The Non-Elite: A Brief Meditation on the Nature of Atheist Humanism


What concerns me most about the misapplication of the word ‘humanist’ to full frontal atheists is that most such humanists are not humanists at all. Not in any meaningful sense. To be solipsistic about it, if they were they would not be full frontal atheists.

By dint of past associations, I have a great many ‘friends’ (as Facebook misuses the term) who would call themselves new or raw or ‘out’ atheists—-Dawkinsites in short.

In a pinch they will say they like books (who doesn’t?), art (sort of), and music (some). But I always have the impression that you can’t press them too closely on what books, music or art they like. It probably isn’t Bach, Chagall, or Proust. It certainly isn’t the Bible—-in any translation, or any context.

And that is the problem. The loudest God-deniers-—not all but the loudest-—seem to lack cultural context. They are metaphor poor literalists who (to be generous) see culture as a succession of is and isn’t trues, a long Advent Season awaiting the birth of Darwin.

It is easy for them to detest religion because they see religion as a truth claim and not against the tapestry of human cultural, political and artistic evolution. They worship Darwin because they think he got things straight–about our creatureliness anyway. They like Galileo because he told the Church the truth, and more recently they have heroized the intellectual trainwreck Giordano Bruno because he told the church to stuff it, even though it is not at all clear what it was he wanted it to stuff.

The fundamental atheist error is that they see culture as something external to human experience, not something that forms the intellectual environment, the diet, that defines our lives and nourishes our existence. They see biological evolution in about the right way, but man once evolved as a static thing that becomes mysteriously enslaved to cultural forces over which unpeopled churches and despotic governments assumed control until he freed himself in an eighteenth century epiphany of secularism, skepticism and science. They believe in a salvation myth more extreme and incredible than anything we find in the New Testament, one that flies high above the ground of history and fact.

It’s easy therefore for atheists to dismiss critics like me as elitist. We like Shakespeare (who is old) because we think he is always new. We think the past warns us prophetically against worshiping the future, trusting innovation, presuming that all problems and questions will be resolved by science. Some will, some won’t, as anyone who reads a little Sophocles is bound to discover. Of course, to those who don’t read history (or Shakespeare) the world is always new, including problems of statecraft and morality that were being discussed three thousand years ago.

Yet the atheists complain ad nauseam about the educational deficiencies of the crazy, fundamentalist religionists–the ones who also don’t read Shakespeare, or listen to Bach, or read poetry, or go to museums. The whole quarrel can be boiled down to a war between two non-elites who in their separate ways are anti-intellectual, anti-‘culture’, and regard most of the aesthetic development of human society with suspicion or a kind of contempt that comes from unfamiliarity.

To say that one side is pro-religion, the other anti-religion is the cipher for understanding the immensely boring distinction between the two sides. But in their basic instincts, the extreme literalism with which they approach questions of value and meaning, their naive Calvinist empiricism (that one side would recoil to hear called Calvinist, if they know who Calvin is) they are the same.

The one side claims to be naturalist; but the other is not ‘supernaturalist’ but supernatural naturalists. Both sides have become infatuated with the evidence of eyes and sense, and texts and faith. Neither is much interested in looking at how these minimal coefficients of human inquiry became dominant. The entire sideshow has become a slanging match between people who ‘believe’ the Bible and people who stick posters on Facebook blasting their sworn enemy, the God of the Bible and Buddy Christ. This cultural pornography, this less than puerile game is not humanism. It is not even intelligent atheism.

It would be a shame if the current anti-intellectualism of the atheist movement and organized humanism became the equivalent on college campuses of the Campus Crusade for Christ. I complained several years ago that this was already a trend, and that it threatened to produce a generation of learners who would be as resistant to the culture of the humanities as evangelical students were in the eighties and nineties when I started my teaching career.

But the non-elitism of the fundies is now only one form of nonelitism for sale in the university. It has been joined long since by the non-elitism of postmodernism and deconstruction, which at a stretch means that holding a book appreciatively in your hands is as good as reading it and erases distinctions of judgment as mere impressions; and the non elitism of popular science which drives the nail through the heart of the humanities by claiming the arts and humanities are hobbies that do not communicate real knowledge. What was called ‘scientism’ in the 1950’s can only be called stupidity in the twenty first century, yet there are plenty of university faculty members who see the world in just this way.

