The Parable of the Madman

April 28th, 2011 | Posted by:

Check out today’s guest post by Christopher Michael Luna. It is an exploration Nietzsche’s “parable of the madman,” and what implications it has for the atheist movement and the future of ethical discourse. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful and engaging writing with NonProphet Status, Christopher!

isgoddeadI’m going to talk about Nietzsche. I know, whenever somebody says that most of us think of that kid who took the vow of silence in Little Miss Sunshine, and angry God-hating adolescent boys. If it helps, I have never taken a vow of silence, and I don’t hate God anymore, though he and I have had our disagreements (I’m looking at your opinion of menstruation and homosexuality among other things, God, because I know you’re reading this!).

So, I’m going to talk about the aphorism that contains Nietzsche’s most famous quote, generally referred to as the “parable of the madman.” It’s the one where Nietzsche’s madman says, “God is dead,” earning him a place forever in Wikipedia’s list of atheists (although “God is dead” seems obviously more nuanced and strange position than “God never existed and is a logically ridiculous idea”) and a special place in High School Evangelist witticisms like:

Nietzsche: God is dead.

God: Nietzsche is dead.

Hahahahaaa! Nice one, guys. But seriously, what’s the deal? What’s up with §125 of The Gay Science and why should you care?

First of all, I think you should read it (I really like Kauffman’s translation). It’s less than a page long, it’s beautiful, and it’s an important part of Western intellectual history.  Usually you have to slough through hundreds of pages to put one of those under your belt. But, if you don’t want to read it, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

A man goes out to the town square in the middle of the day with a lantern, looking for God. All the atheists laugh at him and mock him, amused that he should be looking for God.  But the man smashes his lantern and goes on a tirade, saying how no one understands the magnitude of what’s been done, or the impact of it. At last, he says that he has come too early, and that the implications of God’s death won’t see their fulfillment until many years later.

This was originally published in 1882, and it drives me crazy, because I feel like that madman today.

The modern atheist versus Christian debate is like a flame war on a discussion forum. Lots of people are half-educated on the topic, and everyone is pissed off (and consequently acting a hell of a lot less mature than they would be under other circumstances). The extremist minority opinions are getting the spotlight and further polarizing all discussion, and the result of it all is a sensational, but not very revolutionary, revolution. America may (or may not) be becoming less Christian, but it’s not learning as much as I’d like from the journey.

I’m going to pick on atheism here not because I’m pro-Christianity (I’m not), and not because I’m touchy-feely (I’m not) and not because I wish we could all just be friends and agree to disagree about everything (I don’t). I’m going to pick on atheism because that’s what Nietzsche is doing in this parable, and we really need to understand this critique if we’re ever going to move forward.

Our most vocal atheists today are very much like the atheists in Nietzsche’s parable.  They don’t believe in God — fine — and they think this is a juvenile matter — problematic.  Dawkins, the poster boy for the angriest, least informed atheists, has famously compared belief in God to belief in leprechauns in an attempt to justify his ability to debate God’s existence despite an ignorance of theology, religious history, and the variety of religious experiences.

The problems with this are many, and what it leaves us with is basically Puritan Atheists. Ignorant of the history and heritage of Christianity, the way it has shaped moral thinking and Western, then Anglo, then American values for the past fifteen hundred years, they reject God and then carry around a Christian morality.

I’ll give you a sampling of the often unexamined Puritan values that many atheists carry around with them, consciously or unconsciously:

- If you succeed in life, it’s because you are a good or valuable person.

- Peace is always preferable to war.

- Revenge is not acceptable.

- A good deed is its own reward.

- Humans have “rights” that should not be violated.

In addition, most Americans are still wrapped up in the very Puritan vision of millenarianism (the view that the world will end soon) and Manifest Destiny (the notion that God has chosen us to rule, and that we’re involved in an epic struggle between good and evil to do just that). This rhetoric is picked up by all kinds of secular, progressive causes:

“If we don’t change the way we burn fossil fuels, the polar ice caps will melt and kill everyone.”

Is it true? Possibly. There’s considerable debate both on the speed at which global warming is progressing, and also on whether such things are all that predictable. But the interesting thing is that most of us who have a position on global warming see it as this Earth-shattering doom that awaits us due to our own devilish human nature (sin, anyone?).

Or, how about the mission to “spread freedom” across the whole world?

I’m on board with this one, and I’m not bringing these examples out to trash them, but when you step back from it for a moment, doesn’t it really have the trappings of the good versus evil apocalypticism of a fanatic? The dictators and oil barons are the demons and unbelievers, and the good guys (us, most of the time), are fighting to improve the freedom of people the world over.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: the evidence for our belief in global warming and the philosophical reasoning that brings us to value freedom are of an entirely different kind than those used by Puritans (and their descendants) to justify belief that the End of Days is just around the corner or that Evangelism is a kind of righteous ideological holy war. But even if I grant that this is true, that the evidence and reasoning that leads to modern secular convictions is of a different type than that used by Christians, I do not believe that the axioms we proceed from and the tropes into which we fit this evidence are the product of some kind of pure, objective reason (there is no such thing, of course).

These axioms and tropes, the bedrock of our modern morality and the dramatic stories of how we imagine those moralities playing out are still very much a part of our particularly Puritan heritage. These tropes have an overwhelming influence on our behavior, even when we are conscious of them.

Now, I don’t think that Nietzsche is suggesting that atheists have to throw out everything that a Christian group ever believed in — and I’m not suggesting that either. I think, instead, he’s spelling out the great task that lies before us. When he asks, “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” he’s literally asking what we’re going to do next: and that’s what I want to know. Now that God is dead, what are we going to do next?

