TIA: Lowering the Bar

[Update: Vox has posted this on the TIA discussion forum, in its entirety, so I’d like to welcome any new readers who happen to wander over this way, and to invite them to browse through my other posts on Vox’s book.]

It is refreshing, in a way, how openly and sincerely Vox Day’s book The Irrational Atheist pursues a frankly ad hominem strategy in dealing with the writings of Dawkins and company. He cannot refute atheism itself, since that would require a God Who actually shows up and interacts with the real world in objectively verifiable ways. So he does the next best thing and attacks the atheists instead. He states this plainly in Chapter 1, “A Pride of Athiests [sic].”

I will convince you that this trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, is a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand…

In other words, atheists claim that God does not exist, but atheists are dishonest, therefore God exists. It’s the same sort of reasoning originally used to justify the unprovoked war against Iraq: Saddam claims to have no WMDs, Saddam is dishonest, therefore Saddam has WMDs. As subsequent history shows, it’s a powerfully persuasive rhetorical technique. If it’s too difficult to prove the existence of something that’s not there, just lower the bar a little. All you have to do is find someone who denies that it’s there, then find something they said that was not true, and voila, everything they claim is wrong.

I have no doubt Vox is eventually going to try and do something to directly address the arguments in The God Delusion and other such books. It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, however, that he begins by trying to create an environment in which atheists are inherently nasty people who don’t deserve to be listened to, much less agreed with. It’s the Diss and Dismiss strategy: convince folks that they don’t want to agree with such disgusting antisocial geeks, and you’ll have a much easier time justifying the conclusion that they shouldn’t.

Vox begins by offering us not just one, not just two, but three shallow and unflattering stereotypes into which atheists can be pigeonholed. And just in case these two-dimensional stereotypes are not sufficiently disparaging, he adds on an extra layer of insult by referring to them as “churches.” Oo, that one hurt, eh? Before he gets down to defining these stereotypes, however, he must first thrash around trying to get a handle on what “atheism” means. He starts off with a fairly straightforward definition, taken from an actual atheist, but then trips over his own feet.

The concept appears simple enough. A-Theism. Without theism. As Brent Rasmussen, an atheist who writes at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, describes it:

Atheism describes a person in which god belief is absent. That’s all. Nothing more. Black or white. On or off. There or not there.

This is a perfectly reasonable definition in theory, but in practice it’s not quite that simple. As bizarre as it may sound, researchers have learned that nearly half of those who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic nevertheless believe in life after death as well as in Heaven and Hell, beliefs that have historically been considered to be a fairly strong indication of theism.

Whoosh. Apparently the concept of atheism being a lack of belief in god(s) went right over poor Vox’s head, along with the concept of theism being belief in god(s). Belief in the afterlife is not theism, nor is belief in heaven and hell. They may be strongly associated with theism in some religions, or even in many religions, but that does not make them theism. My own personal belief is that God is essentially a conceptual framework people use to interact with reality on a social basis–I believe that God is real (is Reality, in fact), but I do not believe in the supernatural. So one can be a theist without accepting any of the supernatural trappings that Christianity and other religions slap on top of their animistic beliefs.

It ought to come as no surprise, then, that people who lack belief in any particular god(s) may or may not believe in other things besides god(s). Vox, however, seems to find this perplexing and even mystifying. For example, after complaining about a so-called “inconsistency” in the beliefs of various atheists, he says:

Dennett leaves it unclear whether his refusal to believe in lesser supernatural forces such as witches, Santa Claus, and Wonder Woman should properly be considered an aspect of his atheism or merely an adjunct to it.

Sigh. Let’s try this again, in small words: theism means belief in god(s), and atheism means no belief in god(s). Is that really so hard to grasp? If a Christian believes herbal supplements help maintain good health, does that mean herbals should be an aspect of Christianity or merely an adjunct to it? Or gosh, could it be that the two aren’t really related in any significant way? It’s not that atheists are being inconsistent or unclear, it’s just Vox failing to grasp a rather fundamental, not to say elementary and unambiguous concept. “A” (not) + “theos” (god) + “ism” (belief) = not believing in God. It’s just not that complicated.

On to the stereotypes. The first is called “High Church Atheist,” and is a slightly recycled version of an old anti-liberal stereotype. Its avatar is a middle-aged radical leftist university English professor who neglects his teaching duties in order to harangue his students about his beliefs on religion. It’s a story that sounds vaguely familiar, and probably has its share of real-world exemplars. The moral of this story is quite clear (and just in case it isn’t, Vox spends a few paragraphs belaboring the point): atheists are a bunch of elitist snobs who look down on you because they think they’re smarter than you. And in case that isn’t enough to get you to hate them, they’re also intelligent, well-educated, and have relatively high incomes. Plus, they’re mentally ill, more or less.

[T]he High Church atheist’s undeveloped social skills are often so dramatic as to be reasonably described as a form of social autism.

Of course, lack of effective social influence is a two-way street, lending such people a certain resistance to the kind of peer pressure that makes you want to believe something just because everyone around you believes it. There may be a certain grain of truth behind the observation that some atheists are naturally less prone to group suggestion and other forms of gullibility. But that’s not the point Vox is trying to make, of course. His point is that High Church atheists are annoying geeks that nobody likes and therefore you shouldn’t either.

This may explain why the following pair of definitions have proven to be useful in distinguishing between the High Church atheist and the agnostic.

Agnostic: “I don’t believe there is a God. Because I haven’t seen the evidence.”

