Pop-Atheism has become critic- and critique-proof. There’s nothing new about this statement: as atheism has developed tropes like ‘The Courtier’s Reply‘, referring to critics as ‘just another gnat’, and refusing point blank to engage any kind of modern philosophy (because it’s ‘obscurantist’), the modern atheist world has closed itself off to the outside, setting up echo chamber conventions and reselling books filled with (fundamentally) identical content.
Pop-Atheism is, no doubt, making a bunch of publishers and publicists quite wealthy, but it’s not bringing about a revolution of reason. Melbourne’s Atheist Convention next week bears witness to that. It’s not somewhere you’d go to have your beliefs challenged; it’s where you go to get the next round of regurgitated memes about why atheists don’t need to think about their beliefs and why religious people are all sheep.
Like the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises, there’s no way to convince the devout Pop-Atheist that there’s a problem in the community. Jeff Sparrow wrote about the disconcerting nature of atheism to reveal nasty Islamophobic roots. It’s by no means a new argument, but PZ Myers responded:
Sparrow doesn’t mention me at all, of course, but that’s the thing: I consider myself comfortable and not at all an oddball in the company of New Atheists, but Sparrow simply damns the whole movement by equating all of New Atheism with neo-fascism. He accomplishes this by ignoring the diversity of political views within the New Atheists — we’re a madly disorganized mob, united only by our dislike of the god-thing, so politics isn’t a criterion for being one of us — and cherry-picking a couple of prominent New Atheists as proxies for all of us. So he quotes Christopher Hitchens, probably the most belligerent critic of Islam in our ranks, and Sam Harris, who can also be harshly critical. [Source]
It’s the common pattern of both sides of the Religion War: if somebody criticises you, misrepresent what they’ve said, trivialise their argument, and then mock them. Should we be surprised that pop-atheism is a mirror image of evangelical protestantism which it so despises? Or should that be ‘fears’?
I reviewed several chapters of The Australian Book of Atheism, and — among discoveries that atheists make poor legal theorists, that Australians give 10 per cent of their taxes to the head of the Anglican Church, and that Australian atheists and African Americans have had their historical contributions ‘similarly dismissed’ — we basically had to concede that Australia (despite being the birthplace of Australian metaphysics) didn’t have much mental-muscle amongst non-philosophers. But, ultimately, I knew that reviewing the book was a waste of time because it was designed to appeal to one and only one audience: people who already agree with the half-baked, unsupportable assertions which littered the book.
And that’s what the Atheist Convention is about. No matter how many times it’s pointed out that positivism has been debunked thoroughly, no matter how many times it’s pointed out that objectivity is a contestable and contested idea, no matter how many times you point out that pop-atheism confuses epistemology with metaphysics, you’re not going to change their mind. It’s like arguing with an evangelist. The Atheist Convention is about affirming the idea that atheists don’t need to justify their beliefs because they’re surrounded by fellow believers. And how could a mob ever be wrong?
It’s why you’ll never get a person like Jeff Sparrow as a speaker at the Atheist Convention. It’s why you’ll never get an atheist like me as part of a panel at the Atheist Convention. The Atheist Convention is about sweet, sweet group think.
If you agree with the above — and you should because it’s accurate — then you’ll understand the reaction to Monday night’s Q&A.
Both sides are claiming it’s an overwhelming win for their team. Dawkins himself went one step further:
I too was disappointed in this so-called debate. I don’t want to put all the blame on my jet lag (I had spent the whole night on the plane from Los Angeles and, incidentally, missed the whole of Easter Day crossing the Date Line). The two things that really threw me were, first, the astonishing bias of the audience and, second, the interfering chairman.
Right from the start when we were introduced, it was clear that the studio audience was dominated by a Catholic cheer squad. The cheered whenever the Cardinal said anything, however stupid and ignorant. To be fair to the ABC, I am confident that they were not responsible for stacking the audience. I believe it was genuinely first-come-first-served, and I can only think that the Catholics must have got off the mark very swiftly and rallied the troops. Our side just isn’t very good at doing that: perhaps it is one of our more endearing qualities. It was encouraging that the vote of viewers at large came down heavily on our side, to the evident surprise and discomfort of the studio audience.
