Acts of the Apostles, 15:36
After these many days, Adam said to Mark: ‘You should check out this article by Greg Sheridan in The Australian for I agree with it. Ping Rachel Baxendale.’ And Mark, who was called Mark, agreed that he should check it out but disagreed with the argument. Adam thought Mark’s disagreement was unwise and told him to be a grown up. And there arose a paroxysmos between them, so they decided to duel blogs on the issue. [Source]
It’s hard work being a right wing columnist in Australia. Day after day, you need to pump out your column inches just to fend off all the bright young things aspiring to topple you off your tree. Although Greg Sheridan is already out of his tree, following his argument regarding the Catholic mass proves to be quite difficult.
The article was hardly off to a flying start:
Tony Abbott remarked recently that the great silence about our indigenous inheritance has been blessedly banished, but that substituting for it now is a new silence about our inheritance from Western civilisation.
‘Remarked recently’. ’Indigenous inheritance’. ’Blessedly banished’. ’Substituting… now … new … silence’. The author of this ugly, barbaric sentence is about to lecture us in aesthetics. Hold on tight.
Sheridan is a great fan of the culture wars. Don’t let me deceive you — I think Greg Sheridan and I share a number of views on the importance of understanding ‘our inheritance from Western civilisation’. Unlike Sheridan, I don’t think this is a zero sum game. I don’t think that there is something to regret from affirming other cultural histories. I don’t think all the other cultures are desperately trying to tear down my history.
Having expressed the concern that we are becoming disconnected from our cultural past, Sheridan focuses the conversation on ‘suburban Catholic mass’. The new Pope, he claims, is pushing for an ‘evangelising church’. Sheridan suspects this arises from the Pope’s contact with protestant missionaries in Latin America.
The religious message these movements preach is similar to Catholicism, but the style is much more vigorous. After attending a range of suburban masses in recent years, I am struck by their evangelical timidity, mid-register blandness and cultural confusion.
I didn’t edit a part out there. Sheridan has jumped straight from discussion about the ‘style’ of missionaries in Latin America into a comment on the evangelical timidity, mid-register blandness and cultural confusion of suburban churches. Remember, this guy is about to get fiery about aesthetics…
Until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholic worship was austere but deeply beautiful. It was conducted in Latin (the English translation was printed in the missals). It created a spirit of awe and reverence; its musical tradition was sublime.
So Sheridan has created three quite distinct archetypes: the evangelical vigor of the Latin American protestants, the mid-register blandness of suburbian Catholicism, and the austere but deeply beautiful worship of 1960s Catholics. Now watch the cups spin ’round.
In purely cultural terms, few human creations are more beautiful than Gregorian chant – plain, melodious, rich, serene.
In purely cultural terms. Purely cultural. What does that even mean here? Further, which people back in the 1960s were singing Gregorian chants? The congregation? I can still sing a mean Kyrie but does Sheridan really think this is a skill shared by the faithful?
So Sheridan has created this pseudo-history convenient to his argument. Back in the past, there was this austere but deeply beautiful worship of 1960s Catholics, but:
But in the effort to be culturally hip and contemporary, the mass, in Western countries at least, adopted a kind of folk informality that militates against the sublime, the reverential, the transcendent. The worst mistake was to adopt the folk music idiom of the 60s and 70s for church hymns. This idiom is deeply unmusical and has produced nothing lasting. Folk hymns now are mournful, wholly unmemorable, frequently banal in their lyrics. In desperation, parish priests flee to other styles of music, but this is sometimes even worse, muzak recordings, pop-easy listening hits with a vaguely religious sentiment.
And here we have the problem. Sheridan has seen a shift away from his archetype as an attack on his beloved archetype. We saw this argument structure earlier: a shift towards other cultures was an attack against his own. In Sheridan’s world, the Church was given a menu of options and caved to left wing pressures to select the option which most obliterated the connexion between history and the present.
This is like the Dan Brown of liturgical commentary.
But Sheridan doesn’t stick here. Remember, we have three archetypes in play.
Recently I attended an evangelical Protestant service and the contrast was stunning. The evangelicals don’t aim for the sublime and reverent but rather the energetic and uplifting. They approach the music as a central part of their church service, while the preacher speaks with passionate commitment, drawing freely on their own inner life. This may not be typical, but it was culturally coherent, the aesthetics and sensuous aspects of the worship supporting the religious sentiment. The middle-ground blandness of many parishes now seems exactly the wrong compromise.
So Sheridan’s answer to the conundrum he has baked is to opt, in lieu of the sublime and beautiful, for the entertaining. ’Energetic and uplifting’ is the aesthetic supporting the religious sentiment.
Theology and atheology in popular culture is suffering from painful vacuity. We are not a culture that can grapple with the big issues and really nut them out. My recent reviews of films and whatnot which analyse my reception has been criticised by a few friends because I should, in their words, ‘switch off’. We have entertainment not to heighten our experience of the world, not to enrich our understanding of our world, but to dull our senses. Opiate of the masses, indeed.
Why, then, would you want this same kind of entertainment to infiltrate religious services? Why should the emphasis of a religious service be on entertaining the congregation rather than trying to reconnect them to the sense of the divine?
If unfunny comedians are the cancer killing pop-atheism, energetic music is the cancer killing protestant church services. It is just so unspeakably awful.
A bit of personal background: I used to play the organ and keyboard for the local mass. I was the only atheist who ever did so. When I moved to an Anglican school, I was the only atheist on the chapel committee. The music might be more bland at the Catholic mass, but it’s a damn sight better than the ‘Pop song with one key word changed to “God”‘ approach. The latter is more energetic and uplifting, but it does not provide the intellectual space for reflexion on the divine.
Or, in my case, the opportunity to reflect on what it meant to be an atheist.
Ignore the rest of Sheridan’s waffly garbage. Let’s get to the heart of what Sheridan got wrong: the purpose of sacred music.
For some background, we can turn to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Sacrosanctum Concilium.
112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.
Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song, and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.
Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.
It’s hard to see protestant ‘energetic and uplifting’ songs meet the measure of ‘greater solemnity’. There’s nothing solemn about the soft rock hymn ‘I’ve been forgiven, I’ve been set free, restored and sanctified, my God has set me free…’. The ‘hymn’ is flatly ridiculous. Or that other hymn which stole the music from the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. That was funny, not solemn.
