A response to Michael Robbin’s “The true history of Atheism”

So making the rounds through the Facebook shares of overly eager internet apologists is one of the most pretentious, self-assured, hypocritical rants ever strewn together by means of the English language. An author by the name of Michael Robbins has deemed himself an expert on atheist thought and culture, as he mocks our “persiflage” with his own, and summarizes us as “the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called “the tune of the time.” Normally, I’d hate to give a guy like that any attention, but if you click that hyperlink there, you will be shocked, and probably dismayed, to discover that the author of this , this thing, this abomination, has found itself a cozy home at none other than Slate.

So, the birdeye’s view, this article is a book review of Nicholas Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Robbins rehashes the opening account of Spencer’s tome. Characterized as a creation myth, it is told that everyone believed in ignorant superstition until the glorious atheists whined, “well what about LOGIC” and then religion began to vanish and David Silverman pulled Excalibur out of its rock while Richard Dawkins untied the Gordian knot.Okay so maybe my that last quip is my own invention, but I thought it was funny and at this point I think a reminder of what sort of qualifications were necessary to carry authority on the divine existed in ancient times.

He proceeds to say that atheists, by taking this creation myth seriously, have set up “an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling”. To a certain extent we might find our supposed creation myth closer to reality than Genesis ever was. You wouldn’t think in this day and age one would need to herald the story of Galileo’s house arrest, or even the authors of the Nag Hammadi library, and others who found their books permanently burned simply because they were the wrong denomination of Christianity. But that aside, most atheists I know are typically just fine and dandy with religion and science existing with one another. It’s fundamentalists that causes courtroom drama over what should and shouldn’t be included in the textbooks, not atheists. It’s fundamentalists who dictate that life should be lived as the ancients prescribe, not atheists.

What he does is suppose that atheists see religion as a ‘crude explanatory strategy’, an attempt to demonstrate the origins of, viva la God of the Gaps, natural phenomena. Patently untrue. Show me the secular historian who has said that Genesis was written because the seeders of Judaism were looking at the sky, and wondered what that sky came from until a lightbulb, or for the sake of of avoiding anachronism, a candle lit above their foreheads and proclaimed it was Yahweh? Of course, a prudent reminder here is necessary that atheism means nothing more than someone who does not believe in God. Anything else attached to this definition is merely sensationalism by those looking for a foot to support their pedestal. You would likely see the historian that has dropped the theological lenses to find Yahweh to have originally been a member of a set of Gods, rather than the monotheistic First Cause. Do not fall for the distraction: Even if Yahweh’s origins are not polytheistic fabrications (I certainly think they are), this does not change the fact that most secularists believe this about Yahweh, and the notion that they believe Yahweh to be some scientific hypothesis is simply untrue.

Richard Dawkins finds himself the belittled punching bag of this article more often than not, superimposed as a figurehead for modern atheism. “Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion ‘is a scientific theory,’ ‘a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life,’” said our disgruntled friend. He might find himself further disgruntled to hear Dawkins say, “It is frequently, and rightly, said that senior clergy and theologians have no problem with evolution and, in many cases, actively support scientists in this respect. This is often true, as I know from the agreeable experience of collaborating with the then Bishop of Oxford, now Lord Harries, on two separate occasions”.

Robbins segueways this into the aforementioned origins of what religion is intended to do, talking about how a specific way of living is a necessity for religion. The fallacy is quite obvious – again no one believes that religion was proposed as a scientific hypothesis. Rather, religion makes scientific claims. When Joshua 10 says “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon…the sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day” its implication is the Sun standing still is a miracle, an exception to the norm. The path it takes is what produces sunrise and sunset, and because it was stuck at Gibeon, the daytime did not change nor the blankets of nightfall drop. No one would pretend that this is written as a scientific hypothesis regarding geocentrism, but the fact of the matter is that the none the less scientifically testable statements of geocentrism are made by this text. We can still test for its truthfulness, quest for its verifiability. The lingering notion to reject the critical examination of these implications because they don’t focus on the central point of the way to live seems to me to be a vestigial remnant of the fundamentalism passionately rejected by Robbins (Evidence for God? Silly atheists if God isn’t real then all meaning to life is lost!!!). If I say that x is a historical event that teaches Social Darwinism, x is not exclusively disproven by meanings of deflating a central message or theme of the relevant teaching. I do not need to disprove Social Darwinism in order to disprove x, regardless of the truthfulness or falsity of Social Darwinism. What is necessary at this point is to analyze the holy books of religion in their literary context. If I didn’t intend for x to be perceived as a historical event, then it’s not ‘literal’ and shouldn’t be taken literally. If I did intend for for x to be taken literally then, sans any conspiratorial hypotheses, we must take what I said literally, and if evidence shows me to be wrong then I am literally wrong. If I intended for x to be taken as allegorical, then we are literally supposed to treat it as allegorical. It is literary criticism, not the wishful thinking of liberal theologians, that determine if one is to take a scientifically testable claim as literal or metaphor.

