Monday, June 13, 2011

Jerry Coyne on the Banality of New Atheism

Prominent New ('Gnu') atheist Jerry Coyne laments... atheist meetings.

In his post Are there too many atheist meetings? , Coyne complains:

Maybe it’s because I’ve been sick and grumpy, but I’ve noticed the huge spate of atheist meetings, both past and upcoming, and it’s seemed to me that there are just too many.

There are probably more attendees at Mass in my small local parish (six Sunday masses, 500 parishoners for each service) on a single weekend than there are atheists at atheist meetings around the world in a year (unless you count the weekly staff meetings of the North Korean secret police).

Perhaps, writes Coyne, atheists are victims of their success:

I know this is a sign of a successful and burgeoning movement of disbelief throughout the world, and I recognize that they give us greater visibility, and I understand that they serve as a useful venue for people to make connections as well as listen to their atheist “heroes.”

It's amusing to note that 'gnu' atheists like Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, P.Z. Myers (to name a few) extol the profound new insights that godless science and philosophy has provided to mankind. But when the room lights dim and the powerpoint presentation starts...

The deep insights of the godless tire Coyne:

But to me the speakers and talks have often seemed repetitive: the same crew of jet-set skeptics giving the same talks. And how much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?

One would have thought that the 'best idea anyone ever had' and the liberation of mankind from the tyranny of supernatural superstition would have provided grist for quite a few plenary talks. Who knew that 'science and reason and evidence' would get tiresome so soon?


I’ve been to just one of these meetings so far: the Atheist Alliance International meetings in Burbank, California in October, 2009. I greatly enjoyed that: I got to meet fellow “bloggers” like Brother Blackford and P. Z., relished the talks of people like Dan Dennett, Carolyn Porco, and Lawrence Krauss, whom I’d never before seen speak in person, and was put into stitches by a Mr. Deity skit and Bill Maher’s hilarious (and straight) reading of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.

That 'Mr. Deity skit' must have been a corker. And no surprise that assertions that life has purpose would drive a roomful of atheists to hysterics.

Still, a few things bothered me, most notably the air of self-congratulation (which I excused on the grounds of enthusiastic people finding like-minded folks for the first time), the “fanboyness” directed at some of the famous atheists (they hardly let poor Richard alone, and I’m not sure he liked that!), and the lameness of quite a few of the talks. Again, how much new can you say about atheism?

Perhaps atheists could spice up meetings with breakout sessions on litigation to suppress academic freedom in classrooms, or on the implications of promulgating an ideology that there are no objective moral laws, or on the invariable carnage of atheism in state power. That should keep them awake.

Coyne lists some of the negatives about atheist meetings:

- you tend to see many of the same speakers every time

Why not troll for more smug comedians, unemployed magicians, and once-upon-a-time scientists to bulk up the program?

- some of the most popular speakers are showing signs of conference-fatigue for all their obvious professionalism and generosity with their time.

Richard Dawkins is so annoyed that people won't buy his books unless he does these silly readings...

- topics tend to be similar.

There are only so many variations on 'everything just happened and aren't we brave for saying it'...

- some talks can be predictable in content thanks to previous talks being on YouTube (one of the reasons why the Dublin Conference opted for panel discussions instead)

Yea. You Tube is causing cancelations of all kinds of meetings everywhere...

- encourages fanboi-ism which is embarrassing to watch (and probably really irritating and embarrassing to be the target of)...

Richard Dawkins just hates attention.

- to an extent, a noticeable percentage of the people attending the conferences are the same each time as well...

This may not be accidental. Remember Fidel Castro's trick of having his small band of guerrillas circle continuously in front of New York Times reporter Herb Matthews to convince him that his forces were huge? Perhaps all of these atheist meetings are a ploy to convince us 'atheism must be credible, because there are so many atheists...'