Sheridan doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of what sacred music is about. While pining for the good old days when everybody’d gather around the pipe organ for a rattling out of some Gregorian chanting, he forgets the reason why we had to shift. Again, from Sac.Conc.:
114. The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.
So there are two main requirements for sacred music: that it is solemn and that the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute. Gregorian Chant fails the latter; protestant Christian rock fails the former.
But let’s scroll back to Sheridan’s earliest comments about the Pope being from Latin America. Again, Sac.Conc. has Sheridan’s puzzle solved long before Sheridan started navel gazing:
119. In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40.
Therefore, when missionaries are being given training in music, every effort should be made to see that they become competent in promoting the traditional music of these peoples, both in schools and in sacred services, as far as may be practicable.
The problem with modern hymns is not that they are boring, but that they do not celebrate our musical traditions. The solution is not to go down the fancy path of ‘energetic and uplifting’ songs, but to go down the path of rediscovering our musical heritage as it is understood in the modern context. We should have the most beautiful English language hymns which reflect the solemnity of the Catholic mass and which allow the whole body of the faithful to contribute.
‘I’m Greg Sheridan and I am bored’ is not a helpful piece of commentary on the aesthetics of religious worship.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheridan hadn’t read the background texts before passing comment. Here’s my copy:
Look, the part where Sheridan and I agree is the lack of beauty in modern culture. But our society is not currently geared towards having nice things like Latin mass. School children are not forced to study Latin (despite my Tweets to Andrew Leigh). And the broader population is seeking something new in its connexion with the divine. It’s seeking a new form of meaning which Gregorian chant simply does not provide. Hell, a few years ago, a bunch of monks released pop songs in Gregorian chant form.
Yeah. Totally sublime.
We need to recapture what was important in our cultural tradition. Too many conservatives think that we need to preserve every last detail and ensure they are repeated in perpetuity. But we need to remember why the Church uses Latin in the first place: to connect with the ordinary people. The Vulgate connected them with what was beautiful in Scripture. A modern hymn should connect ordinary people with what is beautiful about the Church.
We’re not living in the 1960s, Sheridan. It’s time to buy a new calendar.
You make the whole world want to dance…
So we have a new Pope and he’s totally a Jesuit. A Jesuit. From the Society of Jesus. Didn’t Dan Brown say something about Jesuits? Weren’t Jesuits another name for Opus Dei, the Illuminati, and the Reptile Lizard People? Wasn’t Tony Abbott advised by an influential Jesuit?
For an institution as old and as influential as it is, it is strange that the Catholic Church is so poorly understood and so often misrepresented. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of theology are understandable; theology is difficult and popular culture has neither the time nor the inclination to grasp its subtleties. It’s why Dawkins can sit on Australian television guffawing about Cardinel Pell’s grasp of human evolution, while simultaneously making stupid comments about how Catholics understand the concept of the soul. Knowing about science is Important, but knowing about theology is a Waste of Time (especially, it seems, for people who write books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion).
But misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Church itself seem less understandable. Perhaps it’s because of the huge amount of anti-Catholic propaganda circulating the place. Perhaps it’s because the Catholic Church has a history of not being entirely open about its wheelings and dealings. And perhaps it’s because people just like to think the worst about large organisations and powerful individuals.
When Pope Benedict XVI declared his intent to resign, social media went into meltdown. ’The Pope?! Resigning?! Can the Pope resign?!’ I had a rather testy exchange with Alan Fisher, a senior journalist with Al Jazeera, when he added to the noise of ‘Oh, wow! How is this even happening?!’ His role, I argued, was not to be as ignorant as the average punter, but to be a source of information for the average punter. He disagreed, figuring that the media was supposed to be a mirror of public reaction or some crap. But when the media appears to be mystified by the mysteries of the Church, how is the ordinary public supposed to keep up? (More cynically, I think they feign mystification in order to hype up the news: ‘The Catholic Church acted in a way contrary to ignorant public expectation; this is extraordinary news! Click here! Retweet this! Linkbait! Linkbaaaait!’)
But problems with Pope Benedict XVI’s image went further than mere astonishment at everything he did. He had significant image difficulties. This shouldn’t have been a problem, given that he was a man of substance — but when the wider world gets its information in 2-second bites, looking like Emperor Palpatine did more to influence public perception than anything written in an encyclical.
Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. It also appears to be true that the wider world wants nothing more than a non-Catholic Pope. ’This Pope is anti-condoms, homophobic, and believes in the resurrection of Jesus?! Way to stay in the Dark Ages, Catholic Church.’ It is strange to compare the Pope with the Dalai Lama; while the Dalai Lama is homophobic and occupies a weird place in Tibetan politics, he gets the benefit of being a smiling, goofy-looking Asian. Pope John Paul II was an Old, White Guy. Pope Benedict XVI was formerly of the Hitler Youth or something. And while the Dalai Lama occupies a fantasy role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white Buddhists (who totally think it’s a philosophy and not a religion, and who think they can pick and choose the bits which affirm their affectations), the Pope is Catholic. Horribly, horribly Catholic.
Somewhere in this space is the attitude that you don’t need to understand the Catholic Church in order to criticise it. Child abuse! Anti-condoms! Dan Brown! But it could also be that we feel it’s not possible not to know something so omnipresent and influential.
The Church has a lot of problems to resolve, and it needs to resolve them quickly. The problem of child abuse (and abuse in general) has a systemic and long-standing problem, and an academic Pope might not be the best person to address those needs. But the problem needs to be understood before it can be solved: is the problem that there’s abuse within the Church, or that the Church knew about the abuse and did nothing, or that the Church knew about the abuse and covered it up, or that the Church suspected the abuse but had structures which tried to avoid addressing the issues, or &c.? When the prevailing attitude is ‘Boo! Catholics!’ it is difficult to nut out the problem of abuse. I hope that the Catholic Church in Australia engages with these questions. Given some of the people responsible for engaging with the Royal Commission, I think that there’s a good chance of that happening. In fairness, although the Catholic Church has had some of histories finest apologists, the Church itself has never been sufficiently apologetic for its past and current crimes.
