Rosenhouse does it again

December 7, 2011 • 8:21 am

Jason “Hot Dog” Rosenhouse is still on a roll, posting a trenchant essay nearly every day.  Yesterday, in a piece called “Politics and nonbelief,” Jason takes after two especially annoying “atheists,” R. Joseph Hoffman and his acolyte Jacques Berlinerbrau.  I put “atheists” in quotes because although these fellows profess nonbelief, they’re always tut-tutting around the edges of New Atheism, criticizing us because we don’t do things right, because we’re politicially unsophisticated, and especially because we’re abysmally ignorant of the history of atheism, so that the glorious lucubrations of Bertrand Russell et al. have descended to the unproductive rantings of Dawkins and Hitchens.

The real reason for their ire is, I think, is that Hoffmann and Berlinerbrau are jealous of the success of the New Atheists.  Their turgid and scholarly prose leaves no imprint on society, much less academia, and so they’re reduced to lecturing those folks who do get attention, who actually accomplish something.  Jason’s essay handily dismantles their pretensions.

I read Hoffman’s essay, “Atheism’s little idea,” last week, but found it too infuriating to write about.  Jason calls it “stunningly idiotic.”  That’s strong words for Rosenhouse, but he’s right.  Yet he reserves most of his ire for an equally infuriating essay by Jacques Berlinerbrau at The Chronicle of Higher Education,The political future of atheism in America: Don’t go it alone.”  (Berlinerbrau’s moronic essays always fall hard on the heels of ones by Hoffman.) Although Berlinerbrau’s piece is surprisingly incoherent, when it does make sense it’s simply stupid, as when he asserts that New Atheists want to “abolish religion.”  And he offers no guidance about how we’re really supposed to effect change: all he says is that we’re doing it rong.  It’s a form of academic preening.  Go see Jason’s analysis, which is spot on:

It is when I read essays like Berlinerblau’s that I understand why academics are thought to live in ivory towers. I catch a glimpse of what anti-intellectualism is all about. Atheists were politically irrelevant and reviled long before Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris came along. They had nothing to do with creating the political difficulties atheists face, and there is not a shred of evidence that anything has gotten worse for atheists because of their work.

What has changed as a result of their efforts is that atheists are now far more visible than ever before. By writing a few books, and standing tall in the face of extraordinary vituperation from outraged religious folks, they have shown that there is a surprisingly large market for atheism in this country. No one predicted that their books would be hugely successful, but people are still talking vigorously about them years after they were published. Aided by bloggers, and by numerous unheralded organizers on the ground, we now have a vibrant community of nonbelievers, both online and real world. The numerous well-attended conferences, and, yes, the billboards and merchandise, are all positive developments. Considering how deep in its own endzone atheism was starting, I’d say the New Atheists have accomplished something pretty impressive.

Then here come the Berlinerblau’s of the world to tut-tut and to criticize. It’s all so vulgar and low brow and not at all the sort of thing that scholars investigating the roots of nonbelief in fifteenth-century France care about. Those people on the ground who actually built something are doing it all wrong. He has it all figured out if only people would ask him. He thinks seriously about these issues, you know.

But when it comes time to offer anything concrete we get only talking points and empty rhetoric. Despite how he frames his essay, he never actually tells us what he would do if he were in charge of American atheism. He just criticizes what others are doing. One suspects that he, like so many critics of the New Atheists, don’t actually have any constructive political strategy. To judge from their writing their main agenda has more to do with preserving their own self-rightousness and feelings of superiority.

33 thoughts on “Rosenhouse does it again

  1. If not for the ‘New Atheists’ and Youtube, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon Skepticism or Atheism. So, if Berlinerbrau or Hoffman were in charge instead of the ‘New Atheists’, you would have at least 1 less Atheist in this world.

  2. Philosophers such as Berlinerblau, RJH and Feser remind one of the quote from Cicero (De Divinatione,c.44 BCE): ‘There is nothing so ridiculous but some philosopher has said it.’

    1. It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.

      Nicolo Machiavell

  3. I’m sure I read some decent articles by Hoffmann a few years ago, but this one is truly awful.

    Reminds me a bit of an essay I wrote when I was 14 to impress my (young and attractive) English teacher. She wasn’t impressed.

