‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’

In 1992 the Fantoft Stavkirk in the borough of Fana in Bergen, Norway burned to the ground.  Originally erected in the mid-12th century in Eastern Sognefjord, and then transported in the 19th century to its present location, it was the first in a string of church burnings to take place in the early 1990s.

A stavkirk, or ‘stave church,’ gets its name from a type of medieval construction that consists of a timber-framed post and lintel design.  Once found throughout northern Europe, the majority of those still in existence are only found in Norway.  The term ‘stav’ refers to the load-bearing posts that hold the structure in place.

Though rebuilt, the Fantoft Stavekirk still shows signs of its destruction, particularly the chain link fence that surrounds the structure and the warning signs about alarm systems and closed-circuit recordings.

In 1994 Varg Vikernes (born Kristian Vikernes) was convicted for burning, or attempting to burn, the Åsane and Storetveit Churches in Bergen, the Skjold Church in Vindafjord, and the Holmenkollen Chapel in Oslo.  He was also sentenced for the murder of Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth.  burzum_aske_burning__Fantoft_Stave_ChurchHe was found not guilty of burning the Fantoft Stave Church, but has been connected to the arson both for his support of the act, as well as for the image of the burnt structure used as the cover of his album, ‘Aske’ (‘ashes’ in Norwegian).

Accusations of Satanism as the reason for these burnings have been generally established.  This derives heavily from the type of ‘Theistic Satanism’ espoused by the members of the early Norwegian black metal scene, such as that promoted by bands such as ‘Mayhem,’ ‘Emperor,’ ‘Thorns,’ and Vikernes’ ‘Burzum.’  Also known as the ‘Black Circle,’ this group of individuals established an ideological discourse of misanthropy, an inverse Christianity that focused more on promoting ‘evil,’ rather than on any sort of Satanic philosophy.

Admittedly, this discourse is not something I know all that much about.  In fact, for anyone interested in this topic, I would highly recommend these sources:

  • The work of Asbjørn Dyrendal in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • The doctoral work of Cimminnee Holt at Concordia University, Montreal.
  • Michael Moynihan’s book on the subject, The Lords of Chaos.
  • The work of Jesper Aagaard Petersen in the Programme for Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
  • The work of Titus Hjelm at the University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
  • The 2008 film ‘Until the Light Takes Us,’ which chronicles the black metal movement’s ideologies. 

As well, it is not the focus of this post.  Rather, my interests herein have to do with a comment made in passing with a friend about the Stave Church and the fact that it was burned by a ‘Satanist.’  When discussing the burning and the black metal scene in Norway, this individual, knowing I research Atheist discourses, and perhaps feeling it might be interpreted as a compliment to Atheism, stated: ‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’

While there is much to be said about the accuracy of this casual assurance, regardless of the intricate discursive details that could support or refute its simple categorisation, it reminded me of a theory I put forth a few years ago in a paper presented in a seminar at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

As occurred on occasion during this time, and a bit over the years since, I have found myself unwittingly defending Atheism against accusations of seemingly bizarre connections.  One of these, which does not happen often, but still with enough occurrence that it warrants a bit of a chuckle, is the idea that Atheists believe in/worship/support Satan/Satanism.  In their defence, these individuals’ ideas are likely the result of discursively combining what they deem as ‘evil’ into a singular abstraction.  For them, Atheists have denied God, and are thus evil, just as Satanists have taken up with God’s opposite, and are thus equally evil.  Regardless of the fact that an individual who denies the existence of God might still believe that God’s opposite might then still exist is a bit logically absurd, this sort of thinking is more about categorising an individual as an opposite of oneself, rather than constructing any sort of accurate description.

This got me thinking, partly because I was asked to be the contrarian in the room for these seminars, the voice of opposition or devil’s advocate that might inspire more passionate discussion.  Is there a connection between Satanism and Atheism, beyond the shared similarity of ‘evilness’ in the eyes of certain individuals?  That is, is there a connection beyond this sort of generalised stereotype?  So, I looked at two origins of each term: the first derived from a particular means of defining a particular discursive example of Atheism, and the second from the context of its usage in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.

Atheism

As I’ve written about previously, the concept ‘Atheism’ is one that is not easily determined, regardless of the fact that we might perceive it as such due to the inherent nature of it being the ‘belief (or absence of belief) in the existence of God.’  In fact, the history of its definition is one of abstraction and creativity, demarcated by historical representations and theoretical stipulations.  What this equates to is a discourse that is not altogether cohesive.  Which is neither a bad thing, nor is it in any way detrimental.  That is, of course, as long as we are not set on defining the term in a manner that might be representative of any and all types, uses, and iterations.  If this is our goal, then this becomes quite an issue.  Which might explain why we have so many additions to the latter, theoretical, category.

