08 March 2013

Two sides of the same coin

Every time I behold the most recent argument from the nouveau atheist movement, it strikes me anew with the conviction that they are the exact mirror image of the fundamentalist Protestants they claim to oppose. Both movements are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly and aggressively bourgeois, for a start. Further, they are equally reductionist in their ontologies, and thus equally hubristic in their faith in human capacity to know ‘the Truth’ in its entirety (and equally certain that their group ‘has it’); equally fetishistic in their metaphysical approach to the natural sciences (a set of academic disciplines which by definition make no metaphysical claims whatsoever); equally cavalier about the value of human life, and thus equally eager to promote and engage in brutal force against those they see as the ‘enemy’; equally possessed of Manichaean worldviews which immediately separate the ‘saved’ from the ‘damned’ (or the ‘rational’ from the ‘benighted’, the ‘bright’ from the ‘dim’ and so on); equally predestinarian; equally problematic in their treatment of religious minorities and women; and equally emphatic about how different they are, the one from the other.

Of course, such emphatic declamations of difference in light of all these similarities can only be a form of psychological projection on either end. The only true demographic difference I can tell is that one movement is primarily urban and the other primarily suburban – though even there the characteristics tend to blur. The only true philosophical and theological difference I can tell is that one movement believes in precisely one less God than the other – though it should be noted that that God has precisely the same characteristics and foul temper.

Aesthetically, both are equally tone-deaf, and insist upon a levelling of all artistic and linguistic values to their chosen measure. Not only is it not enough for them that everyone behaves and believes the same way they do, but they also do everything in their power to make people amenable to the terse, prolix and mechanistic way that they like to think and speak. Both groups have a demonstrated taste for mass-market diatribes which exist solely to tell their readers that of which they are already convinced, and the way in which both groups have a tendency to communicate is studiedly ugly and dismissive, preferring (to employ the analogy that JRR Tolkien might) the brute monosyllables of the Orcs to the lyrical poetry of the Elves.

Anti-religious epithets like ‘brain-dead’ and ‘sky-fairy’ and ‘childish’ routinely pepper the speech of nouveau atheists (see the combox here), as do the various tropic extensions of those conceits – religion is for the mentally-ill and for children in their view (which shows as much as anything their contempt for children and their inhuman attitude toward the mentally-ill, as subrational things to be brushed aside rather than people who require love and care). On the other side, certain segments of the fundamentalist movement (like the people who seem to enjoy the Left Behind series or the preaching of Mark Driscoll) seem to enjoy selectively borrowing from apocalyptic literature the most violent images they can find, to make Jesus out to be a Hollywood-style action hero who will slay all the bad guys and send them screaming to hell.

In the end, it may not truly matter so much whether fundamentalists are merely atheists who haven’t yet quite managed to convince themselves, or whether atheists are merely fundamentalists who worship Matter rather than God. But the nagging suspicion that the two as sides of the selfsame coin, and that of a thoroughly 19th-century mint, continues to haunt me.


  1. Great post. The fundamentalist vs. New Atheist debate about the Nazis is a good example. Both sides use sketchy historical analysis to prove that Hitler and the Nazis were either religious lunatics or atheistic materialists. The reality is a lot messier.

  2. Thanks, John!

    You're definitely right about the messiness of the reality of mid 20th-century Germany. I myself can't make heads or tails of the Nazis. Clearly they were involved in a religious project, just as the Communists were - and clearly that religious project involved incorporating elements of religious symbolism both Christian and Teutonic-heathen.

    The problem, I think, was that they were materialist in all the wrong ways and spiritual in all the wrong ways. They took the worst parts of the 19th-century civic religion of nationalism, and they took the worst and least noble elements of the Christian intellectual heritage, and created a Frankenstein's-monster which was both liberal and illiberal, Spencerite and technology-fetishist but also sentimentalistic and Romantic, with a cult of personality at its centre.

    Each of the fundamentalist and New Atheist caricatures of the Nazis holds a grain of truth, but neither adequately reflects the whole reality.

    Perhaps because the New Atheists don't want to taint their Spencerism and technology-fetishism, and the fundamentalists don't want to taint their sentimentality and reliance on cults of personality.