  4. I’m not sure that the New Atheists are having any effect to the rising tide of godlessness, per se. Rather, what I see in the sociological data (particularly the GSS) makes the New Atheists appear to BE an effect of that tide.

    1. Contrariwise, Berlinerblau overstates matters when he says wanting to abolish religion implies that there is no political future. Granted, there’s no political future to trying to achieve that in the next decade, and probably not the next century even.

      However, religion certainly can be encouraged to atrophy, and kept from overstepping it’s lawful bounds as it tries to prevent that atrophy. And there’s pretty easily some political future in that for the near term.

      1. “The plural of anecdote is not data.” I’m basing my assessment on the GSS data, looking at before and after the circa 2001 advent (yuk, yuk, yuk) of the New Atheists.

        Of course, the NAs do contribute to more people disaffiliating, but no more so than atheists like Sagan before. If they were having a new effect, I’d expect to see a inflection in the demographics trends post-2000. However, the logistic curve against cohort doesn’t seem to have changed. Instead, the rate of disaffiliation continues to remain the standard logistic curve form, unchanged proportional to the fraction of unaffiliated (examples) and the fraction of affiliated (potential deconverts).

        It’s possible the inflection is too small to be obvious — say, changing from a 30 to a 25 year time constant. But I’m not seeing one. Unaffiliation is continuing on the steady logistic curve trend, before and after, ~27 year time constant in cohort, ~2007 midpoint expected, before and after the New Atheists show up. They’re the surfboard on the wave, not the moon causing the tide.

        1. Well, in this case, personal anecdotes are quite sufficient to falsify your claim (well, suggestion) that the New Atheists are not having any effect. Clearly, they are having an effect as people are “converting” because of them, as you now acknowledge.

          And I agree it’s still moot if the effect is new or socially or statistically significant, but that wasn’t what you’d said.


          PS. Do you have a link to the GSS data you cite?

          1. They’re having an effect on people; they are not having an effect on the overall tide of people, because they’re just another manifestation of underlying social factors that have been producing changes all along, and their efforts are just proportionately more pronounced instances of the same thing that’s been happening for decades.

            The GSS is accessible on-line via Berkeley’s Survey Documentation and Analysis website. It’s also possible to download the whole dataset from NORC in SPSS and STATA formats, which free statistical analysis packages like R can also work with.

            The variables I’m most referring to are RELITEN (recoded to go from “none” to “strong”) and COHORT (clustered by decade).

  5. All meta matters. No one wants to talk about biology. Predictable.

    Why discuss facts when you can spout about nothing and get everyone riled up.

    BTW, was the English teacher cute?

    1. Cute and enthusiastic. We used to read Shakespeare with members of the class taking the various roles and her looking on, but when it came to Hamlet she said “I’ve always wanted to play Hamlet, so I’ll be Hamlet”.

  6. Berlinerbrau indulges in the sleazy rhetorical tactic of conflating a movement’s actual aims with its ideal dream-come-true scenario. Yes, most New Atheists would like to see religion die out, but it’s ludicrous to portray the abolition of religion as an aim of the movement. It’s also an underhand way of smearing New Atheists as totalitarians, as any real effort to abolish religion would inevitably require extreme coercion.

    1. It is like accusing medicine and pest control for genocide (of pathogens vs pests).

      Obviously then religion is like small pox. I like that tenuous implication from Berlinerbrau’s argument.

  7. I was present at Berlinerblau’s talk at USC a few weeks ago and I maintain my right to remain unimpressed.

    In addition to the general picture (which I’m sick of at this point) of the “Four Horsemen” somehow having conjured up atheism from the ether, there were some really rather shocking misrepresentations of their views. I’m almost tempted to call them outright lies, because it is difficult to fathom how even an interested non-academic like myself could possibly have taken an interest in the writings and videos of this movement and not noted the constant acknowledgements that e.g. there is a difference between liberal believers and fundamentalists, or that no one wants to “abolish” religion, or that believers often do good deeds out of religious conviction.

