There goes the neighborhood

I saw Joseph Hoffmann’s post saying how tiny atheism and atheists now are a few days ago, when it was new, and decided to ignore it*, on the grounds that it was little different from its many predecessors and that nobody except one indefatigable fan was paying any attention so why bother. But then I saw that PZ had done a post on it, and then I saw that Eric had, so starving the beast is not an option, therefore I might as well do my share.

What does it say? That atheism is not good enough.

I cannot imagine a time in the history of unbelief when atheism has appeared more hamfisted, puling, ignorant or unappealing.

Is this because its savants are also described by those adjectives, or because their fans are just being fans, merchandising the cause: t-shirts, coffee mugs, quick fixes, blasphemy competitions, and billboard campaigns? (Axial tilt is the reason for the season: Honest Jethro,  I thought I’d never stop laughing). I mean, who are we unless someone is offended by who we are?  What good is blasphemy if no one is getting their knickers in a knot anymore, for Christ’s sake. How can we “come out” when there’s no one standing outside the closet to yell “Surprise!” at? And, by the way you churchy jerks: we are victims.

Atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important.  And that is a shame, because God was a big idea, and the rejection of the existence of God was also a big idea, once upon a time.

But now, ah now, the grubby vulgar unlearned rabble have gotten their nasty unlearned hands on it and ruined it. It smells like a locker room now. It has potato chip crumbs all over it. It puts its shoes on the furniture. It chews with its mouth open. It doesn’t quote Goethe.

The post starts with a little display of erudition meant to put us in our place.

Lieber Gott: Bitte kommen Sie wieder.  Wir sind sehr traurig, daran zu zweifeln Sie.  Ihr, Faust.

Cool, except that a commenter at Eric’s is a German speaker and says the quoted bit doesn’t make any sense. The “Ihr, Faust” particularly reeks of a machine translator – translating “Yours, Faust,” which isn’t said in German. So that’s pretty funny – a display of snobbish hostility that starts with…ahem.

It gets worse as it goes on. It’s an unpleasant, even embarrassing display. There’s no apparent point to it except to express disdain and superiority.

Atheism has become a very little idea because it is now promoted by little people with a small focus.  These people tend to think that there are two kinds of questions: the questions we have already answered and the questions we will answer tomorrow.  When they were even smaller than they are now, their father asked them every six weeks, “Whadja get in math and science?” When they had children of their own, they asked them, “Whadja get in science and math?”  Which goes to show, people can change.

They eschew mystery, unless it’s connected to a telescopic lens or an electron microscope or a neutrinometer at the Hadron Collider at CERN. “Mystery” is not a state to be enjoyed or celebrated like a good wine or a raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes: it is a temporary state of befuddlement, an unknown sum, an uncharted particle, a glimpse of a distant galaxy, the possibility that Mars supported microbial life.



*Apart from a brief mention on the interview post, that is.


  1. Retired Prodigy Bill says

    Actually, I kind of like the “little idea” bit. (Not as presented, of course.) You need evidence to back up assertions: a small, simple, yet profound idea. There is no evidence for any gods out there: again, small, simple, no big deal, really just an obvious conclusion if you look around.

    A small, simple, true idea: that’s atheism!

  2. kraut says

    “Lieber Gott: Bitte kommen Sie wieder. Wir sind sehr traurig, daran zu zweifeln Sie. Ihr, Faust.”

    If that IDIOT could speak german properly, he would have said: Lieber Gott, bitte kommen Sie zurueck. Wir sind traurig an Ihnen gezweifelt zu haben.

    Mit vielen Gruessen, Faust.

    not even that he got right….

  3. says

    “Ihr Faust”, without the comma, would be ok. The rest is indeed garblewarble.

    And that is a shame, because God was a big idea

    It was a wrong idea, whether it was a biggie in the Bronze Age or not.

  4. Randomfactor says

    Atheism doesn’t NEED to be big. It’s CORRECT.

    Theistic lies need to be big. The bigger the better, right? T. rex showed us that. And then the world changed…

  5. echidna says

    For using “your” in a sign-off, There is always the familiar “Gruss und Kuss dein Julius”.

    But I have never seen “Ihr” used in a German sign-off.

  6. echidna says


    “Ihr Faust”, without the comma, would be ok.

