kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Name:
Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Chic

The other day, listening to John Powers, the critic at large for NPR's Fresh Air, I heard him refer to "atheist chic" as one of the ten "cultural trends" of the 2007.

"Atheist chic," naturally, is a reference to Tom Wolfe's old insult "radical chic," his (perhaps justifiable) dismissal of various trendy types who embraced radical politics, and radicals, without necessarily fully understanding what those radicals represented. Thus Leonard Bernstein might have a cocktail party for some Black Panthers, implying his support for them, and in turn being responsible for not just the activities of those he invited, and not just the activities of the Black Panthers, but all the activities of all the Black Panthers and anyone who claimed to be associated with them. This used to be considered "guilt by association," but such a strategy is such an easy tool to use against one's ideological opponents, the temptation has become much too great to eschew it.

More troubling, however, was the idea that the popularity of such books as Dawkins' The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, and even Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great could be, again, easily dismissed as "chic": a passing fancy among intellectuals and those seeking to be trendy (assuming that a) intellectuals could ever be trendy and b) this is the bandwagon on which to hop).

Powers is an interesting guy, albeit a bit obsessed about a show I've never seen, The Wire. I think he knows quite a lot about television. But I'm not so sure we should be quite as reductive of the fact that atheism—and, I think, in the American context, agnosticism—has become a teeny bit less radical as something to admit to.

Polling consistently shows that Americans admit to being more likely to vote for someone who is gay, black, or Hispanic—among the other candidates for being in groups you really couldn't be in and hope to be President—than who is an atheist. A lot of people I talk to believe that one simply cannot have a systematic and coherent set of ethical principles if they are not grounded in a theistic worldview. As Dawkins—I think—pointed out (although on reflection it sounds more like Hitchens), the percentage of atheists is sufficiently large enough that simply on mathematical grounds there have to be some of them in Congress and in other political positions. But to announce such a thing would be the death knell for anyone seeking political office in the US, in spite of the Constitution's explicit statement that no religious test shall ever be required for holding public office.

But, with that said, it has become a bit safer for ordinary people to admit that they don't believe in God. This takes a small amount of courage, depending on your peer group, your family, your job, your location, among other variables.

I take that to be progress. Mr. Powers wishes to regard it as a trend. Lord knows the theists of the world, from Mike "the Christian Candidate" Huckabee to George W. Bush to various Muslims advocating jihad to the world of the Punjab and Kashmir to Osama bin Laden to the denial of Palestinian human rights, have enough issues to deal with. I personally am starting to enjoy a great deal hearing Republicans argue about whether this is a Christian nation, and, since they think it is (it isn't), what the correct kind of Christianity is.

I'd like to think that if there were a God, she would be much more pleased with sincere atheists who, like LaPlace, simply have no need for such a hypothesis, rather than with theists who spend far too much time worrying about other folks worshipping the wrong God, or the right God in the wrong way, or the myriad other details that seem to divide the world's theists from one another.

Let's hypothesize a loving God. I show up at the Pearly Gates.

"Hey, St. Peter. Damn. I was wrong. But I lived, more or less, a moral life, much of which was in accordance with a long history of generally acceptable moral principles. Can I come in?"

Is a loving God more hip to that approach, or to that epitomized by Christian evangelicals, and the various other people I encounter who not only know the right answer, but are willing to go ahead and judge on the basis of that answer?

In any case, to dismiss atheism as chic, or as some sort of trend, does a great disservice. Looking at much of the developed, and developing world, it spends considerably less time than the US worrying about these issues, indoctrinating its children, and going to worship services. Perhaps Dennett is right, and religion is something whose time has come and gone, or taking that line along with Marx, perhaps in the future people are going to be less willing to be exploited economically, and go fight ideologically-based wars, on the basis of a supernatural hypothesis that quite possibly does more harm than good.

If it weren't such a trendy thing to say, I'd even consider it the possible harbinger of a new paradigm.

15 Comments:

Blogger Bazarov said...

