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At least the title gets it right: the author is a “Know Nothing”

It’s weird. There’s this new Dawkins’ Flea, Nick Spencer, who has written a book called Atheists: The Origin of the Species, which I have not read nor am I interested in reading. But it also has this positive review by Michael Robbins in Slate, and I get so much mail about it — either people who declare “Checkmate, Atheists!” or “This is really stupid, you should rip into it”, in equal measure. I’m going to have to side with “it’s stupid.”

It’s unoriginal. It’s the same old nonsense parroted by anti-atheists for the past decade. In fact, all I had to do is skim the thing and see familiar tropes jump out at me, and until people started sending me link after link, I didn’t bother to read it carefully.

Let me tell you, reading it carefully did not make it any better.

Here are the key arguments that bored me:

New Atheists aren’t new. Oh, please. Anyone who tries to make this argument is an idiot and can be simply dismissed. WE KNOW. Every big-name New Atheist I know has grumbled about this stupid label. We didn’t come up with it. It was imposed on us from the outside, and every time it was brought up, we’d grumble, “But these ideas have been around for a long time…” and get ignored. And now we get accused of being ignorant of history, philosophy, and literature because we think we came up with this stuff for the very first time. We didn’t, and we sure don’t believe so. Fuck off.

Nietzsche! Nietzche, Nietzsche, Nietsche. This one is just annoying, but it’s a good, reliable marker for pseudo-erudite apologetics for religion. When they start talking about Nietzsche, you know exactly where they’re going: it’s not that he was an interesting, complicated, and unique philosopher, but all they want to tell you is that he was the last good atheist. Why? Because he was an anguished atheist who saw the loss of faith as a great tragedy for our culture, that was going to cause massive upheavals. You are allowed to be an atheist only if you feel deep regret and show the proper appreciation for the magnitude of religion’s contributions to humanity.

Many atheists do feel pain at leaving religion, especially if they were brought up deeply imbedded within it. Becoming an atheist means saying Mom & Dad & Grandma & Grandpa were completely wrong about something they thought was extremely important in their lives, and that’s sometimes very hard to do. But they still feel it’s clear enough and important enough to deny tradition, because that religion they were brought up with turns out to have been evil bullshit. I’d like to see these apologists make a similar argument against egalitarianism — the last good person to promote equal rights was the one who expressed deep remorse over his cherished lost racism, and who was unhappy that ending slavery would change the world.

And some of us atheists were brought up largely outside the fervent cults, and we look at religious culture and laugh. No brainwashing that we have to struggle to overcome, you know. And that’s a good thing.

Atheists are arrogant, Christians are humble. Yeah, Robbins actually pulls this old chestnut out of hat as the conclusion for his essay. Right. The people who claim to have a direct line to the Creator Of The Universe, Invisible Master of All Things, Who tells them that they have a special purpose and will live for Eternity, and who have a Divine Mission to make sure everyone else follows God’s marching orders, are humble. The ones who say we live in a thin skin of water and air on one small rock among uncountable trillions in the universe, who say existence is fragile and we need to work to maintain it, and that we’re nothing special, except to ourselves…those are the arrogant ones.

Here’s the big one: Religion is not an explanation for the facts of life. I have heard so many variants of this nonsense; of course Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson and David Bentley Hart are cited, those masters of effusively saying nothing at all. When you point out a contradiction or a fallacy in their holy doctrine, theologians are always quick to start waving their hands and shouting that the Holy Book is not a science text! You have to read it metaphorically! You have to interpret it in a proper historical and social context! OK, I can do that. Given that it gets so much humanly wrong, we must conclude that these documents are the expressions of human beings’ struggle to understand their place in nature, and lack any sign of special, privileged knowledge from a divine intelligence. They are no more magic than Shakespeare’s plays, which means they might be good and interesting historical literary works, but only contain truths that were accepted as common knowledge at the time.

What always annoys me is that they expend so much wind telling us that their faith is not a science project, and that it is so unfair to try and impose standards for truth and understanding on it, that they never bother to get around to telling us what it is. At best we get a thesaurus dump: a flurry of adjectives and adverbs attached to a set of nebulous terms — but something does not become more true in correlation with the floweriness of the language. And sometimes we get outright nonsense, like this:

Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.

For those not up on the lingo, ontology refers to the nature of things, and their relationships. It’s actually an important topic in biology — systematists, obviously, but also in my molecular biology background it’s a major concern in understanding the genome. Figuring out the relationships between genes is genetic ontology, and it’s something lots of people are studying! I have two major objections to that statement, though.

  1. If religion is about ontology, it’s fantasy ontology. Trying to puzzle out the relationships of gods and humans in the absence of any evidence that gods even exist is a silly game. Let’s start talking more about the marriage of Zeus and Hera, or the bizarre father-son dynamic of Odin and Thor.

