I Am Not a New Atheist!

The only thing new about my atheism is that I've adopted it within the last few years before reading or knowing about the "New Atheist" authors. Let me explain further:

David Marshall published a book called The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Challenges to God and Christianity. Recently I saw an interview where he describes those who are called “New Atheists” (NA) in these words.

This new cohort of atheist writers tends to have several things in common. They are trying generally to apply the theory of evolution in new ways to social science, including religion and morality. Secondly, they draw on new "Jesus spin" -- what I call neo-Gnosticism, along with the Jesus Seminar stuff and some even more hoary "Jesus was a mirage" theories. Third, the New Atheism arises in a new context -- after 9/11, when many skeptics want to see a symmetry between radical Islam and home-grown "Christian fundamentalism." Some people did this during the Cold War, too, trying to make out that Christianity was "just as dangerous" as communism.

I want to comment on the last (or third) tendency of what he describes as NAs.

Jason Pratt, over at CADRE, claims that in light of this third tendency
NAs tend to promote the notion that faith is intrinsically antithetical to reason. NAs tend to promote the notion that religious believers refuse to ask tough questions about their own beliefs. Skeptical questions are presented as if they are supposed to be staggering revelations to believers who have never considered such things before or who simply ignore the questions as being too dangerous to think about. Often the questions themselves are presented as if merely asking them is (or should be) enough to undermine a religious belief. NAs have at least a minor tendency to describe religious belief as having been arrived at, and held, without evidence.

Identifiable NAs are Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and especially the Rational Response Squad. Old Atheists include Bertrand Russell, and J.L. Mackie, and it should also be noted that there are still Old Atheists out there, like Michael Martin, Nicholas Everitt, Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Theodore Drange and J.L. Schellenberg, along with others like Michael Shermer, Jeff Lowder, Dan Barker and myself.

When people visit Debunking Christianity they might naturally assume that I am a NA too (other team members can speak for themselves if they want to). But I chose the name of this blog carefully. It was to grab people’s attention and at the same time accurately tell what I wanted to do. My dictionary says this:

de•bunk: (past and past participle de•bunked, present participle de•bunk•ing, 3rd person present singular de•bunks) vt show something to be false: to show that something is wrong or false. Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Just for future reference let me distinguish myself in some ways from the NAs. I am a very respectful atheist. I treat my intellectual opponents with human dignity and respect. I am not militant in using the belittling tactics that some NAs use or in trying to offend believers. I even capitalize the word “God,” and refer to him in masculine pronouns. I like to learn from others. I enjoy the discussion. This is proved beyond a doubt every single day here at DC (with very rare exceptions when provoked). I think all religions are false and delusional but they are not held irrationally. I’m not sure what it can even mean to say Bill Craig, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne are irrational. They are clearly very bright, intelligent, and educated men. For this reason I’m against the suggestion that atheists should call themselves “Brights.” I dislike this term and won’t use it because it’s simply not true.

I do think believers are deluded. Jason Pratt has attacked me because I use this word, as if using it makes me an NA. However, just because someone shares some characteristics with a NA does not a NA make. I’m also a male atheist, but that doesn’t make me a NA. Besides there is a big difference between the meaning of a word and its significance. The meaning of a word is its dictionary definition. The significance of a word is something that is person-related based upon his or her own personal experiences with the word. My dictionary says this:

de•lude: (past and past participle de•lud•ed, present participle de•lud•ing, 3rd person present singular de•ludes) vt lead into false belief: to persuade somebody to believe something that is untrue or unreal.Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

When it comes to the belittling and harassing tactics of the NAs, I do not participate or approve of their tactics. But as a pragmatist I can see the results, and the results are positive for what I believe, since they have raised awareness about atheism in our culture just as gay people raised awareness of their cause by similar belittling and harassing tactics. I can appreciate what has been accomplished by them without approving how it was done. I think it’s unfortunate that atheists had to grab people’s attention in this manner, but it worked. Now there is a shelf in Borders Bookstores labeled “Atheism,” and I hope my forthcoming book finds its way on that shelf when it’s published. Many old atheists fail to understand the nature of the media (which reports on oddities), and the value of radicalism (which gets things done).

Furthermore, I think radical Islam is much more dangerous to civilization than perhaps any other religion, especially more dangerous than Christianity. There are four things that make Christianity less dangerous than Islam in my opinion.

One) Christianity has a Virgin Mary who helped bring in the redeeming Messiah. The Catholics have even made Mary a co-redeemer. This feminine Biblical example exalts women to some degree. Women aren’t entirely worthless chattel. Islam only has an Eve, who is known for being a temptress to Adam. She is weak, needing to be ruled over, who can be blamed for bringing upon the earth such misery.

Two) Christianity has its Jesus, who is basically seen as non-violent and who laid down his life for humankind. Islam has no corresponding figure. Mohammed was a political ruler, whereas Jesus had no earthly political power. So the Koran reflects the political goals of religion, whereas in Christianity it’s merely implicit.

Three) Christianity has gone through an Enlightenment beginning in the 16th century with the rise of science and modern philosophy. The only version of Christianity we see in today’s world is one reflecting various degrees of this enlightenment. As a result the only Christians we see are “cherry-picking” from the Bible based upon their modern experiences and understandings. They do not take the Bible literally. They do not think it honors God to stone adulterers, kill witches, or keep women in submissive silence at home. By contrast, Islam has had no Enlightenment. Muslims still take the Koran at face value, and there are some pretty hateful things said in it about infidels, Jews, and women, along with some barbaric ways to punish criminals.

