Go away, Alain de Botton

Oh, no, another interview with the insipid de Botton. I can’t stand it.

Sean Illing: You’ve said the most boring question we can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true. Why is that?

Alain de Botton: For me, and I think for many other people as well, the issue of religion actually goes way beyond belief in the supernatural, and yet a lot of the debate around religion started by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins…

Stop right there. I’m already bored. Christopher Hitchens is dead, and Richard Dawkins is one guy. Why does everyone who is asked to pontificate on modern atheism immediately try to turn it into a cult of personality? There are some atheists who certainly seem to have replaced religion with the worship of their personal favorite godless prophet, but that sure isn’t the central concern of most of us.

But then, de Botton wouldn’t know how to handle an issue that wasn’t reduced to its most simplistic state, and I think he identifies strongly with the whole cult of personality thing himself.

…reduces to familiar questions: Does God exist or not? Do angels exist or not? Is it stupid to believe in angels?

Those are important questions, but only because people still insist on believing in the existence of gods and angels. Most atheists I know are thoroughly satisfied with the answer that no, they don’t exist, and only continue to address them because believers insist on it. I’ve been in debates before; it’s always the other guy who pops up and thinks “Does god exist?” is a respectable debate topic, and I’m the one who says “No, pick something more specific”.

While I understand the kind of emotional resonance around that, I think the real issue is why did people get drawn to religion? Why did we invent religions? What need did they serve? And also what are the aspects around religious life that may be disconnected from belief that nevertheless have great validity and resonance for people outside of faith today?

You know, de Botton, those are the same questions your bugaboos, Hitchens and Dawkins, asked in their books. That they asked in their lectures. That people discuss at atheist conferences now. I know you want to think you’re something special, but you’re not.

Religions are not just a set of claims about the supernatural; they are also machines for living. They aim to guide you from birth to death and to teach you a whole range of things: to create a community, to create codes of behavior, to generate aesthetic experiences. And all of this seems to me incredibly important and, frankly, much more interesting than the question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t the son of God.

Drop in to most of the churches in the United States and stand up and suggest to everyone that this Jesus stuff is irrelevant. See how well that flies. You might be able to get away with it at a UU church, or a Church of Christ, or the liberal branch of a church on a university campus, but elsewhere…whoa. Have your escape route planned ahead of time.

There’s also this absurdly pollyannaish view of religion.

The underlying ambition of religions is impressive to me. They are trying to locate the tenets of a good life, of a wise life, of a kind life. They are interrogating the greatest themes, and so I’m attracted to the aspects of religion that know that human life is quite difficult and that we are going to need a lot of assistance, a lot of guidance. And what religious life is trying to do is to provide us with tools for how to keep being the best version of ourselves.

No, most are not about a good life. They are about servility. They’re about sacrificing part of your life to serve an institution that makes false promises; it’s often about earning a good afterlife, which does not exist.

My experiences with most religions has been that they are about giving you the tools to be the worse version of yourself: intolerant, self-righteous, meddling, and ignorant. There are small religious groups that do try to be the opposite of that, but if you aren’t ready to recognize the difference between Southern Baptists and your own idealized vision of a benevolent religion, you aren’t ready to discuss how to develop a philosophy for living that doesn’t plummet into dogma and solipsism and tribalism.

It’s to distinguish it from the modern incarnation of atheism, which was promulgated by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens

Shut up, Alain de Botton.

that really made the central aspect of atheism the question of whether one did or didn’t believe. And I suppose I’m interested in the kind of atheism that starts with the assumption that of course God doesn’t exist, we made him up, that’s fine.

While I’m more interested in the kind of atheism that starts with the assumption that the natural world is central and important, and that pursuit of the truth is absolutely essential to understanding that world. Do not let a lie linger unquestioned.

I want to look at the way religions go about things as an inspiring starting point for thinking about what secular culture is lacking and still needs. Because let’s remember that when religion started to decline in the 19th century, in Western Europe…

This is false. The 19th century was not a non-religious era. WWII was driven by religious justifications — “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche“, and the idea that the religious and ethnic other must be cleansed — and the Cold War sent the United States into a self-destructive spiral of conservative religious doctrine that still lingers with us.

But then, de Botton does not consider truth to be an important issue. It’s how you feel about it that matters.

…there was a lot of thinking that was done. People asked how would we fill the gap, the God-shaped hole. And there were lots of theories, and the leading answer, I suppose, was culture.

And that’s religious dogma once again. There is no “God-shaped hole”. When culture was dragooned into believing that culture was in service to a non-existent deity and a self-serving religious institution, it was culture itself that was needed, not the parasitical religious apparatus that was leeching off of it. Kill the parasite, the culture still thrives.

It’s just that the parasite wants you to believe that it is responsible for art and science and music and architecture and poetry, and that if you destroy it you will lose all that beauty. It’s another self-serving lie that de Botton gladly parrots.

More criticism of Alain de Botton

Have you ever noticed the phenomenon where one person throws up, then everyone around them gets queasy, and then they start retching, and pretty soon everyone is having a pukefest? My emesis yesterday seems to have triggered a wave, with both JT and Martin geysering on cue.

Hmmm. That wasn’t exactly an enchanting analogy, I guess. But you know what I mean. And I think it’s perfectly appropriate to regard de Botton as an emetic.

And a defense! Hemant Mehta thinks Stedman and de Botton aren’t really that bad. It’s too bad none of his arguments actually address why some of us despise Stedman and de Botton, but OK. You play that game, the next thing you know, we’re siccing Ian Cromwell on you. Really…you don’t want to get on Ian’s bad side.

I am officially disgusted with Alain de Botton

Unfortunately, he’s extremely talented at self-promotion, and keeps saying things that deluded god-botherers love to hear, so he keeps popping up in the media, saying the same stupid things. Now he’s on CNN, whining about atheists again.

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is "true." Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

Fuck you very much, Alain de Botton.

