“Mate, we don’t hate you, we pity you”

That’s how one online commentator reacted to ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven’s piece in The Age today “A plague of atheists has descended, and Catholics are the target”.

Last week, The Age’s sibling, the Sydney Morning Herald, ran a couple of articles on the same topic, leading off with Jewish historian Dvir Abrahamovich’s piece Celebrity atheists expose their hypocrisy, followed by a “right-of-reply” piece by Melbourne University physics tutor James Richmond, Atheists are good humans too. Both pieces are very polite, but rather pedestrian. Abrahamovich recites (in catalogue order) every complaint that any theist anywhere has ever filed against the New Atheists. It is a text book rebuttal – and quite right in practically every point – but not very exciting nor original. Likewise, Richmond’s piece is worthy of a high school debating reply.

Dr Craven has attempted to come at the subject from a different direction. I seem to recall that soon after he was appointed as Vice-Chancellor, he made a speech decrying the lack of “public theologians” today, after the manner of Chesterton and Santamaria – people who used intelligence and wit to make their point, and who were not afraid to take up the pen and fight the good fight. (I cannot locate that speech on the internet now – does anyone know the speech to which I refer?). In this piece, as in a similar piece he did last year during World Youth Day, he aims for a tone which is “clever, witty and funny”.

Unfortunately, he is no more successful at this than his opponents. You can see him making the effort, but it all falls rather flat, and he comes out sounding just like a mirror image of Christopher Hitchen’s on a bad day.

I think the piece fails on a couple of grounds. For a start, he is wrong to say that the New Atheists are fixated on the Catholic Church. They are just as scathing of the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Secondly, his humour is more in the Catherine Deveny style than the Chesterton style. If I were a Christadelphian chartered accountant named Algie who lived in Birchip, I would find some of his jokes at my expense a bit off. And then, unlike Abrahamovich’s piece, it doesn’t really contain much of substance.

Still, he makes one good point: the New Atheists are not especially “bright”, despite Dawkins’ own claim to that description. I could name any number of theologians or philosophers who plumb greater depths of the human situation than Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Neither of them matches the sublimity of Joseph Ratzinger, just to take a random example. They are what a friend of mine calls “deep thinkers in the shallow end of the pool”.

But back to the comment that I started with. I believe Dr Craven has overstated the “case for hate”. I think the commentator has it right: the New Atheists do not hate us so much as pity us. And personally, I would rather they hated us so that we could stage a few good martyrdoms. The ignominy of condescension which results from pity is, I would argue, harder to bear.

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

12 responses to ““Mate, we don’t hate you, we pity you”

  1. Paul

    Yes, I agree that the ACU VC’s article contains too much name-calling. Regarding the wit of Chesterton, his detective priest, Fr Brown, always says he finds the criminal by loving him, not hating him. He works out who did the deed because he can imagine doing it himself.
    I have also read a couple of articles Chesterton wrote about vociferous atheists of the day, George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, and he writes about them with real affection. It seems love, not hate creates real wit.

    I think Dr Craven also misses the point that the New Atheists are not really new. It strikes me how old they are, most of the public NA’s being in their 50’s or 60’s. I think I have an explanation, because I am the same age. Back in the swinging 60’s and 70’s, most people thought religion was withering away, and once its oppression was removed, we would all become peaceful, enlightened and happy. In short, “make love, not war”. 40 years later, it hasn’t turned out that way. Interest in religion may be smaller, but it is still lively and active, and the alternative is looking shabbier than expected (cf wars, crime, rates of depression). My theory is that the baby-boomer atheists are still fighting the battles of their youth, and their anger comes from their frustration that things haven’t turned out according to the expectations of their youth.

  2. Tom

    That article was an interesting read, because in some ways I think the author was correct – the Catholic Church does receive some special attention for two particular reasons

    a) its hierarchical nature
    b) its hard line stance on sexuality and the surrounding issues

    I’m not saying other groups don’t cop flak, they do, probably Muslims take the next most aggressive hit: however Cardinal Pell takes pretty much continuous flak in Sydney.