Atheist: “There is no God. Because I’m an asshole.”

Like I said, refreshingly honest in its open embrace of ad hominem as an argumentative strategy.

On to stereotype #2, the Low Church Atheist.

The most easily identifiable factor separating Low Church atheists from their High Church brethren is neither educational nor liturgical, but eponymical. They simply don’t describe themselves as atheists. Instead, they show up on various religious surveys as “no religion” or occasionally “secular.”28 Their beliefs are distinctly recognizable as atheistic, as they don’t believe in God, they don’t attend religious services, they don’t believe in the supernatural, and they don’t belong to religious organizations, but a failure to openly embrace an atheist identity is not the only significant distinction of the Low Church atheist.

The “no religion” identifier is important to Vox, because it allows him to play with statistics, especially those from the British prison system.

In the year 2000, there were 38,531 Christians of twenty-one different varieties imprisoned for their crimes, compared to only 122 atheists and sixty-two agnostics…

However, there also happened to be another 20,639 prisoners, 31.6 percent of the total prison population, who possessed “no religion.” … But when one compares the 31.6 percent of imprisoned no-religionists to the 15.1 percent of Britons who checked “none” or wrote in Jedi Knight, agnostic, atheist, or heathen in the 2001 national survey, it becomes clear that their Low Church counterparts are nearly four times more likely to be convicted and jailed for committing a crime than a Christian.

Wait a minute. The 20,000 “no religion” prisoners are nearly four times more likely to be jailed than the 38,000 Christians behind bars? Did I read that right? Oh, I see: Vox is comparing one statistic from one data source to a different statistic from a different data source. So he’s saying that one number, picked from one survey in one year, is four times more than a different number from a different survey in a different year. Ah well, can’t ask for more than that, eh?

Studies have shown that those without religion have life expectancies seven years shorter than the average churchgoer, are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, and be depressed or obese, and they are much less likely to marry or have children. Their criminal proclivities strongly suggest that they are less intelligent on average than theists and High Church atheists alike, and they also outnumber their High Church counterparts by a significant margin…

So the Low Church Atheist is the traditional stereotype of the gutter-dwelling, Bill Sykes cartoon atheist. Obviously, we shouldn’t listen to them because they’re quite plainly The Bad Guys. (And therefore God exists…)

Stereotype #3: Agnosticism (“The Unitarianism of Atheism”).

Unitarianism offers religion without faith. In a similar manner, Agnosticism offers disbelief without arrogance. Whereas the atheist is always in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative, the agnostic is content to relax, kick back, and wait for others to demonstrate the proof of their assertions. And while agnostics have many things in common with High Church atheists, sharing both their disbelief in god and the supernatural as well as many of their secondary traits, it is nearly impossible to confuse the two types of nonbelievers.

The most obvious difference is that agnostics are not at war with anyone, whereas atheists are prone to aggressively attacking just about everyone, including agnostics.

Vox can’t find much to complain about with agnosticism, which he calls a “perfectly reasonable position,” so he contents himself with linking them to the “creepy” Unitarians, and with exaggerating the “conflict” between the agnostics and the “High Church” stereotypes. (It’s true that they do criticize each other’s views, but I think even Vox would admit it never really approaches the same level as the criticisms both groups give to superstitious beliefs like Christianity.)

Since he can’t give us a really good reason to hate the agnostics, Vox instead changes the subject to “Apocalyptic Techno-Heretics,” an odd group of writers who expects advances in computing power to eventually result in a “Singularity” in which intelligent machines overtake human capabilities. This, apparently, gives him a group he can diss in place of agnostics.

The award-winning science fiction writer Bruce Bethke has a pet theory that science fiction, especially disaster-oriented hard science fiction, primarily exists to provide a mechanism for writing end-of-the-world stories sans theology. “Left Behind for atheists,” he calls it, pointing to Greg Bear’s deity-free apocalyptic novel Forge of God as being but one of many examples.

Yes, all atheists secretly know that God is real, and are just acting out ways to avoid admitting it.

Apocalyptic Techno-Heretics can be divided into three sects, Renunciationist, Apotheosist, and Posthumanist. Whereas Renunciationists foresee a dark future wherein humanity is enslaved or even eliminated by its machine masters and await the Singularity with the same sort of resignation that Christians who don’t buy into Rapture doctrine anticipate the Tribulation and the Antichrist, Apotheosans anticipate a happy and peaceful amalgamation into a glorious, godlike hive mind of the sort envisioned by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation novels. Posthumanists, meanwhile, envision a detente between Man and Machine, wherein artificial intelligence will be wedded to intelligence amplification and other forms of technobiological modification to transform humanity and allow it to survive and perhaps even thrive in the Post-Human Era.

And therefore God exists…

Like so many other believers, Vox can think of no more telling accusation against atheism than to accuse atheists of being just like Christians, so he ends chapter 1 by bestowing an atheistic “creed” on his 3 stereotypical churches. Atheism, being a non-belief, does not have a creed, of course, but he takes a statement from the American Atheists and translates it into Latin “to give it more grandeur.” And thus ends chapter one. Atheists are disgusting, criminal, creepy and mentally-ill geeks whom we should all hate because they have churches and sects and creeds, just like Christians. The bar is sufficiently low now, so perhaps we can go on to try and address the actual issues at stake in the confrontation between believers and unbelievers. Or perhaps not.

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One Response to “TIA: Lowering the Bar”

  1. Common Sense Atheism » The Irrational Atheist (notes in the margin, index) Says:

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