He might find the question boring, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s central and important. Are we to live in a society that values truth, or one run by idiots like de Botton, who think the truth is irrelevant, in which we are governed by and our children taught by people who promote falsehoods? Who live their entire lives guided entirely by disproven myths and falsehoods, and evangelize that nonsense intensely?

Our culture is currently divided between three groups: Atheists, who think the truth matters, and want our problems addressed with real-world solutions; theists, who want a god or supernatural powers to solve our problems with magic; and fence-sitting parasites like de Botton who see a personal opportunity to pander to the believers for their own gain, who will ride the conflict while pretending to aloof from it, and win popularity with the masses by trying to tell everyone they’re all right. He is no friend to reason; he’s a really good pal to Alain de Botton.

Alain de Botton is right about one thing

At the end of this video, he suggests that both sides will be out to shoot him. Yes, they will…well, I’m wielding a great heavy two-handed sword, but I’ll accept the general equivalence in intent of pointy sharp nasty weaponry and projectile-flinging guns. In this TED presentation, he advocates just adapting religion to atheism, something he calls Atheism 2.0, but which is actually just Religion 0.0 again.

This is not what the New Atheism is about. It’s the antithesis of what we’re after. We’ve had a few thousand years of the godly shuffle: here’s a temple to Zeus, he’s out so we swap in Jupiter; he’s not exciting, let’s try Isis; now Mithras; Jehovah; Jesus; Mohammed; back to Catholicism; on to Protestantism; oh, you’re atheists, eh, here’s a fine altar, hardly been used, we’ll just rededicate it to your god Athe then. New gods same as the old gods, right?

Wrong. It’s that the whole structure of religious thought is wrong, that we’ve been spending these few thousand years digging the same old pit, deeper and deeper, maybe putting a little more gilt on the shovel and roofing it over with ever fancier architecture, but now we’re saying maybe it’s time to climb out of the hole and do something different. I don’t want a new label, I want whole new modes of thought.

de Botton wants to pick and choose from religion and keep the good parts for atheism, which is a nice idea, but he seems to be totally lacking in sense and discrimination in what the virtues of religion are. And then, unfortunately for him, he picks a few examples of something he thinks religion got right, and one of them is education. Fuck me.

He suggests looking at how churches teach the ‘facts’ of their faith, and is quite enthusiastic about the importance of repetition. Repeat things five times, he says, and then you’ll master it; he just suggests replacing God and Jesus with Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Has de Botton ever been anywhere near a classroom?

Let me give an example from my teaching; I’m familiar with what he proposes. For instance, I teach genetics, and one of the big concepts there is linkage and mapping. I’ve stood up and lectured on Sturtevant’s original mapping experiments; I’ve given the class the numbers from his observations, and had them do the calculations themselves; I’ve then had students come up to the whiteboard and show everyone how it is done; and then I’ve gone through it again on the board, step by step. The students nod and smile, they understand, give ’em these numbers and they can trot through the calculations without hesitation.

Then on the test I give them the same problem, but I change the names of the alleles, swap in a zebrafish for a fruit fly, and half the class is totally stumped. “But you didn’t teach us how to do that problem,” they whine.

Repetition doesn’t work. It’s great for memorizing dogma, but it’s awful for mastering concepts. Students don’t understand, they just learn to robotically reiterate.

What I do is very different. I give them the Sturtevant data and we work through that problem, sure, but then we try other angles. Here’s data on the recombination frequency between pairs of loci; assemble them into a map. Here’s a triple-point cross, and the phenotypes of the flies we get back; calculate a map. Here’s a problem; work it out in groups. Here’s a problem; teach your partner how to solve it. Here’s a map; work backwards and predict the frequencies of phenotypes of a cross. You invent a problem, give it to me, and let’s see if I can get the right answer. Here’s how the problem is solved in flies, and fish, and nematodes, and humans, and tissue culture. Here’s how we do it with molecular biology techniques rather than genetics. What if the traits are all sex-linked? What if this locus interacts epistatically with that other locus? What if the two alleles at this locus are codominant?

The whole purpose of what we do in the science classroom is to get the students to understand that you can’t master the concept by rote memorization. You have to understand how someone came up with the idea in the first place, and you have to appreciate how understanding the concept gives you the mental toolkit to grasp novel instances of related phenomena. I could just show them a fly gene map and tell them to memorize it, I suppose, and teach them this idea that genes have locations on the chromosome, and leave it at that, but then they haven’t really learned anything deep, and haven’t learned how to integrate new observations into the concept. They’re also going to be totally unprepared for going off to grad school, reading McClintock’s papers, and learning that sometimes genes don’t have fixed locations on the chromosome.

So you can imagine how appalled I was listening to de Botton tell us that one thing society could benefit from adapting from religion is their approach to education. That’s simply insane. If you want to improve people’s understanding, we should model learning more on those secular, progressive, well-honed methods you find in good college classrooms, not church. Church is where you go to learn how to hammer dogma into people’s heads.

That is not what the New Atheism wants. Apparently, it’s what Atheism 2.0 wants, though.

His approach to art is about as horrifying — “religions…have no trouble telling us what art is about, art is about two things in all the major faiths; firstly, it’s trying to remind you of what there is to love, and secondly it’s trying to remind you of what there is to fear and hate…it’s propaganda”. To de Botton, that is a virtue. He suggests that museums ought to adopt the approaches of the churches, and organize their art by themes and tell everyone exactly what it all means. Jebus. Can you imagine a van Gogh hanging on the wall, with a little checklist next to it telling you what it is supposed to mean, and everyone dutifully reading the museum’s imperative and making sure they’ve got exactly the right interpretation? Some excited little girl makes the mistake of looking at the painting not the placard and telling her mother, “Look at the light and color shining through the confusion!” and the guard has to tap his stick on the wall and tell her, “No, it says CONFORM and OBEY or suffer. Can’t you read?”

Worst TED talk ever — well, it’s competitive with that horrible drivel from Elaine Morgan, anyway. de Botton is one of those superficial atheists who hasn’t quite thought things through and has such a blinkered optimistic perspective on religion that he thinks faith provides what reason does not.