I wouldn't call it a trend. I think this would've happened much earlier but the problem was that if people like me expressed their convictions we'd have been tortured and burned at the stake, or more recently been ostracized by the likes of some McCarthy and his retinue of zealous idiots: a great motivator for keeping your mouth shut. The reason we're seeing this plethora of anti-religious rhetoric, in my opinion, is because it's finally safe enough for these views to be expressed. And how is it a trend when 95% of our most esteemed scientists have routinely dismissed supernatural models of the universe? What's happening is that the laypeople are just now getting wind of what thinking people have long been believing. Sigh...
On the whole what if you die and find God wanting an answer for your disbelief, I like Russell's answer: Sorry, you should've left more evidence.
I for one am glad to see atheists (or if you don't like that term as many don't, sane people who see the world as it is rather than how they wish it were) taking the offensive. I particularly like seeing arguments presented which make the ethical groundings based on a theistic worldview not just anachronistic, but positively harmful. I once attacked anyone who tells children that Hell exists and that people who behave a certain way will be punished by an all-loving god by being sent to eternal suffering there as evil. I made the following analogy. Telling children there's a hell is equivalent to telling a child that when they turn thirteen they will be abducted by aliens and taken to a time warp where they'll be raped by said aliens with their cactus cocks for all eternity. There's simply no reason to think that that would happen even though I'd put it much higher on the scale of probability than of anything like hell existing. All it does is provide unnecessary worries for a mind to get upset about. And it's funny how my ancestors imagined their hell to be cold and frigid whereas mediterranean superstitions imagine hell to be hot. Diamond's point about geography influencing us never seems to stop providing examples once that perspective has been taken.
In any event, the rhetoric used that you mentioned seems to me to be a way that thinking theists can comfort one another. They all know it's not a trend but they pretend like it is so they can go on denying reality. The only way this "trend" will be reversed, again, in my opinion, is if we see a reversion back to what is done in the mideast with apostates, that is they stop allowing the free expression of ideas. Otherwise, the "trend" of history indicates that homo sapiens become less superstitious and animal like and more human with the passing of time. Yes, there are hiccups like the Dark Ages where people revert back to the shadows of superstition, but overall it's a trend of enlightenment. It might be insufficiently quick in its progression for folk like me but it's nonetheless chugging along. I just hope this last reversion we've witnessed thanks to the 9/11 attacks can be utilized by the rationalists and empiricists to make this time different. Who knows? Plus, it's not like Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are saying anything new. These ideas have been around for centuries in many cases, it's just new to some people and that's why they see them as trends I guess. But what do you expect from people who think you can put a Ferrari logo on a Winnebago and that makes it an Italian supercar: Painting angels on pagan Jul, Saturnalia, and winter solstice celebrations doesn't make it christian anymore than the former case makes sports cars out of RV's. Makes me think of Randy Quaid in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. "Merry Xmas! Shitter was full!"

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Emily Littela said...

What's all this I keep hearing about atheist chicks?

Why don't you just leave them alone they haven't done anything to you have they? I think you should just thank God you live in a country with pretty young atheist chicks free to not express whatever it is they don't want to not express.

thank you

11:45 AM  
Anonymous bmackintosh said...

Yes, religion is responsible for many, many evils, irrational, expensive, but look at the positives:

Fish Fries (good deep fried whitefish and all you can drink beer)
Bingo (how else could my widowed Aunt Rose pick up fellow eighty year old men)
The Kama Sutra
Michelangelo’s David
Cellini’s Crucifix
The Tears of Jimmy Swaggart (a great mood lifter, makes Prozac tame in comparison)
Great Vegetarian Japanese dishes inspired by the Tendai Buddhists sects.
G.K. Chesterton’s ravings
The Virgin Mary:
Awesome Art
Rosaries are great gifts for aging Italian relatives
Nothing sends a “born again Christian” south like the Blessed Virgin
Great Garden Accessories (and you thought you’d throw that bathtub away)
Jobs for Vestment manufacturers (the Pope looked stunning this past Christmas)
An Awesome publishing gimmick:
Christian Budgeting
Christian Dieting (results in just forty days and forty nights)
Christian Sexual Techniques (how to achieve them without laughing)
Christian Parenting (with and without rods)
Anti-Harry Potter Books (an amazing capacity for book sales)
St. Joseph’s Day Alters (a smorgasbord of Italian food)
Zen Gardens
Yoga
Meditation Incense (hides the aroma of fish and bacon)
Hindu Temples and the artwork of Ganesha
Kabbalah Water and Red String Bracelets
Robert Graves and his Hellenic Pagan Myths
Hearing the moans when I say, “Get ready for mass.”
The list goes on and on...