I’m not impressed by the modern attempts at a “science of morality” to replace the Puritan values because this so-called science usually proceeds from moral axioms that are derived from our Puritan heritage. So far we’ve only played this game at the elementary-school level. We have no more sophisticated answers to the problem of what constitutes morally acceptable violence than did the best theologians. Most people still behave as though they believe in sin, mired in guilt and shame for their mistakes. We still extol a childish understanding of selflessness. We are so boxed in by our fear of messing with gender roles and romance that even talking about alternative relationships is taboo. We celebrate commercialized Christian holidays and say things like “for God’s sakes,” for God’s sakes. When are we going to take control of those powerful tropes that drive us, and use them as our cultural paintbrush? When are we going to invent something?

This may seem like a righteous tirade, and a pessimistic one at that, but it isn’t meant to be. I, for one, am hopeful. If Nietzsche was able to look “beyond good and evil”, then I think one of my generation’s tasks will be to look beyond ‘atheist’ and ‘Christian’. When Nietzsche talked about seeing beyond good and evil he didn’t, as so many moralizers misread, extol values traditionally considered evil — instead, he marginalized the question of evil in favor of new ways of valuing. When I talk about moving beyond atheist and Christian, I don’t mean to be “obviously atheist.” I mean to marginalize the decision in favor of the real poetic/scientific project at hand; to look deep, deep into ourselves with unforgivingly honest eyes, and to bring the treasures and monstrosities we find there to the light; to invent new gods and monsters, and, in the process, to become something greater ourselves.

When one of my closest friends, a very un-Christian Christian, read this article he said to me, “So, what’s next? What comes after the death of God?”

To this I replied, “Something new. Something we’ve never seen before.”

He said, “I want the balanced version. What’s the downside?”

But here’s the punchline: “That is the balanced version: something new. It remains to be seen whether that’s better or worse than what we left behind.”

LunaChristopher Michael Luna studied Religious History and Education at Hampshire College, where he was also the Bible Study Instructor for the Hampshire Christian Fellowship.  Since breaking with Christianity, Christopher has been teaching and developing open-source media for political change.  He will begin a study of Humanism and American religiosity at Harvard Divinity School in 2011.

24 Responses to “The Parable of the Madman”

  1. Taylor N. Says:

    Thanks Chris, for writing this, and Chris, for posting this! I really enjoy the variety of voices on NPS.
    I think the ending of this piece continues on a theme I’ve found between those who like organized religion and those who don’t. I know I am about to say something very dichotomistic and overgeneralized … but all the people I know who’ve decided against organized religion do so because they’d rather create their own moral code and understanding of the universe.
    I’ve noticed this because it’s in such contrast to my preference, which is to learn from the ancients and continue on their path.
    I honestly don’t think it’s better or worse to stay on the same ancient path or to diverge (which is maybe just taking the path in a new direction) but it’s fascinating to me the way my friends are split on this preference.

  2. James Croft Says:

    Oh no, no, no, no, NO!

    This is all so wrong. I don’t know where to begin… ;(

  3. Christopher Michael Luna Says:

    Are you contesting my interpretation of Nietzsche’s parable, its implications, its relevance to the modern Humanist movement, or all of the above?

    Is it the tacit indictment of the narrative of linear progress?

    Is it the implication that modern atheists are influenced (often unconsciously) by the cultural heritage of Christianity?

    Is it my assertion that we should “invent new gods and monsters”?

    I feel like I could talk in more depth (than a two page article) about any of these points, but it would help to know what, precisely, is so objectionable!

  4. Rieux Says:

    I can’t speak for James, but if I had to pick a place “to begin” I’d start with the heap of ugly insults you launch in this piece—for example, your assertion that Richard Dawkins is “the poster boy for the angriest, least informed atheists”; that he and other prominent voices on the atheist side of the cultural conversation are “half-educated” know-nothings stating “extremist minority opinions”; that he (and by implication many more of us) suffer from “an ignorance of theology, religious history, and the variety of religious experiences”; and so on. For someone who whines about the “matur[ity]” level and flame-war nature of religious debate, you sure do know how to dish the shit. Physician, heal thyself.*

    What’s objectionable about this piece is that, like so much of the material posted on this blog, it’s a brutal and dishonest hatchet job on a group that remains a despised and near-powerless minority in the United States. Why you see fit to join (and amplify) the wave of atheophobia that so many of us have to live with rather escapes me.

    Then, of course, you pivot from your run-of-the-mill atheist-bashing (dismissing the Tooth Fairy as juvenile is “problematic”—yeah, uh-huh) to a ludicrous and similarly dishonest paean to the hegemon: all hail cultural Christianity, all our base are belong to them.

    In point of fact, the phenomena you declare to be “Puritan” elements of atheists’ own outlooks are continual nonsense: some do not in fact owe their origin to Christianity (the notion that “humans have ‘rights’ that should not be violated” predates Christianity by centuries, you liar), and others are neither connected to Gnu Atheist critiques of religion nor common among those of us who have been emboldened by them.

    Your whole digression about Puritanism, of course, is entirely irrelevant—it makes no difference to the central Gnu positions whether other ideals we share have some connection to schools of thought promoted by one or another portion of the religion industry that until recently demanded (indeed coerced) the allegiance of the vast majority of our species. Whether the unacceptability of revenge is an original Christian idea (what a joke!) or not has nothing to do with the utility, today and in the future, of religious faith, authority, and privilege.

    And Nietzsche’s point, as you see fit to massage it for your own hatchet-job purposes, is demonstrably false: a sizable and growing portion of the human world is now post-religious, and they haven’t needed to “invent” some fab new way of being that satisfies your silly parochial religion’s-ass-kissing divinity-school demands. Godless human society works just fine, thanks, regardless of how much snot you want to load on it regarding how “problematic” it is or how its denizens haven’t “learned as much as you’d like” about dubious notions that you happen to idiosyncratically find important.