    But Rorschach’s German is much better than mine.

  7. says

    Hmm. Maybe he has a point about that whole “mystery” thing. I mean, really, what’s the point of a mystery that people actually try to solve? Then it’s not mysterious anymore!

    Wait. No. What’s that other thing? Oh yeah:


    Being able to solve a mystery is what makes the mystery fun, and something to be enjoyed or celebrated. That fine wine he mentions? No point to it if I can’t have a taste or three. That women of the mystery eyes? Not much fun if no one gets to find out what the mystery is all about.

    Why on earth would anyone want to let the mysteries of the universe stay mysterious? That would just be. . . annoying.

  8. Jurjen S. says

    I’ve just CTRL+F’ed my way through this version of Faust and I can’t find any single phrase that remotely resembles the supposed quotation (and yes, I do speak German). Perhaps the line actually comes from a different version of Faust, such as the movie script by Murnau and Kyser (the poster in Ophelia’s post is for this film), but one should rightly be embarrassed when one thinks one is quoting Goethe but is actually quoting a silent movie’s intertitle. Unfortunately, Hoffmann’s piece seems to have Google-bombed any results that might reveal the original source.

  9. bad Jim says

    Familiarity with Goethe used to be considered a mark of an educated person; Sherlock Holmes even quotes him at one point. This much Hoffmann understands, but I wonder if he’s ever read Goethe’s Faust. The movie whose poster he provided is just another riff on the story, like Gounod’s opera.

    In Goethe’s version, God only appears in an introductory scene which exactly parallels the beginning of the book of Job. Mephistopheles drops in on heaven and tells God that the world is such a mess that he’s no longer trying to collect souls. God points to the scholar Faust as an exemplar of human striving. Mephistopheles is incredulous, but agrees to try to steal him away.

    The real action is the bet between Faust and Mephistopheles. Faust wagers that he can never be satisfied, that there will never be a moment of which he could say “Stay, thou art so fair.”

    Faust does have a certain amount of fun, regaining his youth, dancing with witches, bedding first Margaret and then Helen of Troy, and then, at the end, old and blind, conceives of a free, self-sufficient community, concedes that he would be satisfied with that, and dies. Mephistopheles attempts to collect his immortal part, but is distracted by the spectacle of the backsides of the angels sent to steal him away, and Faust’s soul ascends to heaven.

    The last line is “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan” (the eternal Feminine draws us upwards) which Peer Gynt roguishly misquotes as “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns an” (lures us on).

  10. Chris Lawson says

    Das sind meine Prinzipien, und wenn man mag sie nicht … gut, ich habe andere.

    Ihr, Groucho

  11. Jon Jermey says

    I’ve tried twice to leave a critical comment on Hoffman’s site, and been bounced both times. From reading the comments that did get through, I’m guessing the reason was ‘insufficient fawning’. But what kind of a ‘philosopher’ tries to censor opposing arguments? His reading on my credibilometer is nudging zero.

  12. Aquaria says

    For the hell of it, I ran his pitiful German through the Babelfish translators a few times, German –> Italian –> Arabic –> Japanese, and it ended up saying this:

    “The closest Allah will go me to support it to visit it. We are very such sad for suspicion. You had so it; was discussed.”

  13. ATP says

    “‘Mystery’ is not a state to be enjoyed or celebrated like a good wine or a raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes…”

    Is anyone else slightly annoyed by the suggested parity between wine and women? Both, apparently, are aesthetic objects whose purpose is to be “enjoyed or celebrated” by curmudgeonly dons after a hard day’s blogging. I suppose this attitude is at least consonant with its context: namely, with an expression of sour reaction against modernity that is otherwise void.

    “If the question of God could be reduced to a simple scientific verdict, the eminently nasal Richard Dawkins could shut his repetitive trap. As it is he has to keep talking.”

    If Hoffmann is serious, which I doubt, then this quotation betokens a less-than-astonishing ignorance of scientific investigation and debate. In general, scientifically tractable problems are discussed using language. If traps are customarily shut, then what the deuce fills the pages of all those eminent (if not eminently nasal) academic journals?

