Thursday, 24 March 2016

I Am An Atheist: So Why Do I Despise So Many Atheists?

"There is nothing more fundamentalist than those who say they know. And it doesn't really matter what they say they know either."

For many years now I have been a very unassuming kind of atheist. I do not believe in the existence of a god, of any god. I can claim to have given much thought to this subject and show you the books I have read, both historical and theological, that have explained how various people from the past have approached this question. I have theological certificates covering studies I have done in various theological schools of thought and I have assessed varying different ideas of what it might mean to believe in a god (for not all ideas of what a god is are the same). Not all atheists can say remotely the same thing that I can here. Many, especially the more vocal ones that have entered the public square in the last 25 years, would probably dismissively regard these studies as worthless nonsense. But I would beg to differ with them because even if one doesn't agree with a certain idea or set of ideas this is not to say that one cannot learn something from them or in studying why others take a different point of view. I may not believe in a god but it would be an extremely arrogant and self-regarding person who judged that, therefore, the whole subject area was pointless nonsense and its adherents all moronic fools. Sadly, many of my fellow atheists are just such arrogant and self-regarding people.

Whenever I come across a religious debate these days, most often in some serious newspaper, I turn my eyes to the now compulsory comments section. This is where the great unwashed of the public under the cloak of anonymity get to fling whatever shit the newspaper's moderators will allow at each other. Of course, in the vast majority of cases all you see are entrenched positions lined up against each other. A genuine discussion or the remarks of reflective or thoughtful people never seem to make it here. I find that a great shame. Everything becomes either agitated polemic or enraged apologetic. It is a battle of the convinced fundamentalisms. There are those who like to think (in their self-deceptive ways) that only a religionist can be a fundamentalist. But this absolutely is not so. The prominent face of public atheism is no less fundamentalist. I say this with no pride since I think it gives my side of the argument a bad name. Fundamentalism is an ugly thing wherever it is found. It is representative of that truth that 10% of conflicts are started by disagreements and 90% by tone of voice. The public tone of voice of atheism is condescending, aggressive and arrogant.

Arrogance and aggression are not promoters of understanding and this is that thing which all participants in a debate should hope to promote. People do not really learn much from shouting or even from telling people what they are certain they know. What matters about a belief, any belief, is what might recommend it to me as something I should hold as trustworthy and true. Surely those on either side of this debate would hope to convince people of their truth and thus share it? I am afraid my hope here is somewhat naive. But the truth remains that if you are too busy pounding your debating opponent with what you are utterly convinced of the truth of then you are not very likely to be very persuasive or to flick on any switches elsewhere that might lead to fruitful paths of thought. I today read a book review by a former Archbishop of Canterbury which was of a book which was trying to explain the Christian god in a more sophisticated and less simplistic way. The atheistic hordes below basically ignored his entire argument in their comments below and reacted to notions of god that neither the reviewer nor the author had expressed, choosing instead to destroy the beliefs of relative simpletons who also happened to be Christian believers. Yet, as I remarked in my own comment to this review, anyone can defeat the arguments of a moron. But only a bully would choose a moron for an opponent in the first place.

And this is what I think many modern atheists are: bullies. I'm also not entirely sure that so many of them have a right to be. Can they claim to have given the matter much thought or done any research? Have they struggled over the hard yards? It seems that for some it is just self-reflectively obvious that no god exists. Such people would throw up their hands and go "Duh!" at the very question or the notion that you might have to do any kind of work to come to such a conclusion. "Stop being dumb," they would say "of course no god exists!" However, as Rowan Williams (the aforementioned Archbishop) points out in his book review, its not really as simple as that. What a god even is or might be conceived as (the subject of the book Williams reviews) is not a simple matter nor a simplistic matter. Many atheists in the comments below the review pointed out that your bog standard religious person does not hold the high falutin views of a professor of theology or of philosophy. This is true. But in choosing the dumbest and simplest understandings of a view they do not ascribe to is it not the case that they are just rigging the debate to make sure that they win? It would be like a 100 meter runner choosing a kid to race against rather than Usain Bolt. But Usain Bolt is a 100 meter runner too. Pit yourself against him and see how you do. That, to my mind, is much more intellectually honest.

