Monday, July 02, 2012

Gnu civil war

Boy meets girl.  Boy propositions girl.  Girl says, "No."  Elevator door opens.  Boy and girl return to separate hotel rooms.

Miss Watson
Such was the shot heard round the bloggosphere, the first salvo in what began as Elevatorgate, but has now escalated into an international civil war among New Atheists.  The word "civil" here should not be taken as a synonym for "courteous," nor should its connections with "civilization" be exagerrated.  Bodily functions of an impossible or painful nature have been suggested. Stars and curly cues (in our cartoon translation) have flown back and forth like fireworks at the Battle of Fort McHenry.  Venerable names (Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, the girl in question, at an atheist convention in Ireland), have been dragged through the mud.  Arguments Ad Hitlerum have been loosed upon the world.  Anathemas rain down upon the just and unjust.  Everyone is right and rational in his or her own eyes (and no, lines are not neatly drawn between boys and girls -- "gender traitors" are found in both camps, an epidemic of Stockholm Syndrome having accompanied the war, as epidemics often do).  Former friends are now revealed as bullies, cads, implicit justifiers of rape, neo-Nazis, and darn-near religious in their unscientific irrationality, thanks to positions they embrace -- the only embracing allowed in Gnuistan these days, it seems. 

Of course it is hard for us Christians not to chuckle a little.  Wasn't the end of religion supposed to bring something better?  Instead of sitting back on their porches on these hot summer days and enjoyed a good banana split, they're having a church split that make us Presbyterians look positively civil.  Nice to watch the "rocket's red glare" over someone else's straw-man laden barn, for a change. 

And, let me hasten to add, "Don't say I didn't warn you:"

In a phrase he might have written while humming John Lennon's Imagine, Dawkins says he cannot think of any war fought in the name of atheism.  Why would anyone fight 'for the sake of absense of belief?'  A more scientific question would be, 'Do people who disbelieve in God fight any less?' . . . It may be that nations, like drunks in a bar, enjoy a good brawl once in a while.  Need one explain aggression to a zoologist?  (The Truth Behind the New Atheism, 2007, 200-1)

One is thus tempted to sit back and enjoy the mayhem.  One might, indeed, appreciate glimmers of awareness that come to the likes of "thought activist" Mandy De Waal, in the Mail and Guardian:

Watching this vitriolic in-fighting and vituperative restaging of Salem in a community that associates itself with reason, intelligence and scepticism, was profoundly disappointing. It was almost as disappointing as witnessing a man as supremely intelligent as Dawkins being socially inept and irresponsible in his use of a vulgar metaphor to express his belief that “Elevatorgate”—as it now has become dubbed—was trivial.

Of course, theists are less "disappointed," because we never conceived Dawkins or his allies as being "supremely intelligent."  PZ Myers is conducting a witch hunt?  Well of course, today is a day of the week that ends in "y."  What else would he be doing?  
Enlarge if your day has
been too cheerful.  This
is a sample of the
"rational inquiry" on

But this time, Dawkins and Myers are on opposite sides.  Dawkins scoffed at Watson's supposed trauma, reminding her (in a crudely satirical post) of much worse treatment of women in Muslim countries.  Meanwhile, PZ dons his Helmet of Feminist Salvation and has gone on a year-long Crusade, not against rapists, or against anyone who condones rape, but against any man or woman who suggests that women take precautions against rape.  This, he insists, implicitly justifies the "Rape Culture" of America.  And in setting the bounds of orthodoxy, his stalwartly righteous troops rage against any human scum who says women are well-advised to dress carefully at 3 in the morning on a downtown city street, verbally disembowing such barbarians in graphic and thorough terms. 

As is usual ("they came for the Jews"), Gnus recognize the nasty character of their  gurus, when the nastiness finally reigns down on their own tribes or persons.  Thus, a disillusioned poster at Pharyungula reflects:

I’ve lost most of my interest in the “atheist movement” after reading about this subject for a year now.

Several spiteful, snearing comments followed, directed at the person guilty of this mild thought crime, or want of orthodox passion.  In the same forum, I also came across the following expression of hopeless cynicism, by "Josh, official Spokegay," with which no one ventured to take issue:

I hate people so *  much.

Not everyone can parlay despair into hip irony to easily as PZ.   

The hatred, of course, we knew about.  Knights on both sides of battle lines in the Elevator Wars, have long done their best to stoke hatred against believers.  The world has seen such exercises in collective guilt many places and times, at witch hunts, in rhetoric among the Young Hegelians that led to the communist revolutions of the 20th Century, at Kristalnacht. 
Chairman Mao did OK. 

PZ Myers is not really a Nazi, and no one expects his minions to drive panzers across North Dakota, as he jokes.  But the hatred he encourages and justifies, will no doubt be acted upon to hurt innocent people.  That is the way of the world.  One cannot dig a pit in the sidewalk, then disavow responsibility when people fall into it. 