Oh the irony. Atheists insist that their ideology is a revolution in human understanding. Darwinism is 'the best idea anyone ever had'. 'Lincoln freed the slaves. Darwin freed our minds.' 'Atheism is the apotheosis of mankind's long twilight struggle for freedom from superstition'. Shouldn't atheists, now liberated from crass belief in God, revel in the deep insights offered by 'science and reason and evidence'? Heck, they can't even keep each other awake during powerpoint talks.

The salient characteristic of atheism is its banality.


  1. Very happy to see you with your own blog!
    Great post as usual (been reading your stuff at evo news and views for years).

    Keep up the great work.

  2. If Coyne were merely another Dawkins fanboi you'd probably attempt to ridicule him for that. Where's the respect?

    You seem to be missing the point from an atheist's perspective that disbelief in god is pretty boring in and of itself. When popular superstition masquerades as the great distraction from the mundane truth, the mere negative case shouldn't be expected to be terribly profound. It's the banality of a negative position that is only relevant because of the larger culture it happens in. This is just Coyne being honest and human.

    Maybe you are proud of all your cliche' theistic mellow drama on top of that, but it doesn't speak to Coyne's points and it certainly doesn't speak well of Christianity. The bottom line here is the aftertaste of Christian wishful thinking...that atheism is wrong because it doesn't make you feel good about life. That's not terribly profound either.

  3. What an interesting post. You provide a lot of standard jokes and gibes some of which could also be directed at Catholics.

    For example:

    If there are about 1 billion Catholics and more than 1 billion Sunni Muslims then Catholics lose. (Or perhaps you wish to count differently and include those other Christians---who consider Catholics to be followers of the anti-Christ---as really being on your side.)

    Of course no one ever sleeps during Mass or is distracted, so Catholics get a clean sweep on staying awake.

    And we all know that every sermon in every church is unique. For example, I only remember hearing about hiding the light under the bushel once during my religious training.

    I'm glad that you raised the thorny issue of litigation. Did you know that some of the first litigation in this country (1869) was in Cincinnati because the Protestants and Catholics couldn't agree on which version of the Bible to use in the classroom? Huh, how interesting. Perhaps you could set in the seminars with those nasty little atheists.

    How about once-upon-a-time priests? Does the name Father---oops, Mr., Corapis ring a bell? He doesn't like attention, does he? What are all those YouTube sermons about anyway?

    And, as I recall from my old corporate workplace, it was always the same set of people who tried to save me and take me to their meetings. It may not have been accidental.

    And shouldn't Catholics, with the ultimate truth at their fingertips and a theology that allows a human being to get enough power to forgive sins and alleviate suffering in hell, be packing the seminaries with applicants? But maybe they don't really believe this silly stuff, because the Church is having a very difficult time recruiting.

    The salient characteristic of the religious life was described by a famous religious poet, TS Eliot. "This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang, but a whimper." Oh, you hollow men.

    And a final note: If you want to discuss the existence of gods, it is usually considered a good idea to stick to evidence. Is theism right because you hear voices? Is it right because you think that the Bible is divinely inspired? Have you seen verifiable miracles? Do you have any evidence for these things or for your own reasons for being a theist? Can you justify your Catholicism?

    Note that absolutely none of this need have anything to do with ethical systems. Ethics, as a look in a few philosophy books will reveal in short order, gets along just fine without religion.

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  5. Excellent posts. Infantile responses, as per usual, from the Materialists.
    Good to see you with your own blog!
    One wonders how they manage to operate a keyboard?

  6. Maybe instead of "smug comedians, unemployed magicians, and once-upon-a-time scientists" they could try finding some bathshit insane surgeons. Perhaps you could recommend one!

  7. Ethics does just fine without religion, as you can read from philosophy books.

    That's a knee slapper! Put down your philosophy books for just a minute honey and look at reality.

