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Austin Cline

The Trouble With Atheists Today: They Refuse to be Obsequious to Religion

By January 16, 2007

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I believe that a significant number of the attacks on so-called "militant" atheists for being "intolerant" is due to little more than the fact that such atheists are insufficiently obsequious to religion, religious beliefs, and religious believers. Rather than learning and sticking to their place in the social pecking order, atheists are getting uppity by not only demanding full equality, but also saying what they think about the reasonableness or truthfulness of religion.

When I write about these attacks on atheist and atheism, I am usually able to point to some passage or wording which is highly suggestive of this conclusion about what really motivates the attacks. It's always only suggestive, however, rather than a direct admission that the problem with atheists is that they fail to admit that religion is great and wonderful. At least, it was always only suggestive.

In The Wall Street Journal, Sam Schulman writes an editorial in which his general point seems to be exactly this: the problem with atheists today, as compared with atheists of the past, is that atheists no longer stroke the egos of religious believers by telling them how great their religion and theism are.

Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. ("Wisdom dwells with prudence," the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too.

Where has Sam Schulman been? Atheists frequently criticize Islam, not just Christianity. Schulman makes his bias clear by describing atheist criticism with a word synonymous with "petty," but referring only to Muslims who hate rather than those who object to terrorism, and by referring only to a peaceful teaching from the Bible rather than any violent passages. Schulman later chastises atheists for the lack of depth in their critiques of religion, but there can be nothing more superficial than what he writes here in contrasting Islam and Christianity.

Regardless, many atheists in the West do write about Christianity more than other religions, but how is that surprising, much less a problem? Christianity is usually the dominant religion where they live, is the religion they know best, is the religion followed by most of the religious believers they know, and is the religion whose institutions and adherents makes the most demands on their society. Christianity is thus the religion with the most relevance to their lives, so naturally it will receive more attention than most other religions. That doesn't stop atheists from making very general arguments against religion and theism, though.

What is new about the new atheists? It's not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won't encounter a single point you didn't hear in your freshman dormitory. It's their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible...

It's true that atheists aren't offering a ton of new arguments but again, how is that a problem? Believers haven't changed much or offered much in the way of new arguments themselves. Atheists keep offering many of the same arguments against belief in gods because those arguments have lost none of their validity or force. Moreover, there are new arguments and new variations based on new scientific information if Sam Schulman didn't have such superficial understanding of atheism today, he'd realize and not make such obvious errors in his criticisms.

The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody. It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo, Newton and Spinoza--let alone Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Kierkegaard, Goya, Cardinal Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr or, for that matter, Albert Einstein.

Sam Schulman has a lot of gall criticizing atheist for rejecting religion on the basis for the belief of artists and thinkers like those he cites. Why? Well, first it's clear that Schulman rejects Islam, but how can he do so when all he seems to understand of it is a simple-minded parody that doesn't partake in the deep, complex beliefs of many Muslim artists and thinkers? Notice that Schulman doesn't cite any examples of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other believers except for Homer, he offers a list of all Christians plus a couple of token Jews.

This is hardly surprising since most Christians don't know much about the theology, philosophy, or art of religions other than their own nor should they necessarily be expected to. It's OK if they reject those religions without being deeply and broadly familiar with the histories and theologies of those religions. For some reason, though, some refuse to accord the same privilege to atheists: we can't reject their religion, or religion generally, without being deeply and broadly familiar with their particular theology.

It's a double-standard which reveals that their problem isn't with the principle of rejecting religion without knowing more about it's more sophisticated theologies, but only with atheists who do so and thus that their real problem is with atheists who are public and unapologetic in their rejection of religion. Complaints about atheists not addressing sophisticated theology is just a cover for their real concerns, which is that atheists not rock the religious boat by convincing more people of the irrationality of most religious beliefs.

To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the "eternal note of sadness" sounded when the "Sea of Faith" receded from human life. In one testament after another--George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself--the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes--and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and--fatally--by politics. ...

There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism... Twenty-first century atheism hasn't found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent.

So there you have it: rejecting religion and theism may be bad, but if you tell religious believers that you lament rejecting it all and are depressed over it's absence in your life, then you may be socially acceptable. In the final analysis, you have to be more depressed and sad than religious believers, which means that religious believers must not only have their egos stroked by you telling them how wonderful their religion is, but must also be able to continue feeling superior to you by watching you wish that you were religious like them.

It's worth noting that, in the end, Sam Schulman doesn't actually say anything in defense of religion or in defense of his religion in particular nor does he offer any substantive rebuttals to any atheistic critiques of religion. His entire editorial is dedicated to criticizing atheists the people for not being as respectful and deferential to religion as he thinks they should be. Apparently, people are supposed to reject atheists' criticisms of religion on this basis alone: atheists today don't flatter religious believers enough.

Well, Sam Schulman, I'm sorry if I haven't invested enough time in trying to flatter you, to stroke your ego, and to make you feel more intelligent. That's not my job, though, and it frankly isn't something that interests me. I'm not going to praise your intelligence in order to get you to agree with me. You should agree with me solely on the basis of the quality of the arguments I make my arguments are either valid or invalid, sound or unsound. If the arguments are good, you should accept them; if they are not good, you should not accept them. Either way, though, I'm not going to make any effort to flatter you so that you'll consider them. If you understand logic, then you'll understand why and agree; if you don't understand logic, then you won't understand why and won't be reached by good arguments anyway.

January 16, 2007 at 4:30 pm
(1) dreadful scathe says:

in a way he has a point. It is no wonder that in the past, realising you were an atheist was lamentable in some way. The whole society breathed religion and you would have felt like a social outcast, unable to take part even where people did not realise you were no longer a theist. So what he should recognise is that nowadays there is nowhere near the same stigma about being a non-theist, even if it does sometimes seem that way ;)

January 16, 2007 at 9:40 pm
(2) John says:

So Schulman is a theist lamenting the loss of atheist lament?

January 23, 2007 at 10:09 pm
(3) John Hanks says:

Members of contemplative religions like Buddhism and Quakerism have much in common. They don’t believe in a revealed god. These skygod people deliver insults and then they run away.

January 29, 2007 at 4:22 pm
(4) GrandmaVickie says:

It never ceases to amaze me how believers respond then confronted with violence and mass murder ordered by or perpetrated by god. “Well, he’s god.”, “He made us, he had the right.” “They deserved it or god would not have done that.” Incredible!

June 24, 2009 at 8:06 am
(5) Believer says:

I, for once, agree Austin. Christianity, or any religion for that matter, should not be above question, nothing should.

But Christianity isn’t as flexible and changing as science for the good reason that the Bible, what we base our beliefs on, is fixed but science, what you base your ‘beliefs’ on, is constantly moving. It sometimes annoys me that God doesn’t bring out a ‘sequel’, tell us which ideas are out of date, bring in new ones and so on. In effect the ones who most understand science, scientists, can attack Christianity but the one who understands Christianty most, God, doesn’t and so Christians are left to argue for Christianity when there is so much about it we don’t know.

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