Four) Christianity does not have the same political power that Islam has within any country in the world today. There are whole countries ruled by Islamic law. There are no countries ruled by Christian law, although there is a heavy influence of Christianity in America, the most powerful nation in the world. Even many Christians think it’s best to have the separation of church and state. But in this nuclear age with WWD's, all it would take to destroy millions of lives is a rogue Muslim state or a small group of militant Muslims who gained access to them.

35 comments:

Gribble The Munchkin said...

Its a terribly shame isn't it.

I studied the reconquista and the crusades back in school and whats clear is that at the time the Islamic states were so far ahead in scholarism, learning, science and poetry that the western christian nations looked like barbarians by comparison. And yet after the renaissance (caused many by highly literate jews fleeing freshly christian spain), Europe slowly caught up. After the enlightnment, we surged ahead in science and culture and slowly became more secular, and yet the islamic world seems to be mired in its past, Just look at the terrible strife in Pakistan today (5/11/07), tribal religious fundamentalists cause trouble that the state is unable to control, and this spreads throughout the country.

I wonder what it would take to have an islamic enlightnment. Maybe a influx of western muslims back to the middle eastern nations. Maybe the end of oil, which will so heavily devastate the middke east (but most heavily the corrupt ruling classes).

goprairie said...

"New Atheists" is just another meaningless label. Why do you care if others label you in that way or in any other? Being an atheist simply means that you do not beleive in a god. In the same way that some Christians are quiet Christians and do not evangelize, some atheists are quiet atheists and do not talk about it. But when one finds ones freedom to BE and the freedom of others to be atheist, such as when Illinois began its moment of silence in the school last week, one might find that a threat and begin to talk about ones 'beleif system' in order to protect it. And when you press fundamentalists as I have about what they really want, the DO think this would be a better nation if Christianity were declared out national religion, if religion were taught in school, if there was a cross on the flag, and so on. They would love for Christianity to be the state religion. So in that respect, SOMEONE must remain diligent and proactive to gaurd against such actions being slipped into law in bits and peices. And it is easy to sit by and be a quiet atheist until you talk to a person who has bought too much into the 'flawed sinner' aspect and has their self-esteem crushed by it or someone whose husband buys into the 'male as head of the household' thing and is dominating them in harmful ways. It is hard to be a quiet atheist when one sees how religion is the main reason gays do not have equal rights. So I will take a stand against issues as I see them and not care one bit what labels are applied to me.

zilch said...

Well said, goprairie. Who cares what labels are made up to pigeonhole and dismiss people? I've gotten to the point that when people ask about my nationality, I reply "Earthling".

B H said...

Personally, I think the term "New Atheist" is being thrown around by people who don't understand the dynamics and differences in the group they're trying to describe. How could anyone group Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris together except in the most superficial ways? It'd be like calling Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard "The New Prophets."

The descriptions by Marshall and Pratt give that lack of understanding away too (either that, or they're willfully misrepresenting their subjects).

Marshall: They are trying generally to apply the theory of evolution in new ways to social science, including religion and morality.
Frequently using the terms "evolution" and "Darwinism" when they mean "empiricism" or "naturalism".

Pratt: "NAs have at least a minor tendency to describe religious belief as having been arrived at, and held, without evidence."
And like D'Souza, Lennox, and the folks at Way of the Master, frequently using words like "evidence" to mean something other than what it means to their interlocutors (namely, objective and verifiable evidence, not just synchronicity and personal experiences).

GordonBlood said...

Hmm just afew things to say, none of which are too controversial, I dont think. First of all I think it is correct for John to use the term deluded for Christians, because he genuinely feels that we are deluded. I think he is deluded. The term means nothing except our opinion of each others worldview. Secondly I think id be careful to list people like Dan Barker and Jeff Lowder as "new atheists". While im well aware both were around well before that movement emerged Barker certainly represents alot of the same traits; especially his tacit fundamentalist reading of the biblical text. Ultimately when I think of the term "new atheist" myself I simply think of how many of the outspoken atheists today are arrogant towards persons with different views then themselves, ignorant to the issues they speak to and terribly rude in general. Of course the same can be said of many religious believers and many atheists before the 21st century but one thing that can be said for the atheists such as Russell, Ayer, Flew (well, not anymore of course:P) and Mackie is that they were willing to have an intellectual conversations without saying the absolutely erroneous comments that permeate the new atheist literature such as how the Old Testament doesnt teach us 21st century science or how the bible, a text written over 2000 years of editting and cultural transformation, is not perfectly inerrant. As for an Islamic enlightenment the thing you have to keep in mind here is that Christians have always recognized that the bible is ultimately written by man. Muslims however almost necessarily must be fundamentalist because the entire religion is based upon the premise that the Qu'ran was given to Muhammed by God. Christianity, as a religion, has never DEPENDED on the inerrancy of scripture. So I dont see how Muslims could ever have a serious theology in that context and at the same time have an enlightenment, but there are scholars who disagree. I do appreciate however John at least explicately saying that Christianity represents not nearly as big a threat to the world as Christianity, which is absolutely ludicrous if you look at the premises of the New Testament and the Qu'ran.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

John:
Excellent post. Before I get onto the question of Islam, I want to discuss the 'new Atheism' part of it.

