Varieties of Atheism: Stroppy, Sloppy and Soppy

I am a little amused by the confluence of three things I have read in recent days on arguments for atheism.

It seems that there are three kinds of atheism out there – not mutually exclusive: stroppy, sloppy and soppy.

Stroppy

Melanie Philips, an English journalist with the Spectator, had a piece in The Australian about a month ago after the Global Atheists Conferance in Melbourne: “Dawkins preaches to the deluded against the divine.” In this piece she wrote:

For someone who has made a career out of telling everyone how much more tolerant the world would be if only religion were obliterated from the human psyche, Dawkins manages to appear remarkably intolerant towards anyone who disagrees with him…

[H]e seems almost to believe that, since everyone who believes in God is stupid or evil and Christians are stupid and evil because they believe in God, those who oppose him must be Christian and can be treated with contempt.

I had first-hand experience of this when, addressing an audience of US atheists, he accused me of “lying for Jesus” by misquoting him. This came as something of a surprise since I am a Jew. …

This anecdote raises in turn the most intriguing question of all about Dawkins. Just why is he so angry and why does he hate religion so much? After all, as many religious scientists can attest, science and religion are – contrary to his claim – not incompatible at all.

A clue lies in his insistence that a principal reason for believing that there could be no intelligence behind the origin of life is that the alternative – God – is unthinkable. This terror of such an alternative was summed up by a similarly minded geneticist as the fear that pursuing such thinking to its logical ends might allow “the divine foot in the door”.

Such concern is telling because it suggests a lack of confidence by the Dawkins camp in its own position and a corresponding fear of rigorous thinking.

To stamp out the terrifying possibility of even a divine toe peeping over the threshold, all opposition has to be shut down. And so the great paradox is that the arch-hater of religious intolerance himself behaves with the zeal of a religious fundamentalist and, despite excoriating religion for stifling debate, does this in spades.

Ms Phillips has just published a book on the subject of “The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth and Power”. See her website for more info here.

Sloppy

Picking up the “fear of rigorous thinking” suggestion is David B. Hart in the current edition of First Things: “Believe it or not”. He writes about “New Atheism” (on which he is also about to publish a book: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies ) in general that it:

has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.
Take, for instance, the recently published 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists . Simple probability, surely, would seem to dictate that a collection of essays by fifty fairly intelligent and zealous atheists would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God. Certainly that was my hope in picking it up. Instead, I came away from the whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.
…I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

Soppy

And finally, to round off the trio, let’s hear something from a man who is himself an atheist, even if, as he himself admits, not an entirely “happy” one. Julian Barnes is one of my favourite authors (see here for a list of his writings). I find his writing thought-provoking, unpredictable, and even a little “musical”. I can listen to his writing (and, BTW, I best like to digest novels through the medium of the audio book) like listening to a creative piece of music – it inspires my to follow my own thoughts and meditations. I am currently reading – or rather, he is reading to me – his book “Nothing to be frightened of”. It is not memoirs or an autobiography, but it is recollective and auto-reflective. In any case, here is a great section (I can’t tell you what page it is on – it is on disc two!). I will quote it at length.

I ask him [my brother] to elaborate on his dismissal of my line “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him” as “soppy”. He admits that he isn’t really sure how to take my statement.

“I suppose as a way of saying ‘I don’t believe there are any gods but I wish there were’; or perhaps ‘but I wish I did’. I can see how someone might say something like that. Try putting ‘dodos’ or ‘yetis’ for ‘gods’; though for my part I’m quite content with the way things are.”

You can tell he teaches philosophy, can’t you? I ask him about a specific matter; he breaks down the proposition logically, and supplies alternative nouns to display its absurdity or weakness or soppiness. But his answer seems just as strange to me as my question did to him. I hadn’t asked him what he thought about someone missing dodos or yetis or even “gods” in the lower case plural. But God.

I check whether he has ever had any religious feelings or yearnings. “No” and “no”, is his reply. “Unless you count being moved by the Messiah, or Donne’s sacred Sonnets.”

I wonder if this certainty has been passed on to his two daughters, now in their thirties. Any religious sentiments, faith, supernatural longings, I ask? “No, never, not at all,” replies the younger, “unless you count not walking on the lines on the pavement as a supernatural longing.” We agree that we don’t.

