The other day a family member wrote me with a “joke”: an email that contained, simply, the words “Numbers 23:22“. It’s a common set-up for online atheists–finding humour in Biblical issues (moral as well as factual) that undermine the story’s plausibility from a literalist perspective. We atheists can, as I have mentioned before, generally discuss a number of failed prophecies, boorish conduct on the part of supposed godheads, scriptural contradictions, or other clear evidence that the writers of the Bible had little knowledge (comparatively) of how the world functions. This kind of pedantry is partly idle diversion and partly stress relief, especially in a world where some draw literally from the Bible to advance public policy we find abhorrent.
But it is also a waste of talents that should be put to better use.
The Guardian and The Irish Times recently published two chilling arguments for the loss of language’s power in the wake of recent political disruption. Only one is free to read–“The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump”–but in it Michiko Kakutani explores a wide sweep of terms, “truth decay,” the “Rashomon effect,” “the tobacco strategy,” “red-pilling,” and “wooden language,” that all depict a media state in which leaders like Putin and POTUS are able to, as Masha Gessen puts it, “assert power over truth” by eroding the value of linguistic precision in public debate.
You would think online atheists, who do so love the “gotcha” moments when they can suggest flaws in Biblical record, would be some of the fiercest defenders of linguistic precision and the importance of taking language seriously in political matters, too. But as the “red-pill” contingent (i.e. groups of predominantly white male persons who regard feminist discourse and public policy as part of an insidious social campaign against male-gendered persons) illustrated with their strong preference for Trump, there are alarming cross-overs in representation between persons who feel they’re living on the fringe of any number of dominant social beliefs.
This year, Vice.com picked up this refrain by noting the troubling connection between online atheism and alt-right thinking–and it’s not hard to see why such a connection exists. There is something morally righteous, as it were, about choosing “truth”–even when others despise you for it–over normative belief. If others are angry at you for holding an unfavourable belief, you clearly don’t believe it just to fit in–so obviously you believe because you are the more principled human being. In line with this logic, the more you are despised for a given belief, the more exhilarating it becomes to hold your line. You become a living martyr when you engage in related pedantry.
This is one of the reasons I prefer “secular humanist” over “atheist”–because “atheist” refers to what I do not believe in, whereas “humanist” gives a clearer sense of my values (and “secular”, as an adjective, hints at the fact that theists can be humanists, too). “Atheist” is not, however, value-neutral: many invoke the term to imply that they identify as critical thinkers, enlightened cosmologists, and generally more intelligent human beings. And this coding allows for quite a bit of unearned confidence regarding the true extent of one’s fealty to logic above all else.
After all, the Bible, for a great many believers, is not an inerrant document. Even if more knew, say, that beloved moral touchstones like “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8:7) were later additions, not showing up in manuscript at all until 400 C.E., and not in John until the 900s, would this bit of pedantry make atheists of most believers? Hardly–because most believers aren’t literalists. Because most have a more mythopoetic relationship with the text, and their faith. Sola Scriptura–the idea that by the Book alone man finds his salvation–is an idea that does not reflect majority-Christian practices in the West. So why on Earth, from a rationalist perspective, would online atheists waste so much time on a minority-belief?
I am certainly no stranger to one possible explanation: the perception of pedantry arising first from the “other side”. When I was a doctoral candidate analyzing literary histories of science, I used the term “mythopoetic” to describe cultural touchstones that 19th-century theistic philosophers drew upon to argue for or against stellar evolution and the possibility of life on other planets. This didn’t go over well with my committee, with two members feeling strongly that I was picking on religion, making fun of 19th-century thinkers for having emotional and personal drives in their application of scripture to the interpretation of empirical evidence. This accusation broke my heart as a humanist, and I left the program two dissertation drafts into the process. So, I know a thing or two about how exhausting it can be when belief is framed solely as a highly rational affair.
Where I differ from many of my online atheist counterparts, though, is in the assumption that rationality is plausible in general, and that we should trust rationalism in ourselves. Do we not all operate within mythopoetic landscapes, our entire civilization underpinned by various bodies of storytelling that define the parameters of what is and is not permissible–to do, to think, and to dream? Are the information silos of Reddit and Facebook and CNN (among others) not clear contributors to a fragmentation of fact into factions of narrative belief: each with its own jargon, its own references to names and dates that convey so much emotional weight only to other audiences “in the know”?
Of course we do, and of course they are–for better and for worse. And right now, with the mythopoetic landscape of Western culture veering so hard into the overt naturalization of prejudice, racism, xenophobia, and related political polarization, we have a responsibility to understand those underlying narratives. To name them. To make explicit and inescapable the dog-whistles behind so much public speech. To distribute these truths less for giggles than for clear, sober reflection, and reaction.
After all, Ephesians 5:13, am I right?
But, no–this isn’t the time even for well-intentioned wry asides. Our culture–every culture–is fabricated from a tangle of facts and emotions and context. Atheists–online atheists especially–have honed their pedantry well in the forges of Biblical debate, but how much better might our world be, if this interest in the precision and power of language were turned now to other fields of combat? To help other people marginalized by oppressively dominant cultural beliefs?
I promise you, dear atheists who enjoy being outliers: there is still plenty of room in this work to be despised–especially by those who benefit from cultural narratives that blame socioeconomic instability on the bogeyman of “other” demographics. …But there is also room to be champions for a great many immediately imperiled human beings.
And at the end of the day, if we on the non-religious spectrum are ever to be more than what we do not believe in, surely we must be believers in the value of that?