Home > Apologetics, Atheism, Ethics, Secular, Theism > The unbearable wrongness of Stephens -c’mon ABC.

The unbearable wrongness of Stephens -c’mon ABC.

Hot off his recent debate with Russell Blackford and others, Stephens isn’t smarting at all from his loss but has come out swinging over at the ABC website’s religion an ethics blog (in which he runs), in a piece entitled “The unbearable lightness of atheism“.

And a swing is exactly what it looks like.

Posting, as he notes, his thrust from the IQ2 debate, one is left to wonder just why he would post his losing argument to begin with, and why I am wasting the virtual ink to respond to it, when Blackford and co. did a far better job than I could.

I enjoy blogging, simple as that.

It is always amusing to note the language used by theists when discussing “The Gnu Atheism”, you’ll notice it generally takes the tone they claim said atheists do, ironic it is, and more than a little sad.

Stephens immediately goes for what I imagine most theists consider to be atheism’s job and weak point: morality. Of course anyone who’d spent 5 seconds researching atheism would realise atheism doesn’t have to explain anything, but hey, let us not let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.

It’s the same old yarn really, society in decline, morals run rampant, relativism, post-modernism. The problem is, as with most of the ABC’s opinion pieces, is there is very little room to elaborate and explain ideas, what we end up with is a mixed bag of assertions, which then yield to greater assertions:

It seems that we have reached a point in our national life where we are utterly incapable of reaching any kind of minimal moral consensus on fundamental questions.

What are the threats that we face in common? Where are those sources of corruption, perversion, addiction and even servitude that we ought to protect ourselves and others from? What virtues ought we to have and instil in others in order to make a robust civil society? What are our obligations to others – those living (including those who come to us from without our borders), dying and not yet born? What constitutes a good life? What ends do politics and the economy serve?

Such questions were once the subject of ferocious political and public debate; and, for better or worse, the Left and the Right believed there were answers, and that they had them. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

Hmm, that’s bleak, but I wonder, as Stephens does, who is to blame? Atheism?

There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.

This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist “New Atheism” – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not claiming that atheism is necessarily the cause of our modern predicament, much less that it is the root of all evil. To make such a claim would be to accord this variety of atheistic chic with too much importance, too much weight. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

I have to wonder, if the worst thing Stephens can say is that atheism is no longer “heroically contrarian” then we could, as atheists, say that “The Gnu Atheists” and the secular foundations (secular student alliance, ACLU, Freedom from religion foundation etc) have done their job, insofar as they have given atheists a voice and protected the rights of unbelievers – we no longer need to be heroic or contrarian. To which I say, thankyou!

I find it nevernedingly ironic that he claims “The Gnu Atheism”: ” poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.” when one could make the argument, and I am – that is the very thing Stephens is doing in his article.

It’s relieving that Stephens wishes to elaborate that atheism isn’t the cause of the worlds problems, but it does beg the question – why would he spend his first 12 paragraphs talking about a decline in society, then without preamble jump to atheism, simply to say that it’s not the cause of the moral decline? What, he just wants to rant about it anyway? If there is no hidden agenda here, then Stephens is simply really bad at coordinating a narrative.

But don’t think I’m strawmanning Stephens, he continues:

In a way, I think where atheism fits in our cultural moment it is more incidental than that. Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

So it is, it’s not atheism that’s the problem, but nihilism (then we still ask – why is he discussing atheism at all?). Of course anyone who has read any apologetics would know this is what many apologists charge atheism with, claiming something to the effect of: this is where atheism leads us.  Even if this isn’t Stephens’ point, one has to wonder about his perception of the world. Are things so bleak to Stephens? Or are these simply the problems that accompany a theistic worldview, phrases like “the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself” seem to be problems for the religiously minded individual, would these problems plague a persons worldview who bases such on the evidence?

Perhaps – we could always make the world better, but to assert that the modern mind is unable to properly think on these subjects seems asinine –  and not to mention self refuting since if this was true Stephen’s own dialogue here would be unacceptable – particularly when it’s done with the backdrop of atheism flowing in the background. If one is to tie together the narrative Stephens seems to have so much trouble doing – one may assume, after all, it is the atheists fault – for the supposed inability of the modern mind to think properly on ideals which are largely well solved in the secular life? This is circular.

