I’m an NPR Daddy

Much to my surprise, I was part of a panel of daddy bloggers on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michele Martin, which aired today. The piece is the latest of the show’s discussions on the recent New York Magazine article about a trend of parents finding no joy in parenthood. This installment obviously focuses on the perspective of fathers, and spoiler alert, I’m pretty pro-parenthood.

I was joined by Jason Sperber of Rice Daddies, and Keith Morton of African American Dad, as well as Jennifer Senior, author of the article in question.

I haven’t listened to the piece yet because I get embarrassed hearing myself yammer, but I invite you to check it out.

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=128645265&m=128644916&t=audio

I should also note that the funny title of this blog may pose a problem for further grandiose self-promotion—neither I nor the host really knew how best to pronounce it. I will contemplate that further, and if I get to go on the radio again, I may make a sudden-yet-easy-to-remember name change.

Justin Who-ber? Tweeps School Me on Pop Culture

Over the past couple of days, I kept seeing this name pop up in tweets and around the intertubes: “Justin Bieber.” Now, look. I opted out of popular culture pretty much entirely after college, so I have no idea who that is. (I think he may have been on SNL this week? See, no idea.) So I asked my tweeps to tell me so I didn’t have to a) do the googling myself and b) stumble upon a website promoting or praising this person that I was sure to find depressing.

Some highlights:

@elizapi: 16 year old singer, kinda looks like a girl, but a guy, and some people find him attractive.

@archineas: you are seriously better off not knowing…

@chthoniid: my teen daughter assures me he is a youngish teen singer who has exploited social media to become popular.

@mirandachale: He’s an icky little teenage white rapper kid.Hadn’t seen him before SNL last night.Little girls want to heavy pet him, it seems

@kf: He’s a magical little boy who lives in a tree and bakes cookies.

@geekwithsoul: You know all those Catholic priests in the news? Well Justin Bieber is the one they all carry around a picture of 😉

I think that’s sufficient information considering the topic, don’t you? I just hope the cookies thing is true.

In Which I Am Flummoxed by a Reverse-Charitable Act at Burger King

I was at a Burger King near my office (stop glaring, wife!) and they were collecting donations for the charity Jerry’s Kids. If you donated a buck, they’d scribble your name on a construction paper shamrock and stick it up on the wall behind the counter. I was happy to donate the dollar, but I felt very odd about having my name scrawled up on the Burger King wall, a kind of semi-permanent reminder of all who came through that I had suffered yet another moment of fast food weakness.

So I asked not to have my name written on the shamrock. I considered telling them to put my baby son Toby’s name on it, but hell, he didn’t donate any money, so why should he get Jerry’s Cred? So I politely refused the shamrocking altogether.

But then the cashier did something I did not expect. Rather than let the whole thing rest, and remain content that someone had donated to a charity without need of public acknowledgment, she took her at-the-ready Sharpie and wrote her own name on the shamrock, and stuck it on the wall.

Now wait a god damn minute. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was sure there was something wrong, unethical, immoral about that act. She hadn’t given a dollar, but then again, who cares? I didn’t want my name there anyway. But wasn’t it a kind of lie? A kind of utterly-inconsequential-yet-weirdly-disconcerting act of dishonesty surrounding the act of helping needy kids?

Likely, she was simply checking a box, as it were. Some manager was probably going to check the donation total again the number of new shamrocks on the wall, and she didn’t want to have anything look amiss, so now knowing what else to put, she wrote down her own name. Yeah, that’s probably it.

So, I should have put Toby’s name on it.

Go Ahead and Organize Your Life around Atheism

Michael De Dora has written in a recent controversial piece that, in essence, questions the wisdom of “organizing [one’s life] around atheism,” and at the same time bemoans the tone of the New Atheists in their condemnation of religion. Some have suggested I write in response to this post, and so I’ll take on both of these points separately (the part about the New Atheists will be more of a postscript)—but I think it might surprise some where I agree and disagree with De Dora.

In fact, let me just use the same quote he did to explain his position in his follow-up post:

Instead of seeing secularism as a response to religion, as a promotion of atheism, we need a more universal secularism that values the free conscience; open, critical, honest inquiry; and certain ideals, a collective working together toward a more reasonable, peaceful, and just society. … Put simply, I will continually focus on how we can have positive, productive, and progressive evidence-based discussion on the moral beliefs that so influence our democracy.

