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.
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.
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.