Of Implicit Atheism – An Easter Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

57 thoughts on “Of Implicit Atheism – An Easter Meditation

  1. A good post.

    I would note, however, that the New Atheists are engaged in partisan politics, anti-religious politics and so cannot be held to the standards of academic discourse.

    They are trying to movilize the masses, not to convince armchair atheists, wimps, like myself.

    Dawkins and Hitchens write best-sellers and that is their intention: to reach as many people as possible. I tried reading Hitchens’ book, God is not Great and found it empty, shallow although witty, but I’m not their target audience: I often am the target of their wrath.

  2. This is so true from beginning to end. I think humanity would be saved from alot of unnecessary suffering if all of the vile viruses destroyed the vile and inhuman internet. Anyone should be forgiven for thinking atheists have no morals, if they think some of the atheist internet comments are representative of all atheists. Why is it that so many atheist internet comments assume all believers are fundamentalist and isolate various biblical problems as if believers believe every literal word? (Probably a rhetorical question.) Instead they want to demonise those who do appreciate differences and who want to continue civilised conversation and debate and make progress towards a secular humanist world … where personal belief is non intrusive, and … personal.

    I am impressed with Susan Sontag – she expressed the fundamental point so incisively: ‘that she believed in nothing but this life, that there was no continuation, and that in any event she took religion far too seriously to think she could embrace it at the last minute to get a sense of relief’. I didn’t know she said that. That’s truly wonderful. I couldn’t live without the literature, music and art that inspires my life.

  3. Professor Hoffmann:

    Actually, I just read your post over again, and it’s not good, it’s excellent.

    Have a good Easter. (I’m Jewish, but haven’t been to a synagogue for about 50 years.)

  4. I have a radical suggestion. It applies to both sides, but since it was provoked by what you just wrote, I’ll post it here.

    Please stop generalizing and categorizing.

    If you disagree with something that Dennett, or MacDonald, or Coyne says, engage the person about the point. Name them, quote their argument. Don’t generalize. And don’t tell the person what they believe: ask them. Vague generalization coupled with inaccurate attribution (usually accompanied with a dash of projection) will always lead to accusations of “strawman”, and will shift the debate from the actually subject to the meta-subject of acting in good faith, motivation, and so forth.

    Compare this piece of yours with the MacDonald posting from which you borrowed the strawman image. MacDonald links to your piece, he quotes your arguments and responds to them. I don’t care whether he is accurate or not; he’s engaging with your argument.

    How do you respond? You do not identify the individuals, or their posts, or even their arguments. Instead you seem to be addressing yourself to an assumed audience. Consider this passage:

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

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

    See what I mean? A rhetorical flourish addressed to the audience, devoid of any citation, so your readers can’t actually check whether you are accurately quoting “them” or merely demonstrating your erudition by tossing in the odd bit of French.

    And the diagnosis:

    The anger of many hardcore (explicit?) atheists comes down to this: their belief that an atheism which is not forced by science is inauthentic.

    Really? How do you know? Provide some evidence, please, because you are the first person I’ve seen to raise the issue of “authenticity”. And might I suggest that you examine this statement and see how it might look to someone who does not actually hold this belief? Or perhaps it is your intention to come across as pompous and supercilious…

    If you cannot support your assertion, perhaps you could consider actually asking people whether that is, in fact, what they feel. Radical, I know. Incompatible with lofty soliloquies to the audience. But possible more productive and less frustrating.

    • I do see what you mean: yours is the very style I’m talking about. You live in assertion land. Learn to read a discursive essay that makes a point and moves beyond your stable of names. Btw, if you had read carefully (!) you would see that I did link to MacDonald. And to Coyne specifically in the pst on religion and doubt. However, the point here is not to respond to them except insofar as it’s necessary–and I assume you are sharing your wisdom with them, point by point as well?

      • I strongly agree with one principle I infer here from Hoffman’s response regarding discourse. Piecewise quoting for the purpose of argument or debate does *not* provide an assurance or even terribly much greater likelihood of accurately responding to what the other person is actually trying to say!

        If you don’t see their point by reading their words, you aren’t going to respond to their point just because you quote their words more accurately. It’s the meaning you’re missing not the phrasing.

        The only thing that does that is listening to them with the intent of understanding, something that takes more effort than most of us are willing to do in an argument, because we pretty much tend to assume we already understand the other side, which is why we’re arguing.

        I also agree with Arnold’s point about asking in preference to categorizing and generalizing. If someone says: “you are misunderstanding my point” we should take them at their word if we really care about getting it right. Assuming we have any respect for them at all. And otherwise, why bother having an argument? Except as an empty show for the gallery.

    • Oh My word Geoff; now you accuse me of “stealing” the strawman image I posted on https://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=3481&action=edit, to which the MacDonald piece is a reply, yet whoever uses it–it would be fair game. ou are out to score points by calling people you disagree with pompous and supercilious and then ask for evidence for opinions, which is the land we are living in. I do not detect much humility in any of your heroes; is there some reason you commend it to me? Or would my first guess be right?

  5. I do at times wonder how the debate between “explicit” and “implicit” atheists would run if it wasn’t done in cyberspace. After all, rational self-restraint isn’t commonplace on the internet BECAUSE the other’s presence is immaterial — like a shade, or a spectre; the threat that you might actually get goosed for being a prick is trivially slim.

  6. I agree that the debate and animosity is almost entirely due to internet. Internet is Plato’s ring of Gyges.

    I suspect that if I were to run into Coyne or Benson
    somewhere, without either of us knowing what kind of atheist the other is, we’d have a fine conversation about movies or novels, avoiding touchy subjects as well-educated people generally do when they meet face to face.

