Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Militant Atheist.

I’ll start by clarifying that it is not my desire to denounce atheism. What is atheism? I’ll quote an atheist commentator I like, Austin Cline:

There is, unfortunately, some disagreement about the definition of atheism. It is interesting to note that most of that disagreement comes from theists — atheists themselves tend to agree on what atheism means. Christians in particular dispute the definition used by atheists and insist that atheism means something very different.
The broader, and more common, understanding of atheism among atheists is quite simply "not believing in any gods." No claims or denials are made — an atheist is just a person who does not happen to be a theist. Sometimes this broader understanding is called "weak" or "implicit" atheism. Most good, complete dictionaries readily support this.


I don’t hold the view that atheists who criticise religion or religious beliefs are necessarily “militant”. More from Cline:

First, religious believers who object to atheistic critiques of religion and theism, demanding more deference and respect, don't typically apply this standard consistently. They don't claim that political beliefs should be accorded more respect and not be criticized harshly. They don't demand that movie or restaurant reviews be less harsh and more deferential. Atheists' criticisms of religion aren't more harsh or intolerant than analogous political, movie, or restaurant criticisms.


A militant person in general is more likely to be characterised as a “militant atheist” or a “militant theist”. So my title definition isn’t so much about a category as much as it is about a type of character. However I would consider some as “categories” of militant atheists, or what I’ll call “Hoffer’s fanatics”, or “mass movement militant atheists”. Here’s a sampling of some of their "wares". And here’s a sampling of one of their websites . Don’t forget to check out the comments section. I don’t think this is very healthy, whether it comes from atheists, or theists, but let’s face it: We’ve had religion shoved down our throats for millennia, and I don’t expect the militant atheists to resort to violence like religious Inquisitors did, so in that sense I can cut them some slack.

You can usually pick out a militant of any persuasion by what their more moderate colleagues say about them, and in this instance I offer as an example the notable Australian atheist Phillip Adams. Phillip was invited to become a patron of The Atheist Society of Australia However, after an interview with Templeton Prize Winner and religionist Charles Birch, Atheist Society President Kevin Solway and some of his colleagues took exception to Adams’ “soft treatment” of Birch.

Correspondence with Phillip Adams:

From: Kevin Solway
To: Phillip Adams
19th July, 1993

Dear Phillip,

Watching "Face the Press" recently forced me to consider that perhaps your association with this Atheist Society is not justified. Are you agnostic or what? Certainly, the small degree of respect you showed to Birch was infinitely more than he deserved. Someone who claims to know that "God has changed since the Big Bang" and then shortly follows this incredible statement by saying that "for something to have value it must be permanent" has no right to call himself a human being. I understand that Birch can make a fool of himself without your help, but no one I know would tolerate such an imbecile for a moment.

Through popular demand the next issue of "The Atheist" will aim to establish your credentials as an atheist. We make no excuse for being fanatical about reason and truth. Only the Birches of this world believe that "ideas cannot be proven".

Phillip, are you an Atheist or a Birch? A or B?

If you wish to defend yourself then you are welcome to do so, because, to be honest, we are having trouble finding anything genuinely atheistic about you (given our lofty conception of what it is to be an atheist).

How about having Dan Rowden and myself on your program to explain why it is impossible for a God to exist? Dan and I would be happy to make the journey to Sydney to appear on your program. We are both in our thirties and I think you would find us to be quite articulate on these matters.

Remember the next issue: "Adams: Man or Mouse?"

Regards,

Kevin Solway


Phillip Adams’ reply to Solway:

From: Phillip Adams
To: Kevin Solway
10 August 1993

Dear Kevin,

Given your growing concern about my credentials as an atheist, I hereby resign as a patron of your Atheist Society. God forbid that I should hang around when I'm not wanted.

I've spent a life-time attacking religious beliefs and have not wavered from a view of the universe that many would regard as bleak. Namely, that it is a meaningless place devoid of deity.

However I'm unwilling simply to repeat the old arguments of the past when, in fact, God is a moving target and is taking all sorts of new shapes and forms. The arguments used against the long bow are not particularly useful when debating nuclear weapons, and the simple arguments against the old model gods are not sufficient when dealing with the likes of Davies et al.
For example, the notion that God didn't exist, doesn't exist but may come into existence through the spread of consciousness throughout the universe is too clever to be pooh-poohed along Bertrand Russel lines. And if I had the time I could give you half a dozen other scientific theologies that will need snappier footwork from the atheist of the future.

Birch is, in my view, a pretentious fart whose philosophies are opportunistic and unconvincing. If people can't see that, that's their problem. In the context of a hydra-headed SBS interview, one hopes that he hoists himself on his own petard.
Incidentally, if there's one thing more infuriating than a silly theologian it's an arid, doctrinaire atheist. I've had dealings with plenty of them over the years, including a famous monster from the US. To profess atheism is not to prove anything, let alone intellectual merit. Some of the narrowest, most dogmatic and silly people I've known have been atheists - or have loudly professed themselves Humanists or Rationalists.

Let the last contribution of your erstwhile patron be to warn you against intellectual arrogance. I've never believed, for a moment, that atheists have all the answers. Just that they pose better questions.

Cheers,

Phillip Adams


I offer this as one of the finest specimens of militant atheism on the part of Solway, without any reservation. But it gets even better. When Paul Davies appeared with Phillip Adams on “The Big Questions”, Solway was “so disgusted by what he saw that he immediately wrote to Davies outlining several objections to his ideas and offering him to come onto our program for a proper discussion about these things”. Imagine that, disgust at a scientist expressing his views. So Paul, it’s time for a “proper” discussion with real thinkers and freedom fighters, those who eject other atheists who don't toe the party line. I’m amazed Davies took up the offer to appear on “The Hour of Judgement”, and even more amazed he lasted sixty minutes.

