Benson asks: “Who are the strident Gnus?”

October 6, 2010 • 3:40 pm

You may remember that a short while back Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist, went after Gnu Atheism, confessing his boredom while accusing us all of being theological morons (yawn).  Well, perhaps good Caspar has had a change of heart, for he’s allowed Ophelia Benson to defend the Gnus at his site. One thing that bugs Ophelia, as it bugs me, is the maddening reluctance of Gnu critics to name the supposed miscreants.

Angry reaction doesn’t have much use for accurate and careful – angry reaction is trying to shut down the opposition, not make it better. If you don’t believe me, just Google a name or two along with “New Atheism” – try Michael Ruse, Andrew Brown, Madeleine Bunting, Mark Vernon, Barney Zwartz, Chris Hedges, Karen Armstrong, Chris Mooney, to name just a few.

Much of this situation – this dispute – is an artefact of the internet. Anything written can be instantly discussed; factions form, then groupthink and othering come into play. Blogs are notoriously liable to this. I’ve seen (and sometimes been part of) many blog arguments about the putative evils of New Atheism in which, when pressed to give actual examples of militant strident aggressive new atheism, the critic will cite comments on a blog.

At least we know where we are when that happens. Blog comments, especially on popular sites, can very quickly generate an atmosphere of mobbing, simply because most regular readers share a point of view. But that is a feature of blog comments and the internet more generally, not of new atheism as such. The picture is further confused because New Atheism can mean the big four (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens), or the big four plus some others, or all of them plus all avowed explicit outspoken atheists. Worst of all, it can mean the big four plus all drive-by shouters on the internet. It is seldom made explicit which is meant, and the result is that critics often oscillate between various meanings without notice.

So come on, ye critics like Phil Plait and Caspar Melville—put up or shut up.  Atheism thrives on evidence, not innuendo.  These criticisms without attached names remind me of Joe McCarthy’s never-revealed lists of Communists in the State Department.

41 thoughts on “Benson asks: “Who are the strident Gnus?”

      1. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win — Ghandi.

        Seems to me we’re in the “fight” stage.

  1. There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!
    – Senator Iselin

  2. Richard Dawkins fielded a question at Duke last weekend from someone asking him why he was so harsh on religious people, since we were all on ‘the same side’ against extremism. He was very nice, ‘by all means, lets be friends’ but said that being nice and friend does not make people their religion correct.

    And that’s pretty much the crux of why people are angry at the Gnus and yet can’t really name names. They aren’t mean people, they are just utterly unconvinced and unwilling to give the religious or those who are sympathetic to it a credit for most of them being good people.

    1. Exactly.

      Way back when God Delusion came back, I went to a talk by him. Given all the complaints about stridency which existed even then, I was expecting something completely different.

      Coming out of that I was “THIS is mean? I’d hate to see what they’d call someone who really was.”

    2. But we are not all on the same side. Suppose we work with the “moderate” believers. Best case scenario: the Pat Robertson sect goes away and stops bothering us, while the “moderates” keep their bronze-age belief system alive for another generation, thus assuring the appearance of more Pat Robertsons in the future.

      1. Exactly, they take offense at us shooting down their belief system (because its not that different from the fundamentalists, they just ignore more stuff), all the while thinking “But, I am a good person, that must mean their jerks.”

        There is no way of saying, say, religious indoctrination is child abuse that won’t offend people, and make them think you’re a jerk. Which must be frustrating when the religious then look at the person that says this, and find that he is not monster, and has pretty reasonable points. Hence the no naming of names, since it would leave them open to counter-arguments.

  3. I hope Plait, Melville, et al take your challenge.

    And though I don’t expect it, I also hope they name me. I don’t mind taking one for the team. I am shrill and obnoxious and argumentative and militantly strident — and RIGHT.

    It’s my opinion that all of these tone arguments are just so much sour grapes. Accommodationists can’t counter the actual merits of the argument, so they complain about our use of direct, forceful language.

    What I don’t understand is the same complaints coming from within the atheist community. What are you folks afraid of; that we’ll be clearly understood?

    There seems to be a perception that “sophisticated” arguments have to be couched in soft, bland, plausibly-deniable polysyllabic Faulknerian prose. If it’s direct and to the point and unmistakable in its intent and meaning, it isn’t to be understood as “sophisticated”. I reject that assertion.