    • Exactly: When Patton said that fortified positions are a tribute to the stupidity of mankind he could have been talking about the WWW.

  7. I pretty much share the impression that anonymity and other characteristics of social media contribute to polarization, but I don’t think it begins there. Some more general factors to consider which may also be exacerbated by the nature of web (and which both sides of a given conversation are liable to be influenced by even the smart one):

    1. When we think about something there is often a tendency to feel increasingly strongly in the direction of our initial impression, due to an effect known as “evaluative consistency of cognitive responses.” We tend to generate thoughts consistent with our existing attitudes and to alter existing thoughts to make them more consistent with each other.

    2. We are social creatures, motivated to look smart and clever and avoid being caught in mistakes more than any objective motivation to get the whole story.

    3. The more we are in contact with people who share the same attitudes, the more we tend to reinforce each other’s’ existing way of thinking by providing additional reasons.

    4. Many people value being viewed as slightly more extreme than others around them in order to distinguish themselves. When they realize that they are seen as moderate, they often shift their view to become more extreme.

    I didn’t make these up, they are social psych 101 and each has some degree of empirical data behind it.

  8. It IS an excellent post. It seems to improve when read again and again, perhaps as the truth sinks in. “Implicit atheist”: I like that alot. I’ve never thought of it like that and it’s absolutely true. I never wanted to spend my life running other people down and I don’t want to be constantly confronted by those who do. I look forward to the day when the aggressive explicit sort can be ignored. Most real people of the world aren’t even aware of the internet feuds – I’d like to avoid them too. Other non believers I know, academic or not, seem oblivious to them and never come across such things in their daily experiences. I have the impression this level of aggression is purely contained within the internet, where it’s easier, as you suggest, to hit ‘submit’ and send off vile hatred to some faceless foe… and therefore I have a suspicion that in reality the explicits on internet are more implicit atheists in the real world. I hope so.

    I would avoid it all, if I didn’t take religion so seriously, particularly historically, and wasn’t so immensely grateful to the arts and philosophies religion has inspired. “There is no reason to villify God and religion, historically understood, for excesses that, as humanists, we slowly recognized as human excesses and finally learned to combat.” So easy to understand, so perfectly expressed. Why can’t we all appreciate that? I am an advocate for scholarship in public debate but increasingly I am being exposed to the sheer repulsion of civilised discussion by the explicit atheist sort, whose convictions are so vehemently held, that self doubt is erradicated and debate is rendered useless. But only on the internet…

    Degrees of faith, hope, trust, doubt and suspicion, are intrinsic to human nature, I think, whether we believe in the supernatural, or never have and never will.

    I don’t eat pudding but I now know what I’d like to do with it if I had it. But would it just be at the computer screen I’d throw it? I’d really like to throw a brick at that. I don’t meet the pudding targets in the street, I hope I never will.

    • Only one thing wrong with us implicit atheists (apart from our overweening pride and pomposity, I mean); we don’t feel strongly enough about the non-existence of God to fight for the conclusion. Consequently, pretty easy to overlook us. [sniff]

      • You just implicitly described a paradise which allows peaceful space, away from the overlooking crowds, in which we can enjoy our gins quietly in our pompous pride, and let time cure our sniffs. It’s Anzac Day today – white poppies (opiates?) for peace. I don’t care to fight, and never did. Passion is for creation not destruction of things.

  9. I appreciate this intellectual reflection as someone who has fairly recently gone from self-identified Christian to self-identified Atheist. I became an Atheist really because I started reading again (I got turned off to reading by school) but became interested again by a Stephen King novel, which lead to reading many other works of fiction, some that I had already read for school but paid little attention to. I now love reading for many reasons. But back then all of these ideas and stories (some very far-out; Philip K. Dick) just made the very specific idea of God seem implausible. I didn’t pick up an Atheism book or start looking for resources online until I started having more conflicts with my parents, sister and some of my former Christian friends and felt I needed to educate myself specifically about religion and atheism to defend my feeling. I picked up Dan Barker’s Godless when I was without any real belief in religion. I still haven’t finished it actually, because I don’t find it particularly interesting and almost like I am just reopening an old wound (which also gets reopened whenever a holiday event comes up and my parents want to pray over dinner and what not).

    I think the anger you see is largely a response to the indoctrination that many of us faced as children and young adults (I hid in the bathroom instead of going to Sunday school many times) and culminating in feeling scammed when we became young adults and started to come into our own philosophies – I am 24. My girlfriend (also 24), who was a more fervent (wanted to be a missionary – now admits to wanting to just wanting help people and see the world) Christian and is now a much more chilled out Atheist than I am, not that I am a totally bitter Atheist and I never resort to name calling.

    I’ve tried to have intellectual responses appealing to reason even on youtube videos (although it is admittedly difficult and I’ve spent less time on such things).

    Why do I bother at all? Because I want to encourage skepticism, I want to help some kid like me not feel crazy or evil or sinful for doubting (or for having sex for that matter). I guess no one really helped me, except many authors like Stephen King who are very much chill Atheists or Agnostics and at the very least just question religion and show the harm in fundamentalism. But I didn’t have a deconversion or a conversion to Atheism, it was more of a self-realization brought on by general skepticism. I have always been a skeptic and now I’d almost identify more as a cynic.

    But I also want to spread the good news of Atheism (words chosen snarkily) Just like I tell any young relatives or friends I have looking at college that it is OK and much less expensive to go to a community college and it can give them time to figure out what they want to do. Or how I tell people with foot problems (like me) about Polysorb inserts (not a plug, really).