    So. Your essay is severely hostile to a despised and disempowered minority, it is dishonest, and it is irrelevant to the actual arguments being made by the people you target for your silly insults.

    Any other questions?

    (* Yeah, Jack—Luke 4:23. This is called mocking your snotty crap about your opponents’ supposed ignorance.)

  5. Boopsey Says:

    Thanks for the food for thought. I enjoyed your post.

  6. Christopher Michael Luna Says:

    @Rieux

    “Lots of people are half-educated on the topic…” actually refers both to atheists and Christians in this post.

    My comment about Dawkins being a poster boy for the “least informed” at least, should not be all that objectionable, considering that he himself has said that being informed on theology and religious history is by no means a prerequisite to debate religion.

    Again, you demonstrate the same kind of blatant and unapologetic ignorance when you compare belief in God to the “Tooth Fairy.” I assume ignorance on your part rather dishonesty here to give the benefit of the doubt:

    “You don’t know what God is about!”

    “I don’t need to know what a child’s story is about to refute it!”

    “But God is not a child’s story!”

    “I don’t need to know what God is about to know that God is a child’s story.”

    Does the problem become clearer?

    In addition, I didn’t claim a Puritan “origin” for the notion of human rights. Puritanism, as I’m sure you know, is a few centuries old. I didn’t even claim a Christian origin to all of these concepts and morals; rather, I illustrated that the Christian dominance of theology and philosophy for the past fifteen hundred years has invariable altered, deep in our cultural DNA, how we interpret and think about these things, and has forever altered the course of our moral and ethical thinking. Thus, my choice of the words “history” and “heritage” rather than “origin.”

    You cannot successfully move beyond that context without first understanding it.

    “Godless human society works just fine, thanks…”

    I’m talking, now, about progress– moving beyond where we are now– not simply indicting the past or present. Or do you assume that we don’t need or want to have ideological progress?

    ” …silly parochial religion’s-ass-kissing divinity-school demands.”

    I don’t know, I think everything I wrote is worlds more informed and mature than this.

    “Luke 4:23. This is called mocking your snotty crap about your opponents’ supposed ignorance.”

    The ability to quote a Bible verse that has become a colloquial idiom hardly qualifies as understanding of the Bible, let alone “theology, religious history, and the variety of religious experiences.” But you may know a lot about those things. I didn’t mention you in this post. Suffice it to say that while you may be well-informed, I’m speaking of many atheists that I have had discourse with.

    “…it makes no difference to the central Gnu positions whether other ideals we share have some connection to schools of thought promoted by one or another portion of the religion industry…”

    But, as should be clear from this article, I do not share the “central Gnu position” and am arguing for a different central position that focuses on progress rather than a continual reiteration of what we don’t believe. Progress, I think, requires understanding– and while you may not care if there was a connection between your morals and those of other groups, I am surprised to think you wouldn’t be concerned about the why and wherefore of your own beliefs. My assertion (one that I share with Nietzsche here), is that we are often unconsciously adopting Christian morals without deeply evaluating where they come from and whether they are in line with our core values. We proceed from many traditional values as thought they are axiomatic, as though they exist a priori (with all the problems that that brings), as though, because we find some things to be “common sense” that it is likely these are shared biological values, or values rooted in some kind of pure reason, rather than a cultural heritage to be accepted or rejected or, even better, revalued.

    “And Nietzsche’s point, as you see fit to massage it for your own hatchet-job purposes, is demonstrably false…”

    That would be true if Nietzsche defined progress as lots of people disbelieving in God. But he doesn’t. Which is the whole point of his parable– that atheism is not enough, and by itself is only a beginning.

    Now if your goal begins and ends with less people believing in God, whatever. My goals aren’t so narrow. They involve cultural evolution and invention in light of secularization. They involve taking a step beyond the reactionary.

    “…and they haven’t needed to “invent” some fab new way of being…”

    I don’t know, it seems strange to me to be anti-fab-new-way-of-being. Fab new way of being sounds, well, pretty fab to me.

    “Your essay is severely hostile to a despised and disempowered minority… ”

    Despised by some, perhaps, but disempowered? Really? Are you joking right now? More or less dis-empowered than homosexuals? Than Jews? Than Latin American immigrants? Than women? Did you lose a job? Were you extorted for sexual favors? Were you given lower pay? Were your people systematically purged from society? How about lynch mobs? Are we talking about Renaissance-era disempowerment, because if so, I have to say that I prefer to live in my own century.

    This claim is, frankly, absurd. I’ve never even seen a community where arguing with religious people about the foundation of their belief made them more than angry. People get angry when you argue with them, right?

    Anyway, that this essay is hostile? I will grant that you could take it that way, though the thesis of this essay is about progress rather than just slamming people.

    As for being dishonest, I do try to be careful of my words, and though you have claimed that I have claimed a Christian origin for the values described above, I think I have actually claimed a Christian heritage. So, liar, then?

    As for being irrelevant to the New Atheist movement, I suppose that’s the point. The kind of progress and invention I’m calling for here is, to my mind, much more important than what New Atheists seem to be on about. So I’m calling for a reprioritization.

  7. Christopher Michael Luna Says:

    @Rieux

    After sitting back and thinking for a while, I’m going to apologize.

    I do believe that the New Atheist position towards belief in God is often ignorant, but I can also seen how my humorous tone might have made that position seem less like a thoughtful criticism of the movement, and more hostile. Indeed, I believe everything that I said in my original article, but I am beginning to reconsider how I engage these problems.

