Clueless Atheists

Richard DawkinsOn 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.

0 thoughts on “Clueless Atheists

  1. I just finished an intriguing book (to me, in some parts more than others) called "When God Talks Back: Understanding The American Evangelical Relationship With God", by T.M. Luhrmann. Professor Luhrmann is a "psychological anthropologist" and she spent several years involved with evangelical communities to try and report, not judge; It is quite sympathetic.

    I like best the chapters on how prayer and encounters with God seem to work. Apparently, there is a sort of mental process, a way of conditioning your brain to think, which makes inexplicable sensory experience (hearing the actual voice of God, feeling God’s physical touch on one’s arm) more likely to occur. Some people have it intrinsically, but anyone can increase their chances for having these experiences through the discipline of certain types of prayer. (Which does not mean that all devout evangelicals will have them.)

    What interested me about this was that, having grown up with an evangelical parent who eventually experienced severe mental illness, I assumed visions/voices/stories of physical presence to be at best wishful thinking (giving one’s inclination a spiritual imprimatur) or at worst a sign of psychosis. Apparently, given the inherent mental bent and/or considerable practice, it is possible for otherwise perfectly functional people to have vivid sensory experience of the thing they are focused on. (If the thing they are focused upon is quite negative, such as the presence of demons, they can slip into schizophrenia, as my parent did.)

    Consider C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein; Tolkein was supposedly seen having conversations in Elvish with invisible people, and Lewis has written of experiencing God’s voice. Neither would pass the Dawkins/Hitchens idiot test. Both were Oxford dons, quite credentialed in their non-fiction fields of expertise. And yet both experienced supernatural presences.

    Luhrmann writes of giving a "Tellegen Absorbtion Scale" test to willing participants, where people say if T/F statements resonate with them, and the more "true" answers, the higher one rates on the scale. (The statements can be found here: The higher one rates on the scale, Luhrmann observed, the more likely one was to have "experienced God with their senses" (in the book, p. 195.) The scale, interestingly enough, was designed to determine an individual’s susceptibility to hypnosis, not religion.

    If you look at it, the questions reflect not so much experiences (say, "have you ever been hit by a car") as willing attitudes towards experiences. (Such as, "things that might seem meaningless to others often make sense to me.") I could answer almost every question in the scale true or false. Someone who answered most of them "true" might well be an individual who wants supernatural experience so much that they are that more likely to experience it (as someone who genuinely wants to prove a hypnotist powerless is unlikely to be hypnotized.)

    As I read this, I thought of your contention that organized religion is a barrier to true spirituality. It’s something I basically agree with. It struck me, however, that most people drawn to organized religion are not themselves non-spiritual; quite the reverse, in fact. And indeed the practices of religious devotion (Luhrmann writes of "apophatic" and "kataphatic" prayer on p. 161, one being the silence of the monk, the other the ecstasy of the celebrant) are quite old, things modern religions have just modified to their own purposes.

  2. I won’t go on too much more about this book. (Its history of evangelicalism intriguingly included hippie variants on a more personal, fun God, like "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell," which my parents loved and I know all the words to and most accounts of modern evangelicalism have left out, but excluded the role of resistance to integration that did benefit previously marginalized churches enormously.)

    I do find evangelicalism (or Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Buddhist absolutism) a negative social good, even though I admit they might serve a personal good to adherents — precisely because many adherents whose affection for their religious creed I can imagine to be positive rarely are understanding of others (particularly their children) for whom that brand of faith is not effective.

    Still, "When God Talks Back" made me rethink how contemptuous I’ve sometimes been of religion. When someone tells me they’ve seen a ghost, I don’t mock them or think of them as idiots. I think they had a strange sensory input/processing failure that rocked their world (and the likes of which I’ve never had.) Apparently many evangelicals have had similar experiences. I don’t approve of their politics, but I certainly have no right to demean their memories.

    Last note. Common to much religious ecstasy (whether of the monk or celebrant) is what we think of as the "born again" or transcendent experience, where one weeps to know one is part of the universe and all one’s imagined flaws are revealed as petty in the grand scheme of things. Well, I’ve had one. There was a point where I was in a bad place, fifteen or so years ago, and I bought a CD and one song on it just ripped my guts out. It seemed to speak to me pain in a way that nothing ever had. I listened to it over and over again, drunk and sober, for like three days, until I stopped crying.

    Because I’d heard others describing a similar experience with God, I did not imagine the commercial artist was speaking directly to me (a la Charles Manson and the White Album.) I was consciously aware that this was, essentially, the breakdown one has during a conversion experience, and once the effect of the song lost its ability to trigger receptors in my brain, I had no need to go looking for more. I still have a warm place in my heart for it (and no, I’ll never tell strangers what the song was, it’s too silly.) Nor will I ever verbally compare the spiritual experiences of others to mine (that would be rude, and seem like I was making theirs too silly.) That’s what I always think of, though. And, in a way, it did change my life for the better.

    Too bad one can’t preview one’s posts on this site before posting them . . . one always wonders how a long rant will look outside the 10-line window.

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