How can such a lengthy opinion piece contain no arguments?

Bryan Appleyard has a piece in the New Statesman defending Alain de Botton.  Well, “defending” implies he makes arguments in de Botton’s defense, which he doesn’t do.  But he sure doesn’t like those “neo-atheists”.

You can tell from the very first sentence what we’re in for with this piece.

To hardline atheists, it is now unreasonable and “dramatically peculiar” to argue that religion is not altogether evil.

No, it isn’t.  You can argue that all you want.  We’re the ones that encourage open discourse.  However, if you argue your case poorly and refuse to change your mind, as Alain de Botton does, then we stamp you with “unreasonable” and rightly so.

And if, on top of being unreasonable, you insult atheists, we’re probably going to take a little extra delight in dismantling your arguments.

The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult.

Cult?  Our message is that you should be reasonable and question everything.  Can you possibly get more un-cult-like than that?

And abuse?  Since when is “You’re really freaking wrong for x, y, and z reasons and it’s embarrassing you keep making these arguments” abuse?

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim.

Victim?  The guy wrote an extremely poorly argued piece and got called a dumbass for it.  Welcome to arguing in public.  If that’s the criteria for victimhood then the comments on Appleyards article are downright felony assault.

He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

We also explained why it was a silly idea, because that’s what you do when you disagree with someone – you explain your rationale.  You don’t just play the victim card, equate disagreement with a fatwa, talk about what bad people your opponents are, and call it a day.  Perhaps Appleyard could explain why he thinks a pricey building that is functionally derelict is a better place for silence/meditation than a school or your living room, or a better use of money than a museum.

But no, if you’re looking for an actual defense of de Botton’s arguments, you won’t get it from Bryan Appleyard.

De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality.

Yes, it’s a mob mentality to blame and not the fact that de Botton was so unmistakably wrong.  And we’re so tyrannical – that’s why de Botton is currently in chains rotting away in a dungeon for daring to criticize us.  Wait, that never happened.  Wait, that’s not the case at all!  de Botton said something wrong in public and got called on it.  The horror!

And also, we can’t win.  If we all feel the same way then we’re a mob.  If we disagree with each other, it’s a schism in the movement!  Appleyard actually manages to claim both of these within the same article.

He quotes de Botton playing victim some more.

“To say something along the lines of ‘I’m an atheist; I think religions are not all bad’ has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?”

No, it’s not.  You can say it all you want.  Saying it is not the crime.  Arguing poorly for it is.

First, a definition. By “neo-atheism”, I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.

Damn, almost me.

Science does provide the best and only road to truth.  We must have facts with which to reason, and science is the only way to come up with reliable facts.

And I can only say that most religions are deluded.  Some religions, such as non-theistic Buddhism, are essentially atheistic with a particular set of morals.  Well, that’s what I am.

But virtually all religions are deluded and irrational, and being deluded and irrational is a moral failing that hamstrings humanity’s efforts to be better.

I’m close enough to being your ideal enemy, Bryan.  Can I get into the club?  Oh please, oh please, oh please?

…a Christian can easily be a secularist – indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, “Render unto Caesar” – and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.

Who the fuck is making this argument?

Yes, a Christian can be a secularist.  So what?  Who has said otherwise?  What a Christian cannot claim is that he has placed a high enough value upon reason, otherwise they would not believe in someone rising from the dead.  Being unreasonable, that is their crime, de Botton’s crime, and yours, Bryan Appleyard.

The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.

Yes, the AK-47 of atheism, the most shocking and evil thing about our cult, is an appreciation for scientific fact.  How terrible and ruthless we are.

You know why we must so frequently defend the scientific fact of evolution?  Because Christians who believe it conflicts with their religion keep trying to remove it from the curriculum.  Even if we’re saying that evolution disproves a compassionate god (millions of years of suffering to create diversity, a kind god would’ve found a better way) and explains the diversity of life without an appeal to god, it’s Christians in politics saying that evolution is a threat to their religion.

And what’s more, when we say that evolution disproves certain religious claims, we’re making the arguments!  We’re not just straw-manning and talking down to our opponents without ever defending our claims like some people (cough*BryanAppleyard*cough).

And look at the attacks on evolution here in the states by Christians.  Look at the legislation in Indiana, Louisiana, and more!  Look at the court cases like Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District!  These are threats to the teaching of science orchestrated purely because Christians perceive science as a threat.