    Perhaps part of the problem was my attempt at humor and lightness on a topic that everyone is very sensitive about. Most of my writing is considerably drier and more serious in its tone, colder, perhaps, and less rhetorical. I’ve been trying something new in the past couple of months, but humor in sensitive topics is a weapon to deployed with care.

    I wasn’t even totally sure about the tone of this piece before it went up, but in the end I decided to go ahead with it, after some encouragement from friends.

    But now I think that it’s not altogether effective, nor was my response to your comment. What I should take away from your comment wasn’t the hostility (which you may feel justified about), but rather that I think you honestly misunderstood the thesis of my article.

    My article does not mean to condemn everything about the modern secular humanist movement. My article means to reiterate and echo a profound call that I think Nietzsche also made to people who did not believe in God.

    I think that this call is relevant today, and I think that we ignore the richness, depth, history and heritage of Christianity and the world’s religions at our peril; moreover that that project of creating a new culture, and the project of looking into the depths of our own values and enculturation is an exciting one.

    Perhaps your criticism, aside from some details which I have hotly contested above, is more along the lines of “we’re doing this already, and we’re not ignoring the history and depth, so don’t be an asshole about it.”

    If this is so, then I think we may be able to respectfully disagree about the extent of this movement’s knowledge of religion without getting at each other’s throats. And, perhaps, we can even move forward.

  8. Rieux Says:

    To respond to the epilogue first:

    I can also seen how my humorous tone might have made that position seem less like a thoughtful criticism of the movement, and more hostile.

    I appreciate the attempt to walk this piece back, but I’m afraid the problems with your essay (and subsequent response to me) are quite substantive, not matters of “humorous tone” or “lightness.” Sliming your opponents as “half-educated” and calling Dawkins “the poster boy for the angriest, least informed atheists” is not “light,” and if it’s “humor” it’s of the Stepin Fetchit variety. Pretending that your assertions about “values” substantiate something called a “Puritan Atheist” is simply absurd, and it’s utterly irrelevant to the Gnu Atheist perspectives you are trying to attack. There’s no “humor” or “lightness” to that, either.

    So no. I don’t care about your “humor,” nor do I see any of it above that makes any difference, pro or con. You’re making arguments, you’re stating positions, and you’re making assertions of fact. Again and again, they’re false, unwarranted, dishonest, and/or offensive. If it’s true that you believe everything that you’ve said, then I’m afraid that I have to post everything I’ve written in reply to your previous comment.

    To wit:

    “Lots of people are half-educated on the topic…” actually refers both to atheists and Christians in this post.

    Of course it does—you’re one superior dude. Randall Munroe noticed; he put you in his comic strip at http://xkcd.com/774/ .

    My comment about Dawkins being a poster boy for the “least informed” at least, should not be all that objectionable, considering that he himself has said that being informed on theology and religious history is by no means a prerequisite to debate religion.

    Did he, now? I realize that gnubashers have serious difficulty quoting the people they are attacking, but would it be too much to ask you to produce the text of the passage in which Dawkins “has said that being informed on theology and religious history is by no means a prerequisite to debate religion”? Because I’m fairly confident that you’re sticking multiple elements into that sentence that Dawkins has not in fact ever stated.

    Which is, of course, called dishonesty. And I really wish this blog weren’t so full of it.

    Again, you demonstrate the same kind of blatant and unapologetic ignorance when you compare belief in God to the “Tooth Fairy.”

    Aha! Ignorance, you say! My goodness.

    One wonders where you’ve gotten the slightest inkling that (1) I’m ignorant about “belief in God” or (2) you know the first thing about the Tooth Fairy!

    What makes you think your elementary misconceptions about the Tooth Fairy are superior to any Gnu Atheist’s understanding of anything?

    “You don’t know what God is about!”

    “I don’t need to know what a child’s story is about to refute it!”

    How arbitrary—and arrogant!

    First, where do you get off denigrating the Tooth Fairy as “a child’s story”? You don’t know that. You can’t prove that. Millions of people believe fervently in the Tooth Fairy, and they can make very weighty empirical cases for Her existence! How dare you dismiss the religious experience of millions of people with a wave of your disinterested hand?

    Second, what would it matter if the Tooth Fairy story were only offered by children (which in fact it is not)? You’ve just baldfacedly resorted to the ad hominem fallacy: the youth of a proponent has no bearing on the soundness of his or her argument.

    You’re just waving around unadulterated religious privilege: the demand that (your preferred) religious notions be given the benefit of an overwhelming, and here not even veiled, double standard. You’ve decided that you don’t need to learn the slightest thing about notions, such as the Tooth Fairy, that you denigrate and dismiss—but “God,” well!, anyone whose “understanding” doesn’t measure up to your stupefyingly partisan standards is preemptively disqualified from saying a discouraging word about that.

    What a poor excuse for an argument.

    “But God is not a child’s story!”

    Citation needed!

    Does the problem become clearer?

    Well, it was clear enough from your original article, really: you pretend that anyone who (1) dares to point out your fallacies, double standards, and lies and/or (2) refuses to genuflect to your personal idols is therefore “ignorant,” regardless of the cogency of her critique or the number of years of study he has put into such matters.

    You can go ahead and beg the question, special plead, and fling ad hominem fallacies as much as you’d like. Your argument remains empty, no matter how many of those logic fouls you pile up.

    In addition, I didn’t claim a Puritan “origin” for the notion of human rights.

    Oh, sure you didn’t. You just claimed that the phenomenon of atheist “ignorance of theology, religious history, and the variety of religious experiences” (pretty rich, coming from such a militant fundamentalist anti-Tooth-Fairy-ist) “leaves us with … basically Puritan Atheists.” You declared that atheists “carry around with” us “often unexamined Puritan values” such as “[r]evenge is not acceptable” and “[h]umans have ‘rights’ that should not be violated.”

