Saturday, September 26, 2009


I just came across this, so I'm posting it, partly because it seems to me to nicely encapsulate what a lot of fundamentally decent people feel (although I don't wholly share those feelings) and partly because it makes a couple of good points that are very relevant to this whole debate:

In your book, you write about your faith. How do you feel about religion, and particularly Christianity, being attacked by militant atheists?

It does make you think you ought to stand up and be counted, but I'm not remotely evangelical. It has been a great comfort to me and is a strong part of my life, but it's rather like trying to explain to somebody who doesn't speak Italian how wonderful that language is. It's up to them to find out, and if it doesn't suit them that's fine. But I feel saddened that faith is so often assumed to be coupled with a lack of intellect. It's sexy to be an atheist; it's not hugely sexy to have a faith, certainly the Christian faith.

Are you wary of being labelled a "Christian"?

Yes. Because I suppose I don't want to be one of those earnest, rather boring people who say, "I'm a Christian!" It's a complex issue really, but I do believe quite deeply, quite profoundly.

Alan Titchmarsh, interviewed by The Guardian, 09/24/09

Take #1. "It's sexy to be an atheist; it's not hugely sexy to have a faith, certainly the Christian faith."

This opens up a whole can of worms about why people have the ideas they have. Do they have them because they really believe in them, or because they think those ideas enhance their image? Well, I guess a few cynical people do consciously and deliberately choose ideas for the second reason. But for every one that does, there are dozens, hundreds, who do it quite unconsciously. If they knew what they were doing, the probably wouldn't. It's often regarded as dirty pool, looking at why people think what they think rather than sticking to what they think and debating that on an intellectual level. But let's do it anyway--let's expose them.

Why is it sexy to be an atheist? Well, it's still a bit daring, like the first time you used the f-word in front of your parents. Just like teen rebellion, it makes you feel decisive and important and more interesting than all the old fuddy-duds. After all, it's only recently that the faith that dare not speak its name became the faith that won't shut up. Once you've got past that, you can strike heroic poses with it. Try JUST ME ALONE BEFORE A HOSTILE UNIVERSE (we have the Subnietzschean model for a cool $29.95). Or what about THE PENETRATING MIND THAT SEES THROUGH ALL THAT OLD CRAP? Both in their different ways guaranteed to make you feel good the way a good faith should. And after all, if there's no God then we're the tops, the cream of creation, the highest form of being in the universe. Like most revolutionaries (there are honorable exceptions), atheists want to become what they seek to overthrow.

And on the other side, there's the unsexiness of believing a bunch of stuff that's been around a couple of thousand years. No, there's no contest on the sexiness front.

Or #2. "One of those earnest, rather boring people who say, 'I'm a Christian!'"

Again, it's worth noting that this kind of Christian is just like our New Atheists. Both are socially tone-deaf. Both suffer severely from LJHS*. The source of this is ego. These people love themselves more than others, they haven't any real feeling for how other people feel but that doesn't matter because they are right and other people are wrong. This of course is why you can't simply write off Christianity (for all its faults and weaknesses) because true Christianity (as compared with the shoddy imitations that nowadays mostly pass for it) must include sensitivity towards others and would never seek to proselytize unless sure that this would be welcomed by their hearers.

In passing, but not without some relevance to the above:

Christian jokes are lame

NPR jokes are lame

I've never heard an atheist joke

*Remember Little Jack Horner? Well, his Syndrome is neatly encapsulated in the nursery rhyme: "He stuck in his thumb /and pulled out a plum / and said 'What a good boy am I!" (Atheist version of the LJHS" "What a clever boy am I!")


  1. First off, I wish people would be more careful, or at least consistent, about the term 'militant'. You actually have to pick up a gun and kill somebody to be considered a 'militant' believer, but all you have to do to be considered a 'militant' atheist is write a book."

    Secondly, let's quote C.S. Lewis again. The 'psychoanalysis' of atheists is an example of what he calls "Bulverism".

    As he put it, "You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong... Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is 'wishful thinking.' You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself... If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic..."