I don't believe there is any difference between 'new' and 'old' atheists in their general beliefs, the difference is merely in boldness and willingness to challenge believers publicly. (I entirely agree with your section on tactics, btw. They work but are annoying. But then I didn't agree -- as a personal matter -- with the style of the earliest 'new gays' either.)

I find Jason Pratt's description absolutely accurate, but find it true for any atheist. (Marshall's comments about 9/11 and the Cold War are, on the other hand, silly, as I'll get to in the next comment.)

I think you confuse 'intelligence' and 'education' with 'rationality' in your comments about Craig and others. I think that Craig, in particular -- based on a discussion from a few months back in which he reportedly took the 'magisterial use of reason' position -- can be described not as 'irrational' but as 'non-rational' in his thinking. A rational person does NOT take the position that 'reason is very valuable only if it supports my presuppositions.'

A rational person accepts the evidence, even if it shows him wrong, and holds that all conclusions are provisional, based on the 'evidence so far.' (In some cases, of course, the evidence is so strongly on one side that a rational person does not need to rebut every minor claim by a position that seems obviously false. Thus creationism would require such a complete reorganization of scientific thought that 'evidence' on its behalf would have to explain not just a minor inconsistency but would have to deal simultaneously with the evidence from physics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, geology, botany, and many other fields to be worthy of notice. Similarly, to use a non-religious example, homeopathy might be defensible, theoretically, but unless someone can supply evidence that overthrows Avogadro's law and other basic chemical knowledge, I can be excused for ignoring this theoretical possibility.)

As I have said repeatedly, 'rationalism' accepts a few basic postulates, that the world is real, that our perceptions (including those given to us by 'instruments') can be correlated with 'events' in this 'real world' and that these perceptions are generally consistent from person to person across time and space. BUT THAT'S IT!

Beyond that, faith IS antithetical to reason, because if it is 'evidence-based' it is NOT 'faith.'

To take an obvious example, if someone should turn up an authenticated document from about 35 A.D. in which a person, not a follower of Jesus, reported seeing him after his Crucifixion, then the 'resurrection' would cease being a matter of faith but would be based on actual evidence -- which could be analysed and challenged and argued about. If it proved to be reliable (i.e., the person actually had seen both Jesus preaching and his Crucifixion and could be shown by other comments to be a reliable reporter) then I would have no choice as a rational thinker but to accept the resurrection as at least a possible fact. But 'faith' would have nothing to do with it.

As for the other parts of Pratt's description, I think the discussions here show how frequently they are true, as do the various 'atheist-theist' debates you 'rebroadcast.'

Religious people do NOT ask themselves the hard questions about their beliefs, or if they do, they refuse to look at the evidence behind those questions, and they don't let the evidence solve the questions, but rather just 'believe harder' and duck the questions.

Religious people -- or many of them, including most who comment here -- DO treat hard questions as too dangerous to confront and "ignore the questions as being too dangerous to think about." Actually, they tend to 'pretend' to answer the questions -- if they try at all -- without ever confronting them directly. (Look at the way they handle your challenges on the 'problem of evil' or mine on the 'problem of communication.')

Merely asking the questions IS 'enough to undermine a religious belief' unless they are confronted by the believer. And yes, any atheist would (accurately) 'describe religious belief as having been arrived at, and held, without evidence.' In fact they would argue that it was held against the evidence -- if evidence is defined as something outside one's personal, unconfirmable experience. (After all, both the mystical saint and the paranoid serial killer may claim to hear the 'voice of God,' but nobody else hears that same voice at the same time.)

None of this has anything to do with 'new atheism,' which, I repeat, is a matter of style. (I have other arguments with the Dawkins/Myers group, mostly dealing with their frequent unwillingness to learn enough about what religious people actually believe, or their misunderstanding of history, or their frequent attacks on cariactures rather than on real people, but on these basic premises, I'm with them completely.)

More on the 'rise of the New Atheism' later.

Joe E. Holman said...

New Atheists?

Nope, no such animal. Means nothing.

It's just another worthless breakdown of terms, which so many in this generation are wont to do.

(JH)

GordonBlood said...

Just a very brief response to Prup on something. Prup that some religious persons dont "deal" with the problem of evil or the problem of communication (the later of which I dont think is much of a problem at all if were going to be realistic about the human condition) is certainly true. However, many have thought on these question and genuinely find them answerable or even non-problematic. To bluntly say that no religious believers come to terms with them is alittle bit of a strong statement just as it would be for a religious believer to say about atheists that they dont come to terms with the the implications of certain philosophical arguments (I dont know, lets throw out the cosmological one just for the sake of it). How many atheists really have thought about the implications of big-bang cosmology as currently understood by science (I wish here not to discuss those implications, just to say that most atheists just dont CARE about these questions). Like ive said before, atheist does not mean rational. Hell I recently heard of an atheist who believed in the story of the virgin birth of Jesus because she thought Mary committed WITCHCRAFT. Now as rediculous as im sure that is to both of us (for different reasons of course) I dont think making the sort of statements that religious believers dont come to term with these questions at all is more then alittle strong, especially when basically every religious believer has suffered at the hands of natural and moral evil.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

While I welcome Pratt's description, Marshall's (inherently dismissive) comment that
"the New Atheism arises in a new context -- after 9/11, when many skeptics want to see a symmetry between radical Islam and home-grown "Christian fundamentalism." Some people did this during the Cold War, too, trying to make out that Christianity was "just as dangerous" as communism.'
I find abhorrent as well as inaccurate.