But part of the solution has to be a reengagement with the community. The Church has become like an estranged father, shadow looming over the community as it tries to rebel. The image problems, the conspiracy theories, and, now, the questions about what it means for a Jesuit to be CEO of the Corp are symptoms of the disconnect.
And this is all said by a devout and practicing atheist. A healthy, open, and connected Church is in the interests of everybody, not just Catholics. I hope that Pope Francis is capable of the task.
I find it’s all our waves and raves that makes the days go on this way… Anti-blasphemy laws are good for you #atheism #auspol
We need to get something out of the way: Australia is not Syria.
I know. You’re probably shocked at this revelation. You were probably sitting at work in your office, going slightly grey under the fluorescent lights, contemplating going for another coffee, and thinking: ‘Shit, I can’t work it out. Am I in Australia or am I in Syria? They’re so alike.’
No. Australia is not Syria. Australia is not even close to being Syria. No policy implementation exists which could increase the risk of Australia being Syria. Australia is not Syria.
Now that we’ve got that controversial point out of the way, we can talk about freedom of speech.
The language we use to describe our rights often reveals our biases and assumptions. ’Freedom of speech’. It sounds so noble but it hides a lot of implications. ’Freedom of speech, even if that means offending.’ ’Freedom of speech, even if that means a group of people don’t feel welcome in society.’ ’Freedom of speech, even if that means putting people in danger.’
For example, when Adam Brereton writes:
Make no mistake, Wilders has nothing new or interesting to say on the topic of Islam. But in an ideal world we would welcome him to Australia with open arms so he can be torn to shreds in the arena of public debate.
What he’s really saying is that tearing Wilders to shreds in the parry and thrust of public debate is more important than the right of Australian Muslims to go about their lives here in Australia unmolested by racist cranks. A lot of our debate about freedom of speech is really about normalising or silencing the problem of externalisation: somebody else pays the price of our pursuit of particular rights. As I said in a recent post, nobody can say anything — short of making absurd death threats or shocking me with praise of Osama bin Laden — which will upset me in the same way I can upset somebody who’s religious, or homosexual, or an ethnic minority, or any other marginalised group.
Most people accept that defamation is a legitimate restriction on the freedom of speech. You can’t use your freedom to damage the reputation of somebody else. If ever there were a self-serving case of special pleading, I’ve yet to come across it. ’Oh, protecting the interests of wealthy people who can afford to use the legal system is a legitimate restriction of free expression… but protecting the interest of marginalised people who are excluded from easy access to the legal system? No. That’s making us much more like Syria.’
Despite being an atheist, it’s no secret that I’m pro-Islam. I think it’s a great religion, as far as religions go. It preserved the works of Aristotle, after all. I’m also a staunch pluralist (rather than secularist) and think it’s extremely important for the promotion of conservative values to make Australia as inclusive as possible.
But perhaps you don’t share my enthusiasm for inclusiveness. Perhaps you’re really attached to the idea that freedom of speech is not just an adolescent whinge.
I still think you should support anti-blasphemy laws.
On the one hand, you have the indignation and outrage of a large group of people who feel marginalised and excluded from mainstream public conversation. They are repeatedly told: ‘No, you don’t belong here. Your anger is illegitimate. Your outrage shows how uncivilised and backwards you are.’ In response, they look to the organs of state to protect them. They want some legislated protection from the excesses of ‘freedom of speech’. They want anti-blasphemy laws.
To define something is to limit it. So an anti-blasphemy law not only restricts freedom of speech in some way, it also restricts the informed conversation about blasphemy. It draws a circle around it.
Imagine if we had a law which said: ‘It is unlawful to perform an act in public which would, in the view of a reasonable person, insult, offend, ridicule, or humiliate a person or a group of people based on their religious beliefs (including atheism as a religious belief because it totally is)… except where the act is a good faith engagement in a scientific debate, or artistic production, or public debate, &c., &c.’
In one swift move, you have protected the most important aspects of freedom of speech — the right to have an open, honest, frank, and fearless debate — from the increasingly persuasive case of various minorities that they’re victimised in society by the assumptive pursuit of freedom of speech.
Thus, everybody should be in support of anti-blasphemy laws. They make a more inclusive society and they uphold the importance of free speech.
A friend of mine sends me links to Futility Closet. It’s awesome.
One post recently caught my attention: ‘Ordained‘.
If God makes decisions, then he has a future.
But if he’s omniscient, then he already knows that future.
Can he then have free will?
Let’s be kind and pretend that the structure is logically sound (it’s not, but we can see what it’s trying to do). And let’s tweak it so it uses more familiar language (‘If God makes decisions, then he has a future’?).
If God is omnipotent, He can do anything.
If God is omniscient, God knows what He will do tomorrow.
If God knows what He will do tomorrow, can He change His mind and do something else?
A lot of pop-atheist debate begins with setting out a definition of terms. The standard method is to use a lick-of-the-thumb common language approach. Omniscient means ‘can do anything’. Omniscient means ‘knows everything’.
The problem with this approach is that denies that there’s anything intellectually serious about theology. Imagine the outcry if a theist began an argument against Darwinism by defining evolution as ‘That thing Pokemon do to turn into stronger Pokemon.’ When physicists use terms, they might have specialist meanings that aren’t in common with the general public. Why do we expect theological terms to be different?
Also, if we define terms in a way which is prejudicial to the case of our interlocutors, then refuse to analyse those definitions, are we really having a discussion about the possibility of God?
When we say that an omnipotent being can do anything, what do we mean by ‘anything’? Could an omnipotent agent make twice two equal to five? Could an omnipotent agent microwave a burrito so hot that they could not eat it? Could an omnipotent agent make colourless green dreams sleep furiously? Could an omnipotent agent defeat Ganon in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with the Fire Rod (instead of the Silver Arrows) without breaking the rules of the game?
Language allows for a lot of valid constructions which don’t necessarily link to sensible ideas. When we’re talking about omnipotence, is it reasonable to point to this failure of language as an inconsistency in the logic of omnipotence?
