Hell Freezes Over: Shem Gives Props to Tim Minchin

Hell Freezes Over: Shem Gives Props to Tim Minchin March 23, 2019

The fact that Tim Minchin has played the Royal Albert Hall is all the evidence I need that there’s no God. To paraphrase Daniel Dennett, nothing is as disappointing as hearing an opinion you agree with stated badly, then set to music. But being as funny as bad traffic is no obstacle to saying very smart things once or twice, as Minchin did six years ago.

A Stopped Clock Is Thought Provoking Once a Millennium

Minchin was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia in 2013, which also counts as disconfirming evidence against the belief that all is right with the world. That said, however, I’m glad that his address at UWA in acceptance of the honor is making the rounds of social media these days. Not only have I seen this in my Facebook feed, but Rick at Godzooks posted it recently. In it, Minchin gives some very good advice to us skeptics and humanists.

Minchin delivered what he must have considered witty affirmations to the crowd, among which there was one that sums up what I’ve been trying to say for years:

5. Be hard on your opinions.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the veranda and hit them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges. Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance.

There’s an idea! So why do we do this so rarely in the atheist blogosphere? Why do we spend such an inordinate amount of time analyzing what religious people believe that we don’t have any energy or bandwidth left to discuss our own beliefs?

Bias Is In the Eye of the Beholder

Of course, we atheists don’t have beliefs about gods or the supernatural, but we have plenty of beliefs about knowledge, history, morality, and society that deserve the cricket-bat treatment. Particularly when it comes to religion itself, we need to be careful not to define it in a way that’s simply dealing ourselves the rhetorical equivalent of a winning hand.

To give an example, it’s common to see quotes like the following, supposedly from The God Delusion:

“Religious people are atheists about all other gods, atheists only take it one god further.” – Richard Dawkins

I’ve always thought this was so wrong that I’m surprised it’s trotted out so frequently. We’re supposed to be skeptics, and we’re supposed to be good at subjecting arguments to fierce critical scrutiny. So why does this pop up so often, since anyone who gives it even a moment’s thought realizes it’s not true?

This is like saying that a person who loves the New York Giants has the same opinion about the New England Patriots as a person who doesn’t follow football at all: a Giants fan wouldn’t root for the Patriots, the logic goes, and neither would a person who doesn’t follow football. But the two aren’t even remotely similar in nature, comparing the two completely misses the point. The Giants fan wouldn’t root for the Patriots precisely because of her interest in football and loyalty to her team; there are plenty of occasions when she’d actively root against the Patriots. In contrast, the person who doesn’t like football doesn’t root for the Patriots because the entire sport of football doesn’t appeal to him, and there’d be no instances where he’d root against any team.

“Lack-ism” Rears Its Ugly Head

Again, it comes down to whether we believe that atheism is just a “lack of belief,” or whether we acknowledge that atheism derives from skepticism and freethought.  A Christian doesn’t have the same opinion about Ganesh as an atheist does, because it’s not like the average Christian has undergone a process of deep study about Hinduism and found its tenets unacceptable; people are generally Christian because of the cultural context of their upbringing. Why make it sound like the Christian has an “atheistic” approach to other gods, when it’s exactly his socialization as a Christian that makes him a non-Hindu?

Like Minchin says, we need to acknowledge our biases. I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging that we’re predisposed to nonbelief in the same way religious people are predisposed to belief. Let’s have more intellectual honesty in these debates.

What do you think? Is Tim Minchin a douche? Are there arguments you see used by your fellow atheists that you think deserve to be beaten with a cricket bat?

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  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    The Dawkins quote is part of why I don’t use the word atheism about myself normally. It is technically true, but yes, facile. Ignores sociology of, psychology of, and philosophy of religion.

  • guerillasurgeon

    What? Will you try not to dump your subjective opinions on Tim Minchin? Considering many of us think he’s hilarious. Certainly better than many other overtly atheist comedians. “Saint” George Carlin springs to mind.

  • Illithid

    I find Minchin pretty damn funny, myself. “Storm” is classic.

  • Michael Neville

    So you don’t care for Tim Minchin. I’m sure he’s heartbroken.

  • I’m sure ol’ Tim’s over it. Did you think the whole point of this post was my opinion of him?

  • As far as piano-playing comedians go, he’s a notch above Mark Russell.

  • Ignores sociology of, psychology of, and philosophy of religion.

    My point exactly. What religion means to religious people is something atheists seem unwilling to approach.

  • It’s interesting that even perfectly secular folks think atheists are dicks. Is it because they envy our rational prowess, or are we just dicks?