Instead, if we focus our attention on the historical definitions, that is, the definitions of the term based on real people in real places and at real times, either called ‘Atheist’ or who identify as such, then we turn toward discursive interpretations.  These are ‘definitions’ that are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong.’  Instead, they simply exist as examples, as contributions to a larger discourse about what we mean when we talk about Atheism.

Within this category we find examples of what has been demarcated as ‘ancient Atheism,’ labeled as such in regard to the way it differs from ‘modern Atheism.’  While this is a discussion that will likely re-occur throughout this particular discourse on the subject, to summarise, this differentiation is made by two specific actions: imputation and self-description.  In cases of the former, Atheism is a term used to describe an other, particularly an other who, through his beliefs and arguments, has acted against the status quo of the state.  These individuals are deemed ἄθεος.  In etymological terms, they are ‘without god.’  Now, this takes on a number of different types of ‘absence,’ from Socrates’ corruption charge for turning the youth of Athens away from worshipping certain gods, to Milesian philosophers like Prodicus of Keos who used philosophical logic to argue that the gods were in fact, as Euripides’ Sisyphus also argues, created by man to make sense of one’s day-to-day needs.

One of the underlying themes of this ‘ancient Atheism’ is a sense of doubt.  This doubt, likewise based on the individual expressing it, fluctuates from mere hesitation in believing something outright, to more direct rejection or disbelief.  We see this evinced by philosophical arguments that we might, from a modern perspective, deem ‘Atheistic.’  For example, consider Anaxagoras’ argument that the sun, heliosrather than the god Helios moving across the sky, is in fact just a molten ball of iron.  Or the naturalistic arguments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes who defended the idea that nature and the natural world could be understood without an allegiance to mythology.  These are unique types of doubt, reflective of individuals who questioned the prevailing or popular beliefs of their time.

As discursive examples of ἄθεος these illustrations of doubt lead us to the notion that Satan, as a concept itself, embodies a particular type of Atheism.

Satan

In its Biblical manifestations the notion of ‘Satan’ is, in many ways, as difficult to clarify as Atheism.  For summary purposes here, we might distinguish different discursive examples, designed and determined by the way the term is used.  This, we might even further resolve, is divisible between ‘Satan-as-concept’ and ‘Satan-as-character.’

Beginning with Numbers 22:32, the term ‘Satan’ (שָׂטָן) meant ‘opponent’ or ‘adversary:

The angel of the Lord asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?  I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.

This continues in 1 Samuel 29:4, in reference to David amongst the Philistines:

But the Philistine commanders were angry with him and said, ‘Send the man back, that he may return to the place you assigned him.  He must not go with us into battle, or he will turn against us (opponent, שָׂטָן) during the fighting.

Again, this notion of ‘Satan’ as ‘adversary is repeated in 2 Samuel 19:35 (“This day you have become my adversaries!”); 1 Kings 5:4 (“But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster.”); 1 Kings 11:15 (“Then the Lord raised up against Solomon an adversary”); and 1 Kings 11:23 and 11:25.

While these examples represent an adversarial or oppositional position, in the Book of Job, the term is not only embodied by an individual (Satan-as-character), it is also imbued with the overall sense of doubt that becomes commonplace with the concept itself.  In this manifestation שָׂטָן becomes a necessary entity for God, a position of Devil’s advocate, without whom God would not be able to prove the fealty of His creation.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.  The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’

Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.’

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’

‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied.  ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)

Once again, ‘Satan,’ though embodied as an angel (son of God) presenting himself before God, is the representation of an adversary, an individual who, when presented with certain facts, responds with doubtful criticism.  This occurs, almost in an exact manner, in Job’s second test:

On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him.  And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’

Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.’

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.’

‘Skin for skin!’  Satan replied.  ‘A man will give all he has for his own life.  But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.’

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. (Job 2: 1-7)

In the Gospel narratives, this doubtful characteristic becomes something more personal and direct, a character (known here also as ‘Devil’ or ‘διὰβολος’) who exists in order to once again present a pragmatic challenge, the resolution of which assists in directing the narrative itself toward a certain conclusion.

In Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13 Satan (σατανᾶ) directly tempts Jesus in the desert, a necessary evil in order to further determine Jesus as the Christ, an act of identity formation wherein a certain individual is defined by his interaction with an opposition.