    Now, it’s awfully cute that you’re now trying to sweep your dishonest fundamental premise under the rug, but okay—let’s play your game. Let’s pretend you weren’t trying to represent the listed “values” as creations or products of Puritanism, but rather just notions that they happened to hold.

    It’s notable, then, how your entire digression regarding Puritans immediately becomes comically meaningless. Sure’s shootin’, Puritans thought people had “rights.” But so did the Babylonians who enacted the Code of Hammurabi in 1700 B.C.E. or so. And so did the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, who issued the Cyrus Cylinder in the sixth century B.C.E. So did numerous ancient Greek philosophers, as exemplified in the argument Sophocles has Antigone present to Creon in Antigone (c. 442 B.C.E.). So did Roman philosophers like Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus. So did the English subjects who forced King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. So did the French Revolutionary National Constituent Assembly, who passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789.

    So apparently that little “rights” thing is in fact an “unexamined” Babylonian Persian Greek Roman English French “Puritan value.” One might even call it a human value that has found support far beyond those doofy Puritans. Indeed, that value’s particular connection with Puritanism appears to be little more than an idiosyncratic hobbyhorse of purveyors of religious privilege such as yourself. (Gee, did those guys realize that they were actually “unexamined Persian Puritans”? And Babylonian, too—something tells me they wouldn’t have liked to hear you say that….)

    With the entire concept of origin relegated to the oh-I-didn’t-mean-that backpedal file, we’re left wondering exactly what your marionette-Nietzsche would have us modern atheists do. Can we have community gatherings? Nope—Puritans did that; if we follow suit, we’re “unexamined Puritans.” Can we teach our children to read? Nope, Puritanism. How about, er, democratic elections? Uh-oh…. (Are we allowed to breathe oxygen, or do we have to come up with some kind of awesomer Nietzschean gas to inhale that takes note of the expiration of God?)

    To sum up: if the “values” you listed did not find their origin in Puritanism, then you have no more basis to call them “Puritan values” than we do to call them human (or for that matter French, or atheist) ones, and your pretense that Dawkins (or who?) is a “Puritan Atheist” is just a slimily dishonest attempt at a tu quoque taunt.

    You have severely inflated notions regarding the debt that modern humanistic ethics owe to religion. You’re welcome, I suppose, to demand that we join you in bowing down and paying unearned tribute to such superstition; we merely have no obligation to obey, or to respect shell games such as that “Puritan Atheist” nonsense. Then, the fact that many of us choose to respond to such advocacy with horse laughs and jeers—or just polite, silent disregard—does not, contrary to your pretense, demonstrate the responders’ ignorance.

    Godless human society works just fine, thanks…

    I’m talking, now, about progress– moving beyond where we are now– not simply indicting the past or present. Or do you assume that we don’t need or want to have ideological progress?

    “What do you mean ‘we,’ [HDS] man?”

    I said godless human society works just fine. I’m talking about the nations on the planet whose populations are overwhelmingly secular, who have basically kicked the very habits you’re demanding eye-roll-worthy levels of respect for here. Those nations happen to be the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies on Earth. They’re not utopias, so sure, “progress” remains possible (and likely always will)—but it’s hard to imagine why they should listen to a pitchman for the very phenomenon whose absence from their societies is the clearest factor distinguishing them from the nations that remain mired in medieval superstition and its concrete consequences.

    But if you’re in the “we” (Kemosabe…), and “we” is humanity, then absolutely I see a need for ideological progress. And it’s not exactly difficult to tell which popular ideologies most need to be discredited and discarded in order to achieve it: religious faith, authority, and privilege. But quite obviously you’re implacably opposed to that (it means “not learning as much as [you]’d like from the journey”—how delightfully effete!). As a result, it certainly appears that progress pretty much requires ignoring your carping.

    …silly parochial religion’s-ass-kissing divinity-school demands.

    I don’t know, I think everything I wrote is worlds more informed and mature than this.

    That’s because you’re saturated enough with religious privilege to think that you can insult and lie about innocent people (such as Richard Dawkins) and still consider yourself “informed and mature.” You engage in brutal and dishonest attacks and pretend that you’ve taken the high road. It’s rather distasteful, and it deserves scorn.

    …it makes no difference to the central Gnu positions whether other ideals we share have some connection to schools of thought promoted by one or another portion of the religion industry…

    But, as should be clear from this article, I do not share the “central Gnu position”….

    Funny, I could have sworn that I put “positions” in the plural, given that we have more than one. You wouldn’t lie inside quotation marks, would you? Gee, I guess you would.

    …and am arguing for a different central position….

    Yes, obviously. But given that your essay above is clearly an attempt to bash a steel rebar through the collective Gnu forehead, it’s worth pointing out that you have swung and missed: your silliness about Nietzsche, “Puritan values” and whatnot does not demonstrate any actual problem with a real-life Gnu position at all. Your notions about Puritanism—about, as I said, “whether other ideals [Gnus] share have some connection to schools of thought promoted by one or another portion of the religion industry”—are simply irrelevant to the actual arguments that Gnus are making in the real world. Calling us “Puritan Atheists” and sniffing that we haven’t “learn[ed] as much as [you]’d like from the journey” are approximately as germane to the matters at issue as are “yo momma” taunts.

    …that focuses on progress rather than a continual reiteration of what we don’t believe.

    The fact that you refuse to recognize the very real notions of progress that Gnus advocate does not wink them out of existence.

    Progress, I think, requires understanding….