    But I find myself trying less as I focus on things that are important to my life that have nothing to do with religion. Although I do enjoy waxing philosophic, maybe most hardcore Atheists just want to be philosophers and are angry at their current jobs and the influencers that got them there. After all it was protestant parents and the protestant work ethic that said I should get a good job as an engineer to move up in society not get a “useless” English degree or something.

    But not unlike Dan Barker, after converting so many people for so long, I almost feel I have a duty to undo all the stuff I did. Although I admittedly didn’t convert anyone that I can remember, I still influenced people, especially in the realm of religious shaming.
    I think many raised without religious shame and structure take for granted what it would be like to have parents and extended family that are still that way. I mean when someone says happy resurrection day to you, especially when they know you are an atheist already, it’s like they don’t respect you as an individual – which may also be the cause for so much anger, name calling and resentment. You can pick your friends but to isolate yourself from your family is difficult. But then the Atheist out of the closet experience is not unlike that which homosexuals go through with their conservative families. It’s like the “I love you, even though you’re an Atheist” vs “I love you and accept that it is okay to be an Atheist”. Replace Atheist with Gay, it’s the exact same thing.

  10. In haste (yes, I know, a terrible problem), let me make a couple of points:

    1. Whether you like it or not, Internet debate on the subject of atheism, religion, church-and-state, and so forth have been going on for a long time. I myself got involved back in 1986 via the Usenet groups talk.origins and alt.atheism. The software in use back then resembled email, which made a quote-and-comment style very natural. Yes, it encouraged a crude cut-and-thrust repartee, but it also focussed attention on logical fallacies, exposed selective and mis-quotation, and made it easy to rebut weak and time-worn arguments that were dealt with in the various FAQs. Limited access to the Usenet and Internet meant that the participants were almost all academics, students, and geeks. The culture has persisted.

    2. I get the feeling (though I would be happy to be proved wrong) that many “implicit atheists” take the long view, in an almost Marxist way. Regardless of the petty affairs of the day, god is dead, and the duty of all people is to come together to build a post-religious society. This is all well and good, but as S. Wallerstein noted above, many of us “Gnus” feel compelled to address contemporary political manifestations of a religion which seems to be taking and awfully long time to die. My objection to Sir Martin Rees’s recent actions, for example, are not based on whether his atheism is “authentic”, or whether he’s helping to make the 22nd century safe for atheism. Having watched unscrupulous Christianists manipulating a senile Antony Flew for propaganda purposes, I have no doubt that Rees is giving aid and comfort to those who seek to replace science education with religious mythology.

    3. One significant factor in raising the temperature (and temper) of discourse is the way in which the Internet internationalizes things. As an expat Brit living in the US, I’m following with great concern the debate about the role of religion in a reconstituted House of Lords. The established role of the Church of England, the idea of adding religious leaders of other faiths, and the spectre of de facto and even de jure Sharia Law; these are all live, vital political issues which inevitably lead to critical debate about the relationship between religion and ethics. Meanwhile atheists in the US are concerned about the teaching of evolution, abortion, right-to-die, religious discrimination in the Armed Forces, and so forth. Sometimes debate spills over the lines, as we saw today, but increasingly the lines are blurring – creationism in England, murmuring of “Christian monarchy” in the USA.

    4. During WW2, my mother worked in the secret agency that was planning the administration of Germany after the Allied victory. As she told me, she never talked about her work with her friends in the British Army and Royal Air Force, partly because it was secret, but also because taking eventual victory for granted seemed presumptuous and disrespectful to those who were still risking – and losing – their lives.

    5. Atheists, whether explicit or implicit, know that religions are not divine institutions. So what are they? I see them as political and tribal groups, with shared rituals and strong feelings about identity, membership and “otherness”. (I tend to agree with Atran’s analysis.) To the extent that their politics affects me, I must respond. It seems to me that implicit atheists choose to avoid this. But I might be wrong.

  11. Joseph: “When the New Atheists are willing to accept real human responsibility for the abominations they attribute to a mythical beast called religion they will have taken a giant leap forward.”

    OK, Joseph, so bottom line is this – once the often unpleasant and mocking rhetoric is put aside (for those of us who don’t care for this approach) then what is it that is left that the ‘implicit’ atheists don’t like? The fact that the New Atheists have little understanding of *religion*? And if this is the case, what are the atheist NT scholars doing about it? Because that is where this whole ‘debate’ hinges. What is religion? It’s no use throwing intellectual bricks on evolutionary biologists/scientists – as though they are at fault for not studying the finer points of theology. They are dealing with what they see and hear, on the ground, so to speak. Those atheist NT scholars who know better, who know that religion and theology are not synonymous terms – should, surely, be offering something more in this debate than simply censure of the New Atheists.

    So, Joseph, I’m throwing the ball back in your court – back to where there is possibility for a different road forward. The New Atheists need a helping hand not a kick in the belly. And what exactly is prohibiting the ‘implicit’ atheist NT scholars and historians from offering that helping hand? Are they really so blind to the obvious, that NT scholarship, even that of atheists scholars, is peddling nonsense. And if they are aware of the nonsense, what keeps them from speaking out loud and clear – in nice academic language by all means….Ah, but when we come to the NT and it’s interpretations – well then, even atheist scholars are singing along, perhaps out of tune, but singing along nevertheless, to that old siren song of NT interpretation – the assumed historical Jesus.

