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Mar 14 2013

Squishies and Crunchies

In the bowels of an ugly review of AC Grayling’s latest book, Jonathan Rée makes a familiar accusation against ‘militant’ atheism (just the use of his modifier is a grand tell, isn’t it?). It’s that atheists are fundamentalists who see all of religion as fundamentalist, in a classic act of projection.

Militant atheism makes the strangest bedfellows. Grayling sees himself as a champion of the Enlightenment, but in the old battle over the interpretation of religious texts he is on the side of conservative literalist fundamentalists rather than progressive critical liberals. He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes. Resistance is, of course, futile. If you suggest that his vaunted “clarifications” annihilate the poetry of religious experience or the nuance of theological reflection, he will mark you down for obstructive irrationalism. He is, after all, a professional philosopher, and his training tells him that what cannot be translated into plain words is nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Aside from being a thoroughly tin-eared statement of Grayling’s position — the man loves the metaphors and poetry himself — it’s completely wrong about us atheists in general. We certainly do see the differences between the varied approaches to religion, and we certainly do not confuse them or misapply criticisms valid against one branch to a branch to which they are irrelevant. I think he’s gotten confused because of all the varieties of religious thought, we despise them all…but I assure you, we despise each one uniquely for its own treasured inanities.

Part of the problem, of course, is of the believers’ own making. We use this word ‘religion’ to apply to so many different kinds of beliefs, and they love it that way: it makes the confusion universal, and creates a great blinking billowing smoke screen of noise and lights and chaos under which nonsense can thrive.

But let me take a moment to cut through the ambiguities in one way and propose one simple distinction that might help resolve these uncertainties about what atheists are criticizing. I propose that there are two very broad categories of popular theologies. I am not claiming that these categories are complete or perfect or absolute, just that you can go a long way towards recognizing the kinds of arguments your opponent is making if you identify which way they are thinking, and that you can at least make it clear to the other that you aren’t trying to accuse a Baptist of being an Anglican, or vice versa.

My two categories are crunchy theology and squishy theology.

Crunchy theology is rigid, absolute, inflexible, and clear cut. Crunchy theology proponents like to tell you exactly how the universe works: you will go to hell for abortion, masturbation, gay sex, and believing in evolution. They have a definitive dogma that changes every few decades, but even so, when they adopt a set of propositions, they will tell you that it has always been this way since the first century AD. A crunchy religious person votes Republican because that’s what Jesus would do.

Famous crunchy religious people: most of them, but they include people like Albert Mohler, Ken Ham, Shmuley Boteach, Ayatollah Hassan Sanei. I say “most” of the famous ones, because crunchy theologians are the ones who shout out their theology the loudest, and are the quickest to define themselves by their faith.

We atheists despise them because they are wrong. They will happily assert the most errant nonsense in defiance of all reason and evidence simply because it must be true, or the whole house of cards that constitutes their dogma will fall apart. The book of Genesis must be literally true, because if there were no Adam and Eve and no fall, then Jesus’ sacrifice would be meaningless.

Squishy theology is evasive, ambiguous (and reveling in it!), and well-meaning but dishonest. They are confident that people are good and that the universe is loving and beautiful, and that religion’s role is to provide a framework for gentle moral guidance and an appreciation of God’s creation. Squishy priests are like the docents at an art museum; they want you to really, really love everything, and for the right reasons. They’re offended if you don’t love God and Jesus because…because…because you’re supposed to, and Jesus loves you, so how can you be so mean and deny him? But you can love him in your own way, of course.

Famous squishy religious people are Karen Armstrong, Norman Vincent Peale, the Dalai Lama (sometimes, at least publicly), the religion columnists at the Huffington Post. Also, probably, most of the ordinary believers you know.

