Is Atheism Ever Not Boring?

Is Atheism Ever Not Boring? November 28, 2011

R. Joseph Hoffman, a professor at the New England Conservatory and blogger at The New Oxonian has some harsh words for the New Atheists in a recent essay “Atheism’s Little Idea.”

I mention Skepticon because to my mind the meeting is further evidence of the crisis that besets atheism. It cannot quite embrace humanism at the margins, the solution to which for certain ecumenical atheists is to fiddle with the definition of humanism by rolling out the dough ever thinner. It cannot represent skepticism in a methodological way because science and philosophy and even theology have been there and do it. It cannot lay claim to helping people in a direct and positive (as opposed to a merely rhetorical way) because it isn’t, after all, a social welfare movement.

It wants like Pirandello’s lost characters, a cause, an author, something that defines it and sets it apart: science, reason, empathy, concern for human health, but ends up sounding like a nightmare version of a Miss America contestant prompted to give her world peace response.

What atheism and humanism have needed for a long time and once came close to having was a think tank to deal with the theoretical issues of these different movements. It may say worlds about the nature of atheism that this project failed, under the name of secular humanism.

I agree with Hoffman that the resurgent atheist movement has spent a lot more time debunking religion than offering their own philosophical and ethical ideas for the other side to critique.  And I agree with Hoffman that this weakness seems to be baked in to the new skepticism.  But I don’t think his demands that the atheist movement be other that what it is make much sense.

Expecting a unified atheist or humanist movement to build up interesting philosophical ideas is like expecting libertarians and social conservatives to construct a coherent Republican Party.  Having a common enemy might strengthen a coalition, but it doesn’t mean everyone who’s found their way under the big tent will be able to work together when they’re given an opportunity to do something besides resist the foe.

Great. So let’s get moving.

Here are a couple of the things I’ve turned out to majorly disagree with some other atheists about: morality is objective, transhumanism (and gnosticism) are awesome, putting tight constraints on your future self (possibly through covenant marriage) is a pretty good idea.  That’s just off the top of my head.  As a result, I’d be more likely to heed advice from some Christians than from some intensely relativist atheists.

Atheists do have ideas about philosophy and ethics, but, if you want to talk about them, you need to identify yourself with some other adjective beyond ‘atheist’ or ‘skeptic’ (or ‘humanist’ too, since I’ve never heard the same definition twice for that word).  And I’m all in favor of individual atheists putting their cards on the table and giving other people the opportunity to hold their feet to the fire.

But, as a group, we’ve got about as much in common as the members of Mensa or Ravelry, so it makes just as little sense to interrogate us and expect us to contribute en masse as it does to expect a single, coherent moral theory from the knitters of Ravelry.  That rules out the purpose that Hoffman expects the New Atheist to fulfill, and I’d like to suggest a different telos.

Atheism does have some pretty significant similarities to the LGBT movement.  For many people, outing themselves as an atheist means losing their connection to their families and communities (cf the NYT’‘s recent feature on African-American atheists).  An atheist community offers support while people deal with the upheaval, but this doesn’t require a unified moral philosophy.  The LGBT movement has plenty of internal divisions about the ideal form of sexual and emotional relationship, but that doesn’t stop groups like PFLAG from doing a lot of good.

The other major role for atheists-as-a-group is as defenders of science education and religious freedom.  Hoffman thinks that scientists already have the first goal covered, but it’s a mistake to expect that they’ll do all the heavy-lifting of lobbying.  Scientist don’t spend all their time on advocacy because then they wouldn’t have time to be scientists.  And plenty of the skills that make someone a good researcher don’t lend themselves to organizing or PR work.

Fighting the anti-science wing of American religious conservatism is a completely different job than just promoting and explaining science.  Scientists are used to working in a world where empiricism is a common presupposition and you don’t need to address objections of the type: “radiocarbon dating is a fraud by God to test our faith.”  Arguing with these kinds of people is difficult, exhausting, and necessary, since they tend to get elected to school boards and Congress.

I’m glad the new atheist community has organized and funded pro-science and pro-religious freedom advocacy, but I wouldn’t ever expect us-as-a-group to come up with big philosophical ideas.  That’s a task for individuals and small, more ideologically similar groups.

The only thing I’d really like to alter is instilling a strong expectation that atheists talk about what they do believe and go to the mats to defend it.  This is probably bad strategy, but good philosophy.

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  • Lukas Halim

    Who are your favorite atheists? I think mine are Mencken and Nietzsche.

  • Charles

    I would like to see more posts in which you discuss transhumanism and gnosticism. I have seen you make many statements hinting at your connection to/interest in/whatever these topics, but I don’t think I’ve seen a grand unified post on transhumanism /or/ gnosticism. Perhaps I have missed it, but there have been enough discussion on specific issues that either touch transhumanism, or at least in the posts you claim touch on it, that I would like to see your thoughts on the big picture of these topics.

    Back on topic, i concur. 🙂

  • Simon

    Be very skeptical of Hoffmann.

  • Good gods, but that man loves to hear himself talk. Insofar as I could extract a coherent theme from all that pomposity (I started skimming about a quarter of the way through), it seems like Hoffman’s complaint boils down to this: Atheists don’t all agree about issues other than atheism.