Well I can’t argue with any of this on its merits. Fantastic! Let’s do this!

This tells me we’re on the same page as far as end results, what victory looks like; a world in which reason and thought and honesty are valued over myth and superstition, leading to choices uninhibited by supernaturalist dogma.

But I think what De Dora is failing to grasp is the value, perhaps the necessity, of rallying around atheism.

Yes, as De Dora makes utterly clear, atheism as a dictionary word is pretty cut-and-dried. No belief in omnipotent sky-daddies. Got it. But let’s be honest: atheism as a term is almost never used in such a narrowly literal way. As far as its common usage by actual people, it is positively loaded with deeper, more personal meaning.

And of course that meaning varies from person to person, from worldview to worldview. For many, atheism is equivalent to immorality, amorality, nihilism, and egotism. File that fact in your brain for a minute, we’ll get back to it.

Before someone thinks to “organize their lives” around atheism, they probably begin as “just atheists.” They know themselves to eschew belief in deities and other supernatural nonsense, and that’s the end of that.

But then they’re told that, as atheists, they are, therefor, any or all of the following (you ready?): immoral, amoral, nihilistic, and egotistic. Now that doesn’t feel very good, does it?

And of course, there are social consequences to having people of one’s worldview thought of in this way by either a majority or enormous pluralities of the population. You become, at worst, vilified, discriminated against, mocked, pitied, and shunned. At best, you compartmentalize it, fudge it, espouse to believe something you don’t, or simply hedge your doubt as a fuzzy form of “open-mindedness” about, oh, let’s say, “spirituality.” In other words, you lie to get by.

Now one doesn’t have to be a social scientist to see that there are parallels here to other groups who have been on the outs. Now, I don’t mean at all to say that atheists are being beaten in the streets, denied enfranchisement, or being told where they can sit on a bus. But given the studies and research thus far produced on the subject of Americans’ feelings about their atheist neighbors, I think it’s safe to say that far too many people would like to be able to treat atheists this way, or at the very least can see how it would be justified.

What am I getting at here? Atheists’ bad rap in American society is most certainly not news. But what’s important to see is that being an atheist makes one part of an identity group, whether one wants to be in one or not. To be an atheist American is to be part of a maligned minority. So when we’re talking about what it is a movement or group of activists might organize around, it’s not going to be, “I think we should be more rationalistic in shaping public policy! Storm the castle!” No, they will rally to lift up their identity group, to say that we deserve to be treated as equals, that “our kind” is not to be shoved to the back of society.

But there’s more! When we’re talking about the movements for the rights of women, African Americans, or the LGBT community, for example, we are mainly talking about civil rights—a group of people different than those who hold power (white straight men) in some physical, biological way, or perhaps in the case of the LGBT movement, biological and social. But the end is the same: stop treating us like we’re lesser, second-class citizens, stop treating us like we’re not worthy of equality. There may be some particular political or philosophical stances that come along with those movements, but I think they are largely byproducts of the struggle for rights, tools for realizing equality, things that specifically aid the communities doing the rallying (abortion and equal pay rights for women, education funding for African Americans in failing urban schools, marriage and civil partner rights for homosexuals, etc.).

For atheists, it’s different. Other than symbolic battles, like taking “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, atheists don’t need any laws to be passed to foster their equality. As far as the laws on the books are concerned, save for a few antiquated and unenforceable state constitutional amendments, atheists are already equal citizens. They are marginalized in ways that are unwritten, uncodified, but real and tangible. But that’s not even the main point.

For atheists rallying around their identity as atheists, it’s not enough to simply get a fair shake in the favorability polls (because, remember, there’s not much to be done in the way of atheist-equality legislation). Not only is it important for these atheists to achieve social parity, but to assert a worldview. In this way, atheists identify both as an identity group and as an interest group.

This is the good part. Because atheists have an agenda—inchoate in terms of specifics, perhaps—and a worldview to assert, they get to make this claim (or I do, anyway): to declare one’s atheism today is to make a positive assertion. It is not merely a ruling-out of God. It is not even just a ruling-out of superstition writ large. It is the positive belief in a culture (political and otherwise) that values intellect, reason, science, and, to get to the brass tacks, acknowledges reality.