    And what are these atheist scholars doing when some atheists challenge this assumption – down comes the axe on any ahistoricists/mythicist in view. My, but these ‘implicit’ atheists are great at condemnation but fail so greatly at offering anything at all to move this intellectual battle against theology forward. Steph’s recent post, on another blog, where she rode rough-shod over the character and integrity of Neil Godfrey, and his blog, Vridar, clearly displayed the hostility from NT atheist scholars to having their cherished assumptions challenged. Shameful.

    Scott Atran in speaking at an atheist Beyond Belief conference a few years ago, said, in regard to the input of atheist scientists and philosophers at the conference, regarding how to deal with the irrationality of human life: “It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and an atheist”. I think his words are just as relevant, if not more so, to the atheist NT scholars and historians who are failing to mount the barricades against the theological enemy that continues to cause social and political dangers.

    That’s my Easter Meditation – and it’s one that hopes for resurrection, for new life and a new spirit to take forward a humanitarian struggle that can benefit us all.

    • Scott Atran says it perfectly. But you are wrong about the axe and ahistoricity, which is only dimly related to atheism anyway. Not believing/thinking that Jesus existed has nothing to do with atheism unless you are committed to a stock of foregone dogmas.

      • And I never did equate atheism with the ahistoricists position. Of course, theist can be ahistoricists – that, surely, goes without saying…

        My point was atheist NT scholars who bring down the axe upon the ahistoricist/mythicist position. Sorry, I can’t link to steph’s post re her rant against Neil Godfrey and his Vridar blog – the post has been taken down – seems the submit button was clicked without much thought…

        “And what are these atheist scholars doing when some atheists challenge this assumption – down comes the axe on any ahistoricists/mythicist in view.”

    • @Maryhelena: “the atheist NT scholars and historians who are failing to mount the barricades against the theological enemy that continues to cause social and political dangers.” Now that is interesting language from someone who doesn’t like tough language!

      • Depends on the context…..talking to believers is one thing – talking to scholars who should know the difference between apples and oranges, is something else…;-)

    • Hi Maryhelena, you do not say who ‘atheist NT scholars’ are supposed to be. Apart from Michael Goulder, who was careful enough even quite a while ago to self-identify as a ‘non-aggressive atheist’, to make clear even then, even in England, that he did not share atheist contempt for religious people, the small number of non-religious NT scholars known to me do not self-identify as ‘atheist’ because they do not hate religious people as much as this term is normally taken to indicate.

      Secondly, the historical Jesus is presented as a result of years of research, not as an ‘assumption’. If this conclusion is wrong, it needs to be shown to be wrong. People like Doherty, Murdoch, Zindler and their public internet reception, have inspired the writing of a whole book to refute the main existing arguments that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a historical figure. The necessary research is however naturally taking some time, as it is being done conscientiously by a scholar, not in instantaneous blog comments.

      Thirdly, Neil keeps misrepresenting, and making fun of, both Christian New Testament scholars and secular New Testament scholars alike. I spent alot of time last year trying to discuss and defend two scholars’ work from misrepresentation. However I was misrepresented, slandered, likened to a ‘vampire’ as Paula Fredrikson was likened to a ‘naughty schoolgirl’, Casey was called a ‘liar’ by commenters, and it goes on. Both Crossley and Casey have expressed to me verbally that they have no wish to interact on his blog and be slandered in the same way. Casey has read and approved my side of the discussion. However the whole episode caused me alot of personal distress and wasted time, that I have no wish to be associated with those people again. It is hardly surprising that some of his critics are at least half as rude as he is. I do not however see that we, ie Casey, Crossley, Deane Galbraith or I, have misrepresented him.

      • Steph – your post, your rant, against Neil Godfrey and his blog, Vridar, was not evidence of a scholarly approach to debate. That this post has now been removed clearly demonstrates that it was what it was – a rant against a man who is able to expose the holes in the published work of an atheist scholar, Maurice Casey. Oh great, another scholar with an upcoming book against the ahistoricists/mythicists – thank god for the internet – and the public shredding the book will get.

      • Steph, I am sorry that you have seen my posts as misinterpreting and making fun of other scholars, and in particular I must defend myself against your accusation of name-calling and worse.

        I have a great deal of respect for a lot of biblical scholarship — and its scholarly authors — and have posted many reviews and discussions of scholarly works of a wide variety of views on my blog (including some ideas from the thesis of the author of this blog).

        I have received positive feedback from a number of mainstream biblical scholars in response, several of which have been publicly posted in the comments. I was once asked by a academic editor to prepare some of my posts for publication in a scholarly journal. There have been a few times when I have inadvertently misrepresented a scholar (e.g. Mark Goodacre and R. Joseph Hoffmann), and both times when notified I immediately apologized and corrected my post.

        At the same time I have found some scholars and scholarly students comment on my posts with obscenities, foul language, and personal abuse.

        Yes, I have sometimes injected some humour into some posts where I do address some fundamental logical fallacies in certain arguments and methodological approaches. Surely a little levity is allowable from time to time as long as it does not descend into personal insult or ridicule.

        Your imputation that I called you a vampire and Fredriksen a naughty schoolgirl are absolutely false. Yes, I did twice address certain repeated behaviours with colourful analogies, but in both online and offline personal communications I have spoken to you with respect and attempted to work towards peaceful resolutions of our differences. I have also addressed Fredriksen’s views with positive respect a number of times on my blog.

        I do admit to one partial exception to the above, and I have never been able to tell if Dr James McGrath is wilfully twisting my posts or blinded by preconceptions to my meaning. Even in this case I did express regret on his own blog for once losing my temper with him.

