Wednesday, January 11, 2012

No, “New Atheism” ≠ The Tea Party: Bryan Appleyard edition

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Bryan Appleyard
Bryan Appleyard

Ho-hum: Another day, another gormlessly dismissive comparison between atheism (specifically those rascally “militants”) and the Tea Party. (Where have I heard that before …?) This time, it comes via Bryan Appleyard, a journalist already shown to possess the cognitive skills of a lima bean, something made all the more apparent when his first reaction upon hearing of the upcoming Reason Rally is to compare atheists to our favorite bunch of anti-government malcontents:

This morning I idly tweeted that ‘atheism gets more like the Tea Party every day’ and linked to the of The Reason Rally, ‘the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history’. Responses ranged from ‘bollocks’ and ‘what a load of cobblers’ to the slightly more reasonable ‘What? For holding an event?’ and Theists hold gatherings too, you know. Some attend them every Sunday.’ Perhaps the most relevant were the sarcasm of Steven Nash – ‘Oh those crazy atheist extremists! How dare they try and force rationalism, science and reason on the rest of us!’ – and this from John Furlong – ‘Atheism is a concept, not a movement’.

It’s not much of a concept – it exists solely as a negation – but Furlong is right to say it is not a movement. Or rather it shouldn’t be, but, of course, it now is. Militant atheists – henceforth know as the Dawks – do seem to believe that they should ‘force rationalism…’ on the rest of us. The Dawks do this on the basis that religion is a particularly harmful human habit. Since communism, the bloodiest belief system in human history, was militantly atheist and very much a product of the ‘rationalist’ Enlightenment, I find this argument hard to follow. Perhaps it is belief itself that is under fire, but, since we don’t know everything and cannot predict the future, we couldn’t function without beliefs of some kind or another, so, again, the argument becomes unfollowable.

What is it with cranks and cramming as many fallacies and canards into as few paragraphs as possible? Is it a conscious effort, or does the bullshit really flow that smoothly from their minds to their keyboards? At any rate, I’ll just start off by referring anyone who takes Appleyard’s “atheism leads to bloody communism!” charge seriously to Myth A17 and leave it at that.

Secondly, there’s a key (albeit far-too-commonly ignored) difference between atheism as a concept (ie. the lack of belief in deities) and a social movement (ie. the increasing outspokenness of atheists in order to promote acceptance of nonbelief in the public sphere). This is why many (notably atheists) are mistaken in claiming that atheism is “just a lack of belief in gods”, though it all arguably comes down to context and defining one’s terms.

But nonetheless, even when ignoring the “social movement” aspect, it’s false and tellingly ignorant to claim that atheism as a whole “exists solely as a negation” and that the godless are attacking belief – loosely defined as “beliefs of some kind or another” – in itself. (It also comes across as a variant of Myth A7: “Atheists believe in nothing”.) Appleyard is missing the point by a mile: There is a vast chasm of difference between the human need to believe in something (be it love, people, fate, etc.) and god-belief in and of itself. Atheists are as big a bunch of “believers” (again, taken in this very vague sense) as anyone else. For instance, I believe in what I call the law of inevitability (ie. the deterministic belief that the future has already been “decided” by the laws of nature and that we’re all just roles in the vast cosmic theater). But I make sure to ground my beliefs in at least a modicum of reason and evidence. Nothing should be believed in merely because it is alluring or (falsely) comforting, even (or especially) if it is otherwise devoid of substance. Yes, everyone needs to believe in something or other, but that’s no good reason to settle for Bronze Age-era mythology, especially when it flies so flagrantly in the face of modern enlightenment.

Continues Appleyard:

I think the problem is a confusion in the minds of the Dawks over the words ‘atheism’ and ‘secularism’. Atheism is the conviction that God does not exist and may legitimately be advanced as an argument. As a cause, however, it has become intolerant and as much of an absurdity as anything advanced by theists – hence my comparison with the Tea Party. The Dawks are at their most absurd – and cultish – when they claim their belief is a sure sign of high intelligence, calling themselves The Brights, a label derived from Dawkins himself.

Actually, contra this arrogant assumption, most atheists actively dislike the label of “Bright” (as evidenced in this small but, I believe, fairly representative Blag Hag poll), arguably feeling it’s a fair bit presumptuous (I know I do). This makes it rather absurd to claim that most atheists, or even the so-called “militant” ones, assemble under such a title (which, to nit-pick, was not actually created by Richard Dawkins, though he did publicize it). It’s also utterly ridiculous to argue that the atheist movement is in any way comparable with the massive farce that is the Tea Party, unless Appleyard really does feel that merely merely criticizing religious dogma is on par with routinely comparing the President to Hitler (to use the most common example that comes to mind). Whatever you may think of atheists and their doggoned arrogance in refusing to sit down and shut up, claiming that one is the same as the other in intolerance and vitriol is not just wrong, it’s the mark of someone for whom reality is but a distant dream.

Appleyard concludes:

For the record, I, because I don’t know everything, am an agnostic. What could be more ‘rational’ than that?

For starters, not spouting ridiculous nonsense about a group you clearly have very little understanding of. We can work on the rest of your many reasoning flaws later.

(via The Daily Grail)