Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Tent-Show Evangelist for Reason

I've realized, or decided, that I haven't taken enough pot shots at PZ Myers, but then in a certain earlier post my target was mostly Charlotte Allen. But when I looked again at Myers's rebuttal of Allen, I saw all kinds of things that confirmed that being an atheist (and a scientist!) isn't enough to make you rational.

Folks, we really have to sort out the party line first! Are we atheists "Brights," as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would have it, and therefore superior to the credulous retarded Dulls, or are we boring ordinary folks as Myers would have it, Norman Normals just like you and me? (Dennett cautions, "Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: 'I'm a bright' is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view." Sure it isn't a boast. Neither was "bolshevik." Neither is "orthodox.")

"Bright" rubs me the wrong way, much as "gay" annoys some older gays. But there are differences: "gay" was already a widespread ingroup term before we went public with it, while "bright" really does seem to be a conscious PR attempt to put a happy face on atheism. But just as a faggot is a homosexual gentleman who's stepped out of the room, a bright who has stepped out of the room will always be an atheist. And really, shouldn't a professional philosopher know better than to think that gays and atheists are hated because of what they're called?

I think that Myers sides with Dennett on this one, but with stunning rationality, he tries to have it both ways. On one hand, atheists are boring ordinary folks; on the other hand, for some unclear reason "in our books, blogs and media appearances, we challenge religious preconceptions. That's all we do."

Well, it's not quite all we do.
It's admittedly not exactly a roller-coaster ride of thrills, but it does annoy the superstitious and the fervent true believers in things unseen and unevidenced. We are also, admittedly, often abrasive in being outspoken critics of religious dogma, but it's also very hard to restrain our laughter and contempt when we see the spectacle of god-belief in full flower.

We witness many people who proudly declare that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, roughly 9,000 years after the domestication of dogs, 5,000 years after the founding of Jericho and contemporaneous with the invention of the plow. They cling to these beliefs despite contradictions with history, let alone physics, geology and biology, because they believe the Bible is a literal history and science text. We find much to ridicule in these peculiarly unreal ideas.
Now, as my readers (both of them) will know, I find much to ridicule in religion, as in many other areas. Nor do I see anything wrong with being an abrasive and outspoken critic of anything. I believe that most people enjoy abrasive and outspoken criticism of the right targets: for Charlotte Allen, it's atheists and snide Bible scholars. Most religious believers are quite happy to attack religion, as long as it's someone else's religion. Scientists are happy to attack each other. Republicans attack wimpy appeasing liberals, Democrats attack wingnuts who say "nukular." And most of them are united in deploring the lack of civility and empathy in today's world. Can't we all just get along?

The same goes for accusations of "arrogance." Yes, many atheists are pretty self-righteous. So are many believers. Believers do think they have the answers -- maybe not all of them, but the answers that count. Arrogance is not a quality that anyone has a monopoly on. Complaining about someone else's arrogance is usually a bit disingenuous.

The thing is, though, Allen was right on one point: a lot of atheists, including prominent ones, do play the victim card. Myers asks plaintively, if rhetorically, why Allen is "so mad at" atheists. (Charlotte, why are you so negative and bitter? If you'd just let Dawkins into your heart, he'd take the hate away.) In Dennett's "Brights" article, though he admitted that as a white professional male he has it relatively easy, he complained of being kept down by the Man, and of the courage it takes to "come out" as a Bright. Gag me with a spoon. But then, Christians love to play the victim card too. Even though they are an overwhelming majority in this country, they complain that they're being picked on by the godless secularists who won't let them pray in school, stone adulteresses, or burn faggots.

On the other hand, I don't believe that atheists are unpopular because of our arrogance either. Our arrogance is partly a defensive reaction to our unpopularity. And the accusation of arrogance comes partly from people who don't know how to answer our criticisms of religion, and don't want to be bothered in the first place, so they lash out. We can see this in other arenas, where inconvenient and discomforting arguments are met with accusations of "anti-American," "anti-Semitism," "anti-science." Or E. O. Wilson's delicious "Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism." (He says that like it's a bad thing.) Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh couldn't have put it better. When you find yourself using the intellectually bankrupt debating moves of your opponents, and you don't even realize you're doing it, you're in trouble.

Myers's focus on the "literalist" young-Earthers carries some elements of class disdain, too. In this area he'd find that many believers are his allies. Respectable Christians have always looked down on the riffraff with their backward beliefs, their noisy enthusiasm, their speaking in tongues, and you don't have to be an atheist to oppose Creationism. Much of the disdain for the New Atheists comes from a similar source, I think: Dawkins and Dennett and Harris come off like tent-show evangelists, they enjoy outraging the devout as much as a street-corner preacher loves to discomfit the impious. (And as a former boyfriend of mine pointed out about the outdoor preachers who troubled the spiritual waters at IU some years ago, college students are still high-school students at heart, terrified of standing out in a way that would make them look foolish -- yet here is this guy who does it willingly, unafraid of being jeered at. Being made fun of is supposed to send you scurrying back to the safety of the herd, yet this guy thrives on it.)

Some of the New Atheists' critics fall back on paternalism: they don't need faith, but think of the simple folk, the lower orders who rely on religion to give them Hope in a heartless world. The New Atheists cruelly want to strip them of the support their faith gives them, the only thing that makes it possible for them to drag themselves through their drab little lives. This also turns up in the "atheist bus" campaign, which aims to liberate the masses from the yoke of religion.

But an atheist cannot stop at going after the ignorant masses, who only account for part of Myers's "majority of the population [who] are quite convinced that they have a direct pipeline to an omnipotent, omniscient being who has told them exactly how to live and what is right and wrong, and has spelled out his divine will in holy books." The rest of American believers include people who believe in Evolution (Darwin said it, I believe it, that settles it!) and a flat earth, vote Democratic, support gay marriage -- and they're sure that God agrees with them. Most of the gay supporters of same-sex marriage are probably religious, like most gay people, even if they claim that what they want are "equal rights" and the secular special rights that marriage gives. So here's a question: if someone believes that God wants gay people to have equal rights, or opposes the war in Iraq, do these religious beliefs suddenly become acceptable just because they happen to agree with the beliefs a secularist holds? (One thing I like about Katha Pollitt, despite my many disagreements with her, is that she has criticized liberal and progressive religion as much as the reactionary brands.)

Myers is a bit vague on this in his op-ed: he segues so smoothly from the young-Earth nutters to the larger body of theists that I still can't quite find the transition point. He seems to think that the nice liberal middle-class churches also foster "a bizarre collection of antiquated superstitions", and I give him points for criticizing the attempts to find God in particle physics, but if he really wants to make some noise in the L. A. Times, he should spend more time on the respectable, sophisticated, educated religion of people like Jim Wallis (whom he has criticized at his blog, I see), than on the fish-in-a-barrel Creationists that are his favorite target.

It's noteworthy, I think, that Myers responded to Allen's criticisms with rhetoric rather than reason. Why is she so mean? Why don't people like us when all we do is make fun of their stupid superstitions? (I've been accused of this latter one, but I don't think I complain because people object to my criticisms of their beliefs and opinions -- I complain because they don't show where my criticisms are wrong.) We're just like everybody else, except that we're not stupid credulous fools. I probably agree with Myers on principles and cases in most areas; but as a campaigner for unbelief, he's not very inspiring.