        And yes, I do speak out if I believe a scholar is betraying his or her responsibility as a public intellectual for some reason and either fanning public bigotry and ignorance or culpably making misleading claims.

        Many of my posts are reflections on scholarly articles and books, and I believe you will find listed in the dozens of authors in my blog categories many positive comments, and where I express criticisms I address the arguments without any personal abuse whatever.

      • Maryhelena: It was not a rant. It was a conclusion drawn from my attempts at discussion last year. The book will be of no interest to internet mythers. I’m sure they will do as they normally do on the internet and is irrelevant. Casey does not identify as an ‘atheist’ scholar as I explicity stated in my comment above.

        I spent a long time trying to defend the work of Crossley and Casey last year from misrepresentation and other things as I explained above, but the whole episode was time consuming and caused me alot of personal distress. I received personal emails, abusive, I replied asking him to send no more emails, he unsubscribed me, I never resubscribed and have not received his posts since. I have copies of our ‘correspondence’ in my sent file. What Neil suggests, contradicts the evidence I have. As a result Casey is writing a whole book to refute these mythicists, engaging with the main mythicist authors. It will of course take some time for him to complete, because it is a scholarly work, not an instantaneous blogger response. I wanted no more to do with the blogger side of it and consequently do not wish to pursue conversation myself. My comment on Deane’s review was a response to another comment posted on Deane’s review, claiming Neil had refuted the book being reviewed. When I saw Neil’s nasty post later, which had explicitly picked on me, quoting my initial comment which was in regard to Deane’s review (in which I had quoted Deane describing Casey, back at Deane, to describe Deane – ie a joke (which Neil missed)) I was upset. The post (which rudely ignored Deane’s name, referring to him as ‘someone’ who had written a favourable review) had evidently been written before I wrote the comment below. But seeing my name slandered all over again in Neil’s commenters too, upset me and I didn’t want myself associated with that blog all over again. I asked Deane to remove my comment with Neil’s name in it, from his post, but both Casey and Deane tried to dissuade me. But I didn’t want to be associated with Neil so I eventually convinced Deane to remove my post for my peace of mind. Deane commented himself on Vridar but his comments I think were removed. Here is the comment responding to the comment on Deane’s review from Maurice Casey’s files:

        “I was sorry to read a reference to the criticisms of Casey by unlearned mythicists Godfrey and Carr who do not understand any of his arguments because they are not learned enough to do so. In particular, they do not read Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, and consequently they do not understand Casey’s arguments from Aramaic. They constantly depend, as in the post you mention, on elementary work which is out of date and which he consequently did not discuss in a one volume life of Jesus published in 2010. It is now well known that there are Latin words such as ‘denarius’ in Mark (e.g. Mk 12.15) because it was a genuine Roman article which Pharisees and Herodians could be guaranteed to have even in the Temple, whereas Jesus had no such thing. Reputable scholars no longer believe that this is because Mark must have been written in Rome, let alone that its background is seriously in Latin rather than Aramaic. Casey explicitly carries forward the work of Crossley, The Date of Mark (2004), and argues for an unfinished Gospel of Mark. Neil is a former member of the Worldwide Church of God, who converted firstly to that, and held evidence, argument and critical scholarship in contempt. Then he converted to mythicism, and continued to hold evidence, argument and critical scholarship in contempt, from an opposite perspective. Carr appears to have a similar background possibly, and constantly writes anti-Christian comments all over other blogs. They both constantly misrepresent and appear to hate Casey, Crossley and myself because we are all non-religious (Casey left the Anglican church in 1962, Crossley and myself have never been religious or believed in any gods): they have a conviction that we should all believe that Jesus did not exist, and we do not fit into their world.”

      • This is taking a great deal of time and distress to compile, Maurice Casey is gathering it from his files, but initially he has this: on me as a “vampire”, Neil Godfrey writes:

        1. On 2010/05/30 at 10.51 p.m.

        Hoo boy, Steph. For you to complain about rudeness is like a vampire declaring an outrage if someone shows it the sign of the cross.

        2. His comments on Fredriksen as a ‘naughty school girl’ are as follows:

        “The flippant arguments of Stephanie Fisher
        Dr Paula Fredriksen is one scholar who did “respond” to something Doherty had written, but her response demonstrated that she at no point attempted to read Doherty’s piece seriously.

        I would even compare her responses to those like a naughty schoolgirl who has no interest in the content of the lesson, believing the teacher to be a real dolt, and who accordingly seeks to impress her giggly “know-it-all” classmates by interjecting the teacher with smart alec rejoinders at any opportunity.

        Fredriksen’s responses indicate a stubborn ignoring of the theme and content of Doherty’s argument, and consist of a series of superficial quips on particular phrasings and sentences read without any grasp of their context. Her approach as is if to think the subject was beneath her, and Doherty could not possibly be saying anything new. Her remarks, and Doherty’s responses, can be found here.

        In other words, even in making an appearance of addressing Doherty, Fredriksen was really treating the exercise as something of a joke.

        I mention this to compare her approach with another emerging scholar. Some may think Fisher’s views of Doherty unworthy of a response, and from one perspective I agree. But I also think it’s it’s not a bad idea to have a response posted to views from someone whom others can view as speaking with some academic authority.”

        There is more to follow but it will take some time as Casey’s file is big. It includes comments about McGrath as McDaft, and New Testament scholars as ‘silly detectives’.

      • I think alot of it is showing up from February to June posts last year, and continues even after I had stopped contributing to and reading the posts. But I need a break from it now… I never wanted to confront these comments and attacks on me and others, again.