Taking the second part first, he has his chronology a little off. After all, to take just one example, Robert Heinlein created the character of Nehemiah Scudder in 1940, perhaps one of the first chilling portraits of 'fundamentalism in power' that I know of.

But the arguement was not the 'dismissive' 'weak softy liberal' argument that 'Christianity was as dangerous as Communism.' Rather it was the pointing out that fundamentalist Christianity, Marxism (in practice, Marx was wrong in many things, but he never intended his work to be a 'sacred text' as the Marxists used it) and Naziism shared the same 'orientation' or 'mind-set,' and that potentially any of them, given unchecked power, could lead to similar type horrors of thought control, dictatorship, etc. (And if you do not believe that Christianity could lead to this, I suggest you read the works of Rushdoony and imagine people of his beliefs in power. Certainly, in theory, Christianity is a benevolent, humane set of ideas. SO IS MARXISM, in theory.)

As for the "New Atheism" being a 'child of 9/11,' not exactly. After all, there was a previous attack on the World Trade Center. More significantly there was Oklahoma City, an example of Christian terrorism -- an abominable form of Christianity that most Christians would reject, as they would reject the Phineas Priests and abortion clinic bombers, but then most Muslims would condemn Bin Laden as well.

The difference is not just the spectacular nature of 9/11 -- though, admittedly, this helped -- but the fact that it occurred during the Presidency of George W. Bush, and was followed not just by the (justified, in my opinion) attack on Afghanistan and the Taliban, but by the (totally unjustified) War on Iraq.

George Bush is unique in our history. Other Presidents have been Christians, and strongly believing ones, from Jimmy Carter back to Rutherford B. Hayes. But Bush is the only President who attempted to enforce Christianity -- from his 'faith-based initiative' to the scandals of his subordinates attempting to control the statements of scientists (see George Deutsch for the most egregious example, but there are many) to his support for 'abstinence-only' and 'creationism.'

This started before 9/11, and was being fought before then. 9/11 merely heightened his power and gave him a prestige he previously lacked (to say the least).

I do think that 9/11 heightened our awareness of how 'fundamentalism' in any form can be dangerous, and demonstrated the similarity -- in some ways -- of the thinking of Bin Laden and Bush. (To the point where a D'Souza can argue that 'the way to defeat terrorism is to return to 'old-fashioned Christian morality' that if we'd only stop with the sexy tv and movies and start condemning homosexuals and other open sexuality, Bin Laden would have no reason to hate us.)

But it was the disaster of Iraq that has brought the New Atheists out, because the general condemnation of Bush has emboldened them to say publicly what they believed, and has given them a hearing they never had in the past -- even though atheists have been saying the same things for many years previously.

But perhaps one of the few good things to come from the war and the Bush administration is that it has been such a total disaster that people are questioning everything about Bush's premises, including his particular form of Christianity.

And one more note to come, this time on islam -- though both John and Gordonblood have said some very apt comments that make mine less necessary -- as if that would stop me (;-()).

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Gordon: Okay, so I'll break to respond to you first. Your dismissal of the 'problem of communication' added to the fact that you are absent entirely from the discussion on Joseph's post on the matter, is, I am afraid, proof of my point. This is a very definite attack on the ideas of Christianity -- and, as far as I know, a new one, certainly under that name. It is specifically designed for you and others who do not accept 'biblical inerrancy.'
Perhaps you simply didn't want to plow through my admittedly difficult and long-winded prose, but I'd appreciate it, if you really think that this is 'much of a problem at all if we're going to be realistic about the human condition' you actually read my 'four bullets' and demonstrate how this is so, and that dismissing Paul and the Resurrection, in particular (see Bullet 1 and 4) is minor for Christianity.

Sorry to be so harsh to someone whose contributions I enjoy, but I'm afraid my criticism is valid.

GordonBlood said...

I understand the problem that you and Joseph have suggested Prup. And I will grant that God could have made certain things easier to understand about his will. However, the first thing you will notice is problems usually arise from human arrogance and if Jesus said anything it was to be humble. People dont get killed or butchered when we arent completely arrogant and narrow-minded about our beliefs. Of course there will be some disagreement (this is reflected in the very 4 gospels which are not completely unified, Martin Hengel does an amazing job going over this in "The four gospels and the one gospel of Jesus Christ". There is some moderate amount of diversity in what can be called "orthodoxy". Ultimately I understand that if God wanted to make his existence rediculously clearer, he could have. Thats obvious. However he did not. Concerning Paul I really fail to see why this means his message should be ignored or anything else just because of how he went about things; the very fact an intellect like Paul came to the faith at all like he did cries out for a better explanation than "he felt really sorry for the Christians he persecuted" which is the textbook answer. Ultimately this really isnt the correct forum to get into this subject but I think ive given at least a brief outline as to why im not terribly impressed by the problem of communication argument. Even if everything I said fell one could always resort to saying that God wants us to have to work at it and even make mistakes from time to time. Ultimately I think alot of the alternatives (God starting a conversation with every individual or whatever) is very much refuted by the fact that God wishes his evidence to not be superfluously obvious so that even the most vain and uninterested of persons is forced to concede belief. Again however, this is a fairly difficult subject not really appropriate for this post but I felt I should at least provide my own concerns considering I did blithely dismiss the argument without explaining why.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

