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A kernel

For once, there’s a kernel of truth in something Brendan O’Neill writes (in the Telegraph this time). Only a kernel though.

When did atheists become so teeth-gratingly annoying? Surely non-believers in God weren’t always the colossal pains in the collective backside that they are today? Surely there was a time when you could say to someone “I am an atheist” without them instantly assuming you were a smug, self-righteous loather of dumb hicks given to making pseudo-clever statements like, “Well, Leviticus also frowns upon having unkempt hair, did you know that?” Things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself, and instead mumble something about being a very lapsed Catholic if I’m put on the spot, for fear that uttering the A-word will make people think I’m a Dawkins drone with a mammoth superiority complex and a hives-like allergy to nurses wearing crucifixes.

You can see the kernel of truth there, I’m sure. You can see it because Dawkins has been doing a bang-up job lately of performing that very atheist in public, by which I mean, on Twitter. You can see it also because so many Dawkins drones (to use O’Neill’s label) have been doing the same ever since July 2011.

These days, barely a week passes without the emergence of yet more evidence that atheists are the most irritating people on Earth. Last week we had the spectacle of Dawkins and his slavish Twitter followers (whose adherence to Dawkins’ diktats makes those Kool-Aid-drinking Jonestown folk seem level-headed in comparison) boring on about how stupid Muslims are.

And this is why the kernel is only a kernel. Yes, last week we had that spectacle, but we also had the spectacle of many atheists saying that Twitter performance was shit. We had Alex Gabriel saying it. We had me saying it. We had a good few saying it.

Atheists online are forever sharing memes about how stupid religious people are. I know this because some of my best Facebook friends are atheists. There’s even a website called Atheist Meme Base, whose most popular tags tell you everything you need to know about it and about the kind of people who borrow its memes to proselytise about godlessness to the ignorant: “indoctrination”, “Christians”, “funny”, “hell”, “misogyny”, “scumbag God”, “logic”. Atheists in the public sphere spend their every tragic waking hour doing little more than mocking the faithful. In the words of Robin Wright, they seem determined “to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers”. To that end if you ever have the misfortune, as I once did, to step foot into an atheistic get-together, which are now common occurrences in the Western world, patronised by people afflicted with repetitive strain injury from so furiously patting themselves on the back for being clever, you will witness unprecedented levels of intellectual smugness and hostility towards hoi polloi.

Sometimes that’s true. There’s the kernel again. But it’s not always true, and then…when there is a protected, deferential, entrenched culture-wide view that religious beliefs must not be treated as in any way intellectually dubious, then there’s a need for a certain amount of frank, blunt, even tactless confrontation.

But…a certain amount is not an infinite amount, and the frank blunt tactless confrontation can get stale, and when it’s personal it can get worse than stale.

The anti-feminist mostly-misogynist harassers among the atheists have perhaps made it easier for me to see this. (Or, from their point of view, have caused me to adopt this particular bias.) Their ugly combination of malice and persistence has put me off things like endless rude tweets about religion, even if I agree with the substance. (But then how much substance can there be in a tweet? That’s part of the problem. Tweets are for slogans, not substance.)

So, what’s gone wrong with atheism? The problem isn’t atheism itself, of course, which is just non-belief, a nothing, a lack of something. Rather it is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life, which gives rise to today’s monumentally annoying atheism. The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity. Where earlier generations of the Godless viewed their atheism as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever, today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare “I am an atheist!” as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t.

There’s a good deal to that. Two kernels maybe, instead of one. Or, less grudgingly, he’s right. That is after all what we’ve been arguing for the past year or more – we who have. We want more than atheism. Atheism, hell yes, but also more than that.

It’s odd to find myself agreeing with O’Neill – but he did less coat-trailing than usual in this piece. Or am I imagining it?

Comments

  1. says

    Ah, Richard Dawkins, the George W. Bush of the atheist movement — an overprivileged twit waging pointless unprovoked wars against people who have done him no wrong, never admitting even the possibility that he might have made a mistake or two, and not giving a shit about the cost of his actions, or who pays it. Way to represent, Dawks!

  2. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Yeah, I can get behind much of that. While I’m certainly an atheist (with a small a), it doesn’t completely define me. I think my leftist political beliefs and general humanism define me WAY more. If people only define themselves by what they’re not, they’re missing a great opportunity to find out what they are.