And of course, those things have consequences. As Jesse Galef recently wrote, while atheism doesn’t always translate into super-specific policy positions, it does at the least tell us what we ought not base our decisions on. So in that way, atheism can seem merely like a negative assertion. But this does allow us to make decisions free of absurd, allegedly revealed, Bronze Age notions of morality, and instead base them on, yes, our reason, but perhaps just as importantly, our compassion and our own, human-invented morality.

Now that’s something to organize around: Reason, science, freedom from oppressive myth, and equality for those who have opted out of theism and supernatural belief. It’s positive. It’s growing. It’s inspiring. Let’s take De Dora’s paragraph cited above and run with it. Come on, atheists, let’s rally.

And now to his points on the New Atheists. I have written so much in defense of the New Atheism that I am loath to regurgitate it all now, so I will simply relate it to the main thesis of this post. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, and folks like PZ Myers and Ayan Hirsi Ali as well, remind us atheists that we don’t have to, as it were, take it anymore. Are they dismissive of religion? You bet, because religion is a problem, because it’s damaging, because, yes, it’s incorrect. We can get into the weeds about whether particular quotes from particular interviews or books or articles are too mean or too hurtful to the movement, and I want to have those debates. But to rally around a cause, a movement, an identity, we need those luminaries who will reject things as they have been, grab the megaphone, and wake us up. Obviously, there are still far too many drowsy secularists and would-be secularists, and I would not have the New Atheists quiet down for anything.

Dreams from the Father?

I recently read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and it took a couple of weeks before something about it dawned on me. While Obama gained a lot of early national political credibility when he began to strongly advocate for more engagement with and embrace of faith in the Democratic Party, and often espoused his own religiousness and Christian-ness during the campaign, these themes seemed wholly absent from Dreams.

When Obama does deal with religion in the book’s narrative, it is almost exclusively raw pragmatism, figuring out how to harness existing religious institutions in Chicago and learning how to navigate their politics. To the best of my memory, at no point does Obama claim a “come-to-Jesus” moment in which he sees the proverbial light and converts from idealistic wanderer to committed Christian.

Perhaps this is more apparent in The Audacity of Hope, which, I have to admit, I have no inclination to read whatsoever. For while our president is obviously a very skilled and fluid writer, I am not inclined to use up my time on what from what I understand is essentially a campaign book, primarily published as an excuse for a by Rev. You-Know-God-Damn-America-Who, and I take it that it elaborates on his position on religious engagement Obama takes in his semi-famous 2006 Call to Renewal speech.

But it strikes me as interesting that his since-super-hyped Christianity is not apparent in Dreams. I suppose he could have had his Francis-Collins-meets-a-waterfall moment after having written the book, but somehow, I can’t help but think that Dreams serves as a truer foundation for where Obama is spiritually. The mysteries of the cosmos are too vast to be dealt with by mere mortals (“above his pay grade,” as it were), but only a stupid politician or community organizer would overlook the potential force behind an already-unified and malleable contingent of believers, and in the quest to do some good, not think to oneself, “I need to get them on my side.”

I’m not jumping on the Obama-as-closet-atheist bandwagon, because I see no evidence for it. But Dreams makes me suspect that if Obama is a Christian, it is more in the philosophical sense than in the theological. But, I stress, it is just a guess.

Hypoliteracy

I am not reading a book.

Washington, DC is shut down today, and besides doing some catch-up work here and there, I essentially have a bonus day off. Hooray! What a rare and often-wished-for opportunity to do some quiet, relaxed book reading! Visit my Goodreads page and you can see that I am juggling several books that I have yet to complete, and I have a list a mile long of “to-reads” as yet un-attempted. The baby is sleeping (scratch that, back in a second…)

[Two hours later]

Anyway. The point being, on this snow-blanketed day, there’s far more time than usual to engage in some literary imbibing. But here I am on the Web, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, poking around the RSS reader, etc. I know that the act of reading doesn’t require a herculean effort, but lately the energy, attention span, and patience it requires has eluded me. And I love reading (once I’m into it)! It’s that kick-start that is so difficult, particularly if I’m not totally enthralled by my current book.

There’s just so much *other* reading to be done! Not only is there blog and article reading online, but there are tweets (that lead to more blogs and articles), my various magazine subscriptions (which, since I am paying for them, I feel obliged to read), and since I do communications for a lobbying organization, I have to step up the pace on regular news consumption (major newspapers, aggregators, etc.). The latter one alone takes whatever quiet time my rain ride to work allows me.

