‘Statistics can prove anything’ (and other fictions used by New Atheists)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been spending my time recently trying to find video clips that might represent a ‘New Atheist discourse.’  This week, I selected a few examples in order to demonstrate how one might do bad scholarship.  In fact, this post is perhaps just a continuation of my previous one on locating New Atheism within a discursive boundary demarcated by an ‘asshole’ mentality.  Does this mean I think ‘bad scholars’ are ‘assholes?’  Maybe.  It varies from day to day, and from scholar to scholar.

Let’s begin with Richard Dawkins.  In the following clip Professor Dawkins is listing off a number of ‘religious things’ that offend him.  Or, rather, that should offend us.  While we might all ‘generally agree’ that these are certainly things that we should be offended by, were we to specify them as actions outside our own contextual boundaries about ‘ethics’ and ‘morality,’ the way that he shapes his argument is what shines through for me.

In the clip, he displays horrible atrocity after horrible atrocity while deftly (or, as he says it, ‘logically’) associating these things with ‘religious thinking.’  Then, he casually moves his argument toward a quote from Martin Amis, a rhetorical question about what a ‘secularist’ would shout when ‘cutting off an infidel’s head.’  To answer this question, he cites a ‘critic’ of Amis’ book, who responds: “they shout ‘Heil Hitler.'”  Now, his argument is about Hitler, focused on whether or not he was an ‘Atheist,’ to which he easily declares that he was a Catholic.  Or, at least his soldiers were.  Likewise, he adds, even if he was an Atheist, that shouldn’t matter.  He was also a vegetarian.  He asks: “Does that suggest that vegetarians have a special tendency to be murderous, bigoted racists?”  To which the audiences giggles at such audacity.

From here, he easily slides into his conclusive point:

The point is, that there is a logical pathway leading from religion to the committing of atrocities.  It’s perfectly logical, if you believe that your religion is the right one, you believe that your God is the only God, and you believe that your God has ordered you through a priest or through a Holy Book, to kill somebody, to blow somebody up, to fly a plane into a skyscraper, then you are doing a righteous act.  You’re a good person.  You’re following your religious morality.  There is no such logical pathway leading from Atheism and secularism to any such atrocious act.  It just doesn’t follow.  

Based on the evidence he provides, his argument appears sound.  Of course, were we to test his argument against historical facts, not only would much of what he says be logically unsound, it would also be questionable on a vast number of theoretical points. For these reasons, we might ask, why did he not supply more evidence?  Or conflicting evidence?  Why would he use Hitler as an example, if the association of Hitler to ‘secularism’ is a “truly outrageous thing to say?”  As well, could we not simply take his argument about the ‘logical pathway’ leading from ‘religion’ to the committing of atrocities and relate it to another evidential example, such as the State Atheism (Communism) of Albania, China, and Cuba, or the ‘secular revolutions’ of France and Mexico?  Of course, to do this, we might be forced to define, via discursive and lexical examples, how those ‘Atheisms’ might represent some sort of ‘Atheism’ that we could then relate to that found in Britain or the United States.  Then again, this takes work, to which, for logical reasons, I doubt Professor Dawkins is willing to commit.  When it comes to this subject, he is a bad scholar.

I would argue that this is another trait of the ‘New Atheism’ presented by Dawkins, Harris, and a few others, such as Bill Maher.  While Maher has been an Atheist advocate for some time now, his discursive alignment with the Atheism representative of Dawkins, et al. is not only established but their shared argumentation, but by their bad scholarship as well.

Here’s a handy example.

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2014, Maher presents his position on religion (‘they’re all stupid’), and then turns the conversation (with the help of Charlie) toward religious violence.  The essential point I will be focusing on here is a citation he makes to support his statement that Muslims, in general, ‘condone violence.’ When asked by Charlie, “how do you know that,” he states:

There’s a Pew Poll of Egypt done a few years ago, 82 percent I think it was, said, uh, stoning was the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Over 80 percent thought, uh, death was the appropriate punishment for leaving the Muslim religion.  

This statement is made at the 2:23 mark.