And now to the question of Islam:
And here Gordon's points are the most relevant. The 'divine authorship' of the Qur'an is the 'core belief' of Islam. (It is also a classic example of the religious orientation's ability to hold two contradictory beliefs without seeing a conflict. An intelligent, knowledgeable Muslim will tell you, correctly, that the Qur'an was not compiled until twenty years after Mohammed's death, that the memories were so foggy about the order that it was delivered that it is arranged in order of 'length of Sura' and nothing else, that there is still a question as to which suras belong to Mecca and which to medina -- I won't explain the importance of this -- and the more sophisticated will admit that the editing was such that sometimes it was a case of 'we know Mohammed said this, but we aren't sure when, so we'll stick in into sura #...' Then they will immediately turn around and tell you that this is still the unchangeable, uneditable word of God as dictated by Gabriel to Mohammed and that not one verse can be altered. Some will even tell you that in its present form it is an exact copy of a book that rests on a table in Heaven. And they just don't see the contradiction.)

With this position, it is hard to see how there can be a 'reformation,' an 'Enlightenment.' (There was one, in the early days when the Islamic Civilization wasa the greatest in the world, but then the combination of the invasions of Ghengis Khan, and the activities of the ulema (the religious authorities) in 'freezing' Islam and prohibiting changes put an end to that.

There is a further problem. The Qur'an is an incredibly repetitious and surprisingly 'empty' book. It is not a narrative, like much of the testaments, nor an anthology of different writings from different sources. It is merely a collection of sermons -- in some cases 'rants' is more accurate.

Once you remove the repetitions, the stories that were meaningful to the audience but totally incomprehensible even to modern Muslims -- I keep hoping somebody will explain about the 'hamstrung she-camel,' but no Muslim I've spoken with knows what the story means -- the military exhortations, the nasty digs at people long dead who insulted or doubted Mohammed, the geocentric 'science' -- there's even a story about a man who travels to the lands (on Earth) from which the sun rises and to which it sets -- and the parts that call for a 'reformation' -- the anti-woman and pro-slavery bits, there really isn't much left.

There's 'believers go to heaven; unbelievers go to hell,' 'give to the needy' and instructions for the Hajj, and not a lot else.

The Qu'ran doesn't have any sort of coherent ethical structure, or illustrative stories and parables of the sort that give such ideas meaning. (There are the hadiths -- stories about the prophet's life -- but there is no agreement among Muslims over which are 'strong' and which are 'weak.')

Islam is like an old computer of mine. I considered repairing it, but realized I'd have to replace everything but the case, and it was cheaper and smarter to get a whole new one.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Gordon:
No, again you show you don't understand the 'Problem of Communication.' It doesn't say 'God could have been more clear in expressing his will.' It says that, if Jesus were who Christians claim he was, either you must throw out all of Paul, or accept that Jesus was a bumbling idiot who didn't know what he meant or couldn't convey it.

It says that if you believe in the Resurrection, you have to accept that he achieved it in the most inefficient way possible when he could have used it far more efficiently to get his message across.

It says that if Jesus was truly 'divine' and if he had even ordinary foresight, he was either a total bumbling incompetent or a God whose desire was to confound and create chaos among humanity, a 'trickster-God,' a 'Loki' who truly did 'bring not peace but the sword,' not between the righteous and the unrighteous but between groups of those who sincerely wished to follow his teachings but were so confused by the way he conveyed his message that they felt justified in fighting wars over different -- equally defensible -- interpretations.

On the other hand, if you accept him to have been what his preaching shows him to have been, an unorthodox but still mainstream Jewish rabbi, somewhat influenced by the Zoroastrianism that had already fused itself with Judaism (at least on a 'folk' basis if not formally) who had many valuable insights expressed in frequently beautiful parables, but who also was convinced of an immanent eschatological collapse and coming of a 'new world' not some time in the future but within his lifetime. If you take that picture of Jesus, and realize he neither claimed divinity nor wished to replace the religion he was fully a member of, then what he says and the portrait in the Synoptic makes sense, and Paul becomes a mystic who created a 'Christianity' that Jesus would not have recognized and would have condemned as a total perversion of his ideas.

GordonBlood said...

As ive said Prup this isnt really a great place to comment on what is a complicated issue. I would take issue with the massive dichotomy you seem to be building between Pauls "Christianity" and the other "Christianity, a dichotomy most scholars reject these days outright. Again, way to many issues historically speaking to touch on a blog of all things, so il let it go and I hope it doesnt sound like a cop-out but theres just way too many issues about Pauline and Gospel scholarship going on here to treat it with any decent amount of accuracy. At least you dont buy the whole Jesus myth nonsense which permeates so much of the atheist literature (and which im quite sure will give me a stroke one day) and for that im at least thankful... But yeah,id basically take issue with the Pauline-Synoptic dichotomy and also over how much "clearer" God should have been in his revelation.

Shygetz said...

...a dichotomy most scholars reject these days outright.

Most scholars? Really? I don't believe it, seeing as most scholars I've read on the issue point out a large fissure between the much greater legalism preached by the Pharisee Saul versus the much more mystical approach to religion emphasized by the Synoptic Gospels. This fissure is often pointed out as one of the major dividing lines between liberal Christianity and fundamentalist legalism.

Andrew said...

And who made all those wmds?

Who made those nukes!