Thus, theologians and philosophers play with a lot of different ideas of omnipotence and the consequences of those ideas. Perhaps ‘omnipotence’ means ‘a being more capable of activity greater than which it is impossible to conceive’? In which case, omnipotence might not be terribly great: what if, for some strange reason, it’s not logically possible in some world to lift more than 51 kilogrammes? What if our ability to conceive great things is really rubbish and there are beings which are possible but not conceivable? And so on and so forth. Thus, theology and philosophy of religion.
But let’s be civilised about it and say: ‘While we can’t give a really good definition of omnipotence, we basically agree on what we mean. Super-dooper powerful. If your omnipotent being can’t change their mind, you’ve got a problem with omnipotence.’
We similarly unpack the idea of omniscience. Are future states ‘knowable’? This is a contested point (future propositions might not have truth values). Are the actions of a free agent ‘knowable’? This is another contested point.
But we don’t need to play with those ideas too much. We can instead look at what it means to know something. I have TiVo. It taped a live program this evening (Q&A). If I watch the program now, I know what the agents will say. That doesn’t mean that the agents were restricted in power at the time it was recorded. Knowing the outcome of the event is secondary to the determination of the event. Similarly, an omniscient’s knowledge of future events (if possible) isn’t what determines the future event; this knowledge is secondary to the determination of those future events.
That got pretty dense.
I go through this for a broader reason than just the above argument. When people drop these three-liners, they rarely explore the assumptions being made which underpin them. Big name atheists — significantly moreso than big name theists — routinely make these sort of handwaved arguments without coming terms with what the arguments mean. Indeed, ordinary pop-atheists are actively discouraged from exploring them.
I’m an atheist, and the above, to me, shows why religious education in public schools is essential to a pluralistic society in the future. We need a population that can discuss and interrogate its religious beliefs and its irreligious beliefs intelligently and coherently. We don’t have a population that’s capable of it at the moment. Why? Because religious education, where taught, is taught by well-meaning volunteers who don’t understand the importance of good religious education, and they’re opposed by a loud group of well-meaning atheists who are incapable of any reason regarding the place of religion in society.
The future is pluralism; not secularism.
In my previous post, I outlined the problems which arise when you just assume slogans such as ‘Separation of Church and State’ and ‘We should have a secular nation’. These problems multiply exponentially when the target of your attack is unclear.
Take, for example, Adam Brereton’s piece in New Matilda:
One of the more controversial policies announced by the Treasurer in the recent budget was the decision to pledge $222 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program. The scheme has been dogged byclaims chaplains have been proselytising to students, and critics argue the money could be better spent on trained counsellors if pastoral care is at stake. [Source: Brereton, 'Keep the Proselytisers Where They Belong', New Matilda]
Just an aside: until there’s some actual evidence rather than fourth- and fifth-hand stories, ignore the ‘claims’. It smells a bit fishy that the ‘claims’ are all coming from the usual group of attention-seeking fringe-dwellers — and I’ll write something up about Leslie Cannold’s recent atrocity in the name of reason soon.
So the question at play is whether public funding should go to supporting chaplains in schools. It’s a complex question about the role governments have in supporting communities, about the role of religion in society, and about whether we agree with the policy goals (if there are any).
[B]ut, distasteful as it is, the last 50 years of state sponsored religion in schools should indicate it’s not an aberration. We have no constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state, and outsourcing state functions to religious institutions has been, for the last half-century, a stronger tradition than secularism.
In 1962, Goulburn, a town in NSW notable only for its giant, betesticled concrete merino, was the site of a general Catholic school strike that led to the first state compromises with the religious establishment over education. [Ibid.]
Wait… what? Did I turn over two pages at once? Are the chaplains going to be performing some educational role?
Despite the debate not being about religious education, Brereton outlines the history of public funding for religious schools. We even get an irrelevant history lesson about Constitutional Law:
Secondly, the court played its traditional role, reading the constitution narrowly to find that section 116 did not amount to a separation of church and state provision, and was a mere “denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth” — meaning the Commonwealth could not legislate for a state religion, but otherwise had no distinct “wall of separation”. This precedent does not bode well for the current High Court challenge on essentially the same issue. [Ibid.]
Right… so back to chaplains, I guess? Nope.
Current commentary on the Gillard government’s decision to continue funding school chaplaincy has missed the historical point that Australians are loath to draw bold lines between secular and religious education, because secularism as a value is not enshrined in our constitution, and there have always been more votes from travelling with religion than fighting against it. [Ibid.]
And this is where a bit of a stocktake would have been good. The article began as a criticism of the proposal to fund chaplains in school. Ideally, we would understand why the government has decided to fund chaplains in schools (let’s face it, we’re not going to be shocked when the funding was motivated for cynical, poll-driven reasons). We could then question whether or not chaplains in schools meets those policy objectives.
Instead, we seem to be caught in a discussion about the history of public-funding for religious schools. But that’s not what’s at play here: 3,500 chaplains for state schools.
We get further confusion when Brereton leaps from this debate into:
Bob Carr, former NSW Premier-turned ALP revisionist, has recently slammed the $222 million pumped into the scheme, which is delivered almost exclusively by sole operators like ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union. He says it’s “resulted in breaches of what should be a very thick wall between church and state” and that it’s naive to expect chaplains not to proselytise. [Ibid.]
The article to which he links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union. The article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union. The blog to which the article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union. What’s going on?
We’ve had a slide from chaplains in state schools to public-funding of religious schools and now we’re sliding to religious volunteers teaching in state schools. And we’re not done there…
In the pompous, nebbish style for which he has become famous, Carr doesn’t take another step and dare to consider that religious vilification laws, school chaplaincy issues, and any number of other teacup-localised storms might be solved by levering church and state further apart — the whole point of secularism to begin with. Might the debate be reinvigorated by a well-regarded and purportedly secular ex-premier? Yeah, and we have an atheist PM — pull the other one. [Ibid.]
‘Religious vilification laws’? Where the devil did that come from? What could he possibly even mean? Also note the use of the word ‘purportedly’: whenever one atheist says something which goes against the collective atheist groupthink, it’s important to question whether they’re actually an atheist, or an evil Christian in disguise.