This citation returns a bit later on his own show on HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher.  His guests for this episode are Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Michael Steele, and Nicholas Kristof.  Again, the discussion is on religious violence, predominately about ISIS, and the way that ‘liberals’ are failing to control this sort of ‘fundamentalism.’  The section of this clip that I will focus on here comes toward the end of the debate after Ben Affleck attempts to convey his own argument that Maher and Harris are simply being racially insensitive, and stretching their ideologies beyond reasonable limits.  In reaction, Maher states:

No it’s not.  It’s based on facts.  I can show you a Pew Poll of Egyptians–they are not outliers in the Muslim world–that say like 90 percent of them believe that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.  If 90 percent of Brazilians thought that death was the appropriate response to leaving Catholicism, you would think it was a bigger deal.  

The specific statement occurs at the 8:02 mark.

While many of the rejoinders to Maher’s and Harris’ statements here about their ‘caricatures’ of religious individuals, as well as connections of this sort of language to ‘white racism against blacks’ in the United States, are indeed poignant responses, it is the statistics that Maher is using to defend his position that I think stand out the most.

On two occasions, when arguing that Muslims (or ‘Islam,’ since he tends to refer to the religion, rather than to religious individuals) are inherently violent, he has done so based on ‘facts.’  This is, of course, a good means of argumentation.  It gives credence to one’s position, and grounds the statements made in a foundation of ‘truth.’

Of course, this only tends to work when those ‘facts’ remain details without any further elucidation.

With this in mind, and in considering that he has based his argument that ‘Islam’ is violent because a Pew Poll stated that a vast majority felt a certain way about using violence, let’s turn now to those facts themselves.

The poll cited was a part of a Pew Forum report on The World’s Muslims: Religion Politics, and Society conducted in 2011.  The section Maher is referencing is Chapter 1: Beliefs about Sharia.  In the first clip, he references the results about stoning as a punishment for adultery.  Here is an image of that data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.09.34In the first and the second clip, he refers as well to the punishment that should be given for leaving the Muslim faith.  Here is that data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.11.07While he is incorrect about the exact percentage, he is still fairly close to the actual numbers.  Nevertheless, here is quantitative data, ‘fact,’ that he can use to support his argument.  From this, we might agree that, yes, it seems that up to 80 or 90 percent of Egyptians believe the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery or leaving the faith.  He would be correct, then, in saying that, as an example, this supports the idea that ‘Islam’ is violent.

However, his statement begins to turn into a ‘caricature’ when we look at the actual numbers polled.  Here is an image taken of Appendix C: Survey Method that gives the specifics about the data itself:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.15.17

Likewise, here is an image of the sample size that make up the data:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.16.11

As we can see, the data itself is representative of a sample size, meaning it should not be used as a representation of all people in Egypt, let alone all Muslims.  Furthermore, this is data based on face-to-face interactions over a single month.  It would be impossible in that time to actually poll the roughly 79,000,000 people who lived in Egypt in 2011.  As well, the two responses concerning the death penalty for adultery and leaving the faith are based on individuals who ‘say sharia should be the law of the land.’  These details do not support his argument in the way that he has made it.

I should add here that this is not meant as a critique of this sort of data, nor of the utility in gathering and using such quantitative information.  Rather, I’d argue it provides a bit of a caveat about mis-using it.  This is evinced best, I think, by how Maher does exactly that.  That is, if he were to re-word his statement, the resulting conversation might be a bit more effective.  Perhaps something like this:

Of the Egyptian people polled in 2011 who thought Sharia should be the law of the land, 80-90 percent of them stated the death penalty was an appropriate response to actions we here in America might find unethical because of our differing political context.  While this is merely a sample size and should not be considered a representation of the 79 million people living in Egypt, let alone the billion Muslims worldwide, I still think it provides an interesting entry point to a discussion we could have on the way this sort of discourse might influence how Islam is perceived, both in and out of the context in which these answers are given.   

Instead, he chose a different approach:

It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book (6:40 in the third clip).

Again, this is bad scholarship.

