Every review of Nick Spencer’s Atheists — the Origin of the Species leaves me less inclined to even want to read it. The man can’t possibly be as big an idiot as the reviewers make him out to be, can he?
The latest paean to Spencerian inanity comes from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It always puzzles me how such a secular country can have a major media outlet that so blithely props up religious twits, but here they go again with the director of the Centre for Public Christianity, Simon Smart, who’s apparently spent his whole life trying to defy the name he was saddled with at birth.
It begins with a description of the “atheist creation myth”.
Atheism has its own creation myth, writes Spencer, and it goes like this: non-belief is the love child of reason and science – a human advance arising from scientific and philosophical progress in Europe, particularly movements like the Copernican Revolution in the 16th Century, the scientific revolution in the 17th and the Darwinian in the 19th.
In an article for Politico Magazine…
Hold it right there. Politico? That disgraceful organ for glib right wing crapola that Charles Pierce refers to as “Tiger Beat on the Potomac“? Just to give everyone some perspective:
Given all this, Politico was inevitable. It is a content-producing machine. It is a brand that runs in and of itself. It has a Web site and a magazine. It produces its own videos. It conducts policy forums for which it sucks down corporate sponsorships. (More about those in a moment.) As a news operation, it’s half gossip rag and half tip sheet. As the former, it’s not as good as the National Enquirer, and as the latter, it’s way up the track, just behind the Daily Racing Form. From the start, its founders expressed admiration for Matt Drudge, who is a truthless hack, and they made clear their objective was to “win the morning,” whatever that means. Worst of all, Politico is produced in Washington, D. C., the nastiest one-industry town in America, a social and cultural context in which all of political journalism’s worst instincts, as embodied by the very existence of Politico, are encouraged to run wild—a kind of fundamental rot of the type that Crouse discovered was baked into the product from the start. And, as is the unfortunate case with la Dowd, it has spawned imitators all over the landscape, like an invasive species of mussel clogging the Great Lakes.
So when someone tells you something that has been published in Politico, you know how much to trust the source. But do continue, Mr Smart.
…Spencer describes this myth: "Gradually, wonderfully, the human race matured, with every confident scientific step forward pushing our infantile, crumbling ideas of the divine closer to oblivion," he writes. This myth is "true enough to be believable, (but) it is not true enough to be true."
Any atheists out there who believe this? Anything close? This is bizarre. As one of those scientist-atheists, I find this fairy tale of steady progressivism to be counter to the whole idea of evolution. As a member of a minority philosophical position, I certainly don’t hold that humanity as a whole has marched down some path to pure reason — everything I see around me says that this is not true. So not only is it not true enough to be true, it’s not believable to an atheist at all…yet here’s Spencer smugly puking up that dollop of nonsense, and Smart happily lapping it up.
But let’s be fair. Spencer does manage to say a few things I can agree with. Well, one thing.
Spencer’s thesis is that to truly understand the history of atheism you need to see it as a series of disagreements about authority. Late 17th century Britain, for example, possessed the ingredients for sustained and systematic atheism, but largely due to a political and intellectual environment that was relatively accommodating, generous and tolerant, full-blown atheism did not emerge.
Yes! I would also point to the US, where one of the key factors that has driven interest in atheism is creeping authoritarianism, hard-core right wing politicians (like the ones Politico supports) who wrap themselves in God and the flag, and the increasingly aggressive and destructive stance of evangelical Christianity. Does he even notice, though, that this reality rather strongly conflicts with his myth of an ineluctably advancing rationality?
And then Spencer and Smart drag out one of my pet peeves: Nietzsche. Not Nietzsche the philosopher, of course, but Nietzsche the dolorous atheist. Nietzsche the regretful non-Christian. Nietzsche the sorrowful, reluctant thinker who praises Jesus while weeping sincerely, and simultaneously predicting cultural cataclysm because we’re losing our faith. It’s the only atheist message the devout want to hear — if you’re going to abandon religion, at least be sure to stroke the pastor’s ego on your way out the door.
These guys always make Nietzsche sound like a 19th century S.E. Cupp, which is an awfully nasty insult to deliver to a guy you’re praising.
But perhaps the most challenging aspect of this work is the way it illuminates the inherently naïve optimism contained in New Atheism’s rendition of the "God is dead" trope.
While there has been no shortage of non-believers who viewed the demise of the divine as ushering in an era of untrammelled human progress, no less a figure than Friedrich Nietzsche understood the great shadow that would be cast across Europe if, as he hoped, the rejection of Christianity came to fruition. Such a move would signal the ruin of a civilisation, and he wrote about "the long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval that now stands ahead."
Something of a dark prophet, Nietzsche envisioned troubled times ahead – a prediction that the 20th century’s atheist regimes fulfilled with alarming efficiency.
Nietzsche’s importance, writes Spencer, lies in his understanding that metaphysics and morals are inseparable. Nietzsche was under no illusion that you could hold on to Christian ethics – which he saw as degenerate slave mentality – while jettisoning the Christian faith.
You know what? Fuck the Christian cartoon Nietzsche. He’s wrong, he’s annoying, and I feel no obligation to respect his views of a lovely essential Christian dogma. Also, as noted above, if atheism is a reaction to false authority…why the hell do you think citing a philosopher who has been dead for over a hundred years will make us roll over and surrender? Nietzsche ain’t the atheist pope, either. Christians can keep trying to shoehorn atheism into obligatory tropes that they’re subject to, but all it does is convince us that Christians don’t know what they’re talking about.
While there are growing numbers today who are ready to celebrate throwing off the shackles of religion, Nietzsche’s warnings to those who still have an affection for Christian ideas like free will and the equality of all humans are still worth hearing.
Spencer is clearly most sympathetic to an "ascetic atheism" that takes Nietzsche’s critique seriously, such that the implications of there being no God are given proper consideration.
Christian ideas like free will and equality? Have you ever heard of Calvinism, or are they not Christian now? You’ve got a holy book with a set of prophecies that are destined to occur, and this same book endorses slavery and genocide, and somehow, in the endlessly malleable universe of Christian fantasy, outright heresy has been morphed into a central tenet of the religion. Amusing.
I think it’s more obvious that some religion has bent towards recognizing that humanist values are damned admirable, and is actively retconning their faith to claim that they thought of it all first. Unfortunately for them, having a holy book and record of sacred authority leaves no doubt but that their religion has been evolving, and evolving towards values that atheists hold with no apologies, no excuses, and no deference towards ancient bullshit.
I do agree that the implications of god’s non-existence should be given proper consideration. And that means recognizing that traditional delusions are not a sound foundation for regulating human affairs, and that building morality around reality is a wiser idea than constructing rules for behavior around an unreliable ghost.
I won’t dignify religious rules with the word “morality”. A true human morality has to be founded on our obligations to one another, rather than to an imaginary figurehead.