Fastest growing atheist demographic: the Disillusioned | cc @pzmyers @richarddawkins

PZ Myers is disillusioned. Put away the “Surprised” Crayola; he’s not the first and he’s not the only one.

It’s interesting how (what I consider to be) the initial phase of New Atheism in the mid-noughts proudly considered itself somewhat radical, game-changey and fighting the establishment, only to turn around in recent years and itself become the establishment, as resistant to introspection and self-reflection and the admission of error or misjudgement as the hierarchy of any religious target they would’ve railed against, scarlet “A” banner flapping proudly in the breeze as they charged. Specific subject matter to one side, the behaviour of the self-described global thought leaders has, in the face of years of complaints of sexist behaviour and attitudes, rape threats and general misogyny, attempts at driving women bloggers into silence and many real allegations of assault and rape, been just the same as any Old Boys’ Club’s inner circle (and their concentric circles of wannabes) who are faced with inconvenient questions or impertinent highlighting of problematic behaviour or attitudes: deny, defend, deflect, denigrate, double down.

The old new atheists always revelled in their impropriety and impertinent interrogations of religion – they seem to very much resent receiving similarly irreverent treatment from the new new atheists. Their outrage, disdain and denial almost precisely mirrors the reactions they got from establishment religion in the middle years of last decade. Dawkins et al were accused of stridency and shrillness quite a lot back in the day and rightly scoffed, as the allegations were baseless hyperbole. Today? Not so much. If anyone ever wanted to see Dawkins finally earn that “strident” badge, just read his twitter feed when women are up for discussion. If invoking hallmarks of tyranny – e.g. when he employed “verbal jackboots” and the “FreeThought Police” – in response to being criticised on blogs isn’t strident and shrill, I’m waiting to see what is.

The fact is that the atheist movement – such as it is – that these (mostly) men founded (or at least accelerated) is changing. All movements do: feminism, LGBT rights, civil rights, indigenous rights and now non-religious rights have gone and all go through periods of intense forward motion followed by periods of reflection after their successes (even if they’re just in raising awareness) and discussions of “where should we go now?” Right now, atheism is expanding both its demographics and its agendas. Where once it was dominated by academic white guys who were all about church & state and proper science classes in schools, many of the atheists inspired by those people to examine their own beliefs are wanting to talk about – and apply their skepticism and secular reasoning to realising – other things like gender equality and ethnic inclusiveness. One byproduct of both this and the atheist habit for proud irreverence is that the words and attitudes of atheism’s purported leaders are now being questioned as deeply as they themselves would question those of the religious. Sadly, in many cases, those words have been found wanting, the attitudes they reveal as calcified as in any rank-closing bishop and the responses to criticism as reactionary as any wrathful believer – or insecure believer in belief.

In many of the cases of defensiveness on the part of visible atheists like Harris and Dawkins, the subject of the criticism isn’t responding to the content of the criticism, but to the mere fact of the criticism. The subject, incredulous, cannot possibly imagine why anyone would take issue with what they said, because (to their mind and to the bulk of their experience) they are right, what they are saying is common knowledge, utterly inoffensive, well-informed and could not possibly be disagreed with by any educated person of the right mindset. Accordingly, anyone who does disagree or criticise is obviously of the wrong mindset. Once categorised as Wrong, such people can then be summarily dismissed without the need to respond meaningfully to any specific criticism. If the Wrong reiterate or expand their criticism or issue followups, for example criticising the non-responses and summary dismissals, the subject can then invoke all sorts of tyrannical or oppressive or purely monetary motives (“doing it for the clicks!”), as if a single blogger or even a moderately popular blog network has any sort of censorial power over someone like the Richard Dawkins, a best-selling author and in-demand public speaker with (in the atheist world at least) unparallelled influence and access to resources, or any comparable ability to attract revenue just by publishing a post (if anyone’s wondering, this one’s on the house, just like every other one).

The transition was relatively rapid, too: one minute everyone’s apparently (I’ll get to that) on the same page and looking in the same direction, the next – as soon as women identify problematic behaviour and request that we guys not do that then start talking about harassment policies – there’s an instant rift dug by people who for some reason viciously resent being told that some behaviour makes others uncomfortable. Then a few visible “leaders” say some thoughtless or petulant things, one blogger wonders if atheism can be about a little more than debunking myths and is vilified at length for the mere suggestion, a blogger or ‘tuber or two reveal themselves to be unapologetic misogynists, a parallel atheist community is born for the sole purpose of harassing and obsessively monitoring two blog networks and before you know it, women are being threatened with rape and death. With rape and death. And others are laughing at it. Including other women.

And now for the “apparently”: as various discussions progress it turns out that no, we weren’t all on the same page and sexist and creepy behaviour didn’t just spring into existence ex nihilo in a lift early one morning; it’s been a problem nobody (especially insulated white chaps like me) really had any idea about for years – except those directly involved and in some cases, disappointingly, at the executive level of some atheist/skeptic organisations, where active decisions were made to do nothing to support employees who’d been victimised or harassed. It also turned out that there had been for years (like there is in other conference circuits) a grapevine, a back-channel utilised by women attendees and speakers to stay informed about infamous creeps and sexual predators.

And with every revelation and accusation, the rift got wider and deeper, the apologetics got louder and more (dare I say) strident, the responses got more toxic and hateful and the leadership seemingly became focused on prioritising the preservation of their positions at the cost of making what movement there was more welcoming to people who didn’t resemble them physically. Not only that, but the misogynist ragers, the hateful stalkers, the doc-droppers and the entrenched old boys then had the unmitigated gall to accuse those advocating for a more welcoming and diverse community of being “divisive”. As if, somehow, women and feminists pointing out sexist attitudes and harassment so as to raise awareness and start a discussion about solutions was something unexpected, a gross heresy, an unforgiveable sin, all part of a plot to – well, God only knows what. It has never been adequately explained how atheism as a cause might be irreparably harmed by making better and more meaningful efforts to welcome the other half of the population to atheism.

And now that many women, feminists, non-male people and now many non-white people are throwing up their hands and saying “fuck it, you want your “movement” to be pure, to be free of questions that make you uncomfortable, fine – you can have it,” I fully expect the apologists and the old boys themselves to further blame us (feminists, women, non-males, non-whites, inclusivists in general, those social justice warriors everyone seems so concerned about) for being even more divisive.

Finally, I find it highly ironic that the leadership/s that brought us the scarlet letter “A” logo, a repurposing or “taking back” of the old tactic of publicly humiliating women who dared step out of the social boundaries prescribed by the men who essentially owned them, would be so solidly behind enabling and defending a sexist status quo, and in some cases being openly hostile to all women who challenge them, whether they’re accusing accuse “leaders” of assault or inappropriate sexual behaviour or of simply saying things that are mildly (but no less thoughtlessly) sexist. In light of the last three years of harassment, obsessive monitoring, threats, both mild casual sexism and unapologetic misogyny, all with nary a disapproving look from the leaders over the tops of their spectacles, followed by wagon-circling and dismissive responses to allegations of assault and rape (some going back years), that scarlet letter is more appropriate than ever.

Simply, the message in “movement” atheism at this moment appears to be: Speak, woman, and be vilified.


Anglican Bishops assembles A-Team to combat Dawkins; I pity da fool


Canterbury, England (ENI). The Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, is to host a study day at St Paul’s Cathedral in the British capital to help clergy counter the influence of the scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. A keynote speaker will be John Cornwell, the author of “Darwin’s Angel”, whose subtitle is, “An angelic riposte to ‘The God Delusion'”. Cornwell will advise clergy on how to respond to the claims of Dawkins at a time when the apparent polarisation between religion and science raises many questions for people of faith.

Schedule of events

“Oh, no, don’t go in there! What if Dawkins’ evil questions make you think about what you believe? Dear God, no!” What’s wrong with people learning to think for themselves and find their own answers, o wise clergy?

From the schedule:

11.05 am God Without the Gaps

One consequence of the current science and religion debate is that it makes theology appear reactive and defensive. Professor Keith Ward has for many years worked on developing a scientifically literate approach to theology. Today he goes beyond the ‘God of the gaps’ to explore a positive theological approach to science and its role in Christian formation.