Now, onwards, the author machine guns off a list of early Church fathers who supported a metaphorical Genesis as his evidence that Genesis is that: Metaphor. This is already an irrelevant anachronism; it’s just the same as one taking Renaissance-era New Testament commentaries as a part of the historical context necessary to determine the literalness of the New Testament. Furthermore, the one man he specifically quotes, Origen, is a laughable excuse. Origen just so happened to be thrown in prison, made to suffered, and condemned for his heretical beliefs (they managed to squeeze the condemnations in when they were taking a break from bookburning). To counter, I can only wonder how Robbins reconciles his accusation that Genesis is not literal with the Gospel according to Luke tracing back the ancestry of Jesus to Adam, or to Paul saying that all have died in Adam, or that Jesus taught that humans were created at the ‘beginning’, or that St. Peter called the Earth formed by water and out of water, or when St. Peter blew the whistle again on the mere eight survivors of the Great Flood (which subsequently blows the lid off of any empty thinking that the flood was a ‘local’ flood).

Rather than properly treat the can of worms he opened for what it is, the author chooses to instead launch another intellectually vapid assault on how the universe could have come from ‘nothing’. It’s cute, like a kid who just learned a word for the first time.

“Quantum fluctuations, the uncertainty principle, the laws of quantum physics themselves—these are something. Nothing is not quantum anything. It is nothing. Nonbeing. This, not empty space, is what “nothing” signifies for Plato and Aquinas and Heidegger, no matter what Krauss believes. No particles, no fluctuation, no laws, no principles, no potentialities, no states, no space, no time. No thing at all.”

Seriously? At least earlier you tried, Mr. Robbins. Now it seems you want to handwave away scientific hypotheses by lazily insisting upon the dishonest equivocation to the philosophical ex nihilio heralded by apologists without any argumentation whatsoever. This false dichotomy of “Nothing or God” is simply ludicrous. William Lane Craig, in a video detailing a list of what he found to be the worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological argument, said that an argument that claims that either God exists or the moon is made of green cheese is not a sound argument. I have surprised myself by discovering that I agree with him on this seldom occasion (It certainly makes up for the 11 minute bickering him and I had on a deity being ‘timeless’). It’s a false dichotomy, and this little tidbit of “God or nothing” is a perfect parallel and tautology of it. Whether or not you think that an universe from nothing logically follows from atheism is separate from saying that atheists think the same way as you do about atheistic origins. By all means assert and defend the premise that atheists origins are limited to nothing, but don’t just assume that atheists agree with you.

For an example of what I’m talking about, I don’t think being a believer in a personal God and believing that natural selection is the best explanation for the diversity of life are compatible positions. But for me to assume that because I personally hold this opinion then all theists then must agree with me and so I make a claim like ‘Theists think God created everything as it is today’ would be downright false and ignorant. In such a scenario, Robbins would likely, and correctly, call me out for making a strawman. But apparently it’s okay to insist upon cosmologists to solve your philosophical riddle, even if there is no common ground on the riddle being there.

Nailed it. I’m so glad we go to theists for the what it means to be an atheist, just like how we go to red ball capped pastors for our biology.

Despite that, it’s very ironic that Robbins would end such an article with such a hypocritical statement as “Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be”. Well you got that one right Mr. Robbins. Now if only you would understand that you are painting all atheists with the same fundamentalist colored brush that you accuse atheists of painting religionists with, I would stop snickering about the kettle calling the pot black. It’s just a shame for an article that called itself a history of atheism that we only found careless mudslinging from some snide snickerer with a grudge.

Nick Duncan is the Operations Director at Atheist Analysis. He’s always had a mind for skepticism and been an atheist since his childhood. When he’s not protesting religious bigotry or working on his History major, he can be found lost in a book, getting way too angry over a game of Civilization, and sipping on incredibly strong coffee.

One Reply to “A response to Michael Robbin’s “The true history of Atheism””

  1. This could have done with a proof read (some spelling and grammar mistakes) but this is the best article on the site I have read yet; brilliantly written. I don’t know of this Mr Robbins but I will be sure to look up the article now. In my opinion the reasons why fundamentalists say things like “Atheists are just as fundamental as us” or “they have faith in science” is not just a shifting of the burden of proof, it’s an unknown admission that they understand how stupid they look, and so want to attach themselves to a more intelligent structure or idea. If I looked around my side of the argument as saw Ray Comfort, Eric Hovid & Sye Ten, then looked at my enemy and saw Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris & the late great Christopher Hitchens, It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t a little bit jealous.


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