This is an interesting movie, I just happened to come across it, randomly, through the interwebs. Based on a Cormac MaCarthy book, it opens with Tommy Lee Jones (simply known as “White”), sitting at a table with Samuel L. Jackson (known only as “Black”) discussing the nature of life, religion, passions, meaning, the world, society, culture, violence, consequence, God, Jesus, atheism, nihilism, jail, literature etc. The full gamut of experience is viewed and explored by these characters. The basic premise being – Black saved White’s life from a suicide attempt, having done this they retire to Black’s house, so that the poorly educated, yet religious Black, may attempt to assuage the intelligent, educated professor (White) into seeing something in the world, to hold on to.
The obvious and basic premise labelled, it’s important to note, that the underlying meaning, at least to me, is not that Black is a theist because he is classically “uneducated”, nor, similarly, is White an atheist because he is “smart” (indeed one may wonder what is smart about suicide). I also didn’t feel like any particular view-point was especially strawmanned, nor did I feel a preference in the director’s (also Tommy Lee Jones) preconceptions or presuppositions – the audience is left with 2 convincing characters that portray their view points fairly, and with passion.
Being that this entire 90 min movie is set on one location, with 2 actors going at each other, with no theatrical “tricks” (cuts, edits, flashbacks etc) employed, the weight of this piece is firmly set on these 2 characters interactions – and it works, powerfully.
I felt a collection of things during this movie, and many of the utterances given by both characters struck me – obviously because I align with the atheists position, and have, like so many apologists claim, dealt with nihilism (though have moved on from it), I was affected by White’s dialogue. Many things he said, resonated with me. And that’s part of what I wanted to say here.
White’s character is dark, at his wit’s end, but most importantly, this is a rational person, a seeming contradiction, after all – how can you be suicidal, yet rational? White articulates his case over the course of the movie, his sense of … disillusion with the world, that “happiness is contrary to the human condition”, and that “we were born into such a fix as this, suffering and human destiny are the same thing, each one is a description of the other”.
As an uneducated, and moody teenager I dabbled in this same idea of the futility of existence, in the Nietzschean “death of God” sense, or to quote Tool: “it doesn’t matter what’s right, it’s only wrong if you get caught”. It’s easy to see why people are like White, that given a particular view of the world, even he states: “I don’t regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world, I regard it as the world itself”, and that this world he refers to is “a horrible place, full of horrible people”. We see this given commonly among apologetics as the default atheist position, but it is rather, the lazy, or reactionary position, for depressed people, not necessarily atheists. Moreover the reason theists might say this is due to the fact that they have their meaning gift wrapped for their pleasure, a stalwart tradition from which to draw, socially accepted (majority) communities – seems easy. Even if in practice, it really isn’t. Atheists on the other hand, have no such gift wrapped world view, or community from which to draw strength, generally, they have to find what philosophies they will adopt, what meaning the see value in (which does not mean subjective relativism). And nihilism, and depression can be a result of facing reality, on its terms.
The problem for me of course, the reason I don’t subscribe to nihilism, to the death of value, where I part from White – is because I subscribe to a worldview, not only that, not as lofty as that, I look at the world around me, I look at the results of World War 2, I look at people who fight religious intolerance, inequality, the point my reason leads me to?
There are good people in this world – who fight intolerance.
There are people who fight everyday for the good, Black may be considered one of those people. There are people fighting the world over for a cause that is just – look at our society, there are ways of looking at it, that it seems dark – poverty, molestation, rape, jealousy, greed, these are all part of the condition of being alive. I think White would argue, that the fact that good people have to fight, against that dark backdrop, only speaks to the futility of the enterprise, or as he says “you can’t be happy if you’re in pain”. White’s at a point, where he has no fight in him anymore, he doesn’t see the world anymore, the forms he sees are ‘colours” and “shapes”, but with none of the value we attribute to these things, and moreover he sees this as supported, biblically: as he says, “even God gives up at some point, I’ve never heard of a ministry in Hell.”
White is, perhaps not eminently likeable – he is evasive to the most simple questions, which makes him sound like a petulant child, not wanting to cater to someone he considers (intellectually) beneath him. This also makes him passively condescending, we see how he views Black, I guess, like so many atheists might do.
Here we see Black’s increasing despair and desperation as the power of the relationship switches, through most of the movie Black is the one asking the questions, throwing his theology around, sharing his life experience. White is uncomfortable, constantly feeling the need to leave. But it’s when White opens up on Black that we feel, if not see, White’s conclusion as seemingly undeniable, moreover, we see that Black feels it, not completely mind you.