    Not once did he or any of the audience members in the Q&A (almost entirely consisting of lots of belief-in-belief liberal babble and buzzwords like “spiritual, not religious” pious affirmations) acknowledge that their alleged atheism entails that religious beliefs are NOT TRUE, and that the only concrete suggestion they can put forward amounts to the demand that the Evul Gnus to STOP MAKING US ADMIT THAT THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BELIEVING WHAT IS TRUE AND WHAT IS FALSE.

    While I disagree strongly, I am honestly willing to entertain a serious argument to the effect that I should refrain (for political reasons) from speaking the truth. But these hand-wringing holier-than-thou accommodationists never seem to have the guts to admit that that is what they are really asking.

    1. That, of course, is what distinguishes the accommodationists: they patronize the believers and further go on to repress them by deliberately encouraging them to persist in believing palpable nonsense.

      Accommodationists and atheists alike know full well that Jesus Claus is just the Easter Christ for adults; the difference is that atheists would like to see people grow up, and the accommodationists would like to leverage the advantage gained by their superior intellectual position into personal advantage. That is, they read Seneca and Machiavelli and mistook them for how-to guides, not dire warnings.



  8. What I find disingenuous is that these articles show how much they consider science and scientists unsophisticated, because scientists have to get their hands dirty collecting evidence to use as data and do research and experiments. While they share fine wines with their theologian friends during with they have ‘philosophical debates’ sitting in the leather bound seats in their stacked bookshelved Ivory Tower. “Now look what the ‘new atheists’ have done by dragging atheism onto the streets and frightening the horses.”

  9. We have to be careful though when we discuss intellects, even of anti-intellectuality, that moves in too rarefied an atmosphere. Science is an elitist social and intellectual arena.

    At the same time science is democratic in that it excludes no one from joining, supporting, learning or being strengthened by it. It is theology and its conjoined twin quasi-theology (philosophy) that demands a risible jump to lofty unsupported heights.

    1. Oops. C&P fail, I meant to say “that moves in too rarefied an atmosphere to sustain a brain”.

      1. Hi Torbjorn.

        I’m not sure where you are going with this? I have been called anti-intellectual by simply dismissing philosophy and holding theology in contempt. Though I’m not sure that I agree with this part of your post. “Science is an elitist social and intellectual arena. “ Science has (mostly) been embraced by the (new) atheists even amongst the none scientist in that they recognize than the advances in mankind have come from science even if they are not scientists themselves. Science has no boundaries as such because an American/European scientists work can be understood by a Chinese/Japanese scientist after the language barrier has been overcome/translated. This was shown in Carl Sagan’s work and even in the movie contact were science (mathematics) was used as a communication device between sentinel species.

        Science (mathematics) is a universal language (understanding of ‘natural laws’) were as philosophy/theology would be nonsense to those who hadn’t been brought up in that culture. You obviously understand this as your second paragraph shows so I fail to see what your point is?

  10. I doubt if Hoffman are much enamoured of the “glorious lucubrations of Russell”- Russell is, if anything, the (if you’ll pardon the expression )’spiritual’ godfather of the New Atheists.

    Nietszche is their go-to guy, with the Existentialists tossed in for filler.

    Russell represents an entirely different lineage of skepticism- calm, rational,scientific and naturalistic- the
    tradition that goes back to Hume, Voltaire and Diderot, and includes such American figures as Jefferson and Madison.

    Their attitude to religion ranged from indifference to amusement at its inanities to anger at its cruelties; they certainly didn’t rend their garments or suffer Dark Teatimes of the Soul over the Death of God.

    In fact, this tradition goes all the way back to Lucretius and Epicurus, who faced the non-existence of the gods with equanimity.

    The Hoffmans who demand the New Atheists render homage to the fallen idols of the past somehow always seem to overlook this far longer and more distinguished line of skeptics.

    1. Russell is, if anything, the (if you’ll pardon the expression )’spiritual’ godfather of the New Atheists

      I”m not sure which is more objectionable, “spiritual” or “godfather” … 😉

      Which prompts the question, what do atheist children have in lieu of godparents?

      But, I agree, that is a finer pedigree, and one that is more closely aligned with gnu atheist sensibilities.


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