Reader writes essay on Robbins, his allegorizing, and his attack on New Atheists

July 10, 2014 • 11:59 am

Reader Maggie Clark made a thoughtful comment on my post yesterday about poet Michael Robbins’s Slate article dissing New Atheism.  It was one of my longer posts, but I’m glad people read it, if only to see every fallacious argument about New Atheism crammed into one venomous essay.  Dawkins-dissing, the claim that New Atheists are ignoramuses about religion, the assertion that literal interpretation of scripture is a modern phenomenon, the accusation that atheists have no good basis for morality, and, of course, the ritual invocation of “good” atheists like Nietzsche—it was all there in an article that could serve as a template for New Atheist Bashing.

Robbins, of course, responded to me, both on the site (see “update” at end of post) and several times by email, despite my asking him to leave me alone. I won’t divulge the contents of his emails except to say that he argues that I misunderstood everything he said, and that wanted the opportunity to “correct me.”  Well, I think I pretty much understood what he said (after all, the piece was intended for for general readers), but “you don’t understand me” is the usual retort of religionists whose claims are easily mocked or refuted, and I have no further wish to engage with the guy. There was further invective about how I lacked wit, but I’ll leave that aside. The man is one of those writers, like Peter Hitchens and Deepak Chopra, who has a thin skin, one of the diagnostic symptoms of Maru’s Syndrome. Such people simply cannot follow the First Rule of Internet Journalism: don’t respond to criticism unless you absolutely have to.

But enough. I wanted to call attention to Maggie’s comment, but even more so to the contents of that comment, which itself called attention to her very nice essay on Robbins’s piece that she’s written on her eponymous website: “Enough already: The anti-atheist article shows its age.” She identifies herself as a “doctoral student of nineteenth century science writing,” and, indeed, she writes very well herself. And she clearly knows her stuff: far more than I do, for instance, about natural theology.

I’ll give a few excerpts from her essay, but I’d encourage readers to go to her digs and comment there, for in her comment she said this:

I’m not usually one to promote my blog posts on other blogs, but I’m still a doctoral student working to translate my academic voice and research into more accessible forms, so any feedback (from any readers here) is very much welcome.

So, two excerpts. Note, though, that most of Maggie’s article is about the history of tension between science and theology, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m just giving here her take on Robbins’s piece. You’ll learn a lot more by reading the whole thing.

Such articles [Robbins’s] always have their easy cannon-fodder, with the likes of Dawkins or Hitchens thrown in as de facto examples of what Robbins terms “evangelical atheism” and others have termed “militant atheism”. These terms almost never appear with any sort of textual evidence (for instance, in what way “evangelical”–knocking on doors to spread the good word of atheism? and in what way “militant”–agitating for the persecution of believers?), and so serve as little more than caricatures in an already highly-caricatured debate.

Other terms in Robbins’ article are likewise, predictably heated, with “Dawkins and his ilk” identified as the “intellectually lazy” successors to Spencer’s history. This generic flogging of Dawkins should be a warning for anyone seeking insightful commentary about science and religion; it only signals for the reader that this piece is not going to concern itself so much with ideas as with the people who forward them. Robbins even ends his article with a quote lamenting the lack of such ideas-based discourse–“Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be”–without expressing any self-awareness as to how rhetoric like his keeps this conversation off-point.

Not bad writing, eh? Here’s her conclusion:

Which brings us to the shape of our culture–this digital, Anglocentric, North American community in which we see time and again the popularity of articles like Robbins’: anti-atheist rhetoric by an author who nevertheless claims to want a more thoughtful discussion, a discussion in which atheists and theists are speaking directly to one another instead of over each other’s heads. But in a review that centrally castigates a caricature of modern atheism on a poorly-evidenced charge of historical ignorance, Robbins instead evades important histories of his own: histories of thoughtful theists, learned and layman alike, who over the last two millennia looked to the natural world assuming it carried literal Biblical histories both within and upon it.

Robbins and similar religious writers try to chalk up such theists to mere fundamentalists, and accuse atheists of targeting the “low-hanging fruit” of Biblical incoherence and Creationist nonsense instead of tackling “sophisticated” arguments like David Bentley Hart’s, which involves a “ground-of-all-being” god-concept: ineffable, Deistic, (still male), yet somehow of personal relevance when contemplating how best to live. But for all these attempts to place the god debate outside the world we all live in, the great bulk of Judeo-Christian history still lies with those theists who believed in a personal, present, and active creator as described in the Bible, even as both the natural world and weight of social history revealed less and less synchronicity with Biblical descriptions and prescriptions over time.

Diminishing the reality and diversity of such Biblical adherents–and thus dismissing consequent atheist concerns about how to build a better society when people still believe in this sort of god when making political and personal decisions–isn’t even “talking past each other”; it’s denying the full and profoundly human range of voices at the table. Surely we’re capable of more.

If you read her piece, you’ll see that Ms. Clark is a thoughtful and engaging writer. She’s definitely worth following, and I say that not just because she agrees with me. As noted above, she wants feedback, so go over and give her some.



28 thoughts on “Reader writes essay on Robbins, his allegorizing, and his attack on New Atheists

  1. like you tore down Haught in that debate, time to take these nutters on in a one-on-one full debate!

    Their lack of ANY valid points will show up when confronted.

  2. When theists use the argument tactic “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then you point out that theist pray to God to smite their enemies – then they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”… this tactic is described in a paper critiquing post-modernists; they call it the Motte and Bailey doctrine.

