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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R. Joseph Hoffmann Needs to Apologize to Atheists

R. Joseph Hoffmann Needs to Apologize to Atheists

R. Joseph Hoffmann is a religious historian I admire for his profound knowledge of religious history, nevertheless he seems to be too caught up in his own misguided view of what atheists ought to be (or at least aspire to) instead of what atheists are. His confusion probably stems from the fact that he views himself as an atheist (more or less) but is certainly still extremely sympathetic to the religious position (more or less). There is nothing wrong with being sympathetic toward the religious or with regard to religion, but it’s not a prerequisite of atheism.

Much of Hoffmann’s blog, the New Oxonian, is devoted to regularly bashing and ridiculing atheists with the zealousness of a religionist gone mad with sanctimonious certitude in his own self righteousness, and he constantly defends those poor dimwitted religionists, because as everybody well knows, they couldn’t possibly defend themselves against those cunning, cold as a nuclear winter, atheists. Hoffmann’s blog, however, is filled with vitriol toward atheists he doesn’t see eye to eye with, and when criticized for his unsympathetic views he insists the atheists are “throwing tantrums.” Instead of trying to explain where he differs with other atheists and why, however, he spends most of his time flinging mud.  

The strange thing is, between his meandering atheist rants and his savvy religious commentary, it sometimes seems as if Hoffmann is privy to rare moments of philosophical clarity.

The big distinction between the old and the new is that the old atheism depended on a narrative, based in philosophy, and linked itself to a long tradition of rational decision-making. Not choosing to believe in God was an act of deliberation, not a foregone conclusion. At its best, it was studious and reflective. At its worst, it was purely negative, abrasive and sometimes nihilistic.

But the rest of the time it just sounds like Hoffmann is whining like a spoiled diva who didn’t get everything exactly as she requested—with a personal sense of entitlement which has since become exceedingly annoying. The question is, why should we even bother listening to Hoffmann’s bloated opinion? Presumably, he knows a thing or two about religion (I’m not denying this), for that reason, however, he feels his opinion about atheism should matter too. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

All the same, by the sounds of things, Hoffmann doesn’t seem to give a fig about most atheists—since he is too busying taking them apart every single chance he gets. He calls Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (who launched the new wave of atheism, i.e. New Atheism) “unkind” and “mean.” Hoffmann affirms that most New Atheists are “strident,” “lack manners,” and if denigrating the New Atheist spokesmen weren’t enough he takes personal pot shots, singling out PZ Myers, calling him a “super-jerk.” Really, this is what Hoffmann thinks: about the “new” atheists (which are basically the same as any other atheist. Which makes one wonder, is he saying all atheists are all a bunch of ill-mannered, strident, mean spirited, unkind, super-jerks? Wow. Petty much?)

Personally, I think Hoffmann has gone far enough with the atheist bashing. I find the New Atheists refreshingly candid. They aren't mean, they’re earnest. They aren’t unkind, they’re brutally honest. Their tough criticism could, if taken personally, be viewed as strident, I suppose. It seems to me that their manners are superior to any of the religious they engage. Hoffmann’s accusations are baseless—but he insists nevertheless.

Hoffmann couldn’t be any more irritating if he tried. Even so, in his recent article “Atheist Tantrums” he offers a particularly telling ad hominem attack against PZ Myers, which sounds awfully passive aggressive, especially considering PZ recently criticized Hoffmann for comparing him to that religious book burning extremist quack Terry Jones. Rightly so, I might add. Needless to say, one might mistake the fact that Hoffmann is harping on PZ—yet again—for a somewhat petty agenda to get even. It appears Hoffmann couldn’t be bothered to find any other examples of atheists who speak their mind? Somehow I doubt it.

Even as Hoffmann, himself, claims there is no real distinction between “old” and “new” atheism, he goes on to claim that the New Atheists are “stupid” and “loud” and that “The new atheism is a catechism of conclusions reached, positions taken, dogmas pronounced.” I often hear this derisive talk coming from theists who want to bash the lofty claims of the New Atheists that science is more enlightening than bogus holy books and superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Not so fast, they say, your faith in science is the same as our faith in God. Soon enough Atheism is made out to be a pseudo-religion and just as quickly unthinking theists begin attacking it, by parroting the atheist criticisms of theism, but superimposing them incorrectly back onto a non-theistic philosophy—thus you get wild accusations that all New Atheists are enamored with scientism (yet even this proves that the accusers are more ignorant than initially presumed—since scientism is merely a pejorative term tossed around by those wholly ignorant of real science). Of course most atheists just sigh, turn away, and go on ignoring the idiots—but Hoffmann should know better.

