I came across a National Post article recently about atheists, agnostics and non-believers rallying, or, if you prefer, revolting, against “religion.” Headlined by the UK’s very own Richard Dawkins, the high priest among the “evangelists of unbelief”, who told atheists, “We are far more numerous than anybody realizes.”
Apart from adding a “So what!” to that slightly insecure posturing, I want to go through the article and poke it a little.
Apparently the atheists attending the Reason Rally (of 2012!), funded by twenty secular and humanist groups, were “coming out” – a cheeky reference to some religious aversions to homosexuality. And they were doing this because for too long they (atheists), have been “cowed into fear” about publicly declaring allegiance to atheism!
Are you kidding me? Since the horror show of 9/11, the rise of a militant, aggressive, trendy and dare I say, old atheism has returned (a Second Coming?), so to speak. The language of Neo-Atheism uses the same rhetorical and epistemological assumptions from whence it came – the rationalist wing of the Enlightenment, an enlightenment which has served humanity very well, but in its more fundamentalist disguises, has sought to be more closed minded and aggressive than the closed-minded and aggressive religious fundamentalists, and thus becomes a parody of itself, being anything but enlightened, one dimensional ideological power games of assertion and right, without debate or [mature] discussion. Thus Alistair McGrath – the scientist who is also a Christian theologian – shock, horror)! – writes that atheist assertions often (always!) “…merely mask tired, weak and recycled arguments.”
That the comment of numerical superiority prompted loud cheers from the crowd reminded me of Anthony Thiselton’s comments, paraphrased here:
Such status-seeking, power-seeking [people] would thus “play to the gallery” to win “audience applause”, in the hope that this would impress those they desired as patrons. Also, such status-seeking, power-seeking [people], in order to win such applause and please such patrons, would preach an audience-affirming or audience-pleasing message, as well as a message that affirmed their desired patrons and their interests and factions, and a message that commended themselves to those patrons, interests, and factions. Thus, such socially-climbing [people] would distort their message into a local “what their itching ears want to hear” testimony about self, about patrons, interests, and factions, and would then dress this up as “the truth”. Basically, [any ideology or worldview] can be turned into a colossal “selfy”, into an autobiographical message about self, and not primarily a message about truth.
The irony is, of course, is that Thiselton is writing about early Christians in Corinth, hell-bent on self promotion and self-seeking, speaking and listening to messages they wanted to hear. He is critiquing Christians in this regard, or, as the Bible says, taking the plank out of your own eye first, which is what the gospel does. That is why P. T. Forsyth knew that the role of genuine theology is to uncover the truth, which must include the uncomfortable truth of the forms and masks worn by egoism in society” (italics mine).
Hence Thiselton counsels in ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’ another vital aspect of theology, “It is one task of theology, among others, to attempt to disentangle manipulative power-bids from non-manipulative truth-claims, and to distinguish evidence, argument, or valid testimony from modes of rhetoric which rely on seduction, disguised force, or illegitimate appeals to privilege.” Ludwig Wittgenstein builds on this when he says this is why struggle and judgement include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
I say this because as I read the article, I kept saying, “So what?” And “And?”, etc. The problem with revolting rallies like this is that it is open minded free speech masquerading as liberated intellectualism, but it isn’t. It really isn’t. G. K. Chesterton said that “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth is to shut it again on something solid.” I mean, we don’t want to be so open minded that nothing stays in for very long!
Think about it (no pun intended – or maybe it was!). Why oh why would a crucifix be raised with a sign on it saying, “Banish the Ten Commandments to the dustbin of history.” That’s not so much free speech, but more like the sheer defiance of willed ignorance. I often wonder why it bothers some people so much! “Oh, religion just brainwashes people!” they say! Well, look at that! In what way does this kind of rally not brainwash people into a way, or one way of thinking? That one of the event’s speakers, Michael Shermer, announced that America was built on reason, is a case in point; he has either simply failed to a) understand or b) wrestle with the rich intellectual Christian tradition or c) simply failed his intellectual responsibility.
This reminds me of David Bentley Hart’s comments:
“How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .
A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.”