Such an extreme audience bias was a little off-putting, but it wouldn’t have mattered so much if the chairman had allowed us to have a proper debate instead of continually racing ahead to get in another dopey question. There were times when the Cardinal had doled out more than enough rope to hang himself but then, in the nick of time, the chairman blundered in and rescued him with yet another samey question from the audience. The only time the chairman did a good job was when he pressed the Cardinal on what seemed perilously close to anti-Semitism.
More and more, I am thinking that discussions of this kind are positively ruined by an interfering chairman. That was also true of my encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, which could have developed into an interesting conversation but for the meddling chairman who, to make matters worse, was a ‘philosopher’ with special training in obscurantism.
Cardinal Pell had evidently been well prepped, formally briefed (for example with his alleged fact that Darwin called himself a theist on page 92 of his autobiography). I knew it wasn’t true that Darwin was a theist and said so, but I obviously couldn’t counter the “Page 92″, which duly got a cheer from the touchline. I’ve since had a chance to look it up and, as expected, it refers to the way Darwin felt earlier in his life, not his maturity when he said he preferred to call himself ‘agnostic’ because the people “are not yet ripe for atheism”.
Another missed opportunity on my part was when the Cardinal nastily insinuated that I had not read to the end of Lawrence Krauss’s book having written the Foreword. Actually I didn’t write the Foreword, I wrote the Afterword, which suggests that the Cardinal hadn’t read the book. Indeed, the content of what he said suggests that he (or whoever briefed him) had read only the infamous review in the New York Times, again by a philosopher not a scientist. [Source]
But it’s also indicative of the lack of introspection. It goes without saying that Pell said some extremely nutty things. Quite a number of Catholics were embarrassed by:
TONY JONES: Sorry, can I just bring you, in a sense, to the point of the question? Do you accept that humans evolved from apes?
GEORGE PELL: Yeah, probably. From Neanderthals, yes. Whether…
RICHARD DAWKINS: From Neanderthals?
GEORGE PELL: Probably.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Why from Neanderthals?
GEORGE PELL: Well, who else would you suggest?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Neanderthals were our cousins. We’re not descended from them and we’re both descended from…
GEORGE PELL: These are extant cousins? Where will I find a Neanderthal today if they’re my cousins?
RICHARD DAWKINS: They’re not extant, they’re extinct.
GEORGE PELL: Exactly. That’s my point. [Source]
But fewer atheists seemed embarrassed by Dawkins’ other comments:
RICHARD DAWKINS: Well, I’m curious to know if Adam and Eve never existed where did original sin come from? [Ibid.]
And then there was this:
I think successive popes have tried to suggest that the soul did indeed get added, rather like gin to tonic, at some particular point during evolution; at some point in evolution there was no soul and then later there was one so it is quite an interesting question to ask. [Ibid.]
I think that rather conclusiv… Oh, there’s more?
I am intrigued by the Cardinal saying that Christians believe you’re going to be resurrected in the body. I mean that’s an astonishing idea and I don’t believe you really mean that and I think – just as I don’t believe you really mean that the wafer turns into the body of Christ. You must mean body in some rather special sense. [Ibid]
It’s like a trainwreck… I just can’t look away…
I’m also a rationalist. I mean I use – English is my native language. The wafer does not become the body of anybody in the English language. [Ibid]
What is this I don’t even…
What we have here is a failure to communicate. As Dawkins is a positivist (‘“Why?” is a silly question. “Why?” is a silly question. You can ask, “What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?” That’s a sensible question. But “What is the purpose universe?” is a silly question. It has no meaning.’) there is no common set of words for him to discuss these issues with Pell. With no common language, debate was never going to be possible. The way to stop this problem is to have religious education, taught by professional teachers, in schools (as I argued in New Matilda last year).
It’s time for more dissent within atheism. Pop-atheists can’t go a round against us old school atheists who actually know what we’re talking about. They get all sulky when they realise that their armchair philosophising is adolescent garbage.
At the end of the day, the pop-atheists who crowd in the conventions and buy all the books and troll the webforums are never going to come out of their circle jerk echo chambers to debate us seriously.
We put the fear of God in them.