Brereton seems incapable of distinguishing between the issues at play. Instead of seeing a list of separate issues, Brereton sees only religion. And any religion is bad religion. Check out the final paragraph:
This is why secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church. [Ibid.]
What kind of rubbish? ’Tolerant society smeared’? Le whut? What’s tolerant about: ‘Get out of my public debates and back into your churches, where you belong‘? We will tolerate you so long as you’re suppressed in public.
As noted in my last post, the confusion arises because ‘secular’ isn’t well understood. Should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) over pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in public debates and public policy), for example? Brereton seems to want the former.
And because he wants religion suppressed/invisible, he can’t distinguish between issues. All religion-in-public instances are reprehensible and should be denounced.
Despite being an atheist, I’ve made the case that religious education is important (especially for atheists). In that piece, I also showed that keeping religion in the public sphere was important to reduce extremism. Australia funds ‘moderate Islam’ schools in Indonesia for good reason. As they are incompatible with Brereton’s position, either preventing extremism in this way is abominable or Brereton is incorrect. It’s not looking good for Brereton’s case.
And then we can add all the other issues relating to the ‘separation of church and state’ that I mentioned. Do we want to live in a country where religious groups have several immunities from legislation? Do we want churches to be a safe-haven for extremist views (SoCS works both ways, after all)?
Atheists like Brereton need to sharpen their analysis beyond ‘religion bad/secularism good’.
The atheist narrative in Australia is now almost completely devoid of reason or rationality. I’m going to post on some of the more egregious excesses in the debate which have occurred over the past few weeks.
Before I can do that, I need to lay down some fundamental points which frame how we conceive of religion in society, and how we discuss secularism.
No doubt, I’ll need to make clear at the very beginning: I’m an atheist. I believe that the statement ‘God does not exist’ is true (and provably true) and I believe that any mainstream definition of ‘divine’ does not denote to a real set of objects. To the fun stuff!
Should we have a separation of church and state? We have to ponder what we mean by the terms ‘church’, ‘state’, and ‘separation’. Popularly, ‘church’ refers to religion in general (rather than its original meaning, where it meant the establishment of religion). ’State’ is a bit trickier. Where once it just referred to the courts and parliament, we now interpret it more broadly. As government services have devolved, more of the public sphere is captured in the idea of the state: schools, hospitals, &c., &c.
This is where language is tricky. Talking about church and state make them seem like really distinct things. ’Church’ and ‘State’ have no letters in common, after all!
Unfortunately, they’re not so easily distinguished. What happens when we get politicians with religious convictions? Ought they split themselves in twain: one side devoted to the Church; the other to the State? What happens when particularly religious communities elect representatives who share their religious views? What happens when religious views shape election campaign promises? And so on and so forth.
This is where the ‘separation’ is supposed to come in handy. In the U.S., the legislature is — give or take — forbidden to make laws overtly to do with religion. I say ‘overtly’ because the U.S. separation doesn’t result in politicians with religious views influencing policy. This also has the effect that, combined with the first amendment, the legislature is unable to prevent religious groups from doing some particularly horrific things.
Which is odd because the separation of Church and State is an overwhelmingly American concept. Though it has its roots in earlier thought, the Americans went gung-ho with it.
Britain, on the other hand, was more keen on caesaropapism: the Crown would rule and religion would be subordinate to that rule. It’s intuitively nice, as an atheist, to think that the boundaries of religion are confined to the laws of the country, unlike in America where religion is given a status beyond the reach of the legislature (not quite extra-legal, but almost).
For the US, freedom of religion was tied to freedom of thought (or absence of thought, amirite? Hurr, hurr, hurr). In modern times, this precept of ‘freedom of religion’ has become enormously important in debates about multiculturalism and personal identity. Not only does religion attempt to explain the relationship between humans and the cosmos, it also attempts to explain the individual. Humans, being social creatures, form our ideas of individuality and self through reference to our societies. Religious views have traditionally been a part of those societies and encouraged various perceptions of the self. The most notable of these, from a western viewpoint, was the idea of inalienable human rights (which is thoroughly and inescapably a religious concept, extending from the conception of the ‘soul’).
But some people want to go further. Instead of merely freedom of religion, it has been common to see people discuss freedom from religion. In brief, the idea is incoherent. As religion remains an inescapable aspect of the social framework, people cannot claim to have a right to be unmolested by religion. It would be like a fish claiming to have the right to live free of water.
For those unconvinced by the pervasiveness of religion, we can also put it in terms of J.S. Mill. A freedom of religion is your right to act. A freedom from religion is placing an obligation on others not to interfere with you. As the freedom of religion includes the right to demonstrate that religious belief (including the right to express — rather than suppress — that religious belief), there cannot be a freedom from religion (which requires the suppression of the religious beliefs of others). In other words, freedom of religion and freedom from religion are incompatible.
The confusion seems to stem from the idea of secularism. It shocks most people to realise that there’s no common academic understanding of secularism. Here’s why:
Imagine that you take secularism to mean that religion should be a private matter and not part of the public sphere. This is an easy policy to enforce when it comes to anything with GOD written in massive letters: no priests in public debate, no prayer in Parliament, &c. But what about family law? Our concept of family is built on religious notions. Should the concept of family stay in the public sphere?
Some people respond by stating that things like family, mathematics, science, universities, rights, &c., should stay in the secular society because they have (somehow, don’t ask) shed their religious trappings. They used to be religious and, at some undefined point, now they aren’t. Something rational and logical happened to cause this. Magic, I guess. Or leprechauns.
In case you didn’t get my biting sarcasm, there is no process to distinguish the secular from the religious. People agree that most of our cultural artefacts had their origin in religious belief but can’t agree on how things evolve into secular objects.
There are a few responses. The first is to be ruthless and root out the religious thinking in our culture, like Lady Macbeths trying to rid themselves of spots (real or imagined). The second, more common, response is to ignore the problem, rendering invisible the complex religious framework that underpins western society (which, crazily enough, also feeds a lot of atheists’ Islamophobia — as I’ve discussed before).
Neither response is satisfactory, for obvious reasons.
