I know that I’m insulting the author of this piece, Sam Kriss, in my title, but his whole article in The Baffler, “Village atheists, village idiots“, is just so crazily misguided that I can’t help but turn his invective back on him. As far as I knew, The Baffler was a respectable literary journal, often sold in bookstores, but this one article has put me off it forever. What editors could possibly approve such an odiferous hunk of tripe?
I don’t know Sam Kriss, though his website says he’s a writer living in the UK. One thing’s for sure, though: he deeply, deeply hates “new” atheists, although he has no problem with “old” atheists. Below in bold I’ve put the major points he makes in his screed (excerpts from the piece have quotation marks around them):
- All New atheists are idiots. Have a gander at this:
“Something has gone badly wrong with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.
Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.”
What we learn from this is that Mr. Kriss likes to use pejorative language, but it’s hyperbolic and, worse, just plain wrong. Dawkins a lunatic? Tyson catatonic? Harris paranoid? Hitchens falling into the Euphrates? (What does that mean, anyway?) One could use the same language about famous theists, but we refrain from that kind of ad hominem stuff.
- New atheists are idiots because they spend all their time repeating truths universally acknowledged. Kriss uses a long story from Kierkegaard about a man in a lunatic asylum who escaped and, realizing that he had to pass for sane lest he be re-incarcerated, he decides to affirm his sanity by repeating an undeniable truth over and over again—that the Earth is round. But that, of course, sends him right back to the hospital. This, says Kriss, is the equivalent of what New Atheists do: repeating boring truths over and over again, and appearing like lunatics by so doing. The tedious truths we are said to repeat are that God doesn’t exist, humans have no soul, and that evolution occurs. (Kriss also criticizes Tyson for making a rap video refuting a flat-earther, thus becoming just like the madman in Kierkegaard’s story). As Kriss says:
“In the time of Kierkegaard and Marx and Parallax, there was still some resistance to the deadness of mere facts; now it’s all melted away. Kierkegaard’s villagers saw someone maniacally repeating that the world is round and correctly sent him back to the asylum. We watched Tyson doing exactly the same thing, and instead of hiding him away from society where nobody would have to hear such pointless nonsense, thousands cheer him on for fighting for truth and objectivity against the forces of backwardness. We do the same when Richard Dawkins valiantly fights for the theory of evolution against the last hopeless stragglers of the creationist movement, with their dinky fiberglass dinosaurs munching leaves in a museum-piece Garden of Eden. We do it when Sam Harris prises deep into the human brain and announces that there’s no little vacuole there containing a soul.”
Seriously? The “last hopeless stragglers of the creationist movement?” Is Kriss aware that about 42% of Americans are young-Earth creationists, with another 31% thinking that evolution happened, but was guided by God? Does he know that 71% of Americans believe in God, with 63% being certain there’s a God? Does Kriss know that 72% of Americans believe in Heaven and 58% in Hell? The “atheist truths” that Kriss sees as boring and self-evident are, in fact, rejected by a majority of Americans—reason enough to not just keep repeating them, but to keep showing why they are truths.
- The truth is way less important, and far more boring, than lovely fictions. This is unbelievable for any rational person to say, but Kriss says it. Referring to creationism, a flat earth, and the human soul, we hear this (my emphasis):
“All these falsehoods are beautiful, tiny, glittering reminders that the world can be something other than simply what it is; we should nurture them and let them grow. Instead, they’re crushed, mercilessly, in the name of a blind, stupid, pointless truth. But who’s more wrong—the person who droningly insists, jerking like an automaton, that the world is round, has always been round, and will always be round? Or the one who knows that this earth is not a given, and that we can imagine a whole weary planet into new and different shapes?”
When I read the part in bold, I thought that Kriss must be writing satire. Clearly, the person who insists on truth, even if he’s “jerking like an automaton” (a bad attempt to imitate the prose of Tom Wolfe) is less wrong! And what is this crap about “imagining a whole weary planet into the shape of a pancake”? Or that the earth “is not a given”? This is so bizarre that it’s beyond the bounds of even postmodern craziness.
Finally, and I’ve already wasted too much time on Kriss, he says this:
- Atheists are no different from believers because each group touts the beauty of the Universe. Yes, you heard it right: Kriss sees people like Dawkins—who says that there is still Magic in Reality, and that understanding doesn’t turn us into cold robots who don’t appreciate beauty—as identical to believers who say the beauty of Earth is God’s doing. Kriss doesn’t like this because he thinks that the world is often ugly and people often unhappy. But that insistence misses the point, which is that naturalism doesn’t erode away our emotions to nothing. Have a look at this nonsense:
“The real cleavage, in other words, isn’t between those who believe in God and those who don’t, but between those who want to change the world and those who just want to repeat it. Watch one of those interminable debates between an atheist and a believer—anything involving Bill Nye is best, but they’re all on YouTube, endless stultifying hours of two people babbling Aristotelian at each other and convincing nobody—and you’ll notice something strange. Both of them will, inevitably, enter into some orgasmic rhapsody about how beautiful the universe is. The theist, gazing upward to his heavens, will chant awestruck odes to the majesty of God’s creation, His churning nebulae, His shining tapestry of suns, all the wonders built from His cosmic perversion.
Meanwhile, the atheist, glancing down at his own miraculous hands, will say something similarly soppy about mountains and rainbows and how incredible it is that all this came about by a happy accident of chance. When they encounter a poetic-humanist critique of cold scientific rationality, the atheists will often argue a similar line: Keats was wrong, science did not unweave the rainbow; the natural world is all the more beautiful if you know how it works. (Dawkins even published a book in 2011 called The Magic of Reality.) This accordance ought to be very worrying. What it shows is that, for all their fiercely expectorated differences, these two people are actually on the same side.
It’s sometimes charged that fundamentalist atheism has become just another intolerant religion; here, at least, religion as it’s actually practiced is only a minor species of atheism. What if you don’t think the universe is beautiful? What if you wake up every morning in a tiny brick cell slotted into a lifeless city under a gray and miserable sky, and you think that the whole thing, as it stands, is utterly wretched? For most of history, religions have tended to hold the natural world in various forms of contempt: it’s cursed by sin, it’s the Devil’s playground, it’s Dunya or Māyā. God, the great theologian Karl Barth wrote, is a ‘No’ to the world.”
Here Kriss is criticizing atheists for a brand-new reason: he sees the world as horrible and atheists misguided because atheists have “so thoroughly trained themselves out of believing in Hell that they can’t see the real one right in front of them.”
Jebus. Yes, the world isn’t great for many people, but one reason it’s getting better is because secularism and reason are replacing religion and superstition. It’s better to promote that incremental change than stand around, as Kriss does, and kvetch about how crappy everything is.
Why did The Baffler publish such a worthless pieces of pablum? I have no idea, but shame on them, and of course on Kriss as well!