    Certainly. It doesn’t, however, demand genuflection to nonsense, or (more specifically) obligatory respect for ancient superstitions. Gnus do not in fact have any problem with examining “the why and wherefore of []our own beliefs”; that’s just blind gnubashing arrogance talking. The problem is with your fundamental demand that religious nonsense be treated with entirely unearned respect during that process. (Your dishonesty doesn’t help, either.)

    [W]hile you may not care if there was a connection between your morals and those of other groups,

    I think the patron saint of the accommodationist should be L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow—a strawman. Where did I say that I didn’t “care if there was a connection between [our] morals and those of other groups”? I just pointed out that that was irrelevant to the central positions advocated by Gnu Atheists.

    Of course there are “connections” between our morals and other groups’. We’re all humans. Duh. The only reason, here, to pretend that such observations are profound is to attempt to give religion salience and esteem that it patently does not deserve.

    And Nietzsche’s point, as you see fit to massage it for your own hatchet-job purposes, is demonstrably false…

    That would be true if Nietzsche defined progress as lots of people disbelieving in God.

    Bzzzt. Wrong.

    Denmark isn’t better off than the United States is just because a larger proportion of its population disbelieves in gods. (Though that sure doesn’t hurt!) They’re happier, healthier, safer, wealthier, and more secure than we are. That’s progress, and it’s happening everywhere in the world in which humanity has substantially cast off religious faith and authority. (Which is not to imply an irreligion -> social health causation; very likely the arrow goes predominantly in the other direction.) Danes, as well as Swedes, Czechs, South Koreans, New Zealanders, and so many others, are doing just fine without help from you or your pidgin Nietzsche; they don’t need an apologist for religion lecturing them on what they’re required to “learn” in order to gain his lofty approval.

    I don’t know, it seems strange to me to be anti-fab-new-way-of-being.

    When “fab new way of being” is just a hastily concocted disguise for the same old destructive religious privilege that keeps us stuck in the ditch of superstition, it seems like a pretty good thing to oppose, actually.

    Your essay is severely hostile to a despised and disempowered minority…

    Despised by some, perhaps….

    “Some,” sure. As in more than any other minority in the United States. “Some.” Mm-hmm.

    but disempowered? Really? Are you joking right now?

    No. You’re just belligerently ignorant.

    More or less dis-empowered than homosexuals?

    How many openly gay and lesbian members of Congress (and state legislatures, city councils, etc.) are there? How many self-declared atheists?

    Than Jews? Than Latin American immigrants?

    Same questions. Are you really this clueless? (This may be news to you, but the Pioneer Valley and Cambridge are not quite representative of the United States—or even of Massachusetts—with regard to hatred of atheists.)

    You do realize that the root word of “disempowered” is “power,” right? Are you really going to baldfacedly claim that atheists have more power in this society than gays and lesbians, Jewish people, and Latino/a immigrants? (All of whom have extremely influential political lobbies?)

    What baldfaced nonsense. You’re miffed that I’m questioning your right to bash atheists.

    Did you lose a job?

    Thousands of atheists have, yes. We’ve also been denied custody of our children in open court, been denied the right to run for public office or testify in litigation (including in criminal prosecutions of people on trial for attacking us), been denied equal housing, been disowned by our families, and been criminally harassed, assaulted, and murdered—all for our irreligion. WTF do you know? Clearly just about nothing.

    But I see what you’re doing: you’re playing the Oppression Olympics—that old game where an African-American homophobe says to a lesbian mother advocating marriage equality: How dare you say you’re oppressed? When were you homosexuals ever held in slavery? When were you denied the right to vote? When were you forced to drink from separate water fountains than the ones straight people used? It offends me that you’re trying to compare your cause to the Civil Rights movement. You people have no idea what oppression looks like.

    Just like you, that homophobe is trying to pretend that because various forms of injustice differ in extent and degree, the one that doesn’t affect him or the people he actually cares about isn’t allowed to be called injustice at all. It provides him an excuse for his own bigotry, for his own willful blindness to the pain and suffering of others whom he gets to decide he doesn’t have feel empathy for. Whom he has license to bash without mercy or principle.

    That’s an awfully ugly example you’re following. And I don’t see any “humor” or “lightness” in it at all.

  9. Christopher Michael Luna Says:

    @Rieux

    Well, now I have to assume that despite your vitriol you either didn’t read, or didn’t understand the thesis of my article, or either of my responses to you.

    I remain confident that will be clear for third parties who completely read what has been written, and believe that there’s probably very little that I can say that would actually heal this breach.

    I apologize if that’s due to a lack of clarity on my part, but I remain confident that if you were to take a deep breath, step back, and examine my rebuttal to you, you might find that as much as you’re saying my point is irrelevant to the central point of New Atheism, my point is not to discredit the central point of New Atheism but to offer what I think is a more important priority; that in many of the cases where you’re attacking me you are over-simplifying what I am saying and ignoring my explanations.

  10. Josh Slocum Says:

    Christopher, I agree with everything Rieux said. I found your piece breathtakingly nasty, inaccurate, offensive, and yes, very, very sniffy. You must be completely unaware of how fed-right-up many of us are with having to fend off slurs from theists *and* defend ourselves to our fellow seculars who slag us off. And that’s exactly what you’re doing.

    There are a number of people (intelligent, engaged people who share very similar ethical and political goals to your own) who fervently resent people like you, and feel they have no choice but to treat you as adversaries. It’s not because we can’t understand you, or that we don’t know how to read carefully. It’s that we’re sick to death of being slandered and condescended to by “nice” academics and humanist types. One would almost think you dislike outspoken atheists more than you dislike politically troublesome theists. I wonder why that might be?

