Imagined History of a Never-Was: “New Atheism”

church-53192_640Jacob Hamburger writes over at The Point, asking what the New Atheism even was. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since Gary Wolf resurrected the term at Wired in 2006 in his oft-cited essay. Asking and mostly getting the same answer, over and over.

There’s really only one position in relation to “New Atheism” that I’ve ever been completely comfortable with: that it doesn’t exist, that it never existed, and that the term was a snarl word that only functioned rhetorically. The phrase “Gnu Atheism”, an altogether un-serious mutation of the term born a few years later out of a scam that snared journalist and vocal critic Chris Mooney, always seemed a far better candidate to be taken seriously, despite its obvious satirical bend.

People using the term almost only ever define themselves in relation to the “New Atheism”, rather than in the affirmative. Who called themselves a “New Atheist”? A notable exception would be the late Victor Stenger, who seemed quite innocently unable to realize how odd he was in doing so. Mostly the meaning of the term shifted and slid according to the short term requirements of authors and pundits.

One day Daniel Dennett could have been a “New Atheist”, and the next a bulwark against it. The critique was folly. “New Atheism” was a shadow puppet.

***

Supposedly coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf at Wired, the term was used much earlier in 1986 by Robert Morey in his “New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom”, and possibly earlier than that again. Tacking a “new” onto the start of any “ism” being an old formula that’s sadly never gone stale.

Wolf’s article is more restrained than either Morey’s thesis, or any number of the jeremiads using the term that would follow. He focused on three authors, none who called themselves “New Atheists”; Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris. This was shortly before Christopher Hitchens had entered the fray.

It’s weird, even humorous that Wolf invoked the late Paul Kurtz in contrast to the “New Atheists”, then of the Centre For Inquiry. In the 1980s, the afore mentioned Morey was lambasting Kurtz himself as one of the “New Atheists”. It was an old game and one Kurtz would have been aware of, especially on account of the matter of stridency; the man was a supporter and friend of the not-exactly-timid Madalyn Murray O’Hair who also came in for a smearing in Morey’s tome.

Criticisms of Dawkins, typical of the time, came down to him being “strident”, and being incapable of alliances with liberal-minded Christians (despite his cooperation with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the matter of creationism in schools). When you strip away the objections based on fiction, you were basically left with tone, which doesn’t have very much meat to it as far as purported ideological demarcations go. Anything that foreshadowed “Dear Muslima” was thin on the ground.

Wolf seemed even less capable of presenting a meaningful difference between Dennett and the likes of Kurtz.

***

Lashings of embellishments from a variety of authors in the following years didn’t flesh things out any further.

“They’re logical positivists!” (No “they” weren’t).

“They want to destroy Christian culture!” (Basically a re-branded War on Christmas fiction for people who imagined they were above Fox News).

“They support the Iraq War!” (Mostly “they” didn’t).

“Scientism!” (Having a poor conception of the boundaries of science does not a scientismist make, and at any rate, Harris’ philosophical silliness wasn’t widely adopted by purported “New Atheists” anyway – not unless you tweaked your definitions to perform an act of circular logic, at least.)

The worst part of these takes on the “New Atheism” though, wasn’t that they were untrue (although frequently they were). The worst part was that so little, if any of it, could be used as demarcation criteria. And when it was a suitable for demarcation, you’d find “New Atheism” being split off into other categories.

***

Even in the early days there was a whiff of sexism about the scene you couldn’t easily deny; Dawkins’ lilting waffle about the gentler sex; Harris’ bias for male pronouns; more overtly, Hitchens calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags”. Aside from how conspicuous it is that people wanting to bury the “New Atheism” at the time buried the lede on this one, this is still insufficient to demonstrate that there is (or was) a “New Atheism”. How would this sexism set the “New” apart from the “Old Atheism” – the old guard Wolf mentions?

Wolf wrote favorably about Asimov as an example of the old, but that guy was a complete shit to women; a serial groper, a condescending patriarch and completely unable to render women believably in fiction to boot. A demarcation criterion needs to be able to make a distinction, but “fucking fat slags” is a sentiment you could imagine ass-grabber Asimov getting behind, so sexism’s probably not going to do the job.