      • Steph, don’t do it – don’t drag this thing out between yourself and Neil. If it’s upsetting for you – walk away. Don’t continue to stir the pot. Neil will continue to do what he does – expose any NT scholar who writes nonsense arguments re an assumed historical JC.

        We are all different – but we want the same thing in the end – a more human social/political environment. How we each go about our goal might seem illogical to someone else. But it’s going to take all sorts of people, all sorts of methods, if a humanist environment is going to ever become a reality. The theological ‘enemy’ is complex – so too will be the range of action necessary to confine it to a restricted area.

        The ahistoricist/mythicist arguments are not going to go away. Sure, it’s possible to find fault with Doherty, or Wells or whoever – but the fundamental premise – no historical gospel JC – cannot be rejected out of hand. To do that requires evidence for a historical gospel JC – and that is not going to be forthcoming. So, yes, like those New Atheists – the atheist ahistoricist/mythicists are not going to keep quite…

        Steph – let it go – fight your own battles and leave Maurice Casey to his own….

      • “To do that requires evidence for a historical gospel JC – and that is not going to be forthcoming.” Just a word from an uncommitted player: the existence of literary sources is prima facie evidence of something happening. This may seem a niggling point but it is not a question of evidence but the nature of the evidence. I know that even many myth theorists, including presumably Neil, agree with at least this much, yes?

      • Of course, the gospels are evidence of ‘something happening’…..The ninety nine dollar question is What???

        As for Neil, I’ve no idea what he thinks may have happened…

      • They are very specific about what. The question is the nature of the evidence, not the what.

      • The nature of the evidence? It’s literary evidence – a story. What that story is about is the question. Is that gospel story history or is it something else. Is the JC character historical or fictional. And if fictional – what was that character created for – for what purpose. A story – just a story? Or is there something else there. It’s a Jewish story – Jewish stories are ‘salvation’ stories. God did this and that for his chosen people. If that is the type of Jewish story that the gospels are telling – then it’s a history book we need…OK, not so simple – Josephus has made a dogs dinner of Herodian history – and that’s another story….

        I’m not sure who the ‘they’ are – you mean certain ahistoricists/mythicists? Can’t put us all in the same boat…….I beat my own drum…;-)

  12. Shawn:

    I can empathize with and understand your justified anger towards religion, given your life experience.

    I find it more difficult to empathize with the anger of
    Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, since none of them, as far as I know, has suffered the same oppression.

    Perhaps it’s solidarity with those oppressed by religion on their part, a noble sentiment at times, but in many cases also one which masks a need to channel anger and scorn towards an easy and convenient target.

    • I think they take offense by the religious often suggesting that the creation story and other religious beliefs are as credible as scientific theories. The easiest way to motivate a scientist to speak is by speaking ignorantly, of course a good scientist that is also a good teacher would educate you and try not to make you feel like an idiot. Not just because that is the nice thing to do, but because people tend to be more resistant to your ideas if you start out by insulting them.

      In general though, I think one problem is many atheists approach the dialog with anger and cynicism. They attack the issue head on and pound it into submission (hence militant atheist). I’ve found myself attempting to use a Socratic method in discussion, primarily because skepticism is a powerful factor in favor of atheism and asking questions is often contagious.

      • It’s true: there is nothing intrinsically sensational(ist) about the conclusion that Jesus did not exist as long as it’s being considered on the basis of evidence and not merely analogy. Imagine trying to argue against the historical existence of MLK Jr on the basis of how similar his sermons are to other African-American preachers. –You’ll argue that we have much more to go on in the case of the modern figure. Exactly: it makes the argument from analogy weaker because it’s ancient and we have many fewer examples.

      • In general though, I think one problem is many atheists approach the dialog with anger and cynicism. They attack the issue head on and pound it into submission (hence militant atheist).

        But what you are describing is simply the way contemporary political “debate” takes place. (And I don’t think it was much more civil in past centuries, either.) And this should be expected, because the events that typically provoke a response from atheists are political actions – school prayer, or religious inscription is public buildings, or legal judgements which reflect religious bias. Speaking for myself, I rarely find myself engaged in such discussions with religious moderates, because there really isn’t a lot to talk about. (When someone like Andrew Sullivan says in his blog today that he is “epistemologically emphatically not a rationalist”, it’s unclear how a debate might proceed.)

        I’m also curious why the word “militant” is so casually applied to vocal atheists, but rarely to equally forceful religious leaders. I suppose one could draw the conclusion that all religious leaders are assumed to be militant…

      • I agree that the word militant is now being spread so wide and thin that it’s meaningless: anyone who defends an idea vigorously gets smeared with a term that’s coming out of the war on “terror.” I’d be happy to see it fade away.

  13. By this logic we may empathize with a slaves who hates (the mythical beast of) slavery, but not with people who oppose slavery even though they never suffered the same oppression.

    There are some implicit abolitionists who think: look, I know slavery is bad and all but let’s be realists: we live in the world were slavery exists and most slave owners are moderates and are really nice to their slaves and some even secretly don’t believe in the institute of slavery, but aren’t willing to openly admit it because they don’t want to upset their less moderate parents. Let’s just look for a way to peacefully coexist with slavery and hope that it will disappear naturally.

    • Do you really think an opinion about God is the same as an opinion about slavery? All I can say is, it is an analogy.

      • No, I don’t think it’s the same. Yes, it’s an analogy.

        Nevertheless, almost everything you say about religion can be said about slavery:

        Slavery is an idea. It doesn’t hurt on its own. It’s people practicing slavery who hurt other people. My grandfather fifty generations ago probably owned a couple of my other grandfathers. How can I reject that. Slavery is part of history. If it wasn’t for slavery many beautiful or at least impressive buildings probably wouldn’t exist.

