Is “Beyond Belief” Beyond Critique?

I don’t know Tristan Vick, the blogmeister at Advocatus Atheist, but I think I like him.

Back in April, when I wrote a series of articles criticizing New Atheism for being loud and obnoxious, Tristan said I was being loud and obnoxious and to put a lid on it.  I was being so persistently obnoxious, in fact, that if I’d replied to the article then I would have been even louder.  So I’m glad I waited. Time’s a healer.

Tristan points out:

Obviously Hoffmann doesn’t know anything about the education of the New Atheists. Sam Harris is a philosopher turned Neuroscientist, and holds a PhD in modern Neuroscience from UCLA. Richard Dawkins is a world renowned evolutionary biologist and he was the University of Oxford’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. Christopher Hitchens is an infamous atheist intellectual, a savvy journalist, and graduated from Oxford University. Meanwhile, Hoffman groups other atheists into this ‘unlearned’ category when he adds the abbreviation for and company (i.e., et al.) to his list of passionately despised New Atheists. So I can only assume he means other “uneducated” men like Dan Dennett (Philosopher, PhD), Victor Stenger (Physicist, PhD), Richard Carrier (Historian, PhD), David Eller (Anthropologist, PhD) among plenty of others. For the life of me I cannot seem to figure out how these men reflect the unlearned and unreflective side of New Atheism.”

Well, obviously I know (have always known) all of this, and leaving to one side whether credentials insulate you from being a jerk on occasion (it hasn’t helped me) a couple of other things need correction rather than apology.

The last 18th century wit?

First, I don’t passionately despise anyone–least of all any of the people in the paragraph above.   I hugely admire what every single one of them has done in their academic discipline–from Richard Dawkins bringing science into public consciousness to Christopher Hitchens’s sometimes lone crusade for sanity in the world of politics.

I cannot think of a single person mentioned whose scholarship should be impugned or their credentials questioned in their speciality.  And I am very grateful that Tristan knows and likes some of what I have written in the field of biblical criticism–which he’s obviously into in an impressive way.

The question really is whether when they (or yours truly) speak as atheists they deserve immunity from criticism, since there is not (yet) a professional qualification in the field that would entitle anyone to speak with greater authority on the subject than anyone else–not someone whose field is evolutionary biology, not someone whose field is anthropology, not someone working as a journalist.   Naturally a good knowledge base, like a second Pinot Grigio at lunch, is nice to have, but when we speak about atheism, we’re all amateurs.  If some atheists admire certain people as spokesmen because they’re “raw and rude” (I think I’m quoting PZ on how young people like it), there are others who like it medium-well and slightly tenderized.  You can substitute Chinese-food metaphors here if you like.

That fundamental point is already implicit in the discussion.  I’m guessing that Dr Coyne and Dr Myers don’t bring the language of the blogosphere with them to professional meetings. I don’t either.  One of the joys of blogging about things we’re all equally amateurs in is that we can release the verbal energy diffusely that we can’t use on colleagues directly.  You might want to tell old Dr Jenkins that as contributions to science his papers might just as well have appeared in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but you won’t say that to his despicable face.  That’s why it’s nice to have a cause you believe in–a mission– and a space to share it with people whose offices aren’t next door. Blogs make us prophets in small kingdoms.  But they still don’t make us experts. Popular atheists shouldn’t mind developing fan clubs and cohorts.  But fan clubs and cohorts should be careful about turning their enthusiasm for good ideas and sexy styles into appeals to authority.  I myself am working on a sexy style.

Without any backup for this, I’d guess that 80% of the best academics at the best colleges and universities embrace some form of unbelief and keep it to themselves.  And besides this, scholarship in most humanistic disciplines (including the study of religion) is implicitly atheistic–everything from history to philosophy to literature.  There’s no room for “supernaturalism”–and that includes God theories–in public or most good private universities. That battle has been won in methodology, if not in the classroom.  If you don’t believe me, try getting an article published in a peer-reviewed journal by arguing that Joan of Arc’s visions were real.