Hoffmann becomes unbearable to listen to when he quips, “What’s now being called “new atheism” or atheist fundamentalism is really nothing more than the triumph of the jerks. Unsubtle, unlearned (but pretentious), unreflective (but persistent)…” This is right before he calls PZ Myers, a distinguished Professor of Biology, a “super-jerk.”

Obviously Hoffmann doesn’t know anything about the education of the New Atheists. Sam Harris is a philosopher turned Neuroscientist, and holds a PhD in modern Neuroscience from UCLA. Richard Dawkins is a world renowned evolutionary biologist and he was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. Christopher Hitchens is an infamous atheist intellectual, a savvy journalist, and graduated from Oxford University. Meanwhile, Hoffman groups other atheists into this “unlearned” category when he adds the abbreviation for and company (i.e., et al.) to his list of passionately despised New Atheists. So I can only assume he means other “uneducated” men like Dan Dennett (Philosopher, PhD), Victor Stenger (Physicist, PhD), Richard Carrier (Historian, PhD), David Eller (Anthropologist, PhD) among plenty of others. For the life of me I cannot seem to figure out how these men reflect the unlearned and unreflective side of New Atheism.

Hoffmann’s reasoning seems to be either not particularly refined or else dysfunctional—since even an uneducated, pretentious, fundamentalist atheist like me can see that he’s talking bullshit. This pretentiousness raises a pertinent question, why are we supposed to care about Hoffmann’s opinion, again? Oh yeah, because he is so much better than these other fools—these so-called New Atheists.

Criticizing atheism, mind you, is a good thing. It helps us persistent, loud mouthed, fundamental atheist types check our arguments and hone, refine, and improve them. Criticism only seeks to make us stronger critical thinkers. We can learn from positive as well as negative criticism, and criticism allows us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, perchance to grow better and learn to reason better. But Hoffmann isn’t offering advice; he’s being a dick. 

Whether or not Hoffmann is humble enough to accept criticism from a fellow nonbeliever, I wouldn’t presume to know (he may just passively aggressively stereotype any atheist who stands up to defend atheism, who knows?), but the next time he feels the overwhelming need he to come down on atheists I might suggest he try to temper his language more. Mostly because ad hominems are bad form, they usually suggest that you are either lacking any worthy argument, or that you’re just generally cantankerous, and either way being a dick isn’t going to vindicate your position that all those other atheists are “mean.” As a wise mother once informed, “If you point the finger of blame at somebody else, you only have three more pointing back at you.” It sometimes helps to look who’s talking.

The bottom line is I’m tired of Hoffmann’s constant whining and name calling. It’s plain ole spiteful—and it’s growing old, fast. His droning on and on about how crap the New Atheists are has become obnoxious, and I wouldn’t blame other atheists, new or old, for branding Hoffmann a sympathizer, not of reason, but of religious quackery. This bi-partisan “I’m really an atheist but I love religion sooo much, so don’t you dare attack it or I’ll attack you ” mentality is juvenile. After all, many atheists may be “cranks and angry old men,” as Hoffmann claims, but they espouse humanist and enlightenment ideals. They fight for rationality, critical thinking, free inquiry, and scientific progress. Whether it’s Robert G. Ingersoll or Richard Dawkins, Thomas Paine or Sam Harris, G.W. Foote or Christopher Hitchens, it doesn’t make any difference, “old” atheist or “new” atheist, Hoffmann needs to stop pouring on the scorn and attacking atheism, he needs to stop denigrating others, and he needs to apologize to atheists for his unwarranted mudslinging. Maybe if Hoffmann took a break from his caterwauling long enough to find a mirror, he’d see who the real “crank and angry old man” really is.

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Advocatus Athesit

Advocatus Athesit