        The New Abolitionists don’t hold degrees in doulology, so they can’t be taken seriously by the learned men.

        Since arguments of this form don’t work to justify tolerance towards slavery, they can’t work to justify tolerance toward religion. Other arguments could, these ones can’t. Or I’m wrong.

  14. Shawn:

    I don’t doubt that your childhood experience of religion was oppressive and intellectually/spiritually asphyxiating, but surely, not all experiences of religion are oppressive and spiritually deadening.

    Let me try to explain with an analogy. Say that someone writes about his or her experience working in a factory for Levi Strauss in Bangladesh, describing an environment of exploitation and poor labor conditions. I would tend to believe her, for many reasons, among which is the fact that the price of jeans has not gone up in 20 years, which means that they are cutting labor costs.

    I would also solidarize with her oppression and exploitation and participate in actions tending to better her situation, including boycotting Levi Strauss jeans.

    Now, let’s say that she goes on to condemn capitalism in general as the cause of her exploitation.

    I don’t agree with her perception, since there is nothing inherent to capitalism which implies exploitation, but I would understand her point of view. Probably, if I had to work in a sweat shop in Bangladesh, I would blame capitalism in general myself.

    Now, let’s say that she says that the only solution to her exploitation is a Leninist-style revolution, in which capitalists as a class are expropriated by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    In that case, I would strongly disagree with her point of view, but given what she has been through, I would understand her rage and her reaction.

    Now, let’s say that a tenured professor of Mathematics at Harvard, who has never been to Bangladesh nor speaks the language nor understands the culture begins to blog every day about the horrors of exploitation in Bangladesh.

    Fine. Solidarity with the exploited is a virtue. However, as Aristotle points out, all virtues are a mean between two extremes, in this case, between passivity faced with injustice and over-reaction/extremism.

    Now let’s say that said professor begins to call for an immediate end of capitalism in his daily blog and a Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat.

    I would wonder why. I would wonder why so much anger against capitalism and so energy dedicated to denouncing it, when Harvard, after all, is a product of capitalism, when he lives in a country which capitalism has made very prosperous, in spite of obvious social and economics inequalites. I would wonder if he has a greater need than normal to discharge anger against an easy target.

    There is a song: everyone needs someone to love. In my experience, everyone needs someone to hate, and many of the online New Atheists appear to me to be very similar to the Leninist Harvard professor, with a need to hate, a need directed against religion as well as an accentuated need to feel superior to others.

    I hope that I’ve made my point of view clearer.

    • Good analogy, but like any analogy – imperfect.

      In theory capitalism doesn’t have to produce exploitation. In practice it does. A good analogy to religion as studied by theologians and as practiced by, say, taliban.

      In theory Leninism has to produce terror. You can’t do away with it, terror is one of its constituents. How is that an analogy to the New Atheism?

      Your hypothetical professor lives in a capitalist society and enjoys its fruits. Do the New Atheists live in a religious society? No. They do enjoy many a fruit of religion though, that’s true.

  15. artm:

    Most analogies are imperfect, but let me gloss my analogy.

    First of all, we have two complex phenomena, which produce ills and benefits. Religion ranges from fundamentalist Islam to Reform Judaism and Zen Buddhism;
    capitalism runs from the sweatshops of Bangladesh and Cambodia to the welfare economies of northern Europe, with their government healthcare plans, good wages and decent pensions.

    Second, we have people who are directly oppressed by one form or another of religion or capitalism, for example, gays in Islamic societies or workers in sweatshops in Bangladesh.

    We have a duty, insofar as we have duties, to solidarize with those people and to listen to them with acceptance and empathy, even when we may not entirely agree with the conclusions that they draw from their unfortunate experiences. Thus, if a lesbian woman from Iran cries out that religion per se is the cause of her plight, I will heed her pain without pointing out that lesbian weddings are fine in the context of Reform Judaism, another religion.

    I will have a similar reaction when someone is oppressed or intellectually suffocated by evangelistic protestantism or Catholicism.

    Next, we have a group of people not directed oppressed by either religion or capitalism, in the first case, Dr. Dawkins and Dr. Coyne and in the second case, my hypothetical tenured professor of mathematics at Harvard, who could be compared to Dr. Chomsky with regard to capitalism or to Sartre at his worst regarding capitalism.

    I agree that their solidarity with oppression is a virtue.

    However, when they make the jump from solidarity with the oppressed to a life-long crusade against Religion or Capitalism as almost Platonic entities, my warning lights go on.

    Why? Because I distrust the saviors of humanity, especially those who come from on high. If you trust them, there is not much that we can say to one another. Note that I emphasize those saviors of humanity who come from on high, not those who emerge from among ranks of the oppressed.

    I distrust them first of all because I distrust their motives. I generally find them to be moved by an exalted will to power, a need to dominate rather than by a genuine care for the oppressed. That exalted will to power generally either leads them to make terrible mistakes and misjudge situations (Che Guevara, for example) or to use social change as a means for their own personal power trip (Lenin or Fidel Castro).

    I see the intolerance and belligerence of the
    online New Atheists as a symptom of that exalted will to power, a will to power that frightens me all the more since it is unconscious of itself and fueled by infinite self-righteousness.

    Note that in no way do I condemn or criticize the oppressed when in anger they rise up against their oppressors. If the gays of Iran burn mosques and then churches as a symbol of religion (if there are churches in Iran), I will observe without criticism. If a Harvard professor urges the gays of Iran to burn mosques and churches, my warning lights go on.