He quotes Sayeeda Warsi:

First, there are the well-meaning liberal elite, who want to suppress religion in order not to cause offence to anybody. Second, there is the “perverse kind of secular” believer, who wants to “wipe religion from the public sphere” on principle.

We do not care about offense.  Pretty much the only atheists you’ll see squealing about being offended are those like de Botton.  We oppose religion because it’s wrong.  Why is this such a hard concept to grasp?

And I’d like to wipe religion from the minds of humans because I want people to be reasonable.  This means people would stop believing in heaven, hell, people rising from the dead, global floods, people walking on water, etc.  I don’t want to bar it from the public sphere, but I’m sure as hell going to criticize it when religion rears its ugly head there.

Hell, when atheists are being unreasonable I’ll criticize them too.  Irrationality is bad no matter who is swinging it around.

“Why,” she asks me, “are the followers of reason so unreasonable?”

Says the person who thinks god wants women to cover their heads.

What are we unreasonable about?  Where are we wrong?  Tell us so we can defend our position with arguments!

As Warsi was on her way to catch her flight to Rome she heard Dawkins, the supreme prophet of neo-atheism, on Radio 4′s Today programme.

Oh for the love of Loki…

We have no supreme prophets!  We have no prophets!  Nothing is sacred to us!  Not Christianity, not Islam, not Alain de Botton, not Richard Dawkins.  We don’t take our claws to de Botton because Richard Dawkins has commanded it.  We shred de Botton because he made a shitty argument and pointed it at us.

We revere intelligence and reason, and Dawkins is very intelligent and usually very reasonable.

He was attempting to celebrate a survey that proved, at least to his satisfaction, that supposedly Christian Britain was a fraud. People who said they were Christians did not go to church and knew little of the faith. Giles Fraser, a priest of the Church of England, then challenged Dawkins to give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Falling into confusion, he failed. Fraser’s point was that Dawkins was therefore, by his own criterion, not a Darwinian. Becoming even more confused, Dawkins exclaimed in his response: “Oh, God!”

Because when you get to a certain point as a public figure you just can’t go accepting every invitation to dismantle someone.  Sometimes their arguments are so bad you have to shake your head, give the Dave Silverman face, and dismiss them.

“Immediately he was out of control, he said, ‘Oh, God!’” Warsi recalls, “so even the most self-confessed secular fundamentalist at this moment of need needed to turn to the Almighty. It kind of defeats his own argument that only people who go to church have a faith.”

Yes, because when I stub my toe going for a midnight snack and yell “Fuck!” it’s because I want to have sex.  Dawkins was totally appealing to god and not invoking an idiom of culture in frustration at being presented such a lousy argument.  It’s hard to imagine that any serious person could honestly think Dawkins was asking for god’s help.

And Dawkins is not a self-confessed secular fundamentalist.  He thinks religion is dumb.

De Botton finds Dawkins a psychologically troubling figure.

de Botton also thinks atheists ““have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.”  De Botton’s opinion has stopped carrying any weight with most atheists.  He’s going to have to start defending his opinions if he wants them taken seriously.

“He has taken a very strange position. He’s unusual, in that he came from an elite British Anglican family with all its privileges and then he had this extraordinary career, and now he stands at the head of what can really be called a cult . . . I think what happened was that he has been frightened by the militancy of religious people he has met on his travels and it has driven him to the other side.

What the hell is it with Appleyard and de Botton speculating about people’s motivation and then posturing as though this makes them so great?  What about all the books Dawkins has written?  What about all the times he’s explained his rationale?

Nope!  de Botton knows Dawkins’ mind better than he does.

“It smacks of a sort of psychological collapse in him, a collapse in those resources of maturity that would keep someone on an even keel. There is what psychoanalysts would call a deep rigidity in him.”

Yes, the same guy bitching about how he’s been insulted when atheists tell him he’s wrong just called Richard Dawkins immature.  “Insults are bad!  Manners!  Manners!  Manners!  Oh, and Richard Dawkins is immature and not on an even keel!”

You don’t need to bring in a psychoanalyst to see the double standard here.

Ugh, I’m done.  This article contains no arguments, just denigration of the opposing side (which I’m not opposed to as long as it comes with some arguments).

Wait,  lied.  The second to last paragraph deserves some attention.

Religion is not going to go away.

Why not?  Zeus went away.