CFI disappoints me again, as expected

William had to go and remind me that CFI still exists. I used to have to roll my eyes at Ron Lindsay’s editorials, but now that Robyn Blumner is in charge, they’ve gotten even worse. Take a look at their latest: Identitarianism is incompatible with humanism. I agree with the title! But we immediately run into some problems. She starts by defining her terms (good), but her definition is insane.

Identitarian: A person or ideology that espouses that group identity is the most important thing about a person, and that justice and power must be viewed primarily on the basis of group identity rather than individual merit. (Source: Urban Dictionary)

Wait, what? Her source is Urban Dictionary? That might be find for some obscure slang, but not for a topic that a presumable rationalist is about to jump headlong into with an op-ed. Who are the people she’s addressing here? I’m confused already.

If we take a small step upwards and look at the definition on Wikipedia, it’s radically different.

The Identitarian movement or Identitarianism is a pan-European nationalist, far-right political ideology asserting the right of European ethnic groups and white peoples to Western culture and territories claimed to belong exclusively to them. Originating in France as Les Identitaires (“The Identitarians”), with its youth wing Generation Identity, the movement expanded to other European countries during the early 21st century. Building on ontological ideas of the German Conservative Revolution, its ideology was formulated from the 1960s onward by essayists such as Alain de Benoist, Dominique Venner, Guillaume Faye and Renaud Camus, who are considered the main ideological sources of the movement.

Identitarians promote concepts such as pan-European nationalism, localism, ethnopluralism, remigration, or the Great Replacement, and they are generally opposed to globalisation, multiculturalism, Islamization and extra-European immigration. Influenced by New Right metapolitics, they do not seek direct electoral results, but rather to provoke long-term social transformations and eventually achieve cultural hegemony and popular adhesion to their ideas.

Some Identitarians explicitly espouse ideas of xenophobia and racialism, but most limit their public statements to more docile language. Strongly opposed to cultural mixing, they promote the preservation of homogeneous ethno-cultural entities, generally to the exclusion of extra-European migrants and descendants of immigrants. In 2019, the Identitarian Movement was classified by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution as right-wing extremist.

By the way, it begins with an important note: “Not to be confused with Identity politics.”

Anyway, that’s what I associate with the word Identitarian, far right nationalism and ethnocentrism. Not whatever she found on Urban Dictionary. And then she starts writing, and it’s clear what she’s really targeting: it’s those danged Wokeists again, who are not Identitarians, who oppose Identitarianism, who think Identitarians are racists and fascists.

Here’s who she’s whining about.

Today, there is a subpart of humanists, identitarians, who are suspicious of individuals and their freedoms. They do not want a free society if it means some people will use their freedom to express ideas with which they disagree. They see everything through a narrow affiliative lens of race, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic category and seek to shield groups that they see as marginalized by ostensible psychic harms inflicted by the speech of others.

This has given rise to a corrosive cultural environment awash in controversial speakers being shouted down on college campuses; even liberal professors and newspaper editors losing their jobs for tiny, one-off slights; the cancellation of great historical figures for being men of their time; and a range of outlandish claims of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and other crimes against current orthodoxy.

Oh. You know, these people who hate freedom (and are probably also ugly and smell bad) don’t exist. There are people who object when some people promote objectionable ideas. The humanists I know with ‘radical’ ideas about justice, for instance, don’t see simple discrete categories that deserve special protection, they see everyone as unique, with variations that ought to be respected and not judged through the lens of “good” and “bad” or “superior” and “inferior”, and insist that no one deserves to be singled out with a simplistic label. Everything about culture and experience and biology contributes to identity, and you don’t get to erase it. Blumner is taking the familiar “I don’t see color” claim of the privileged and trying to white every variation out.

Humanism should not reduce everyone to generic plastic people. It should recognize the variety of social forces that shape us all and make us each different. That’s not identitarianism, it’s a basic recognition of the diversity of human experience. She should have ended the essay with this:

There are a couple of tells in her complaint. losing their jobs for tiny, one-off slights; who is she to decide what is a tiny slight? Some of those slights are long historical slanders that have deeply harmed people! men of their time; there’s a poisonous phrase, suggesting that it was OK for slavers, for instance, to oppress and torture other human beings because, well, everyone else was doing it. There are humanist principles that are the next best thing to universal, and ‘treat others as you would want to be treated’ is one of them, and once, I would have thought, central to humanist thinking. And then, current orthodoxy. Is the status quo and orthodoxy something atheists and humanists necessarily support?

Then, who are the victims of this corrosive cultural environment? Name them. Give specific examples. As it stands, this is just bad essay writing, showing that she’s afraid if she did get specific, someone might track down the examples and find that the slights weren’t so tiny, that other men and women of their time were quite vocal about the wrongs they were doing, or that the microaggressions were severe enough that everyone should know better. And she’s right to be afraid, because she does name one person, and her motivations are clear.

Good people with humanist hearts have been pilloried if they don’t subscribe to every jot and tittle of the identitarian gospel. A prime example is the decision last year by the American Humanist Association (AHA) to retract its 1996 award to Richard Dawkins as Humanist of the Year. The man who has done more than anyone alive to advance evolutionary biology and the public’s understanding of that science, who has brought the light of atheism to millions of people, and whose vociferous opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit certainly must have burnished his liberal cred became radioactive because of one tweet on transgender issues that the AHA didn’t like.

Oh, yes, keep in mind that Robyn Blumner was appointed to her position by Richard Dawkins, and that she is the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Conflict of interest much?

It was more than one tweet, and it exposed that he had a bigoted perspective on those transgender issues. It is correct that the American Humanist Association didn’t like the idea of having given a distinguished award to a bigot, and one who has gone on to consistently take the wrong side in every matter of trans rights. He just recently got together with Jordan Peterson in a mutual back-patting session to say that he “totally agrees” with him that those transgenders are oppressing good wealthy white cis-het men like themselves. That wasn’t some trivial slip of the tongue, it’s what Dawkins actively believes and promotes, so why should AHA ignore an ethical violation like that?