Later, this same sort of oppositional necessity is depicted by Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 in the act of Satan ‘entering’ Judas, thus causing his betrayal.  In this way, Satan acts as a conceptual entity, the notion of Judas here enacting a necessary deed in order to fulfil the prophecy of Christ as a sacrificial lamb.  Though this appears as the ‘work of Satan,’ we might also see it as the work of doubt or opposition.

As a narrative device, the notion of ‘Satan,’ a title that functions as a pun, creates a dichotomous relationship between certain characters.  Almost mimetic of metaphorical or allegorical character development within a milieu prepared and designed for such formational interactions, the idea of Satan is one of narrative utility.

Conclusion

In combining the lexical process of being deemed an ἄθεος (scepticism, doubt, critical debate) with the doubt, opposition, and adversarial nature of Satan (שָׂטָן; διὰβολος) we might confortably conclude here that Satan is, in fact, a representative sort of Atheism.  Which brings us back to the Fantoft Stave Church, its demise at the hands of ‘Satanists,’ and my friend’s assurance that ‘at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’  In this sense, my friend was in fact incorrect.  Etymologically speaking, or even conceptually speaking, Satan is an Atheistic character, designed for the sole purpose of driving along the narrative toward a particular conclusion.  Satan is, in this manifestation, not only an Atheist, but a necessity as well.

My theory, then, might be summarised as such: as a discursive concept, and when interpreted from within the context in which it was established, the notion of ‘Satan’ shares enough of the characteristics that we might find in certain discursive manifestations of Atheism.  In this way, Satan was an early Atheist.  Does this make any sort of modern Satanist an Atheist?  No.  After all, discourses are plastic things, and they change and alter over time.  Just as ‘Atheist’ has come to mean a number of different things to a number of different people over the millennia, Satan has as well.  Of course, I might argue on the side of the illogically absurd notion that since these two concepts, when isolated within the borders of certain Western monotheistic milieux, originated from similar sources, and are thus inextricably linked to a distinct genesis.  Then again, that might just be me playing devil’s advocate again.

Sources

Jan M. Bremmer, “Atheism in Antiquity” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Michael J. Buckley, “Introduction” in Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

A.B. Drachmann, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (Chicago: Ares Publishing, 1922).

David Ferguson, “Atheism in Historical Perspective,” in David Ferguson, Faith and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Donald E. Hartley, ‘HEB 11:6—A Reassessment of the Translation ‘God Exists’ (Trinity Journal, 27, 2, 2006).

Charles H. Kahn, “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment” (Phronesis. Vol. 42, No. 3, 1997).

John Navone, “Satan Returns,” (The Furrow, Vol. 26, No. 9, 1975).

Elaine Pagels, “The Social History of Satan, the “Intimate Enemy”: A Preliminary Sketch,” (The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.84, No. 2 Apr., 1991).

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

J.P. Reid and B. Mondin, eds., “Atheism” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 2003).

T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

The Bible: The New International Version.

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Assholes: A Theory of New Atheism

Is New Atheism New?

This week we begin a new semester of tutoring, and for the third time I have the privilege to tutor on a course at New College called ‘Atheism in Debate: Dawkins and his Allies.’  While the last two versions of this course have found progressive successes, not only in bringing in students, but also in how the content is presented, there have been, as might be expected, a few complaints.[1]  However, overall it would seem a marginal success.

Of all the discussion points that resurface each year, one has perhaps been brought up more often than any others: the question of comparison.  How, we are often asked, are the New Atheists similar to the ‘old’ ones?  Or, said otherwise, how is New Atheism in any way ‘new?’ These are indeed precarious questions.  After all, when we look at the larger discourse that feeds into the definition of Atheism, we might argue that, in fact, New Atheism is not all that new.  Rather, and as our course tends to conclude, New Atheism is merely the repetition of many of the facets of ‘old’ Atheism.

For instance, one might consider the philosophical positions of those who contribute to the discourse that forms this ‘old’ Atheism, such as Voltaire, Hume, Strauss, Marx, Feuerbach, Hegel, or Nietzsche, in comparison to the critiques made by the New Atheists.  Many of these same thoughts are, presumably, ‘recycled.’

However, I might offer a discursive defence of New Atheism here.  Yes, we might see similarities between these two Atheisms, or even almost identical critiques in Harris’ The End of Faith or Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  Yet, I would argue this sort of criticism overlooks the much larger distinction of contextualization, so that, even though the criticisms made by these ‘New Atheists’ seem like recycled arguments from the ‘old Atheists,’ they are still being made in completely different contextual milieux.  The time in which Strauss was writing his Life of Jesus, or Voltaire his Candide is not the same as the context that birthed Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Hitchens’ God is not Great.  That is, while I would agree that through comparison we might not find anything inherently ‘new’ about New Atheism, I would also concede that it arose out of an entirely different time and place, and thus offers us, if nothing else, an insight into that context so that we might locate why and how these particular critiques took shape.

