheists as part of the conversation. So voicing any amount of dissent or disagreement is viewed as an “attack” on ones faith. I see it everywhere I go online. All you have to do is look as some of the comments threads on my blog, and other atheist blogs, to know it’s true.

        James of course was a naturalist and a pragmatist who left room for the possibility of a metaphysical model of reality as long as it was compatible with science, hence the aforementioned involvement of pragmatism. I am much of the same mind in this area. I am with Kant in that metaphysics cannot exist apart from the reality we see. It must either account for it or incorporate it into itself in some way. James merely reinforces this intuition for me.

        But really this has nothing to say about whether or not atheists are being more acerbic than those of the past. But simply reading past works, the tones are virtually identical, with the exception that the past atheists were much better read and more eloquent than most of today’s atheists.

        But that’s a general trend, and more to do with modern technology biding for our time, and not pouring over books as our main source for knowledge. Instead, soundbites from the Internet and hotlinks to quick references.

      • Correction: I see where the confusion is.

        I meant to say William James was a staunch pragmatist. (Not atheist)

        But the rest of what I wrote is not wrong, as far as I can tell at a second glance. I was making the comparison of today’s atheists and their tone with those thinkers (both atheist and not-atheist… is that a doulbe negative?…) of the past.

        The comparison holds up for the most part.

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