The larger, discussable, popular atheism that seeps out of the academy in the form of books, lecture tours, debates and blogs (no, I’m not saying it all originates there; but Tristan’s list suggests that it is a major pipeline for discussion and feeds into a thousand internet channels) isn’t subject to the same kind  of “peer review” that scholars expect when they are speaking or writing as professionals and experts in their field. That’s what makes the “raw and rude” atheism of the blogosphere different from the assumed and methodological atheism of the academy–even though the two forms aren’t opposed and not really in conflict–except as to tenor and style.

Unfortunately, the people-part of popular atheism won’t always cotton to the sometimes elitist-feeling, genteel-seeming atheism of the marble halls.  Ask anybody in the list above who has been in full-time academic employment and climbed the tenure ladder about the process: the answer will be roughly the same. No professor would last very long if she mimicked or abused the religious sentiments of a religious devotee during a classroom discussion–no matter how strongly she’s convinced that education means, among other things, getting over it.  When I see atheist comrades being a little too–how you say in your language–robust in this matter once freed from the shackles of classroom teaching, I have to admit my discomfort.  Easy enough at this point to let sparks fly: I seem deficient in my commitment to the truth. (As in Hoffmann coddles believers).  And my plainspoken colleague seems deficient in kindness and generosity.  But can’t we have, or try to have, both?

Within the last five years I was asked directly by a [here nameless] department chair (and I quote) “How does your atheism affect your teaching of history.”  I responded somewhat pointedly that if he had asked that question of a Catholic or a gay I would report it to the dean, but as it was about atheism I would let it ride.  He was curious, so I said, “Because even though there is no God,  he has played an enormous role in human history.” (He found it amusing.)


Does the fact that in popular atheism ideas are thrown onto the battlefield and caught in a crossfire mean that there should be no review or critique of what atheists say at all?  That doesn’t seem likely, does it? There has to be review, there will always be criticism.

But that doesn’t mean that atheists should leep quiet about each other when they find members of the home-side bending the rules of healthy discourse. That includes me. It needs to be said that not all outrageous statements, even if they’re funny, benefit atheism. And I think name-calling and petulance hurts all of us.  In saying this, I hope for agreement, not a dozen replies that begin “See, Hoffmann is learning.  There is still hope.”

Once upon a time, a guy could get excommunicated from the Church for calling a preist a bastard, even if the priest was one.  In some states (believe it or not) it is still a tort (libel per se, or something equally preposterous) to speak ill of (cough) a lawyer.  Academics have never enjoyed such privilege.  That’s a good thing, as long as we keep the discussion at the level of ideas.  Unlike priests and  lawyers, there is nothing sacred about being an academic, despite the fact some academics would like there to be.

So here’s the deal.  As long as we’re clear that academic credentials confer no privilege or special dignity in a discussion–a conversation that has to be democratic, no matter how close to the earth we walk–I completely agree that calling people “superjerks” is out of bounds.  We need to develop language that shows the big old largely religious world that atheism isn’t coming apart at the seams.  Again.  Tristan says,

“Criticizing atheism, mind you, is a good thing. It helps us persistent, loud mouthed, fundamental atheist types check our arguments and hone, refine, and improve them. Criticism only seeks to make us stronger critical thinkers. We can learn from positive as well as negative criticism, and criticism allows us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, perchance to grow better and learn to reason better. But Hoffmann isn’t offering advice; he’s being a dick.”

Can’t say I love being a dick, but I do love what he says about criticism. The worst thing unbelievers can do is split up into grumbling factions of science-atheists, humanities-atheists, and social science-atheists (talk about dicks: just kidding) to see whose atheism is the purest form of the product.  I think keeping the discussion going, even if it occasionally roils into disagreement and criticism, is better than sulking or going it alone. There’s a lot we have to talk about to each other in a world that winks at the grief caused by religious devotion but scorns the wisdom that unbelief represents.

So Tristan: while I can apologize for being a dick,  I can’t apologize for being critical, and don’t think you’d want me to.  When I am all grumbly and obnoxious, I really don’t mind your telling me.

We all need to get to know each other’s ideas a little better.