Let true humanism reclaim its elitist position in relation to these absurd heresies. Let it be what it always has been to the question of God: indecisive. Let it be what it was for four millennia: the itch to write, the need to think, the power to move (and be moved) by art, the joy of music, the skill of argumentation, and the power to enrich the world by human effort and design. Ah, and our record and knowledge of these things: history.

I am pretty sure that an atheism—even an atheism hidden behind the word ‘humanist’–has little to say about that agenda.

30 thoughts on “The Non-Elite: A Brief Meditation on the Nature of Atheist Humanism

  1. Living With a Wild God – Barber Ehrenreich – a suggested title rephrase: “It Dealing With a Wild Host”.
    Concluding phrase: “But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well,
    its designated function, – – to condense all the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other
    or Others, not necessarily because we love it – -, But because ultimately we may have no choice in the matter.
    I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us.out”..

  2. Your article reminds me a little of CS Lewis’ views on elitism and its appropriation of religion, so perhaps: a “mere humanism”?

  3. Wow…wtf? Atheist, as I tell some clown every day, means nothing but a non belief in deities. We don’t HAVE a “culture”.
    I am an atheist who loves William Shakespeare and can tell you what books I actually read but that has nada to me being an atheist.

    • Aye, you got it right.
      Atheists, by definition, don’t have a common culture.
      But movements like New Atheism need a common “creed” when dealing with the “other”(abrahamic faiths and whatnot).
      When you wish to stand against something, as a unified movement, in a way these guys have, you have to rally(for reason) around something.
      What they have chosen is boring, but it is simple and effective.

  4. Pingback: The Religious and the Spiritually Ridiculous | Evangelically Atheist

  5. Similar to one W. Shakespeare, I know little Latin and less Greek. Truth be told, I remember next to no Latin and never learnt any Greek. That said, after reading James Tabor’s *Paul and Jesus* I pondered long and hard. The religion of Saul (a.k.a. St Paul), Saulism, doesn’t resonate with the four versions (gospelism) of Jesus’ life! So I wondered: Saul started out in opposition to those who followed a teacher from Nazerath and then tried to turn that teacher into a deity. ᅳ OK, he fell off his horse, hit his head and had a creative moment; head injuries can be like that, sometimes.

    We call Saul’s time period “the first” century. I don’t really know what he called it, but wasn’t it ordinary at that time for people to think they saw gods everywhere and that “the” god or gods were responsible for whatever happened in some way?

    So, I wondered if, since no one really disputes the constant editing of the four versions of Jesus’ life, could the actual early sources of those versions have been polemics AGAINST Saulism? Looking at the ordinary stories from the four versions of Jesus’ life, many are simply not all that complimentary if we consider them in that time-frame. Casting out a demon and that demon infecting pigs who then jump into the sea … required only the change of one word: from sheep to pigs. It would have been a really harsh criticism of Jesus if he had destroyed someone’s flock! ᅳ Healing a leaper! How horrible, followers of the Torah simply did NOT pollute themselves by touching the unclean. What a terrible thing to say about a “teacher” … obviously he must have been a really heretical teacher! Surely “isn’t this the carpenter’s son” (probably intended to convey the gist of “village idiot”) must be one of the most biting criticisms that got cunningly turned into a compliment.

    BUT, Saulism seems to have caught on hugely. The stories had to be “adjusted”.

    I am sure this is absolute rubbish by any educated or academic standard. TOTAL Heresy to any devout believer; but when we consider that all religion is the invention of the human mind (perhaps extraordinarily insightful and creative minds, but nevertheless quite human), then we have to wonder, or maybe it is just I who has to wonder.

    I remember an early Christian argument I once read about. People began to notice that many elements of Christianity were exactly the same as ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman beliefs. Promptly the Church informed one and all that Satan pre-knew about the advent of Christianity so invented those ancient stories to lead people into temptation. Really! How much different would it be to “adjust” some ancient negative propaganda to promote the new status quo? And voilà, anti-Jesus movement material becomes the “new” testament.