    However, not only do I distrust the motives of the saviors of humanity (and recall that for a Leninist or for a New Atheist, the ills of humanity have one and only one cause, in the first case, capitalism and in the second case, religion), I distrust the results:
    the results of attempts to construct a utopia on earth, either a planet without capitalism or one without religion, are always disastrous.

    Can we imagine a world without religion? Why would we imagine that a world without religion would be populated by only rational beings, as the New Atheist seem to? Wouldn’t people find new, non-religious pretexts to vent their irrational impulses? What positive functions does religion play in the lives of some people (I think of my parents, for whom, as they grow very old, Judaism plays a completely positive role in their lives) and what would replace those positive functions in a godless world? What ethical values does religion transmit and what institutions would transmit those values in a godless world? What right do I (I’m an atheist) have to
    try to destroy the heartfelt religious beliefs of others, as long as they do no harm? What harm does liberal religion do to anyone? What benefits does liberal religion bring us? Why should I be concerned if others believe in what I consider to be harmless illusions?

    • @ S. Wallerstein: “What right do I (I’m an atheist) have to try to destroy the heartfelt religious beliefs of others, as long as they do no harm? What harm does liberal religion do to anyone? What benefits does liberal religion bring us? Why should I be concerned if others believe in what I consider to be harmless illusions?”

      The right you do have, whether atheist or not, is the right to judge ideas – a right that is the cornerstone of intellectual evolution. No ideas are immune. Sure, you don’t have to accost your neighbour in the street and tell them they are believing in delusions. Seeking new knowledge is not an interest of most people. But for those who are interested in pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge, in this case knowledge related to our theological and religious heritage, they cannot be told to shut up because someone’s feelings or comfort zone is being threatened. It is not a question of liberal religion doing no harm, so therefore, leave its adherents to their delusions – it is a case of intellectual evolution being no respecter of person, time or place.

      Christianity has been called ‘the mother of heretics’ – heresy is it’s bread and butter. Today, of course, heretics are not burned at the stake – but that does not mean that heretics are any more welcome today than they were in days of yore. The spirit of that great inquisition remains. New ideas are not welcome. So, perhaps, don’t knock those who do tread the path of heresy – it’s not an easy path – but it’s a path that is an honourable one.

  16. Mary Helena:

    If you read my above post, you’ll see that I solidarize with those heretics or rebels who struggle against oppression. If that is your case, all my best to you.

    My criticisms apply to best-selling professional Atheists, who far from paying costs for their criticism of religion, reap only benefits, as they live in environments, say, Oxford, where atheism is “in”. I fail to understand in what sense Hitchens or Dawkins is a heroic heretic, although you well may be one in your own way. In fact, in many circles, Hitchens and Dawkins represent the New Orthodoxy.

    In fact, I feel that critics of the New Atheists, such as Julian Bagini (spelling?), Jeremy Strangroom, Jean Kazez and our own Dr. Hoffmann, are
    closer to contemporary heretics, as they have the courage to stand alone against the crowd that is the online New Atheist mob, headed by Coyne and Co.

    • Sam, thanks for recognizing that the lone wolves out here have a huge job of asking people to be more cautious. A battle against religion, like a war of terror, is hopeless. And a war against religious people is simply preposterous. Jeremy and Julian, I feel, are intellectual; comrades, though we all have slightly different slants. I do not know Dr Karez but admire her work and level headedness. And that is what we need. A level headed approach to unbelief.

  17. Pingback: You’re Doing It Wrong! « Choice in Dying

    • I don’t think I’ve talked much about forms of governance per se–have I? As in world domination? Nor do I identify as an old style implicit atheist. There has always been proactive extreme atheism, so you would first have to distinguish between th atheism, say of the American Atheists, which is anything but implicit and the Gnus; again, I don’t identify with either. Secular humanism and the atheism of the academy are probably implicit, and for the latter this is a pedagogical necessity:I would not teach a course “as” an atheist any more than I would teach it as a Presbyterian even if, as in my field, the subject matter touched specifically on the atheist world-view. I am a humanist. Full stop, explicitly. But I think your use of the word declarative is a useful one in describing whatever it is that new atheism turns out to be.

  18. “In other words, the atheist goal of obliterating religion is simply quixotic, and atheists should simply cease and desist with the radical critique of religion.”

    This is certainly the case. If the problem atheists have with religion and god is that religions represent god as a tyrant, then instead of attacking god (which only emboldens the most fundamentalist and cruel of religionists to be more cruel and more outspoken, and to proselytize with more zeal)…instead of this pointless, quixotic, attack on the very existence of god, they ought to simply teach a better kinder more rational god. You have to fight religion with religion.

    Atheists have to become Deists in other words. It was Deists after all that came up with natural law and human rights. Atheists are just a bunch of complainers taking credit for all the achievements that Deists made. All our freedoms in America depend on the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” Can you imagine an atheist Declaration of Independence “all men evolved from monkeys and therefore can be killed by the government whenever considered undesirable” or a Christian or Muslim one “all men who are not Christians/Muslims are blasphemers and should be stoned.” Only the Deists could have achieved the success of human rights because only their philosophy really allows for it. Atheism cannot see all men as created equal, since it doesn’t see them as created at all. Thomas Jefferson showed up how to fight crazy religion, and it wasn’t by atheism: it was by Deism. Duh.

    • @Rey: This is an interesting thought, about deism I mean. I don’t know what thread it corresponds to here–maybe to another blog, out there–somewhere?

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