While I genuinely love the act of reading, books are falling by the wayside. I own a Kindle (which I adore), I have a slew of books in my library I’m dying to get to, myriad Christmas and birthday-gifted books that others thought I’d enjoy, so I have to get to those, plus the backpack-full of books I’m still in the middle of. Meanwhile, I read about people who read several books a week, and my friend Ryan is doing a blog project on reading 100 books in a year. Another friend I have through Twitter is doing only about half that, a book a week for a year. I could never do that!

Part of it, I imagine, is that I don’t read much fiction. Anecdotally, I hear that fiction goes by more quickly than nonfiction, but I can hardly put that to the test, as I have as my current fiction selection War and Peace, and I’ve resolved, for no other reason than the novelty of it, to read it entirely on the iPhone—I wanted to really see if there was truth to the iPhone-as-e-reader cliché that says, yes, the iPhone is great for reading, “…but you wouldn’t want to read War and Peace on it!”

I’m getting off-track somewhat. Even when I do get to reading a book, it’s sparse. Too often, I read 10 or so pages before I get too sleepy, or I’m distracted by email/baby/life. And let’s be honest, even those magazines often don’t get the attention their subscription prices deserve, and the newspaper is often merely scanned and discarded. I think that in terms of word count, I read more from blog posts and articles about reading, ebooks, and publishing (a recent but I think enduring fascination of mine) than I do from actual books themselves.

One might think, well, Paul, you just don’t like books that much. But I know that’s not true—I know that good books move and enrich me more than just about any other medium I consume (perhaps tied with music, something else that has suffered since I stopped being a twenty-something). Perhaps part of the problem is the commitment of time necessary to complete a book, but I mainly mean those books that turn out to be only okay. I recently read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time (part of my attempt to catch up with all those books I was assigned in high school and fobbed off due to my shameful degree of laziness) and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those moments in life when a piece of art truly changes you and affects you at your core. That’s not happening with any of the books I have in the pipeline right now, but nor should I expect so. Some books—most books that I pick up, thankfully—are “just good.” And that should be good enough to keep me at it.

Which, of course, still lands me into conflict with the realities of how many hours there are in a day and all the other text-based commitments I already have.

I’m not like those who lament the “shortening” of certain types of discourse through technology. Mark Ambinder of The Atlantic (one of those aforementioned subscribed-to magazines) recently explained to Michael Kinsley what his reading day is like, and it rang familiar to me to a certain extent. Though I don’t rely on Twitter nearly to the degree Ambinder does, I still understand how valuable it has become, and I certainly value the relationships—new kinds of relationships—that I have developed on that platform. As I noted, Twitter is not really about short bursts of blather for me (though it is also that), but the tweets serve as little windows into deeper reading I would otherwise miss, and a chance for me to share with my 1000+ followers the work I am doing and writing by others that I find compelling enough to warrant others’ attention. Facebook is similar for me, though more lighthearted and social in nature. [Follow me on Twitter here!]

But maintaining these gardens takes time, it takes thought. I enjoy the back-and-forth flow of information so much that I have felt compelled to start a Tumblr blog just to catch the things I don’t know what else to do with (a quote that is too long for Twitter, an article that doesn’t suit my blog or my Facebook audience, etc.)—and on this, I am essentially copying Text Patterns’ Alan Jacobs and his use of Tumblr, or somewhat mimicking the short-burst blogging style of Andrew Sullivan.

So I heartily embrace social media, social reading and social writing. I’m extremely fortunate to be alive and of the age to participate at such a time as this. But it must be said that it only enables one of my pre-existing conditions: laziness. My dad, a voracious reader himself whom I can only dream of matching in terms of quantity, is befuddled by my use of the word “lazy” in this context. Reading is the fun part of the day, he says. There is no effort involved for him; it is always the
path of least resistance and the greatest return.

But my personality, my attention span, my physiology, my habits have not developed that way (all of which, almost, is my own fault). Books suffer, which really means that I suffer, depriving myself of what they hold. I should be reading right now, but instead, I’m sitting here writing about how I don’t read.

Perhaps my only avenue to mitigating this concern is to learn speed reading. Hm. Now, when would I find the time to do that?

Oh, and I want to learn French, too. Can we please just add an extra day onto the weekend?

Would that even help?