    “We understand your point. It’s just when you talk about it, we hate you.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0psEkjnYR4w&list=PLZIfacKXbYMv0XYFozRtLuJJwSDbNu6X7&index=11&t=0s

  • Michael Neville

    No, you said other things as well. But you did go out of your way to make it obvious that you don’t particularly like Minchin. Since the rest of your post wasn’t worthy of comment, I mentioned the one thing that was slightly interesting.

  • Since I was talking about how atheists should be less intellectually dishonest, I’m not surprised you didn’t get a lot out of it.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Fine, be hard on your opinions and admit then that humour is subjective. I find the guy above is about as funny as a wet weekend in a graveyard in Taumarunui. And I must say if he’d given his material any thought, he would have realised that no matter what sort of social commentary you might make as a comedian it doesn’t work unless it’s funny.
    Now this is funny.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDP0fCRUTNI

  • Plenty of us approach it just fine. Many of us were once religious, and the few of us that weren’t nonetheless often find the practices and thought-processes of the religious to be fascinating.

    It’s just hard to focus on all the neat little psychological quirks and idiosyncrasies when the primary expression of faith in your own life is religious people seeking to control and abuse you, both directly and via legislation, and excuse or justify it by their faith. Having myself studied quite a lot of phl of religion, I can readily testify that there is not one measly bit of the topic that addresses how one should handle the viciousness done in a religion’s name. Thoroughly understanding the religious person’s internal experience as they stomp all over other people’s lives is not exactly a top priority.

  • I like Dara, and I’m sure I’ve told more than one of my loyal detractors to “get in t’fookin’ sack” over the years. But this sort of proves my point, doesn’t it? We only consider other people’s foibles fit subject matter for comedy. In this millennium, jokes about religion are about as original and edgy as mother-in-law gags. If we prefer self-congratulation to skepticism, I guess that shows what freethinkers we really are.

    And we deserve some ribbing every so often. When David “Class Act” Silverman was the head of American Atheists, secular wags like Colbert and Samantha Bee used to have a field day making fun of his immature grandstanding. When Silverman started the brouhaha over the WTC cross, Colbert said, “I know you don’t believe God can hear you, but you know the rest of us can, right?”

  • Philosophy of religion and theology aren’t of much interest to me either. But I think it bears noting that when we’re criticizing the viciousness done in religion’s name, it’s the viciousness we should be objecting to. I always wonder whether we just want people to have rational, evidence-based reasons to oppress and discriminate.

  • […]it’s the viciousness we should be objecting to.

    No. We should also interrogate what about religions makes them so easy to weaponize, so easy to make vicious. Religions are, historically, conspicuous in their efficacy and efficiency in this regard.

    There is no true separation to be had between the abstract doctrines of a faith and the lived experience of religious life, and if the latter reliably leads to significant proportions of those who choose a conspicuously religious life to become cartoonish moral monsters that seek to dominate all other lives and impose by fraud and force their own transcendental visions, then we can’t just handwave away the praxis as aberration.

  • We should also interrogate what about religions makes them so easy to weaponize, so easy to make vicious. Religions are, historically, conspicuous in their efficacy and efficiency in this regard.

    Yeah, yeah.

    I think the appeal of “interrogating religions” for atheists is to externalize blame for all the world’s problems. In my time hosting these discussions, I’ve heard self-professed freethinkers call even global warming a “religious problem.” That’s evidence to my mind that this antitheism thing isn’t about honestly analyzing history and society, it’s about passing the buck.

  • tatoo

    I love Tim Manchin. He is truly a wordsmith

  • guerillasurgeon

    “We only consider other people’s foibles fit subject matter for comedy.”
    No we don’t. Not if you’re talking about comedians rather than the general public anyway. There’s plenty of self-deprecating comedy. John Richardson makes fun of his own ADD for instance. Richard Ayoade satirises himself. And I think there are plenty of comedians and make fun of national characteristics – and we all laugh at them too. So either I’ve misunderstood what you said is quite possible, or you don’t know a great deal about comedy. (Said with all due respect)

  • Um, I meant we atheists.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    Quite enjoy Minchin most of the time. I don’t expect a deep and nuanced argument on whatever topic his latest song covers, but that’s the nature of it being a song and not an essay or a book. Musical pieces like his are propaganda, not argument, and there is a place and a time for argument – and a place and a time for propaganda, too.

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    Climate change isn’t a religious problem per se, but manipulating religious belief among voters to slow or stop the US from responding to it effectively is a problem. If your pastor reminds you periodically that evil people are saying that men are affecting the climate although it’s obvious that only God can affect the climate, the religious denial of reality is a problem at the ballot box.

