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.