In this way, the New Atheism is a discursive product.  The language used is that of particular individuals in a particular time, and in particular places.  For me, then, trying to compare or contrast the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ fundamentally overlooks the fact that comparisons are not necessary, and, what’s worse, can become abstractions, distracting us from finding value in each of these ‘types’ of Atheism as discursive or cultural data. Yet, New Atheism as a title still persists.  Is that a wholly negative issue?  Yes and no.  On one end, giving even a nominal distinction to this discursive sample engenders a dichotomous perspective, demanding a comparison, and leading us back to those same abstractions where we might find ourselves lost amongst an apologetical argument that one is more ‘genuine’ or ‘original’ than the other.  On the other end, we have the issue of too slack a distinction.

In this way, we might find ourselves, such as occurs in the larger discussion of the definitions of Atheism or ‘religion,’ with having to contend with the differentiation between ‘nominal’ and ‘virtual’ terminology: the former denoting a word that can be used in any number of iterations, and the latter denoting a use of that word in a more unique or specific way (see Jenkins 2008).  This also brings us into discussions about the differences between real or essential definitions (terms that act to summarise the ‘essence’ of a thing) and lexical or historical ones (terms that have particular meaning to particular individuals at particular times [see Baird 1991]). While these are worthwhile discussions, and are quite pertinent to the issue at hand, this is neither the time nor place to truly devote our attention to such issues.  Rather, I will from here on adopt a perspective that might be deemed more on the side of the virtual or lexical, and try to make some sense out of the persistent question concerning the ‘newness’ of New Atheism within the context of it as a discursive source.

Assholes: A Theory

The erudite and somewhat famous theorist of religion, Ninian Smart, was said to have a method of teaching that perfectly exemplified his notion of epoche.  A practice employed by researchers and lecturers, ‘epoche’ essentially means the suspension of one’s disbelief, a pragmatic mindset utilised in order to remove the individual from either interpreting or Ninian_Smartpresenting the concept religion with any sort of confessional bias.  For Smart, this did not mean the complete abandonment of one’s personal beliefs, but rather was a means with which the researcher/lecturer might objectively approach a subject like religion without muddling the data with subjective opinions.

After all, we might remark, studying something is not the same as advocating it, just as studying that same thing is not the same as being without an opinion about it.  It’s a fine line, indeed, but in the pursuit of objectivity it’s always useful to recognise and acknowledge the utility of these sorts of distinctions.

As the stories go, Smart would stand on one side of the lectern (let’s say the right) when lecturing, giving ‘just the facts.’  When asked, or when he felt inclined to do so, he would switch to the other side (the left) and give his opinion.  This bipolarity would, one might imagine, be quite entertaining, especially when dealing with religious beliefs and practices that might seem ‘taboo’ or ‘provocative’ to a particular audience. For my intentions herein, this little anecdote is quite useful.  While I (on the right side) approach Atheism as a discursive term, something that is imbued with meaning through the use of particular language by particular people in particular times and places, and thus approach it with a strict objectivity, that doesn’t mean that on the left side I do not have an opinion of my own.  However, I also might acknowledge that a strict binary between these sides is not always the most useful.  Thus, the following theoretical approach might be best understood as a sort of ‘tacking,’ a ‘back-and-forth’ approach that demonstrates both a right and left side perspective.

For me, what makes New Atheism new is that the New Atheists are assholes.

In his, Assholes: A Theory, the political philosopher Aaron James defines an asshole as someone not only immune to his or her own criticisms, but who, when criticised with the same sort of language, feels that he or she is, in fact, an unprovoked victim.  assholesIn summary, his brief definition states:

Our theory is simply this: a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people. (4-5)

More focused on a few ‘stereotypical’ examples, such as demonstrated by individuals like US General Stanley McChrystal, US General Douglas MacArthur, Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson, and Ann Coulter, an asshole is someone who, like these individuals, believes their opinion to not only be correct, but infallible via a sense of privilege.  In three parts, this is as follows:

(1)   allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;

(2)   does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and

(3)   is immunised by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. (5)

To further define this individual, and in order to lead me toward my association of New Atheism and James’ theory itself, he offers a few more examples:

So, for example, the asshole is the person who habitually cuts in line.  Or who frequently interrupts in a conversation.  Or who weaves in and out of lanes in traffic.  Or who persistently emphasises another person’s faults.  Or who is extremely sensitive to perceived slights while being oblivious to his crustiness with others. (5)

Now, to differentiate the asshole from, say, a ‘jerk,’ the former is defined by inclinations or incentives:

What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way.  the asshole acts out a firm sense that he is special, that the normal rules of conduct do not apply to him. (5-6)

Thus, because the asshole is immune to his or her own criticism, and because he or she sees him or herself as unique or different or special, he or she equally becomes incensed by the beliefs or opinions of others:

Because the asshole sets himself apart from others, he feels entirely comfortable flouting accepted social conventions, almost as a way of life.  Most important, he lives this way more or less out in the open.  He stands unmoved when people indignantly glare or complain.  He is ‘immunised’ against anyone who speaks up, being quite confident that he has little need to respond to questions about whether the advantages he allows himself are acceptable and fair.  Indeed, he will often himself feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised. (6)

New Atheism and Assholes:

New Atheists are assholes because their language (discourse) is imbued with the sort of criticism James associates with the definition above.  They are overly critical of a particular position, and yet they feel as if they are immune to counter criticism because their position is incapable of being incorrect.

This is partly shaped by the style of their arguments, the way they seem, with such ease and skill, to set up straw man positions, only to easily knock them down.  Look at Harris’ opening characterisation in The End of Faith.  The-End-of-Faith-283644After giving a short description of a young man who has detonated himself on a full public bus, he casually, with almost Dan Brown efficiency, refers to these as ‘the facts:’

These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else that we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all. Did he have a college education? Did he have a bright future as a mechanical engineer? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort, and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on- it easy—to guess the young man’s religion? (11)

In a note at the end of this characterisation, he offers a description and some details about a Sri Lankan separatist movement known as the Liberations Tigers of Tamil Eelam.  However, this does not mean that the description of the young man on the bus is in any way based in fact.  We might ask, why?  Why not just provide a detailed and cited description?  Why make something up?

As an introductory statement about his treatment of ‘religion’ this fictionalisation perhaps best describes his asshole nature.  Rather than engage with these sorts of atrocities in a manner that might be conducive to a rational or objective criticism, he instead creates a violent example that he then uses to demonstrate his larger criticism of religion as inherently violent.  As he blithely states with the cited paragraph above, associating this sort of action with religion is a trivial connection, so easy, in fact, you could bet your life on it.

While each of the four New Atheists (which I would argue wholly embody the concept ‘New Atheism)’ use this same sort of argument in their own ways, they are not equal in their assholeness.  In fact, Dennett, whose career as a philosopher has distinguished him as a rather erudite examiner of cognition and scientific philosophy seems somewhat out-of-place in this discourse.  Aside from the fact that his argument in Breaking the Spell breaking the spellthat religion could, and should, be scientifically examined, might be roughly dismissed if someone merely walked him across his campus to the Religious Studies department, the language he uses is not altogether that of an asshole.  On the other hand, Dawkins is perhaps the larger asshole of the group.  god is not greatThough Hitchens comes in a close second, Dawkins’ vocal and vehement language, as well as his seemingly evangelical passion, easily characterises his asshole nature.  god delusionIn fact, as perhaps the predominant voice in shaping the New Atheist discourse, his being an asshole is what really shapes this discourse in this way.

There are a myriad of examples to cite here.  Perhaps too many.  Here are just a few.

One of the possible reasons Dawkins seems like such an asshole is the fact that in his obsession with arguing the inherent violence and uselessness of religion, he is betraying the objectivity of his position as a biologist.  One might even ask why a biologist would be in any way interested in religion, which is all too obvious given his extremely poor, almost amateur level of criticism in The God Delusion.  What’s interesting here, though, is that his need to point out the problems of religion seems to overpower his notion that there is, in fact, grandeur to be found in his scientific worldview.  Look at the opening discussion in the trailer of his and Lawrence Krauss’ The Unbelievers:

When asked which is more important, teaching the beauty and majesty of science, or ‘destroying religion,’ his hesitation, and then later acceptance toward the latter, is quite telling.  First off, why would anyone assume that he might actually be able to do so, even with the power of scientific discovery on his side?  Second, rather than promoting something that he finds more useful or beneficial than religion, he would prefer the latter, to point out the negative aspects instead.  A clear ‘asshole move.’

Interestingly, his asshole nature is even utilised by others.  For example, in the first year of our course on Atheism in Debate, one of our guest lecturers played the following video clip, not just because it provides a useful sample of the sort of ‘asshole Atheism’ that Dawkins himself seems to promote, but because it equally demonstrates how his Atheism is used by others to facilitate debate.