    I agree that it’s ridiculous to blame all human-caused problems on religion. All of us have biases and privilege that we don’t often think about, and find it easy to lie to ourselves. But our religions cause a lot of harm and it’s okay to point that out.

  • “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” …Stephen F Roberts

    You could have looked this up pretty easily.

    According to Justin Martyr (see here) the Romans accused the Christians of being atheists, because they didn’t believe in the gods. Quite some history behind the charge!

    As for me, I’ve been a non-believer for 7 years, since age 52, and Roberts’ charge makes a lot of sense. As a Christian I did actively reject all other gods. No, I hadn’t made a deep study of them, but it isn’t like I hadn’t thought or read about it at all. When it hit me in church one morning that Genesis 3 had to be mythology it took me about a month to give up that one other god.

  • Like I said, though, you weren’t an “atheist” toward all the other gods, you rejected them because of your commitment to your god of choice. You only became an atheist because god-belief in general stopped making sense.

  • Climate change isn’t a religious problem per se, but manipulating religious belief among voters to slow or stop the US from responding to it effectively is a problem.

    Well, sure. I didn’t mean to imply that since climate change isn’t a religious problem, there are no problems whatsoever with religion. It’s a matter of addressing problems honestly and effectively, not just defining them in a way that exonerates us from responsibility for them.

    But our religions cause a lot of harm and it’s okay to point that out.

    Once again, I never said otherwise. It’s not a choice between saying that either all problems derive from religion, or that religion is just peachy and we should never ever criticize it. There’s a range of acceptable possibilities between those unacceptable extremes.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Semantics again.
    Atheism can be defined as the lack of belief in gods.
    Under this definition, newborn babies and maybe even the Rock of Gibraltar can be called an atheist.

    Defining atheism more narrowly is the usual way.
    More narrowly, atheism is the lack of belief in gods by people who have some knowledge about religions and gods and who then believe that there are no gods (except as fictional characters).

    Good, agreed-upon word definitions can often head off unproductive controversies.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    STP: This is like saying that a person who loves the New York Giants has the same opinion about the New England Patriots as a person who doesn’t follow football at all: a Giants fan wouldn’t root for the Patriots, the logic goes, and neither would a person who doesn’t follow football.

    GW: No, Shem, it’s not like that at all! The Giants and the Patriots actually do exist, but gods are a different matter.

    STP: Again, it comes down to whether we believe that atheism is just a “lack of belief,” or whether we acknowledge that atheism derives from skepticism and freethought.

    GW: Atheism is the absence of theism or the absence of any belief in God, gods, and/or the supernatural. Atheism usually results from skepticism and freethought.

    STP: A Christian doesn’t have the same opinion about Ganesh as an atheist does,…

    GW: That is a false claim. Both Christians and atheists lack the belief that Ganesh exists, and most of them believe that Ganesh probably or certainly does not exist.

    STP: Why make it sound like the Christian has an “atheistic” approach to other gods, when it’s exactly his socialization as a Christian that makes him a non-Hindu?

    GW: Because Christians really do lack a belief that the gods of other religions exist. It’s pretty simple.

    STP: I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging that we’re predisposed to nonbelief in the same way religious people are predisposed to belief.

    GW: Who is the “we” you are referring to here? We humans or we atheists? There is actually some rather recent evidence that we humans are predisposed to belief. But even if that is true, the belief itself is almost certainly false. By definition, an atheist currently lacks a belief in God, gods, and/or the supernatural. That’s not a predisposition; that is a current position.

    STP: Are there arguments you see used by your fellow atheists that you think deserve to be beaten with a cricket bat?

    GW: Yes, some of the ones you make in this and other essays.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    No, Shem, he was an atheist because he had no belief that those other gods existed.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    No Shem, people who use reason oppose oppression and discrimination, not support it!

    Were you the one who said Hitler was rational? If so, that is nonsense.

  • Anne Fenwick

    “Religious people are atheists about all other gods, atheists only take it one god further.”

    I think there might be a difference between the experiences of atheism of people who have rejected a specific religion, and those of people who come from an atheist culture. I grew up atheist and was exposed, at approximately the same point in my life, to a variety of religious mythologies from all over the world, but as folklore or at most, archaic philosophical ideas. So my experience of disbelieving in the Christian god is not different from my experience of disbelieving in Ganesh, as a matter of fact, I can’t quite remember which gods I learned about first, but I suspect it may have been some Egyptian ones. I’m sure the situation for ex-believers of the various religions may feel quite different.

