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?