Even the Christianities of ages past have gone away.  The faith of modern Christians would be alien to believers just 200 years ago, and likewise their Christianities 200 years before that.

And even if it never went away, we can chip away at religion and do our best to minimize it and to make belief in the absurd as uncomfortable as possible.

It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance.

Even if it is a natural response to human ignorance to just make up some bullshit answer, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

And religion promotes ignorance.  To look at the mysteries of the universe, shrug, and say god did it is ignorance pursued.  To believe someone rose from the dead is ignorance about reason and the way the world works.

One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown.

You guys must be waiting for when science says someone actually can walk on water or rise from the dead then, because right now that’s what you’re banking on.

Just because science doesn’t know something doesn’t mean any religion does.  Religions are bursting with silly claims about the way the world works.  Claims for which one must abandon reason to believe in them.  Hoping that one day science will fall into line with your faith reveals to things:

1.  Religious people are basing their beliefs on information we do not have.

2.  Religions cannot claim science as an ally right now.

Furthermore, as Hitchens in effect acknowledged and as the neo-atheists demonstrate by their ideological rigidity and savagery

Ideological rigidity?  Yes, we won’t change our minds without good reason.  How rigid.

And savagery?  Piss off.  We don’t take a blade to our daughters’ genitals.  We don’t believe we’re literally consuming the flesh of a Canaanite Jew.  When people should be ashamed of their arguments and their unwillingness to incorporate rebuttals, when people write long articles insulting their opposition but making no real arguments, we tell them so.  That’s the extent of our “savagery”.

“absence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated”

But the presence of reason helps, which is why we criticize religious people and non-religious people (like Alain de Botton) when they fail to live up to that standard.

“People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn’t.”

How is communism a logical conclusion given disbelief in god?

Communism is unreasonable.  That’s it’s failing.  It’s also the failing of Alain de Botton and Bryan Appleyard.  Religion is not the solution.  An insistence on people being reasonable is.

Atheism is a conclusion.  We are saying that if you are reasonable, you’ll wind up atheist all on your own.  Are some people atheists for bad reasons?  Yes.  They should do better.  Do some atheists make god awful arguments and refuse to incorporate their rebuttals?  Yes, see Alain de Botton.  They should also be criticized for being unreasonable just as religious people should.

And with that, I’m done.

The first comment on the piece sums it up perfectly.

My, what alarmist blather.

Amen.  The whole article is a fearmongering mountain of motive-guessing bullshit, all while claiming that Appleyard’s opponents are themselves the unreasonable one.



About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Zinc Avenger

    My, what alarmist blather.

    I like it. It has the air of a good all-purpose response to so many things, while retaining a lazy aloofness and old-fashioned faux-civility, evoking images of tempting fainting couches and strings of irresistably clutchable pearls. It’s the sort of response you could utter while sipping brandy, then turn your back to show your nonchalant disdain.

    • Jeremy

      The trenchant, concise comment and the lengthy, hilarious analysis of it made my day. I had an excellent bout of laughter as a result. Thanks for that.

      Great dissection, JT. Don’t bother stitching it back together.

  • WilloNyx

    Kind of sleepy right now, so the only thing I am going to say is that I hate when people start claiming about being victims or being attacked when only some strong words are thrown at them. Hell even an insult or two. Hell someone could call me a worthless fucking cunt (which I don’t advocate because it does marginalize a subset of the population) and I still won’t claim that you are attacking me. Instead I will stand up in your face and demand that you show first why you think I am such things, and two what supporting evidence you have to suggest that you opinion is accurate.

    Instead of claiming that others are attacking them when they disagree with gusto, they should just state the truth, “I have thin skin and your insults are going to make me sad.”

    Fuck this noise about having to play nice all the time. They are grown ups and should realize that if an insult does not actually characterized them or their position it is best to ignore it or ask the other person to defend it. Fucking children in grown-ups clothing.

    Sleepy-rant done.

    If I crossed lines please tell me, and I won’t be so harsh again.

  • James Sweet

    Argh, you quoted too much of this piece. I started to get too pissed off and had to stop reading halfway through.

    I know it’s a good intellectual exercise to read polemics you disagree with. But when they are just so fucking STUPID… I just can’t do it, I’m sorry. I’m sure I’d be a better person if I could. But I’ll take the echo chamber just about now, please&thank you. What stupid pathetic drivel.