Black goes from the boisterous, happy guy with all the answers to a man shaking with his head between his legs, as White spews all his bile at him, articulating so well, just what he sees is so hopeless, not just wrong, but hopeless about the world. It’s here we see a complete character come to life, and we empathise with what White feels like he needs to do, moreover, we might even feel, in our darker moments of despair, like the only thing that makes us disagree with him, is that we fear pain not death, or that we just want to stay – essentially, that our reasons for living are trivial.
I found myself thinking about death, about my own, about obliteration, nothingness, and part of me almost felt, as White did, and perhaps feeding off him, an excitement, a kind of peace about death. That this life is full of hustle and bustle, and that in death we find absolution, quiet, solace. Of course it won’t be that way, as even White knows, there can be no community of the dead because there are no entities to form such.
- John Haught On The New Atheists. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Nice Nihilism (3quarksdaily.com)
- Motes and beams (barefootbum.blogspot.com)
- Make up your minds, atheists! (dalehusband.wordpress.com)
- Letters (nytimes.com)
- God, atheism, and what it is to be human (bluejaysway.wordpress.com)
- Nice Nihilism and The Atheist’s Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (wanderlustmind.com)
- Atheism in South Africa (dead-logic.blogspot.com)
- The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, By Alex Rosenberg (independent.co.uk)
- An Inoffensive Atheist Ad Could Appear on Pennsylvania Buses (patheos.com)
In discussing my atheism with regular people, in particular, regular Christians – regular meaning in this instance either (a) not apologists, or (b) not radical fundamentalists – I’ve found, and this is probably going to sound self-evident, that respect goes a long way to making people who might ordinarily a priori reject you as a person, come to understand, and hopefully accept you as an atheist.
There are Christians in my life, and on the internet, who know how vocal I am about my atheism, who read my blog, and with whom I have interesting, and more importantly, respectful conversations. That is the bond that ties our conversations to a calm and reasoned anchor: respect. Without going into too much detail I have another group of Christians in my personal life who are, well, less than open to accepting me as a fellow human being – I’ve received hate mail, threats, condescension, disapproval and basically all loss of human decency.
Why? Because I don’t believe in their God.
I understand I’m not engaging with what the Bible might say about atheists (Psalms), or what it says about atheists fraternizing with Christians (Paul), which may redefine this issue somewhat. Under Christianity’s morals it may be perfectly humane to attack a person simply for being different. After all, these Christians may view me, an atheist, as worse than a murderer, more foul than, or at least equal to, any evil here on earth.
Replace ‘atheist’ with ‘black’, or ‘woman’ and you see the problem with that mentality.
The point is: however strong these Christians feel about their beliefs, at the end of the day, they are ideological principles, there is however one thing the Christian and I do have in common, that we know, obviously and evidently – we are both of us, humans. We both deserve respect, ethical treatment and the right to live our lives free of molestation.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly fine for apologists to critique atheism, naturalism, materialism, to poke holes in them, and to find contradictions etc – it’s how we all become better versions of those. I respect what they do, value it. It’s even fine to have heated, public discussions, as long as both parties continue to respect each other as people. But ad hominem, personal attacks, disrespecting or devaluing a person and threats simply because someone holds different views, is not an enlightened way to be, and is not worthy of the brains we posses – Christian, or atheist alike.
Bringing it back to atheists: in day-to-day life, I don’t think religion is something we necessarily want to condescend on – which isn’t to say parody, satire etc don’t have their place, I would say they do. But when you’re dealing with regular people in regular settings, is the best tactic to belittle and condescend? Or are understanding, respect, tolerance, and most importantly a code of basic human decency, recognizing we’re all part of the same world, and deserve the same ethical treatment, the way to go? Do we really want to be like the aforementioned fundies, persecuting and being intolerant of people, who simply by the fact of their beliefs, are different from us?
We may debate the meaning of religious belief, or the harm it can produce etc, but most importantly, we are all humans, tied together in the realm of cause and effect, meaning: what you do to me, affects me, and visa versa. Getting along in this world is primary and paramount. With that in mind, shouldn’t religious disagreements come secondary to measures of decency?
- “Militant Atheism” – I don’t think that means what you think it means. (monicks.net)
- Loftier Musings On John Shook’s Views On Atheism. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- ABC gets it wrong again: Atheism and Humanism, forms of civil religion? (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Articles (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Ask PZ Myers: How Is It That You Can Claim To Be A Freethinker? (greylining.com)
- The Stupid! It Burns! (making up quotes edition) (barefootbum.blogspot.com)
- Loftier musings on (my) atheism/atheists.. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Pray for an Atheist Facebook Initiative Stirs Religious Emotions Between Christians and Atheists (prweb.com)
- More on Christianity, Atheism, and Ethics (compassioninpolitics.wordpress.com)
- An Atheist Derides Modern Atheism (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
As usual and always there are no definitions of terms – when the term “New Atheism” is thrown around we are simply left to ask who, or what that might be – of course we can assume it’s Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris – but read any theist blog on the subject now and the list seems to include any atheist author publishing at the moment, as we will see.
