Be firm but not too firm, dogmatic but not too dogmatic »« QED next March

Being truthful must sometimes trump being nice

Reading Julian’s latest. I can’t wait until I’ve read the whole thing to comment on this:

[Mark] Vernon’s advocacy of passionate agnosticism offers soothing camomile tea to those jittery after the triple espressos of the new atheists and religious fundamentalists. Since he is as genial in person as he is on the page, attacking him does feel rather like kicking a labrador puppy. But if we are serious about religion, being truthful must sometimes trump being nice, and intellectually, if not personally, Vernon needs a good kicking.

No it’s not the part about the puppy, although it’s true that a good friend of mine was a labrador puppy just a few months ago and it would have been a terrible thing to have kicked him.

No, it’s first of all the swipe at “the new atheists.” Julian can’t seem to write one of these without a swipe at “the new atheists.” I think that’s illiberal and wrong and that he should stop doing it. “The new atheists” are the favorite punching bag for way too many people (including non-”new” atheists!) these days, and they should knock it off. Are bishops and pundits not harsh enough about atheists already, is it really necessary for atheists to join in the mud-throwing? The equivalency is irritating, too – it’s incredibly banal, it’s false, and it’s malicious. “Aw youse guys are all just as irritating as each others.” The hell we are. Even if “the new atheists” are irritating beyond what words can say, they/we are still not like religious fundamentalists. The triple espressos thing is just a cheap shot, and I’m tired of cheap shots from people like Julian. Such people should know better.

And second, it’s the fact that by the third sentence, he says pretty much exactly what “the new atheists” say and get so much shit for saying. We are serious about religion, so we think being truthful must sometimes trump being nice…just as Julian suggests. So where, exactly, does the similarity to religious fundamentalism and the triple espresso quality come in? You tell me.

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Julian must have had a traumatic experience with a New Atheist when he was young. Probably this New Atheist said something like “there’s not only no God, there’s no Santa Claus” and poor Julian has never recovered.

  2. musubk says

    The problem is it’s hard to be a moderate unless you have someone to be superior to on both sides.

  3. Ken Pidcock says

    Tough call whether Mark Vernon or Julian Baggini was being less coherent in that exchange of thoughts (?).

  4. Felix says

    I usually agree with you Ophelia, but on this occasion I think you are looking to hard to find offense.

    What he is saying is that to those living in woolly-minded, PoMo, woo scented beds of happy-clappy luvie-ness the bracing straight forwardness of New Atheist exposition is terribly scary (and so is the sight of religious fundamentalists e.g. marching with banners proclaiming “Behead those who insult Islam”).

  5. markjones says

    Yes, Baggini for some reason still has a bee in his bonnet about the new atheists, but apart from that what he writes is excellent, I think, and a good example of ‘new atheism’.

    In that respect, he’s pragmatically self-refuting in his antipathy to the new atheist approach.

  6. sailor1031 says

    “…But if we are serious about religion, being truthful must sometimes trump being nice,…”

    This is the case if we are to be serious about most aspects of our lives (other than science where truth must always, but sometimes does not, reign supreme). It is one thing to say it but quite a different, much more grownup thing to actually practice it. It is recently quite painful to watch Julian Baggini struggling so hard to pursue maturity.

  7. jamessweet says

    Weird, taking that quote out of context, I took it as a complement to new atheism. But maybe that’s because I like espresso…

  8. Egbert says

    “I think that’s illiberal and wrong and that he should stop doing it.”

    Why is it illiberal to criticize new atheists? And why is it wrong?

  9. Stewart says

    Maybe there’s a new commandment we haven’t got wind of yet that goes something like “It’s ok to trash religion in your third sentence, provided that in your second sentence you trash those who think it’s ok to trash religion in their first sentence.”

  10. says

    Egbert, of course it’s not “illiberal to criticize new atheists” in general. Don’t be dense – you’ve been reading B&W long enough to know what I’m talking about. This wasn’t that, this was a swipe at “the new atheists”. One reason that’s illiberal is that there is no such thing. It’s just a label, and it’s never clear what is being said about whom unless it’s spelled out, and Julian doesn’t spell it out. “New atheist”-bashers almost never do. Another reason it’s illiberal is that he gives zero specifics, he just insinuates that all “new atheists” are bad and comparable to religious fundamentalists. It’s sheer name-calling. It’s also a very popular form of name-calling, maybe the only kind of name-calling permissible among intellectuals and liberals; that’s another thing that makes it illiberal.

    Don’t play dumb when I’ve said all this a million times. It’s annoying.

  11. says

    I think Stewart has it about right. A swipe at gnus is the passport to going on to be critical of religion. “I’m not a member of the group The New Atheists, I’m a good person (unlike The New Atheists); now permit me to inform you that atheism is reasonable.”

  12. says

    Heh. A commenter on Julian’s piece said this earlier today -

    While I agree with much of what this article has to say – this irritates me:

    But if we are serious about religion, being truthful must sometimes trump being nice, and intellectually, if not personally, Vernon needs a good kicking.