Her sister admits to “a brief yearning to be religious when I was about 11. But this was because my friends were, because I wanted to pray as a way of getting things, and because the girl guides pressured you to be Christian. This went away fairly quickly when my prayers went unanswered. I suppose I am agnostic, or even atheist.”

I am glad she has maintained the family tradition of giving up religion on trivial grounds. My brother because he suspected George VI had not gone to heaven. Me in order not to be distracted from masturbation. My niece because the stuff she prayed for wasn’t immediately delivered.

But I suspect that such breezy illogic is quite normal.
Here for instance, is the biologist Lewis Wolpert:

“I was quite a religious child, saying my prayers at night and asking God for help on various occasions. It did not seem to help and I gave it all up around 16 and have been an atheist ever since.”

No subsequent reflection from any of us that perhaps God’s main business were he to exist might not be as an adolescent help-line, goods provider or masturbation scourge. No, out with him! once and for all!

A common response in surveys of religious attitudes is to say something like “I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God”

Thus kind of statement makes me in turn react like a philosopher. “Soppy!” I cry! You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have his own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters. Whether he is an old man with an white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force or a disinterested prime mover, or a clock maker or a woman or a nebulous moral force or nothing at all – what count as is what he/she/it or nothing thinks of you rather than you of them.

The notion of redefining the deity into something that “works for you” is grotesque. It also doesn’t matter that God is just or benevolent or even observant of which there seems startlingly little proof, only that he exists.

So. Soppy, perhaps. But not stroppy or sloppy. Insightful. Why are so many atheists – and even more agnostics – content with sloppy illogic when it comes to their disregard for God (in the singular uppercase)? At least Barnes recognises sloppy atheism for what it is – even if he is reluctant to condemn it.

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12 responses to “Varieties of Atheism: Stroppy, Sloppy and Soppy

  1. In a way, I far prefer the stroppy atheist – at least he has a strong opinion, grounded on some seemingly persuasive claim (such as most believers are ignorant fools at best, and criminal hypocrites at worst – for both claims there is, alas, some evidence) – to his far commoner and more vulgar counterpart, the religiously indifferent.

    I find it profoundly troubling that so many in the West just don’t care about God at all. Far better, so to speak, to rage against Him!

    Is it merely a product of a materially affluent society, wherein we have no sense of our mortality and helplessness in the face of threats?

    I wish I knew…

    Given that down all ages, and even today, the vast majority of mankind is religious, there must be something deeply wrong with the West. (I don’t subscribe to a facile belief that we are morally better just because we are more technologically advanced: the 20th century, the age of appalling destruction and death, disproves this Victorian dream.) The Muslim critique of the West as decadent and corrupt strikes home, I think.

    Given the demographic decline in the West, it appears that believers will again be the vast majority in the medium to long term. Providence has the last laugh: those who believe in nothing, caring not even to propagate themselves, are doomed to disappear.

  2. Paul

    I was chuckling to myself, as is my occasional want, as I read the Three Ss of Current Athiest Thought. And I had to agree with Joshua that I much prefer the vigour of Dawkins to the other varieties – at least I know what I am up against. I used a clip of Dawkins from a Canadian TV chat show (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMqTEfeqvmM) in one of my Year 11 RE classes a few weeks back. Most of my boys are not regular practicioners of the faith, but they certainly started muttering with passion as Dawkins got into his stride.

    “Mad”, “Looser”, “Who the hell does he think he is?” were the more polite insults hurled at the philosopher.

    On a more serious note, I join you in wondering what it is about religion and people of faith that gets people like Dawkins not just upset in an academic manner, but almost frothing at the mouth and in a rage. As I watched that clip I could not help but wonder, “Why are you so angry and so determined to make people of faith appear not only stupid, but of evil intent?” I am sure there are lots of answers offered, but I wonder if at the end of the day, as Dawkins lies in his bed and is about to sleep, in that “inbetween time” perhaps he feels the cold, chill of uncertainty – for just a moment. When I see kids act in similar belligerent ways I always ask them what is the problem beneath the problem?

    I find Dawkins utterly unconvincing from an academic perspective and not just a religious/ faith one. He is an angry (middle aged) man with, literally, no where to go. At least I am happy in my God delusion! Which is more than can be sai for poor Richard.

  3. “Why are so many atheists – and even more agnostics – content with sloppy illogic when it comes to their disregard for God (in the singular uppercase)?”