  14. Claire Ramsey says

    Yeah, I am slightly annoyed by the wine=women w/haunted and troubling eyes (like, does he mean a woman w/insomnia? Or a woman at a make-up counter?) = mystery. But it doesn’t surprise me, since the writer is so into himself and his wordy words.

    But I’ll tell you what, those goddamn electron microscopes are pretty fabulous. So are antibiotics, MRI scanners, vaccinations, and some other stuff that revealed so-called mysteries to be shit a person can figure out and even look at. What a putz.

    Also, Ophelia you KNOW that I always put a People magazine under my feet when I prop them up on the furniture. And I wipe my hands on my pants when I eat Cheetos so I don’t leave orange dust on the sofa. Sheesh, give me a little credit!

  15. says

    But I have never seen “Ihr” used in a German sign-off.

    Because it’s no longer used.

    Believe me, if you get a German letter signed
    Ihr Max Mustermann”
    you’re in trouble.
    But it would have been OK in my grandpa’s time.

    And yes, I’m fucking annoyed at being labelled as a thing to enjoy after a man’s done his work.

  16. sailor1031 says

    Oh dear, I’ve got deja lu all over again. I smell Templetonitis on the breeze……

    Of course the real big idea is not some ludicrously childish deity but that Science can actually unravel all these so-called mysteries.

  17. Otrame says

    The kind of philosophers who like mysteries to stay mysterious simply want to be able to masterbate in public without having to provide any actual evidence for the fantasy that gets them off.

    If they would confine their masterbation to private moments they could have their fantasy (and their organism) without a bunch of plebeians like me sneering at them.

  18. Svlad Cjelli says

    As someone who spent years with mostly german media and has read J. W. Goethe’s Faust for entertainment, I just had my brain trip and fall over itself.

  19. says

    Claire these touches of refinement are all very well but until you can quote pseudo-Goethe while eating Cheetos your efforts are NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Nor are mine. We are not worthy.

  20. says

    ATP – oh yes – I was more than slightly annoyed by that consumerist drooling over a “troubled” woman. People at Pharyngula were speculating amusingly about exactly why she was troubled, being in Hoffmann’s company and all…

  21. anna says

    And of course it’s a woman, after all only straight men are in Hoffman’s audience obviously…

  22. Deepak Shetty says

    Joseph Hoffman – yawn.
    I wish there was someone on the other side who exhibited atleast some sense of humour that would make it worth my time to read what they are saying.
    Anyone know of any non gnu’s who are atleast tolerable reads (not necessarily content , form will do)?

  23. says

    Plenty of non gnus – I assume you meant anti-gnus, Deepak?

    I’m trying to think. I used to say (and think) Hoffmann was a good (because witty) read, but he seems to have used up the good stuff now. Who else…

    John Wilkins.

    Can’t think of anyone else at the moment…That’s a bad sign (of confirmation bias, not the paucity of good ones).

  24. Deepak Shetty says


    I assume you meant anti-gnus, Deepak?

    Yes. Otherwise there’s always P.G Wodehouse.

  25. Mark Fournier says

    Hoffman is just another guy who looks down on people who don’t share his expertise in his field, and dare to express an opinion he thinks is within his area. He’s kind of like a surly IT guy who mocks you for using anything other than Linux, because that’s what real men use.

    But it isn’t just the Goethe gaffe that gives him a way, it’s that snarky “Whadja get in math and science?” The study of math and science has been a required prerequisite to the study of philosophy for most of academic history. The contempt he shows for these is every bit as philistine as an ignorance of art and literature–which he assumes (without evidence) is common amongst the gnus. I don’t think Hoffman would last long on a test of cultural comprehension against the likes of Hitchens.

  26. says

    Well that’s part of what’s puzzling, or at least surprising. I doubt that he really has a philistine view of math and science…and he wouldn’t do as badly in a chat with Hitchens as posts like this might make it seem. He of course knows Hitchens – who wrote for Free Inquiry for years, and maybe even still does – and in real life he’s plenty sharp and learned and funny enough to keep up with Hitch.

  27. doktorzoom says

    This “raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes”… He’s talking about Michele Bachmann, right?

    Oh, sorry, that would be “haunted and troubling eyes.”

  28. Jurjen S. says

    Charlie Brooker’s recent comment about Anne Widdicomb’s face looking like “a haunted cave in Poland” comes to mind…

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