  6. I’m not sure why you’re surprised that the atheist movement should be reaching for the most simplistic message. Simple, lowest-common-denominator movements are usually the way history happens, aren’t they?

    At least a Campus Crusade for Christ or a Rally for Reason contain a nod to the humanities in their alliteration. Asking for an understanding of metaphor is asking rather a lot, and asking for the restoration of the original meaning of the word ‘humanism’ seems positively quixotic.

    Why should a label have any importance anyway? A rose by any other name…..

  7. So Mr. Hoffman apparently thinks we should all read Chagall, Proust and the Bible rather than spend our lives seeking an understanding of everything in the universe through science. Why? Because scientific literalism will make us unable to understand cultural metaphors, of which the Bible has many. Further, we who find the scientific search for truth far more interesting than Proust’s fantasy stories or Chagall’s drawings allegedly “…see culture as something external to human experience, not something that forms the intellectual environment, the diet, that defines our lives and nourishes our existence.”

    No, Mr. Hoffman. We don’t lack understanding of cultural metaphors, we simply find the self-absorbed fantasies of Proust, Chagall’s Bizarro drawings, and the Biblical writings of scientifically ignorant men trying to make sense of the universe via anthropomorphism, to be terminally boring compared to the search for quarks and neutrinos, an understanding of quantum mechanics and the origin of the universe, life and human culture. If these don’t provide a healthy banquet of intellectual stimulation, I don’t know what will.

    In fact, the Bible makes many factual claims, which are not metaphors, which makes them scientific theories, subject to reality testing by scientific methods. One doesn’t need to ponder too long about whether the sun stood still for Joshua and backed up for Hezekiah to understand the depth of ignorance of the Biblical authors. We scientific literalists are quite aware of the role of religion in our cultural history (and often appalled by it), but we are also aware that like phrenology and alchemy, religious ideologies richly deserve to be relegated to history books as examples of humankind’s propensity to embrace wishful thinking instead of the harder work of disciplined, rigorous investigation.

    Yes it is easy to dismiss you as a would-be elitist, especially when we consider ourselves to be the elite. Scientific knowledge and the power it provides have done immeasurably more for humankind than all the ancient philosophers and modern theologians combined, and a REAL humanist would count that to our credit instead of painting us as cultural Philistines.

    • “In fact, the Bible makes many factual claims, which are not metaphors, which makes them scientific theories, subject to reality testing by scientific methods.” Sacred books are books. They say things that are naive, wrong, misunderstood alongside things that are right, poetic, and figurative. I am not aware that the Bible makes any ‘factual claims’ as you are using that phrase in your remarks. Perhaps what you means to say is that in telling their stories the writers regarded certain things a factual that later readers cannot accept as fact? What kind of scientific theories are you talking about? Genesis 1, 2? Jesus walking on water? I am intrigued.

      • Factual errors are legion in the bible, but if you’re intrigued, you can start with the two examples I mentioned about the sun stopping and backing up.

      • Mr RIddering – I think you are reading the bible literally with twenty first century post enlightenment expectations. That the sun performs miraculous interruptions of nature in the bible was not written in the first century as a ‘factual claim’.

    • To suggest that the pre-scientific worldview makes ‘factual claims’ is anachronistic. Myth and reality are not distinguished – they are post enlightenment concepts. ‘Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints… myths reveal that the World, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history, and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary.’ (Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality). How would Jesus describe plastic? “”Othello” is an anachronism: Desdemona dried her nose with her skirt, as Dr. Mary Walker and other reformers have done with their coattails in our own day –an evidence that revolutions sometimes go backward.”” (Ambrose Bierce) It is easy to dismiss those who demonstrate such misunderstanding as historically illiterate. A REAL humanist grasps the evolution of writing and ideas.