Bryson’s “At Home”: A Delightful Slog through Human Misery

About halfway through Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, one can’t help but come to a couple of stark conclusions. One, that most of humanity’s domestic life, for the vast majority of time time we had domestic lives, was full of suffering and misery the likes of which we moderns can barely imagine. Two, that the tiny percentage of the species blessed with an overabundance of money and/or status have not been content to simply live well, but have wasted vast economic resources to spoil and aggrandize themselves in ways that would make Ozymandias cringe.

Bryson is a wonderful writer, and his storytelling is as usual conversational while remaining high-minded, as he clearly glories in his research and discoveries while allowing the space for the reader to catch up to him.

But his subject, I suppose, necessitated the retelling of these two central themes I’ve mentioned: The misery of the underclasses (disease, vermin, cold, being overwhelmed by feces, etc.) and the unabated vanity of the rich (who also, it should be noticed, were subject to disease and other unpleasantness, but often in Bryson’s telling faced ruin by their own ignorance or hubris). But if it is necessary, it is also relentless. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote is a tail that either makes one feel deep pity for those who are crushed under the weight of their poverty or nausea over the largess of the aristocracy. In between are the triumphs, the brilliant ideas, the advances, but it becomes almost exhausting when one contemplates the mayhem from which the victories emerge.

Here’s a good summation from the book, a quote from Edmond Halley (of comet fame), that I feel gets to the heart of the long crawl of human domesticity — human daily life — over the centuries.

How unjustly we repine at the shortness of our Lives and think our selves wronged if we attain not Old Age; where it appears hereby, that the one half of those that are born are dead in Seventeen years.… [So] instead of murmuring at what we call an untimely Death, we ought with Patience and unconcern to submit to that Dissolution which is the necessary Condition of our perishable Materials.

And in the meantime, invent the telephone and the flush toilet and make it a little easier.

A recommended read; a slog, but a delightful slog.

Armstrong’s “The Case for God”: A Case Not Made

Few religious thinkers have eased the consciences of spiritual liberals, anti-fundamentalist religious moderates, and functional nonbelievers unwilling to stake any affirmatively atheistic ground than Karen Armstrong. For years she has been making the assertion that her scholarship proves that the “great” monotheisms ought not be associated with the fear, xenophobia, irrational faith in the absurd, violence, or misogyny that so they so often encourage, but that they have their “true” foundations in love and tolerance–and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t been doing it right. As much as that assertion causes many skeptics to arch their eyebrows, it at least sounds like a good thing to which the faiths could aspire if they were so inclined. Alas.

Her latest book, The Case for God, is not meant to explain the various faiths’ dispositions or ideological foundations, but to convince the reader that the most commonly held notions of God, those of a being that created the universe and “exists,” are false, and that in actuality, God is an unknowable, unfathomable concept for which the very term “existence” is too limited. If you think that sounds like a pretty weak basis for an argument when dealing with such a grand concept’s veracity, you’re right. And despite Armstrong’s impressive breadth of knowledge and her nuanced grasp of various thinkers’ positions throughout the generations, her case never adds up.

Part of the trouble, of course, is that her book’s premise is challenged by her own explanation of what God is. It is nigh impossible for me to understand how someone can build a case for God if the central thesis is that God is an unknowable pseudo-entity-but-not-really, something that mere humans are wholly incapable of defining. Where does that leave your book?

One would hope that an intellect like Armstrong’s would note this paradox. Instead, she throws her lot in with apophatic explanations of God from a chosen slate of theologians, limiting the “correct” discussion of the nature of God to defining what Godis not. Thus, The Case for God is not so much a set of proofs for God’s existence, but a selection of and elaboration on the apophatic positions of particular religious thinkers, united in their unwillingness to pin God down to the realm of the perceivable. It is not a case, per se, but a series of similarly-themed guesses.

There is another paradox in Armstrong’s venture. Repeatedly throughout the book, she laments how “rationalist” notions of God (pretty much all of them since the Enlightenment, a period about which she seems to have mixed feelings) that picture a supreme being of some form that “exists” in the way most (okay, just about all) people define the term, and she is quite clear that such a position is flatly incorrect and–what might be the worst sin in her eyes–”idolatrous.” But by the very act of asserting that some notions of God are incorrect, she gives the lie to her position that God is an unknowable. If it is not, how can she know who is and is not correct in their beliefs?