    Incidentally, my disbelief has an active component, in that I have beliefs about the neurological basis of religious beliefs and experiences.

  • he was an atheist because he had no belief that those other gods existed.

    And like I keep saying, it’s ridiculous to apply the term atheist to someone who simply has a preference for one god over others. You’re only an atheist if you don’t believe in any.

    It’s like saying, if you happen to prefer eating chicken rather than beef, that you’re vegetarian toward cows. That makes no sense either. You’re only a vegetarian if you don’t eat meat whatsoever.

  • GW1: he was an atheist because he had no belief that those other gods existed.

    S2: And like I keep saying, it’s ridiculous to apply the term atheist to someone who simply has a preference for one god over others. You’re only an atheist if you don’t believe in any.

    GW2: I think you are mistaken about that, Shem. If a person has a preference for one god over others, there seems to be an underlying assumption that the person believes all of them exist. That person would not be an atheist. However, if a person believes that one god exists and all other purported gods do not exist, then he would be a theist and an atheist at the same time.

    S2: It’s like saying, if you happen to prefer eating chicken rather than beef, that you’re vegetarian toward cows. That makes no sense either. You’re only a vegetarian if you don’t eat meat whatsoever.

    GW2: I don’t think your analogy works. A person who prefers chicken over beef believes that both chicken and beef exist. Preference implies underlying existence for the options.

  • if a person believes that one god exists and all other purported gods do not exist, then he would be a theist and an atheist at the same time.

    Nope. He’s a theist, which is what someone is if he professes belief in the existence of a god or gods. And an atheist is someone who does not profess belief in the existence of any gods. The idea that someone could be a theist and an atheist at the same time is a contradiction in terms. Using the atheist-to-all-gods-but-one quip is intended as a piece of comic irony, fine; using it as a serious argument about religion is ludicrous. If, after I’ve explained the contradiction in what I consider plain enough English several times in the article and my comments, you still don’t get it, I submit that the problem ain’t with me.

    A person who prefers chicken over beef believes that both chicken and beef exist.

    I think it should be obvious that these analogies have nothing to do with questioning the existence of food animals or sports teams. Again, if you can’t grasp the simple points I’m trying to make, it’s not my fault.

  • GW2: if a person believes that one god exists and all other purported gods do not exist, then he would be a theist and an atheist at the same time.

    S3: Nope. He’s a theist, which is what someone is if he professes belief in the existence of a god or gods. And an atheist is someone who does not profess belief in the existence of any gods.

    GW3: I see what you mean. I’ll have to think more about your interpretation of the term “atheist.”

    S3: The idea that someone could be a theist and an atheist at the same time is a contradiction in terms. Using the atheist-to-all-gods-but-one quip is intended as a piece of comic irony, fine; using it as a serious argument about religion is ludicrous. If, after I’ve explained the contradiction in what I consider plain enough English several times in the article and my comments, you still don’t get it, I submit that the problem ain’t with me.

    GW3: You’ve done a better job explaining yourself this time. Your talk about preferences, however, is really confusing and seems to be mistaken.

    GW2: A person who prefers chicken over beef believes that both chicken and beef exist.

    S3: I think it should be obvious that these analogies have nothing to do with questioning the existence of food animals or sports teams. Again, if you can’t grasp the simple points I’m trying to make, it’s not my fault.

    GW3: I think it’s your fault that you don’t see why your analogy doesn’t work. The issue of atheist vs. theist is about beliefs about existence vs. nonexistence, not about preferences among things known to exist. That’s why your chicken-beef analogy doesn’t work. Your new explanation makes some sense, but your analogy doesn’t. You might want to look for a better analogy.

  • The issue of atheist vs. theist is about beliefs about existence vs. nonexistence, not about preferences among things known to exist. That’s why your chicken-beef analogy doesn’t work.

    This is about the meanings of words, that’s all. You’re not an atheist if you believe in any gods, no matter how many gods you don’t believe in. You’re not a vegetarian if you eat certain types of meat and not others. You’re not mute if you can’t speak in Hindi but can speak in English. These terms describe someone who doesn’t believe in any gods, someone who doesn’t eat any meat, and someone who can’t speak in any language.

    Like I said, if we take the atheist-toward-most-gods quip for its comedy value, that’s fine. But if it’s taken to mean something about how religious belief and nonbelief truly work, it fails.

  • I think you are correct about the meaning of “atheist” but I think you are incorrect about the analogy to preferring one food over another.

    “An atheist is a person without a belief in God, any gods, and the supernatural.”

    So, do we agree that this is a good standard definition?

  • I think you are correct about the meaning of “atheist” but I think you are incorrect about the analogy to preferring one food over another.