But then, Blumner, and by association, CFI, have a crude and biased understanding of gender issues themselves. The clue is in the image they chose to illustrate the essay.

Get it? It would be unnatural to plug your VGA port and a USB cable together. Used to illustrate an article defending the primitive and simplistic views of a man on gender issues. The subtext is not very sub.

She might as well have illustrated it with this.

So tired of the “freedom” excuse

You’ve heard it before. “They hate us for our freedoms”. It’s a catch-all excuse, where we can simultaneously pat ourselves on the back for being so “free”, whatever that means, and condemn others for not being as “free”. I’ve developed a bad reaction to that: I want to know what you mean by “freedom”. Freedom to exploit people? Freedom to harass? Freedom to eat bacon? Freedom to pray to your gods? There are a lot of freedoms that are worth exercising, and many of those that I’m happy to say can be exercised in my country. There are also things people call freedoms that are truly awful, and those get exercised, too — like the freedom to take advantage of underprivileged people. There’s also a tendency for my fellow Americans to assume that America is the land of the free, and that everyone is equally and completely free, which is not true. They also tend to get angry if you point out the shortcomings of America, in particular that different people have different degrees of liberty.

So my usual reaction is to wonder how the ‘freedom’ cheerleaders define freedom, and whether they seriously think the ideal is to be free of all responsibilities and obligations. It’s usually used vacuously, as a dogma that is not to be questioned.

Which means that I had to facepalm at this complaint about new atheism. That’s fair; there are good reasons to criticize, and an important part of intellectual growth is to address good faith criticisms. I read this, for instance, and didn’t reject it out of hand.

Many new atheists, including Dennett or Dawkins, have been criticised for being too radical. The phrase “militant atheist” is often thrown about. The general worry is that they have little patience or compassion for religious people and the reasons why they choose religion.

I’ve heard that complaint frequently enough that we should pay attention to it and try to deal with it. I wasn’t particularly impressed that this critic then goes on to babble approvingly of Alain de Botton, one of the shallowest, least interesting, wanna-be replacements for Richard Dawkins ever.

But don’t worry! He’s got a suggestion for what the next generation of atheists need to do.

What should we do then? Is there a genuine, not merely superficial alternative to both religion and the “something bigger” new atheists talk about? I suggest that there is a very simple alternative: we should try to avoid forcing a straight-jacket on our ever-changing self – by religious doctrines or by one of these “projects” the new atheists talk about. We should accept and cherish our freedom to change.

For the new atheists, freedom plays a very limited role. You are free to choose what you devote your life to, but once you’ve done that, your life is on a fixed track – no more free decisions. The new atheists’ “projects”, just as religious doctrines, put unreasonably severe constraints on our inner freedom.

The opposite of religion is not the slavish following of “something bigger” as the new atheists suggest. The opposite of religion is freedom.

Baffling. What “projects”? Is this a thing among the new atheists? (I think I’d know.) What “straight jacket” [sic]? Where is this assertion that new atheists aren’t allowed to change and grow, that they’re on a fixed track? This is news to me.

And what is his alternative? Fucking “freedom”. What does that mean? It’s stunning that this platitude comes from a professor of philosophy. Define your terms. What do you mean by the “opposite of religion is freedom”? Religion is slavery? All a slave must do is accept atheism and they are free?

We need good criticisms because we do need to improve our image and our approach. This is not a useful argument. We don’t need hackneyed bromides. Explain what “freedom” means in a social movement.

Rumors of our demise are highly premature

Ed West is a columnist for the Telegraph who seems to have two claims to fame: he’s a Catholic anti-atheist, and he’s one of those people who seriously argues that being against racism makes you a racist and oh, aren’t those immigrants a pain in the butt? Not one of my favorite people.

He now has a column in which he claims that the New Atheism is dead…a remarkable assertion, given that what I see of atheism, new or otherwise, is lively and thriving. The corpse is still dancing; perhaps we’re going to have to rename it the Zombie Atheism?

But wait: on what grounds does West claim that the New Atheism is dead or dying? Maybe he has a good argument.

Or maybe not. Here’s how he backs up his argument:

  • Richard Dawkins is annoying.

  • Another guy who is an atheist thinks Richard Dawkins is annoying.

  • Nobody likes Sam Harris.

  • Dan Dennett agreed with Dawkins, which makes him annoying.

  • Hitchens didn’t appreciate religion enough, which made him annoying.

  • Religion isn’t going away.

  • Religion isn’t as bad as Dawkins claims.

…and that’s about it. You know, if you’re going to claim a movement is fading, I would think citing some numbers would be indispensible to bolstering the claim; crankily reciting your animus against a few people within it doesn’t quite do the job. I could tell you that the Pope is far, far more annoying than Richard Dawkins and supports odious policies that have done far more cataclysmically awful things to other human beings than Dawkins has ever done — and in fact that there seems to be a remarkable dearth of facts showing that Dawkins has done any harm at all — but I wouldn’t be so stupid as to claim that the unsavory nature of ol’ Ratzi means the church is in decline.

West is guilty of very bad reasoning, which I guess isn’t surprising given that he somehow finds Catholicism reasonable. Even if every argument he made were true (and most aren’t, or are matters of taste and opinion), they wouldn’t support his thesis.

But the core of his claim is simply that there are many forms of religion out there, and even many kinds of atheism, and that that somehow means religion doesn’t do harm.

Even to non-believers, the argument that religion is a damaging parasite seems implausible. In their everyday lives people see that atheism does not explain the fundamental questions and a godless world doesn’t make us happier or even more questioning. The popularity of the Sunday Assembly, an “atheist church” in Islington, or Alain de Botton’s “10 commandments for atheists”, reflect the growing belief in secular Britain that religion is not just a beneficial thing but perhaps an essential one. Perhaps that is why New Atheism is as dead as Nietzsche.

The Sunday Assembly is a comedy act: a ‘church’ run by comedians to mock religion with a bit of positive spirituality thrown in. It had about 200 attendees on its opening day, and while not something I’d care enough to attend or oppose, isn’t exactly a testimonial to the failure of atheism. Next he’s going to try and tell us that Brother Sam Singleton signals a return to our Protestant roots.