Maybe vanity and thin skin? No. I mean, Harris and Dawkins, and maybe Dennett could be accused of thin-skin, much like a number of other less known “New” atheists. But nice-guy Sagan’s “Butt-Head Astronomer” legal battle with Apple arguably tops any fit-of-pique the purported “New Atheism” could lay claim to.

Kurtz’s labelling of Ron Lindsay’s management style as Stalinist seems grounded in vanity as well. And the criticism of offensive cartoons – something he himself presided over but overlooked in a way suggestive of preening – brings us neatly back to the issue of confected difference.

The function of the “New Atheist” trope, at least from the secular progressive side, isn’t primarily to critique atheists. It’s a tool by which authors write about themselves in negative relief, a direct approach to extolling their own virtues being far too obvious. “Look at the New Atheism! [I’m not like that! Allow me to list the qualities I don’t have!]”

***

Back to Hamburger: So what came of “it”?

Hitchens is dead, for one. I think he would have objected to Hamburger’s attribution of the idea of liberalism ideally being grounded in pure reason alone. It’s almost as if Hamburger missed the discussion of “rationalist naiveté” – and Hitchens proximity to that discussion. Only Hamburger’s focus on that period is quite extensive.

And why the weird narrative tales? Non-belief and scientific rationality only becoming political causes after Hitchens joined with Dawkins et. al.? Harris “founding” the “New Atheist” genre, as if the other books by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren’t authored independently? That’s not how it happened.

I don’t think Hamburger is being mendacious. I don’t even think he’s writing his essay in an attempt to position himself with readers in the way that PZ Myers’ recent testimony-cum-denouncement so obviously labours to do. In a way, I suspect he’s naively fallen into the same trap Victor Stenger did, albeit from the opposite end of the pit.

It is possible to be unwittingly maneuvered into writing this kind of thing even if you’ve only passively adopted just a few questionable assumptions in good faith.

***

There are meaningful trends in the detritus of the readerships of the Usually Mentioned Atheists. You can find misogynists pretty easily. There’s a particular school of handwaving concerning the boundaries of science that’s been masquerading as clear and forthright ever since The Moral Landscape.

There’s been pride expressed over political ignorance and a related if often inverse dismissiveness regarding philosophical literacy. “You used a word that philosophers use! You’re one of those Politically Correct Ismists that are saying things! Now I know I can ignore you! Bwaha! You should leave the pub and leave me to stroke my most intelligent of beards!”

Depending on how the net has been cast, there are also more-or-less decent, more-or-less intelligent, and more-or-less anodyne sorts in there with more than salvageable ideas. But again, none of this is “New” and none of it is uniform across the purported “New Atheism”.

What can be done to collate meaning in all of this mess? Rather than giving the vague snarl word of “New Atheism” any serious coinage (or excessive dismissal in cases where no malice is evident), I think someone’s going to have to work out a taxonomy based on actual positions held, that actually matter taxonomically; something akin to John Nerst’s notion of the Pomo-oid Cluster, albeit for atheist authors post-2004. Or rather, someone should have tried this a long time ago.

Going beyond just the concept of a cluster and actually making a map of the territory would be immensely useful too, even if it wouldn’t take off in every-day conversation. At the very least people arguing in good faith could more easily avoid talking past each other, and a kind of convention for recognizing disingenuous railing against “New Atheists” could be more easily practiced.

As it stands, it’s too easy for woke-acting columnists to rail against “New Atheists” (The Guardian and Salon have offered up several examples over the years), just as it’s too easy for genuine criticism of atheist authors to be dismissed as disingenuous or hostile (which you can see for yourself if you crawl down this rabbit hole).

Forget how the various tribes of authors feel about this for a moment, and ask yourself “in a civil democracy, how does this particular form of ambiguity – this confected grouping – serve the public interest?”

~ Bruce

Look out, Melbourne…

ImageAnimal-product-free luggage… check.

Gold convention, and Gala Dinner Tickets… check.

Train tickets for the scenic route… check.