Stephens continues:

And here we confront a desperate contradiction at the heart of so much atheistic hyperbole (accurately identified by Bernard Williams and others). The New Atheists rely heavily on the thesis that religion is the enemy of progress and human flourishing, and that once the last vestiges of religion are done away with, humanity will be far better off. But they also claim that all religion is “man-made,” and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination? (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

Stephens is, of course, building to his point, which will come to in a moment – for now we see a category error – to say that “The Gnu Atheists” are calling religion the problem and that religion comes from man, and therefore what does this mean – misses a few steps in reasoning. Let us leave aside the fact that no quotations are given, and focus on the argument – Stephens seems to assume that “The Gnu Atheists” think it is “man” who is the problem, but rather it is religion as an epistemological tool man uses that is the problem. “Man” (sorry for the masculine pronoun ladies) may have his faults, but that means religion is all the more dangerous – what “The Gnu Atheists” are saying, if we are to accept, rather generously, Stephens quoting of them – is that we need a more robust epistemological tool – one that draws conclusions from the evidence, not the other way around, one that allows investigation into it’s ideals (re: no dogma), one that takes the world as it is presented to us – things of this nature. Religion comes from the failure of “man” to understand and explain the intricacies of his world, from tradition and habit. But as we see, this is in decline.

Now we come to his point:

And so, it would seem that we are left with an unavoidable choice: either these atheists are really misotheists, God-haters, who rage against the very idea of God, the Good, Truth and Law, and so desperately try to will God out of existence; or their oft-professed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress is without justification; or the history of religion reflects the extraordinary human capacity to pursue the Good, as well as its equally pronounced tendency for Evil, idolatry and nihilism. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

The atheists, or rather “The Gnu Atheists” it seems after all – are a not the cause, but rather a symptom of our faulty society, their rejection of what Stephens calls “the Good, Truth and Law”, and their “desperate” push to “will” God out is but part of our world of sin (you just know he wants to say it)?  It is painfully sad to watch Stephens flounder around attempting listlessly to assign some kind of blame to a world he sees is out of control – of course it has to be those damn dirty atheists – after all, no all-powerful, all-knowing being could possibly be responsible for any of the supposed lack of “Good”, “Truth” and “Law” in the world – no, no , that would be ridiculous.

As far as “The Gnu Atheist’s” supposed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress which is apparently without justification (which again, asserted without evidence), we can simply say that all us over here in the sunny atheist camp are loving life, we’re living in a society with the least amount of violence and crime, some might say we are living in the best this world has ever been. Homosexuals, women and minorities are slowly coming to get their rights – despite what Stephens’ religion might have to say about it, sure the world has plenty to work on, no-one’s claiming perfection,  and we’re by no means done. Stephens continues:

It is apparent, is it not, that the current batch of chic atheists are but a symptom of a more general cultural decline, the steady impoverishment of what Hilaire Belloc perfectly described as “the Modern Mind,” which ceaselessly explains away its own moral deficiencies by projecting them onto God and banishing him into the wilderness.

It is just as apparent why such an atheism – with its cartoon versions of history, its theological illiteracy, it fetishisation of science, its hostility to the humanities and aesthetics, its flattened-out brand of morality as mere “well-being,” its cheap gags and mode of incessant piss-taking cynicism – should appeal so powerfully to a culture that has grown accustomed to the vulgarities and trivia enshrined in the modern media. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

It is here, that all I have been saying comes to fruition, I mean, come on ladies and gentlemen I implore  you – do atheists really have to take this baseless, crap, asserted without evidence? I don’t even have the energy to address this ad hominem nonsense except to quote Stephens from earlier, when discussing the “The Gnu Atheism”:

“which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.” (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

It’s ironic to see how high and mighty the pious are when judging those damn dirty atheists and how much people like Stephens fail to see their own hypocrisy. The above could easily be said of the meandering drivel Stephens has posted here, so in the end, he seems to be no better than the atheists he means to place the entire burden of modern civilization on.


Stephens S. (2011). The unbearable lightness of atheism. Retrieved October 5th, 2011, from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/09/13/3316962.htm

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