Solway wrote to Davies:

Dear Sir,

I am the president of the Atheist Society of Australia and the host of the philosophical radio program "The Hour of Judgment" here in Brisbane. I hope you will take a few short moments to read what I believe to be the shortcomings in your arguments concerning God and Nature.

1. You talk about a number of "possible" universes. But in reality only one universe is possible - the one which is caused to happen. So the canvassing of the idea of other "possible" universes is mistaken. You are assuming that there is some kind of free-will, or at least freedom somewhere in the picture, which is an unfounded assumption.


Only one universe is possible? And here’s another specimen of incisive and deep thought:

As with a previous program which we did with physicists (see the QUANTUM PHYSICS episode), the following conversation hinges upon the concept of cause and effect, and it illustrates the difference between the absolute thinking of Kevin and myself, and the relative thinking of scientists. As much as we tried to explain it, Paul Davies was unable to grasp the concept of "cause" in its absolute sense, and it is precisely this failure which will block every attempt of his to achieve the Ultimate Explanation he claims to seek.


Point absolutely taken, Davies doesn’t really understand physics, and all scientists are “irrational” (See interview). Davies’ calm reply makes me think he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize instead of the Templeton Prize. In any case, the Interview with Davies is riveting reading, and all you need to do is read his replies.

The other aspect to the militant atheist is covered by Eric Hoffer. Some mistakenly think that Hoffer was specifically addressing religious fanaticism in his ideas, but he wasn’t, he was addressing “the mind of the fanatic”, or even the militant. So when you read the following quotes turn the tables and apply them to the militant, or fanatical atheist:

When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need for something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.

Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity. The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.

Collective unity is not the result of the brotherly love of the faithful for each other. The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole — the church, party, nation — and not to his fellow true believer. True loyalty between individuals is possible only in a loose and relatively free society.

Whenever we proclaim the uniqueness of a religion, a truth, a leader, a nation, a race, a part or a holy cause, we are also proclaiming our own uniqueness.

The weakness of a soul is proportionate to the number of truths that must be kept from it.

When we believe ourselves in possession of the only truth, we are likely to be indifferent to common everyday truths.


I will conclude with some thoughts. I believe that our alliances with movements, or organizations, or “holy causes” (secular or religious), whether in body or just too-strong sentiment, can have a corrosive influence on our individuality. Note the “can”, not “must”. We are tribal by nature, and we seek like minds to confirm our rightness and uniqueness of opinion. After being involved with the Mormon Church for 13 years, followed by some three years involvement with the Rationalist Association of NSW, I have seen fanaticism on both sides. Sometime after that I decided that I would never again compromise myself with commitment to any organization. I have an almost irrational dislike of the word “organization” (I'm excluding of course charities or liberation movements such as "Free Tibet", which I'll happily support). We also tend to be hero-worshippers; to look for that person who embodies everything we like and want to be, which we cannot match up to ourselves, hence the sharpness of Hoffer’s observations. No greater illustration of this is shown in the need for a Messiah, a sinless figure who carries the weight of all our individual and collective guilt. Someone needs to die for our sins, so our lives can have meaning. We are riddled to the core with superstition and insecurity. The militant or fanatical atheist, on the other hand, finds his solace in self-assured and self-centred arrogance, as we’ve seen in two little atheist hedge hogs trying to “rectify” the thinking of one of perhaps the world’s best known physicist. I leave you to ponder the last word from Solway to Phillip Adams, then Adams back to Solway:

Solway:

Through popular demand the next issue of "The Atheist" will aim to establish your credentials as an atheist. We make no excuse for being fanatical about reason and truth. Only the Birches of this world believe that "ideas cannot be proven".


Adams:

Incidentally, if there's one thing more infuriating than a silly theologian it's an arid, doctrinaire atheist. I've had dealings with plenty of them over the years, including a famous monster from the US. To profess atheism is not to prove anything, let alone intellectual merit. Some of the narrowest, most dogmatic and silly people I've known have been atheists - or have loudly professed themselves Humanists or Rationalists.
Let the last contribution of your erstwhile patron be to warn you against intellectual arrogance. I've never believed, for a moment, that atheists have all the answers. Just that they pose better questions.


Phillip, I’m almost tempted to make you my hero.

Clarification: The above scenario between Adams/Solway occurred over ten years ago, so I have no idea what their current thoughts are about what occurred. This exchange was just a timely reminder to me why I stopped associating with the Rationalists 20 years ago.

Related Links

1. The Greatest Debate

"Atheism is being represented by that unholy trinity aggressively and probably a bit unhelpfully," [Phillip]Adams says. "I think we should turn the thermostat down a bit." He doesn't regard himself as aggressive and argues that in various of his causes the only support he is able to rely on is from nuns and Jesuits. Of the rest he says: "You need the buggers, they are not all Ku Klux Klan. In a pluralist world religious multiculturalism is a fact, so get over it.

"I am not an a-theist (anti-theist) in the sense of being attacking. I look at people who believe with the best of intentions but I think: How can you possibly believe this?' So my original book and its new edition are much more conciliatory. I have long since given up trying to convince people: you cannot reason people out of an irrational belief. Dawkins and Hitchens seem to think they can do it."

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