The caricatures created by both Dawkins and Maher in these examples reflect a certain type of discourse.  This is, I’d argue, a result of the way they use ‘data’ and ‘facts’ to support their argument, rather than the other way around.  Which, additionally, damages what they have to say.  Instead, they come across as equally fundamentalist in their thinking as the people they are arguing against, using bad scholarship to support their opinions.  In this same way they are telling a particular story about themselves, and about how they construct their discourse, much in the same way the individuals who responded to the Egyptian poll have provided a certain story that we might, were we so inclined, use to interpret them in an equally general (and incorrect) manner.

Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism

In our tutorials for Atheism in Debate this last week we discussed Feuerbach.  The week before that was Strauss, and before that was Hegel.  Understandably, its usually around this point where the energy of the course begins to wane.  In order to try and remedy this, I tend to use video clips, usually of one of the four ‘New Atheists,’ to break up the monotony of just talking about the reading.  For this round of clips I tried to find ways to connect the ‘anthropomorphism’ of Feuerbach’s deconstructive theory about religion being ‘human nature reflected, mirrored in itself,’ with the way Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens diminish religion to infantile self-creations.  For those interested, these are the clips that I chose:

As I was searching for these I came across this interesting video:

Here was a listicle of ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”  This got me thinking.  What is the difference between these ‘comedy routines’ and the statements being made by the ‘New Atheists?’  Are they not equally ‘scripted’ critiques of religion?  Do they not function the same way as the rhetorical use of the ‘Atheist discourse‘ being presented by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

I thought I’d look into this a bit more.

I came across the work of Patrick McKearney at the University of Cambridge who, for a few years, was the ‘Atheist comedy guy.’  Aside from the four conference presentations he gave on the subject (“Public Belief and Civil Society: A Case-Study of Contemporary Anti-Religious Stand-Up Comedy;” “The Ridicule of Religion in Contemporary British and Irish Stand-Up Comedy;” “‘What are you laughing at?’ The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation;” “Methods for Investigating Non-religiosity in Stand-up Comedy”), he also participated in a BBC 4 discussion on Comedy and Religion, and published two articles on the subject in The Guardian (“Heard the One about the Pope?”) and Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge (“Slap in the Faith“).  The latter is focused on issues of comedic criticism and the reactions we might see in fundamentalist religion striking back (such as we saw with the attacks against Charlie Hebdo a few months back).

Likewise, my good friend Katie Aston deals with this a little bit in her Doctoral Thesis.

So how might these comedic criticisms present a useful example of an Atheist discourse?  I believe the answer lies in some specificity.  For pragmatic reasons, then, I will be using two methodological points made by Norman Fairclough in his Analysing Discourse (2003).

First, in consideration of the utility of discourse analysis in the study of texts, let’s broaden our conception of that term itself:

“written and printed texts such as shopping lists and newspaper articles are ‘texts’, but so also are transcripts of (spoken) conversations and interviews, as well as television programmes and web-pages” (Fairclough, 2003, 4).  

In this way, these video clips, as edited versions of the stand-up comedian’s routine, are texts, filled with, and exemplary of, particular ‘language in use.’  In other words: ‘discourse.’

Second, let’s specify how we might more directly consider these texts via a three-part interpretation:

“the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (Fairclough, 2003, 10) 

In this way, we can be a bit more specific about the discourse being used, as well as establish a contextual boundary within which it emerged, was presented, and subsequently received.

These things established, let’s look at three examples, two of which were also on ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”

The first comes from Ricky Gervais, and focuses on a critical analysis of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark:

The second comes from Bill Maher, and focuses on examples of religion ‘doing harm:’

The third, and perhaps most famous, comes from George Carlin, and focuses on religion as ‘bullshit:’

From out of a cursory analysis of these three clips as ‘texts,’ we can establish a number of discursive specifics:

  • Each are reactionary, and thus present a criticism directed at a particular subject.
    • The first (Gervais) presents a critical assessment of the fictionality and inherent unbelievability of a Biblical myth through the lens of modernity.
    • The second (Maher) is directed at issues of morality, and the fact, as he sees it, that ‘religion’ is harmful and immoral.
    • The third (Carlin), like Maher, presents a critical assessment of the harmful and equally immoral dangers of religion/religious belief (though with the caveat that his ‘Sun Worship’ (not ‘prayer-to’) is still practical.
  • The ‘religion’ of their collective criticisms is somewhat vague, though we can presume via their language they are reacting against a particular monotheism, likely Christianity (though Maher intermixes this with critiques of Islam).
  • While seemingly problematic, these differences tell us a great deal about their contextual discursive language use.  Gervais’ routine was given in 2010, the same year as Maher’s.  Carlin’s routine comes from 1999.  So, we might concede that Gervais’ and Maher’s routines stem from a ‘New Atheist,’ or post-September 11th discourse, though that might be presuming a bit much.
  • However, simply as ‘texts,’ they do not tell us much about their ‘Atheisms.’  Yes, we might assume (or presume) that they are being inherently ‘Atheist’ by means of their criticisms, it is not as specific as, say, an informant telling us about his or her ‘Atheist identity,’ and how he or she has constructed that identity in a specific way.

So how might we use them as textual discursive sources?  By taking up Fairclough’s three-part interpretive method, we can begin to shift them from mere textual examples to more direct discursive ones.

  1. Learning about how they were produced (written) we can learn a great deal about the individuals doing the writing, the context that writing took place, the type of Atheism they themselves identify with, and the influences that shaped their texts based on that type of Atheism.
  2. Then, our cursory analysis (such as above) becomes a bit more nuanced.
  3. Finally, we can look at how they are received by individuals (audience or viewers) who equally identify as ‘Atheist,’ while equally deciphering how these texts assist these individuals in their own identity constructions.

By weaving these together, we begin to form a much clearer (in my opinion, at least) conception of ‘Atheism,’ such as we might use to better understand the discursive elements that influence the New Atheist clips presented above.  While this isn’t a better means of approach then conducting interviews and ethnographically shaping a textual representation, as a means of understanding the discourse that might underscore or influence the identities that make up such an ethnographic textual representation, this seems quite beneficial.  Likewise, I believe this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.’

Norman Fairclough, Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research (London: Routledge, 2003).

*As an extra bonus, here is an animated version of Louis CK (who is not an Atheist) talking about ‘God as a shitty girlfriend,’ and the oddity of ‘saying Jesus Christ with a shitty attitude.’

When Trolling Religion Becomes Religion; Or, Why it’s All Bertrand Russell’s Fault

In our course on New Atheism this week, we discussed Bertrand Russell, who could likely provide enough philosophical material to span the entirety of a course of his own.  His early twentieth-century arguments establish quite a foundational platform upon which much of modern/contemporary/New Atheism has been built.  So, when it came time to discuss his ‘Atheism,’ which would orbit around a debate on ‘The Existence of God’ between Russell and F.C. Copleston in 1948, we had much to talk about.  For those interested, an audio recording of the debate can be found below.


At the time of the debate, and even identified as such, Russell argues from the point of agnosticism, a position of pragmatic and expressed ‘lack of knowledge,’ derived from both the etymological foundation of the term (the alpha privative ‘A’ combined with ‘γνῶσις:’ ‘without knowledge’), as well as that coined by Huxley as a ‘method,’ rather than a ‘creed.’  In the latter, we might benefit from a more direct and primary description.  For example, let us consider the story of how Huxley coined his term, from the man himself:

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.


 Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889).

This, we might concede, is a different sort of position than the more devout Atheism that we find in the arguments of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens.  In fact, we might even concede that the Atheism we find discursively represented by these four individuals are, themselves, different from one another.  In fact, we might further conclude that, definitively, each of these voices offers a different type of Atheism.  Which would be lexically, and thus contextually, incorrect.  For this reason, when we discuss these individuals in our tutorials, we do so looking less for ways to use these discourses as means to construct a definition.  Instead, we use them to try and understand how each of these individuals discursively contributes to their own interpretation of the larger notion of ‘Atheism,’ from within their own contexts and specialised usages, and in order to shape their own particular identities.  It’s a fine line, but it’s an important one.