We New Atheists detest them because they’re dishonest pollyannas. They’ll skirt around conflicts between their beliefs and reality, preferring to divert the argument into a pursuit of red herrings (for example, accusing atheists of treating Karen Armstrong as synonymous with Terry Jones, rather than facing the vacuity of Armstrong’s beliefs). Look, most of the Western ones are Christian — they’re asking us to believe in the divinity of an ancient Jewish carpenter. But can they come right out and admit that? No. We point out that what they’re asking us to accept as reasonable doctrine is fundamentally absurd and silly, and they defend themselves by accusing us of denying poetry and metaphor and art (see: Rée, Jonathan). They love to call themselves “spiritual” (an undefinable, meaningless term) and claim atheists are missing out on feelings of awe and belonging.

Squishy theology even has some appeal to some atheists, like Jonathan Rée, who hold vaguely charitable feelings towards the ol’ church, because their wonderfully dodgy approach to the truth allows such atheists to avoid confronting any incompatibility between belief and actuality. It’s a fine refuge for people who don’t want to think too hard about what faith actually says.

So really, Jonathan Rée, I know the difference. I think you’re a foolish apologist for bogosity because you’re a coward who hides behind magical metaphors (to which I always ask, “metaphor for what?”), not because you believe Abraham had a strong position on the age of the universe. I will happily tailor my arguments against religion to be appropriate to your goofy beliefs in the beneficence of lies.

For instance, your blatant denial of valid knowledge…

The distinction between believers and unbelievers may be far less important than Grayling and the New Atheists like to think. At any rate it cuts right across the rather interesting difference between the grim absolutists, such as Grayling and the religious fundamentalists,

Wait, wait…I have to stop him there. Has Rée even read Grayling’s books, or met the fellow? Grayling is a soft-spoken, friendly gentleman who is happy to discuss nuance — he’s a freakin’ philosopher. “Grim absolutist” is about the most absolutely wrong-headed description of Grayling I’ve ever read.

OK, carry on.

who think that knowledge must involve perfect communion with literal truth, and the sceptical ironists – both believers and unbelievers – who observe with a shrug that we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about. We live our lives in the midst of ambiguities we will never resolve. When we die our heads will still be filled with a few stupid certitudes mixed in with some more or less good ideas, and we are never going to know which are which. There is no certainty, we might say: so stop worrying about it.

That we lack absolute certainty — a position that those scientific-minded New Atheists happily endorse — does not imply an absence of probablies. We can examine the evidence of reality and see that no, the universe almost certainly doesn’t love us; no, there is almost certainly no life after death; no, your favorite Jewish laborer or Arab merchant almost certainly wasn’t a prophet with divine favor, because there is no reasonable evidence for any of those claims. And further, the people who argue otherwise do not have any special access to evidence, no particular authority on supernatural matters, and are completely unable to provide replicable, confirmable support for their claims.

So I would agree that both atheists and theists (squishy and crunchy!) will die believing in things that are wrong. But that does not mean that we can’t discern in this life what things are almost certainly false.

33 comments

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  1. 1
    Anthony K

    He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes.

    So, which exactly is Leviticus 18:22? Because it seems that not very many people understand it as a many-layered parable, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes, and only a small contingency of them are atheists.

    Hell, it took until last year for the American president, an apparent member of as many faith traditions as his detractors can toss at him, to see it as anything but God’s Own Word.

    I have no problem treating the Bible as a rollicking mythopolitical, quasi-historical collage filled with satire, parodies, caricatures and lampoons. I suspect many other atheists do as well.

    Jonathan Rée is rather preaching to wrong choir, as it were.

  2. 2
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    I have no problem treating the Bible as a rollicking mythopolitical, quasi-historical collage filled with satire, parodies, caricatures and lampoons.

    I especially enjoy that part in the book of Judges where the writers are clearly lampooning the popular entertainment of the day, looking at dead bodies.

  3. 3
    Jacob Schmidt

    I have no problem treating the Bible as a rollicking mythopolitical, quasi-historical collage filled with satire, parodies, caricatures and lampoons.

    QFT

    The bible is a work of human literature, translated and reinterpreted 100 times. Without having read it, I’d say that some is well written, with plenty of culture and history, and some is garbage. Some of it is good, much of it is terrible.

