Be Hot or Cold

As atheists continue to make inroads into the media and our message becomes more widely noticed, we are attracting attention from all quarters. Some of the responses consist of delighted praise and relief that rationalists and freethinkers are finally making our voices heard. Some responses consist of the furious but ineffectual sputterings of religious fundamentalists. But then there is a third group, smaller than the other two but quite possibly overrepresented in the media: the pseudo-sophisticates who scornfully dismiss both sides of the debate as beneath them. These would-be intellectuals usually know just enough about atheism to drag out the same old, tired criticisms, but not enough to see the obvious answers to those criticisms.

In the words of Alexander Pope, a little learning is a dangerous thing, and members of this group are thoroughly inebriated with the shallow draughts of knowledge they have taken. Typical examples can be seen in two recent articles: in The Scotsman, John Burnside’s review of French philosopher Michel Onfray’s In Defense of Atheism, and in the Ottawa Citizen, George Jonas’ review of Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. These reviews are remarkably similar, and their authors both make exactly the same mistakes. In this post, I intend to straighten them out.

Anti-Atheist Stereotype #1: Atheists Are Just As Dogmatic As Religious Fundamentalists. Here are Burnside’s and Jonas’ obligatory recitations of this sneering cliché.

In self-righteous fervour, a fanatical atheist is about on par with a religious fanatic.

The surprising thing about atheism, considering its supposedly rational basis, is the sheer zealotry of its supporters. As often as not, atheists are not that easy to distinguish from the Christian, Jewish or Muslim fundamentalists they so thoroughly detest: we find in both the same immovable conviction, the same dreary ardour.

People who make this criticism invariably think themselves very clever for pointing it out – “But you atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers you oppose! How’s that for irony, eh?” They are also completely and utterly wrong.

The pseudo-intellectuals think that being willing to change one’s mind about an issue when confronted with the appropriate evidence is incompatible with showing dedication and passion in the meantime. This could not be more wrong. A person can be perfectly willing to change their mind if presented with evidence contradicting their beliefs, and yet at the same time be a forceful and devoted advocate of their position because no such evidence has been presented yet. This is all the more true if the position, like atheism, is supported by multiple lines of strong, independent evidence, making it very unlikely that disconfirmatory facts will someday turn up. Passion is orthogonal to dogmatism.

We atheists would be more than willing to believe, if only there was some reason given why we should. We have indicated, on multiple occasions, exactly what it would take to change our minds. Religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, state explicitly that they will not change their minds in the face of any evidence. Both sides may be dedicated and driven, but atheists are open-minded, and the religious are not. This difference lays to rest any self-satisfied claim that these groups are somehow equivalent.

Next, we move on to Anti-Atheist Stereotype #2: Attacking Religion Won’t Change Anybody’s Mind. Again, Burnside and Jonas are nigh indistinguishable:

In Defence Of Atheism won’t change much, with its uncomfortable stylistic mix of the forceful, the fanciful and the factual.

No faith-based crime, sin or stupidity escapes Hitchens’s eye, no matter how microscopic… He’s like a good shot who walks out to the range with his carefully calibrated and highly polished weapons, then demonstrates his skill by shooting fish in a barrel. Dead fish, actually, for the ones targeted by the eminent British-American journalist have been pumped full of holes before.

It’s certainly true that the cruelties and absurdities of religion have been pointed out before. But that does not mean that these things no longer need to be said. Manifestly, the message has not sunk in – people are still waging war, still committing unspeakable cruelties, still killing each other in the name of God. And as long as they continue to do so, atheists will be there. We have spoken out and we will keep speaking out until people take our message to heart, until the blessed killing, holy bloodshed and sacred murder stop. It may take a while, but we don’t intend to give up.

By what possible logic have these reviewers concluded that we are not having an impact? Because Hitchens and Onfray haven’t spurred people to become atheists en masse, in widespread waves of deconversion? One might as well claim that continental drift isn’t real because we can’t watch it happening. Human psychology does not work that way: it is extremely rare that individual people change their views drastically overnight. But in the aggregate, over longer timescales, we can and do see the ranks of nonbelievers growing with each generation. Hitchens, Onfray and others may be riding this wave rather than driving it, but nevertheless, it is real and it is happening.

Finally, Anti-Atheist Stereotype #3: Atheists Can’t Know That God Doesn’t Really Exist. Both Jonas and Burnside make use of this hoary chestnut, trumpeting their airy detachment, supposing that they sit high above the fray shaking their heads at those silly atheists and theists fighting it out down below. Users of this cliché tend to assert that theirs is just obviously the only rational position, and neither of the two disappoint:

Because neither the deist nor the atheist can possibly know [whether God exists], they both operate from a delusion. Only the agnostic, who demonstrably does not know, has his feet on terra firma.

To assert with any conviction that god does not exist is no more rational than to claim that he personally selected the Jews as his chosen people, or that animals, heathens and the unbaptised will not be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. For the truth is we cannot say whether god exists or not, a conclusion any rational person can easily reach before breakfast.

First, what these glib, condescending remarks overlook is that while it is impossible to prove a universal negative (actually, it is impossible to absolutely prove any statement), we can still be highly confident in the nonexistence of a thing when evidence is missing where there should be evidence. Would Jonas or Burnside also assert that since we can never completely prove whether Santa Claus exists or does not exist, the only rational reaction is agnosticism? If not, what makes the God case different?

Perhaps there is no conclusive disproof of a supernatural being that keeps itself perfectly aloof and hidden, just as there is no conclusive disproof that we are not all butterflies dreaming this life. But that does not mean that either of these hypotheses should be seriously entertained or that we should consider the truth of either to be just as likely as its falsity. When we have no good reason to believe that something exists, the rational response is disbelief – in other words, atheism. Otherwise, we would be obligated to “keep an open mind” about every absurdity that human beings have dreamed up. Consistent application of such a policy would leave us knowing nothing and unable to function in daily life.

I can respect people who say they don’t know enough about an issue to reach a decision, but not people who turn around and claim that their inability to decide renders them superior to people who have studied the issue in more detail and have decided. These pseudo-sophisticates seem inexplicably proud of having no position, happy to admit that they don’t know and don’t want to know. This is either intellectual laziness or it is relativism, and either way I have no respect for it.

What is worthy of respect is not self-congratulatory pox-on-both-your-houses rhetoric, but steadfast adherence to the principle that there is such a thing as truth, that we can find out what it is, and that the effort to do so is a worthwhile one. People of good will who follow this principle may differ in their conclusions, and that’s fine. In that case, let us try our mutual mettle, hurl our worldviews against each other, seek out every crack and flaw in the opponent’s position, test and retest, and find out who is right and who is wrong. Be hot, or be cold; love atheism and defend it, or devote your life to refuting it – in an atmosphere of free speech and open debate, all opinions are permitted. I welcome the chance to stand and do battle, and I will greet all comers and challenge them fairly. What I cannot countenance is the smug belief of some people that they can win the debate by not showing up.

"Yeah, that's what I figured. Very rational. Check your premises, Ayn."

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