  3. says

    Yeah, the Definition Problem and the related Identity Problem keep coming back to haunt us.

    If “atheism” means nothing more than “doesn’t believe in god[s]“, then the only personal consequence would be “Don’t go to church, and ignore those rules that have no justification beyond ‘God said so’”. And who cares what anyone else believes or does? But instead we have a whole movement based around actively critiquing religion (the thing itself, as well as its more obvious pernicious effects like creationism and faith-healing), and keeping religion out of the instruments of government, connecting with more general movements of skepticism and critical thought, and even allying itself with some of the more obvious victims of religious bullying like LGBTQs. And we do so not to feel superior to those silly religious people (one hopes, though I get the feeling that for some atheists, that’s exactly the motivation), but because we believe all that will objectively improve the lot of humanity.

    IOW: even the “dictionary atheists” mostly don’t believe their own definition. So either accept the re-definition, or re-label it as secular humanism, or something.

  4. smhll says

    ” The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality.”

    I don’t believe this assertion (from the quoted text). It’s extremely simplistic. “Atheist” is a tickbox on a form; it’s not my whole personality.

    I might suggest a longer statement — “I believe religious institutions should butt out of people’s lives”, but I think journalists don’t want to type anything that long. And “secular” isn’t a particularly good noun, but it’s maybe a better category for me to align with than “atheist”.

    I’m not personally a skeptic, although I am often snarky. The mating call of the hyperskeptic “canyaprooooove-it” does start to come across as hostile and unappealing in social settings. Especially when people want to talk about their own lived experiences.

  5. Seth says

    “Surely there was a time when you could say to someone “I am an atheist” without them instantly assuming you were a smug, self-righteous loather of dumb hicks”

    Indeed there was; instead, you could expect to get tortured to death very slowly at the hands of the pious if you ever said “I am an atheist” to anyone in public. I think Brendan O’Neill needs to remember that, the next time he cringes with embarrassment at being an atheist.

  6. Bjarte Foshaug says

    It’s funny, but the longer I’ve been an outspoken atheist, the less I have to say about it:

    Do I believe in a supernatural, intelligence who had at least some hand in creating us?
    No.
    As far as I’m concerned everything about “atheism” is included in that “no”.
    Not much to build on, is it…

    Critical thinking is definitely more basic than atheism in my book. I do think atheism is the logical outcome of critical thinking, but the cognitive tool used to arrive at such a conclusion are not in themselves part of atheism, and, as we have seen, it certainly doesn’t follow that critical thinking is the logical outcome of atheism. I also have strong ethical objections to specific religious doctrines, and not least to the idea of leaving the most important questions in life up to faith in the first place, but again the value judgments upon which these objections are based are themselves external to atheism.

  7. Jason F. says

    given to making pseudo-clever statements like, “Well, Leviticus also frowns upon having unkempt hair, did you know that?”

    Perhaps I’m just defensive because I find myself using that line fairly often, but what exactly is it that makes that particular statement “pseudo-clever”?

    It’s a bit of a cliche at this point, sure, and it’s probably too broadly applied – but it still seems like a rather on-point response to those who quote the Old Testament at people as “proof” that they’re terrible Hellbound sinners for being, say, gay or an unwed woman who has had sex. It shows how arbitrary and/or outdated many Biblical teachings are and how people tend to pick and choose the commandments to follow. It also seems, to me at least, a rather damning statement about how supposedly “timeless” religious beliefs are actually pretty strongly influenced by the culture in which one is brought up. I don’t expect such statements to destroy anyone’s religious belief or anything like that – but you would hope that it would at least make people a bit more cautious about using the Old Testament to condemn someone. (But I know that’s hopelessly idealistic.)

    Anyways, I’m never really been into the atheist “scene” myself – I read these blogs occasionally, but that’s about the extent of it. I have some pretty strong social anxiety, so I’ve never been particularly tempted to go to any of the local meet ups. Personally speaking, I’ve never felt the need to “preach” to someone about the “glories of atheism.” But even in my relatively limited experience, can I say that there are there annoying, over-zealous, and overbearing atheists? Of course, just like you’d find in any other sufficiently large group. Is this “most annoying cultural group” rhetoric justified? Heck no. The author fails to realize that the strong feelings of many atheists are caused by something. We live in a society where people are frequently using their religious beliefs to justify legislation that actively harms people (women, gays, various racial and religious minorities, etc.) – many of us have been personally hurt by such laws and actions, and almost all of us know someone who has been.