The part of this clip discussed in that lecture begins around the 2:40 mark.  Dawkins has joined the circle ‘on stage’ and immediately begins his all too expected attack on religion, particularly aimed at mormonism, embodied by another guest, Brandon Flowers (the lead singer of The Killers).  Note the way he describes the Book of Mormon as a ‘modern fake,’ the product of a charlatan or crook, the way he vehemently attacks his opponent with no real provocation.

This not only demonstrates Dawkins’ asshole nature, it also exhibits the way he represents a discursive entity.  Judging by the way this conversation goes, by the way it is directed by the host, by what Dawkins says, and the fact the Brandon is given really no time to defend himself, this clip provides for us an insight into how others view and use particular discourses to their benefit.  As the signature asshole Atheist, Dawkins has become a useful example.  He is placed across an adherent to a religious belief system that he would, presumably, disagree with, and is then prompted to respond about Mormonism as if the person across from him stands as an equal representative of his objections.  One could even hypothesise that prior to his joining the group ‘on stage’ he was prepared ‘backstage’ with points about the discussion, yet not told, perhaps pragmatically, that his opponent in this debate would be whisked away without given the chance to respond.  In fact, around the 4:46 and 5:00 minute mark it looks almost as if Dawkins is embarrassed by his actions, even apologising to Brandon, as if he was unaware that he would be leaving without the chance to defend himself.

This gives us a glimpse at the asshole realising he has been an asshole, and then regretting, even briefly, his asshole nature.

As a last example, we might look at his ever-entertaining comments on twitter, two of which should suffice for this analysis.  The first, focused on his opinion about aborting a child discovered to have Down Syndrome, presents the sort of language inherent in James’ definitions above.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.22.26

While the opening line is a somewhat benign representation of someone’s opinion, its the second part of the tweet that truly demonstrates his sense of immunised and entitled beliefs.  Perhaps this is reading a bit too much into the ‘tone’ of the words here, but it nonetheless reads like a pre-emptive defence of what he might perceive as an attack on his equitable logic.

Next, we have his opinion on rape.  While we could easily discuss the way he might be categorising different ‘types’ of rape here, its really his response that earns his language here true asshole status.

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Again, the tone is pre-emptive.  It even inspired a secondary rejoinder:

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His tone here, his inability to accept that what he has said might be misconstrued or misunderstood outside of his initial intention, not only shows a lack of empathy, but also a type of arrogance, a refusal to acknowledge that his language might be understood in a malignant manner.  In other words, it reads like the words of an asshole.

Are Atheists Assholes?

There is perhaps an easy comparison to be made between the asshole mentality of New Atheism and the criticism that shapes Atheism-in-general.  Atheism is, if we define the term within the context of a modern world, a position built upon the rejection or denial of another person’s position.  It is, in this modern manifestation, an ‘A-Theism,’ and is thus dependent upon Theism in order to exist.  This, then, makes it a critical position.  After all, to be simply ‘without God,’ an etymological reading of the term promoted by advocates of separating the concept between positive (explicit) and negative (implicit) notions, is not the same thing as shaping one’s identity on the belief that another’s belief is not true.

So are Atheists assholes?  If so, is the asshole nature of New Atheism proof of this?  That is, as New Atheism is a lexical example of Atheism-in-general, does it not depict the latter as having an inherent asshole nature?

No.  Or maybe.  That’s not really my point here.

Rather, my use of the theory of the asshole has not meant to impute this notion onto Atheists or Theists, or anyone in a ‘general’ sense.  Instead, I have used it herein to dictate a particular discursive source, to create a border around a distinct lexical field, so that we might make better sense of a smaller part of the larger Atheist whole.  As a discursive unit, the asshole nature of New Atheism does not necessarily mark it as ‘new’ in the sense that it is in any way different or unique from the ‘old’ Atheism.  Nor should it be seen as a definitional assessment of Atheism in a general manner.  Alternatively, its use as a boundary marker represents a type of utility, a pragmatic separation used not so much to acknowledge New Atheism as new, but as a distinct discourse in and of itself.

Further Reading:

Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (New York: Doubleday, 2012).

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006).

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Warner, 2007).

Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Richard Jenkins, Social Identity, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religion, 2nd ed. (Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1991).

See also this useful video of the four New Atheist authors in a roundtable discussion:

[1] For example, perhaps the largest complaint we have received has been about the lack of discussion on the four New Atheist texts themselves, replaced, it seems, by a more predominant focus on 17th-20th century European philosophy in order to critique New Atheism as providing nothing ‘new.’  While this did indeed cause a few issues in the beginning, the amendments to the course over the years have endeavoured to address this.

