God rest ye merry Gentlemen… Atheism’s still in disarray

In a fit of bloodymindedness, I purchased this.  The Australian Book of Atheism demonstrates fairly conclusively that we atheists have given up on atheism as a social and intellectual project.

One of the articles in Salmon of Doubt discussed how Douglas Adams felt betrayed by comedy when he heard a comic ask an audience: ‘Why don’t they make the plane out of the same stuff that they make the black box out of?’  As the audience gaffawed in slack-jawed appreciation of the joke — signalling their sneering attitude towards the dumb scientists who made the black box indestructible but not the plane — Adams was shocked that it was culturally acceptable for the ignorant to sneer at the educated.

Given that Adams was a good friend of Richard Dawkins and dabbled quite a bit in social atheism, it seems slightly odd that I experience a similar feeling when reading the ‘works’ of modern atheists.  The Australian Book of Atheism is possibly the worst of the books published so far.

While it would (and will) take me a vast amount of time to correct the litany of errors written by my fellow atheists, the first essay struck me as particularly stupid and odious.  Written by Chrys Stevenson — ‘Historian, writer, blogger’ — it (again) compares the ‘suffering’ of atheists to the suffering of African Americans.

History is political.  The portrayal of minority groups in mainstream histories, or their omission from the national chronicle, resonates through our sense of national identity […]  It is no surprise that a key strategy of any social or nationalist movement is to reclaim the past — to seek out actors, events, and influences which have been omitted or downplayed in mainstream histories, and to stake a claim in the nation’s future through reference to the contributions of the past.

An early advocate for African American civil rights […] argu[ed] forcefully that African American contributions to America’s history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’  Racial prejudice […] was the ‘inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.  (As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed.) [Source — Stevenson, C. ‘Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-Wing Loonies: Atheism in Australia, 1788-2010’; emphasis mine]

The essay then goes on to discuss people most of us already know: Gough Whitlam and Henry Lawson, for example.

Wait… ‘People most of us already know’?  That can’t be right.  Didn’t Stevenson say that, like African Americans, atheists were ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them’?  My religious high school spent several weeks discussing Gough Whitlam in history classes.  My religious high school also got me to recite Henry Lawson’s Faces in the Street.  Clearly, I must have imagined both of these things, given how overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed atheists are by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.  Atheists are totally like African Americans.  Hell, we should mount a legal case to get reparations; that’s how similar we are.

The essay is classic and is worth it just for the laughs.  For me, the two highlights were the discussion of Henry Rusden (who was the uber-atheist of the late 1800s — shame about the ‘It’s only scientifically moral to wipe out Aborigines and Maori; it’s evolution baby’) and the praise of Arthur ‘Two Wongs Don’t Make a White’ Calwell (despite being a Catholic, he was a good atheist Catholic).

It’s schlock like this that makes it increasingly difficult to argue that atheism is intellectually credible.  The more that this dreck is published, the more difficult it is for intelligent, reasonable people to discuss atheism publicly.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

27 thoughts on “God rest ye merry Gentlemen… Atheism’s still in disarray”

  1. I have read this book and totally agree with you I liked the other chapters but what Stevenson wrote was just drivel. I might add Stevenson claims to be a historian however I feel that this is a embellished lie and that Stevenson has a degree in history which makes a difference to actually being a historian even a amateur one. I do not think this person is even registered as one with the PHAQ. I feel that this book is letting down a intelligent discussion surrounding atheism. I feel this chapter does not represent history of atheism at all especially in Australia. Gough Whitlam and wasn’t Paul Keating either atheist or agnostic? There have been a few in history that have succeeded fairly well and not persecuted due to being a atheist. I hang my head in shame over this piece of irrelevant drivel that is so called collection of essays.

    1. ‘I might add Stevenson claims to be a historian however I feel that this is a embellished lie’

      That’s not entirely fair to Stevenson. We could at least be charitable.

      ‘There have been a few in history that have succeeded fairly well and not persecuted due to being a atheist’

      And that’s the point. The contributions of African Americans were excluded from discussion. We don’t do the same thing to atheists.

      1. ‘That’s not entirely fair to Stevenson. We could at least be charitable.’

        I dunno, she’s calling herself a historian on (as far as I can tell) nothing more than a major. Her Honours was in Cultural Studies, and nothing she’s written has been published (til now) so she’s got no peer-reviewed work.

        Hmm. Out of interest, what sort of (and how many) primary sources does she cite?

        1. She has an interestingly diverse list of references, but she treats a lot of evidence uncritically.

          Then again, I wonder about what she intended with the article. Did she mean it to be a proper piece of intellectual output? Did she mean it as just a conversation starter among her friends?

          The only reason she’s published in the book, after all, is because she knew the editor through online networks.

          1. ‘The only reason she’s published in the book, after all, is because she knew the editor through online networks.’

            That’s a big part of why I’m dubious about her work.