    I also reject any assertion that one needs to walk through all 2500-plus years of prior theology and philosophical history in order to arrive at or state a well-thought-out conclusion.

    Do I really need to provide a 5-volume discourse on the differences between Aristotle and Epicurus in order to proclaim myself closer to the latter than the former philosophically?

    1. “What I don’t understand is the same complaints coming from within the atheist community. What are you folks afraid of; that we’ll be clearly understood? ”

      They’re afraid that people’s feelings will be hurt and that people might get angry.

      Some people have an almost pathological aversion to disagreement and conflict. Worse, some of them actually think that’s a positive trait.

      1. I think they’re afraid that the great unwashed masses will run amok if deprived of their ‘opium’ which keeps them subdued. They think they’re the only ones able to cope with reality, everyone else needs lies to keep them on the straight and narrow.

  4. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Some of us are obsessed with the “there are always two sides to an argument” cliche. In itself, that’s not necessarily an undesirable attitude. It is always good to weigh and consider opposing viewpoints. The trouble is when you start making a fetish out of it and actually insisting that a manifestly incorrect and dubious viewpoint should be treated with respectful consideration. One of the great strengths of a proper rational and scientific discourse is its ability to ferret out bad ideas and consign them to the dustbin. This has to be done no matter what.

  5. The whole point is to keep people scared of something amorphous and ill-defined.

    Who hasn’t heard of the scary author called Ditchkins. He really wants to bomb Muslims and all that!

    Or those “militant atheists”. They are going to come for your neighborhood any day now and, … demand that the motto on the money get changed back to what it was pre-McCarthy-era.

    After all, as Ben Gleck tells us, we need to put God back into the country, and if it is be wedging it through the window.

    People clearly are not scared enough of secular ideas!

  6. Sounds like pretentious bullshit to me. I was unaware that the definition of atheism by itself was debatable. Some people are idiots. Some idiots are atheists. Let’s make another binary.

  7. I keep wondering what all the fuss is about. What the few gnu atheists are saying seems mild compared to what many fundamentalist religious zealots are saying. If nothing else, what the activity of the gnu atheists might encourage some closet atheists to be more open about their rejection of religion.

    As for the folk at BioLogos – I wish them well, but it seems to me that they are being entirely too tepid to have any impact.

  8. I just want to say for the record that anyone who uses me or someone like me as a representative of an atheist movement based on our random and often half-drunk blog comments is a complete and utter idiot. I think I’m clever and smart and such, but a random comment on a blog from someone three times as smart as me still shouldn’t be considered the equivalent of a well-considered position by someone who gets paid for their opinion.

    Our side quotes the Bible, the Pope, and religious people who are on TV or have book deals. Any theist who responds by whining about‘s mean comments is an idiot who cannot be taken seriously.

    1. Anonymity gives us the opportunity to be way less polite than we’d ever be in real life. I’ve never called any physically present person the kinds of abuse I’ve hurled on say, Warcraft players.

      Even so, this forum (and some of the other Gnu sites) is about 300% more polite and constructive than the stuff on say, the Wash Post’s On Faith forum, where hyper religious people go all nutters.

  9. Melville

    “The picture of religion that emerges from New Atheism is a caricature”

    Unfortunately the picture of Gnu Atheism which emerges from Mr Melville really is a characature. Nobody to my knowledge says that without relgion there would be no war, or that moderate religious believers are worse than fundamentalists, but he says they do. The poor man is also unable to understand the difference between theology and biology as fields of study. The fact that the world is full of life waiting to be studied and that no-one can even prove that god exists doesn’t seem to occur to him!

    Smug git.

  10. Ugh. I’ve had my fill of the [redacted] coming from the Gnu Crickets. It makes my hair hurt.
    Feh. I’ma go read through my stack of books by some of my favorite miscreants, whom I’m all too happy to identify as Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett (Coyne’s on the UPS truck), so’s I can freshen up on my know-nothingness.