  2. You really shouldn’t talk about ontology without epistemology. The only mention of that big subject, though, is to accuse atheists of “epistemic arrogance”. It’s true, though, that atheists and scientists think it’s very important to know how we know something, and it’s absurd to pretend that theists don’t, even if they are just taking the stupid “goddidit” shortcut.

But all that is par for the course for apologists. Deny, deny, deny; name-drop some philosophers; fling around some airy deepities; express profound indignance that anyone would dare to question the authority of ancient cultural dogmas and traditions. My eyes glaze over. They have no substance. Goodbye.

Comments

  1. says

    Speaking of getting titles right: Did Nick Spencer think the title of Darwin’s famous book is On the Origin of the Species when he devised his parody title?

  2. anteprepro says

    This is the post that should be titled “A Mundane Story”. Ridiculously bog standard. The sad part is he will probably make money by recycling these cliched, asinine arguments that have been done to fucking death.

  3. some bastard on the internet says

    Argh! I need to hire a personal proof reader!

    …PZ posts above, and also because I can’t help…

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Atheists are arrogant, Christians are humble.

    *snicker, tee-hee, bwahahahahahahaha*
    I needed a good laugh.

  5. says

    Mormons think they have every right to knock on a door with a “No Soliciting” sign, because they are not soliciting, no, of course not. They are there to tell you about the One True Church … and how humble they are.

  6. says

    “And some of us atheists were brought up largely outside the fervent cults, and we look at religious culture and laugh. No brainwashing that we have to struggle to overcome, you know. And that’s a good thing.”

    I guess this is me. Though, finding the ‘fervent cults’ sad and often tragic and easy to take offense, I don’t laugh. Which, when I take notice, does make me feel an outsider.

  7. jrfdeux, mode d'emploi says

    “What the *bleep* do we know?”

    “We know that pretending something is true doesn’t make it so. Yes?”

  8. tbtabby says

    They bring up Nietzsche as “the last good atheist?” I figured they’d be the type to brand him as a Nazi because of his Superman Theory. They passed up a golden opportunity for the “Hitler was an atheist” canard.

  9. David Marjanović says

    name-drop some philosophers

    Sometimes indirectly: the opposition of “ontologic” to “ontic” only makes sense, AFAIK, if you already agree with Hegel (a guy who got outright high on his own metaphors and word games).

  10. robro says

    I wonder how much the “anguished Nietzsche” trope is a myth and to what extent Nietzche’s actual anguish was the result of other factors in his life rather than atheism.

    As to this point: “…they might be good and interesting historical literary works, but only contain truths that were accepted as common knowledge at the time.” They might reveal something about their historical era, if we could reliably place them in a historical context. As I read more, the starting era gets later and the end moves closer to the Medieval period. Of course, given that they were refactored many times doesn’t help. Also, there appears to be internal evidence in the Bible that the writings represent divergent lines of thinking that were not in agreement with each other, such as the divide over temple worship or the value of observance of the law versus pure faith. In addition, some of the threads appear to be propaganda produced to support various claimants to the high priest role or the right of some group to be relocated to the land, so hardly truths accepted as common knowledge at all.

  11. wcorvi says

    “… the Holy Book is not a science text!”

    Wish they would actually BELIEVE that!

  12. corwyn says

    @Zeno:

    Yes, I suspect he does. I hear that a lot from theists. They seem to think that the important (but wrong) idea in _On the Origin of Species_ is that humans evolved from apes.

  13. fatpie42 says

    Oddly (and I know it’s a bad place to start, though I am somewhat familiar with these terms already) the wikipedia page names a philosopher called Roy Bhaskar. He actually appears to consider the philosophical presuppositions to be ontic, and the intransitive objects of specific scientific investigation to be ontological.

    But yeah, normally I wouldn’t have said they were two drastically different spheres of inquiry.

  14. mykroft says

    It seems there is an infinite market for repackaging old anti-atheist/evolution arguments. Perhaps we should call this activity, “The Emperor’s New Prose”©

  15. Menyambal says

    Humble? You forgot that the Christians think that the entire purpose of the universe is their religion. Not just a special purpose, but the entire and only purpose.

    It reminds me of my college days. The candidates for homecoming-game royalty would plaster the campus with campaign posters and more, with fraternities and sororities backing them up. Then, when the winners were announced during the football game, all the losing factions would just walk out — they cared so little for the actual game that the ceremony had to be moved to the end of the game, even though the royalty were supposed to preside over the game. Yet, when I wrote an article for the college paper that mentioned all that silliness, I was called arrogant. (So I wrote another comparing the frats to the fundamentalist churches they worked with.)

  16. damiki says

    They are no more magic than Shakespeare’s plays…

    I take issue with this. That so much of the writing attributed to Shakespeare remains relevant over 400 years later (semantically if not syntactically) is, well, magic the “holy” books can only dream of…

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

    @damiki:

    You haven’t been reading Song of Solomon, have you? That thing is hot!

