Friday, May 9, 2014

New Atheist Truthiness and How to Fight It: Three Words

The New Atheists have been with us for some time. Shrill positivists who've made public careers out of fashioning the same straw man over and over, their impact on our culture is getting harder to ignore. Their few talking points have been absorbed widely and are regularly regurgitated any time one tries to discuss Christianity or either of the other two Abrahamic faiths. The results for serious discussion of religion have been reprehensible: a substitution of soundbites for thought.

One need only raise religious concepts in almost any mixed company and immediately there pops up one or two bright-eyed keeners with: "So I suppose you believe in the Tooth Fairy too!" Or: "There is zero concrete proof that God exists! Period!"

I especially like the line, traceable to Richard Dawkins: "You can believe that nonsense if you like, but I don't think you should have the right to teach it to children."

But try to take such debaters seriously, begin to engage actual argument with them, and they typically come back with things like: "Look, I'm not really interested enough in this topic to continue. It's not my concern."

Just like Dawkins himself. Not interested enough to actually study what he claims to refute.

In my mind the saddest part of the rise of Dawkins, Harris and Co. is that a New Atheist theology has actually taken root. And it is a theology, if only because their arguments only hold water to the degree their portrayal of Christian and other monotheistic theologies is accurate. Thus even as they forge their neat bullet points they're compelled to project a theological target at which their bullets can be fired. And since they haven't studied actual theology, they draw the target on their own. It is thus just what I say: a New Atheist theology. Since no serious theologians subscribe to the kind of thinking they project, it is purely an in-house project: the most egregious use of straw-man argumentation the West has seen in the past few decades.

Trite, shallow, grade-schoolish--of course the monotheism they revile is easy to take down. They made it for that purpose. Voilà the whole New Atheist project in a nutshell.

Him: "So I suppose you think you think Adam and Eve rode around on dinosaurs, right?" Me: "Actually I think evolutionary theory is correct about the rise of species." Him: "Well then you're not a real Christian, are you?" Me: "Uh. Sorry if I suggest that you're not the one to tell me what a real Christian is."

The tedious arrogance of these people! It's lucky most "real Christians" are reluctant to resort to violence. There'd be plenty of broken noses out there by now.

But I'm not writing here today to point to the shallowness of New Atheist debate tactics or theology. These points have been repeatedly raised by religious writers and even by many non-religious writers. In any case Harris and Dawkins have a rock star following to woo: they're not going to start actually talking substance with so many screaming teens in the audience. They've inculcated just the aggressive rudeness they hoped for. I'm here today to coin a new term or two to meet them halfway.

The fact is that it's damn cumbersome, it's inelegant, to write "New Atheism", "new-atheistic", etc. The word doesn't have a good adjective form. Besides, it's confusing to refer to a Dawkins groupie with the term "New Atheist", since this term is generally reserved for the big guns, that quadriga which, since the demise of Hitchens, we can indicate by the well-deserved acronym ADHD: yes, I mean AC Grayling, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett. So today I'd like to suggest three new words we may use when writing of this gang and their rude followers. Instead of the cumbersome "New Atheist" or "New-Atheistic" or "showing a shallowness similar to that of the New Atheists" I will use:
I think these words might add some punch to our writing. One can save time typing and write far more elegant sentences. And (if I may say so myself) the terms are just what Dawkins, Harris and their now millions of smart alec followers deserve. Because in fact they are not promoting science so much as scientism. And their political liberalism is not so much true liberalism (in the classical sense intended by our Founders) as scare-mongering paranoia: it is atheist dogmatism seeking to overthrow liberalism.

Newther nicely echoes truther, which is about right.

And newthiness echoes Stephen Colbert's immortal truthiness, which again hits the nail right on the reductive newther head. A Catholic himself, I think Colbert would approve.

Religious writers slogging about the Anglosphere these days will find plenty of chances to use these terms.

Newthiness: Just as all economic discourse on Fox News and like media refers back to the now disproved bromide "A totally free market is best for everyone" (and thus is mere truthiness) so all New Atheist discussion refers back to the highly debatable dogma that "Empirical science is the only way human beings can access truth"--and thus is mere newthiness.

Newther: This term is good in response to people who immediately feel it their duty to insult you when they learn you're a believer. As in: "So you think that the earth is ten-thousand years old, huh? I bet you think God hates fags too."

I once had a tubby, squinting Minnesotan throw just these lines in my face.

"Why do you people always assume all believers are rabid fundamentalists?" I asked him. "I mean, you're German-American. How'd you like it if half the people you met, upon learning your ancestry, suddenly shouted Sieg Heil! and tried to get you to defend the Holocaust. Duh."

The Minnesotan just smirked and took another swig of his beer. And I walked away.

With my new term newther I can save my breath next time. I can just say "Fucking newther soundbites" and walk away. Which is more or less meeting the newther on the level of debate he (and it always is a he) prefers. (Indeed--why are New Atheist converts so overwhelmingly fat, white and male? Is it straight from Dungeons and Dragons to Dawkins and Dennett or what?)

And so: newther, newthy, newthiness. We need these terms. There's an insufferably arrogant, definable strain of argument that's grown out of the New Atheist books and TED talks and pep rallies. It's a repetitive, redundant, willfully rude type of debate style. I feel we've been too polite when faced with it. It's time to coin some sharper terms to pin on these slobbering monomaniacs. I for one have grown tired of people with a third of my education thinking they can talk to me like I'm a moron. It's insulting to me, but more importantly, it's insulting to my faith.

Eric Mader

* * *

I've recently been introduced to the Freedom From Atheism Foundation (FFAF). I've some reservations about them (they seem in terms of the US to have a soft spot for the GOP which I hardly share) but it's certainly true that someone needs to start doing this kind of work. Check out their Facebook page.

* * *

Hail the Four Horsemen of the ASSPOCALYPSE:
Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens

No comments: