Trolling atheists

Scott Stephens has a good heart, and is refreshingly well acquainted with the absurdities of politics. However, in his capacity as an antagonist of atheists, I find his arguments rather inadequate.

While Stephens propounds his notion of “chic” and “fashionable” atheism, I sense that his own lines of reasoning are sculpted by the vacuous fashions of anti-atheist campaigning. Stephens’ opening mention of atheism (which actually occurs well into his article) goes like this:

There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.

This rather depends on your definition of atheism, and also the societal context. The increasing number of non-religious people in Australia probably does create a context in which absence of belief is an aspect of conformance. However, it is debatable whether these people are true atheists, for whom the argument itself is of fundamental importance. Atheism is not just the absence of belief, but the rejection of it, and you cannot reject something that you haven’t truly thought about. I think Stephens’ talk of “ultimate conformism” is a product of his own over-eagerness to see irreligious society as a uniform cesspit of unspeakableness, rather than any careful, objective observation.

Stephens goes on to make another familiar complaint:

This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist “New Atheism” – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.

Who, among the atheists of this world, blames everything on religion? That seems rather an extreme interpretation of atheism.

Science and education are the crucial mechanisms by which atheism proposes to address social ills. Different atheists take different views on the extent of religious interference in science and education. In Australia, it seems quite minimal. In the US, religion poses a real threat to science education, and thus to science itself and the employment prospects of the next generation. In Africa, religion continues to obstruct the fight against AIDS, by opposing contraception. If atheism “poses no serious challenge” to such problems, it is only because religion is already too powerful.

Stephens then explains the root cause of atheism:

Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism.

And hence it is altogether unsurprising that, when we can’t even think clearly about such lower-order goods, the highest Good, and what philosophy once regarded as the ultimate object of human contemplation – namely, God himself – is beyond our imaginations.

If we are to “think properly” about Good, Beauty, Truth, etc., then my first question would be what “properly” means. It seems just slightly sinister, as though there are Correct thoughts and Incorrect thoughts. Meanwhile, actual scepticism doesn’t really fit into Stephens’ picture at all – you either unconditionally acknowledge God’s supreme Goodness, or you are utterly ignorant of God, having succumbed to “incurious and all-pervasive nihilism”. There can be no genuine questioning of God, except for that which leads to the appropriately sanctioned conclusion.

Moreover, it is equally unsurprising that when the New Atheists do speak of “God,” their god is just as vulgar and petty and agonistic as their conceptions of morality, gender, politics and sex. When they speak thus about “God,” are they not just seeing what is worst in ourselves?

“Their” god? The god discussed by New Atheists is the god of the masses – the being actually worshipped by countless millions of people – not some Freudian fantasy. That’s the point of New Atheism; it bypasses theologians and theological arguments and talks directly to the actual beliefs of real people.

Moreover, what does Stephens have in mind, precisely, when he alludes to substandard atheistic notions of morality, gender, politics and sex? Is he simply conflating atheism with everything else he doesn’t like? Perhaps we are seeing what is worst in ourselves, but if so then it’s the New Atheists who are trying to improve things.

Stephens moves on to what he considers a “desperate contradiction” at the heart of “atheistic hyperbole”:

But they also claim that all religion is “man made,” and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination?

Correct, Mr Stephens – you have understood the contention, albeit through circuitous, tautological reasoning in which you conclude your own premise. Stephens does eventually come to the point:

And so, as Bernard Williams puts the question:

“if humanity has invented something as awful as [these atheists] take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?”

And so, it would seem that we are left with an unavoidable choice: either these atheists are really misotheists, God-haters, who rage against the very idea of God, the Good, Truth and Law, and so desperately try to will God out of existence; …

I think we can discount that absurd possibility, Mr Stephens. The “Atheists hate God” meme simply arises from some people not wanting to believe that actual atheism is actually psychologically possible.

…or their oft-professed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress is without justification; …

Without justification? Atheists accept human frailty, therefore our belief in humanity’s capacity for progress is without justification? I think not, Mr Stephens, but I’ll get back to this shortly.

…or the history of religion reflects the extraordinary human capacity to pursue the Good, as well as its equally pronounced tendency for Evil, idolatry and nihilism.

Well yes, it does1. However, I don’t see how this addresses atheists’ contention that religion is made up. If anything, this actually supports it.

But let’s get back to Bernard Williams’ point – the middle option in Stephens list of alternatives – which is a terribly simplistic piece of reasoning. Atheists do generally argue that (a) religion is both a product of and a burden on humanity, but that (b) humanity can ultimately take care of itself. These are in some respects contradictory notions, but they do not really undermine each other. Atheists do not contend that religion wipes out all that is good in humanity. It’s a matter of scale and perspective. We might well regard religion as evidence of humanity’s flaws, but religion is not a sufficiently bad idea to write off humanity altogether, and few atheists would think it was. Atheists would contend that religion is a mistake of humanity, but a mistake that we, as a species and a global civilisation, can learn from. It’s that learning process that constitutes progress, in my mind.