Russell eventually shifted his own position from agnostic to Atheist, a shift that provides us with an interesting insight into how the leading argument that inspired this change came to influence a truly interesting type of discursive Atheism.

In 1952 he wrote (though it was not published until later) a short piece titled, “Is There a God,” in which he put forth the following argument:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time (Russell, “Is There a God,” 1952).

This argument pushed Russell from agnostic to Atheist, or, as he himself stated later:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely [Bertrand Russell, “Letter to Mr Major,” in Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969)].


Not only has Russell’s teapot inspired an entire discourse of Atheism, the logic of doing so has equally led to a position with which to structure this discourse, what we might call ‘the argument from fictionalisation.’

First, we see very distinct influences in later arguments, such as Antony Flew’s “Presumption of Atheism:”


What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist. […] In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter [Antony Flew, The Presumption of Atheism (London: Elek Books, Ltd., 1976), 13-14].

This, then, seems to infect the arguments made by individuals like Jack David Eller, who argues that Atheism is not only humankind’s inherent position, but that it is our ‘natural’ starting point:


Humans are natural atheists—not in the sense of attacking god(s) but in the sense of lacking god(s).


What would happen if a child were never told a word about any of these religious concepts? It is unlikely that he or she would spontaneously invent his or her own religious concepts, and astronomically unlikely that he or she would reinvent Burmese village Buddhism or Lakota religion or Christianity. No human is born a theist. Humans are born without any god-concepts. Humans are natural atheists.


There are two fates that a natural atheist can follow. If she is never exposed to the idea of god(s), never urged to ‘believe’ in any god(s), she will retain her natural atheism—even if it is tainted with other religious but nontheistic notions. […] But under the pressures of a theistic milieu, the great majority of natural atheists will have their natural atheism replaced with an acquired theism, that is, they will be turned into or converted into theists. Some of these learned-theists will, for various reasons, come to question, ‘doubt,’ and ultimately reject the theism thrust on them and will ‘deconvert’ into ‘recovered atheists’ [Jack David Eller, “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 4-5].

We see this same sort of argumentation in Baggini’s Very Short Introduction on Atheism, albeit told through a humorous metaphor:


However, some people believe that the loch contains a strange creature, known as the Loch Ness Monster. Many claim to have seen it, although no firm evidence of its existence has ever been presented. So far our story is simple fact. Now imagine how the story could develop.


The number of believers in the monster starts to grow. Soon, a word is coined to describe them: they are part-mockingly called ‘Nessies.’ (Many names of religions started as mocking nicknames: Methodist, Quaker, and even Christian all started out this way.) However, the number of Nessies continues to increase and the name ceases to become a joke. Despite the fact that the evidence for the monster’s existence is still lacking, soon being a Nessie is the norm and it is the people previously thought of as normal who are in the minority. They soon get their own name, “Anessies’—those who don’t believe in the monster.


Is it true to say that the beliefs of Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies? That can’t be true, because the Anessies’ beliefs predate those of the Nessies. The key point is not of chronology, however.


The key is that the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even is Nessies had never existed. What the rise of the Nessies did was to give a name to a set of beliefs that had always existed but which was considered so unexceptional that it required no special label [Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 8].

Likewise, we might also consider Carl Sagan’s famous construction, the invisible fire-breathing dragon that lives in his garage:


“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floates in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so [Carl Sagan, “The Dragon in my Garage” in Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 171.]

This leads us to a truly intriguing sort of argumentation, an attack on certain ad-hoc hypothesising, and what shall henceforth herein be referred to as ‘Troll Religions.’

Religions constructed for the sole purpose of representing a type of satirical criticism, which have also been defined as ‘Parody Religions’ or ‘Invented Religions’ are beginning to get the academic attention they deserve.  For those truly interested, see the work of Beth Singler (University of Cambridge) and Carole Cusack (University of Sydney).  I shall refer to a certain of these herein as ‘Troll Religions’ in order to demarcate a boundary between those constructed for Atheistic purposes (and thus for reasons of criticism) and those constructed by individuals who identify with these religious constructions for their own personal benefit (inward, rather than outward usage).  As representations of the latter group, consider Jediism or Dudeism.