    But even with the good parts, it’s still vacuous shit. The goods parts in the bible are largely trivial, while the bad parts are downright destructive. And the bad parts contradict the good parts, making the bible largely incoherent.

  4. 4
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    This is so good I must put it up on my desktop to savor it.

    We use this word ‘religion’ to apply to so many different kinds of beliefs, and they love it that way: it makes the confusion universal, and creates a great blinking billowing smoke screen of noise and lights and chaos under which nonsense can thrive.

    Great scott, yes !!!

    All of it, but that description is the best I’ve seen yet for the deliberate gleefully convenient obfuscation that allows so much nonsense to continue unchallenged.

  5. 5
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Also, “crunchy and squishy”. :) Thank you, that is perfect.

  6. 6
    Owlmirror

    I wish to repost, yet again, Sastra’s awesome take on what happens when a crunchy theologian meets a very squishy indeed Karen Armstrong:

    Theist: I believe in God.

    Armstrong: Yes. What I understand you to be saying is that you believe that reality exists. God is its mythic personification, and lies beyond our comprehension. God is nothing.

    Theist: No, I believe that God exists, and that God is real, and He acts in the world.

    Armstrong: Of course God is real. It is a symbol which points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.

    Theist: You’re not listening. God created the universe, and revealed His purpose in the Bible.

    Armstrong: I hear you. The Bible was never intended to be historically or scientifically accurate or explain anything: no, it is a myth which helps you cope psychologically, akin to poetry or music. I really honor and respect that. Good for you.

    Theist: A myth? A symbol? No, God is our creator. He will judge us according to our sin. He’s not something I made up to feel better. There’s salvation and damnation in the afterlife!

    Armstrong: All of which is a metaphor for the cultivation of the human capacities of mind and heart as you discover an interior haven of peace. Believe me, I understand what you’re doing, and it’s okay. It’s more than okay; its what makes us human.

    Theist: Fuck you.

  7. 7
    Argle Bargle

    The distinction between believers and unbelievers may be far less important than Grayling and the New Atheists like to think.

    I’m not so sure about this. Someone who thinks masturbation or eating shellfish or drawing a picture of a dead guy will upset an imaginary critter so much that I shouldn’t indulge in these pastimes has a definite, unwanted influence on my life.

  8. 8
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I think he’s gotten confused because of all the varieties of religious thought, we despise them all…but I assure you, we despise each one uniquely for its own treasured inanities.

    Anna Karenina anyone?

    Perhaps stated something like this:

    All true stories are true in the same way. All false stories diverge from reality in their own unique ways.

  9. 9
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Owlmirror #6 – thanks for posting that! This is one of the great things about Pharyngula’s commenting threads – there is always a ton of really interesting stuff on here, too!

    Sastra, if you are out there – may I quote you verbatim sometime? :-D It’s just pitch-perfect.

    Huh – maybe it’s because this is Pi Day, but I feel like the atheist universe is glowing red hot perfectly today!

  10. 10
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Not the least being because of this link that Mano Singham posted yesterday!
    http://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-03/uoc–aar031213.php

  11. 11
    omnicrom

    I treat the bible the same way I treat any book of mythology, a fascinating subject that reflects the culture and world of an ancient people. I treat people who wield it to defend their authoritarian fantasies with contempt, I treat people who use it as a wishy-washy talisman of their woo with a mix of disappointment and frustation.

  12. 12
    kantalope

    So what religious teachings do you follow? Marshmallow cream or Crunchy frog?

    But I do hate the – that isn’t what religious people REALLY believe….aaack then who are those people on TV and why do they keep saying that stuff if they don’t believe it?

