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In a recent post, PZ Myers asks:

…do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.

I think any readers I have know I’m in the latter camp. Just wanted to make that clear for everyone, because it seems from his post that many believers actually believe what they say they do – and this has surprised at least one finger-wagging atheist. Well, go figger!

Are we really “militant” atheists?

A quick post in response to James Wood’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “Secularism and its Discontents.” Wood misses no opportunity to take a swipe at “militant,” or “Darwinian” atheists (as he calls them) in his review of The Joys of Secularism. I used to admire Wood as a critic, but ever since he became an apologist for faitheism I can’t even make it through an entire article he publishes.

Discussing Philip Kitcher’s contribution, Wood writes:

His essay is characterized by its humanity, and by its willingness to borrow from religion. He will get no reward from the Darwinian atheists for this…

Oh, presumably because “Darwinian atheists” are incapable of humanity? Or unfamiliar with the religions they reject? Why are we always reading that religion is brimming, just overflowing with humanity? And that atheism is cold, and cold-hearted? Has Wood ever read a single book or blog by his nemeses, the New Atheists?

I think not. If he had, he would see clearly that they are not bereft of his much-prized humanity. It’s a patently ridiculous dichotomy he has set up. Aren’t we a little tired of this gnu-bashing already?

If you want to read a collection of very human essays by atheists – and Kitcher contributed to this one, too – try 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. You’ll understand just how wrong Wood is on this one.

I don’t want to get in the middle of this debate

The other day I was catching up on the latest brouhaha in the atheist blogosphere (Jeremy Stangroom vs. Badnewatheists). I hadn’t really been keeping up, you see, as we just moved and have a seven month old daughter. Not ideal conditions for up-to-date blogging. But the internet works fine here, so I dipped my big toe in and…ouch! The water was scalding.

Stangroom is upset that gnu atheists are occasionally rude. Make that nasty. Make that abhorrent. Find the worst adjective you can and apply it to Jerry Coyne, the most evil motherfucker on the web. He just ran over your blind grandma with his Triumph, then stopped to watch her writhe and bleed to death on the pavement. Did I mention he was smoking a Cuban cigar at the time? And listening to Black Sabbath on his iPod? That’s pure gnu atheist style devilry at work.

I don’t really want to get in the middle of this debate. Yes, I do. Sort of. The issue is, do people have the right to be occasionally rude? I think so. You may disagree, of course. But you’d better disagree with a gentleman’s manners.

The comments are closed to most of Stangroom’s recent posts. And don’t bother twittering at him, because he has little patience for that kind of thing. His essential gripe is that the gnus have written things on their blogs that make people upset, and apparently some of those people write him emails kvetching about the horrible manners of a handful of science bloggers. So maybe he’s getting sick of playing school counselor. I don’t know. But it seems odd to me that the words of Jerry Coyne or P.Z. Myers carry such tremendous weight in the psyches of their debate partners (or that anyone debating them is unprepared for their style). If they are too rough and tumble, why are these tender souls even in the ring?

Stangroom surprised me, though, in a brief email exchange. After his pounding the nail on the head about how terribly nasty the gnus are, I expected him to be the very picture of politeness. Especially with his critics. But right out of the gate (on Twitter, no less) he told me I was making a fool of myself, intimated that I was out of my league, and that my opinion “wasn’t worth 2 cents.” One step short of telling me I had a stupid face, really.

I haven’t asked him for permission to quote his emails; and I don’t expect he’d give it to me, either. I don’t even want to play his game and point the finger at his sense of exquisite incivility. I did point out to him this one little thing, though. I wrote:

“I might just break out in tears because you told me I was making a fool of myself on Twitter. Has that thought occurred to you? Do you give a damn?”

I hope it gives him pause for thought, at least. He doesn’t know me. For all he knows I might be a basket case. I might even write to Ophelia Benson in tears that I’d been reduced to emotional oatmeal and my life had been rendered meaningless. But maybe he was having an off day. Or maybe he found my inquisitiveness nauseating. I don’t know and I really don’t care. He was rude to me and I don’t hold it against him.

And he should stop holding it against the gnu atheists. As far as I can tell his is nothing more than a sanctimonious pose. Given the chance to be an example of decorum, he blew it in one tweet.

Making it gnu

There has been a lot of dissatisfaction penned lately against the Gnu Atheists. Call it in-fighting. A friend put it this way after I’d sent him Ophelia Benson’s reply to Julian Baggini: “I felt like I was reading the kind of fashionably CP debate the 20s spawned in magazines 5 people read but two were later assassinated for when Stalin made sure to end debating.” I’ve learned through many heated emails that my friend is not a Gnu Atheist, though I most definitely am.

The attacks range from “Don’t be a dick” slaps-on-the-wrist to outright “we’ve outgrown this childish New Atheism crap.” The message is clear: we need to forge alliances with the moderate religious groups; only together can we fight the real fanatical dickwads. And the Gnus – while they may have done much of the legwork in kicking down the door – are spoiling our cause with their rant.

Which all sounds very nice, except that the Gnus have been doing a fine job of fighting dangerous nonsense for a long time now – at least since Baruch Spinoza set down his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. In fact, there is really nothing “new” about the Gnus, save the medium (blogs, mainly) and the skyrocketing success of a few of their books (Hitchens & Dawkins et al.)

But to read the accomodationists, or “fatheists”, one gets the idea that the Gnus have overstepped some invisible boundary of polite debate ethic. They are routinely accused of being “strident,” “no-nothing,” presumptuous, indelicate. A favorite criticism is that the Gnus attack a straw man God, or the religion of only the most fanatical fringes. Real people, they admonish, are more like Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton; they believe in a vaporous, disinterested God who can be all things to all people. Well, hip hip hooray. PZ Myers has posted a challenge on his blog. Send him your best contemporary arguments for God and he will, uh, consider them. I predict they will fail dismally, though like all Gnus I am open to the possibility – however faint – that I might be persuaded.

I’m with the Gnus on this one. I’ve read their books and regularly read their blogs and I can tell you I’d be proud to call this disparate bunch of nerdy atheists my pals in unbelief. Not that I dislike the more moderate tone of the “accomodationists” (I realize not everyone is comfortable taking such strong positions), but I have a problem when they begin chastising their more flamboyant peers for being, well, too outspoken. It’s thanks to the Gnus, after all, that meeker atheists are getting op-eds in mainstream newspapers like HuffPo, Guardian and NYT. Remember Natalie Angier’s Confessions of a Lonely Atheist, published in the NYT less than ten years ago?

You want to know who the Gnu Atheists are in their own words, and how far from a pack of jackals they really are? Hang out at Pharyngula for a few hours, then walk across the street to Butterflies and Wheels, Ex-Catholic Girl, Blag Hag and Why Evolution Is True. That’s where the action is right now. These are exciting voices. They are also fiercely liberal, wonderfully intelligent and disarmingly good-humored. You’re in for a pleasant surprise.

For a long list of atheist blogs check out the Atheist Blogroll, which lists 1270 openly atheist blogs as of this writing (including this one). Enjoy your day.