    So while some atheists can get annoying in their over-eager desire to call religious types mean names on the internet, certain religious types are out there justifying evil and immoral things that cause very real harm to people. I think I know which one is worse.

    Does that justify being an asshole? No. But after hearing your ten-thousandth comment from someone defending the continued exclusion of sexual orientation from employment and housing non-discrimination acts because “many religions teach that homosexuality is inherently sinful, and we can’t legislate against people’s freedom of religion” or saying things like “I hope all these anti-God, amoral people protesting the Russian Olympics get sent to Siberia for defending crimes against nature” – and when you know that there are a (in)decent number of people out there who believe similar things – I don’t think it’s too hard to justify feeling at least a little bit angry and frustrated and defensive. And perhaps even morally superior.

    (I use gays in my examples here because I am gay – I know that these same things are said about many, many other groups.)

    I don’t have animosity towards most religious believers – after all, most of my friends and family are religious (my parents and most of my siblings are faithful Mormons.) I do find some of their beliefs hard to justify, but I still think that most of them are really good people – and I’m more than willing to admit that some of them are quite a bit smarter than me.

    On the other hand, Yes, I do feel superior – both morally and intellectually – to people who are actively working to hurt large groups of human beings, whether in the name of religion or capitalism or anything else.

  8. says

    Meh. Had meant to post this in this thread, for what it’s worth.

    Adding a few things, beyond, though:

    That people do define themselves by their atheism is understandable enough in climates in which there are efforts to make that socially costly. Hard to help, even, I’d think. And for people who’ve just crossed that rubicon, in places that was genuinely hard, or even dangerous, honestly, I think I’d have to be a bit of a jerk for giving them too much a hard time for that.

    And it really is important, I think, to speak to the right of people to say they do not believe, and publicly; to make people feel comfortable about that. Given the whole of the context, it is still a very, very important thing to defend, I think. Remember a banner that just said ‘Atheist’ was ‘provocative’, in a certain city, not that long ago; we don’t have to be talking even of places where apostasy is, in fact, by the books illegal for it to confer a pretty heavy pariah status.

    The world want to see is one in which people no longer assume, and people no longer look shocked or look away or find excuses to say shush when you say you believe the gods people have followed to now are fictions. And that’s still very much a social reality, lots of places. That there are obnoxious atheists, arrogant atheists, annoying atheists, that doesn’t change any of this. And remember some people will still call them that just for being visible at all. Many consider it ‘arrogant’, indeed, just to ‘reject’ their apparently perfect and undeniably true revealed wisdom.

    Shorter: yes, some atheists are annoying. But there are also those who will happily try to shame all atheists into silence by whatever means, and calling them ‘arrogant’ or ‘annoying’ or ‘needlessly provocative’ on any excuse, regardless of their behaviour will do just fine. I’ve no interest in giving them support, either.

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Last week we had the spectacle of Dawkins and his slavish Twitter followers (whose adherence to Dawkins’ diktats makes those Kool-Aid-drinking Jonestown folk seem level-headed in comparison) boring on about how stupid Muslims are.

    Actually, muslims spend much more time demonstrating how stupid they are.

    Atheists in the public sphere spend their every tragic waking hour doing little more than mocking the faithful. In the words of Robin Wright, they seem determined “to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers”. …ridiculing believers is certainly an improvement on the traditional believers’ custom of roasting nonbelievers or wrong-believers alive or stoning them to death.
    If believers exercise their right to proclaim what they believe in public, other people have the right to say they’retalking nonsense.

  10. says

    @8: Yeah, I think the first time I really “got” atheism as a thing (as opposed to skeptical rationalism or ethical humanism or other labels that denote arguably more basic and important values) was at the Reason Rally last year. There we were, 20,000-odd of us, holding a variety of opinions on other subjects (I mean, Tf00t was there, and Penn Jillette by video call, et al), but all publicly identifying as atheist — which in the current cultural context is an important political statement. We were, at least for one rainy day, “our people”; united by the necessity of external circumstance if nothing else.

    ‘Course the year-and-a-half since have rather diminished that “our people” feeling, and identities defined along other axes look perhaps more meaningful, but let’s not recap all that just now…..

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