  13. 13
    Owlmirror

    Original thread and link for cited material @#6:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/16/the-templeton-foundation-plays/#comment-741108

  14. 14
    pendragon

    This reminds me of a section of the Tim Minchin beat poem Storm

    Chatter is initially bright and light hearted
    But it’s not long before Storm gets started:
    “You can’t know anything,
    Knowledge is merely opinion”
    She opines, over her Cabernet Sauvignon
    Vis a vis
    Some unhippily
    Empirical comment by me

    “Not a good start” I think
    We’re only on pre-dinner drinks
    And across the room, my wife
    Widens her eyes
    Silently begs me, Be Nice
    A matrimonial warning
    Not worth ignoring
    So I resist the urge to ask Storm
    Whether knowledge is so loose-weave
    Of a morning
    When deciding whether to leave
    Her apartment by the front door
    Or a window on the second floor.

  15. 15
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    Thanks for that link, Owlmirror.

  16. 16
    typecaster

    So what religious teachings do you follow? Marshmallow cream or Crunchy frog?

    This is, of course, heretical. The One True Choice is Hairy Thunderer or Cosmic Muffin.
    [Makes the Sign of Fire...]

  17. 17
    mattwatkins

    I’ve been trying to understand why, when Dr. Dawkins writes about religion, I start rolling my eyes, but when Dr. Myers writes about it, I find myself nodding along. It’s not like Myers is any less vociferous a critic of religion than Dawkins. (If anything, the opposite is the case.) But I really do feel that Myers intuits religious thought (or maybe intuits specifically American religious thought) in a way that Dawkins simply does not and is thus able to more effectively get to the heart of and undermine it. Thanks for this post.

  18. 18
    slowdjinn

    @niftyatheist #10

    I wonder how many of those professing ‘no religion’ are of the “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus” school?

  19. 19
    profpedant

    “we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about. We live our lives in the midst of ambiguities we will never resolve.”

    These are precisely the reasons that it is so very important to make the effort needed to discern as much of the real world as possible. We become less liable to get things wrong, make better use of our modest abilities, and both have better ambiguities to deal with, and are better able to live lives permeated by ambiguities.

  20. 20
    niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    I wonder how many of those professing ‘no religion’ are of the “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus” school?

    slowdjinn, I don’t know but most people reporting these new findings posit that a goodly portion of them would be just as you say here. For me, the fact that they at least disavow formalized (and too often manipulative, power-hungry, etc) religion is enough to celebrate for now.

  21. 21
    raven

    I wonder how many of those professing ‘no religion’ are of the “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus” school?

    A better question.

    How many of those who claim a religion are just census xians, box checkers?

    I’m guessing about half.

    1. Church attendance in the USA only runs about 25-35%.

    2. The Dawkins foundation did a survey recently in the UK. A lot of box checkers hadn’t been to church in ages, and had no idea what the doctrines of xianity were.

    Half of all Catholics have no idea what transubstantiation is. I’d bet more atheists know about the canibalistic ritual that is central to the RCC.

  22. 22
    sawells

    When I saw the title of the post I was rather expecting something about arthropods.

    But this is pretty good :)

  23. 23
    raven

    Census shows that Christianity in Britain is – Richard Dawkins
    www. richarddawkins. net/…/richard-dawkins-census-shows-that-christ…

    Dec 12, 2012 – Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science … The census found 32% in Wales have no religion, against a UK figure of 25%. The Church in Wales said Christianity was “no longer the default setting” for many, but the … Only 32 per cent of the census “Christians” believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

    Only 32 per cent of the census “Christians” believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

    Followup to #21.

    This is from the UK so it isn’t directly applicable to the USA.

    But the same phenomena most likely holds. A lot of people just check the box their parents checked without thinking about it or caring.

    My Catholic relatives have long ago stopped going to Mass. But if you ask them, they are…Catholics.

  24. 24
    rrhain

    Ah, yes. The old argument that because we don’t know everything, that means we don’t know anything.

  25. 25
    Azuma Hazuki

    As has been pointed out upthread, the reviewer’s attitude doesn’t exactly hold up against some fairly unambiguous (“crunchy”) passages vis-a-vis what to do when your kids misbehave, or when the world is going to end.

    Slippery S.O.B. I’m going to need to finish with all this for my own sanity soon; there’s too much stupid in the world.