    Well, yes, obviously. But so what? He asserts that the New Atheist movement is in crisis somehow because of this disagreement, but Skepticon, a forum for this movement if there ever was one, has been growing by leaps and bounds in each of the four years it’s been held. The “crisis” seems to be all in his own mind, in that we don’t fit some set of implicit guidelines he imagines we’re aiming at. The truth is, atheists are well aware that we don’t all think alike, and that’s OK; for the most part, we don’t insist on ideological conformity, and we’re happy to work together on those issues where we generally do agree and defer the ones where we don’t.

    Truthfully, you could use Hoffman’s argument about any social or political movement whose members didn’t agree about all issues other than the one they were rallying behind. Of course, that would be all of them.

    • I think that all of the problems that generic “atheism” faces are the same problems that generic “theism” faces. There’s no unifying theme behind “theism” other than belief in god. Once you go beyond that, you start describing different religions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.

      If someone said that “all theists do x” (if x is something like pray 7 times a day, or think that Jesus is god) it would be a grevious error. The same sort of logic applies to atheism.

      • Trivally yes but there’s profound asymmetry. The theist is asserting the existence of a being, the atheist merely does not assert it.

        So we’d expect more diversity of opinion in the latter group, and again in the following example:

        I am a Christian and I think…” vs
        I am a non-Christian and I think…

  • deiseach

    That essay seemed a little harsh to me; I don’t recognise his complaints.

    Then again, as a believer, I never expected “And as soon as we figure out what makes atoms stick together, then people will stop stealing stationery supplies from their jobs!” to work in any way, shape or form, because human nature doesn’t work like that.

    I also don’t think atheists think like that – do you? Okay, I’m asking: dear atheists, do you really all (or any?) have a purely materialistic view of the human situation (let’s call it scientism), whereby you really do think that figuring out the properties of the physical elements of the universe and the laws by which they operate will suddenly engender in human beings the desire not to be selfish so-and-sos?

  • Kogo

    Hoffman comes across as *extremely* dotty. I don’t agree with half of what he says and I don’t even *understand* what he’s trying the say in the other half. Maybe that means I’m stupid or undereducated but somehow I intuitively sense not. I’m hardly unbiased in this but it really seems like something it’s him and not me.

    I’ve gotten very jaded about the whinging of ‘faitheists’ and ‘atheists-but’ and anti-atheist philosophers in general. Isn’t it a little, um, *convenient* that no matter what hardcore atheists like me do, it’s always, always, always wrong? I mean, I can spin a good critique of Christianity but I don’t have any real expectation that Christians to actually *listen* to it. I’m an *atheist* for fuck’s sake! Why would they?

    Like the entire angle of “You need to read a lot of theology before you can declare atheism” seems like a completely cynical exercise to me. I doubt I could ever read enough theology to satisfy these guys. And any time I’ve ever said that, yeah, I spent a LOT of time in yeshiva reading theology, thanks, it seems to fall on totally deaf ears. Doesn’t matter: Not enough.

    It seems like either a fairly weak “Shut up. Be quiet. Go away.” ploy or else code for “You need to read a lot of theology *until you stop being an atheist*.”

  • Kogo

    Oh and Leah, I’m a little surprised you didn’t take issue with this:

    *“Mystery” is not a state to be enjoyed or celebrated like a good wine or a raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes…*

    Comparing a woman to a good wine is only a difference of degree to comparing a woman to a delicious piece of meat, is it not? As I recall, you Had An Opinion about Elevatorgate. That should apply here, too.

    And then the second half of that paragraph is weird too:

    *…it is a temporary state of befuddlement, an unknown sum, an uncharted particle, a glimpse of a distant galaxy, the possibility that Mars supported microbial life.*

    Why are these NOT amazing ‘mysteries’ to be treasured just because there’s a possibility we might learn hard-and-fast answers?

    To come clean: I work on a specific NASA project. It has much more to do with ‘Earth sensing’ rather than astronomy per se, but sometimes, when I step back a bit from the day-to-day grind of things, I get a real shiver to think at what we might learn.

    But fuck that, says Hoffman. Unless there is NO CHANCE you will ever learn the answer to a specific question before you, then the question isn’t even worth pondering and you’re a blinkered and diminished human being blah blah blah.

    Yeah, I’ll take remote Earth sensing over the Marian Mysteries of Medjugorje, thank you. You can call me a stunted man all you want. I promise it won’t hurt me in the slightest.

  • Roy Hurley

    Sadly,the atheist / freethinker groups that I have attended were very boring. Yes, christianity sucks, so can we move on now? There was never any discussion of environmental issues,or homelessness/poverty and so on. I don’t expect the larger atheist community to have an official opinion on anything but on the local level I would like to see more engagement than anti-religion. I ,personally, am an agnostic.

  • Don’t give Hoffmann more credibility. He makes noise but has little of value to add to a conversation. His blogs mostly consist of ad hominum attacks on atheists and others he doesn’t agree with. When a man who calls himself “professor” has to resort to ridiculing his opponent’s education and insulting his writing style, you know he’s not worth your time.

    Ironically, Hoffman himself is guilty of the very thing he’s railing against. He thinks of himself as an intellectual, but his raison d’etre is to throw mud on others.

  • Wait, what? How can a Christian claim with a straight face that radiocarbon dating is a fraud by God to test our faith without getting psychic whiplash from cognitive dissonance? Thought through, that means that they believe that the Way, the Truth, and the Life is also a deceiver!!

    Thanks for that one, Leah. It made me laugh.