Tough Guys from Quiet Suburbia

-Pretty-Fly-For-a-White-Guy-the-offspringBertrand Russell, I think, almost perfectly enshrines the rallying cry behind the New Atheism:

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.

This is what would today be called a “shout out”. It is a rhetorical appeal to the hubris of his listeners–declaring that embracing atheism is a badge of intellectual, moral, and emotional strength.

And this is why the idea will never spread beyond those who live comfortable lives.

Christianity is not a message for the elite, for those who consider themselves as essentially good and in control of their lives. It is a message for those who have suffered enough to know that human frailties aren’t simply going to go away when we commit ourselves to science and make some inspirational speeches. A savior, after all, is of no use to those who think themselves too good to need saving.

No one, perhaps, saw this more clearly than Nietzsche, who called Christianity “a slave revolt in morality”. He hated Christ’s regard for the weak and impoverished, and felt the strong should take control to run the world correctly. But even the spoiled child from a safe neighborhood can grab for control and refuse to believe that his elders have any wisdom to give.

But Christ, when confronted with revolutionaries who were ready to overthrow Roman power (or die trying), simply spoke until they were too weak from hunger to make the trip home. He brought them to see their own weakness before offering them salvation in the form of bread.

And this, I think, is the real value of science to Russell and his intended listeners. It gives them physical bread, which makes them feel strong enough to avoid this lesson of Christ’s.

17 responses to “Tough Guys from Quiet Suburbia

  • katachriston

    Ah, the incantations!. Like Hitchens, cultural suasion was far more a matter of manipulation than investigation.

    • Debilis

      Hitchens was always more interested in what sounded good than what was true, at that.

      Part of me almost didn’t mind, except that he and his fans were always going on about embracing evidence and reason.

    • Debilis

      If you’ve never met the type, I’m pleased.
      I really hope that my experience (in terms of how often I’ve run across this mentality) is the exception to the rule.

  • Alexander

    Hmm. Aren’t you rejecting a lot of atheist that has suffered quite a lot, and who haven’t lived the privileged and / or comfortable life? It seems a little disingenuous, and a straw-man of poor character.

    • Debilis

      Mainly, I hope it doesn’t come across as if I were speaking about all atheists. I used the term “New Atheism” advisedly. I think it describes that group well.

      Nor do I want to imply that my own life has been any more tragic than theirs (I have a lot of reason to be grateful). My complaint was with those who complain about far more suffering than they actually receive. That is to say, while all sorts of people (including atheists) have suffered, I see no reason to think that atheists in liberal democracies are suffering with anything like the severity that the New Atheists claim.

      Nearly every atheist who is not a New Atheist I’ve encountered has agreed on that point.

      • Alexander

        Off the top of my head I can name Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasrin and Wafa Sultan as three New Atheists I admire intensely, and all of them have led lives that makes yours and mine look like a picnic in the park. I’m also sure Hitchens would love to tell you what it’s like living in fear and war in all the places he went to report, risking his life on numerous occasions.

        We’re not all Russell’s of rich and privileged backgrounds.

    • Debilis

      Other than Hitchens, who is the weakest of the examples here, all the people you name are women from predominantly Muslim countries. Personally, they strike me as a far cry from the New Atheists.

      Were that my (or Russell’s, or the majority of the New Atheists’) situation, I’d be much more empathetic. Yes, I completely agree that there are areas in which Sharia Law is abusive. I completely agree that it should be spoken out against, and, in those situations, it takes courage to do so. What does not take courage is to mock religion on the internet and among one’s circle of friends.

      So, yes, it is incredibly courageous for a woman in Syria to publicly speak out against some of the religious practices in her country, and she would receive horribly unfair treatment because of that.

      It does not follow, however, that the middle or upper-class, white, male atheists pressing anti-relgious agendas in liberal democracies (which would describe all of the people named in the wikipedia article on New Atheism, for instance) are therefore being persecuted.

      • Alexander

        I see that you only care for a small and vetted list of New Atheists (who aren’t actually new, neither in argument nor persons). And Ali most definitely is a New Atheist of high regard, and trying to swat that away as a “muslim thing” is … odd. We’re talking about facts, no?