Well, atheistic scientists...since Richard Dawkins tells us most scientists are atheists.

I believe it was Oppenheimer who said something to the effect that the scientists have blood on their hands.

Shygetz said...

Andrew, if you would rather go back to pre-science days, I wish you the best. There is no question that science has brought terrible power to those that would misuse it. It has also brought terrible power to those who would use it in a moral fashion, which is why you are able to argue on this blog at all. If you wish to fully blame atheism for the weapons, then you must grant us full credit for the medicine, technologies, and discoveries that have made your life better. I think we come out better in the balance in lives saved and lives bettered, and I'd bet you'd agree.

But don't let reason stand in the way of a good tantrum.

Jennifer said...

I was thinking someone else might bring this up, but I guess I'll open the can of worms. :)

I can hear the disciples after the resurrection saying, "I am NOT a Christian!" After all, they are not the ones who pigeon holed their faith into a nicely packaged religion.

But as a pragmatist I can see the results, and the results are positive for what I believe, since they have raised awareness about atheism in our culture just as gay people raised awareness of their cause by similar belittling and harassing tactics.

Does this mean it's OK for Christians to justify the unloving and offensive tactics some have employed in order to gain a voice?
If it weren't for the influence of Christianity as a whole, we might all be pagans worshiping Molech and practicing child sacrifice or maybe we'd be Druids. Most likely there would be no option of atheism if it were not for the stability that came about because of the idea of the unification of Europe under Charlemagne in cooperation with the Pope.

How are the tactics used by some gay people better, or more worthy, than those used by Constantine or Justinian? I mean if the issue was gay rights instead of religion in those days, the tactics may have been just as bold.

BTW, I do appreciate your openness and respectful approach. I've told several people about your site but I don't know if any of them have taken a look. Thank you for a safe place to dialogue even if I am not at your academic level. :)

Jennifer said...

(I should have used NA as well as gay rights in that last post so the topic doesn't get off course.)

GordonBlood said...

Shygetz the legalism preached by Paul is not rediculously different than that preached by Jesus. Jesus propounded alot of ethical teachings on sexuality and behaviour, the exact same thing Paul does though in a different, less poetic, manner.

Shygetz said...

gordonblood, not in the Synoptic gospels. Almost all of Jesus' legalistic teachings were found in the later Gospel of John.

Shygetz said...

I think there is one defining characteristic of the "new atheist" subset. "New atheists" do not grant religious faith any special respect or priority. They are not rude by their lights. They are rude by the theists' lights, and that is kind of the "new atheists" point. Theists are used to their beliefs being granted automatic respect because they take the mantle of religion. "Old atheists" have (in my opinion) largely left this unchallenged either out of sheer cordiality or from social necessity of their times, keeping a respectful tone when challenging religion.

"New atheists" have discarded this stance, judging religious beliefs by the same criteria they judge all other beliefs and reacting appropriately. I happen to agree with the "new atheists". I think that part of the reason religion is SO hard insidious in our culture is because of the automatic respect that is granted to any idea that invoked religious authority. I also think that it is a dangerous cover that is granted to fundamentalist extremists, who are the real and present threat.

For example, when the Danish cartoon controversy occurred and Muslim extremists started burning embassies and shooting publishers, the moderate Catholic church decided to speak out on the issue, strongly condemning...the cartoonists and newspapers, for daring to not treat religious ideas with abject deference. Sure, they made some noises at the disproportionality of the response in some cases, but they maintained that the cartoonists brought this upon themselves by daring to offend.

When Rushdie was placed under a fatwah from the extreme fundamentalist ayatollah for publishing The Satanic Verses, the moderate Vatican and the moderate Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury rushed to defend...the ayatollah, for Rushdie's offense of daring to treat religion with anything other than deference. Sure, many conceded that they would not have responded quite the same way, but they justified the ayatollah's fatwah due to Rushdie's disrespect.

I do think there are real differences between fundamentalists and moderate religious people, and I don't think moderates in and of themselves are dangerous or even worth being in substantial conflict with--live and let live. However, I do not think the moderates are free of blame here, as they help create the climate that allows fundamentalism to thrive. So long as they expect special treatment of religious ideas, they harbor (unwittingly or otherwise) fundamentalists under their blanket of respect and deference.

John W. Loftus said...

Shygetz said...I think there is one defining characteristic of the "new atheist" subset. "New atheists" do not grant religious faith any special respect or priority. They are not rude by their lights. They are rude by the theists' lights, and that is kind of the "new atheists" point.

I understand. But even if I were talking to someone who believed in Zeus in a culture where 60-80% of the people believed in Zeus, I would not be rude by their lights, and that's what I'm talking about.

Shygetz: Old atheists" have (in my opinion) largely left this unchallenged either out of sheer cordiality or from social necessity of their times, keeping a respectful tone when challenging religion.

Yes, 'tis true. And as far as NAs grabbing their attention goes, I'm thankful they did. I just don't want to participate for two reasons. It is rude for one. But there are also pragmatic considerations. The one reason Christians come here to DC is because we try to be respectful of their views while arguing against them. Christians who are blasted will blast back and that isn't a conducive atmosphere for actually changing their minds, which is my goal.

Shygetz said...

I understand where you are coming from, John. However, I think this presumption of respect is downright dangerous, for reasons I laid out before.

I do think that new atheists are repectful of theists, just not theism, and the difference is important. Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett ALL go out of their way to explain why perfectly smart and good people believe religion even though it is unreasonable. They make it a key part of their thesis.