De Botton…well, I’ve said a few things about de Botton before. The most generous thing I could say now about him is that he is a very silly man. That some people want to wear glasses made out of stained glass says nothing about the health of the New Atheism, which is populated by people who have no interest in any form of religion. You might as well claim that the existence of Wiccans means Catholics have ceased to exist.

But my main objection would be that atheism does address fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it, and answers them honestly, unlike religion. The answers may not be consoling, but they have the power of being true, and truth is a better foundation on which to build a good life than lies. Do they make us happier? It depends on who you are, I suppose: they certainly make me happier. Does religion make us happier? Clearly not, I can imagine few greater sources of world misery than the awfulness of the philosophies behind its religions — and as he is a Catholic, I would wave the miseries and death promoted by Mother Teresa, revered as nearly a saint by his faith, as an example of just how truly unhappy believers in his religion are.

At least I can return a favor. Catholicism isn’t as dead as Jesus; it’s an animated delusion, as lively as a cadaver on puppet strings, and still poisoning the world with its decaying reek. Would that it someday join Jesus’ physical form as scattered dust. Be one with your lord.

Following up on last night’s Atheism+ discussion

So we had this hangout last night to talk about various things, including Atheism+, and while it was fun and interesting, I don’t think we really answered the questions lurking in everyone’s heads: we wandered about a bit too much. If I were to do it again, I think I’d want to have the panel answer some more specific questions about it all.

But there were lots of questions and comments on the youtube channel and on Google+ during and after, and they weren’t all idiotic! (OK, most of the youtube comments were from idiots, but some were good.) So I thought I’d answer a few here.

Can someone explain to me what is A+?

Nope. Lots of people can give you their opinions, but it is only starting to coalesce. There are no leaders, no organization behind it, no money, no coercive power at all. It’s entirely spontaneous. Currently it’s little more than a label.

It’s an emergent movement, bubbling up out of resentment at some of our atheist “allies” who turn out to be regressive thugs. We can’t very well kick them out of the atheist movement — none of us have that power, and they legitimately are real genuine atheists who just happen to also be assholes. And some of us don’t like associating with them.

Imagine a great big party with a lot of diverse attitudes present, and you discover that a few of the invited attendees are also hooligans who wander about calling everyone “cunts” and slapping derrieres and telling women to stop being so sensitive, it was only a quick fondle. Also they smell bad. We’re the segment of the party that’s decided to go off to the library and enjoy some good conversation with the interesting people.

Question: What’s the difference between “Atheism+” and “Secular Humanism”? Is the first one encompassing people online?

Now that’s a really good question. There shouldn’t be a difference.

I think, though, it’s an accident of culture. Unfortunately, a lot of the perspective on secular humanism in the US is tainted by association. The atheist movement has benefited from a surge of enthusiasm that has already brought in a more diverse group of people, especially younger people; humanist meetings here tend to be demographically older (this is definitely less true in Europe). In addition, there is the influence of the Harvard Humanists, who infuriate a lot of us atheists: there is the perception that they want to shape humanism to ape religion. Most of us atheists are post-religionists, and we want nothing to do with a movement that borrows so heavily from religious traditions.

But otherwise, there isn’t a huge difference. Atheism+ could fade away, and it’s proponents could instead populate and energize a New Secular Humanism. I’m not entirely in favor of that, because that would then leave the growing, exciting atheist movement in America as a bastion of libertarians and jerks, and then the name of atheism would continue to be anathema. I’d rather remain within atheism and push it to be more progressive.

The Atheism+ idea really has been evolving for a while, and I think part of it is that there are elements of the New Atheist movement we like, and also elements of Humanism and Ethical Culture that we really like, and we want a more perfect movement that better reflects everything we want. If you want to see more of the roots of Atheism+, you might look at Greta Christina’s post on why atheism demands social justice, and also I published something earlier this month that said very similar things.

I propose that we adopt a third wave of atheism, a socially conscious, activist atheism that combines humanism with the assertiveness of new atheism, that joyfully embraces science and reason and uses them to advance society. And by advancing society, I mean much more than the materiel advancement of science and technology — we need greater equality, and we need a deeper appreciation of diversity. We need everyone to participate in building a stronger, more peaceful, more progressive culture — one that recognizes that all of us should have equal opportunities.

Both Greta’s and my article were published in Free Inquiry, which is kind of interesting…did Tom Flynn know he was recruiting radicals when he signed us on?

But even there I was dithering about the issues of the differences between this Third Wave and secular humanism: atheism here and now is definitely more assertive than humanism, and I like that. But then, of course, humanists can be and are pretty damned assertive — I was humanist of the year for American Humanists and the IHEU, after all.

Atheism+ is nothing more but Secular Humanism with a religious mentality

Uh, no. There’s no religious mentality at all in Atheism+. As I said above, look at the Harvard Humanists, or Alain de Botton, if you want to see a religious mentality. (And I emphasize again, being a secular humanist does not mean you automatically have a religious mentality at all.)

Based on some of the comments made on some of the A+ vs. Humanism threads, I’m afraid that in the zeal to promote A+ Humanism is getting a bad rap and all Secular Humanists are being judged based on the example of the Harvard Humanists. Not all humanists want to emulate religion, not all humanists want to build temples or conduct rituals. I whole heartedly support the values promulgated by A+ but worry about burning bridges with Humanist allies.

That’s a good comment, too. Let’s not do that. I think it’s entirely feasible that Atheism+ could evolve into Secular Humanism; marrying the atheist and humanist movements together would be a lovely outcome, I think. But I think you’re getting at the core here: it’s about values beyond science and denial of gods. People who are embracing Atheism+ as a label think atheism ought to similarly incorporate social values.

Aren’t the social justice goals of A+ already covered by existing movements? If no, in what ways are current groups insufficient?