So when we casually drop terms like ‘the separation of church and state’ and ‘secularism’ and ‘freedom from religion’, are we saying anything meaningful? Or do we chant these mantras because they’re intuitively appealing and because they signal to other atheists that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet?
You’re my pride and joy, et cetera… Review of Nagasawa’s ‘The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction’
With a background in the philosophy of religion and a general eagerness to do more writing, Routledge very kindly sent me a copy of Yujin Nagasawa’s new book, The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction to review.
There’s a fundamental problem with the philosophy of religion: the people who should be interested in it aren’t. Some of them proudly so.
‘teach children how to discuss their beliefs with others [to] encourage tolerance and understanding. Further, it nurtures their abilities to question their views rationally and to engage the criticism of people with different beliefs.’ [Source: Fletcher, 'Teach the Godless About God', on New Matilda]
Unfortunately, changing the education system won’t reach adults who haven’t been exposed to the philosophy of religion as part of an education in religion. The result is a public narrative of religion divorced from the academic philosophy of religion which impoverishes both debates.
The Existence of God: A Philosophical Introduction tries to bridge the divide. The title is misleading: it’s not a philosophical introduction to the existence of God; it’s an introduction to the philosophy of the existence of God.
And it does rather a fine job of it.
Instead of concentrating on the very dry, esoteric aspects of philosophy, Nagasawa draws in the social climate of philosophical contributions with anecdotes and details about the people behind the contributions. The approach has worked well for other subjects, particularly in David Bodanis’ E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation. The approach humanises the debate in the way that most books on the philosophy of religion do not.
Humanising the esoteric also reflects a recurring theme of the book, summed up by Pascal’s quote:
‘If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.’
Nagasawa’s approach works particularly well when discussing the ontological argument. Instead of characterising it — as many have — as a sequence of vaguely related arguments (‘Anselm said this, Descartes said that…’), Nagasawa frames it as a series of arguments shaped by powerful cultural influences and extreme personalities. He reveals a refreshing richness into the discussion.
The approach works because the richness is there to be revealed. The second part of the book, intelligent design versus evolution, focuses on a more public — rather than academic — debate. Instead of being inspiring and thoughtful, like the part on the ontological argument was, Nagasawa’s approach effectively makes nearly everybody look like childish jerks. Where the intelligent design advocates are presented as a ‘pokies machine’ of assertions (‘Behe claims this as a fact, Dembski claims that as a fact…’), the advocates of evolution seem incapable of mounting anything better than an argument by sarcasm. At one point, devoid of substance in the public debate to discuss critically, Nagasawa analyses the philosophical assumptions in a judge’s statement on whether intelligent design belongs in science classrooms.
The problem is that there is no philosophical framework to the conversation to analyse: Behe and Dembski are aping science with a list of dubious facts and the evolution advocates seem unwilling to engage in serious philosophy of science to defend their case.
It’s not all bleak. Nagasawa’s discussion of Paley and Darwin is interesting and mature. Still, it’s hard to link their philosophically interesting ideas with the modern (overtly political) debate. I felt it was a shame that Paley’s argument was put in the context of intelligent design, rather than in the context of a discussion about the more philosophically interesting fine-tuning debate (which gets a brief mention in the conclusion of the book).
There are a few other, very minor, quibbles with the book. Despite the incredible popularity of the Argument from Evil, it only gets a paragraph or two in the concluding section of the book. The Argument from Evil is, without a doubt, the most overused and overestimated argument in the public debate. The approach Nagasawa takes in his book would have been extremely productive and fruitful.
It is entirely forgiveable and understandable that, in order to make the book accessible to broader audiences, issues had to be simplified. One of the books many strengths is that it encourages further study of the issues. On the other hand, there were a few times when the simplification was too extreme. Plantinga’s modal ontological argument relies upon nefariously complex reasoning in order to work. Very few people (including Graham Oppy in the link above) can make it accessible to casual readers. First, the argument relies on formal modal logic about which most people are happily ignorant (and, frankly, they’re much better people for it). Second, the argument relies on assuming a particular model of formal modal logic (S5) which has the curious property of entailing that things which are possibly necessary are actual. Third, it slips and slides between different meanings of the words ‘necessary’ and ‘possibly’. Because the argument relies on such complex machinery, I don’t know anybody who can explain the modal ontological argument in simple terms. Nagasawa’s attempt at it (which introduces part of the argument early with some pictures to help, then introducing the rest of the argument a few pages later) doesn’t work well. Similar problems erupt when Cantor’s infinities are discussed.
Despite these problems, the book is highly recommended for people who want to learn skills to question and evaluate their beliefs. The discussion is balanced and thorough; I had difficulty picking whether Nagasawa was a theist or atheist. Nagasawa has a clear interest in the neuroscience of the philosophy of religion. Though I remain an avowed sceptic of neuroscience’s relevance to philosophy of religion, Nagasawa’s writing is so inclusive and engaging that it’s difficult not to find yourself enthused by the subject.
The concluding section of the book shows Nagasawa’s interest in other areas of the philosophy of religion. I hope this might be a sign of future books on the subject from Nagasawa.
My last post attracted some interesting quips from the mouthier atheists who haunt this substandard blog.
The best comment was a plagiarised ‘Theology is just like Fairyology’. It seems to be a fairly common attitude among the ‘new atheist’ (whatever that is; the public image of ‘new atheism’ seems to be old white guys).
On ReligionDispatches.com, Eric Reitan outlined the attitude of ‘new atheists’ towards theology. While I think he accurately identifies the problem, I disagree with his analysis.
The other day, Terry Sanderson—president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society—published a short, scathing indictment of theology in The Guardian, a piece titled “Theology—truly a naked emperor.”
This title deliberately recalls H.C. Andersen’s famous fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and by implication its ongoing use by popular atheist critics of religion to defang criticism that they know next to nothing about theology. The fable was first made use of a few years back by atheist blogger (and biologist) PZ Myers in a bit of satire called “The Courtier’s Reply,” a response to H. Allen Orr’sscathing review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the New York Review of Books. “The Courtier’s Reply” so delighted Dawkins that he quoted it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of his book. [Source: Eric Reitan, 'Can Atheists Simply Ignore Theology?' on ReligionDispatches.com]
Instead of arguing that Dawkins did understand theology, presented it fairly, and dealt it a fatal blow, Myers mocks the criticism. There’s nothing inherently wrong in mocking criticism. Many of our finest minds do it.
