I see Julian has a new series at Comment is Free, Heathen’s Progress. (I saw it the other day via a post of Eric’s.) It’s about telling believers, atheists and agnostics how they’re all doing it wrong, and how to do it right.
In a debate that has been full of controversy and rancour, there is one assertion that surely most can agree with without dispute: the God wars have reached a tedious impasse, with all sides resorting to repetition of the same old arguments, which are met with familiar, unsatisfactory responses. This is a stalemate, with the emphasis firmly on “stale”.
Oh dear, I’m so bloody-minded. The first sentence of a long series, and one which says surely most can agree on just this one thing without dispute…and I disagree. Wouldn’t you know it.
I don’t disagree that that describes part of what’s happening, but I disagree that it describes what’s happening, period. Yes there’s a lot of repetition; no that’s not all there is. So, no, I don’t agree that “the God wars have reached a tedious impasse.” I think things are happening, not to say changing. I think “the same old arguments” have become much more widely known to far more people, and I think that by itself makes a difference. I think it’s way way way too soon to come over all jaded and bored and declare that that’s all there is to it. I don’t think it is a stalemate, not least because religious apologists and pontificators can no longer have things all their own way. Now that the intertubes have come along, religious apologists and pontificators get pushback whenever they publish anything. Part of what’s happening with all this repetition of the same old arguments that Julian finds so stale is that religious commentators are becoming aware that their claims are not unanswerable. It takes time for that kind of awareness to spread and to bite. Relax; be patient; put up with the repetition.
In any case things are churning in other places too. Atheist and secularist groups are forming and growing; books are being published; blogs are starting and continuing; people are talking. It’s not just a matter of the same old arguments repeating like an endless rerun of Seinfeld.
My heart sinks whenever I am invited to talk or write about the existence of God, whether science is compatible with faith, or whether religion is the root of all evil. I struggle to say something new, knowing that this is such well-trodden ground, the earth is packed too firmly for any new light to get in. The only hope is to start digging it up.
Really. Five years or so of “the new atheism” and the ground is so well trodden that now it’s time to dig it up. I don’t think so. I think there are things to say about, for instance, the eagerness of so many people to end the conversation. I think there are things to say about the silencing tactics that have been used – some of which are not entirely absent from Julian’s piece. I think this very “oh it’s all so stale” note is one such tactic.
I do not blame the quagmire on the intransigence of any of the three sides in the debate – believers, atheists and agnostics – but on all of them. Broadly speaking, the problem is that the religious mainstream establishment maintains a Janus-faced commitment to both medieval doctrines and public pronouncements about inclusivity and moderation; agnostics and more liberal believers promote an intellectualised version of religion, which both reduces faith to a thin gruel and fails to reflect the reality of faith on the ground; while the new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects.
One, are they, really? All of them? Are all new atheists really tone-deaf to the more interesting and valuable aspects of religion? I don’t think so. I think most of them pay some attention to those at least some of the time. Two, given what a vast army of people there are who are already doing that, would it really be so terrible if all new atheists did focus on the superstitious side of religion alone for a time? I don’t think it would. Given the row upon row of shelves devoted to hooray-for-God in the bookshops, I think a few books devoted to the opposite of that are not such a terrible (or “tone-deaf”) thing.
A plague on all their houses: all are guilty of becoming entrenched in unsustainable positions. For there to be movement, all are going to have to recognise their failings and shift somewhat. The battlelines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought. This is the first in a series of articles which together will attempt to do just this. Over the coming months, I’ll be fleshing out the charges I have made and suggesting what the right responses to them should be.
But there is movement. Even without shifting, there is movement. Even if the basic arguments are repetitive, there is still movement. I’m still busy with the battle lines drawn where they already are, and I want to fight the fights that I think are real, not the ones that Julian thinks are real. I haven’t nominated Julian to be my general, so I’m not shifting.
As a querulous member of the atheist camp, one of my aims is to end up with a richer, more constructive vision for what should follow the “new atheism”, which may well have been needed, but does not appear capable of taking us much further. To use another military analogy, the new atheism seems designed for effective invasion, but not long-term occupation.
People keep saying that. Over and over and over and over again. (Talk about stale!) It’s bollocks. The “invasion” is a long term thing, to put it mildly. We can keep doing that while other people do the “occupying.” The new atheists don’t have to stop what they’re doing and do something else, because what the new atheists are doing isn’t finished yet. We get that lots and lots of other atheists really hate it and wish it would shut up, but that’s just too bad. If other atheists want to occupy, by all means occupy, but don’t try to make us join you. You do what you want to do, and we’ll do what we want to do, and that will be fine. Telling us what to do, on the other hand, not so much.
One key characteristic of this new, new atheism must be more modesty. Although it was not intended to be a boast, advocacy of the noun “bright” to describe atheists illustrates how they have too often come over as smug and over-confident.
Sigh. Yes, no doubt, but almost no new atheists do advocate the use of “bright” so that’s a boring (and stale!) strawman…and silencing tactic. And speaking of smug, and more modesty – what is all this “must” talk? Who is Julian to tell new atheists what we “must” do or be? I might just as well try to tell the new heathens (if that’s their title) what they “must” do. I’m not smug and over-confident enough for that.
Not a great start for the campaign, I think. I expect the later, substantive articles are better. I haven’t read them yet…