Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Taking offense

As so often, there seems to be a strange asymmetry between believers and non-believers in the matter of taking offense.  Well, that should hardly surprise anyone: the religious take offence at pretty much everything.  It’s their default position.  And the thing that offends them the most is people not believing in their particular god.

But that kind of thing isn’t what I mean.  I’m talking about something that regularly offends atheists and other rationalists, which is the epithet ‘New Atheist’.  This term is typically used as a derogatory term for atheists who refuse to be polite and – above all – quiet.  They are the nasty type of atheist who point out their errors of logic and the stupidity of their beliefs.  People like me, in fact, so this is something I feel qualified to be offended by.  And I am, but not by the epithet itself.  I’m offended by it for two reasons.

First, because it is so obviously, self-evidently and trivially wrong.  There’s nothing new about this style of atheism.  People like Bertrand Russell were mocking religion in the 19th Century and plenty of others did so before him.  Atheism hasn’t changed, it’s the response to atheist critics by the religious that changed.  They don’t burn us at the stake any more (although some of them would like to).  They don’t censor our books or imprison us for noticing things about the world or trying to educate people.  Although – again – quite a lot of them would like to.  The charge of novelty is clearly intended to pin vicarious blame on a group of people for an increasingly secular world.  Where’ve we seen that before?  So it’s an artificial term that doesn’t have a meaning anyone can agree on.  This bewilders us, which is what I find offensive.  It’s so pointless and random.  Such a pointless term, invented solely for the purpose of constructing wilfully false arguments against people who happen to disagree.  I’m not insulted by the term itself, but by the sheer laziness and dishonesty it represents.  Can’t they come up with something better?  Moreover, it insults all the supposedly old atheists who were – or would have been if not for all the torturings –just as forthright about their atheism as anyone today. 

Second, precisely because it is so non-offensive.  Only the religious mind could think that being called ‘new’ would be insulting.  Isn’t being a new atheist better than being an old one?  Isn’t it more progressive and forward-thinking?  It’s easy enough to see why many religious people would think that’s an insult, but not a rational person.  Again, this is bewildering.  They sneer when they use the phrase and we just think well…how is this an insult?

I’m all for embracing the New Atheist epithet and claiming it as our own.  It’s what homosexuals did with words like ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ and it drove their opponents crazy.  How do you react when people laugh at and embrace your most dire threats?  As far as I can tell, the only reason we haven’t done this yet is that the whole thing is so slopping and bewildering as an insult.

So I’m a new atheist.  I accept all the charges addressed to new atheists as specific charges against me.  In fact, I insist that people recognise that I’m strident and rude.

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