    If nothing exists but the physical there is no such thing as free will (and many evolutionists have admitted as much, albeit hesistantly. However it is what logically follows that philosophy)

    If you have no free will then all morality and ethics is subjective to the individual and their beliefs are a product of genes and memes. Hitler himself cannot be held responsible for his actions, after all, he didn't have free will.

    If Darwinism/atheism is true then there is no such thing as ethics. It's a free for all.

    Get your nose out of your nonsense books and join the real world.

  8. Your argument is fallacious in that it is hinged on a desired conclusion. I want x to be true, therefore something that I think supports that must be true. Whether or not moral responsibility is valid is an entirely separate issue from whether we do or don't have free will in the sense that you mean.

    And it is obvious we don't have free will.

    In principle we do not choose our desires and the only reason we do anything is because of our desires. Granted, we can cultivate new desires and displace old ones, but that motivation in principle is based yet again on still other previous desires we never chose to put there in the first place. The rational mind is like a pocket calculator sitting unused on a table without desires to run operations. Hence, being coerced by still other deterministic systems is the only meaningful way to say your “free will” is being inhibited. Free will is just a practical frame of reference imbued to coherent individuals in a deterministic world that simply means your deterministic system is free to do as it is going to do.

    We don’t blame the big bang for everything because we cannot talk to the big bang and mechanically get it to change the behavior of the modern universe. It is much more convenient to talk to you when you fail to process the desire-scape efficiently and normal experience confirms people can be persuaded to change their minds by interacting with them. So you have to do what you want to do and you were going to do that anyway even if you ideologically and incoherently protest. How can you complain? If you shed a tear over having to do what you want to do, you are just needlessly confused.

  9. @Ben:

    If determinism is true, why did you write your comment. The future is determined, so your comment would have happened anyway, whether or not you did anything.

  10. My comment explains why I wrote my comment already in addition to explaining yours.

  11. @Ben:

    If determinism is true, the future is set. Your 'decision' doesn't alter it. So why do anything?

  12. If I were confused enough to accept your argument I would sit in place forever and never fulfill any of my desires. Since I'm not confused, I recognize that I want to fulfill my desires and hence there's a reason to do things. Determination or non-determination simply has nothing to do with why I would or wouldn't do things.How was that unclear from what I've already said unless you did not really apply yourself to it and recognize the obvious truth of your own predetermined desires?

    As biological machines we participate in an already determined future like a computer made up of all physical parts performing operations. Determinism is a conclusion that mostly amounts to information (since we don't actually practically know what exactly that future will be) and it is not the existential crisis many people bizarrely portray it as.

  13. @Ben:

    If determinism is true, the future is set, and you have no choice.

    [If I were confused enough to accept your argument I would sit in place forever and never fulfill any of my desires.]

    I don't think that your viewpoint even rises to the level of confusion. What you're really doing is mindlessly reciting trendy materialist bullsh*t without facing up to it's self-refutation. You're doing so for the same reason that all atheists hold idiotic views: you are so desperate to banish God that you would rather embrace utter nonsense than allow a divine foot in the door.

    Pitiful intellectual cowardice.

  14. Um, I'm not sure what my views on free will or determinism have to do with belief or disbelief in a god since they are compatible with many theistic worldviews and are not in any way the reasons for my own lack of belief. A god not showing up and existing is good enough for that.

    As for what was apparently supposed to be the substance of your last comment, "If determinism is true, the future is set, and you have no choice," it should have already been clear that "choice" is the mechanical process of desire sorting. When you are deciding between chocolate or vanilla, your brain is figuring out what its strongest desire happens to be. We call that "choice." So in terms of my worldview, what you are saying is that the brain doesn't do anything which obviously isn't true.

    Again, you didn't put yourself up to my original comment on this topic and you can't hope to somehow circumvent the direct evidential check on how desires actually are. Are the choices you make the result of your strongest desires or not? And did you give yourself your desires in principle? Sorry, you can't do away with that line of questioning with semantics. Determinism is true.