For if Shermer knew his basic intellectual responsibilities, he wouldn’t say such embarrassing, even childish things, akin to a six year old telling the teacher that Shakespeare is stupid – it just won’t do, as Hart painfully makes clear. The fact of the matter is, as it seems to me, is that his own doctrine of atheism is automatically against whatever does not align with his atheist constructs. Even atheist Michael Ruse says he is ashamed to be an atheist because too many atheists do both science and scholarship a “grave disservice,” not that it is necessarily false, but that it is embarrassingly too simplified And that won’t do either!
Another thing that won’t do, is the stupid Christians who countered the atheist revolt with a revolting rally of their own. They very “cleverly” thought that placards with “Study and obey the Bible” would soften the hearts of the atheists into humble repentance. Oh for goodness sake! A plague on both your houses (that’s a metaphor)!
Continuing through the article, it’s all about numbers and I guess, some kind of fair representation. But they’ve also failed to take into account that of all Western advanced democracies, America is alone in her religious affiliate. Europe is way, way too far down the secular line, and in more reflective moments, Europe probably thinks that America is a little bit behind the times. So America is a unique case, as far as religion and numbers go. That means it will likely be harder for atheists to “come out” (tee hee) but still, it’s a mature country that values free speech and all that stuff. On the one hand I can get that in America, a fundamentalist Christian who is a boss might cause an atheist to lose her job, as journalist Jamila Bey testified. But come on! Really? If Bey is right, then, once again, a plague on the Christian boss – pathetic. But I simply can’t believe that Bey is being totally honest here. Did she tell the whole story? Was this a redacted version of events designed to manipulate a view that will guarantee sympathy and promote even more intolerance and violence towards “Christian bosses” everywhere? Was her atheist stance too aggressively assertive and mean-spirited? This kind of anecdotal “evidence” is two-a-penny and can just as easily be reversed. It is cheap point scoring at its worse, oh and bad journalism!
I suspect the New Atheists are the New Fundamentalists, cousins to the Christians they despise, and they are part of a couple of centuries long tradition of Enlightenment assumptions. That’s fine. But when you say you don’t believe in God, don’t make the childish Ricky Gervais comment that confuses God with other items in the universe. Know your subject! And I get that, especially in America, atheism is tempered in a religiously unique place among Western nations, and in large part, due to a complex number of factors, atheism is responding and enraged by fundamentalist Christianity (or Islam or whatever)! Good. Do that critique. Bring down fundamentalism that asserts the world is flat or 6000 years old or whatever. But please just know that this version of Christianity is a teeny-weeny snippet, an almost irrelevant version of the rich, beautiful, compelling and diverse Christianity that has a vast repertoire of intellectual and philosophical engagement. The evidence trail is there for all to see.
I think all I’m saying to the atheists is this: Be atheist if you want, but don’t be as dumb as the worst excesses of the dumb Christians you are attacking. Dont be a revolting atheist, be a beautiful, intelligent one.
Start telling a compelling story without a naive understanding of human beings and their fallenness; tell us what you are for, not what you are against; reject Utopian ideals of the upward march towards an idealised humanity/world; read at least one good theology book and seek to understand Christianity; but please don’t speak empty words without meaning into a void without understanding. Make a compelling case; stop being so aggressive and nasty. Liberal societies allow all sorts of flourishing, and free speech is a wonderful ideal, and so within that framework don’t cheaply insult or ignorantly demonize – show the world a better atheist – and laugh with, not sneer at – show the joy of your present epistemological belief!
The atheists might be revolting, but give me a rally full of “truly profound atheists” and I’d be revolting with you….I’d still disagree with you but at least you’d be infinitely more intetesting, and we may have a laugh along the way……..
End-note: I myself invented the hilarious and provocative title (an insightfully wise double or maybe triple entendre)! However, an observant chum told me that a book had been published with the same title a few years ago, against what I’m actually arguing for, can you believe it!
Well, whatever. I thought of changing it to The Revolting Atheists, but that just sounds like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder! I mean me! As if…! Or maybe, The Evolving Atheists, but, alas, no. I didn’t. So there.