Friday, 24 February 2012

As Good as Gnu

Julian Baggini has complained about new atheists before, saying:
In any case, my [negative] opinions are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews. All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.
He goes on to attack new atheism because it is anti-theistic, and parasitic on god-belief, whereas he proffers an atheistic world view. It seems obvious to me that these two are not in conflict with one another, and Baggini is simply mistaking his distaste for new atheism's political goals with a pertinent point. Later he says:
The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.
But those practices are not more important than the belief that the narratives are true, as his own investigations have shown, in a piece called The myth that religion is more about practice than belief:
My own research shows that the vast majority of Christians appear to take the orthodox doctrine at face value.
But now he makes another tone attack on a certain type of atheist, and one can only conclude he means the new atheists, given his form. He cites this article by Jeffrey Myers, to illustrate how atheists protest about being called out for their tone, and then says:
Accusing someone of being aggressive, nasty or shrill can be a neat way of avoiding the meat of the matter while also appearing to occupy the moral high ground. That's true, but tone does matter, and it's often more connected with substance than it might seem.
But the linked piece doesn't say that tone does not matter. It says "Our tone does not matter". This is a vital distinction, and gets to the nub of how very wrong Baggini is on this issue. Myers points out that:
Because the reality is that our tone is NOT the problem. Our tone doesn't matter. Because it doesn't matter how polite we are, how eloquent we are, how articulate or respectful we are. It is not our tone that theists reject - it is our existence.
And Baggini and other accommodationists should know this, because they themselves are regularly accused of the same crimes as the new atheists - just read the comments section to Baggini's attempts to bridge the gap between theism and atheism in The Guardian. In this latest article, Baggini notes:
"Tone" actually crops up in two guises in this debate. It not only refers to the mode of argumentation but also to the alleged way in which many atheists are "tone deaf" to religion.
Fair enough, it is 'alleged'. But is it true that 'atheists' are tone deaf?

(And which ones? Is that a trait that they have as a group? As often when it comes to this sort of accusation, no evidence is linked to support Baggini's position. To be clear, I don't doubt that the occasional atheist might make a tone-deaf pronouncement. I object that atheists are characterised as a group with this clumsy stereotype, and I object that the four horsemen, and gnus, are too)

In fact, the opposite is true, is it not? It is many theists who are tone deaf to atheistic writing because they respond no differently to Julian Baggini's supposedly nuanced approach than they do to Richard Dawkins's supposedly tone-deaf approach. Consider these comments:
Julian Baggini
I think one of the biggest obstacles to progress here is your inability to resist your obsessive-compulsive desire to use space in your own articles to denigrate religious belief and instead use them to propound the primacy of your own atheist ones. A lot of religious people may draw from that that your claims of respectful discussion are somewhat akin to a wolf in sheep's clothing. CatholicAndy
The most troubling thing about this piece is the aggressive idea of 'acceptable' religion; as if giving an ultimatum to all religious believers. Baggini doesn't reveal which authority gave him the right to define how religion should be in the 21st century, nor does he give any consideration to libertarian values, like the freedom of expression or belief.
With this article Baggini, despite all his claims to occuyping a middle ground, has shown himself to be as intolerant and supremacist as the militant atheists he claims to descry. iphedia
And there are many more - there we have it in black and white.

Russell Blackford wrote an excellent piece on this a while back:
The problem is likely to be that a lot of discussion of tone is just not very intelligent - how many reviews of The God Delusion have you read that show a tin ear for Dawkins' control of tone? Many reviews don't show any sensitivity at all for the varied tones: the humour; the quiet thoughtfulness and introspection; or the comical intoxication with language itself in Dawkins' famous denunciation of the Old Testament deity. Generally speaking, the reviewers just don't "get" it. But the cure for that isn't less discussion of Dawkins' tone; it's more intelligent discussion of Dawkins' tone. A hackneyed adjective such as "strident" doesn't cut the mustard.
Spot on. Dawkins's writing and pronouncements are thoughtful and witty and insightful - maybe not as profound as some of our better philosophers, but he's not talking to academia. He's talking to the general public, and his tone is entirely appropriate for that. The cry from gnu atheists is not that tone is unimportant, it's that the tone argument is being used dishonestly and prejudicially against them.

The response to Baggini's own writing shows that to be true. Whether he likes it or not, he's as good as gnu in the eyes of many a theist.


  • Michael says:
    26 February 2012 18:34

    It’s interesting that there are few articles about the tone of critics of various political views, artistic preferences, or non-religious irrational beliefs. It’s commonly accepted that anyone can criticize these as vehemently as they like. However if someone criticizes religion, even a polite tone is decried as “shrill” and “militant.”

  • Mark Jones says:
    27 February 2012 02:21

    Absolutely, Michael. Sensitivity to religious conscience is heightened, even for many non-believers; the ridiculous barrage of anti-Dawkins rhetoric in the past week shows how far the UK still has to go before we can say we treat religious ideas on a par with other ideas.

  • clodhopper says:
    27 February 2012 03:44

    Brilliant post Mark.

  • Mark Jones says:
    27 February 2012 05:02

    Ta, Clod!

  • Mark Jones says:
    27 February 2012 05:32

    Karen Armstrong adds to the bigotry on Start the Week:

    "Militant atheism is another form of dogmatism, in a sense, and often expressed in quite a rude and uncompassionate [sic] way."

    Any vocalisation of theist belief would be 'militant' if she judged it by the same standard she judges atheists, but would she ever describe your everyday priest as militant, or often rude, or incompassionate?

  • Jeffrey A. Myers says:
    28 February 2012 13:12

    It's clear that you actually read the post, while he did not. He must really be reaching if he is citing me for anything.

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