Thursday, November 5, 2009

So are atheists getting worse, more numerous, or just more vocal?

The Death of Socrates (1787)Image via Wikipedia
You will forgive me, right? Because you know I am not putting down atheism or atheists as a whole. So I know the title might read to some like an insult, but bear with me a bit before you make up your mind.

I have a friend who is very educated and passionate about philosophy, theology, and the history of ideas who went online over a decade ago to challenge and be challenged by people of differing views. Having been an intellectual 1960s/70s kind of highbrow atheist, he became a Christian with a far-left political leaning and an experience and understanding of God that is ancient but yet often missing from modern discussions of theology - a view of God as the foundation of existence, beyond but not less than our conception of a person yet as intimate as can be. Simultaneously transcendent and immanent. This friend, however, has a quick temper and dyslexia, and like anyone who has been fighting battles for a long time, he can quickly become defensive and project past experiences from the internet war zone onto current events.

Those just looking for an easy target to mock and provoke seem drawn to my friend like flies to honey, and it is true he does bring a lot of that attention on himself in the quest for a good debate. But that doesn't mean he lacks insight. And while his rants about the atheists he often encounters are often over the top and sometimes inexcusably insulting, that doesn't mean there isn't something valid to his complaints and observations. So taking away the hostility and over-generalizations, does he have a valid point?

It is hard to quantify anecdotal observations about the education, temperament, and behavior of such a broadly defined group, even when limiting it with qualifiers like "those on the internet", "those on message boards", etc. There is no doubt that the books and articles by the so-called New Atheists have energized a segment of the population who identify as totally irreligious, but that still doesn't help to describe or explain the aptitude or attitude of "atheists who read books on God and religion by folks like Hitchens and Dawkins and post anti-religious/anti-God material on blogs and message boards". Characterizing a group with a broad brush hides the very details necessary to the aforementioned task.

That said, if we simply take one example, we can use it as a starting point. There is a forum that I have been to on and off for over a decade. I have visited as an ineffectual sort-of-Christian-kind-of-Deist, as an agnostic/weak atheist, as a strong atheist, as a secular Buddhist, as a spiritual Buddhist, and as whatever it is I am now. I have also been to other forums. There have always been some places online where some atheists go to run vent their frustrations among people of like attitudes and stroke each others egos and sense of intellectual superiority.  Some of them do this while revealing their profound immaturity and ignorance. This isn't surprising. It's the internet.  You can find the same kinds of places for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, etc. But on our example forum, which is has consistently high traffic, and which tends to mirror trends on similar forums, there has been a definite change.

Some things are the same, with newly minted or newly emboldened atheists working through the same things others have done for generations before them, the same kinds of questions and challenges to non-atheists, the same kinds of arguments and assumptions. Yet there does seem to be a subtle shift. There appears to be less respect for academia, especially the social sciences and humanities, including philosophy and history, and more misunderstanding and misattribution of scientific principles and discoveries. There appears to be less struggling with important readings and issues and the ambiguity they present and more black and white regurgitation and borrowing of ideas. 

There appears to be less interest in mutual respect and the notion that all sides are struggling in their own way for the truth and more interest in demagoguery and polarization. I have observed some of these folks using the same kinds of quote mining, quote and concept distorting, unfair generalizing, etc that some of the especially disreputable Young Earth Creationists have been using for years to try to shake up or discredit the science of evolution. Apparently some of these self-professed debunkers of religion believe it's OK to use such cheap tactics so long as you know for certain in your heart that they are wrong, Wrong, WRONG!

Now, I have and continue to know too many atheists in real life and online to believe this is typical of atheism, but it does seem to fit some of the "new" folks who have been popping up over the past 4-6 years and especially the last year or two. Not all or even most -- I can't make that claim. But this new pattern does seem to be on the rise. 

So, if that is a fair and accurate observation, what is up with this? 

I know in my atheist days we used to school the newbies when they embarrassed us with their poor attitudes or immaturity, but now it seems like these traits are becoming more acceptable. So what is going on? Are some minority of atheists just taking a dive into the mud? Is there an increase in atheism with more of the new "recruits" being pulled from the shallow end of the critical thinking and personality pool? Or are more of the ruder, cruder folks now feeling more emboldened to pop up and be heard (or read)? Something else?

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  1. Well, this comes ultimately from a set of forums I have had little or nothing to do with, but it aligns somewhat with my pondering on the topic:

    Temendous Post by an Agnostic: "Atheists I'm Calling You Out!"

    Again, it isn't all about completely agreeing with every statement but what the overall picture being painted suggests or points us toward.

  2. I spend a lot of time reading atheist and theist blogs. I don't read the kinds of atheist blogs that say Christians are stupid. I also don't read blogs attacking atheism anymore, including the one you link in your comment, Metacrock knows I don't read it.

    One thing I've noticed on both sides is that some people develop a concept of God and then either support it or attack it, but will not budge one inch on their view of God. I find myself, as an atheist leaning agnostic, arguing more and more against, not theism, but the exclusivist varieties of theism. Many of the arguments against fundamentalist Christianity also support a more pluralistic approach to theism, but I don't really get many responses from atheists when I point that out.

    Here in the US we live in a society where some people can become violently angry when there mere suggestion that people can live happy and moral secular lives. It is those people that then incite the angry atheists who then make the mistake of lumping all theists in with the fundies. Once they are all frothing mad, then they meet Metacrock. ;-)

  3. Yes, good analysis, and now some atheists are becoming apoplectic at the notion that people can be intelligent and have consistent, reasonable beliefs and lead happy lives and accept the existence of God. It isn't just half-believing so-called fundamentalists setting off these angry irreligious types. That's the trend that peaked my curiosity. I only posted the link to Metacrock's Atheist Watch because the post it leads to was copied from something someone else wrote that isn't bitter or insulting.

  4. I'm glad you posted it, as I don't check it regularly to keep my blood pressure down. ;-)

  5. Interesting post tiny. Mike, I try not to deal with atheists negatively on my Metacrock's blog. On on Atheist Watch that I pursue the theme of demonstrated hateful tendencies among the atheists. On Metacorock I may disagree with atheist ideas but try no to attack them. If I'm failing at that let me know.

  6. Tiny, we were never enemies but we were opponents. You were an atheist I was a Christian (still am). But you used to love to come to my boards and tweek my nose just keep me from going off the deep end. But I see this article as very understanding, since you could just say "he's an ass!"

  7. "since you could just say 'he's an ass!'"

    Wait, I though that was just a given. ;-)

    Just kidding! ;-)

  8. I don't think your an ass. Never did. I called it just as I see it. You are a bit shell-shocked and have a quick temper. But that doesn't automatically qualify as being an "ass" in my book. If you were unrepentant and never apologized or recognized when you went too far in your tirades, then maybe you would be an ass.


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