Theology without resorting to “God of the gaps”? I’d honestly like to hear Professor Ward’s argument. Although, with him presumably being a professor of theology, I have no choice but to assume there’d be a laundry list of mental contortions on display. I’ve really encountered nothing but when reading or hearing theological arguments, even from those considered the “best” in their field. I suppose when your field can be summed up as “proving the unprovable” or “preaching to the converted in such a way as to flatter their intelligence & justifying their blind faith in an unsupportable idea” you’re not exactly starting in the fastest car on the grid.

2.00pm The Gospel according to Luke (Skywalker)?

Science plays an important part in fuelling our imagination though literature, films and television. In this session David Wilkinson, the author of The Power of the Force: The Spirituality of the Star Wars Films considers practical ways for clergy to communicate the Gospel using science fact and fiction in preaching and teaching. The session includes Q&A.

Well, first let me put on my giant nerd pants and say Star Wars isn’t science fiction. Space opera, science fantasy, a common swashbuckling pirate narrative transposed to space, really long commercials for toys, yes (especially the new ones), but not science fiction. Asimov, Banks, Clarke: these are true science fiction.

Nevertheless, this section would also be very interesting to see. Especially considering the recent Star Wars prequels, in which those Jedis or Sith Lords strong in the previously-referred-to-as-mystical “energy field” – the Force – now are revealed to simply be bursting with biochemicals known as “midichlorians”. Young Anakin Skywalker’s midichlorians were indeed “off the charts” which is seemingly the reason it was so hard for his master, Obi-Wan, to control him. So, instead of having a very strong bond with the energy field which binds everything in the Universe together, it now seems young Annie is reduced to being hyperactive & moody (& whiny – oh god the whining!) because of a gland problem. Maybe it was George W. Lucas’s attempt to inject the “fiction” with a bit more “science”.

So, the clergy is going to attempt to use the Force to combat Dawkins (and, presumably, all his little secular wizards).

Interesting as this segment might be, it still amounts to using fiction to justify fiction.

3.30pm Eureka! Science in liturgy

How can we bring science alive as a part of Christian liturgy, and the Gospel alive in the light of scientific understanding? In this session Lucy Winkett, Precentor of St Paul’s Cathedral and David Wilkinson discuss practical ways in which the awe and wonder inspired by the natural world can be expressed in Christian worship.

How indeed? How to inject the facts of the universe into mythology? How to tint reality with fable? How about not doing that at all and just enjoying nature for its own sake? What is exactly so wrong with the awe and wonder of the natural world that you can’t simply enjoy it for what it is?

What I’d like to know is, are these guys going express awe over such wonders of nature such as HIV, ebola and ovarian cancer in Christian worship? Truly these are marvels of creation; tiny self-replicators able to spread rapidly and follow their design ruthlessly, often with proud, strong, intelligent humans standing by helplessly. Or are such inconvenient facts of life to be ignored? Really, if you’re going to use nature’s awesomeness as a way to exalt the Great One, you’re only doing half a job if you just concentrate on little kitties and baby giggles and waterfalls.


Friday Frivolity: Terry & Jed on deism

I put this together a few years ago when I suppose I would have qualified as a deist. I didn’t know it at the time but I was already coasting down the gentle downward slope towards atheism. Once I read Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, however, my sort of floaty, flappy, amorphous thoughts on eternity and spirituality and existence were crystallised and I understood that I’d pretty much been an atheist for quite some time but didn’t realise it. Think I’ll go and re-read TGD – I really did enjoy it the first time!

As per the usual, click it to make it somewhat larger.

Dawkins & Lennox, a conversation

I was listening to this conversation between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox the other day and was enthralled – not by Professor Dawkins’ usual succinctness and great ability to deconstruct theological arguments, but by the vapid theology and wishful thinking on display by Mr Lennox.