Accommodation… check.

Ironing and packing clothes… okay… Innaminute.

That’s it Melbourne – I’m on my way down to sneer at your cafes, point at your soggy chips, and mock your dreary weather.

The Global Atheist Convention is my main objective, that and a few of the fringe events, but I do hope to find a good book exchange or two, and soak in a bit of this and that. I’ll be writing a few journal/essays on the convention (and fringe events), probably on a daily basis, for Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels, and I’ll post links as they’re published.

I’m not overly-inclined to live-tweet a live event I’m taking notes on, but I should have my Twitter client turned on at various points to make comment. You can track my feed over here if you’re so inclined.

Possibly, if I can find the time to draft suitable questions, I’ll be able find someone of academic or community standing, amenable to a beer and twenty questions.

I wouldn’t mind catching up with some of the Melburnian wonks I’ve pestered on the blogosphere over the past seven years, if they’re up for it, and if we can find the time. I’m already lucky enough to be meeting and eating with one of their families at the gala dinner, so I won’t get sooky if I don’t get more than that.

The fringe event I’ve committed to is Secular Australia: A 10 Point Plan, featuring Russell Blackford, Meredith Doig and Graham Oppy. It’s on Thursday night at 6:30pm at Embiggen Books. It’s worth mentioning, and I’ve had Russell Blackford emphatically confirm this – this isn’t an atheist-only gig*. Secular theists are more than welcome – they’re wanted.

Don’t worry about my bluster, Melburnians. I come bearing hugs.

~ Bruce

Apparently my droogies ain’t hardcore, no more…

A couple of years ago, I wished Archbishop Dr Jensen, amongst others, a Happy Easter, for what was in my view, a gift – in particular, his over-privileged, petulant whining about atheists who wouldn’t submit to the will of Archbishops God. It was political gold.

But I’d like to thank another Jensen from the Sydney Anglicans for yet more wild speculation about people they’re in-touch with. I wish him a Happy Easter as well.

This time it’s not atheists being discussed, at least not directly (I mean, you can refuse The Lord’s message, and go for a bit of the biff), but brawlers.

All cities are violent, even though cities were ostensibly founded to protect us from violence. But among Australian cities, Sydney is famous for its love of a good ding-dong, a donnybrook, a barney. Cultured Melbourne is far too genteel for that kind of behaviour; sweet Adelaide even more so. – Emphasis added.”

(Michael Jensen, 2012)

Jensen waxes nostalgic about biff-clichés, but I’d like to think I can be a bit nostalgic about that kind of ‘sin’ as well. Let me tell you a little about my experience of Adelaide, South Australia, and its surroundings.

If cities are violent, such as being worthy of note, you’d expect country towns to be comparatively peaceful. In Port Lincoln, South Australia, I got into plenty of stupid fights as a kid; I got into my first knife fight at age eleven or twelve. (An interesting side note to all of the knife fights, then and since; the other guy always had the knife).

In 1991, amidst other adventures, I took a number of thumpings (under pillow, or Yellow Pages), and enjoyed a brief encounter between my scrotum and a hot lamp bulb, to see if I could be trusted to keep a secret. Fun stuff.

In 1992, after escaping Port Lincoln, one of my former acquaintances blew the brains out of one of my Father’s weed-smoking buddies, and brain-damaged another poor fellow, in Lincoln National Park. Glad I missed it, even as ‘genteel’ as it must have been.

A number of the people who managed to escape, have similar tales to tell, although I guess technically, if I’m to adhere to Jensen’s wisdom, I’d have to confess that a former mate, who I’ve been informed was killed a few years back by a screwdriver through the neck, met his end in Perth. You are probably well aware, this is nowhere near Adelaide.

Then there’s the sweet tales I could tell of my sweet stay in Elizabeth Vale; a suburb in Adelaide’s north, where I lived within walking distance of one of the homes of the Snowtown Killers (at around the time they were actively bumping people off for their Centrelink payments).

Two murders (not including any of the Snowtown murders) within the first two months of living in the area. Knife-fights between neighbours; knife-on-bare-fist; knife-on-knife; knife-on-garden-rake; knife-on-shard-of-glass…

…don’t get me started on the car-on-bedsit, or the syringe-based violence.