  26. 26
    unclefrogy

    “we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about. We live our lives in the midst of ambiguities we will never resolve.”———–

    that quote stopped me I had to go back and read it in place again. When I first saw it I thought he was going to tell me that it was an important reason not to fall into faith and instead pursue truth and be skeptical about claims but no it sounds instead like he is advocating resignation to ignorance and stupidity instead.
    Why should I want to do that it is just another claim?

    uncle frogy

  27. 27
    Ichthyic

    Part of the problem, of course, is of the believers’ own making. We use this word ‘religion’ to apply to so many different kinds of beliefs, and they love it that way: it makes the confusion universal, and creates a great blinking billowing smoke screen of noise and lights and chaos under which nonsense can thrive.

    I’m confused… Wasn’t Orlly telling us just the other day it’s all about philosophy, not religion?

    oh, wait… ah… the great blinking smoke screen got me.

  28. 28
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    I feel that Darkmatter 2525′s video, “If God Were a Car,” fits nicely into this discussion. It doen’t quite get the crunchy (God wants you to do this! Prove it) vs. squishy (What do you mean, prove it? God is that feeling of awe at the universe!).

  29. 29
    md

    A word here in defense of the squishes. Hypocrite and pollyannas show their desire for tolerance and peace in a society of pluralistic and diverse beliefs. By and large they want to go along to get along. Its the glittering eyed ideologue with an army at his back (or a desire for one) that we must watch out for.

  30. 30
    Pierce R. Butler

    … we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about. We live our lives in the midst of ambiguities we will never resolve. When we die our heads will still be filled with a few stupid certitudes mixed in with some more or less good ideas, and we are never going to know which are which. There is no certainty, we might say: so stop worrying about it.

    I.O.W.: To the barricades, militant nihilists!

  31. 31
    plutoanimus

    “It cuts right across the rather interesting difference between the grim absolutists, such as Grayling and the religious fundamentalists, who think that knowledge must involve perfect communion with literal truth, and the sceptical ironists – both believers and unbelievers – who observe with a shrug that we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about.”

    It’s as if Ree is unaware that knowledge is cumulative, and that science builds on past successes.

    Pathetic.

  32. 32
    Sastra

    Squishy theology is evasive, ambiguous (and reveling in it!), and well-meaning but dishonest.

    Well said, and I like the way you label and spell out the crunchy/squishy distinction. As a former squishy, I think we atheists would be wise to keep in mind that a lot of the people who believe in a god so vague that it might be anything at all are very, very sure of one thing: they believe in this god because they are not atheists. And they are not atheists because atheists are not at all the sort of person they want to be like.

    I think this makes it hard to snuggle up to them as our allies in the fight against fundamentalism. They are much too happy to group us in with the fundamentalists. The atheists they like are the atheists who blend in so well you’d never know. The Good Atheist respects faith because they accept that a person’s faith is their deeply-held identity. This is a dangerous framework to buy into, though. Treat religion as a hypothesis and flawed conclusion (which is why we are atheists) and try to change someone’s mind and now you might as well be killing them: you’re trying to turn them into something like you.

    I doubt that this attitude bodes well for long-term harmony. It sounds more like the squishies hope to find a few glowing exceptions to the general rule that atheists and atheism suck. Such as Jonathon Ree.

    What kills faith? Curiosity, clarity, and consistency. The squishies see that the crunchies are on a destructive path because the crunchies actually seem to think theology can win against atheism in a fair fight. The squishies want to make sure that this fight doesn’t happen — and that those 3 C’s are kept well away from the existence of God. Bless their little well-meaning peace-seeking hearts…

    Niftyatheist #9 wrote:

    Sastra, if you are out there – may I quote you verbatim sometime?

    Of course! And I’m very flattered, thank you.

    But you need not have asked. This is the internet and the archives haunt all of us forever.

  33. 33
    corkscrew

    Owlmirror/Sastra: Thanks for the repost and the original comment :)

    In a similar vein, I think Jonathan Rée is using the term “grim absolutist” to mean anyone who is so thoughtless, so unsophisticated, so gauche as to care whether something is, y’know, true or not.

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