      • Steph, your claim that people prior to the enlightenment made no distinction between myth and reality is frankly ridiculous. Those in biblical times may have had little understanding of science but they weren’t stupid. They were pragmatic farmers and artisans. They engaged in trade, military, government, child-rearing and knew the difference between truth and lies in daily life. But like many people today, they also sincerely believed in magical, anthropomorphic humanoids. There was nothing metaphorical about the sun stopping for them. They simply didn’t understand how ludicrous that would be because they didn’t understand the solar system and the laws of gravity. To them the sun backing up would be no more improbable than a modern day Catholic believing that the cracker and wine he received at communion actually, literally, turned into the the blood and flesh of a long-dead Jew.

      • Precisely Tom, thank you for elaborating the lack of distinction between science and myth in a manner of speaking according to those pre Enlightenment times. Except that for modern Catholics, such belief defies the laws of known science and is frankly, ridiculous. Their belief (although alluding to resurrection) was understood as ‘absurd’ by Tertullian, and that is why he believed it… because it was absurd, it must be ‘true’……..

  8. Your disdain for the “new” atheists seems to a driving issue for you in post after post. I’m sure you would class me with “them”. For sake of discussion, let me accept that classification. I am certainly a non-elitest, though I wish I was intelligent enough and educated enough to be elite, but, alas. What is it you want us commonman atheists to do? Just shut up? Since we are not part of the intelligentsia as you are, are we supposed to refrain from expression and just accept our ignorance in silence. Do you expect us all to hold our silence until we obtain a PHD in some appropriate field of study. Your repeated condescension tells me as much.
    I have been a common atheist for 20+ years since I left the common ministry. I studied the Bible for 20 years while a charismatic, Jesus freak type christian, started a church with a group of guys, founded a common bible college which focused on the bible that I administrated and taught in, not philosophy or the scholastics. I’ve read the bible more times than I can remember. All that biblical study drove me to atheism. But, the topic is still what I’m driven to study as an autodidact. And I have tried to broaden and deepen my understanding of many cultural topics. Philosophy, Shakespeare, the western canon, cultural studies, literary theory, science and such have been included in my studies as I raised four children and worked a common job.
    So, with 40 years of studying religion on my own, I’m supposed to just keep my mouth shut because I’m common? I’m unqualified to stir discussion on facebook because of my cultural ignorance. As a political liberal I tend to be pushed to the end that defends the elitists against the attacks of the right. But, you, as a representative of the elitists push me to dismiss you as an elitist who sees himself as the only class qualified to speak.
    As far as being considered a humanist, I could care less about that moniker. But if your attitude is representative of humanism, you can have it.
    As a humanist, I would think you could accept the various levels of discussion that go on in our diverse culture and not be so pissy about it. (I know, a very common term)

    • ‘I studied the Bible for 20 years while a charismatic, Jesus freak type christian, started a church with a group of guys, founded a common bible college which focused on the bible that I administrated and taught in, not philosophy or the scholastics. I’ve read the bible more times than I can remember’… I wonder which ‘bibles’, fragments, manuscripts and translations were read repeatedly and how they were read each time – the same each time perhaps from left to right (unless the OT was Hebrew). Or maybe the answer is in the convictions of the reader at the time they read and the consequence of being ‘driven’ to denial of whatever had been understood when read. I’m sure you have authority to speak on the convictions you once held as a freak type of believer rather than a critical reader. I wonder how you read ‘elitist’. A bit like American republicans read ‘liberal’. Perhaps. I’m not sure why you read affiliation with any social classes being claimed by the author, but never mind. It’s not ‘new’.

  9. Thank you for this, it crystalizes a point I’ve had in my mind for the longest time with what I consider this new wave of atheism. It isn’t the atheism of the philosophers of yesteryear (agree with them or not), it seems to me, to be an attitude of easy pseudo-elitism – in their minds at least. There is talk about logic arguments but none specific of course, just that the religious argument is wrong and they fallaciously assume that if the religious argument nis wrong, theirs has to be correct. There is no introspection in this, it’s lazy. Ironically, this is what people say about fundamentalists, but I’ve found the atheist zealot to be just as dense.