Allow Austin Cline at About.com to define it for you :
New atheism is defined in both positive and negative ways. The positive definition of new atheism is a modern, 21st century movement in atheism which is openly critical of theism and religion and which is less willing to be accommodating to religious beliefs, traditions, or institutions. The negative definition of new atheism is a militant, fundamentalist movement dedicated to the eradication of religion.(Quine, Definition of New Atheism)
The article begins by apparently showing how scared the Gnu Atheists are of debating Craig:
Given that there isn’t much in the way of serious argumentation in the New Atheists’ dialectical arsenal, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Dawkins and Grayling aren’t exactly queuing up to enter a public forum with an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
Firstly this great piece of reporting is twisting the fact that Grayling may have declined to debate Craig in this instance – but forgets to mention that Grayling has already debated Craig! Moreover this piece of rhetoric completely skips over the fact that Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger and others (I recommend the debates between Eddie Tabash/Craig, and Keith Parsons/Craig) who might be labeled with the New Atheist title have all gone up against Craig. It seems atheists are eager to que up against “an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed.” But let us not let the facts get in the way of good rhetoric.
Next Came moves on to a critique of Dawkins book The God Delusion- but what is this critique? That the book has no new arguments?
Ironically, there is nothing substantively new about the New Atheists either. Despite its self-congratulatory tone, The God Delusion contains no original arguments for atheism… Dawkins maintains that we’re not justified in inferring a designer as the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe because then a new problem surfaces: who designed the designer? This argument is as old as the hills and as any reasonably competent first-year undergraduate could point out is patently invalid. For an explanation to be successful we do not need an explanation of the explanation. One might as well say that evolution by natural selection explains nothing because it does nothing to explain why there were living organisms on earth in the first place; or that the big bang fails to explain the cosmic background radiation because the big bang is itself inexplicable. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
Firstly – it wasn’t the “Gnu Atheists” who labelled themselves as such – this is a meaningless objection -moreover if a critique of the intelligent design position (and argument) is not new, then it follows that the argument it is critiquing is also, not new! One might also ask ” and who cares?” Are we only to address arguments that are new? Well we might, if theists weren’t using the intelligent design position today, which they are. As we can see this is an esoteric and empty objection.
Came’s critique of Dawkins “Ultimate Boeing 747″ argument as presented here is a strawman – Dawkins spends a 50 page chapter explaining and defining the parameters of the argument and Came shortens it to “who designed the designer?”?? It completely misses the point of Dawkins objection: which is an argument that solves the apparent statistical improbability of complex on earth, by using natural selection. To Dawkins, life on earth has evolved by natural selection, to postulate an esoteric “designer” to explain that process, adds nothing to it, fails Occam’s razor, is counter to the evolution explanation, as well as not being supported by the evidence. To quote Christian Ken Miller in his book Finding Darwin’s God:
The advocates of intelligent design have no explanation beyond the whim of a designer himself. That’s just the way he chose to do it… Evolution offers the perfect explanation. (Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, p. 94, 1999)
Moreover as John Allen Paulos states in his book Irreligion in seeming support of Dawkins:
The absence of an answer to the question “What caused, preceded, or created God?” made in my eyes, the existence of the latter being an unnecessary, antecedent mystery. Why introduce Him? Why postulate a completely nonexplanatory, extra perplexity to help the already sufficiently perplexing and beautiful world?” (Paulos, Irreligion, p. XI, 2008)
The next part, is the reason I’m writing this, as it’s something I’ve been wanting to write a blog on for a while – Came mentions Bertrand Russell, and how polite a scholar he was:
What is new is the belittling posture toward religious believers and the fury of the polemics. The New Atheism is certainly a far cry from the model of civilised interlocution between “old atheist” Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston that took place and was broadcast on BBC Radio in 1948. The New Atheists could learn a lot from the likes of Russell, whose altogether more powerful approach was at once respectful and a model of philosophical precision. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
Now, yes it is possible Came is only referring to Russell’s debate with Copelston (who was a great author in his own right, check out his analysis of Aquinas), but why would he mention Russell’s tone which was apparently “respectful and a model of philosophical precision.” if he didn’t deem his entire work to be so? But, we are left to ask – if we accept this – just what did Russell have to say about believers, Christianity and religion? Let us look from his famous works Why I Am Not A Christian:
That this idea – that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been about religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures, there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sort of people in the name of religion. (Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, p. 20, 1957)
So we see, the New Atheism is not new at all, Came has not researched his paper, and where he has written on the truth of subjects, viz. Grayling, he has omitted or twisted facts – to suit his purposes. Sounds like reasoned, fair critique to me. I wonder – if the Gnu Atheists are so “undignified”, “belittling”, “polemical” “inadequate” in their argumentation as Came suggests – why would he need to strawman them so?
