Sunday, 28 December 2014

Brendan O'Neil: "How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet"

As the year draws to an end, it's helpful to realise that while fundamentalist Christianity has deservedly earned its negative reputation, it does not have a mortgage on arrogance and intolerance. There are atheists who seem determined to give fundamentalist Christians a run for their money in terms of being the benchmark for smugness. As Brendan O'Neill, editor of spiked remarked in a Telegraph article from 2013:
When did atheists become so teeth-gratingly annoying? Surely non-believers in God weren't always the colossal pains in the collective backside that they are today? Surely there was a time when you could say to someone "I am an atheist" without them instantly assuming you were a smug, self-righteous loather of dumb hicks given to making pseudo-clever statements like, "Well, Leviticus also frowns upon having unkempt hair, did you know that?" Things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself, and instead mumble something about being a very lapsed Catholic if I'm put on the spot, for fear that uttering the A-word will make people think I'm a Dawkins drone with a mammoth superiority complex and a hives-like allergy to nurses wearing crucifixes.
Dismissing O'Neill's article as a fundamentalist Christian rant is complicated by the slight problem that as he states in the article, he's an atheist. Whatever problems he has with movement atheism is hardly driven by any theological concerns.

Atheism per se is not the problem as it's merely a lack of belief in a god. It's why attacks by Christians on the sort of atheists that embarrass O'Neill by branding them as 'fundamentalists atheists' don't work because atheism is not a belief system, and therefore has no fundamental dogmas to which it can exhort others to return. The problem is when atheism becomes the defining feature of a person's personality, and becomes the equivalent of a belief system. O'Neill gets it in one when he says:
The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity.
An excellent example of this can be seen in the Atheism Plus movement, which as RationalWiki points out was an attempt: 
"to unite atheists who wish to use their shared atheist identity as a basis for addressing political and social issues and engaging in related activism. Its scope is intended to go beyond the question of (non-)belief to address additional issues, including but not limited to critical thinking, skepticism, social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and combating homophobia and transphobia. In other words, a place for some of the more liberal (in the American meaning of the word) atheists who are sick of being lumped together with people whose ideals they don't share."
While it is easy to understand why these atheists would want to differentiate themselves from those non-theists who hold socially regressive views on race, gender, and social justice, the fundamental problem with Atheism Plus is in making atheism the core of their identity, rather than adopting the view advanced by Luke Muelhauser, executive director at Machine Intelligence Research Institute that "atheism is just the beginning; now it's time to solve the harder questions." More to the point, the goals that Atheism Plus advocated were already advanced by secular humanism, whose non-theistic views were hardly hidden, but not turned into the functional equivalent of a belief system, along with its associated risks of intolerance.

The problems with Atheism Plus very quickly became apparent when historian Richard Carrier made these intemperate remarks in response to the emergence of Atheism Plus:
There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all (I mean people like these and these). I was already mulling a way to do this back in June when discussion in the comments on my post On Sexual Harassment generated an idea (inspired by Anne C. Hanna) to start a blog series building a system of shared values that separates the light side of the force from the dark side within the atheism movement, so we could start marginalizing the evil in our midst, and grooming the next generation more consistently and clearly into a system of more enlightened humanist values.
That's definitely not how to win friends, influence people, and show that you are a better class of person than the fundamentalist Christians whose views you hold in contempt. It also didn't impress Jen McCreight, originator of Atheism Plus: 
“Finally had time 2 read Richard Carrier’s #atheismplus piece. His language was unnecessarily harsh, divisive & ableist. Doesn’t represent A+.”
Again, this is not a criticism of atheism per se, as atheism is merely the lack of belief in a god, but rather  an observation on how movement atheism is in danger of picking up some - but not all - of the negative traits of fundamentalism. As O'Neill warns:
Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?