  11. Not only was Ophelias article spot-on, but the comments that followed demonstrated exactly how accurate she had been. Ophelia did what the hackommadationists noticeably fail to do by naming names. This led to a rather funny exchange in the comments when her inclusion of Chris Hedges was held up as inaccurate since we were told he never did the sort of things Ophelia claimed of him. When example after example was offered that exactly demonstrated Ophelias point we were told that that wasn’t really the point – he’s a political polemicist after all, he’s bound to stray into hyberbole! This blatant shifting of goalposts is rather common in political discussions and illustrates that much criticism of gnu atheism is based on political rather than factual matters.

    1. Hear hear. One wonders whether the person who left that comment would extend the same hyperbolic leeway to Mr. Hitchens, who is also a political polemicist. Somehow I doubt it.

    2. All the funnier since the loose reckless citation-free quotation-free crap-throwing of Chris Hedges is a prime example of why I made a point of giving named examples along with easy instructions for how to find examples of the kind of thing I was talking about. Chris Hedges and others like him have made me violently allergic to that kind of weightless legless meaningless slandering of everyone and no one. Either tell us exactly what you mean or shut the fuck up.

  12. Back in late seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle shocked his readers by suggesting that a society of atheists could be more moral than a society of Christians. He was right, of course, but having a society of atheist activists showing respect and tolerance towards other atheists (humanists, rationalists etc.) is easier said than done! In fact, many atheists etc. activists take themselves and the worthy cause so seriously that any deviations from the straight and narrow are viewed as provocations demanding taking up arms.

    I have seen this so many times that I think it is sort of endemic: atheist activism starts partaking some of the very aspects of the religious sectarianism that is one of the most offensive aspects of religious life in general.

    So, having seen so many “rhino atheists” – and maybe being too much of a house cat myself! – I would and should have an exceedingly easy time in accepting that there are strident and silly atheists around. But that would be true only in general: how should I decide who are the atheists who are most deserving of my prejudices?

    Well, judging from the public outcries, the gnu atheists are the obvious choice. Except that most of these outcries do not name names, they do not cite the offending passages or document the offending events or if they do, they do not tell what precisely is wrong with the behavior of those gnu hordes. Yes, a lot of very general criticism on their behavior, but to make the case rationally, one needs – absolutely needs – to go into the specifics. And all too often that is glaringly absent.

    So, while it may be unrealistic to think that Bayle´s vision would become a reality among activist atheists any time soon, there surely is some room for Enlightenment here. If we want to learn something from never-ending infighting among the activist atheists, humanists, rationalists etc., let us commit ourselves to rational and fair methods of debating.

    Reading and observing what offends us in their proper context, giving the opponent the benefit of doubt and focusing our critical interests more to the strongest version of the opponents’ case, instead of the scarecrows. When attacking somebody, let us name names and quote and observe properly and give a real critical analysis, instead of an efflux of words giving the pretense of a high moral ground.

    OK, I am aware that this contribution to the discussion may look just self-indulgent and silly because I have just introduced a new species to the Kingdom of Atheist Animals: the rhino atheists. My only justification here is that the regular readers of this blog can easily find examples of cases where the gnus and other strident atheist animals have been unfairly attacked, as if a Black Rhino, suffering from fear, confusion and poor eye sight would charge against the peacefully ruminating gnu.

    My appeal here to gnus is simply this: please, do not to respond in kind!
    Instead, persist in the polite but firm challenge: who are the offending persons, what are the offending articles and events and what precisely is wrong with them? And ask your detractors: do you have some better ideas that would have more beneficial effects?

  13. Atheism thrives on evidence, not innuendo.

    I’d disagree with that statement.No evidence is needed that you don’t collect stamps.If anyone wants to argue they do collect stamps, they better have their collection ready for me to inspect !In short, this argument is ignoring the fact that the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim, not the non-stamp-collector.I’ve been saying this a million times recently, for the claim of an interventionist god, absence of evidence is pretty much evidence of absence.
    Also, being an atheist does not make one a rational thinker.

  14. You know what’s going on here, right? We’re just hoping that the softies will name us. It’s worth extra credit points and for someone to buy a round at the bar if we get specifically named as the most evil of the atheists.

    1. Ha! What would you know about it – you’re always named! What would you know about the gnawing envy of poor neglected bad-tempered atheists like me down here at the bottom of the well wanting to be reviled more often?

Leave a Reply