            Part of me is kind of tempted to track the book down in a store or something and skim through her piece – I can’t bring myself to actually pay for it.

            1. Most of the other essays in the book have already been published by their authors elsewhere except for the historian Stevenson. This is why it was a collection, the authors have already come under scrutiny for what they have written.

              It appears Stevenson is using this as a way to gain more feedback, I can only presume. the editor is a owner of a bookstore and a member of sunshine atheists like Stevenson. Maybe it was a way for him to help out his friend the historian. I am dubious as some of her blog posts I consider inflammatory and trying to convince people she is correct and others are wrong if they disagree with her. The editor sounds very down to earth and professional I have heard some of his pod-casts and radio interviews.

              http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=11375

      2. Maybe you have a point but I still think in a topic like this plus the book ; written evidence based arguments/or information are required. People can’t go around calling themselves something they are not. Is this not fooling/deceiving people. This is what occurs in the world of alternative medicine, something which Stevenson sites qualifications and studies on to get her point across in her blog she maintains. Plus other areas she comments on evidence based and qualifications.

        Maybe this is why the chapter was asinine and odious.

  2. (I’m reasonably well-educated, but I’ve never heard of Gough Whitlam and Henry Lawson; that you personally have heard of someone does not mean that most people have.

    But even so: One writer with whom you disagree, and the entire movement is intellectually bankrupt? That’s utter and complete bullshit.

    1. …Are you Australian? Gough Whitlam was one of our best-known Prime Ministers, due in large part to the manner in which he removed from office.

      Henry Lawson is Australia’s best-known poet.

      If the answer to my question was ‘yes’, then you aren’t “reasonably well-educated”.

    2. ‘I’m reasonably well-educated, but I’ve never heard of Gough Whitlam and Henry Lawson’

      Then you’re either not Australian or you’re not reasonably well educated.

      ‘One writer with whom you disagree, and the entire movement is intellectually bankrupt?’

      I never made that claim.

    3. “I’m reasonably well-educated, but I’ve never heard of Gough Whitlam and Henry Lawson; that you personally have heard of someone does not mean that most people have. ”

      I do not think that you are well educated, if you were then you would have googled the names or gone into a library and researched the names that were mentioned. This would have been before saying a statement like you have just done.

      “But even so: One writer with whom you disagree, and the entire movement is intellectually bankrupt? That’s utter and complete bullshit.”

      I would not go as far to call the author a writer she is a blogger. Her chapter as well as a few others are not showing the evidence required. When the evidence is presented the author just makes fun of it, they jostle as if having a conversation with mates or people down at the pub. It is far to casual for this person who claims to be a academic. Much like yourself need I say more. Are you a magical atheists as well?

  3. Douglas Adams: Jokes- How do THEY work?

    On the subject of African-Americans and their contribution to the US (and the world), I am constantly amazed at how very overlooked they really are. Like this article from NPR (http://www.npr.org/2010/12/05/131761541/we-ve-all-heard-cowboy-songs-but-who-were-the-cowboys) for example. It’s nothing short of embarrassing, but then our history has constant, strong spurts of White nationalism that has done its best to keep it that way. I can say plainly I learned nothing of the African-American contribution to America, outside the terror of American slavery, the civil rights era, and a few important names.

    1. Exactly. The prejudice experienced by African Americans is a huge problem. The injustices span generations and profoundly impact the lives of people.

      The same cannot be said about atheists. In no way have our contributions to history been ‘similarly dismissed’.

  4. Gough Whitlam served as the 21 st Prime minister of Australia from 72 until 75 he is well known for what he achieved in a short amount of time to all Australians well educated or not.
    Henry Lawson was the one of the best colonial writers of his time. Here is a link to the national library of Australia http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/593468?c=people.
    This book is a example of the movement being bankrupt not all but a certain portion of it in Australia those with the loudest voices are not always correct. In this case it is the same, I disagree with the reference of using African Americans due to the fact it is an Australian book of Atheism not a American one. The Australian Aboriginals have been ignored to in this book and they have contributed to the nation of Australia well before the colonialists arrived but not to atheism. If if was a true book on Australian atheism they would have asked for an Australian Aboriginal to contribute to the book. In Australia many people don’t care if you are atheist only the fundamentalist Christians or Cardinal Pell. We prefer our sports on tv or bbq with friends or family. I do not feel the true history of Atheism was even covered just this persons perspective. Evaluation of the books that we are reading and its contributers and their qualifications need to be considered. There are some known contributers Leslie Canold who is a regular on Q and A and a columnist for the age who has also published some books. Then there is Tim Minchin a comedian and singer song writer. The history chapter in this book was not one of information it was one of bs and conjecture written to the benefit and opinion of the author. I would say this book was well intentioned but not well thought out. There was nothing new here. Also to note that on many of the atheist forums that are out there this The blogger Stevenson has been asking for people to help a fellow atheist who just happens to be the editor of the book Warren Bonnet as his bookstore is going down the gurgler. Join the dots and realise this is to help promote and save some careers and make a little money along the way. Dawkins who I am not a fan of but still had a well established career before writing a book. This is just a book that is jumping on the band wagon and taking advantage of people who are new to atheism or investigating it. It is not informative to say the least.