    The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

    By this metaphor, statements like “God is an extremely powerful supernatural being who punishes my enemies” are the bailey – not defensible at all, but if you can manage to hold them you’ve got it made.

    Statements like “God is just the order and love in the universe” are the motte – extremely defensible, but useless.

        1. There is also an element of wanting to have it both ways: a personal but logically indefensible god AND a ground-of-being god who sounds more philosophical and sophisticated.

    1. Statements like “God is just the order and love in the universe” are the motte – extremely defensible, but useless.

      Defensible if you ignore the problem of evil. The order in the universe doesn’t seem overly concerned with love.

      Other than that, spot on imo.

    2. What a perfectly cromulent term you have brought to us! I shall take that with me in future, as it’s too apt and beautiful a metaphor to leave in obscurity.

      1. Sorry, I just realized cromulent doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. D’oh!

        I do genuinely think Motte and Bailey Doctrine is a good phrase, by the way.

    3. Joining the chorus, a very nice piece, thanks for the link.

      Let’s help the term Motte and Bailey Doctrine to become as well known as the Courtier’s Reply or the Little People Argument – these things are so much easier to spot when you have a word for them.

    4. Happy to know exactly what you’re talking about, having just seen a History Channel documentary of Dan Snow walking along a chain of motte-and-bailey castles built by the Normans before 1066 along the England-Wales border (in fact defining it).

  3. We are capable of more. Of course, the religious can argue that their faith gives them the courage to do more. That is dishonest. It is dishonest to oneself and to others when proclamations of faith are used to justify claims about existence.

  4. The history of religion is eye-opening and should give pause to those who would whitewash its terrible history. I’ve been reading Nature’s God by Matthew Stewart, which is a history of the people, both famous and less so, who did so much to shape the thinking of Americans around the time the republic was born. Stewart shows how truly radical these people were, and how heretical their views of religion were.

    In his 1742 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” the preacher Jonathan Edwards told the congregation that God “holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, over the fire…” According to one newspaper “The terrible language…frequently frights the little children and sets then Screaming…” Modern theologians would like us to forget this.

  5. There’s an anecdote about the famously Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who, when told by a dinner guest that the Eucharist is a “good symbol,” responded by saying, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” To true believers like O’Connor, the Eucharist, of course, was not just a symbol, but people like Robbins forget or ignore that. And even if he was somehow proven right about religion being metaphorical, “to hell with it then” would be the appropriate response.

  6. I sometimes wonder which Nietzsche these apologists like Robbins are referring to. The Nietzsche who, recognising the concept of God was already dead, criticised its value system as decadent and nihilistic, with the remaining shadows of its influence needing to be vanquished? The Nietzsche who saw Christianity as a joyless, sickly ideology which required one to wash ones hands and breathe in clean air after coming into contact with it? Nietzsche was just as brutal and scathing as contemporary critics of Christianity except his aim was different and his voice, perhaps, more poetic.

    1. You’ve hit on it. These theists are all romantic Humanities people. (I say that as I hold a degree in Literature from an Ivy).

      Nietzsche is seen as one of them, coming from the same canonical cultural context. Luckily so does Maggie Clark.

  7. I had a falling-out with a friend a few years ago over his “worship” of Sigmund Freud: according to him, Freud “had it all figured out” and if the world would only realize it all human behavior would be perfectly explained. As, in our Email exchange, I pointed out numerous fallacies, inconsistencies, and just plain “wrongity-wrongs” about Freud’s theories (which Freud felt so strongly were true revelations, not mere “theories” that he felt any testing of them was unnecessary and, indeed, an insult to their inherent truth), he tried the old ploy with me that one needed to read All of Freud’s works in order to be able to truly understand just how right the man was and that one HAD to do so in order to be qualified to raise any real, “respectable” criticisms as to their veracity.

    The “straw that broke the camel’s back”, so far as our relationship goes (he hasn’t spoken to me since) was when I responded with, “I don’t have to read ALL of a book to know it’s bullshit; if I run across a passage where a little voice in my head says, ‘This is bullshit’, and it happens several more times (especially when it’s in reference to the basic theme, claim, or intent of the work) I feel that I can pretty reliably conclude that the entire book is bullshit, although it may have some “gems” of truth in it, scattered here and there.”

    The lamentation that atheists and believers just aren’t engaging in the “right” kind of dialogue amuses me: what kind of dialogue would THAT be; one with the atheists gagged and a device strapped to them that makes their heads nod at the proper places? The “dialogue” is ALREADY going on; has been, for many years, and here’s how it goes, over and over: the believers lay out their claims, and what little evidence they have for them; the atheists point out the fallacies, mistakes, and lack of evidence in their arguments, and the believers get upset. When they get upset, they do things like write books, book reviews, or lengthy articles in “We’ll publish anyone” rags like HuffPo and Salon to vent their frustration that atheists just don’t have the “faith” to see things their way. And so on, and so on….

    1. Can I put in a word in Freud’s defence? So much of Freud is wrong (and unfalsifiable – if cause a has effect A that’s to be expected, and if cause a has effect not-A, that’s because it really has effect A but the person is overcompensating, and so on) that we’re in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

      His radical insights that
      a) much of our mental processing is not at a conscious level and
      b) sex is much more important than his contemporaries were allowed to think,
      are still worthy of study, especially when taken together.

  8. Except for the use of the bizarre confabulation ‘Judaeo-Christian’ (whatever that means), it’s not bad.

  9. Man, I’m sure getting tired of “If atheists were only HUMBLE, like me, then they, too, would be omniscent, like me.” I don’t think this word means what they think it means.

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