Sweet, genteel, Adelaide!

This is anecdote, of course. Not statistics. I’m sure throngs of people from Sydney could tell similar tales.

And what anecdote may Mr Jensen have by way of example? I’m sure those having experienced violence, those in need of respite and pastoral care could take, if not solace, then a sense of solidarity, or even awe, from Mr Jensen’s tales.

“The churches of this town have not always been above a bit of brawling themselves. You have to be tough to survive as a god-botherer in a town that despises wowsers so much. The Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang was himself a famously strident and uncompromising debater in his time.”

(Michael Jensen, 2012)

Cool story. I’d almost mistaken Jensen’s article for a middle class, toss-fest.

Happy Easter, folks.

~ Bruce

(HT: Neil).

March of the wankers…

It’s a couple of days march, at least, until Richard Dawkins and George Pell go head to head on ABC’s QANDA. Of course, I’m not referring to them when I talk about ‘wankers’.

The ‘March’, is the predictable plodding of anxious and pretentious sods and sodettes, who lament the discussion in advance, down the bridge of their noses.

Continue reading “March of the wankers…”

Is Barnaby Joyce the avante garde of the Christian literary tradition?

Ho ho ho, with a hat-tip to Russell Blackford. Barnaby Joyce is putting lead into the pencil of Christian literature, or at least, there’s probably lead in the crayons he ate from the Fairfax stationary.

Perhaps I’m being unkind…

‘My war is always against that religion called atheist extremism, that sneaky sect.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011).

Oh come on… It’s not so bad.

‘Yes, this sect’s followers make their way on to your veranda then hold a righteous court of sneering indignation about the crib in the park. You can hear yourself muttering under your breath, ”I wish you would go drown yourself, you pseudo-intellectual Gucci flea.” They write letters to complain about the incorrectness of carols at the school and picket the Christmas tree. To not insult their religion, you must no longer follow yours. They yearn for the fallacy of a vacuum and they demand that you join them in that philosophical void.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011)

Now I know what you’re thinking – incitement to violence, and in a Fairfax paper of all places!

But if you’ve learned anything about lit-crit, and religious texts, it’s that you can take these things to literally. He’s not suggesting that atheist should actually kill themselves, no, no, no.

You start out as a Gucci flea (whatever that is, I’m not sure of the Biblical reference – I’m not a Biblical scholar), then you submerge yourself in a baptism until you flatline. You are then born again, brain-dead, able to operate on, and in sympathy with, Joyce’s intellectual plane. Which apparently isn’t a void. Sort of a Cartesian dualism deal, or something – the brain is dead, but the soul goes on, un-vacuumed.

It’s hard to interpret such cutting edge stuff fairly. I may not be a Biblical scholar, but I know when new intertextualities arise, in more novel configurations, those familiar with the traditional – conservatives and laymen – are left scratching their heads.

Where he got the idea that atheism was a religion, much less a sect, I don’t know. There are too many new sources. Once upon a time, people knew that atheists were precisely not religious, which is why sometimes, they were killed. Not drowned so much as dismembered, hung, set on fire, or whatever.

No, Barnaby is obviously going with something post-modern, in response to the liberal secularism of early 20th century anglophone nations. The confabulation about Christian exclusion from schools, or the anxiety about freedom from religion being the freedom to take religion away. Not my tradition of choice, actually – bullshit actually – but that seems to be where Joyce, our latest national treasure, is coming from; late 20th, early 21st century, Christian self-pity.

But ignore the ressentiment, for a moment, because it’s only one facet of the human condition that Barnaby Joyce fleshes out. Joyce is nothing, if not a pluralist…

‘Anyway, Christmas is here and I hope we borrow a little from the person who kicked it off. The timing at the end of December has more to do with the celebration of the pagan festival of Saturnalia rather than when Christ was actually born. Those politically incorrect early Christians had the good sense to roll with the customs rather than to rage against them.’