"I hate people so * much." 

In the end, after reading hundreds of spiteful posts, especially on the morally-righteous, feminist side, I remember Dawkins' "Atheists for Jesus" t-shirt, and feel that what the Gnu movement really needs, after all, is nothing else than the love of Christ.

We don't always follow our own Master's difficult teachings ourselves: righteous indignation is too much fun.  But in light of this quagmire of tiresome moral postering, self-righteousness, and hatred stretching out to the drearisome horizon, acres of posts with nary a touch of real kindness or good humor in sight, how glorious, how beautiful, those old verses -- "confess your sins, one to another," "give thanks in all things," "forgive those who spitefully use you," "love your enemies" are rendered. 

Lord, bring healing to all of us who hate, as to those who hate us.  We are, we prove empirically, with each new day and each new social movement, a race of sinners, truly in need of this Savior.


Doc Johnny said...

As an atheist, I am saddened at the foibles of my fellows. I agree with much of your article. Although I think the cure is for people to act reasonably and rationally. An in depth look at the matter will reveal that a number of atheists have remained calm and acknowledged that all sides have a point and have engaged in talking past one another. But as is the case with most things, the loudest and the most venomous attract the most attention.

David B Marshall said...

True enough. I actually thought Paula Kirby's analysis was pretty level-headed, though she was excoriated for it at Pharyngula.

Crude said...

It doesn't help that the loudest and most venomous happened to be some of the Cult of Gnu's de facto leadership.

Doc Johnny said...

Oy vey.

I can't deny that some of the people involved behave in a very cultish fashion. Cults of personality are not good things, whether the object be a carpenter or a biologist. The ideas should be what matter.

Freethoughtblogs seems an incredibly hostile place unless you subscribe to a particular ideology, which unfortunately is apparently not subject to debate or discussion.

I think at some point people started having contempt for civility.

David B Marshall said...

I appreciate your honesty.

Of course, while admitting that "cults of personality" do often grow up in the Christian church, I would argue that the Gospels present us something more like the anti-cult, a cure for cults of personality. (Following psychologically insightful observers like Rene Girard and M. Scott Peck.)

But that probably merits a separate post.

Doc Johnny said...

I don't care for much of the "atheist movement" nowadays. I think atheist is a description of a minor part of who I am, but nothing that merits a movement.

Atheism is a consequence, not a philosophy. Rationalism, empiricism, those are worthy things upon which to build a movement. Atheism is nothing, much like a-unicorn-ism.

Also, so many atheists are so bitter about religion. Undoubtedly religion has caused and still causes great suffering. But let's look at it rationally. Is religion itself the root cause? Can we prove that? Is there proof that the world would be better off without any religion? I think it would be disingenuous to say there is proof.

I think irrationality, lack of empathy, and self-righteousness all cause suffering. And I don't think religion has a monopoly on these things.

Brian Barrington said...

Doc Johnny, I agree and I’m also an atheist. The idea that you can have an “atheist movement” with “atheist conventions” and “atheist organisations” with “atheist leaders” is fairly ridiculous to me. Atheists just don’t form any kind of coherent group. In a way, it’s a hopeless attempt to try and mimic the structures of organised religion. My sense is what you tend to get in atheist organisations etc. are people who have some personal reason to be bitter against religion – which would make these organisations more like meeting groups for battered spouses or recovering alcoholics or something like that.
I also agree that it is not at all clear that if there was no religion the world would be a better place – if many or most people are naturally religious then it seems to me that ridding the world of religion would be tyrannical and wrong.
And the use of the word “Atheist” as a primary self-label or self-definition makes little sense – people who do that are defining themselves in relation to what they do not believe in – so they are still kind of being defined by the thing they do not believe in, albeit negatively, which is kind of odd when you think about it. If I had to describe myself in one word I would say “Humanist”
Having said that, overall I think Dawkins and company have achieved some useful things –they have made it easier for people to be openly atheist and may have helped some people discover that they aren’t really religious at all. Also, in every library or bookshop now there will be at least a few books explicitly for atheists – previously that was not the case. So these are good achievements – Dawkins deserves credit for that.

Brian Barrington said...

“As an atheist, I am saddened at the foibles of my fellows.” I slightly disagree with the way this has been phrased – just because someone is an atheist does not mean I have any more fellowship with them than I do with anyone else. It would be better to say, "As a human being, I am saddened by the foibles of my fellow human beings".

And in this case even that doesn’t quite do the trick, since “Elevator-gate” is merely farcical and comical, and there is nothing in this storm in a tea-cup that merits being sad about.

Anonymous said...

Not much to add, except:

LOLOLOLOLOL at "Gnuistan!"

Unknown said...

Unwanted circumstances blind us so much that the corollary of such question escapes from our notice. It begins to rise when we start to focus again on ourselves, the "me" in the question, and forget the significant Other Who is behind the wonder of it all, the "why" in the question.

Ilchi Lee Books