        But ok, Hitchens. And please read “Hitch-22” before you make calls to his unsuitability as ‘suffering’, but, to be frank, I don’t even know why we’re having this discussion, or why I got involved; their own suffering has no bearing on their argument, and their argument is not aimed at anyone in particular, suffering or not. I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here about the Christian message being not for the privileged but for those who have suffered and so on; the atheist arguments apply mostly equally well to both. It is for the most part undirected in terms of suffering, apart from where it points to suffering composed by religious thought and actions. You cannot compare the two, because where one is a directed message of religious dogma, the other is a call to freedom from said dogma; they’re not the same thing.

        As to liberal democracies, we all enjoy it, on both sides of this debate. It hasn’t always been that way, including the freedom for people of one faith over another, or even, in extreme cases, one denomination against another.

        But the craziest thing this time is your statement that the New Atheists are calling themselves persecuted. Where have you got this from?

    • Debilis

      I definitely agree that the New Atheists aren’t “New” in most respects. Personally, I don’t like that name.

      But no, I’m not trying to swat anything away as a Muslim thing. I was pointing out that the appeals to being strong coming from people who live comfortable lives (such as Bertrand Russell and the overwhelming majority of self-identified atheists on the internet) is out of touch with how most of humanity has lived.

      I completely agree that their suffering–or anything else I’ve commented on here–has no bearing on whether or not their arguments are good. That is a separate issue, to be sure.

      As far as messages being directed toward those who have suffered, I was saying that the quoted passage, and those like it, are not. Christianity is. Obviously, arguments for the truth of atheism or Christianity either one will not be about this issue.

      I agree that religious people enjoy liberal democracy as much as atheists do. That was not my point. Rather, my point was that people from liberal democracies should be careful about what they declare about humanity in the face of suffering.

      I’ve gotten the idea that the New Atheists consider themselves to be persecuted from the New Atheists I’ve met, and the writings I’ve encountered. Moreover, I thought this was the idea behind the American Atheists’ lawsuit regarding the World Trade Center Cross, the general rants about discrimination I’ve encountered, etc.

      If you agree, however, that atheists are not discriminated against any more than any other group, then I’d have very little, if any, objection on this point.

      • Alexander

        “If you agree, however, that atheists are not discriminated against any more than any other group, then I’d have very little, if any, objection on this point.”

        I generally agree, but bare in mind that atheists wanting to have a clear separation between church and state has nothing to do with persecution, but all to do with equality and a separation of concerns, and we shouldn’t mix the two issues up. The American Atheists’ lawsuit is about the latter, not about being persecuted or discriminated against.

    • Debilis

      I agree and, for what it’s worth, am a supporter of the separation of church and state.

      Though I may interpret it somewhat differently (as with the lawsuit), I believe governments should be secular.

  • makagutu

    well it is true atheism is not for everyone. Not everyone can apply themselves to think rationally.
    and as a follower of Christ, you seem to not say the truth here. if Christ lived then he was the revolutionary, a communist at heart and to say he was confronted by revolutionaries you simply are misrepresenting facts.
    and you are wrong on Nietzsche, I think he admired the character Christ but expressed a great disdain for Paul and other Christians.

    • Debilis

      The opening line here strikes me as a bit close-minded. Surely, rational people can disagree on metaphysical questions?

      Christ was indeed a revolutionary. But this does not mean that he completely agreed with all revolutionaries. He clearly opposed the idea that the role of the Messiah was to win military victories against Rome.

      I’ll agree that I could have given more qualifications and nuance regarding Nietzsche, but none of these would affect the point I was making.

      • makagutu

        At what point is my statement close-minded. You have qualified your statement by saying rational people, and I said not for everyone. By your own admission it can be said not every one is rational so how is my statement close minded?

        But there is no where, in the realm of ideas where all revolutionaries agree on a particular subject. And this would apply equally to Christ if he lived.

    • Debilis

      Apologies, if there was no implication there that the fact that not everyone is atheist is due to a lack of rationality in some, then I’ll retract that.

      But I agree with your statement about Christ. In fact, my original point was that he disagreed with these revolutionaries.

  • End of the Memes | Fide Dubitandum

    […] thing–giving hope to those most in need of it. I definitely agree. In fact, I’ve made a very similar case in the […]

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