You can’t win

Richard Dawkins has a very amusing piece about the journalistic take on his discussion with the archishop the other day. One stupid cliché after another, most of them derogatory. Dawkins is a charismatic preacher haw haw; bust-up; ardent atheist – and so on. There was no bust-up, so the audience was in despair – in the imagination of one of the reporters. Dawkins “confessed” to being an agnostic shock-horror; never mind that he said that in the book that triggered all these stupid witticisms.

It’s hard to resist a feeling of “You can’t win”. On the one hand we ‘horsemen’ and ‘new atheists’ are attacked, often aggressively and stridently, for being aggressive and strident. On the other hand, when journalists or religious apologists actually meet us and we turn out to be courteous and civilised, they accuse us of climbing down, “admitting” or “confessing” that we have changed, when actually we are behaving exactly as we always have. They seem to feel let down when they discover that the real people aren’t anything like the way they so relentlessly portray us; as if, since they’ve gone to the trouble of inventing extravagant caricatures of us, we should at least have the decency to live up to them in real life.

Quite. And what is the outrage that prompts all this caricaturing? Atheism. Not child-rape; not human trafficking; not “honour” killing; not selling tainted drugs; not skimping on equipment maintenance such that the Gulf of Mexico turns into an oil dump. Atheism. Not believing in a magic fella in the sky.

Natalie has a post on the same subject (but suggested by a different instantiation of it).

We were chatting in our top secret and amazingly awesome backchannel, full of such incredible wit and delightful banter that you shall never ever know, about how some folks over at an intelligent design website called Uncommon Descent decided to do a bit of a breakdown of the whole Loftus thing, propping it up (in act of unconcealed schadenfreude) as indicative of some kind of big rift or infighting amongst atheists.

Which is a bit tedious and uninformed in that it hasn’t exactly been much of a conflict or controversy at all. No battle lines actually got drawn, nobody was attacking anybody (except in Loftus’ imagination), and there was no grand battle.

Quite. I made a related point the other day when I posted about snide comments on Twitter about this supposed Big Rift. People were drawing big conclusions on the basis of pretty much nothing.

Greta Christina made a really interesting point, though, that got my brain pieces to start doing brain stuff. She pointed out how whenever there’s a disagreement within our community, no matter how minor, people will exploit it to make up stories about “rifts” and “infighting” and “drama”, how we’re a bunch of angry little kids who endlessly squabble amongst ourselves. And then when we do agree with one another, suddenly we’re a “hive mind”, an “echo chamber”, “preaching to the choir”, a “circle jerk”, “silencing dissent”. We’re mocked and attacked for disagreeing with each other, and mocked and attacked for agreeing with one another. A catch-22, no-win, damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation.

Sometimes in the space of one tweet.


  1. says

    There are thousands of variations on Chrirtianity. Every time they have a disagreement, it does cause a schism. They can’t understand a disagreement not resulting in a major split.

  2. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Christians, at least in the US, have a similar dichotomy. They claim they’re being relentlessly persecuted and, simultaneously, the US is a strongly Christian country.

  3. says

    As a’theists, we agree on a couple of things – “[N]ot believing in a magic fella in the sky” as Ophelia puts it. And, therefore, we agree that no invisible thing handed down to anyone a couple of stone tablets with some gibberish etched on them, or appeared a couple of thousand of years later and “revealed”, mostly pedantic and the rest dangerously discriminatory, stuff into anyone’s ears. Ayn Rand and Karl Marx agreed on that much. The rest, they were, and we are, free to disagree on. That’s the way we like it, and that’s what makes us different from the sheep.

  4. ckitching says

    I can’t help but also think about the fact that so many people criticise the books written by the “big name” atheists without having read anything beyond the front and back covers. These same people will, in the next breath, tell you about how these “big name” atheists obviously have not read the “sophisticated” theology of C.S. Lewis and others. Christopher Hitchens regularly made reference to the apologetics written by Lewis, but this does not even occur to them (presumably because again, they have not read anything he has written).

  5. says

    It’s generally hard to know which “sophisticated” theology is meant – the Tillich kind? Plantinga? Karen Armstrong? C S Lewis?

    Only Tillich (and the Tillich kind) really fit the label. Plantinga’s a philosopher, Armstrong did her graduate work in lit crit, Lewis was a lit crit. The “theology” of Armstrong and Lewis really isn’t all that sophisticated.

    (Tillich, as I’ve mentioned before, makes me gag. It seems like pure word salad to me.)

  6. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I was under the impression that Sophisticated Theology™ was theologists rationalizing whatever the hell they want to believe. It’s just a euphemism for a religious snow job.

  7. Snoof says

    It’s very simple. Sophisticated Theology™ is whatever theology you are not currently criticising.

  8. Hammena says

    The accusation that Atheists completely miss the mark by caricaturing religion demands the impossible. OK, so each religious individual might have a personal interpretation of God that deviates in wildly varying degrees from the official dogmas of their official cult. But how would Atheists be able to read everybody’s mind to evaluate the full range of billions of people’s beliefs? If we could do that, we’d be Gods and that might conflict with our Atheism.

    Theologians are not representative of the vast majority of believers and their theological musings go unnoticed, they do not end up instructing or modifying the beliefs of the vast majority of believers. In fact, it’s rather the other way around.

    Limbo was not suspended because of some theologian’s revelations, but because the Reformation had split the Church into warring factions and clerical authority was increasingly questioned by all sides. After centuries of fearing excommunication, most Christians finally allowed themselves to reconsider. Many concluded that the idea of condemning the souls of their deceased children for not having received the holy water in life was not very nice. It was a hideous form of blackmail intended to gain converts. AFTER this slow shift in popular opinion had already taken place, clever theologians were called upon to justify the Church’s disavowing of a very unpopular dogma.

    What exactly would be the point of attributing an authority to theologians when no such reference is accorded them by their own fellow believers?

    At the heart of both these issues (“personal Gods”and theologians) is religion’s basic problem when it tries to use reason to justify superstition: The hypothesis for a God is too ill-defined to be seriously testable.

    Believers affirm God’s existence as if the concept of God were self-evident. But they unwittingly admit God is not self-evident in the least when they use the lack of any coherent definition to shut up Atheists.


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