    It is a sub-set of a more general vagueness on any philosophical point. Most people in the West now can’t be pinned down to any “fixed point” on any profound issue.

    My own theory is that, while religious faith in the West has been declining for centuries, many religious habits of thought lingered through time. People (individually and as societies) continued to believe in objective truth or objective morality long after the Judeo-Christian underpinnings for those were gone from their lives. They thought it normal to switch to faith in pseudo-religions such as Marxism or Scientism or art or nationalism. People were willing to die for those faiths.

    But habits wear off. They eventually drain away. Somewhere around the mid-twentieth century there start to be a lot of people who have pretty much nothing inside that is “rock-like,” or “faith like.” All is built on sand.

    Those people are always going to be fuzzy on any big question, both because they have no core beliefs, and because to argue any big question with clear logic implicitly says that there is objective truth that can be found. They really don’t want to go there!

    Christianity used to fight against contending philosophies, now it increasingly fight against…. nothing. And this is the nuts-and-bolts workings of the “dictatorship of relativism.” It is a tyranny because it is very difficult to fight your way out of its clutches—you are throwing punches at nothing. Especially when the very concept of “fighting” is one of the things that has melted away or turned into Jello.

  4. Tom

    That article in First Things was a riot. I know he was serious, but it just came across to me as hilarious. What IS funny is that after reading such articles, I feel compelled to read the various books they’re about. In preparation for teaching introductory philosophy, I slugged my way through Dawkins ‘God Delusion’ (there is always an inevitable collection of first years who want to argue God does not exist, despite His necessity).

    Hart’s article was bang on the money re: Dawkins; however, for some reason, (and I have no clear answer as to why) I expected Hitchens to be more articulate or profound or even just plain more reasonable. So I started working through ‘God is not Great.’ Now as Hart goes on to say, Hitchens, quite literally, cannot make it to the end of a syllogism. He starts no-where, makes a wild claim, and draws a conclusion. Well; conclusions drawn from a single premise are utterly invalid to begin with…but I think Hart says it best when he said: “On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them.”

    The Sloppy Atheism is so frustrating to engage with, because it is so lacking in any real substance. What’s more, the New Atheists are actually convinced they’re intelligent and thoughtful people (re: Dawkins suggestion that all atheists be renamed “brights”). The reality is, while the various sciences may be their stomping ground, they remain categorically disabled in passing from the rigor required for science, to the rigor required for Truth (although, even more commonly, they simply conflate facts with Truth). As Heidegger would say, they simply treat the world eternally as ‘present-at-hand’ and don’t seem to ever be able to pass into the realm of care.

    It just seems to mean that whatever you do when you engage with the New Atheists, don’t actually expect any atheists to care: if their intellectual rigor is already prepared to accept this drivel, one can be quite sure that arguments are not likely to be persuasive.

  5. Paul G

    Mind you, sloppy and soppy “spiritual” ideas are even more common. At the risk of being called insensitive or unpatriotic, I heard a lot of words at the Anzac ceremonies yesterday that were empty of any meaning. I think I heard the PM say “Anzac day is close to our souls”. Then of course there is the old chestnut, “Australia was baptised in blood” during, I think the Boer war, or was it Gallipoli?

  6. Paul G,

    I don’t think the phrases you mention are “sloppy and soppy.” Their meanings are logically clear, and they would be vivid to someone who had never heard such things before. (Or who fought.) The problem is that they have become dulled by over-use. And the bigger problem is that commemorations like Anzac Day are trying to keep keep alive times that almost no one remembers.

    Few Americans care about Pearl Harbor Day anymore. I care because I grew up around men who fought against Japan, including one whose ship, the USS Phoenix, went down on that day. (She was raised to fight again, and later became the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, sunk in the Falklands War.) When people like me die the last links with that past will be severed.

    Holidays can only stay alive if they are holy-days. Easter, Passover, Day of Ashura… They remain young.

    • Paul G

      @John Weidner,
      I think you are quite right that the sacrifices made by servicemen should be remembered, including after the direct personal link has been lost.
      However, IMHO, there is creeping into Anzac Day an element of treating it as a religious celebration for non-believers, where the memory of the fallen is just the starting point and not the only reason for the day’s ceremonies.

      This year, there was a call for more servicemen to march, because the parade was thinning out due to servicemen passing away over the years. Now, I can understand asking more people to come and watch the parade, but I think a shortage of returned servicemen is something to be thankful for, it presumably means fewer wars.