    Every time someone gets up their goat about homosexual marriage, religious education, or whatnot, they take it out on Benedict or Pell. I think this is just because they can. It’s easy to find someone to blame when there is a head, a figure to which (ostensibly) all Catholics are obedient.

    Although, regarding the wit, the author did not quite achieve it. That being said, I don’t think he was angry, he was just exasperated. Atheists really annoy me too – not cause I hate them, but because they just really, REALLY try my patience.

    • Exasperation is exactly the emotion coming out of that piece and I can wholly understand it.

      And why would we care if atheists “pity” us? (frankly I doubt they do)

      They have no reason to pity us, and we are more likely to truly pity them, for good reason.

    • the Catholic Church does receive some special attention for two particular reasons

      a) its hierarchical nature
      b) its hard line stance on sexuality and the surrounding issues

      totally agree.

      I like Paul’s take on the “New Atheists” and he’s probably right.

  3. Today’s letters in The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/national/letters/lack-of-fact-logic-and-argument-20091104-hxv5.html) bear out two things:

    1) That there really are a lot of people out there ready to condemn the Catholic Church for an incredible list of imagined cruelties and evils

    2) That other readers also thought Greg failed to communicate in a “clever, witty and funny” way.

  4. Kiran

    I entirely agree with the tone of Prof. Craven’s article, that the “new atheists” such as Dawkins do hate us. Read for instance Dawkins’ response to the Pope’s move on Anglicans, and you will see what I mean. There is no reasoning there, and no pity, no concern for Catholics, so they might be dragged out of the bog or whatever.

    On the other hand, not all atheists fall into the category of people who hate us. I met some lovely people the other day at the school at which I teach who told me that they were atheists (quite confidently, but without any desire to convert me), but they wanted their daughter to have a choice, which they didn’t.

    But in the third place, the Neo-atheists are stoking hate and misunderstanding, not pity. The message and the tone is clearly political: Catholics are bad and mad and must be stopped.

    • I agree with you, Kiran.

      I did also write up my own thoughts on this article, and readily admitted that it was good for a laugh at the atheist’s expense, but not necessarily a work of great profundity.

      The world does hate us, because it hates Christ, as He Himself noted.

      I’m a bit over the reference to “hate” in our current public discourse, however. Anyone can see where that’s going.

      I think we have a few more things to be concerned about than a fellow Catholic stirring the pot.

    • Am currently listening to Mozart’s “Requiem” and trying to wrack my brains to recall all those great musical and artistic works based on Atheism!

      • Paul

        I suppose one well known “serious” atheist artist is the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett. I have seen a couple of his plays, “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame”. Despite their reputation for serious weirdness, I found them surprisingly entertaining and actually funny. However, if you think about the content of the plays for a short time, you see how hollowly, eternally, despairing they are. They challenge you to live without any hope, which almost no-one, even, I suspect, the New Atheists are prepared to do.

        Also, at the risk of being labelled a philistine, I find a lot of what passes for literature and art these days is really artifice without hope. Supposedly clever books about serial murderers, philanderers and vampires are energetically praised in “book clubs” and wrapping trees with woolly jackets (a Sydney reference which other cities might not have heard about) is considered intelligent “art”. Hearing about these self-congratulatory “artists” makes me think I have already seen a glimpse of hell.

        Sorry about the rant, Louise, but I agree that its better to stick with Mozart.

        • Peregrinus

          suppose one well known “serious” atheist artist is the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett. I have seen a couple of his plays, “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame”. Despite their reputation for serious weirdness, I found them surprisingly entertaining and actually funny. However, if you think about the content of the plays for a short time, you see how hollowly, eternally, despairing they are. They challenge you to live without any hope, which almost no-one, even, I suspect, the New Atheists are prepared to do.

          Well, that’s Beckett for you.

          But it’s worth asking (even though I doubt that an answer is possible): Was Beckett despairing because of his atheism, or did be become an atheist because he despaired?

          I don’t think we should underestimate the influence of psychology on faith.

  5. Rant away!

    I find a lot of what passes for literature and art these days is really artifice without hope.

    There is very little literature and art produced today. Most of it is crap. You have seen a glimpse of hell.