This is not an argument that other groups aren’t doing their jobs. Minnesota Atheists, for instance, are supporters of the GLBTQ communities in our area: that does not imply that they think GLBTQ organizations aren’t as good as atheist organizations at promoting equality. We would defer to those organizations as the best tools to represent their communities. But atheists can still speak up and find common cause.

The alternative would be to reject or neglect these good groups. Why would we want to do that?

Im in that awkward position where i do agree with most of the values and dislike the misogynist idiots but see no value or reason to mix atheism and the other values. For me atheism just is the simple disbelief and my political values stand apart from it.

Now you see, that’s just stupid. There are lots of atheists who take this blinkered stance that atheism is just one specific idea about rejecting god-belief, and it has absolutely no philosophical foundation and should have no political or social consequences. And that’s nonsense. This commenter is deluding himself as thoroughly as any god-walloper.

If there is no god, if religion is a sham, that has significant consequences for how we should structure our society. You could argue over how we should shape our culture — a libertarian atheist would lean much more towards a Darwinian view, for instance, than I would — but to pretend that atheism is just an abstraction floating in the academic ether is silly.

My take on a healthy philosophy is creating a social contract of values and ethics that create and reinforce the emerging equality that brings forth the humanity that gives value to human life. Many profit from disparity, and in that inequality find reason to be antagonistic towards equality.

Yes. I’m a white male middle-class professional. I profit from disparity, and it simultaneously gives me guilt and worry that someone might take my privileges away from me. But I can’t in good conscience live in the illusion that I somehow deserve more than a poor black woman making ends meet with menial labor; I don’t. I’m just the recipient of the blessings of chance and history.

But I agree that a lot of people do not want to consider the idea of seeing others come up in the world, because that might bring them down. And there’s also the fact that we don’t discern status by an absolute appreciation of what we have, but by relative assessments with our neighbors. We are envious apes.

Atheism Plus is destined for failure. Dogma is a cancer and this “you’re either with us or against us” mentality is about as dogmatic as it gets. . As soon as you’ve booted out all the people that disagree with you, the group will devolve into factions and splinter even further. No thanks.

There’s a lot of this strange attitude going around. If Atheism+ is a dogma, can you recite its creed? Does it have a holy book? We can’t even do a good job of defining it right now!

Also, it can’t be about booting people out. It’s entirely opt-in. It’s like announcing that you think the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan club is dogmatic because they all like Buffy, and that they’re being cruel to non-fans because they aren’t asked to join. It’s OK, guy! You can join, even if you like Spike better than Willow, and if you don’t give a damn about the stupid TV show, why are you complaining about not being in the fan club?

My whole point is that not everyone dismissed as a “misogynist” or “hate and rage filled asshole” by the Atheism+ crowd is actually anything of the kind. Sometimes that kind of response is aimed at people who simply have a reasonable disagreement with them, rather than the genuine trolls who are sending threats and abuse.

We get that a lot. In fact, I’d say it’s the source of most of the anti-atheist+ reaction: It’s a whole lot of cranky people saying that they aren’t sexist at all…they just think it’s fine to call women “cunts”, that Jim Jeffries is a hilarious comedian when he riffs on his contempt for women, that they just hate feminists, that we’re all just killjoys and cockblockers who want to interfere with their right to hit on women whenever they feel like it. But oh, no, they’re not misogynists. How dare we challenge their masculine privilege?

I have a suggestion for you. Read Manboobz. I know, if you’re the kind of guy who resents a privilege check of any kind, you probably already hate David Futrelle, but try. Follow the links. What you’ll discover is that there really are openly woman-hating misogynists out there, but also, that there are a lot of men and women who say extremely disturbing and stupid things about women who at the same time claim that they don’t hate women. And they don’t: they don’t hate women who fit their narrow, limited version of what a woman should be. It’s just those uppity, aggressive, rude feminist women that they think need to be raped into submission.

And that’s you, guy. And it’s all those other anti-feminists who turn apoplectic with fury whenever the issue of treating women as diverse human beings with personalities and intellectual interests and ambitious goals beyond worshipping your penis is brought up. It’s all of these stupid twits who infest youtube and every other online forum:

…. but FtB and Mini-Me, sorry Skepchick, have pretty much entirely abandoned atheist concerns in favor of becoming a feminist collective that is also nominally atheist.

Personally Feminism is dogmatic, bringing feminist ideals into atheism is the wrong thing to do. Looks like a wedge strategy to wrest control from “the boys club”.

You absolutely disgust me, the notion that I DON’T support diversity, care about tolerance, because I don’t want to be part of your clique. THAT is why people are ANGRY.

The atheist movement is for atheist concerns. It’s not a manatee for the parasitic feminists to glom onto. PZ’s enabled this for way too long; thankfully, other leaders are getting sick of his shit.

(A manatee? WTF?)

If you’re resentful that many atheists think that feminism is important, that we should be fighting for racial equality, that we think reason and evidence dictate that excessive income inequity does harm to the nation, that the gun madness needs to stop, or whatever social and political issue pushes your buttons, then tough. I’m not making you write legislation to increase spending for schools in poor neighborhoods. I’m not forming you up into squads going door to door to take away people’s guns. I’m arguing for the importance of those issues, and I’m finding allies who agree with me.

You don’t want to be one of those allies? Fine. But isn’t it really silly to complain about not belonging to a group with ideals you don’t agree with? Here’s your answer:

I think it would be fabulous if all the anti-A+ people committed themselves to social justice issues each and every day. No one’s going to be put out if A+ is proved to be unneeded in the long term.

I’m just going to end with a quote from my article in Free Inquiry, Atheism’s Third Wave.

Science is neutral on moral concerns; it only describes what is, now how it ought to be. And this is true; science is a tool that can be used equally well for curing diseases or building bombs. But scientists are not and should not be morally neutral, nor should scientific organizations or culture be excluded from defining the appropriate uses of science. Science without humanist moral standards leads to Mengele or the Hiroshima bombing or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Similarly, atheism may be value-neutral, but atheists and atheist organizations should not be. Atheism sensu stricto may be a specific assertion about a fact of the universe, but atheism as practiced is a defining idea in a mind and a powerful foundation for a human community. It has meanings and implications that we must heed and use for achieving our goals.