  10. “I always have the impression that you can’t press them too closely on what books, music or art they like. It probably isn’t Bach, Chagall, or Proust. It certainly isn’t the Bible—-in any translation, or any context […] They are metaphor poor literalists.”

    Their metaphors betray them as readers of Dawkins (rarely his books on biology, unfortunately) and Harris, of comic books (Spider-Man above all others), of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and, above all, of their online New Atheist echo-chambers. In some cases they actually haven’t even mastered that reading list, and know Spidey, Harry and LOTR exclusively via the movies. Most of them have no idea that Tolkien was a Christian apologist, and have never heard of Tolkien’s pals Chesterton or Lewis, unless they realize that the Narnia movies were written by a friend of Tolkien’s named Lewis. They don’t know that Tolkien ripped off the Nibelungenlied. (The Middle German verse epic, not Wagner.) Many of them claim to have read the entire Bible and are clearly lying. They’ve read a few verses from Genesis and Leviticus in the above-mentioned echo chambers, or descriptions of that handful of verses, specially chosen for no other reason but to cast the entire bible into as bad a light as possible, and tell themselves that makes them Bible readers. They purport to admire Francis Bacon because Bacon “invented science,” but anyone who’s read Bacon’s scientific works must be struck by his generous acknowledgment of his debt to earlier writers, ancient and sometimes even (shudder!) medieval. They know nothing about Charles Darwin’s prominent scientific and atheist family and how he scandalized them with his openness to Christianity, they don’t know he almost ended up a pastor instead of a biologist. The width and breadth and depth of things they don’t know are breathtakingly vast. But to be fair to them, what I’ve said about them only applies in every single detail to about 99% of them.

    I agree with almost all of what you say here. I don’t agree with your using the term “atheists” to describe these people. Yes, they are atheists, but so is everyone else who doesn’t believe in the literal existence of any deities. That’s what the word means. I don’t feel like pretending that it suddenly means something much more specific. Claiming to be an unbeliever but not an atheist is as thoroughly ridiculous as claiming to be spiritual but not religious. No offense, but you’re an atheist. The people you describe above are New Atheists. Your term “Dawkinsites” will also do.

    • Steven. While you are free to limit yourself to narrow interpretations and labels, Joe is not an atheist. As a historian he does not believe in the literal descriptions and definitions of ‘deities’ but beyond these there are a wealth of ideas to explore. Joe has never dismissed religion and practise. Instead he is an active critic and participant. While most evolved modern Christians are critics of religious practice and interpretation in the light of history – historical and scientific evidence, Joe is Muslim and has been for two years. He was never an atheist. It is ridiculous to assume that lacking blind belief or being neutral equates with denial. So no offence, but you’re wrong.

      • Narrow? I, and most people, define “atheist” more broadly than Dr Hoffmann, and not so long ago he also defined it more broadly, using the term in its conventional sense. As recently as 2011, on this blog, Hoffmann called himself an atheist, a “soft-shell anti-American atheist.” While much has changed in the past 3 years, including the way Hoffmann defines the term “atheist,” for me, the Oxford English Dictionary and almost everyone else it still means “one who doesn’t believe in the existence of a God.” And. Nothing. More. It doesn’t mean you can’t have occasional momentary doubts about your unbelief. (Most of us do.) It doesn’t mean you have to take a nasty and simplistic approach to religion, or history, as PZ Meyers does. (No-one was ever going to think that Hoffmann was remotely similar to Meyers in any way.) It doesn’t necessarily entail any opposition or hostility at all toward religion per se. It doesn’t mean you can’t find Thomas Aquinas’ writing simply delightful. It doesn’t mean you can’t be a practicing Buddhist or Jew or Muslim or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

