An Atheist Who Gets It

A very good series of posts here and here by the atheist Angus McDonald. McDonald sums up the problems with the “new” atheists and the problem is not with their belief that there is no god (something he agrees with), it is really with their sensibility and stance toward the world and others in general. His is really an aesthetic critique and as such is always the most devastating. The types of atheists he is speaking of come to the table with what they feel are piles of “facts” and “evidence” which they think have been strewn together with “reason” and “rationality.” Convinced that everyone is going to be impressed, they are actually surprised when people respond, “Yes, we see and know all that too, but remain skeptical.” What is the difference? Well, I think McDonald notes the difference here:

Rather than attempting to decipher the god code, the atheist activists opt for a literal reading which makes for rich satire but which really only reflects the beliefs of a fundamentalist rump. It is astonishing to hear leading public intellectuals in the twenty-first century characterise religion as a fixed and discrete entity, stored in institutions as if in glass jars. Separating religion from human discourse, given that the two have intermingled since the dawn of culture, is about as feasible as extracting the brandy from a Christmas cake.

Here he hits on the true problem, which is that the new atheists “read” or “decipher” everything through a literal and wooden lens as do all fundamentalists. This is a “reading” problem really. It would be as if when Hamlet reflects, “To be or not to be…” for one to suggest that he was simply talking about when his heart were to stop beating or become brain dead. There is no depth, no wisdom, no experience, and no sense of anything below the surface of things and they “decipher” the physical world this way as well. They forget that all evidence and every fact is a “deciphered” fact or piece of evidence. The new atheists don’t know how to read; or, rather, they mistake reading for a one-to-one correlation between the dictionary meaning of a word (or the empirical evidence) as if that could possibly sum up or exhaust the meaning inherent is what is being written, spoken about, or observed silently. It is really what we think of as immaturity.

They are perplexed. We have all the “facts” they say; we have all the “evidence.” And yet, the majority goes on believing. The new atheist must feel at times like the boy who is trying to make his case to girl he’s smitten with. He goes through the list of “evidence” and “facts” for why she should give in to his overtures. It is all very rational and matter-of-fact. And, it even makes sense. By all counts, on paper, he really is the one that would provide for her, be stable, and be the safest and most conventional of mates. And yet, she does not love him. She loves the boy who in many respects is “bad” for her. He doesn’t have near the things going for him as does the other, but what he does have—she wants above all else. What can one say of love, mystery, and the complexity of this life? It certainly doesn’t boil down to “facts” but rather our loves, desires, and the mystery of being.

Here are some quotes:

The atheist critique of religion as ‘irrational’ discounts the fact that powerful secular agencies including government, the media and the advertising industry make irrational interventions into public life every day of the week.

Conversely, about a fifth of the world’s population already inhabits a space where the exclusion of religion from public life has been an accomplished fact for decades. That state is, of course, the People’s Republic of China, whose policies are not noticeably more rational or functional than anyone else’s.

Maintaining the separation between church and state is the duty of secularism, and it could certainly be doing a better job, particularly in countries like the United States. But atheism must be somehow different from secularism, or no one would be talking about it.

The difference is that secularism assumes tolerance. Political atheism defines itself against religion, casting itself as scientific fact and religion as superstitious fiction. Atheists must therefore always be right, and the religious always wrong – a formulation that sounds just a little dangerous.

Non-belief by itself can propose no ethical system, so atheist activism must borrow its positions from other codes, a process that is not always rational or even conscious.

Faith is far from exercising a monopoly on intolerance and abuse, suggesting that the problem is not really religion, which at this level is just another fallible social institution in urgent need of reform. The problem is absolutism, a position which the atheist pamphleteers flaunt as happily as any fundamentalist.

The most signal failure of the atheist project is not that it insists on analysing religion in narrowly scientific terms, or that it cherry picks history in support of its case. It is that with its evasions and its incuriosity, its sloppy arguments and its unwillingness to question its own assumptions, it debases the currency of rational inquiry that it so claims to champion.

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2 Responses to An Atheist Who Gets It

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Let me try to understand your argument. People are credulus and irrational, and will believe anything. Therefore, religion isn't so bad, since a lot of people believe in it and find it comforting, mystical, and/or artistic. And religious thought doesn't have to be defended as rational anyhow, so there.

    back to me…
    The only issue true atheists have is that theists portray their theologies as real. If they stuck to their beauty and expressiveness of human desires and imagination, that would be OK, completely defensible, actually. Claims of truth should be left to those willing to engage in reason and empiricism.

    If there were a bunch of people running around claiming to have been abducted by UFO's, there would probably a-UFO-ists purely as a response to that particular irrationality, whether or not it led to greater policy goods, etc. Oh, wait- there are a-UFO-ologists, called atheists/skeptics.. since it is all part of the same supernatural mishmash.

    And the claim about ethics really marks the writer as a stooge of the ABC house theologian, not to be taken seriously. The enlightenment and the last few centuries in general is full of (successful) secular approaches to ethics and political organization, and indeed have dragged stone-age religious institutions/ideas into the ethical light. Both sides have something to contribute, but that hardly validates the supernatural frippary.


  2. Darrell says:


    “Let me try to understand your argument. People are credulus and irrational, and will believe anything. Therefore, religion isn't so bad, since a lot of people believe in it and find it comforting, mystical, and/or artistic. And religious thought doesn't have to be defended as rational anyhow, so there.”

    Not even close. What you have articulated is your argument and understanding. You may however have just confirmed mine and Mr. McDonald’s argument.


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