    I’ll grant you that things presented in a boring, expository manner better at least be factual, and that those “begat”s, for instance, are the worst kind of rote exposition and false at the same time.

    But translators have a big impact on how a book is read, and English translators have for hundreds of years prioritized theology over poetry. I tend to suspend judgement on the poetic value of many parts of the bible (and all parts of the Quran – I’m simply ignorant of it). But yeah, there’s stuff in their relevant to today.

    Like with Shakespeare, you have to use your own judgement about what’s still useful today and what you should dump, which requires that your moral compass guides your interpretation of the book, not the other way round. But, as I said, that’s not a unique problem to any bible or holy book.

    I personally think Shakespeare’s writing absolutely rocks…but I was brought up in a language that has been dramatically influence by Shakespeare, so how can that be a truly independent judgement?

  18. Al Dente says

    Crip Dyke @19

    But translators have a big impact on how a book is read, and English translators have for hundreds of years prioritized theology over poetry.

    I disagree. The King James Version, while a poor translation of the Bible, is a masterpiece of English literature. That’s rather surprising, considering it was written by committee. Ecclesiastes is pure poetry:

    Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. -Ecc 1:2 KJV

    The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. -Ecc 1:9 KJV

  19. dongiovanni (Now onto Wagner) says

    Reading this makes me wonder if any of them have actually read Nietzsche. For all his angst his conclusions were nowhere near as depressing as they like to think.

  20. Christian Giliberto says

    On the Nietzsche subject, the “Nietzsche was the last good atheist” trope is particularly groan-inducing because it doesn’t even get Nietzsche right. Nietzsche did not think the loss of religion was straightforwardly “tragic.” He did think nihilism was ultimately a bad thing and that we need a “revaluation of all values” to overcome it, but he thought nihilism was the outgrowth of religion, not simply the straightforward result of the absence of religion.

    Nihilism is what happens when the “ascetic ideal” underlying religion undermines itself, because a component of the ascetic ideal is the “will to truth.” But the will to truth ultimately reveals the ascetic ideal’s vision of the universe to be baseless. So nihilism and religion-cum-ascetic-ideal are really two sides of the same coin, and Nietzsche’s project is to reject that entire dynamic, trying make us realize that religion-or-nihilism is a false dichotomy and in that they in fact actively feed off one another. Also, @David, the ontic-ontological distinction is from Heidegger, not Hegel, although it was arguably read back into Hegel by many Heidegger-influenced 20th c. philosophers, in France in particular.

  21. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Of course they haven’t read Nietzsche. Most of them haven’t even read their own fucking Bibble!

  22. consciousness razor says

    Also, @David, the ontic-ontological distinction is from Heidegger, not Hegel, although it was arguably read back into Hegel by many Heidegger-influenced 20th c. philosophers, in France in particular.

    Yes. It’s also arguable that the seeds of the idea (to some extent) go back to people like Kant or even much earlier to Plato.

    That also probably addresses tbtabby’s comment just above David’s. Heidegger really was a Nazi, unlike Nietzsche whose work was twisted into something unrecognizable after his death, which makes it even harder to play the guilt by association game.

  23. Rey Fox says

    Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art.

    Paul pulls this a lot in the epistles.

  24. hexidecima says

    I love the term “dawkin’s flea”. Who came up with it?

    and nothing is more arrogant than claiming that you and only you know what your omnipotent and omniscient best friend really “meant”. such a bunch of jackasses.

  25. barbaz says

    From the article

    Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts

    I’ll continue reading when someone gets Ken Ham to sign that.

  26. David Chapman says

    20
    Al Dente

    The King James Version, while a poor translation of the Bible, is a masterpiece of English literature. That’s rather surprising, considering it was written by committee.

    I used to be puzzled by that, apparently it isn’t true. It’s true technically, since the translation was decided by committee, but apparently what that committee chose to do is adopt oodles of the earlier translation by one man, William Tyndale. Tyndale accomplished his work when translating was illegal; that’s dedication for you. He was burnt at the stake for his pains by Henry the Eighth. Shortly thereafter, government policy changed and his Bible was used as the basis for the official authorised one, the ‘Great Bible’. Probably Tyndale was never given the credit for his enormous contribution, because then the King would have had to explain why he burnt him. The following century, when under King James a new translation was needed, a similar thing happened: it was mainly Tyndale, but he never got the credit for his enormous contribution. Funny old world.

    It’s all here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lW-eLzkHk4

    26
    hexidecima

    I love the term “dawkin’s flea”.

    I second that motion.

  27. scienceavenger says

    Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.

    “Ontology”, like “quantum”, is a legitimate term that has been so consistently corrupted by goofballs that it remains one of the best “bullshit to follow” indicators our language has.

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