Lennox tells us he’s gone to great lengths to be a rational theologian and tells us of the years he’s spent verifying the historical claims of the bible and the “scientific evidence of God”. However, despite his self-professed dedication to verifiability (and, in a Cirque de Soleil-esque feat of mental contortion), he’s also a New Testament literalist and believes in the virgin conception, actual physical death & resurrection and divine nature of Jesus as well as Jesus’ many miracles, such as the water to wine trick, the resurrection of Lazarus, the loaves and fishes etc. Clearly Lennox believes the theory that Jesus was also God and, as his own only son, came to earth to be tortured and sacrificed so that we may be spared the wrath of eternal torment that would be inflicted upon us should we choose not to believe the aforementioned (the eternal torment inflicted on us as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall – the original sin we’re all apparently born stained with but had no part in. It’s a godfather-style offer you can’t refuse of the highest order: “I’m here to save you from something that I inflicted on you for a crime you didn’t personally commit and it you don’t accept that you can go to hell which, by the way, is run by a former employee of mine who I had to fire because he was asking too many questions.”).

It was a polite, reasonable discussion with both Dawkins & Lennox serving as an example of how freethinkers & theists can get along despite their differences in outlook and have a friendly discourse (despite my frequent yearning for Dawkins to slam the table and go “Look! You’re talking utter motherfucking BOLLOCKS, John!”). Lennox has the broad brogue of a kindly Irish uncle who’s really good at telling stories over a pint or two of Beamish and it was really quite pleasant to hear him talk. Despite that, it was a frustrating exercise as Lennox, with his gift o’ the gab and heartfelt conviction, completely monopolised the conversation and Dawkins only spoke for perhaps a quarter to a third of the entire hour. Lennox would make a lengthy, earnest, long-winded claim, Richard would ask how precisely he knew it to be true, Lennox would embark upon a lengthy, earnest, long-winded answer which was a more sophisticated version of the standard apologetics we’re all used to, mainly variations on such things as the bible as historical evidence, personal spiritual confirmation and the alleged “fine-tuning” of the universe. Yes, the same shit that’s always getting de-bunked by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (who would’ve torn this gentle Irishman apart like a dinner roll). In hindsight it was probably a conscious decision on Dawkins’ part to simply pose a question and let Lennox run off at the mouth and make himself look foolish and desperate – to any rational listener, anyway. I think it would have allowed Dawkins to play the role of such a listener and allowed those rationalists among us to sit there and empathise with Dawkins as he sat there and basically listened to Lennox’s tripe for the best part of an hour.

To summarise Lennox’s entire argument, he long ago arrived at a decision that the bible was true and he’s spent many, many decades of his life proving to himself that he was right to make that decision. God made the universe, Jesus is God, God tinkers with the world occasionally, e.g. to impregnate virgins, Jesus could do the same thing and did so with bread and dead people. In other words, God can do magic. Because God created the universe and its laws, he can stick his nose in at any time, anywhere and tinker around and make stuff happens that he wants – made the rules, he can break them. Like a kid who starts a game of soldiers with his brother and suddenly makes it ok for tanks to fly in order to cross enemy lines and crush the enemy, despite strident protestations such “That couldn’t happen!” or “There’s no such thing as a flying tank!” (“They’re magic tanks, you idiot! I have wizards in my trenches!” or “You didn’t see my anti-gravity beam with your spyplanes because of my cloaking device, which is also cloaked, you complete idiot!” could be the response). In Lennox’s case, “God can do magic” is the sum total of his years of objective research.

All earnestness and likability aside, Lennox is actually quite overrated as an intellectual (which probably makes him a great theologian) and seems to rely more on blinding the listener (and, more than likely, himself) with polysyllables and scientific-sounding arguments mixed with appeals to emotion and personal experience than with consciously attempting a structured, convincing argument (much like his similarly allegedly intellectual but considerably more irritating colleague Alister McGrath). Naturally, Dawkins didn’t buy a bit of it and I just wish there was more time available so he could really go to town on the rubbish he was being served. If Lennox was, as he portrays himself, truly rational & objective & dispassionate about finding evidence to back up his long ago-made, faith-based decision regarding the bible’s veracity & divine inspiration, he would have absolutely no choice but to come to the decision that there was no such evidence. At the very least, he would have to concede that such evidence as there is is so tenuous and vague that it should not constitute a basis to make any kind of important decision, especially one that’s potentially life/afterlife-altering.