One commenter, who took umbrage at the suggestion of Williams that there was a phenomenon called "New Atheism" (this is broadly attested and refers to a marriage of the modern, materialist, scientific mind with anti-religious sentiment) wanted to know what this was. He received replies from his fellow atheists that were a mixture of snarky comments towards Christians and the promoting of a scientific agenda (people who believe in "evidence", etc.). I chipped in with my own definition though. I said that new atheists are those who "have a simplistic understanding of Being but pretend to have a complex one because they say they know". This, I think, articulated a number of things about how I see these new atheists who, in one matter, I agree with but with whom I disagree about many others. Indeed, under the article concerned I have salted about 10 comments of my own all of which start arguments with atheists and, in some measure, defend a theist position. I think this is because it articulates my belief that it is not good enough to think you are right. After all, everyone does and its the easiest thing in the world to do. For me, you have to be able to say why you are right and show your working out - just as your Mathematics teacher taught you in school. You also have to be able to account for new problems or issues arising. Belief, in this sense, is about your story and how you come to be where you are now and orientating yourself to everyone else who lives in the same world as you do, but differently. That is as important for me as what your actual conclusion is. Knowing an answer is one thing. Explaining your system and how you get to your answer is entirely another.

Of course, in order to do that you have to do the work of being able to explain yourself in the first place and many atheists, especially the kind who write in newspaper comments sections, don't appear to have done much work in this area. To hear many of them talk you would imagine that atheists with an interest in science are the only people who ever think in the first place. The rest of us are not capable of rational thought it seems. They combine an unseemly scientism with a dismissive tone and this, for my taste, is not an attractive combination. Even putting relatively straightforward questions to such people asking them to lay out their position for you is met with a snarl rather than an open and welcoming exposition of their truth. Such people regard any who do not fall in line, not just with their beliefs but their stance, as enemies. 

The other side, those who might believe in or be open to the divine, to spirits or to an unseen realm, are regarded as uniformly stupid as, for example, the person who commented below the review I have referred to above by stating that in church schools people are taught the birth narrative of Jesus Christ "as a fact". Since he, and those he thought like him, all regard this story to be a fiction and those who believe in it as dummies he found reason here to lump all Christian believers together as equal to the dumbest and most literal of believers. But this isn't true. I was myself taught at a church school where, rather than teaching the story as fact, it was in reality dissected as the biblical sources were shown to be both different and multiple. This then went into a quite mature discussion (for 14 year olds) of how religious texts come to be formed from earlier stories. What was taught was thinking not dogma. But the dogmatic atheist making his comments in a newspaper simply imagined that his intellectual foe was as dogmatic as he was. He reduced all opponents to a lowest common denominator.

My point here is that it is easy to entrench yourself and consider yourself on a side. Isn't this what the Internet is for, after all? But I find this intellectually dangerous, not least for yourself. It makes you lazy and you settle into cliched arguments. You stop thinking and start defending a position. But you should never stop thinking because you never know everything and there are always loose ends. Its also for this reason why you shouldn't merely test your beliefs against the weakest opponent you can find. I posted a reply to one commenter questioning his atheistic beliefs. He had argued that there was simply no "evidence" for a god. But I asked him what would count as evidence and I pointed out that "evidence" is a category that we decide for ourselves. It is we who even decide what counts as evidence. "Evidence" is a universally accepted category for pretty much everything but is it not also a little self-deceptive if we ourselves get to make the rules of the game? How can we know we are not finding what, somewhere deep inside, we want to find? I asked my atheist colleague more questions. I asked him how he would know what to look for when looking for a god or how he would decide if he had found it or not. I asked him if not finding any evidence meant anything other than that he had himself just not found it. I told him (and I tell you) that these are all reasonable questions to ask an atheist.

In the end, of course, I agree with even the most disreputable atheist that there are no gods. But I feel uncomfortable about this just as the Christian must do who is compared to some crusader or the conquistadors, each brutal killers and imperialists for their deity of choice. This must be how many moderate Muslims feel today being compared to violent thugs who chant slogans and wave flags. But we can ourselves not be defined by those who agree with us on some things but with whom we differ on many others. We must simply be able to articulate to ourselves and for ourselves why we believe what we believe. For me it is intellectually honest not only to question your opponents but also yourself, believing that the foundations of even the strongest house can be undermined. I also think that you can learn from anyone and often even those you never imagined you could learn anything from. If we can do that learning in a spirit of mutual humility, so much the better. For few if any learn from fundamentalists and bigots of any persuasion.

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