Then we move on to the crux of the issue :
In his latest undignified rant, Dawkins claims that it is because Craig is “an apologist for genocide” that he won’t share a platform with him. Dawkins is referring to Craig’s defence of God’s commandment in Deuteronomy 20: 15-17 to wipe out the Canannites. Here is Craig’s offending passage:
“[If] God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of [the Canannite] children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.” (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
Apparently it is undignified for someone to object to an author who states :
the death of [the Canannite] children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
The best defense that comes to Craig’s mind for his Gods’ deplorable commandments is that the Canaanite children were happy to be slaughtered? Let’s assume this gross tragedy is true – if a child wants to die, should we celebrate that fact, and kill them gruesomely? Or, offer counselling, assistance, aid? Surely this conception of the murder of children does not fit with many sane people’s values. The best that Came can do to defend Craig, is to label Dawkins rejection of religious atrocities as an undignified response? One does wonder why those Gnu Atheists are so hostile to religion.
Came continues, defending Craig:
However, I doubt whether Craig would be guided by logic himself in this regard and conduct infanticide. I doubt, that is, that he would wish it to be adopted as a general moral principle that we should massacre children because they will receive immediate salvation. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
It is irrelevant that Craig would not “conduct infanticide” personally or that he wouldn’t “wish it to be adopted as a general moral principle that we should massacre children because they will receive immediate salvation” as he seemingly thinks it’s ok for his God to do so (let us hope this being doesn’t exist!). Moreover it is not clear that Craig wouldn’t endorse those things as he clearly does so above.
As we see, this is all skirting the real issue anyway:
But whatever you make of Craig’s view on this issue, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists. Hence it is quite obvious that Dawkins is opportunistically using these remarks as a smokescreen to hide the real reasons for his refusal to debate with Craig – which has a history that long predates Craig’s comments on the Canaanites. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
It would be quite obvious, on Came’s conception of events that Dawkins is merely hiding from Craig, but if I’ve been successful at all, it would seem that that damn dirty Dawkins might actually have good reasons for not wanting to step on stage, and endorse an author who apologizes for a deities orders of infanticide.
Came’s final words and a conclusion:
As a sceptic, I tend to agree with Dawkins’s conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism, but the tactics deployed by him and the other New Atheists, it seems to me, are fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life. For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people’s beliefs about religion. The presumption is that their largely non-academic readership doesn’t care about, or is incapable of, thinking things through; that passion prevails over reason. On the contrary, people’s attitudes towards religious belief can and should be shaped by reason, not bile and invective. By ignoring this, the New Atheists seek to replace one form of irrationality with another. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)
As we see – the tactics used by Dawkins, based on our analysis of Came – have been those we should all emulate – reason, kindness, the desire not to see children murderd, or endorse those who do, you know, basic human decency. And what does Dawkins get for it? Strawman, same old tired rhetoric, slander and misinformation tactics. As we see, all of Came’s concluding thoughts might be more appropriately aimed back at him – as we ask – isn’t it time the Gnu Atheists got a fair go in the media?
Came D. (2011). Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist. Retrieved October 23rd, 2011, from
Miller K., (1999). Finding Darwin’s God. New York, New York. HarperCollins Books. P. 94.
Russell B. (1957). Why I Am Not A Christian. New York, New York. Simon & Chuster. P. 20.
Paulos J. A. (2008). Irreligion. New York, New York. Douglas & McIntyre Inc. P. XI.
Quine A. Definition of New Atheism. Retrieved October 23rd, 2011, from
- Richard Dawkins Skewered as a Coward (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist | Daniel Came (guardian.co.uk)
- Loftier musings on (my) atheism/atheists.. (zaknafein81.wordpress.com)
- Archbishop Worries That Atheism is “Cool,” and This Makes Atheists Happy (douggeivett.wordpress.com)
- Richard Dawkins is either a fool or a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- Richard Dawkins VS William Lane Craig – who cares? (1minionsopinion.wordpress.com)
- The New York Times Profiles Richard Dawkins (patheos.com)
- Dawkins Wants Your Children NOW! (1godfather.wordpress.com)
- Dawkins is Disgusted (proginosko.wordpress.com)
- The Dawkins Delusion: A Response to Richard Dawkins (thesecretlifeofatree.com)