Oh hey. See what I did there? If you link something to something dubious, you don’t need to provide evidence that the two things are anything alike. ’Proof by humorous connexion’ is a well-known tool in critical thinking.
More seriously, the ‘proof by humorous connexion’ shields us from having to take criticism seriously. There’s no need to intellectually engage with the claims of our ‘opponents’ because their claims are ridiculous. We don’t even need to know what those claims are. All we have to know is that they’re ridiculous. Don’t question the apparent paradox which arises: how do you know the claims are ridiculous if you don’t know what the claims are? Down that path lies madness and critical thinking, and that’s not what critical thinking is about! No, sir! Critical thinking is about finding ways to avoid criticism and evaluating claims based on your prejudices and biases.
Reitan also notes the inability of ‘new atheists’ to take criticism seriously (or, at the very least, respectfully).
The link to that interview quickly appeared on Richard Dawkins’ Web site under the heading, “Another Flea,” invoking the practice of Dawkins’ supporters to call critics of The God Delusion “fleas.” The very first posted comment was this: “Just from reading the abstract it sounds like another book in ‘The Courtier’s Reply’ category.” The subsequent comments were riddled with mockery. [Ibid.]
This is where I think Reitan’s argument goes pear-shaped. After noting two ways in which ‘new atheists’ shield themselves from criticism (mocking the criticism and belittling the critic), Reitan tries to show why the comparison isn’t apt (the fairy story has a different meaning to the imputed meaning) and why theology is intellectually substantive (‘It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it’). Both responses fail to be persuasive.
First, who cares what the actual meaning of the story is when the imputed meaning is more relevant? Imagine you say, ‘Mark, thank you for inviting me ’round for dinner. The meal was terrific.’ It would be downright weird for me to check to see if you were in shock or inquire which part of the meal inspired fear. I don’t think my actions would be justified by appealing to the original meaning of the word. Similarly, the ‘new atheists’ don’t much care for the original meaning of the story or the minutiae of the fairytale. Mere details. If there’s one thing busy atheists lurking on PZ Myers don’t have time for, it’s details. They’re too busy agreeing with each other and chiding fringe theists.
Second, the defence of theology has to be more persuasive than ‘theology is the holistic interpretation of our experience’. The smackdown response to the ‘new atheists’ is to show why theology is intellectually meritorious. So why hasn’t this been forthcoming?
Most serious theologians don’t give a toss what Dawkins and Myers think.
It’s a weird standoff. Just as Dawkins and Myers don’t really care about the claims of the Discovery Institute (and don’t spend vast amounts of time going through their ‘research’), why would theologians care about the ill-informed, belligerent, and oafish claims of Dawkins, Myers, et alia? Dawkins and Myers want to have an intellectually serious position but they can only do that by redefining the game (‘only claims which can be verified using modern science are valid’).
And you can’t question the new rules because it’s impossible to do so using modern science.
In other words, they’re advocating positivism despite the fact that there are no intellectually serious forms of positivism. Karl Popper (the guy who basically handed to us on a silver platter the distinction between science and pseudo-science) destroyed it decades ago: positivism considers only claims which are verifiable may be true, but the claim ‘only claims which are verifiable may be true’ is not itself verifiably true. Nobody’s managed to start a positivism comeback tour.
Some even go a few steps further. Sam Harris tried to play a new Humpty Dumpty game with language by trying to define all valid intellectual pursuits (for example, history) as science. Screw falsification.
The weird thing is that a justification of theology is trivially easy to do.
Science provides a toolkit for evaluating specific types of claims: those which can be verified empirically. There are claims which cannot be verified empirically (if you disagree, try to demonstrate that twice one will always equal two). For those claims, we require different toolkits. Theology (and atheology) provides a toolkit for evaluating religious claims. If you want to make the claim that ‘God does not exist’ using theological arguments, you’re going to need to use the theological toolkit.
Oh, but why would you want to do it using theological arguments? I have no idea, but this has not stopped Christopher Hitchens writing an entire book doing it, and Dawkins dedicating paragraphs of garbled jibberish attempting it. If you’re going to make scientific claims, you need science. If you’re going to make theological claims, you need theology. Are all claims about God theological? No. But — and hold on to your hats, people, because this is going to get controversial — the theological claims are theological.
Woah/whoa. Freak out.
But doesn’t this give a back door to ‘fairyology’? Not really. Nobody uses fairyological claims to dismiss the existence of fairies. In the ‘new atheist’ world polluted with concepts like invisible pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters, it’s difficult to distinguish between the intellectually serious and the asinine. This small fact makes it much easier to understand the plethora of rubbish ‘new atheist’ writings (for example, The Australian Book of Atheism).
While I’m not terribly keen on providing links to his hate material, Pat Condell has had a crack at explaining what he thinks is wrong with multiculturalism: Muslims.
It’s no secret that Condell hates Islam. He is incapable of seeing Islam as anything but a monolithic structure of barbarism. Mind! He doesn’t put it in those terms. Instead, he white knights women’s lib (every Muslim is misogynistic), democracy (every Muslim is a tyrant), and — in this latest foaming fury — animal rights (because Halal is code for cruelty to animals).
Back to that last point in a second. First, I think it’s important to note how passionate many outspoken atheists become when Islam is discussed. When Christianity is discussed, most of these atheists will make condescendingly dismissive comments. Dawkins, for example, dismissed Aquinas’ arguments in a quick paragraph as not intellectually credible (or, rather, dismissed his bizarro version of Aquinas’ arguments).
When Islam is discussed, the discussion is framed in terms of response to a threat. Most of the articles and books written by atheists about Islam have always characterised Islam as something foreign to fear. Christianity is something to defeat; Islam is something to exclude. This trend was demonstrated uncritically throughout that rag The Australian Book of Atheism (which I should definitely get back to reviewing). The essays asserted that Christianity did what it could to retain power and that Islam was attacking secular society by stealth. So long as atheists continue to milk intuitive notions of ‘secular’ without distinguishing them from ‘non-believing Christianity’, this framework will continue.