(Barnaby Joyce, 2011)

I take it that this includes the concept of ‘December liberty’, where people could say what they wanted of their leaders, and others, without fear of reprisal. This is perhaps why Barnaby is so liberal with his own choice of words.

Allow me to reciprocate in the same spirit.

You Barnaby, are a complete and utter moron. I hope you asphyxiate on a dingleberry. (Not literally, of course.)

Oh, and it’s a few seconds from midnight… Happy Unholy Anti-Christmas! Here’s a jingle.

~ Bruce

The virtue of paying attention (to theological ethicists)…

Sometimes us Gnu Atheists, secular fundamentalists, and religious fifth columnists can be dismissive, even totalitarian when the need arises.

Not that we’ve come to power quite yet, or that we’re necessarily restricted to anti-theistic dictatorship when we do (the dwindling Christian minority can still spout its nonsense in public, and we can allow this to continue), it’s possibly time for a change in the mode of engagement. The Enemy is beaten.

Before the First Atheist International secures its first English-speaking nation at the Global Atheist Convention in 2012, it’d probably be worth considering the baby we risk throwing out with the bath water. It’s time – the first time – for us to truly consider what sophisticated theologians have been saying, without our snickering, and without ridicule.

It’s time, now that we have the time, and that victory is already assured, that we consider these things in a scholarly manner.

Consider gay marriage. We’ve been shutting down that particular discussion for decades now, by calling opponents ‘homophobes’ without any consideration of their actual position. Terrible for sure, but necessary for the revolution, at least up until now.

We’ve won the debate. Public sympathy is now irreversibly against the church in this matter. It’s now safe for us to consider the more sophisticated ethical arguments against gay marriage without fear of a loss of hegemony.

“It is significant that everywhere the issue has been debated it begins on the issue of fairness and justice and with majority support but that soon changes when people realise that there are deeper issues involved. After their legislature experimented with same-sex marriage, the people of California voted against the revisionist concept of marriage.” – Emphasis added.

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

There are deeper issues involved, and the revisionist concept of marriage, our revisionist concept of marriage, doesn’t account for them. You don’t have to be religious to note that if we assume power, and follow through by riding roughshod over these deeper issues, it could mean disaster! It could turn out to be just another facet, in possibly yet another failed secular revolution! We don’t want that.

“Changing the law so that marriage includes same-sex unions would be a change to what marriage means. Currently marriage involves a comprehensive union between a man and a woman, and norms of permanence and exclusivity. Marriage has a place in the law because a relationship between a man and a woman is the kind of relationship that may produce children. Marriage is linked to children, for the sake of children, protecting their identity and their nurture by a mother and a father.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

Think of the children! You’d never had heard of it, or come across the idea during the past two decades of discussions of revisionist marriage, if you hadn’t bothered to take down your blinkers – to pay attention to what sophisticated, scholarly, religious ethicists had been telling you all along.

Think of the children! You’d never had heard of it!

Clearly revising the definition of marriage opens up all sorts of terrible possibilities. First we’d let the gays marry – couples who can’t produce their own offspring naturally – and then we’d have to grant the right of marriage to barren heterosexuals as well. Why it’s a slippery slope!

And you just know that secular fundamentalist ethicists have never considered the ramifications of giving IVF and adoption in combination with marriage, to straight couples. I really feel like we’ve dodged a bullet here. We really weren’t prepared for this!

“If children happen to be in a same-sex household they will always have come from outside that relationship, either through an earlier relationship or through the use of some other biological parent and technology.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

You see, it is just the same as with all of the heterosexual couples with reproductive problems the state has conscientiously been barring from marriage all along!

“If the law were to be changed so that marriage included same-sex relationships [or heterosexual couples with reproductive problems], then marriage would no longer be about children. It would be about adults only.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

The state wouldn’t be thinking about the children anymore! Fellow ultra-secularists, I implore you to reconsider, whichever future your goodwill for gays and the infertile may lead you to, do you want it to be one where the state isn’t looking out for our precious, vulnerable younglings?