  11. Rieux Says:

    Luna:

    I remain confident that if you were to take a deep breath, step back, and examine my rebuttal to you….

    Wait—what? Examine? You’ve got to be kidding me.

    I have dealt with that rebuttal of yours point by point, damn near word-by-word, to a degree that borders on the pedantic. (Occupational hazard.) I quoted and responded to twenty-two different passages from your comments, passages that total hundreds of words of your own work. I dealt directly with the basic claims at the foundation of both your original post and those two comments—at length. (Comical length.)

    Some of the work of yours I was responding to was shockingly ugly, too, such as the whole Dawkins-as-”poster boy for the angriest, least informed atheists” slime, or the know-nothing “atheists aren’t disempowered”/Oppression Olympics bile. (You really have no excuse for your ignorant truculence on the latter point. I suggest you spend a little time researching the matters I mentioned in my response—for example, the widespread phenomenon of irreligious parents in the U.S. being denied custody of their children in open court—before the next time you decide to take public potshots at atheists.)

    You are burdened by some very real prejudice toward nonbelievers, and it is extremely clear—as I’ve “examined” and shown—in your work on this thread. If you lack either the courage or the interest to examine the logical, empirical, or ethical problems with the arguments you’ve stated, that’s your own business—but don’t insult the readers of this exchange with this “you either didn’t read, [sic] or didn’t understand the thesis of my article” nonsense. Your refusal to come to grips with the ugliness and fallacy of the things you are actually saying does not represent a failure on your opponents’ part.

  12. designsoda Says:

    that in many of the cases where you’re attacking me you are over-simplifying what I am saying and ignoring my explanations.

    No he didn’t. I read every word on this page and he pretty much touched upon all your explanations quite thoroughly. If anybody is ignoring explanations is you seeing as you’re not responding to Rieux again.

  13. Tim Harris Says:

    I, for one, should welcome some sort of statement from Chris Stedman explaining responsibly and in detail why he thinks jejune screeds such as this and Klara McLaren’s are worth printing on his blog. I think he bears a far greater responsibility than do the really very silly and superficial Luna and McLaren. I hope Mr Stedman will have the courage and sense of responsibility to do this.

  14. Mandrellian Says:

    “NonProphet Status (NPS) is the blog of humanist interfaith activist Chris Stedman. It is meant to be a forum for stories promoting atheist-interfaith cooperation that hopes to catalyze a movement in which religious and secular folks not only co-exist peacefully but collaborate around shared values.”

    It’s a shame that “atheist-interfaith cooperation” seems to mean “Slag the fuck out of any atheist who’s written a book (or publicly criticised religion this century) in such a way as to reinforce already rampant religious prejudice regarding atheists and display to the world that you’ve in all likelihood ignored or misunderstood everything those atheists have said.”

    Jeepers, Mr Stedman. First McLaren’s soft, passive, cute little bitch-out and now this freshman-level Philo 101 bulldust & backpedalling from Luna. Way to reinforce your image as an enabler of ignorance & prejudice.

    It’s going to be very difficult to “co-exist peacefully” or “collaborate around shared values” if you and your flock keep posting this ill-informed drivel.

  15. SocraticGadfly Says:

    Great, GREAT post, Chris. I don ‘t at all consider myself a Gnu, while also rejecting the label “accommodationist,” and this is great.

    I’ve thought of Gnus as “atheist evangelists” for some time, and when, recently, PZ Myers said he wanted to form “cadres,” the light bulb went on the rest of the way.

    Do NOT let Gnu types, many of whom, IMO, as demonstrated here, seem to relish confrontation for confrontation’s sake, beat you down.

    It’s people like Mandreillian, Rieux, et al, that lead me to use the term “secularist,” “humanist” or something else more and more, the more and more attack-dog they become.

    I look at continental Europe. It became more secular by a gradual process, not by attack-dog actions.

  16. Sathyapriya Walla Says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post! It has been very useful. I wish that you will continue sharing your wisdom with us.

  17. Rieux Says:

    Do NOT let Gnu types, many of whom, IMO, as demonstrated here, seem to relish confrontation for confrontation’s sake, beat you down.

    The irony is thick. I spend hundreds of words quoting and specifically examining Luna’s arguments, and he bizarrely declares that I “either didn’t read, [sic] or didn’t understand the thesis of [his] article”; you quote nothing, respond to nothing concrete, and have the gall to accuse your opponents of “relish[ing] confrontation for confrontation’s sake”? What nauseating hypocrisy.

    I look at continental Europe. It became more secular by a gradual process, not by attack-dog actions.

    Mindless inanity. It appears you didn’t read Luna’s piece, because he shows no love for “continental Europe” (did you notice that that’s the society Nietzsche was criticizing in the piece Luna quoted with approval? No, apparently you didn’t). Secular Europeans have not come up with the “Something new. Something we’ve never seen before” that Luna snottily demands; he’s spitting on them just as much as he is on his country(wo)men. How odd that you missed that.

    And you clearly don’t have the slightest clue what Gnus are and are not interested in. The “gradual process” is going on around us regardless of what we do. Gnus’ actions, however, actually have the effect of making atheism (that nasty word that apparently causes you to tuck your tail between your legs and skedaddle) more relevant, salient, and mainstream. Your behavior, by contrast, helps marginalize us and enables atheophobic bigots. That you couldn’t care less about the damage that religious privilege does to real human beings (such as Damon Fowler) does not make the rest of us “attack dogs.” We just have the minimal decency and courage it takes to stand up for ourselves, notwithstanding your insistence at sneering about us over it.

  18. PZ Myers Says:

    Ooo, I’m going to form cadres. How nefarious of me.