    It was the picking on Dawkins for saying “Oh God” that put me over the edge. I just– I can’t. It’s just such a mind-bendingly stupid thing to say. Pick on him for failing to recall the full title to Origin, fine. It’s fatuous and misleading, but I can take it. But picking on him for muttering, “Oh God”? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!?!?!?!?

  • Stacy

    Appleyard and de Botton sound like two of a kind. An entitled, whiny kind. Don’t forget, de Botton is the fellow who had a public temper tantrum over a negative review in the New York Times. And by “temper tantrum”, I mean, in a comment on the reviewer’s blog he wrote “I will hate you till the day I die.”

  • Randomfactor

    It’s amusing how the human brain, for purposes of interjections, seems to treat deities, copulation and excretion as essentially interchangeable. Pinker, IIRC, has a great video about this. Neuroscience FTW!

  • Laura C.

    I…what? How can someone who spends any amount of time studying religions call “new atheism” a cult? And to claim they’ve suffered abuse at the hands of this “cult”…no. Just…no. It’s disgusting how much that devalues not only the meaning of the term, but the suffering abusive cults cause their members.

    One thing, though: I think the claim that “religion is not going to go away” has at least some standing, as long as they’re talking about religion in general and not specific religions. The fact that our brains tend toward both superstition and confirmation bias means that religion, no matter the specific flavor, will probably be around for a while. From your argument, it seems like you read the statement as collectively concerning all religions, rather than just the concept of religion.

  • suzysalaksartok

    “I think what happened was that he has been frightened by the militancy of religious people he has met on his travels and it has driven him to the other side.”

    Clearly what happened is that at one point Appleyard and de Botton lusted after Richard Dawkins, they wanted to suck his toes and be loved by him, but RD wasn’t interested. This caused them such inner turmoil, they wanted to love RD so much they remain atheists hoping to win his approval and be noticed, but they hate him for not wanting them, so they attack all ‘new atheists’.

    or At one point in de Botton’s life, someone who maybe kinda looked like Richard Dawkins ran over his dog and drove away. This broke his heart because the dog was his best and only friend because noone else wanted to talk to him. Angered that God would allow that to happen, he became an atheist. He swore revenge, but could never find out who did it, until he saw a picture of RD and thought, “well that HAS to be him.” He has ever since dedicated his life to destroying RD, and has decided the best way is to try to undo ‘new atheism’ which RD has been influential in and cares about.


  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Giles Fraser, a priest of the Church of England, then challenged Dawkins to give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Falling into confusion, he failed. Fraser’s point was that Dawkins was therefore, by his own criterion, not a Darwinian.

    Dawkins failed at a Trivial Pursuit question. I don’t know off the top of my head the full title of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations* yet nobody who knows me doubts I’m a professional economist.

    Becoming even more confused, Dawkins exclaimed in his response: “Oh, God!”

    Dawkins says in The God Delusion that he’s a cultural Christian. Saying “Oh God” is evidence of this.

    *An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations I own a first edition and looked at the title page.

  • InvincibleIronyMan

    Bryan Appleyard *defending* Alain de Botton. Those are words to conjure with. I have been slagging off Alain de Botton at every opportunity for, oh, days at least (although it feels like longer) – now I actually feel sorry for him. If the day every came when I needed defending by the likes of Bryan Appleyard, I think I’d kill myself.

  • Rieux

    Just got out of JT’s presentation to the Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists group (CASH) at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. The man gives a good talk.

    Great meeting you in person, JT! Hope to see you in D.C.

  • gratch

    Oh that poor, poor man! The terrible abuse and victimisation he’s had to endure! Is it too late to start up some kind of a collection for a college fund for him? It certainly sounds like he needs more education.

  • John Horstman

    What in the flying f-…? Appleyard makes less sense to me than the clusterfuck of useless babble with which I’m confronted every time I try to use Twitter (I know, I’m either using it wrong, or there are a lot of people whose brains process information in disconnected single-sentence pieces out of which I can make no sense). More and more of these accomodationist apologetics pieces feel like that conversation I had with the area schizophrenic at the all-night coffee shop/net cafe at 3am all those years ago. I prefer arguments that just go “because JESUS” right at the start; at least I can dismiss them and move on without slogging through pages of words without content. Clearly I’m correct because 2+2=(golden marmoset).

  • John Horstman

    Shoot, *accommodationist.

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