2:22 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

bmackintosh:

I stand corrected.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Bobcat said...

Jeez, I didn't know Peter Berger's secularization thesis had been proven right! All those dumb sociologists of religion who stopped defending it in the face of all the countervailing evidence (China, India, Korea, the USA, and pretty much any developing/developed country except for those in Western Europe, which for some reason appear to many people around here to be the only place where anything good happens) must have missed the subterranean trends.

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The issue was really whether such a view was to be treated, so reductively, as "chic." To be sure, all sorts of people seek religious salvation, and find great solace in religion. On the other hand, when I was in China--at least in the cities--considerably more solace was being sought at KFC, Rolex, Ferragamo, Starbucks, etc..

In countries one should really not compare oneself with, if in the US--you know, developed and post-industrial capitalist economies--there is considerably less devotion to the supernatural.

There is also less devotion to the death penalty and, perhaps, the joys of social Darwinisim.

But what would Norwegians know about anything, anyway?

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Frog princess said...

Having no religion is a cross to bear in this country - especially in certain areas. Lack of religion is viewed with suspicion, probably because it's harder for believers to understand someone without a belief system than someone who believes strange things. For me, atheism is just another belief system. An atheist chooses to take a stand, and finds comfort in the new anti-religious trend hitting America. The new atheist chic is simply a form of strength in numbers. A religion for the anti-religious. What about the others who simply don't care to take a stand? Some may call them humanists or agnostics because they don't strongly believe or disbelieve in the hereafter, but are content to put these questions aside in favor of earthly works. Some may call them wishy-washy or indecisive. Others may damn them. What do we do with those who are uncomfortable with both religious and anti-religious rhetoric? How do we categorize them?

6:47 AM  
Blogger Bazarov said...

"An atheist chooses to take a stand, and finds comfort in the new anti-religious trend hitting America. The new atheist chic is simply a form of strength in numbers. A religion for the anti-religious."

I have several problems with those statements but will try to keep my responses short.

The idea that all atheists choose to take a stand is part of the stereotype for atheists. This is usually when the term 'militant atheist' comes out, and you appear to have mixed the two. When Christians and Mormons do it, it's called missionary work, and many think it's a good thing, or at minimum, benign (it's not, it's quite harmful and arrogant). But to think that all atheists feel the need to enlighten their fellow human beings is wrong. Many people I know who don't believe in anything supernatural might actually wish it to be not known so they don't have to tell a loved one who believes in nonsense that they disagree with them.

Some may find comfort, some may not. The previous paragraph should show that. Oh, and it's not a trend. It's a result of tolerance and will stay for the rest of humanity as long as free expression is allowed. The truth isn't going anywhere unless a gun comes out to usher it away.

I'll disregard the "atheist chic" claim, because it isn't one.

The last sentence makes me scratch my head. Surely it was written in jest, right?

"A religion for the anti-religious." Read that over and over again. It's patently absurd. Monty Python could not have produced anything more absurd, because it's like saying the North Pole is the South Pole, or that people who don't kill people are murderers, they simply wait for their victims to die of natural causes. Not only that, it reeks of post-modernism! I won't go so far as to accuse you of being a post-modernist. What worse insult could one literate person bestow upon another?

4:15 PM  
Blogger kmosser said...

"I won't go so far as to accuse you of being a post-modernist. What worse insult could one literate person bestow upon another?"

How about

"Michigan PhD in philosophy"?

or

"French"?

11:41 AM  
Blogger Bazarov said...

The first I'm not qualified to agree or disagree with.
The second seems to me to not be so much an insult, unless you're American. Likewise, to insult a French person you probably couldn't beat calling them American. I'm convinced the reason the French and Americans despise one another so much is because they're so alike. France was once in the position that the USA presently enjoys. It was a world power, a leader in military might, the place to be for mathematics and science, and if you wanted to know what was going on in the developed world you'd better know some French. Now it's English and America. The French are bitter about this I think. And Americans are like French people without the seductive sounding language, though America's been dominating in international wine contests for the past decade or so: only more reason for the French to despise Americans.

P.S. I've subsequently looked up 'postmodernism' and it appears to have multiple definitions and usages. I suppose I meant it in its extreme form of relativism, such as all viewpoints of the Universe are on equal footing or that the rantings of a witchdoctor, shaman, priest, reverend are all of equal value with the perspectives attained through the scientific method.

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