    How so? Like I said, there’s a similarity between the way the term atheist describes a wholesale absence of god-beliefs in one’s worldview and the way the term vegetarian describes the avoidance of any and all kinds of meat in one’s diet. These terms imply an approach to all gods and all forms of meat; they aren’t context-specific in the sense of only being applicable to particular gods or certain types of meat. In the same way that a vegetarian is under no obligation to list all the specific types of meat he wouldn’t eat, an atheist doesn’t have to consider each god individually before stating that she doesn’t believe in each one. The underlying assumption is that there are moral or nutritional reasons for the vegetarian’s decision not to eat meat, and that there’s a philosophical basis for the atheist’s absence of religious belief.

    “An atheist is a person without a belief in God, any gods, and the supernatural.”
    So, do we agree that this is a good standard definition?

    It’s okay by me. I don’t want to get bogged down in these picayune semantics, but I prefer to talk about people having an atheistic approach or perspective, one that doesn’t include gods or the supernatural. That makes it clearer why I think the atheist-to-all-gods-except-one concept is a good joke but a bad argument: someone’s way of experiencing and interpreting phenomena can’t really be theistic and atheistic at the same time.

  • GW4: I think you are correct about the meaning of “atheist” but I think you are incorrect about the analogy to preferring one food over another.

    S5: How so? Like I said, there’s a similarity between the way the term atheist describes a wholesale absence of god-beliefs in one’s worldview and the way the term vegetarian describes the avoidance of any and all kinds of meat in one’s diet. These terms imply an approach to all gods and all forms of meat; they aren’t context-specific in the sense of only being applicable to particular gods or certain types of meat. In the same way that a vegetarian is under no obligation to list all the specific types of meat he wouldn’t eat, an atheist doesn’t have to consider each god individually before stating that she doesn’t believe in each one. The underlying assumption is that there are moral or nutritional reasons for the vegetarian’s decision not to eat meat, and that there’s a philosophical basis for the atheist’s absence of religious belief.

    GW5: I already explained to you “how so.” Please re-read my explanation. I think it is pretty clear. I don’t think I can explain it any better. Your analogy is poor. I suggest you seek a better one. Maybe somebody else will suggest one to you.

    GW4: “An atheist is a person without a belief in God, any gods, and the supernatural.”
    So, do we agree that this is a good standard definition?

    S5: It’s okay by me.

    GW5: Great! That’s the definition I am going to stick to for now.

    S5: I don’t want to get bogged down in these picayune semantics, but I prefer to talk about people having an atheistic approach or perspective, one that doesn’t include gods or the supernatural. That makes it clearer why I think the atheist-to-all-gods-except-one concept is a good joke but a bad argument: someone’s way of experiencing and interpreting phenomena can’t really be theistic and atheistic at the same time.

    GW5: Didn’t you start this discussion of the meaning of the word “atheist”? I think so.

  • I already explained to you “how so.” Please re-read my explanation. I think it is pretty clear. I don’t think I can explain it any better. Your analogy is poor. I suggest you seek a better one. Maybe somebody else will suggest one to you.

    Well, your original issue with my analogies misses their point completely: you thought I was talking about the belief that certain sports teams or animals don’t exist, and that was the crux of your disagreement. You even stated, “A person who prefers chicken over beef believes that both chicken and beef exist,” making it abundantly clear that you completely misunderstood the point I’m making.

    However, even after I patiently explained that that’s not what I meant, and after I reiterated what my point is at considerable length, you still say the analogy is weak.

    How so?

  • You didn’t want to get bogged down. I don’t either. This is a minor issue. I recommend you find yourself a better analogy.

  • Well, you haven’t explained what’s wrong with the analogy in the first place. Here’s my clarification, in case you forgot it even after you copy-and-pasted it in your response to my post:

    Like I said, there’s a similarity between the way the term atheist describes a wholesale absence of god-beliefs in one’s worldview and the way the term vegetarian describes the avoidance of any and all kinds of meat in one’s diet. These terms imply an approach to all gods and all forms of meat; they aren’t context-specific in the sense of only being applicable to particular gods or certain types of meat. In the same way that a vegetarian is under no obligation to list all the specific types of meat he wouldn’t eat, an atheist doesn’t have to consider each god individually before stating that she doesn’t believe in each one. The underlying assumption is that there are moral or nutritional reasons for the vegetarian’s decision not to eat meat, and that there’s a philosophical basis for the atheist’s absence of religious belief.

    If your dislike of the analogy still hinges on the fact that sports teams and animals exist, then I submit the problem is with you and not the analogy.