Now it is true that theists who base their entire identity upon their religion will get offended if you insult their religion. However, they are unconsolable, even by the old atheists. Either you blunt your attack so much that you do no damage, or you offend the religion-centered theist; there is no other option. And I think this is the right way to go about it. Respect the deluded, not the delusion.

John W. Loftus said...

Shygetz, as I see you argue here you don't do much different than I do, so where is the practical difference in what we each say? I think Dawkins is so disrespectful of religion that he doesn't even try to understand it, at least, that's the message Christian thinkers are getting, and so they aren't listening.

Note the difference between his book and mine, which is getting recognized by some important Christian thinkers. Mine treats both the ideas and the people with respect. There is a time and a place for venting and ranting, but it's not my time, nor my place to do it. I might even argue respectfully against Zeus if that god is sincerely affirmed by the majority, since someone must do it. You cannot just laugh and ridicule the beliefs of a large majority of people and think you'll make a difference, and that's what many Christians think Dawkins and Hitchens are doing.

Granted there are some things that I cannot treat respectfully, like the flat earth society or Holocaust deniers. But there are people who do argue against them and treat their ideas respectfully. Michael Shermer did so against Holocaust deniers, and on the Infidel Guy someone dealt seriously with the Flat Earth Society (it was an interesting program BTW).

I think you and I at least have taken the time to understand what we're arguing about. I don't know how much you know about Zeus, but we can each dismiss that god without doing any serious study of that god.

Maybe it's like two sides of a coin. Both are needed. I and others represent one side of the coin. I just do not see how my method is dangerous just because I deal with them on their level. I do recognize the fruits of the other side of the coin though, so I'm not saying they should not argue that way. I merely represent the other side of the coin.

You raise some good points though. Thanks.

Shygetz said...

John, I agree that I don't see much difference in how we argue. That's why I was quite surprised when you emphatically distanced yourself from the "new atheist" label when I consider it to cover me. I think you've convinced me that both methods are necessary. The "new atheists" work to change the cultural zeitgeist to eliminate the presumption of respect for religious belief so that, when the "old atheists" engage theists in debate, they do so on a more level cultural field.

John W. Loftus said...

Shygetz said...The "new atheists" work to change the cultural zeitgeist to eliminate the presumption of respect for religious belief so that, when the "old atheists" engage theists in debate, they do so on a more level cultural field.

Yes. The NA's have done us a favor, and I acknowledge this. I embrace what they have done, although I wouldn't have done it. Now if we could just persuade some Old Atheists that what they've done was pragmatically necessary.

I engaged in this discussion in the second and third posts here.

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

I, apparently, am a "New Atheist".

I, too, fail to see a clear distinction between so-called NAs and OAs, but I will grant that there may well be one, and that from without it may be easier to discern the differences.

At any rate, I feel it necessary to point out that the tactics which have essentially been used to define "New Atheists" are necessary, and are not evil, rude, or any other denigrative adjective.

I have only fairly recently begun capitalizing "God", and even now I find it somewhat distasteful. I capitalize "God" as a formality. I do so to lessen the blows, to avoid having my arguments ignored because of my irreverency, and I do so because I also capitalize other fictional characters' names.

Personally, my speech and behavior can often be considered crass, vulgar, and obscene -- whether one is religious or not -- and I am actually offended by people who fail to accept profanity as legitimate speech.

Let me make that perfectly clear: I find it offensive to avoid profanity out-of-hand.

Why show fear toward a word? Clearly, the precise emotion, meaning, and thought can all be created using different words or phrases, but why ignore them completely? Any decent writer will strive to avoid repeating certain words or phrases, to offer the reader some variety and insight into the author's vocabulary, but this does not necessarily mean some words should be eliminated entirely.

I labor on this point because while I -- we -- tend to subjugate ourselves so that we don't overly offend our Christian counterparts, they don't reciprocate.

We argue from their perspective, from within their scripture, using their teachings, and even through accepting some of their points -- points with which we completely disagree, and only accept for the sake of the argument. They do no such thing.

It is belittling to ourselves to make these concessions, and insulting that the same sorts of concessions are not offered in return.

So yes, I use profanity. I am on record as saying that "if God is that much of an asshole, then I'd rather burn." I believe in that statement, and I don't believe any term other than 'asshole' quite as succinctly portrays the sentiment.

I recognize that many Christians will be taken aback by comments made in that manner, and perhaps even shut off to my arguments, but the thought had to have been heard first, and that means that on some conscious level it registered -- not to mention the sub-conscious level.

So be ye taken aback! I swear. I am irreverent. I enjoy sacrilege. I blaspheme.

I also make solid points, and my arguments stand on solid ground. The jarring reflex caused by such rhetoric serves to awaken its offendees from their slumber, or to at least roll over before continuing to snore.

This is me.

--
Stan

OzAtheist said...

I count myself as a New Atheist in order to recognize that for many years I was a non-religious/agnostic/atheist/didn't-give-a-hoot person. But, now I am openly active in my views and opinions about religion.
Thus, I see NAs as people who are more open and vocal about atheism.

PS: I have a question, but didn't know how/where to ask it, sorry to hijack this thread.
'Do Ex-Christians feel guilty about past deeds they did as a Christians?'
(such as converting people to god)

goprairie said...