Back to cruelty of animals. Says Condell:
Halal is a guarantee that the animal you’re eating died slowly, in pain and in terror.
There are a few easy ways to not eat halal meat: try more pork. If you’re that worried about Muslim meat appearing on your dinner plate, eat pork wrapped in bacon. Hell, it could even be an advertising slogan for the pork industry. ’Pork: Guaranteed not to be kosher or halal.’
Less flippantly, people like Condell only care about the cruelty towards animals if other cultures (particularly Islam) are doing it. Most Anglophones get their meat from factory farms. Says PETA:
On today’s factory farms, animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds and confined to wire cages, gestation crates, barren dirt lots, and other cruel confinement systems. These animals will never raise their families, root around in the soil, build nests, or do anything that is natural and important to them. Most won’t even feel the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto trucks bound for slaughter. The green pastures and idyllic barnyard scenes of years past are now distant memories.
The factory farming industry strives to maximize output while minimizing costs—always at the animals’ expense. The giant corporations that run most factory farms have found that they can make more money by cramming animals into tiny spaces, even though many of the animals get sick and some die. [Source: PETA 'Factory Farming: Cruelty to Animals']
In the universe next door where Pat Condell is ranting about the insidious spread of multinational corporations, I’m sure he’s saying:
Supermarket-purchased meat is a guarantee that the animal you’re eating died slowly, in pain and in terror.
It is — quite frankly — ludicrous that Condell should pick up the mantle of animal rights in order to attack Islam. There are legitimate questions about whether there are more humane ways to procure halal meat — they’re the same legitimate questions as those which ask if there are more humane questions to procure non-halal meat.
Similarly, there are legitimate questions about Islam which we in a multicultural society should ask (a classic one, for example, is ‘Why is there a growing trend for Muslim community leaders to describe Islam in opposition to mainstream society?’ The answer concerns both the individual Muslim communities and the societies in which they are trying to integrate). But Condell is not asking those legitimate questions when he pretends to champion the rights of the minorities he wantonly and casually disregards every other minute of the day.
There’s a lesson from this. I shouldn’t blog while tired and ill.
For those of you who struggled through my last post, I apologise sincerely. I tried to wade through it this afternoon and realised that I could barely make heads and tails of it. There’s several different ideas going on all at once, and it hasn’t turned out well.
So to summarise what that last post should have said:
1. Andrew Lovley promotes a view of ‘accommodationism’ where atheists concentrate on shared values without analysing the underlying reason for the commonality of those values. Most atheists hold moral values which can only be justified through appeal to Judeo-Christian concepts of the world, but they render this basis invisible by saying that they are really secular values. We should do this, he says, because it’s a sign of maturity.
2. I think a proper sign of maturity is a distinctly atheist concept of the social project (atheism qua atheism). Contra Lovley, I don’t think we should focus on our similarities. I think we should stop trying to derive a secular culture from the overlap between our current beliefs.
3. The Key of Atheist also thinks that Lovley is incorrect, but for different reasons. The argument there is that Lovley views his accommodationism to be more or less mutually exclusive from more confrontational forms of activism. TKoA argues that they’re not mutually exclusive and can be instead mutually beneficial. TKoA links the atheist movement to the gay movement, stating that the two different forms of activism complemented each other.
4. I consider the confrontational forms of activism in the gay community are different to the confrontational forms of activism in the atheist community. Where the former caused confrontation by being openly gay, the atheist community isn’t causing confrontation by being openly atheist. Instead, atheists are being dicks and that’s a bad thing.
5. Also, unrelated to everything else, being confrontational by being dicks results in religious types clinging more tightly to their irrationality. Instead of attacking the belief, most of the dickish behaviour is attacking people’s sense of identity. Most atheists don’t see it that way because they don’t link religious belief to identity. It’s also why so many outspoken atheists run head first into racism regarding Islam.
That basically covers the major points I was making in a confused and unclear way. TKoA did me the great courtesy of trying to make sense of the ideas in my ramble and responding to them. I thought I’d focus on the biggest and most contentious point:
[Mark] neglects the genuine prejudice that still exists against atheists, and the difficulty that many existing communities have with recognizing any kind of secular identification. I’ve never had much difficulty myself, but I’ve spoken with enough activists from other backgrounds to know that I’m the exception. Black and First Nations atheists often have a very different story. Same goes for those from majority Muslim countries. Same again for white activists from predominantly religious areas of the United States and Canada.
The numbers are pretty clear. Many people report negative feelings about atheists, and a secular outlook is still all but a guarantee of total unelectability. Off the top of my head I think Pete Stark is the only openly atheist senator, and he wasn’t out until after his first election. Can we really dismiss an effort to address all of these problems as completely worthless? Again, it seems like such an extreme sentiment that I’m not entirely certain it was the intended one. Suffice to say I think atheist activism is worthwhile because it makes it easier for people to be atheist if they want to be, and of course they should have that right. [Source: The Key of Atheist: 'In Which Somebody Disagrees With Me, I Think?']
I don’t just neglect the prejudice towards atheists; I actively deny that it exists.
The study cited includes important points which are routinely overlooked.
[W]hile our study does shed light on questions of tolerance,we are more interested in what this symbolic boundary tells us about moral solidarity and cultural membership. We believe that attitudes toward atheists tell us more about American society and culture than about atheists themselves, and that our analysis sheds light on broader issues regarding the historic place of religion in underpinning moral order in the United States. [Source: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.pdf]
What we’re not seeing in society is atheists earning less than theists, for example. Atheists really aren’t an oppressed minority, despite what others have tried to claim. The survey that people keep citing was not looking at prejudice towards atheists: it was looking at how people delineate cultural membership.
Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what that label means. Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways. Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy. Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. [Ibid.]
The purely anecdotal part of this is that atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. made it more difficult for me to be open about my atheism. The moment I dropped the A-bomb, I’d be forced to distinguish my opinions and beliefs from those more prevalent. The toxic discourse from the Big Name Atheists — which, in historic terms, is remarkably extreme — is affecting the way the mainstream conceptualises atheists. It’s why it seems more socially appropriate to call oneself an agnostic instead of an atheist.