  2. Ray. you're dead wrong. All you have to do is look it up. Here are a few definitions:

    "Having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause: a militant political activist."
    "Competitive: showing a fighting disposition, e.g. militant in fighting for better wages for workers."
    "Aggressive and violent behaviour in pursuit of a political cause, favouring extreme or confrontational campaign methods." "Aggressively active (as in a cause)." "Vigorously active and aggressive, esp. in support of a cause."
    "Vigorous or aggressive in support or promotion of a cause."

    Nowhere does any definition say anything about having to "pick up a gun and kill somebody".

    As for an atheist quoting CSL...oh, ker-tut! And anyhow, the sly old fox has pulled one over you. He cheated by choosing an example where there is A MATTER OF FACT. You either have, or don't have, a favorable balance, and if you do, no purpose whatsoever is served by asking why you thought you had. What I'm talking about here are MATTERS OF BELIEF. Christians can't prove there is a God any more than atheists can prove there isn't. So what either one believes must to some extent be motivated by psychological factors, which makes it perfectly legitimate to inquire into psychological as well as factual motivation. I try to cover both.

    Be wary about quoting Christian authors--they're a slippery lot!

  3. I was pointing out that the usage in practice of the term 'militant' is inconsistent. When used talking about believers, it is only used in the sense of "Aggressive and violent behaviour in pursuit of a political cause, favouring extreme or confrontational campaign methods." But when talking about atheists, you have to search long and hard to find an example of it being used in that sense. On the contrary, when talking about atheists, it seem it's always "Vigorously active and aggressive, esp. in support of a cause."

    Go ahead, do a Google News search, you'll see what I mean. If you're talking about "militant Islamists", it's people who kill other people. If it's "militant Christian", again, it's the violent type. Or "militant Palestinian", or "miltant Hindu", or even "militant separatist". In practice, the only time it's applied to people who aren't shooting or bombing is when it's applied to atheists.

    Harris, Hichens, Dawkins, and Dennett may well be rude. But I haven't heard anyone call them violent, or even accused them of calling for violence. But somehow, they are "militant", just like Hamas or the Aryan Brotherhood.

  4. Moving on to the other point - He cheated by choosing an example where there is A MATTER OF FACT... What I'm talking about here are MATTERS OF BELIEF.

    Sorry, no. Beyond mathematics and "cogito ergo sum", just about everything is at least theoretically up for debate. It's not about "proving" that there's a God or not. Let me present an extended quote from Bertrand Russell:

    ...they always ask me what is my religion.

    I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

    Humans don't get to have absolute certainty. Can you prove you're not a brain in a vat? Are you absolutely sure that the Moon isn't hollow? Let's quote the "militant" Dawkins:

    On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

    Now, does Dawkins actually have some good reasons for judging the probability of God being low? Or is it the result of his "psychological condition"? You have to answer the first question before moving on to the second.

  5. (Oh, just for your edification, you can find a couple atheist jokes here.)

  6. Ray, those weren't atheist jokes--they were jokes (if you can honor them with that name) BY Christians FOR Christians ABOUT atheists. An atheist joke would be a joke BY atheists FOR atheists ABOUT, well, anyone or anything, but most likely Christians. Your answer is further evidence that there aren't any.

    Re your other point, Dawkins's arguments, as I've pointed out, are arguments against a hands-on God, like the orthodox Christian God. They cut little if any ice against a deist kind of God. Also I have a problem with the fact that atheists tend to mix up religion and God. Yes, I know almost everyone does this, but what religion X says God is and what God might conceivably be are two very different things, and my point is precisely this, that we better differentiate clearly when we're arguing pro or con them.

  7. It's true, it's hard to argue against a completely hands-off God. But essentially all religions that matter are about hands-on gods, because a totally hands-off God doesn't really matter. See the Betrand Russell quote above. You can't argue against a deistic, leave-no-traces God any more than you can argue against hyper-advanced aliens living undetectably in your left eyebrow.

    So it's not a terribly useful dodge to make a huge distinction between "God as such" and "religion as things people say about Gods". Once you start attributing properties to a God - any properties at all - you ispo facto enter into the territory of religion.