The definition of progress that Mr Stephens supports might be extrapolated from his closing remarks:

I often hear atheists insist that they do not need God in order to be good. But if I am in any way accurate in what I have argued here, we are faced with a far more destructive possibility: that without God, there simply is no Good.

Yes, Mr Stephens. Without God you might be forced to settle for “good”, rather than “Good”. Oh the humanity.

  1. I don’t see human endeavour bifurcated into Good and Evil, though. That reminds me too much of politics, and I would hate for the universe itself to succumb to such petty notions. []

A “pseudo-intellectual trifle”

Scott Stephens has an article on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website called “The Poverty of the New Atheism“.

PZ Myers has a go at this (and he’s seen it all before). Stephens’ article resembles the Courtier’s Reply, another of Myers’ illuminations. Theologians seem to object to atheist arguments not because they’re wrong – they hardly even mention the issue of correctness – but because atheists pay insufficient attention and reverence to the details of theological discourse. In this case, Stephens objects to “New Atheism” not because it makes errors but because it doesn’t go far enough into his other pet interests.

Many of Stephens’ remarks are just empty put-downs, like this:

But is there not is a kind of implicit acknowledgement of inferiority in the tone so many of the “New Atheists” have adopted? The air of contemptuous flippancy reduces atheism to a form of light entertainment and petit bourgeois chic.

New Atheists might adopt contemptuous flippancy towards the more extreme and fantastical religious imaginings floating around, but it’s not atheism that this reduces to light entertainment – it’s religion. Their tone might convey arrogance (which is the usual accusation), but Stephens does this quite well himself, as you can see.

Stephens use of “bourgeois” might be telling, considering that his next dozen paragraphs lead us on a wild adventure into Marxist philosophy. Stephens is strangely enamored with Marx, who he promotes above the New Atheists. I was torn between two possible reasons for this. Either –

  1. Stephens wants to laugh at his contemporary adversaries by comparing them unfavourably to a long-vanquished foe; or
  2. Stephens does see a redeeming quality in Marx, and is disdainful of New Atheism for not also being New Communism.

I lean towards the latter interpretation, because Stephens wraps up his Marxist adventure as follows:

And here the “New Atheists” fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

I think Stephens displays a profound misunderstanding of the terms of reference, so to speak, of atheism. It is silly to chastise atheism (or agnosticism, or secularism) for what it doesn’t do. Atheism is not supposed to be a holistic solution for all your philosophical needs; it is only one aspect of philosophy.

In particular, if you want to hear atheists make passionate moral arguments, tell them to take off their atheist hats and put on their secular humanist ones. It is humanism that (typically) drives morality for atheists, not atheism. Atheism is concerned with the non-existence of God. That’s not just where it happens to be focused at the moment; that’s what it is. New Atheism is merely a modern-day expression of this.

It’s even sillier to accuse New Atheism of legitimising “the pathologies of capitalism”, simply by having nothing to do with it. Atheists span the entire political spectrum. As many atheists would argue for capitalism as against it. As many theists would argue for capitalism as against it. We can debate the existence of God without invoking economics. We can debate the relative merits of capitalism without invoking the supernatural. The two issues are completely independent, and it serves no purpose to conflate them.

However, Stephens finally uses the capitalism theme to launch into the unlikeliest of proposals:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed – though not unproblematically – an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

“Not unproblematically” is something of an understatement, you might think. Atheism would not be atheism if it made an “alliance” with religion – the idea is self-contradictory. Secular humanism might make an alliance with religion (in some hypothetical context) – and that might even entail atheists, but not atheism per se.

Finally, we have this:

By continuing to ignore its debt to the Christian intellectual and moral revolution, and by severing itself from the profoundest insights of its own tradition, the “New Atheism” will find it impossible to avoid becoming a fad, a pseudo-intellectual trifle.

That’s the thing about atheism, Stephens – it has no debt to the past. Atheism is merely the rejection of religious mythology. Every one of us is born with the capacity for such reason. We don’t need cues from those living decades, centuries or millennia ago – we can work it out for ourselves. And that’s why it will endure.

One belief does not a religion make

There’s nothing like a righteous religious leader for a good dose of stagnant inanity. Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen doesn’t let us down (SBS, ABC, News Ltd):

As we can see by the sheer passion and virulence of the atheist – they seem to hate the Christian God – we are not dealing here with cool philosophy up against faith without a brain.

One should immediately be suspicious of the phrase “the atheist”. Those two words alone give Jensen away, if you think about it for a moment. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, it brings to mind whinging complaints about “the Jew”. The reason he does it, I imagine, is that it carries more weight than just “atheists”. He’s not referring to the group overall, but to each and every member of it. They’re all the same, so nuanced reasoning is not required.

The “passion and virulence” of atheists was picked up on earlier by Monash University Professor Gary Bouma, who accuses atheists of stoking sectarian conflict. This is a convenient rhetorical device used to turn “arguing the point” into something negative. I haven’t heard of any atheist mobs hurling bricks through church windows. It’s really just hypocritical invective.

“Atheists hate God” has been a long-running mantra in certain religious circles, voiced frequently by those who apparently see no contradiction in the idea of hating an entity that one does not believe to exist. Christians do not generally “hate” the various supernatural entities of other religions (as far as I’m aware), so why would atheists “hate” the Christian God? I find it incredible that this misconception continues. Jensen clearly suffers from an acute lack of imagination.

Atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself.

This is a manifest falsehood, made all the more dishonest because Jensen uses such emphasis. Christianity posits an entire volume of miracles, historical events, prophecies, commandments, virtues, vices and assorted supernatural beings, not to mention the church’s additional evolving beliefs, rituals and systems of authority over the last two millennia. What dogma does atheism have to compare to all this? Atheism merely states that there is no God, and even that is argued over within the atheist community. (Is it right to say that God doesn’t exist, or merely that we cannot substantiate the concept of God?)

As a general remark, it’s curious that religious leaders choose to describe atheism condescendingly as a religion. They have no problem describing as religions their own institutions, which purport to offer the most important truths that you can possibly know. Surely, if their world view has any merit, calling atheism a religion would be elevating, not denigrating it. This is a hint that our protagonists don’t truly believe what they’re saying. I suspect they know at some level, perhaps subconsciously, that religion cannot compete with science or higher philosophy; that in fact it does not offer the absolute truth of the universe. Instead, they merely resort to suggesting (without a hint of justification) that atheism also suffers from the same fundamental problems.

It represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to him.

It is a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves.

The notion of a “human assault on God” is rather amusing. Is Jensen really saying that rebellious atheists are ganging up on the Supreme Being? The force that supposedly created time itself and brought into existence a trillion galaxies is under “assault” from the electrical impulses of a bunch of organic molecules on one tiny rock? Forgive me if I don’t show overflowing concern for His well-being. Even if I believed in Him, I’d expect the Creator of the Universe to be a little more resilient than that.

As for resentment and idolatry, I suspect this is just part of how Jensen justifies his own faith. The notion that it might be possible to not worship anything at all seems alien to people who make these sorts of arguments. They don’t truly believe that atheism is even possible, so they translate it into something else more amenable to their understanding.

Jensen might reflect on the company in which he finds himself. Among the other religious commentators of late is Catholic Bishop of Parramatta Anthony Fisher:

Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating: Nazism, Stalinism, Pol Pot-ery, mass murder, abortion and broken relationships – all promoted by state-imposed atheism.

This is why I think I’m safe from Godwin’s Law. It’s pure self-parody. I’m happy to see that, in a list containing Nazism and Stalinism, Fisher found room to bemoan the tyranny of broken relationships.

Ponderings of sanity

There are many things to be said about debating in online forums. One, that you learn early on, is that it doesn’t take much effort to find the fruitcakes. It really doesn’t. The people who firmly believe that the World Trade Centre was brought down by explosives, as evidenced by the “indisputable fact” that it “fell faster than gravity”, because just look at that YouTube video. The people who believe you’re going to hell not just because you don’t believe in God, but because you haven’t performed the 54-day version of the “Rosary Novena” (a type of prayer) and that TV shows made since the 1960s are so unforgivably immoral that they must be the work of Satan Himself. The people who equate taxation with slavery and socialism with atheism. The people who believe that oil is not derived from ancient organic matter but instead is simply “produced” by the Earth’s core. The people who proudly challenge you to disprove their three-paragraph thesis on why the entirety of science on evolution and cosmology is flat-wrong and the literal Biblical account is the only possible alternative.

One person I encountered had a pet theory on the nature of photons (particles of light): that each in fact comprises an electron and a positron in orbit around each other. Facts, such as the one where photons have no mass, unlike electrons and positrons, do not pose a hindrance to such theories, I’ve discovered. The idea, more generally, that experts in the field have been looking into this sort of thing for quite some time, publishing multitudes of peer-reviewed journal articles along the way, is of little concern.

Not that I’d wish to put you off online debating, but as you’re encountering these varied and interesting specimens, you’re bound to pick up a few insults, depending on what fascinating theory you’re being unreasonably sceptical of. As a change of pace from the usual names I get called – leftist, liberal, socialist, atheist (which at least is true), materialist or totalitarian – I’ve recently been called a “Bushbot”. This is an interesting and somewhat disturbing thought, considering some of the stuff that’s popped up in my George Bush “Out of Office Countdown” off-the-wall calendar.

Not even Bush though can match some of the wisdom of the Internet, which I’ve decided to share with you:

“In addition, the Earth is continually producing oil, because “Peak oil” was a carefully crafted myth. Oil does not come from dead dinosaurs as you skulls full of mush have been brainwashed to believe.”

“Scientists are usually the last to know about anything”

“A price chart is how I make my living….It represents truth.”

“A truth to point, all the Atheists I know have no children and it is always due to thier Atheistic mental state as compared to normal (spiritual) people. I know 7 Atheists; three couples. Sure many Atheists do produce children but certainly a large number possessing the Atheistic mind, refuse and will therefore generally NOT pass on either their genetic or social make up to the younger generations.”

“The constant social and technological progress resulting from the constant advancement of the metaphysical mind set means that we now have societies full of people, some of whom now can survive to adulthood with all alorts of personal shortcomings. This obviously includes Atheists.”

So now you know.