    Look in facebook groups for Australian Atheists if you want the information. These people are just about themselves nothing more.

  5. What is this? OMG It is a friggen book that has been released like them or not like them no need to bag people out and single them out.
    People can choose to make up their own minds. Like this review is by someone who is not well known it is not going to affect many people. People will read what interests them.
    Atheism intellectually credible what bs. Atheism is just that atheism people have chosen to make more out of it than is required. These people have their reasons and that is fine. My definition is in the broad sense of the term.None belief in a deity that is it plain and simple for me. I myself dont see the need in attacking someone wasted time and effort.
    If the book is not good then people will not buy or I suppose write reviews that are explaining the reasons why it is no good. it if it is okay then it will sell really well. where are the valid references to why this is no good what do you have to put in its place?

  6. Dear Ethyl Just because your chapter of the book was not published is no reason to be derogatory to those who have the skills and ability to write about the subject.

    I understand your disappointment at not being up to the standards required but that is no reason to try to bring those who made the cut down to your level.

    Please have the decency to act your age and not behave like some spoilt 5 year old kid. It is embarrassing to read such crap. Put your efforts into making your own book of the history of Australian atheism, seeing the sales figures for the book you are complaining about there is obviously a good market out there the book is selling extremely well, I know I throughly enjoyed reading my copy.

  7. colin of reality ,I have read this book to and okay ethel may have been very hard and harsh with their words regarding this book.

    I tend to agree with the blogger and many people out there on this subject ( okay just some mates who have read it and gone wtf where is the evidence for some of this stuff being claimed) , but I see these people will sell the book as there appears to be a market for this. It is also the first book, hopefully it wont take people long to realise the quality. Then again people are gullible.

    you said this “I understand your disappointment at not being up to the standards required but that is no reason to try to bring those who made the cut down to your level.”

    really ? no you don’t as you then said this :

    Please have the decency to act your age and not behave like some spoilt 5 year old kid. It is embarrassing to read such crap. Put your efforts into making your own book of the history of Australian atheism, seeing the sales figures for the book you are complaining about there is obviously a good market out there the book is selling extremely well, I know I throughly enjoyed reading my copy.

    Also another point it appears you are one of the magical atheists( no proof can say whatever) or a good mate of theirs. How else could you say this then :seeing the sales figures for the book you are complaining about there is obviously a good market out there the book is selling extremely well,” So if that is the case I feel that you are not able to be objective in what you have written.

    Of course the book will sell well it is called the Australian Book of Atheism to atheists, not many reviews out on it as yet. What about Andrew Bolt doing a review he is well know, and an atheist. I mean the book what bogans like has sold well. It is not exactly a hard market really for things like that. ie low brow reading. I always thought it was not good to buy of mates maybe you could consider that with the next book when it comes out.

  8. Colin this would not happen to be Colin Kline would it? One whom happens to be a good friend of the author in question. Pretty sure you know who I am matey. I am also sure you have an idea of what I am on about . Do you purchase Amway no because these people who sell it are pushy and promote a dodgy product. Look beneath the surface with this one, look at the whole book and all the authors.

  9. “If if was a true book on Australian atheism they would have asked for an Australian Aboriginal to contribute to the book. ”

    Actually, the introduction to the book points out that indigenous people were indeed asked and they declined on the basis of fear of outing themselves. Anyone who picks up the book notes that there’s a comment that a second book does urge and would greatly support a diversity in terms of contributors in regards to race.

    Will the future Australian Atheist convention in 2012 address the lack of indigenous people, by the way?

    As for the ‘African American’ element (did anyone notice it’s NOT a book about the USA, btw?) – that’s been aptly dealt with in this blogpost about how one chapter does not a review make: http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/patricks-fallacy

    Overall, I think the jury is in – this book has been very much praised and lauded in the mainstream press and that is what will remain in the public records about it. Certainly not those with agendas that have become quite evident over time as to who they actually are.

    Speaking of which – seriously, ‘Ethel’. People are fully aware of the identities of certain sock-puppets in regards to you pretending to be an ‘unbiased reviewer’ and it’s really just embarrassing to see what you’re doing. If you weren’t included, then join the ranks of others who weren’t and get over it.

    Feel free to make your own book as mentioned by PLENTY of others. Feel free to suggest that those who run certain conferences certain ways (hint).

    But for your own sake – stop making a fool of yourself. It’s really starting to alienate people and it’s beneath what many of us expect of your group. Just stop it, grow up and move on. Seriously. It’s 2011 already – you’re an adult. Act like it.

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