And what should those goals be? Because I’m an atheist and share common cause with every other human being on the planet in desiring to live my one life with equal opportunity, I suggest that atheists ought to fight for equality for all, economic security for all, and universally available health and education services. Peace is the only answer; extinguishing a precious human life ought to be unthinkable in all but the most dire situations of self-defense. Ours should be a movement that welcomes all sexes, races, ages, and abilities and encourages an appreciation of human richness. Atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a philosophical and scientific position, because living in a godless universe means something to humanity.

If you agree with that, you’re an atheist+. Or a secular humanist. Whatever. You’re someone who cares about the world outside the comforting glow of your computer screen. It really isn’t a movement about exclusion, but about recognizing the impact of the real nature of the universe on human affairs.

And if you don’t agree with any of that — and this is the only ‘divisive’ part — then you’re an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, “Asshole Atheists” and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it.

I just had a thought: maybe the anti-atheist+ people are sad because they don’t have a cool logo. So I made one for the asshole atheists.


Happy now?

Oh god oh god oh god

Alain de Botton has written a book about sex! I’m almost tempted to buy it for the hilarity — de Botton is the kind of upper-class twit lampooned by Monty Python, and I’m sure it would be full of insights about how such a person could accidentally reproduce themselves.

You must read the whole review to get the full brunt of the absurdity. As Stephanie says, the book tells us much more about de Botton’s narrow view of sex than it tells us about sex itself.

For example…

Joking aside, de Botton goes on to extend Worringer’s [an art historian who wrote an essay in 1907] ideas to human attraction, posing that we are attracted to other people because we see in them what we are missing in ourselves. Not content to reinforce the unhealthy (if slightly romantic) notion that we need another human to be “complete,” de Botton pens an ode to the virgin/whore construct by comparing Scarlett Johansson’s features to those of Natalie Portman, giving each a completely subjective meaning (“her cheeknoes indicate a capacity for self-involvement,” he says of Johansson). “We end up favoring Natalie, who is objectively no more beautiful than Scarlett, because her eyes reflect just the sort of calm that we long for and never got enough of from our hypochondriacal mother (p. 56).”

Damn it. My mother wasn’t hypochondriacal at all. No wonder I can’t get jazzed about the thought of sex with Natalie Portman!

It’s something that he’s using an obscure source from 1907 for his ideas — citing old sources isn’t a trump card for erudition, I’m afraid — but the rest of that goes back further: it’s the 19th century fascination with physiognomy. No, the shape of your nose or your cheekbones or your earlobes may tell you something about genes and embryonic influences on development, but it isn’t an indicator of the way your mind works. What next, will de Botton cite iridology?

Actually, we get some ignorant zoology.

The early humanoids … may have had a hard time finding food, evading dangerous animals, sewing underpants and communicating with faraway relatives, but having sex was a simple matter for them, because the one question that almost certainly never ran through the minds of male hunters as they lifted themselves up on their hirsute limbs was whether their partners were going to be in the mood that night — or whether they might instead feel revolted or bored by the sight of a penis, or just keen to spend a quiet evening tending to the fire.

Uh, the fact that they’re not Homo sapiens does not imply that they didn’t have elaborate courtship procedures and complex social mores. I suspect that human ancestors, at least since they were primates, have had quite a few rules for negotiating sex, and that there has never been a phase in our evolution where you could just tap any female on the shoulder and she’d willingly spread her legs for you…and that he thinks such a condition would be a simpler state of affairs tells us a lot about his ideals. So women submitting to sex without concern for their interests or who their partner is is a simpler condition? Only for the males.

As usual, de Botton has little consideration of actual science.

In fact, according to de Botton, porn is bad for science, since it takes up the time researchers could be using to find the cure for cancer (p. 96).

Oh, so that’s why I haven’t won a Nobel!

He also has a very 19th century attitude towards common sexual practices. Masturbation is bad for you! And most interestingly, his annoying affection for religion surfaces here: all praise for the godly who favor repression. Special praise for religions that support his sexist biases.

Masturbation and fantasy are in complete opposition to virtue, he argues, and porn is the terrible catalyst. No, not just porn — the entire internet is at fault (p. 102)! The answer, de Botton suggests, is “a bit” of censorship, “if only for the sake of our own well-being and our capacity to flourish.”

If you don’t see how helpful “a bit” of censorship might be, it is because you “have never been obliterated by the full force of sex” (help! We’ve fallen into a Philip Roth novel and we can’t get out!). Religions get this, de Botton reminds us. “Only religions see [sex] as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. (p 103)” There is a paragraph somewhere in there that seems to obliquely suggest that hijabs and burkas make sense by pointing out the excitement aroused in men by “half-naked teenage girls sauntering provocatively down the beachfront.” Indeed, “a degree of repression is necessary both for the mental health of our species and for the adequate functioning of a decently ordered and loving society.”

Pause here for a moment and consider this carefully: earlier in the book, de Botton offered an example of a woman who pretended that she wanted a relationship just so she could have sex. That was a nice example because it showed that he was aware that women, too, have desires and women, too, want sex. Unfortunately, his considerations for women began and ended in the same place. While he suggests an award for impotence to applaud men’s “depth of spirit,” he completely ignores any sexual issues women face. You caught that, right? Now look at the above paragraph again. See how the discussion of censorship targets women specifically? There is no mention anywhere about men’s audacity to cavort on the beach. It is women who must be covered. It’s the female body that must be censored.

The most depressing news here is that apparently I have a shallow spirit and don’t get a prize.

Wait…a little saltpeter* and maybe I could win an award for “depth of spirit” and a Nobel prize!

*Actually, saltpeter is really ineffective. I should instead consult this list.

The League of Nitwits has farted in my general direction

I feel powerful. A silly gang of people stung by the criticisms of the New Atheists met for dinner to grumble about us, and my name came up a few times. It’s kind of like being a superhero and learning that nefarious villains are teaming up to shake their fists at you and make plans to thwart you…only in this case, it’s more like the League of Nitwits, which just sucks all the glory out of it. My nemeses are sadly disappointing.

Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.

The author is Bryan Appleyard, that tired hack of British crank journalism, anti-Darwinist and self-admitted terrible writer.

John Gray is one of those atheist apologists for religion, who claims that beliefs don’t matter — all that stuff about Jesus being the son of God, requiring your devotion in order for Christians to get into heaven? They don’t really believe that. They just like going to church for the company and the rituals and those comfy pews or something.

He’s quite right, the New Atheists haven’t been picking on Nassim Nicholas Taleb much, but it isn’t because he knows math (really — here we are, a largely science-dominated community, and Appleyard thinks we’re afraid of math? Gimme a break) — in my case, it’s because I never heard of him before. I had to look him up. All I know is that Taleb doesn’t like atheists, and likes religion for a stupid reason.

You’ve written a lot about chance and probability. Do you believe in God?
I’m in favour of religion as a tamer of arrogance. For a Greek Orthodox, the idea of God as creator outside the human is not God in God’s terms. My God isn’t the God of George Bush.

What’s your view of the “new atheists”, people such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris?
They’re charlatans. But see the contradiction: people are sceptical about God, yet gullible when it comes to the stock market.

Yeah, he’s some stock market guru. It seems to me that the only way to really make money in the stock market is by getting paid for telling people how to make money in the stock market; Taleb tells people how to make money in the stock market, which sort of says everything you need to know about him, and also makes his accusation of charlatanry particularly ironic.

Oh, and he also likes Ron Paul. Not impressed.

The final guest at this peculiarly petty dinner party is Alain de Botton. Haven’t we heard enough of the silly de Botton lately? He’s the atheist who has been straining to crawl up religion’s asshole and take its place.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

Right, because that’s exactly what atheists want, a new religion. And now he’s shocked that atheists sneer at his temple, and reject the papacy of Pope de Botton.

To rationalize this pity party, Appleyard tries to define the New Atheism by listing the three legs of our position. Would you be surprised to learn that he gets every one of them wrong? No, you would not, because this is Bryan Appleyard. You would be startled if he got something right.

First, a definition. By “neo-atheism”, I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.

Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist – indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” – and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.

The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.

Heh. His weird misunderstandings say so much about Appleyard, and so little about atheism.

  1. Wrong. Science provides evidence that all religions are wrong or vacuous. The charge of scientism is a common one, but it’s not right: show us a different, better path to knowledge and we’ll embrace it. But the apologists for religion never do that. You’ll also find that we recognize that there are obvious attractions to religion — most of them don’t require a gun to the head to get adherents — but that they get the facts of the universe fundamentally wrong, and building on error is a bad policy.

  2. Wrong. We’re quite aware of the difference between atheism and secularism. I do not teach atheism in the classroom, nor do I encourage teachers to do so; I want a secular educational system. I do not argue that only atheists be allowed to serve in government, but that government only implement secular, non-sectarian, non-religious decisions that are appropriate for a pluralist society. You may notice I’ve got a badge over on the right sidebar to Americans United, a secular but not atheist organization that I whole-heartedly support.

  3. Wrong, but hilarious. Darwin is not proof of the non-existence of gods. He showed how life actually diversified and changed on this planet, and he provided a mechanism that works without divine meddling of any kind. He makes gods superfluous. I love the fact that this kook finds science as threatening and scary as an AK-47, though. It says a lot about him.

Appleyard was so enthused about his new buddies in the We-Hate-New-Atheists movement that he had to get right on the phone and call up his buddy, Jerry Fodor, the philosopher who wrote an anti-Darwinian evolution book and got thoroughly panned everywhere. A new recruit for the League of Nitwits!

Of course he complained about me. And complained dishonestly.

Furthermore, the rise of evolutionary psychology – an analysis of human behaviour based on the tracing of evolved traits – seemed to suggest that the human mind, too, would soon succumb to the logic of neo-atheism.

It was in the midst of this that Fodor and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini published What Darwin Got Wrong, a highly sophisticated analysis of Darwinian thought which concluded that the theory of natural selection could not be stated coherently. All hell broke loose. Such was the abuse that Fodor vowed never to read a blog again. Myers the provocateur announced that he had no intention of reading the book but spent 3,000 words trashing it anyway, a remarkably frank statement of intellectual tyranny.

Fodor now chuckles at the memory. “I said we should write back saying we had no intention of reading his review but we thought it was all wrong anyway.”

No, I haven’t read and won’t be reading the book by Piattelli-Palmarini and Fodor. But that article he’s whining about wasn’t a review of his book at all, and I plainly said so! It was a review of Fodor’s article in New Scientist, and I did read the whole thing. I am impressed that I and the other critics have completely driven him away from blogs; now if we can just scare him away from books, magazines, and television, he can spend the rest of his life happily rocking away in an empty room.

Appleyard closed his meeting of the shocked, traumatized, trembling victims of New Atheist ferocity with the tepid call of the religious apologist:

Religion is not going to go away. It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown. Furthermore, as Hitchens in effect acknowledged and as the neo-atheists demonstrate by their ideological rigidity and savagery, absence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated. People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn’t.

I’m pessimistic that religion will go away in my lifetime, too, but not because it is a valid and reasonable reaction to the world around us. It isn’t. It’s the invisible friend the fearful cling to in the darkness, it’s the lie the desperate tell themselves in denial. But there is a better solution: you can turn on the light, and the invisible friend evaporates, the dangers are all exposed to be dealt with, and the truth emerges. Atheists are the ones who’ve flipped on the light, and found the universe to be not quite as scary as the ignorant claim it to be, and even better, to be full of wonders — wonders that we are part of, that aren’t painted on a fabric of myth.

And it really feels good. Religion can go away, every one of us atheists is testimony to that, and it leaves us better, stronger, and happier. I see no barrier to the complete eradication of religion someday, other than the fearfulness of craven little shadow-huggers like Appleyard.