Armstrong has a particular bone to pick with what we understand today as atheism, most vigorously with the New Atheists, who she says choose the idol-God of the incorrectly-religious to assert the non-existence of. But Armstrong herself, as many have pointed out before me, defines God out of all notions of existence anyway, leaving nothing to believe in to begin with. Speaking for atheists (if I may for the moment), I think it is safe to say that whether we are talking about a vengeful Old Testament Yahweh or a non-definable, quasi-existent infinite ultimateness of the divine logos, both are equally unprovable, devoid of evidence, and not worthy of acceptance. Like many of the New Atheists’ critics, she complains that they are not sufficiently well-versed in theology, and are therefor in no position to weigh in on the question of God’s existence. This is akin to saying that one cannot assert the nonexistence of the Starship Enterprise unless one has studied every episode of every Star Trek series, earned a degree in startrekology, and published scholarly articles on the debate as to whether resistance truly is futile.

To Armstrong, this rationalist line of thinking shuts out alternate means of arriving at “truths,” for Armstrong rests on the also-unprovable notion that truth is a fluid, utterly subjective concept that can be realized by means other than reason. This mindset obviously opens up a formidable can of worms, as any cockamamie “methodology” that someone chooses, and any absurd answers they turn up, suddenly become equally valid. For Armstrong, there is rational truth and religious truth, and religion–something she insists should be viewed as a discipline and practice rather than a belief system–is equally capable of arriving at truth as science. What truths religion is supposed to reveal is, of course, not terribly well defined, and one is forced to infer that the correct truths are those that Armstrong has revealed to us; God is too out-there for mere existence, thinking otherwise is wrong, and we should only talk about what God is not, though we’re pretty sure it’s all about love and tolerance. Throw in a few dashes of meaningless terms like “the infinite,” “ultimate truth,” “inner essences,” and things that have “no qualities,” and you have some idea of what Armstrong is talking about. Or, more likely, you don’t.

I would be remiss if this review did not also highlight what was particularly troubling about the book; Armstrong’s twisting of the practice of science to imply that at its best it is grounded in some theological inspiration. Armstrong praises those greats of ages past, Newton, Descartes, Kepler, and claims that they practiced a “science rooted in faith” because they were personally inspired by religious feeling to pursue knowledge. Now, it may very well be that all these men were driven to discovery out of religious fervor, but that does not in any way make the method they chose, the scientific method, somehow dependent upon or tainted by superstition. Their motivations may have been faith-based, their science was not, and could not have been. Her assertion otherwise is as meaningless as saying that their work was rooted in money if they were paid for their research. She also offends the sensibilities by looping in modern physicists who, since they often deal in invisible abstracts, are examples of science-as-faith-exercise. I would imagine that most of those physicists would balk at the idea of their work being classified as religious in this way.

And while she praises those scientists who have been open to the supernatural, she castigates Galileo for that same disposition. The difference is that Galileo was punished for his pursuit of actual truth, and that punishment was delivered by the earthly representatives of the ruling faith tradition. This is apparently an uncomfortable and inconvenient bit of history for Armstrong, as it is an instance in which religion actively suppresses and penalizes understanding of reality, and so she is careful to let us know that Galileoshares the blame with Pope Urban VIII for his house arrest and public shaming, because Galileo was “pe
rversely intent on reconciling” his scientific findings with scripture. This kind of faith-inspired science is perverse to Armstrong. Is it because he, unlike Kepler and Newton, was punished for it by the ministers of that very faith?

There is more to be said about Armstrong’s puzzling take on the purpose of religion; something of a set of rituals designed to make one a better person in some undefined way, the vaguest kind of self-improvement. But if every believer on Earth were religious in the Armstrongian sense, there probably wouldn’t be too much of a need for affirmative atheism or a secularist movement. Goodness knows, she has won the congratulations of the fuzzily-spiritual and not-quite religious all over the mainstream press, particularly from liberals. But her God is as flimsy of a hypothesis as any other more “idolatrous” version, whether she would deign to allow her position to be subject to such earthly terms as “hypothesis” or not. The case for God is not only a weak one, but it is, like Armstrong’s own God, for all intents and purposes non-existent.

Lisa Miller Exorcises Her New Atheist Demons

Lisa Miller of Newsweek, it seems, has had it with us nonbelievers. In her latest column, she seems to be indulging is some form of guilt-laden catharsis, awash in shame for having devoted too much precious ink to the New Atheists.

For five years, since the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith … three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities.

