On one of the commentary tracks of The God Who Wasn’t There, the films producer Brian Flemming interviewed The Raving Atheist. Within about a year of that interview, he had turned himself into The Raving Theist, having not only found God but an Abrahamic one at that. The change was interesting but hardly surprising. A lot of people go from atheist to theist. I’m sure it is more common for people to move the opposite direction, but that’s largely due to the greater number of theists. To me, such shifting of sides is an indictment of both movements.
I started thinking about this over the weekend when I listened to a Skepticon 3 panel discussion on “Confrontation vs. Accommodation.” It included Richard Carrier and other prominent (but not famous) atheists. And I found it kind of offensive. Most of the people on the panel were arguing that atheists who didn’t get in other people’s faces were “closeted.” And there was an explicit embrace of atheism as something that one should evangelize for. When people complain about atheists, it is not about them being atheists in a very public way. The problem is that the New Atheists are very often annoying as hell. Penn Jillette? Christopher Hitchens? Sam Harris? These men come off as pretentious jerks, because, you know, they are pretentious jerks.
In my experience, ignorance of the God question is just as pervasive in the atheist community as it is in the Christian community. This is how The Raving Atheist turns into The Raving Theist. Listening to most atheists talk, you would think that the only theological options are atheism and fundamental Christianity. Look: I understand: here in America, Christianity has a strong and pernicious hold. But I’m often struct by the fact that supposedly important thinkers in the atheist movement don’t seem to understand that some questions transcend the reality in which we find ourselves.
Richard Dawkins, for example, thinks that natural selection implies atheism. How is that? Natural selection is a mechanism. Why is it that mechanism rather than another? Can he really be blind to that question? I wonder why photon quanta have energies given by the frequency of the light times Planck’s constant. I wonder why Planck’s constant is 6.626e-34 Joule-seconds. Of course, it isn’t the case that Dawkins is blind to these questions. It is that he simply sees them as invalid and the people who ask them as starry eyed nitwits.
This is very similar to the attitude that I get from theists. Such questions are silly because the universe was made the way God wanted. But for the theists, that’s a perfectly acceptable answer. We don’t expect them to ask questions and push the envelope of our understanding. But we do expect that from our skeptics. Atheists simultaneously claim that (1) they are just following the facts and (2) certain questions are off limits, but they mock those who don’t share that view. And that makes them pretty annoying.
This kind of attitude is also bad for the atheist movement itself. Eventually some atheists will think about these questions that the movement has told them are invalid. And who are they going to turn to for answers? Certainly they won’t turn to the atheists who will just mock the questions if not the questioner. And they probably won’t know any atheists like me who not only acknowledge the questions but relish them. So they turn to the theists, who at least acknowledge the questions, even if their “answers” provide no insight at all. And thus we get the spectacle of The Raving A/Theist.
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, New Atheists,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
That bit of Shakespeare is odd. The first and third lines are straight iambic pentameter (the first with a weak ending). But the second is a mess. It makes me wonder if the actual line wasn’t more like, “There are more things in heaven and earth, sir.” Or, “There are more things in heaven, Horatio.” It also explains why the lines are commonly misquoted as, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Actually, I kind of like this:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Dude,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.