Touching a Raw Nerve

Back in February 2012, Ophelia Benson was upset because an on-line college course was teaching “anti-atheist bullshit”:

Hibernia College Dublin, in its Higher Diploma in Arts in Primary Education, is teaching as part of its Religion module several untrue statements about atheism and at least two defamatory allegations about modern atheists. This includes course notes that claim that “What bothers very few of its latter-day exponents is the fact that atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism…” and a mock examination where the student is expected to answer that it is “True” that “Atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed.”

Some atheist group in Ireland fired off an angry letter to “Hibernia College, the Minister for Education, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council; the Teaching Council; the Irish National Teachers Organisation; the Union of Students in Ireland; and selected politicians with an interest or responsibility in this area” and “raised the matter with two Council of Europe delegations who are in Dublin this week monitoring Ireland’s record in protecting human rights” – the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), and the Advisory Committee for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).

A few days later, the college removed the “offensive slides” and the Gnus gloated.

But let’s have a look at some of those claims from Atheist Ireland.

Hibernia College should not be teaching that “What bothers very few of its latter-day exponents is the fact that atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism…” This is a disgraceful libel on modern atheists and humanists, suggesting that very few of us care about the worst atrocities history has ever witnessed.

I am having a hard time seeing how this is a disgraceful libel when my own empirical experience has taught me that Gnu atheists have no interest in exploring the role atheism played in Soviet society, except to assure us that “true atheism” had nothing to do with it..  Even today, I have never encountered a Gnu atheist who has spoken out against the anti-religious persecution in North Korea, for example.  And Gnus do care about the worst atrocities history has ever witnessed. as long as they can be blamed on religion.

Atheist Ireland continues:

Hibernia College should not be teaching “the fact” that “atheist humanism produced the worst horrors history has ever witnessed, namely Nazism, Fascism and Marxism.” This is simply untrue. Hitler was not an atheist, and he wrote in Mein Kampf that he was doing the Lord’s work in fighting the Jews. The Vatican signed concordats supporting both Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin was a Seminarian and his Marxism was based on totalitarianism. Also, the notes ignore atrocities that were explicitly religious, such as the Crusades and the Inquisitions.

Huh?  Sorry, but it looks to me like Hibernia College was teaching something much closer to the truth than Atheist Ireland’s thin-skinned hand-waving.  For example, why in the world would anyone deny that Soviet communism was an expression of atheist humanism given all that we know about the two?  After all, one of the core positions of Gnu atheism – the incompatibility of science and religion – was official Soviet ideology. 

One of these days I’d like to read Henri De Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism, which was written in 1949.  Here is the book summary:

De Lubac traces the origin of 19th century attempts to construct a humanism apart from God, the sources of contemporary atheism which purports to have ‘moved beyond God.’ The three persons he focuses on are Feuerbach, who greatly influenced Marx; Nietzsche, who represents nihilism; and Comte, who is the father of all forms of positivism. He then shows that the only one who really responded to this ideology was Dostoevsky, a kind of prophet who criticizes in his novels this attempt to have a society without God. Despite their historical and scholarly appearance, de Lubac’s work clearly refers to the present. As he investigates the sources of modern atheism, particularly in its claim to have definitely moved beyond the idea of God, he is thinking of an ideology prevalent today in East and West which regards the Christian faith as a completely outdated.

Now comes the best part.  Atheist Ireland complains:

 Hibernia College should not be teaching that atheism is a religion. The course notes list “Atheism, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam” under the heading of “various religions”. In reality, atheism is either believing there are no gods or not believing that there are gods. This does not constitute a religion. Indeed, it typically indicates the absence of a religion.

Thanks to modern day Gnu activists, the “atheism is either believing there are no gods or not believing that there are gods” position no longer holds up.

Just recently, an atheist made this very point to PZ Myers:

Im in that awkward position where i do agree with most of the values and dislike the misogynist idiots but see no value or reason to mix atheism and the other values. For me atheism just is the simple disbelief and my political values stand apart from it.

Pay close attention to Myer’s reply (while keeping in mind that Myers is a Gnu leader with over a 100,000 devoted Twitter followers):

Now you see, that’s just stupid. There are lots of atheists who take this blinkered stance that atheism is just one specific idea about rejecting god-belief, and it has absolutely no philosophical foundation and should have no political or social consequences. And that’s nonsense. This commenter is deluding himself as thoroughly as any god-walloper.

If there is no god, if religion is a sham, that has significant consequences for how we should structure our society. You could argue over how we should shape our culture — a libertarian atheist would lean much more towards a Darwinian view, for instance, than I would — but to pretend that atheism is just an abstraction floating in the academic ether is silly.

So Atheist Ireland is wrong.  Gnu Atheism is more than just a disbelief in God.  It also entails some form of ideology that guides us in our attempt to shape society and culture.

Myers is not the only Gnu activist to make this claim.  Greta Christina makes the same claim:

I’m going to go out on a limb here: being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.

A lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism means one thing and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god. And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more than just not believing in gods or the supernatural. It’s a positive, multifaceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.

But conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications. That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods as much as any other conclusion. When you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice: an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on. For reasons that are high-minded and noble and altruistic… and also for reasons that are pragmatic and Machiavellian to the point of being crass.

Look.  New atheism did not poof into existence in a vacuum.  Like all movements, it has a history.  Even Jen McCreight acknowledges the existence of a “first wave” of atheism composed of “traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics.”  Shouldn’t we explore this first wave and how it influenced history to help us understand the second and third waves?  Or should we go along with the Gnus and pretend New Atheism is derived entirely from science and Darwin and is nothing more than a defense of science and reason brought about by the meddling of creationists trying to institute a theocracy?

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One Response to Touching a Raw Nerve

  1. apollyon911 says:

    Don’t forget to add Mao and the first Atheist government: The Cult of Reason (French Revolution) as well as the Khmer Rouge…I suppose they were secretly Christians and not atheists.

    When atheists gain power they begin by restricting freedoms…and end by eliminating lives.

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