It’s not their fault, though, says Miller. It’s the media, all too attracted to the latest shiny (or loud) thing that comes along.

… this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs.

I think this is wrong to begin with. The New Atheists have attracted more attention than atheists have generally, certainly, but the idea that they drive the conversation about faith and its value to society is laughably wrong. We are bombarded with coverage that presents faith in a gauzy, cozy package that begins from the assumption that religion is a positive force in society—indeed, assumes that it is an assumed element of people’s lives. The New Atheists may currently dominate the discussion about atheism, but as far as the “faith-verus-reason” debate, if it happens at all, it is not in any way owned by the New Atheists. Perhaps if more people were brave enough to engage in it, this would not seem to be the case to Miller. She goes on.

We in the media have to bear some of that responsibility. Just as we covered Jerry Falwell when he said the Teletubby Tinky Winky was gay, we cover the “new atheists” because following controversy is part of what we do. As religion editor of NEWSWEEK, I have done my share of enabling these battles, most recently in a September interview with Dawkins.

So according to Miller, covering Dawkins is equivalent to enabling the bigotry of Jerry Falwell. ‘I don’t believe God exists’ = ‘Gays are immoral.’ This nonsense is insulting not only in the gross comparison of the New Atheist thinkers to irrational, demagogic, right wing hate-mongers. It also robs the atheist movement of its genuine intellectual substance and relevance. Falwell was simply trying to rile up the credulous and spread homophobia. The New Atheists are trying to spread reason and critical thinking. You may not like their tone, but the intellectual foundations and intentions could not be more different.

But Miller isn’t through. Now it’s time to really lay on the stereotyping.

But we can’t shoulder all the blame. The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.

There may be a grain of truth in that this kind of “regurgitation” does indeed exist, as it does with any like-minded group from liberals to libertarians to librarians. But Miller says “the atheists” are this way, implying that atheists as a whole all behave in this same “adolescent” manner. It’s astounding this kind of language was even allowed in the pages of Newsweek by the supposedly pluralistically-minded Jon Meacham.

The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let’s move on.

Let me answer your question: No one. They are three (and if you include Daniel Dennett, four) of—yes— the smartest guys in the room trying to get us to stop buying into nonsense, myth, and superstition, to stop giving religion immunity in the public discourse, stop assuming that faith is intrinsically a good thing, and to bring a little reason and critical thinking to the public debate. If it seems like they’re showing off, it’s probably just because they’re right, and sometimes the truth is a little uncomfortable. So let’s not “move on” until the lesson has sunk in.

Most of the public criticism of the New Atheism is, unfortunately, based on this queasy discomfort over exaggerations of their “style” (as though all four men were the same). This has been the subject of a lot of my writing, and so it was a large part of my recent address to the Northern Virginia Ethical Society last weekend (which I may or may not post later). This kind of attack is bad enough when it’s based on a distortion of the New Atheist approach, but once in a while these broadsides cross over from simply being a poorly formed argument or a misinformed rant, and into the territory of the unjustified maligning of entire group. This is par for the course for reactionaries like Charlotte Allen. I’m sorry to see Lisa Miller creep into their camp. With the more sophisticated set, this almost always happens under the guise of frustration with the tone or the supposed futility of the New Atheists’ argument, but it disguises an underlying prejudice against the marginalized subgroup they often represent. This is about a frustration with atheists as a whole, not Christopher Hitchens. This is about discomfort with reason trumping faith.

Miller does one good thing in this otherwise astoundingly ham-fisted column—she notes that other atheist voices have not received the degree of notice that they have earned, including Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain of Harvard, and my favorite, Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and author of Doubt: A Historyand The Happiness Myth. But these voices are not being shut out, which is Miller’s implication. They simply have not garnered the same amount of attention as the New Atheists have, most likely due to the very reasons that Miller suspects: the New Atheists are louder, and their message is more directly confrontational. But there is nothing stopping her or anyone else in the media from cluing in to Epstein’s work on secular community and morals, or Hecht’s wonderful perspectives on history and culture.

Of this, Miller writes, “This new conversation won’t be sexy,” but she’s wrong. It’s only “not sexy” if she and others in her position fail to make it so. Writers and commentators shouldn’t feel like their arms are being twisted to find the compelling within the subtle and the nuanced. It shouldn’t be that hard, if only they will take the time to move beyond the stereotypes. I’ll be waiting.