A Sucker Born Every Minute

After living a year without God, Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist Pastor, recently confirmed that he no longer believed in the existence of God.

While his transition from Christian to Atheist reveals an interesting journey from believing to not believing and the precarious nuances that exist within and around those two categories, it is not, entirely, the focus of this post.  Rather, the overall notion of his ‘living a year without God’ got me thinking about the idea in general, which further turned me toward the usual tangential logic that I find myself so often turning to.

In fact, something about this whole story got me thinking about the Cardiff Giant.  Not so much as a criticism of Bell’s idea that a Christian might ‘live without God,’ which is mostly because it appears that his reasoning for doing so seems more like an attempt at testing a hypothesis which, if we hold to the predominant definitions of Modern Atheism, such as those promoted by Buckley (1990) or Hyman (2009, 2010), sounds like the objective turn from ‘God’ as subject to ‘God’ as testable object.  Rather, it got me thinking about the ways in which his process might represent the larger transition from Theism to Atheism, and how that is equally representative of the ways in which we might use these sorts of transitions (or if nothing else the story of these transitions) in order to ‘define’ that which these things represent. This got me thinking about the Cardiff Giant not because it was a hoax perpetuated by an Atheist in order to make a fortune, but because of the way in which the public devoured the story, merely because they were told it was real. cardiff_tfm_page_web The product of George Hull’s imagination and entrepreneurial spirit, the Cardiff Giant was a fabulous hoax, carved from gypsum and buried for some time in a field only to be ‘discovered’ by some unexpecting well diggers in October of 1869.Cardiff_giant_exhumed_1869  Shortly after, Hull’s partner, William Newell, placed a tent around the giant and began charging admission.  Soon, people were lining up to see the Giant, regardless of the fact that it was almost immediately dubbed a hoax by scholars and scientists, such as Othniel March.

As the profits grew even higher, Hull sold his interest in the hoax to a ‘syndicate’ that put it on display in New York, drawing ever larger crowds, including the renowned showman, P.T. Barnum, who offered barnum$50,000 for the Giant, only to be turned down.  Never to be out done, he hired his own craftsmen to recreate it, which he then put on display, claiming that his was the ‘real’ Giant.

In regard to the crowds tricked into paying to see Barnum’s false fake Giant, Newell notorious commented, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Eventually, the whole thing came down to court hearings and law suits about whose Giant was the genuine article until Hull finally confessed to the hoax in December of 1869.  Barnum was exonerated from any plagiarism charges because, as it turned out, it wasn’t quite possible indict someone for forging a forgery.

So, how does this relate to Bell’s ‘year without God,’ aside from the somewhat obvious connection to the ways in which we might bicker over term assignment or the meaning of concepts between notions of ‘Atheism’ or ‘non-religion?’  Well, perhaps a truly critical assessment might argue that his ‘project’ was nothing more than an attempt at masking his scepticism and doubt into a larger consideration that would have gotten him air time on NPR or international news.  Likewise, we might even contend that his ‘project’ was nothing more than a hoax perpetuated to gain some sort of notoriety.  Why, after all, would we care about one pastor’s progression from Theist to Atheist? Which, I think, is why I connected these two stories.

Such a critical assessment might be useful, even healthy, for certain individuals, but I think it equally overlooks the fact that, like the story of the Giant, Bell’s progression demonstrates not only a public interest, but a discursive insight as well.  After all, if we were intent on understanding how beliefs become solidified, such as the way a hoax is marketed and devoured by a demanding audience, or in Bell’s case, how identity becomes constructed, is this not the ideal set of data with which to study?  That is, though it might look, through a certain lens, to be something designed or formed in such a way as to inspire criticism, is it not still something worth examining?  Or, is all of this once again a reminder that no matter how cautious or critical we are, there’s never really a sure way of knowing if something is a hoax (such as discourse observed), so that we must continually remind ourselves, that in the study of ‘others,’ and regardless of objectivity, we might be nothing but ‘suckers.’

For more on the Giant:

Mark Rose, “When Giants Roamed the Earth” (Archaeology, Vol. 58, No. 6, 2005).

Fran Rizer, “A Hoax of a Ghost Hoax” (Which also includes a re-print of Mark Twain’s short story about the Giant, A Ghost Story).

For an excellent discussion of Bell’s ‘Year without God,’ as well as an incredible blog in general:

Jason Hines, “Look Within” (HineSight, 4 January 2015).

