Kit Whitfield made an excellent comment on my post about the anti-theist cavalry of the humanist apocalypse. My reply turned out to be some 1300 words long, which is a post not a comment, so I moved it here. It’s still quite long, so here’s a link to the TL;DR paragraph.
In summary, Kit made the point that anti-theist zealots are overwhelmingly white, male, Western and wealthy, and that this makes their frequent internet claims of victimhood somewhat suspicious. It’s worth reading the context, but that’s the broad thrust of it. She also cited this very good article by Natalie Reed, which discussed in passing the problematic nature of people who have such a powerful megaphone choosing to focus on one problem which, by comparison with many other social justice issues, simply isn’t that important except as a method of keeping the spotlight on the concerns of rich white men.
I then started a comment saying: I’m not in a position to address Kit’s main points directly. Firstly, I’m not really on any side here; I may be an atheist (though it’s hard to tell), I subscribe to a religion, and I have the privilege of being white and male. Secondly, Kit makes pretty good points: e.g. the one about theological ignorance, which is covered in the Appleyard article. He specifically pans Grayling for using false equivalence to protect the anti-theists from the charge of writing in a field they don’t understand. The logic being that if theism is a childish delusion like believing in Care Bears or biting chameleons, there is no need to engage with it on its own terms at all.
Where I disagree is with the implication that to the Horsemen specifically, rather than internet anti-theists generally, this is an insidious and ugly type of victim-claiming. Natalie Reed refers to it as one out of many civil rights issues: it is a civil rights issue, in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, in Texas or Alabama or Louisiana, in Turkey or Egypt. But that’s not the war the anti-theist cavalry want, or the one they are waging. They only seem to care about that kind of civil rights when the misfortunes of poor, female or coloured people around the world provide cheap-shot ammunition for a CNN sound-bite.
Aggressive anti-theisism is, as both Kit and Natalie Reed observe, overwhelmingly white, European / Western, male, wealthy, and very highly educated. The academe, in English at least, treats ‘theology’ as the study, not of gods, or of the concept of deity, but of “our” God specifically. The Horsemen are on a revenge trip. Whatever they may think, claim and fulminate about, they’re not fighting against religion, or even the concept of deity. They’re fighting the Christian God, YHWH, who is also the Jewish God and the Muslim God. They’re battling his egregious servants in the Vatican and the Madrassas; they’re attacking the US televangelist snake-oil shills. They perceive European history as having been dominated by atrocity, oppression and torture solely because of the dominance of organised Christianity, and they’re wrong.
Christianity is only responsible for some of the atrocities, not all of them; one might argue for ‘most’, but I wouldn’t. The Horsemen are anti-theists, in my reading, with three main motivations:
1. They are genuinely appalled at the way the JCI religious behemoth permits spectacular abuses against human decency, and actively encourages those abuses wherever possible for the benefit of the clerical establishment. Think the Blood Libel of Norwich, or the paedophile priests scandal today, or the systmatic rapes of Egyptian women who protested in Tarir Square, or the stoning of nine-year old girls in Israel by men with curly sideburns. The Horsemen perceive themselves, by virtue of being white men, as inheritors of a legacy of horror and shame that is even greater (by its historical breadth and scale) than the shame of slavery in the US. Like US abolitionists and their descendents, they see fighting back as a moral duty, but along the way they conflate the monotheistic triad with all religion. Which is, to be frank, fucking stupid. Daoism, Zen, and Lakotah Nation religions bear no resemblence at all, theologically or historically, to the JCI triad. Virtually no other religions in the recorded history of the concept resemble the religions of the Book as a class. They are genuinely different, which is one reason they became so dominant.
2. The Horsemen have been educated in an academic establishment in which for a very high percentage of elite actors, intelligence == atheism. Cf. the Grayling book, the god delusion (or as some might call it, the god experience) is a pure superstition, or an actual deliberate fraud, depending on whether you’re looking at the laity or the priests. As academicians and journalists, they therefore perceive a duty to educate. The logical error is in conflating spiritual experience with organised religion. Neal Stephenson discussed this in Snow Crash; the fact that in time, smart people notice that 90% of what happens in the modern Christian Church is bullshit, means a lot of Western smart people are atheists. It doesn’t mean that the other 10% is bullshit, or that the only possible response to being smart is to be non-spiritual.
3. They genuinely, as far as I can tell, believe that virtually every human evil, from the oppression of women to global poverty to nuclear warfare to AIDS in Africa, would disappear tomorrow if no-one in the world was stupid enough to be religious. And irritatingly, there’s kernels of truth in that; a great deal of oppression of women is directly enforced by the JCI religions. AIDS in Africa is a massively greater problem than it would have been without Dubya’s attempt at Christian moralism. Pharaonic levels of wealth inequality are permitted, excused and actively enhanced by government policy because Christian puritans developed a moralistic attitude to wealth as God’s reward for virtue, and those Christian elites enjoy punishing the ‘undeserving’ poor. Nuclear warfare remains a major threat in large part because a hefty percentage of America and many other lunatics around the globe really believe that someone pressing the button would result in a good outcome for them personally: and they believe this because of their apocalyptic interpretations of Christianity and Islam.
The Horsemen are also blatantly wrong, in that if you took away organised JCI religion people would still find excuses to be assholes to each other.
The Horsemen view the struggle against organised religion, by which they largely if not exclusively mean Christianity and Islam, as one of the most significant battles around. They think (for good reasons, even if they’re in part wrong) that ending organised religion is how you fix more or less all of the other problems of mankind. They see the removal of the pernicious influence of YHWH (and, as collateral damage, all other spiritual paradigms) as a magic bullet. There are no magic bullets, anyone with a bare grasp of history should know that. To me, that kind of wishful thinking, with no empirical grounding at all, is much less intellectually rigorous than recognising that humans experience gnosis and that they need a language to engage with it.
Hopefully it is by now clear that I neither agree with the Horsemen, nor am I defending them as correct. They’re not; though I am prepared to admit that I would have much less problem with them if they were prepared to confine their indictments to the guilty parties. Specific religions have perpetrated two thousand years of savagery, colonialism, torture, child abuse, oppression and cruelty, but I would argue the Horsemen are unwise to extrapolate from that truth the case that all spiritual experience is fraudulent and evil.
Natalie Reed’s description of internet anti-theism is, I think, largely accurate. As such, it bears a remarkable resemblence to internet racism from the EDL, internet misogyny from UniLad, and GOP assaults on reproductive freedom from the hysterical religious right. But I strongly disagree that the Horsemen themselves are fighting out of an attempt to acquire victim status. They’re fighting because, misguided or not, they are at heart Manicheans; they genuinely seem to believe that the entity Jews, Christians and Muslims worship as ‘God’ is the root of all evil.