    Of course, if you look at what I actually said (there aren’t many instances where I’ve used that word, so this must by the right quote), it’s quite innocuous.

    What I’m interested in seeing happen is the development of a strong cadre of vocal atheists who will make a sustained argument, over the course of years or generations, who will keep pressing on the foolishness of faith.

    That’s a good and necessary goal, I think. What would you rather have? No one prepared to stand up and make a case for atheism?

  19. Justicar Yellits Says:

    I remain confident that will be clear for third parties who completely read what has been written, and believe that there’s probably very [i]little that I can say that would actually heal this breach[/i].

    “Sorry being a dishonest dick for _____” can get one quite far in that way.

  20. TkReacher Says:

    I was shocked – I mean, a vision goes blurry type of shock – a few times reading this thread.

    1. The effort Rieux put into his multi-quote response. Whew, what patience.

    2. The head-swimmingly poor response to his post. Rieux is advised to “examine” the previous responses? Quoting and addressing nearly two dozen statements isn’t examination? Is he supposed to respond to it by the letter?

    I can’t even put into words how comically this reads as a lazy, dishonest dodge. And wrapped in condescension to boot! What a chuckle. t

    Thanks for that Mr. Luna.

    3. That Dawkins and Harris – and in this thread Rieux – are cast as vitriolic. I find this interesting because, to me, they display incredible patience, reserve, and respect in conversational style.

    If they are vitriolic I have to imagine people risk literally bursting into flames if they read any three things I write.

  21. Brian Lynchehaun Says:

    Christopher;

    I am a third party. I have completely read your article, and the subsequent thread.

    Rieux’s criticisms are *precisely* on the mark. Rieux clearly spent a lot of time meticulously detailing the various errors and fallacies in your post.

    To claim that Rieux has not examined your points is patently absurd. I would consider it necessary, as per the dictates of intellectual honesty, that you respond in full and in kind to Rieux’s criticisms.

    Of course, you may not actually care about intellectual honesty, but that will become clear to us as time passes.

  22. Jesse Weinstein Says:

    Pointed here from “Oh, no! Another outbreak of Mooneyitis!” on Pharyngula. (but please don’t stop reading! ;-) )

    Let me see if I understand your thesis. It seems to be here: “one of my generation’s tasks will be to … … look deep, deep into ourselves with unforgivingly honest eyes, and to bring the treasures and monstrosities we find there to the light; to invent new gods and monsters, and, in the process, to become something greater ourselves.”

    Hardly anyone would object to doing this — I certainly wouldn’t; but the obvious question is: Have you done some of this work yet, that you can show us? Or do you have recommendations of other folks who have, who we could read? Or do you have some more specific details about how or what actions you are suggesting?

    Merely suggesting Know Thyself, and “we need a new system of ethics” (paraphrase) is, in the absence of further detail, somewhat trite.

    Also, your thesis comes only at the end of the piece — most of it is taken up with, as various other commenters have explained in detail, disrespectful and incorrect (to put it gently) claims made about modern atheists. If you went into detail about what “treasures and monstrosities” you found in yourself, or described some “new gods and monsters” you had invented, the errors the earlier part of your piece would be excusable — but you don’t. You just tell your readers that it would be good if someone did that soul-searching and inventing.

    I’ll ask again — please point us to folks doing what you are asking for; I for one would be delighted to read them!

  23. Jesse Weinstein Says:

    (Sorry for responding to myself)

    Thinking further, I have some possible examples of people “look[ing] deep, deep into [them]selves with unforgivingly honest eyes” and inventing “new gods and monsters”. I’d be very grateful for your thoughts on them, specifically whether they express what you were suggesting.

    The first is one you may have already seen, Greta Christina’s “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God” at http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/06/comforting_thou.html It seems to be a good example of someone looking deeply into themselves, and seeing what comes up, and developing new ways of interpreting our shared experiences based on this.

    The next is also by Greta Christina, “A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence” at http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/07/skeptics-view-sexual-transcendence.html Some “new gods and monsters” in this one, I hope.

    Finally, I have a post from Friendly Atheist, primarily written by two newlyweds, explaining their secular wedding ceremony, here: http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/09/24/a-beautiful-secular-wedding/ The rituals they came up with, and the clear passion they share with each other, seem like good examples of what you recommended for your generation.

    It’s not an accident that all three of these are from prominent self-described members of the New Atheists. I gently suggest that you (and your interpretation of Nietzsche) may have made a slight error of aiming.

  24. Jesse Weinstein Says:

    (Sorry for responding to myself; 2nd try submitting, removing the protocol parts from my links, in case that was what caused the failure)

    Thinking further, I have some possible examples of people “look[ing] deep, deep into [them]selves with unforgivingly honest eyes” and inventing “new gods and monsters”. I’d be very grateful for your thoughts on them, specifically whether they express what you were suggesting.

    The first is one you may have already seen, Greta Christina’s “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God” at gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/06/comforting_thou.html It seems to be a good example of someone looking deeply into themselves, and seeing what comes up, and developing new ways of interpreting our shared experiences based on this.

    The next is also by Greta Christina, “A Skeptic’s View of Sexual Transcendence” at gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/07/skeptics-view-sexual-transcendence.html Some “new gods and monsters” in this one, I hope.

    Finally, I have a post from Friendly Atheist, primarily written by two newlyweds, explaining their secular wedding ceremony, here: friendlyatheist.com/2010/09/24/a-beautiful-secular-wedding The rituals they came up with, and the clear passion they share with each other, seem like good examples of what you recommended for your generation.

    It’s not an accident that all three of these are from prominent self-described members of the New Atheists. I gently suggest that you (and your interpretation of Nietzsche) may have made a slight error of aiming.

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