The three sources on Modern Atheism:

Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

Gavin Hyman, “Atheism in Modern History’ in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Gavin Hyman, A Short History of Atheism (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

Everything is Fiction: A Discussion on Narrative and Reflexivity

It’s January.  That’s perhaps not all that surprising.  It’s also early January.  Which means, for some of us, we have entered that liminal stage between Christmas break and beginning a new semester.  This time, for me at least, is usually filled with anxieties.  There’s something about having no ‘real’ responsibilities that generates an incessant need to ‘do something.’  This, coupled with the notion that at the start of the year one must equally resolve to achieve some sort of important something within the year to follow, means planning.

For the year to come I have planned a number of what I hope will be intriguing and fun posts: an interpretation of New Atheism viewed through a unique filter; a three-part theoretical look at how disappointment assists in our development of the meaning of religion, as well as alters our means of religious identification; a correlative look at zombies and secularisation; the links between Atheism and types of ‘fiction;’ judicial definitions of Atheism as discourse; a brief look at Ethnographic Criticism and how it re-interprets our notions of authenticity and accuracy in describing ‘others;’ as well as many others.

Yet, as can be expected, there will of course be additions here that pop up unexpectedly.  Such a thing occurred this week as I was putting together a post on Ryan Bell’s ‘year without God’ (which will be posted next week).  As I began writing that up I thought instead that this week, the first post of the year, would perhaps afford a better opportunity to not only look back on an experience I truly enjoyed from last year, but also provide the chance to get a bit more nuance about what Everything is Fiction is all about.  Which, of course, begins with a story.

Just prior to my moving to Edinburgh in September 2011, I flew out for a few days the previous April to meet my supervisor and get an idea about both the University and the city-at-large.  After our brief meeting, I was invited to sit in on the final presentations of the bi-annual New College Post-Graduate Conference, which I gladly accepted.  When we arrived at Martin Hall, the last speaker had already begun, so we snuck in quietly and sat in the back.  This was my first experience listening to Christopher Cotter as he discussed his paper on New Atheism.  Later, as a few of us adjourned to The Wash, one of the local drinking establishments we have frequented religiously over the last few years (and for many years prior to my arrival), I made the acquaintance of David Robertson, a friend and colleague of Chris.’  They each have their own blogs, which can be accessed here: Chris and David.  As well, these two have successfully and graciously given us The Religious Studies Project, a one-stop shop for all things pertinent to the method and theory in the study of religion.  Each week, the RSP posts a podcast recording of an interview conducted with an academic who discusses his or her research in the study of religion.  It is, for me at least, an ideal place to access the discourse on the study of religion.

On occasion I have had the great privilege to participate in a number of these recordings, particularly roundtable sessions where a group of us discuss issues in the field of religious studies, usually whilst drinking.  One of these recent experiences, though the drinking took place after, rather than during, was held at the University of Chester after Chris and David gave a workshop on the ‘Digital Humanities,’ and David conducted an interview with Dr. Alana Vincent.  The roundtable was chaired by Chris, and included Dr Wendy DossettProf. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn, and Dr Alana Vincent.  The theme was on narrative and reflexivity in the study of religion, and Chris and David felt that perhaps I might have something to contribute, given my interests in the use of fiction in the study and teaching of religion, as well as my criticisms on where we might draw the line between authenticity and authority in our use of particular textual sources.  For this I was, and am, quite thankful.

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I found the discussion not only exciting, engaging, and fun, but cathartic.  It was incredibly refreshing to have the opportunity to discuss, out loud, the topics, themes, and points I’d been thinking and writing about ever since I sat down to write my Thesis.  Not only that, but the other individuals involved each provided some excellent feedback and points to consider.  In fact, this roundtable could not have come at a more fortuitous time.  I had just finished the full draft of the thesis, and was taking a few days off before conducting the initial round of edits.  So not only was I already obsessively thinking about these topics, I was likewise in the mindset perhaps best suited for feedback.

In our discussion, my catchy catch-phrase ‘Everything is Fiction’ comes up quite frequently, which I was of course quite happy about.  As well, I think the way we discuss some of the ways this phrase might be interpreted do a bit more justice than I might do here (which is also a forthcoming post).  So, please do listen (or rather, watch) and enjoy.

To conclude this sort of New Years’ tangential look back, I am reminded again about timing.  In fact, when I really think about it, the timing of this roundtable was somewhat like my first meeting Chris and David, designed in such a way as if like the plot of some larger story.  Which, I suppose, provides even more evidence to the idea that everything is, indeed, fiction.