Wednesday, December 14, 2011


So I Guess There Really Are "New Atheists"

... or so some people think:

I think I'd call this the Atheist Delusion. Many of us find it really hard to believe that Christians actually believe that nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead and insisting that faith is required to pass through the gates of a magical place in the sky after we're dead; we struggle to find a rational reason why friends and family are clinging to these bizarre ideas, and we say to ourselves, "oh, all of her friends are at church" or "he uses church to make business contacts" or "it's a comforting tradition from their childhood", but no, it's deeper than that: we have to take them at their word, and recognize that most people who go to church actually do so because they genuinely believe in all that stuff laid out in the Nicene Creed. ...

I think this is another important element of the New Atheist movement. We take religious people seriously when they tell us what they believe. We don't indulge in our own rationalizations, trying to second guess what they say and invent a more sensible excuse for their behavior: when someone tells me that they have faith that Jesus' second coming is nigh, I accept that they're a deranged and demented fuckwit rather than trying to cobble together a lofty sociological story about individuals fitting into community mores and building rhetorical interfaces to meld with group dynamics. Nope, they really believe in an apocalyptic messiah and are wishing the world would end in a catastrophe before they die.

I don't believe in fighting against the little social accommodations people necessarily make to get by. I do believe in fighting hard against bad ideas. And that's a difference between many atheists: do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you're a New Atheist.

You say: We take religious people seriously when they tell us what they believe.

I'm not so sure about that. (I'm taking the "we" as a kind of generic for the "gnu atheists"; not aiming at you especially.)

You mention the Nicene creed. I think it is a mistake to presume that people reciting actually do believe it; and that is based on taking seriously what individual Christians (even quite conservative ones) tell me directly.

One of the problems that I see showing up again and again in the "gnu atheist" movement is that they DON'T take particularly seriously what individual Christians say.

Instead, it is quite common (or so it seems to me) for certain atheists to set up a standard set of beliefs based on their own reading of the Nicene creed, or the bible, or church writings, or whatever.

Then they apply those willy nilly to members of churches that use the bible, or the Nicene creed, etc.

That technique often fails to deal with what individual believers say directly for themselves.

It's quite common for Christians to have strong reservations about what is expressed in various creeds or writings. A classic example is this from the Nicene creed:

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

That is plain reference (IMO) to the doctrine of the "second coming". There's also a theological position (preterism) which holds that this has already occurred... and indeed many preterists are also very literal minded "bible believing" Christians, who consider the bible inerrant, but not the creeds.

There are also many Christians (in my direct experience of actually listening to people speaking themselves of their own beliefs) who do not hold creeds to be inerrant, nor the bible either; both can be taken as writings of the divine written by people; not a text dictated by the divine.

Gnu atheists, all too often, will have none of this. All too often, any attempt to set out an individual's own beliefs that diverges from what an atheist sets up as a presumed authentic standard is dismissed as not the real thing, or not representative, or hypocritical, or whatever.

Nor is it inevitably hypocrisy that a member of a church does not share all the same beliefs as set out by the church. Churches themselves are tolerant of this to varying degrees; but in any case, to know what people believe you have to listen to the people.

That's going to include, of course, many many Christians who DO accept the Nicene creed as written without reservation or qualification. But this can't be presumed of everyone who recites it. Nor (again, my own experience) can you presume that everyone who stands in church when a creed is recited is actually joining in. Some people deliberately and quietly omit certain phases. Others find various rationalizations for joining in even when it's not a good match for what they'd say for themselves.

I'm never entirely sure (despite my own use of the term above) what is meant by the "gnu atheists". I'm unapologestic and open about my unbelief in God; but not particularly inclined to sweeping generalisations about religion or consequences of belief in God.

Despite all kinds of negative consequences of religion, I also thing there are negative consequences in unremitting hostility to religion. A generous does of "live and let live" is, I think, a good thing; along with a bit of wisdom in when it applies and when it doesn't.

This comment is too long, but I don't have time right now to make it shorter...

That was a quote John was presenting, it wasn't his.

And you don't have to use "gnu atheists" anymore, not that I ever did.
Oops. Sorry!