"'Do Ex-Christians feel guilty about past deeds they did as a Christians?'
(such as converting people to god)"

I think you are only accountable against your current best standards. I actually LIVE an analogy for this. I am a landscape designer. I used to do corporate landscape design. GOOD beautiful designs with reliable plants that would remain healthy for quite a number of years with lower maintenance than some of the things we replaced. For various reasons, mainly environmental reasons, I have converted my practice now to the use of native plants only, so I am doing prairie and woodland designs, using plants that occur in ecosystems together. Some of the plants I used in my earlier GOOD corporate designs have been found to be invasive in natural areas. I would never use them now, but I did then. I cannot feel bad about that. I did my best with what I had been taught, I did a great job by existing standards by using reliable plants and keeping maintenance levels as low as possible to conserve resources. But if I used those plants NOW, I would deserve to feel guilt. I also do some things to 'make up' for it, like doing prairie designs for free for Boy Scout Eagle projects and churches and schools, and volunteeriing on work days at nearby forest preserves, and giving prairie tours to kids and the public at a historic farm, and doing talks for garden clubs and other groups on natural landscaping and prairie. But I do not feel guilty for my past design work. I always did the most consciencious work that I was capable of with the knowledge base that I had at the time.

neil said...

Christianity less dangerous than Islam? You mention 4 features of Christianity that do not really bear on the fact that the real danger is a manichaean faith-based view of the world, regardless of virgin mothers or pacifist saviours. Christianity is as dangerous as any other faith based system of thought with a manichaean view of any issue it feels must be confronted.

This applies as much to internal policies and treatments of "others" as it does to a nation's external policies and treatment of other peoples. The U.S. "Puritan-based" nation is more like countries dominated by the more committed Islamic cultures than any other country I know of in the West. In some ways, it's more like some of those Islamic countries than Israel -- at least a vigorous debate of the issues is tolerated in Israel, unlike in the U.S. where dissidents can be threatened with accusations of being unpatriotic and worse.

Neil Godfrey

Gadfly said...

Harris, while an atheist in the metaphysical sense, is certainly not unreligious. Buddhism is a religion and he clearly, and uncritically, embraces it.

neil said...

I do not understand Harris's status. While religion needs to be exposed for its weaknesses and dangers, it has enough without uncritically embracing superficial popular prejudices against Islam. I found his book, End of Faith, disturbing for its shallow and, yes, illogical or ignorant attack on Islam. (And have written up a review of it exposing that on my Librarything and Vridar blog.)

Religion -- all religion -- needs to be confronted for its irrationality and the alternative needs to be demonstrated to be fulfiling and meaningful, even "good". I'm afraid 'End of Faith' lends itself to a tool of as much harm as good.

Neil Godfrey

Dave M said...

Evening, Gentlemen. (And ladies, if any grace these shores.)

Let me respond to a few shots aimed in my direction.

Jim: "Marshall's (inherently dismissive) comment that
'the New Atheism arises in a new context -- after 9/11, when many skeptics want to see a symmetry between radical Islam and home-grown 'Christian fundamentalism.' Some people did this during the Cold War, too, trying to make out that Christianity was 'just as dangerous' as communism.'
I find abhorrent as well as inaccurate."

I don't see what's either "abhorent" or "inaccurate" about any of these comments. While I like to think I made up the term "the New Atheism," in fact it was in common useage before my book came out -- but I am certainly not aware of any use of the term before 9/1l. And in fact Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all make the alleged parallel between Christianity and radical Islam explicit -- as the term "The American Taliban" makes clear. There is nothing in this little statement that is in historical doubt, let alone particularly pugnatious.

Of course there have been earlier critiques of "fundamentalism" -- heavens, does Jim actually think I am disputing that?

"Certainly, in theory, Christianity is a benevolent, humane set of ideas. SO IS MARXISM, in theory.)"

I disagree. Marx and Engels wrote that communism "abolishes all morality." While it couldn't really do that, Marx was quite a different sort of character than Jesus Christ. A good resource on this subject is David Aikman's remarkable study on "Atheism in the Marxist Tradition."

"More significantly there was Oklahoma City, an example of Christian terrorism . . . "

John seems like a pretty reasonable fellow. But do others on this site really buy into this sort of nonsense?

In any case, Jim is simply missing my point, which is not about domestic American politics, but about the ideas that feed into the New Atheism -- the attempt to project the character of radical Islam on domestic Christianity --which he seems to accept uncritically.

BH offers another criticism:

"'Marshall: They are trying generally to apply the theory of evolution in new ways to social science, including religion and morality.' Frequently using the terms "evolution" and "Darwinism" when they mean "empiricism" or "naturalism"."

Have you read Dennett, BH? How about Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, or Paul Bloom? If I wanted to say "empiricism," I'd use the word "empiricism." These fellows are, in fact, doing just what I said: applying the theory of evolution in new ways (though not absolutely novel ways, see Tyler, Spencer, etc, late 19th C)
to anthropology, sociology, comparative religion, and psychology -- the so-called "social sciences."

Some people sure are eager to defend the honor of atheism -- they start firing even before they get a clear look at the target they're shooting at.

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus said...

The point of the NAs is the same as that made by many old A's, and even many deists, as far back as the enlightenment.

They took the medievals to be right in thinking reason could get you to theism, if that far.

It could not take you all the way to Christianity.

That was a leap of faith the NA's, old A's, and deists all criticize as irrational, counter-rational, and even morally bad.