As representations of the former, we might consider those who worship the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The Invisible Pink Unicorn, a paradoxical goddess that embodies both invisibility and colour, acts, like Russell’s teapot, as a device used to question, as well as discredit, the idea that God maintains the same sort of essence.  The IPU even stands in for God in arguments about the inherent ridiculousness of Theistic belief.  For instance, by replacing the word ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ in Biblical accounts with ‘Invisible Pink Unicorn,’ the sacred nature of these texts transmutes into farce:


I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the [Invisible Pink Unicorn] in the land of the living. Wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]; be strong and take heart and wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]. (Psalm 27:13-14

This, as adherents argue, reveals the nature not only of religious belief, but of the way this sort of belief might misguide individuals into believing nonsensical (and thus, empirically disprovable) ideas.

Originating out of internet discussions (alt.atheism) in the early to mid 1990s, the IPU, as defined by Steve Eley (who refers to himself as the ‘Chief Advocate and Spokesguy’ of the religion itself), exists through the same sort of belief that gives meaning to ‘God’ or other deities:

Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can’t see them (Steve Eley, cited in the Quotable Atheist, ed. by Jack Huberman).          

As a satirical device, the IPU thus equally exists as an Atheist device, a discursive signifier used to establish, argue, and defend an Atheistic position.

In similar fashion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who’s adherents are called ‘Pastafarians,’ consists of analogous satirical language.  fsp1Perhaps much more ‘religious’ than the religion that orbits around the IPU, the CFSM has come to embody ritual components.  This likely stems from the political basis of its origination.  The creation of Bobby Henderson, the FSM was conceived in order to argue against a decision being considered by the fsp2Kansas State Board of Education concerning the teaching of Intelligent Design as a counter position to biology and physics.  In an ‘open letter‘ to the Board, Henderson made his case for the equal acknowledgement of the FSM’s role in creating the universe.  He later published a sacred text.

The ritual aspects of the church not only involve wedding ceremonies wedding(usually overseen by an individual in Pirate regalia, as Pirates are considered ‘absolutely divine’ and the first ‘Pastafarians’), but religious garments.  The latter consists of colanders, which equally represent the political origins of Henderson’s argument, in that they tend to be worn in order to defend the idea that one religious permission (such as the Muslim Hijab or Jewish Yarmulke) should allow for all religious permissions.  Some examples include:

collander Christopher Schaeffer, newly elected to the Pomfret town Board in New York.

canuelObi Canuel, an ordained minister in the CFSM, who fought to keep his driver’s licence, colander and all.

nikoNiko Alm, an Austrian Atheist who was permitted to wear the colander for his licence.

jessicaJessica Steinhauser, formerly known as the adult film star, Asia Carrera, also wearing the colander.

All these things combined, including the satirical mockery of Christian prayers and invocations (akin to the IPU), blend into a ‘religion for Atheists.’

hail pastaour pasta noodles in the sand

Bertrand Russell’s hand in all of this can be found in the fingerprints we might find smudging the edges of the logical arguments each of these examples provide.  Moreover, each of them contributes an intriguing insight, not just on how we might use them to make sense of the identification going on ‘under the surface,’ but on how they have been influenced by related, but altogether different, sorts of discursive sources.  I might conclude here, then, with the notion that understanding the who, how, and why concerning these discursive examples is inextricably linked to the logical arguments that came before.  This is not, of course, the same as saying Russell’s teapot is the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn.  Rather, this is more akin to locating the roots of the former reinforcing the beliefs and practices of the latter.  We might also consider how these representations might equally alter our conceptual understandings about religion and religious identity.  When troll religions become religions, how then might we make sense of these identities when they’re Atheistic, and thus antithetical to our normative ideas about what might constitute ‘religion’ or ‘religious?’

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.25.15

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

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 22.26.20

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.