Yes; the text is by PZ, and I'd be happy to talk with him about it. I'm a big fan of PZ but not an uncritical endorser. Trawling through all the pharyngulites is not such an enthralling prospect.

I've had a chance to think on the extract and express my view (which helps me to clarify my own mind). If perchance any further exchange ensues, John's blog gets the benefit; which is good also.
Oops. Sorry!

No problem.

I'm a big fan of PZ but not an uncritical endorser. Trawling through all the pharyngulites is not such an enthralling prospect.

I like him almost all of the time ... dating back to our days. Sometimes he goes over the edge ... but don't we all. As to his commentariat, I long ago stopped spitting into a hurricane.

My experience is similar to yours, though perhaps a bit more direct. I was raised as an American Catholic, where the laity has long ignored the hierarchy when they disagreed ... such as on birth control. Recently, although New York is a heavily Catholic state, the bishops couldn't raise much of an opposition to gay marriage. The idea that religious believe and act in lockstep is, at the least, overstated by some atheists.
The main problem with most Christians is that they don't do what Jesus said they should. Does this sound like the religious right: love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, judge not that you be not judged, condemn not that you be not condemned, forgive and and you will be forgiven, cast the beam out of your own eye first, etc. Most of it actually seems like good advice, and admirable. But their Christianity is primarily due to selfish motives - salvation, eternal life, etc.
"The main problem with most..."

My New Year's resolution is to stop reading any sentence that begins with these words. And to stop using this phrase myself.
I'm a bit surprised that Baggini did not realize that many religious people really do believe that stuff.

For myself, I don't particularly worry about other people believing nonsense, unless they are running for office and want to impose that nonsense on others.

So, sure, I like PZ but I do think that he and others sometimes go a bit overboard in their comments on religion. On the other hand, as biologists they are constantly under attack from the creationists, so it is quite understandable that they react strongly.
I just read Baggini's poll results and I don't think they say what he says they do.

Baggini admits that Karen Armstrong is not asserting that a large portion of religious people don't literally believe scripture. She's presenting an idealized view of what religion can be, even should be--and already is for many, even if this gets lost in the everyday story line.

Analogizing to democracy, we might argue that democracy is "really" about self-determination, human rights, justice, unleashing human potential, or similar things. We might then take a poll in which we find that surprisingly large numbers of people who profess to love democracy are actually xenophobic, or racist, or in fealty to the ways of Capital, or any number of things that democracy is not supposed to be, by our lights. Do we thereby abandon our ideal for what democracy might/could/should portend for us? Do we just scrap it as poisonous?

As far as facts on the ground go, if you look at Baggini's poll numbers, many of the responses are barely in the majority (e.g. just 54% for "We can achieve eternal life only by accepting Jesus as our lord and saviour") and many don't even come close. The most popular response to the statement that the Book of Genesis is "historically" true, at 28%, is "disagree." Adding in the "tends to agree/disagree" responses, the disagrees have it by 17%.

The "normal actuality" would be much more complex than Baggini would like it to be--and that's given his own somewhat stunted phrasing of theological options. We have no idea how the poll would have shaken out if various gradations of types of belief were offered to choose among, rather than degrees of agreement or disagreement with the most fundamentalist types.
nwrickert: "I'm a bit surprised that Baggini did not realize that many religious people really do believe that stuff."

Who says that he didn't? Ok, maybe PZ does, but Baggini back in 2009 wrote this:

"I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things [personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth]. Indeed, I'm on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don't really matter at all."

Now in that 2009 article, he criticized, for example, Sam Harris for saying, "religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time," thus overlooking the positive practices in religion. But the idea that believers really believe what they believe isn't new for Baggini. The survey bolsters his current opinion on that particular matter.

That said, his opinions on the New Atheists have apparently shifted some and become more positive, but not in the way PZ seems to think.
Analogizing to democracy, we might argue that democracy is "really" about self-determination, human rights, justice, unleashing human potential, or similar things. We might then take a poll in which we find that surprisingly large numbers of people who profess to love democracy are actually xenophobic, or racist, or in fealty to the ways of Capital, or any number of things that democracy is not supposed to be, by our lights. Do we thereby abandon our ideal for what democracy might/could/should portend for us? Do we just scrap it as poisonous?

I think that is an apt and very thought-provoking analogy.
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