      • Yes, narrow. Dictionary definitions are simplifications. I have read all the articles on Joe’s weblog and am very familiar with discussions about the complexities of non belief and what it is not believing. You make a lot of assumptions – atheism simply defined is “one who doesn’t believe in the existence of a God.” But what is implied by God? That idea needs further explication. Nobody suggested atheism is about ‘doubting’ unbelief or being historically illiterate regarding religion. You seem to assume Joe has ‘doubted’ an unbelief he never had. Shedding particular beliefs once held is not the same thing as doubting belief when ‘belief’ is an evolving concept. Joe has never been an ‘atheist’ any more than I have. To categorise people according to your limited insight into their ideas, is arrogant egotism. And to say ‘I am Muslim’ is far more meaningful than whether or not you ‘practise’ according to somebody’s set of rules. Religious people will dismiss each other as atheists or heretics arbitrarily and have done so through history. It doesn’t surprise me that you do too. Such reductionism ignores the sophistication of human reality and overrates the power of language and sufficiency of labels. The limits of your interpretation of language limit your world. Labels are compromises and often flawed in an attempt to halt evolving exploration, and in this case, atheism is entirely wrong.

  11. wow! This blog certainly has generated considerable commentary; some of it about the author, which seems not very helpful. Those comments should have been devoted to a consideration of the content, not the author.

    I am a nonbeliever, but my life’s experiences have cause me to not disregard my early religious background. Such background has had enriching effect somewhat like when reading Shakespeare and other books in the Humanities. As for being a religious nonbeliever, I didn’t know I was one until I heard someone express their sincere belief in God and His redemptive qualities. I realized then that I didn’t believe, but I had enjoyed the tales presented in sunday school. A kind of early introduction to the Humanities. Stories that, if well considered, can be instructive. There are villains and heroes, love stories, stories of courage and betrayal, consideration of the poor, of healing, of cleverness magic, science and fairy tales and more. Similar to what can be found when reading Greek and Roman literature as well as Norse, Hindu and more. So, should one disregard religious literature? I think not. If atheists consider religion to have been created by humans then why be so antagonistic.

    The author’s commentary would have been improved had he explained his understanding of what qualities are a part of the Humanist concept. He suggests that atheist ignore or are not very aware of history and literature. Therefore history and literature are important to being a Humanist. But, what else? I have noticed that those with a strong academic background seem to be speaking to other academicians who are aware of the debates occurring among that specific group. Not everyone is in that group. So, additional explanation is necessary for the rest of.

    My since is that Humanism comes preloaded with positive virtues whilst the Atheists are still working on it. I consider myself to be a Humanist as expressed by those positive values, virtues and rational considerations of what seems best for a sustainable, nonviolent human relationship and with consideration toward the rest of nature and natures creatures.

    So, what are what is the difference between a Humanist, an Atheist and a Secularist? Anybody?

    DAVID H.

  12. In the post- PZ Meyers interregnum of just the past few years I think we can detect that western notions of God – so alien to eastern thought and their closer identification with the Tao – I see the whole concept of theism as sliding off the table. And with that any debate about atheism, it is akin to discussing yesterday’s racing form.

    Humanism is arising slowly in company with sympathy for the planet and the environment, not by dissociation with religion. The young are so desperate for a credo that they buy tickets to Syria in search of simply belonging- to something.

    Methinks that humanism will crystallize in the wake of consolidated species governance – see . I am much more comfortable with Confucianism than God games, and can anticipate humanity adjusting to that or Taoism to fit our maturing view of our relationship to our planet – which legitimately seeks our attention, and is getting it, with or without the G.O.P.

    Harmonizing with ourselves will be the theme of this century, and humanism will coalesce during that process.

  13. Dwight,
    That is an optimistic worldview. I write a year after during a (US) political season that is shocking in its extremism. Perhaps you are taking long view but harmony is not a given for ourselves or our planet.

  14. Atheists don’t like Shakespeare? They claim to read books but pressed to go into detail the are unable to say exactly what they like? They don’t appreciate Bach? Atheists believe in a salvation myth more extreme and incredible than anything we find in the New Testament? “The loudest God-deniers seem to lack cultural context”. These extreme atheists “regard most of the aesthetic development of human society with suspicion or a kind of contempt that comes from unfamiliarity”. Come on, this is complete crap. I agree that the pedantry of many hard atheists is unsufferable, but saying that “hardcore atheists” don’t appreciate culture is simply stupid. Very well written, by the way, but ultimately a ridiculous argument.

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