  7. Matthias

    I have always thought Dawkins was the epitome of the scientific naturalist -intolerant of non science,anything science does is above reproach and is thus the only worldview. Of course with this worldview Dawkins and Hitchens should be starting up humanitarian relief organisations aimed at replacing religious and other charitable NGOs’.
    we could have dawkins vision or hitchens fam .I know that there are humanists who do work with charitable agencies,and do it as well as Christians or jews BUT if these two “exhibitionist atheists” to quote Miranda Devine- were doers and not talkers you would expect this to be a logical extension .
    Also John Weidner unlike PEARL HARBOUR DAY -which i was saddened to see is losing its significance,ANZAC DAY seems to get bigger crowds. for example at the Dawn service at the SHRINE OF REMEMBRANCE here in Melbourne , 44,000 people turned up ,and i believe that there were similar numbers around the country,not to mention the number of young people at gallipoli and Villers-bretonneux in France.
    Perhaps the large numbers at Anzac day servcies show that people want to still touch base with the past. Ironic that the ANZAC COVER,Lone Pine and Villers-Bretonneux Dawn services had chaplains playing prominent parts.
    (One of my wife’s great uncles is still MIA from the Battle of Moquet Farm-5th Aug 1916,and his name is on the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux) my son has just been accepted into the Australian Army-Royal Australian Armoured Corps-so next year i will be going to the dawn service.

  8. Matthias,
    That’s interesting about growing crowds at Anzac Day. I wonder what it means to people today. Do they read history? Do they “get it?” Can they imagine?

    Does anyone there know the tears and stomach-turning horror implied by the word “farm” in the name of a WWI battle? (Farms on the map had their names applied to concrete bunkers built by the Germans in the later years of the war instead of linear trench-lines. Think of men crawling under fire across miles of blasted wasteland to attack concrete forts and machine guns with only muscle-power and rifles.)

    God speed your son. You must be proud!

  9. Actually, I see that The Battle of Mouquet Farm was in 1916. Too early for the real bunkers. But horrifying enough, a sort of small outlying province of the Battle of the Somme. It cost 6300 Anzac casualties before the 1st Anzac Division was pulled out and replaced by the Canadians. People keep prating about war, but war is pretty much extinct, if Mouquet Farm is war.

  10. Matthias

    Thank you John for your comments. I am very proud of my son and he is no war monger. interstingly he was sent an email from Texas vai faecebook and the sender was a ex US ARMY ,saying to my boy, that he and his friends were also celebrating ANZAC DAY.
    As a nurse I recall looking after an elderly man ,who before i could say anything said to me “YOU CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN” i said yes he then said ‘I SAW Rats EATING CORPSES IN NO MANS LAND” where was that FROMELLES- he replied. I said and in the next show Sir were you back in the AIF,”NO- iwas secretary of the Treasury under jack Curtin” (our greatest PM). He was deaf ,shouted a lot and after i had finished attending to him he asked “Can i have a Fag” (that’s a cigarette over here ,not….) I said that they were not good for him ” i’m 86,TOO LATE NOW”.
    I tell my students listen to your elderly patients as it is their stories that have contributed to our history. I wonder what Dawkins will be like as an elderly man- oh he already is-hate to nurse him in a agedc are service,what a grouch he would be.

  11. Interesting classification, David, and I love the quotes from the critics (of atheism).

    One thing I’d like to point out, though, is that Dawkins and Hitchens, while intellectually unconvincing in their atheism, may well see a gold mine in this postmodern 21st century. Recent generations have been nursed (by pop culture/media) on a crazy and illogical mix of emotion, indulgence, vanity, political correctness and much that looks fair but feels foul. That’s my way of saying that the education of many is lacking in rigour. Dawkins and Hitchens are preposterous, sensationalistic, loud at times, caustic, angry — perfect for the MTV generation, I think.

    So while many things are on their way out, the dynamic duo are probably considered “in” in many circles still. We may continue to read about their MTV-style atheism for a while yet. But we can always bring in the metaphorical marines:

    “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

    Kids! I have three boys, a girl coming very soon. Arrows in my quiver, and God willing, if I don’t get in the way of the Holy Spirit, they will give no cause for shame when disputing (logically and faithfully) with enemies at the gate. :-)