    This is exactly what “New Atheism” is essentially about – the idea that being honest trumps being nice.

    Yet at the same time the author writes:

    Vernon’s advocacy of passionate agnosticism offers soothing camomile tea to those jittery after the triple espressos of the new atheists and religious fundamentalists.

    Okay so it is good to hold firm beliefs – unless you happen to be a new atheist or a religious fundamentalist? In other words, it is okay to hold firm beliefs if you are Julian Baggini?

  13. Stewart says

    Ophelia wrote:

    “In other words, it is okay to hold firm beliefs if you are Julian Baggini?”

    Caused me to have a little unrealistic fantasy about all the New and Gnu Atheists running off to have their names legally changed to Julian Baggini. Of course, then the most frequently asked question will become “Which Julian Baggini are you?”

  14. A. Noyd says

    If anything is definitive of New Atheism, it’s taking the “but is it true?” approach to religion. While not exactly new, it’s why we’re set apart from other atheists and why we’re called extreme. We’re criticized all the time as “not getting it” when we do things like ask for objective evidence of god’s existence. If all Baggini was doing was calling the “but is it true?” approach reasonable and claiming it for himself, that would be fine. But he’s doing that while still painting New Atheists as extreme. I don’t even have words for how dishonest that is.

  15. Stewart says

    Actually, I know this is ripping it out of context, but still:

    “… if we are serious about religion, being truthful must sometimes trump being nice…”

    Only sometimes? Most of the time not? Most of the time nice at the expense of the truth? And even this much is only conditional on our being serious about religion?

    I suppose what I’m saying is: with a commitment to truth as weak as this, what is our claim to be worth listening to based on?

  16. Egbert says

    Ophelia, thanks for your response. I think I agree with you that it’s misleading or unfair to bracket new atheists as if they’re as anti-liberal as religious fundamentalists. If we are truly liberal (as I suspect we are) then what kind of liberalism are we? Clearly a more coherent kind of liberalism than Baggini’s, but I think it’s unfair to accuse him of being illiberal. Confused, incoherent perhaps.

    The point I’m trying to make is that I think fellow liberals have interesting things to say, they might even be right, even if perhaps they make their points badly, or tend to punch themselves in the face (or us).

    If Baggini truly believes that new atheists are anti-liberal and in the same category as religious fundamentalists, then I don’t think I could really defend him at all. If he thinks that we’re mistaken, or deluded and that his type of liberalism is the right one, then I think he could be forgiven.

  17. says

    Stewart, I didn’t write that, someone commenting at C is F did. I probably should have blockquoted the whole thing, but there were internal blockquotes, so I didn’t…

  18. says

    Egbert, you’re still missing part of the point. Talking about “new atheists” is not the same as talking about “the new atheists.” That’s one important element in the othering rhetoric on the subject. You say you agree with me about new atheists but I didn’t say new atheists, I said the new atheists.

  19. says

    A Noyd Stewart –

    Only sometimes? Most of the time not? Most of the time nice at the expense of the truth?

    Well yes! It’s not nice to tell people truthfully that they’re ugly, for instance.

  20. Stewart says

    Ophelia wrote:

    “It’s not nice to tell people truthfully that they’re ugly, for instance.”

    And by speaking as plainly as they do, Gnu Atheists are in essence telling all believers they’re stupid…

  21. says

    Stewart – ha! Oops! Not revenge; dopy mistake.

    True, about what we’re saying – or at least we’re in essence telling them they’re wrong and perhaps credulous. Greta did a post about that a couple of days ago.

    But wrongness and even credulity can be fixed. Ugliness not so much.

  22. Stewart says

    Ophelia wrote:

    “But wrongness and even credulity can be fixed. Ugliness not so much.”

    Well, that’s gone unchallenged for about 4 minutes already. At least now you know how many cosmetic surgeons B&W has in its readership.

  23. Stewart says

    Beyond the jokes, though, I think it’s important that we ourselves are aware of what it really is we are telling them – when it is the believers we are directly addressing. As Dawkins has pointed out, being ignorant does not mean being stupid; it means one is not in possession of certain knowledge or information. There are already many deconversion stories accessible online and they are very instructive. In quite a few of them, no atheist played a part, or, at least, not until doubts had already become serious. Maybe insults have shocked a few people into thinking, but it would not be my weapon of choice. I suspect quite a few Gnu-haters cannot properly differentiate between insults and an absence of deference. The latter is, I think, utterly vital. If one accepts that it’s one of our biggest differences with accommodationists, our criticism of them is also partly that we don’t think anyone will ever be driven to think as long as everyone shows deference to beliefs, whether or not those beliefs are shared.

  24. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Stewart #25

    And by speaking as plainly as they do, Gnu Atheists are in essence telling all believers they’re stupid…

    I don’t tell goddists they’re stupid, I tell them they’re deluded. There are some incredibly smart people who believe in god(s). Whatever else you say about Francis Collins, he’s not stupid, neither is Ken Miller. However both of them are deluded by believing in god(s).

    It’s not my fault if some goddist doesn’t listen to what I say but rather listens to their prejudices and myths about atheists instead.

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