Jason “Hot Dog” Rosenhouse is still on a roll, posting a trenchant essay nearly every day. Yesterday, in a piece called “Politics and nonbelief,” Jason takes after two especially annoying “atheists,” R. Joseph Hoffman and his acolyte Jacques Berlinerbrau. I put “atheists” in quotes because although these fellows profess nonbelief, they’re always tut-tutting around the edges of New Atheism, criticizing us because we don’t do things right, because we’re politicially unsophisticated, and especially because we’re abysmally ignorant of the history of atheism, so that the glorious lucubrations of Bertrand Russell et al. have descended to the unproductive rantings of Dawkins and Hitchens.
The real reason for their ire is, I think, is that Hoffmann and Berlinerbrau are jealous of the success of the New Atheists. Their turgid and scholarly prose leaves no imprint on society, much less academia, and so they’re reduced to lecturing those folks who do get attention, who actually accomplish something. Jason’s essay handily dismantles their pretensions.
I read Hoffman’s essay, “Atheism’s little idea,” last week, but found it too infuriating to write about. Jason calls it “stunningly idiotic.” That’s strong words for Rosenhouse, but he’s right. Yet he reserves most of his ire for an equally infuriating essay by Jacques Berlinerbrau at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The political future of atheism in America: Don’t go it alone.” (Berlinerbrau’s moronic essays always fall hard on the heels of ones by Hoffman.) Although Berlinerbrau’s piece is surprisingly incoherent, when it does make sense it’s simply stupid, as when he asserts that New Atheists want to “abolish religion.” And he offers no guidance about how we’re really supposed to effect change: all he says is that we’re doing it rong. It’s a form of academic preening. Go see Jason’s analysis, which is spot on:
It is when I read essays like Berlinerblau’s that I understand why academics are thought to live in ivory towers. I catch a glimpse of what anti-intellectualism is all about. Atheists were politically irrelevant and reviled long before Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris came along. They had nothing to do with creating the political difficulties atheists face, and there is not a shred of evidence that anything has gotten worse for atheists because of their work.
What has changed as a result of their efforts is that atheists are now far more visible than ever before. By writing a few books, and standing tall in the face of extraordinary vituperation from outraged religious folks, they have shown that there is a surprisingly large market for atheism in this country. No one predicted that their books would be hugely successful, but people are still talking vigorously about them years after they were published. Aided by bloggers, and by numerous unheralded organizers on the ground, we now have a vibrant community of nonbelievers, both online and real world. The numerous well-attended conferences, and, yes, the billboards and merchandise, are all positive developments. Considering how deep in its own endzone atheism was starting, I’d say the New Atheists have accomplished something pretty impressive.
Then here come the Berlinerblau’s of the world to tut-tut and to criticize. It’s all so vulgar and low brow and not at all the sort of thing that scholars investigating the roots of nonbelief in fifteenth-century France care about. Those people on the ground who actually built something are doing it all wrong. He has it all figured out if only people would ask him. He thinks seriously about these issues, you know.
But when it comes time to offer anything concrete we get only talking points and empty rhetoric. Despite how he frames his essay, he never actually tells us what he would do if he were in charge of American atheism. He just criticizes what others are doing. One suspects that he, like so many critics of the New Atheists, don’t actually have any constructive political strategy. To judge from their writing their main agenda has more to do with preserving their own self-rightousness and feelings of superiority.