“Given the marital relationship’s natural orientation to children, it is not surprising that, according to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best on virtually every indicator of wellbeing when reared by their wedded biological parents. “

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

Never mind that the first study Benson et. al. cite in support of this, is a largely interpretative meta-analysis by the ‘independent’ Witherspoon Institute, isn’t peer-reviewed, is funded by the Templeton Foundation, and when statistical, is purely correlatory; worrying about such matters would be both prejudicial and reductionist. How often in the past have we secular fundamentalists stonewalled discussion by being prejudicial and reductionist, in addition to our use of ridicule and ad hominem? As necessary as it was then, it’s no longer a useful strategy. We need to change.

Never mind that the second study cited by Benson et. al., in as far as it addresses the issue of non-biological parents, concerns non-biological parents married to, or in defacto relationships with, biological parents, not at all considering married adoptive parents, or the use of IVF; such nitpicking would be missing the spirit of the concern. Sampling the population be damned, it takes only a little imagination to see these concerns as applying to gay (and infertile) couples as well. Don’t let statistical scientism prejudice your imagination!

Again, we’ve already won. Religion is an endangered species in Australian politics. We can finally afford to listen, and listen we should; we were all heading for disaster!

“In a liberal democracy, others can form other types of relationships; but ‘marriage’ is a term reserved for a particular kind of relationship that brings with it obligations to others beyond the two parties. Marriage is shared obligation for children.”

(Rod Benson et. al., 2011)

In other words, dear gay marriage advocates; think of the children because gay and reproductively challenged parents won’t, and nor will the state if we change the definition of marriage!

Finally, it all seems so… clear!

Honestly, I’m glad I took the time to delve through the cited material and the expressed argument, because in twenty odd years of watching this discussion unfurl, I’ve never seen anyone present a case quite like this. Think of the children! It never sprung to mind!

Never again will I write off an instance of theological ethics as unscholarly from such a piddling detail as the drawing of conclusions not supported by the cited research – this prejudices imagination! Why those pesky, unimaginative sceptics often marginalise alternative medicine in precisely the same way!

Never again will I dismiss the accumulated wisdom of tradition, like the long-established practice of barring non-reproductive heterosexual couples from the institution of marriage. There are rational reasons why traditions become entrenched, and change doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

The major difficulty I have in all of this, is how in light of my own secular totalitarianism, and that of my peers in the movement, I’m going to justify all of this while we send the theological ethicists off to the gulag political margins. I guess it’ll have to be a carefully crafted plagiarism that hides the original source, and the hypocrisy of using it.

We just can’t get by without this wisdom!

~ Bruce

It seems I’ll have to make my own exceptions to Hart’s rules

On pg. 382 of my New Hart’s Rules, ‘20.10 Blasphemy, obscenity, racial hatred, and official secrets’ says…

Publishing a work which contains contemptuous, scandalous, or insulting material relating to the Christian religion is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine or imprisonment. Note that only the Christian religion is covered by this law and that merely attacking Christianity is not blasphemy: the attack would be blasphemous only if it were contemptuous or insulting.

(New Hart’s Rules, 2005)

Which is to say that any attack is at least tantamount to blasphemy, contempt or insult being as easy to conjure, and as hard to dismiss as an unfalsifiable Freudian diagnosis.

I also don’t like the fact that blasphemy is lumped in the same section as racial hatred. A smear by association – I don’t, as a blasphemer, think it fair to lump me or anyone else with the same tolerant disposition towards race, with bigots.

And at the very least, the discrimination inherent in making a special case for protecting Christianity alone demonstrates that the law isn’t interested in equality. By all means, report the law (actually abolished in the UK in 2008 – after this edition of Hart’s Rules was published), but the unnecessary value judgements are something I can do without.

Oh, and on that part of Western Christianity where you’ll find a long anti-Semitic streak, I’ve left a great big, fat, hot, steaming metaphorical turd. Of course the flies were already there before I metaphorically passed my bowels, being attracted to the scent of a thousand and one shitty Passion plays, Mel Gibson’s included.

I simply shat in what was already a latrine.

I hold the original charge of Deicide in contempt. I hold the concept of The Mark of Cain in contempt, and not just the Jew-hating interpretations.

Contempt!

~ Bruce