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Jerry Coyne on the Banality of New Atheism

Prominent New ('Gnu') atheist Jerry Coyne laments... atheist meetings.

In his post Are there too many atheist meetings? , Coyne complains:

Maybe it's because I've been sick and grumpy, but I've noticed the huge spate of atheist meetings, both past and upcoming, and it's seemed to me that there are just too many.

There are probably more attendees at Mass in my small local parish (six Sunday masses, 500 parishoners for each service) on a single weekend than there are atheists at atheist meetings around the world in a year (unless you count the weekly staff meetings of the North Korean secret police).

Perhaps, writes Coyne, atheists are victims of their success:

I know this is a sign of a successful and burgeoning movement of disbelief throughout the world, and I recognize that they give us greater visibility, and I understand that they serve as a useful venue for people to make connections as well as listen to their atheist "heroes."

It's amusing to note that 'gnu' atheists like Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, P.Z. Myers (to name a few) extol the profound new insights that godless science and philosophy has provided to mankind. But when the room lights dim and the powerpoint presentation starts...

The deep insights of the godless tire Coyne:

But to me the speakers and talks have often seemed repetitive: the same crew of jet-set skeptics giving the same talks. And how much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?

One would have thought that the "best idea anyone ever had" and the liberation of mankind from the tyranny of supernatural superstition would have provided grist for quite a few plenary talks. Who knew that "science and reason and evidence" would get tiresome so soon?


I've been to just one of these meetings so far: the Atheist Alliance International meetings in Burbank, California in October, 2009. I greatly enjoyed that: I got to meet fellow "bloggers" like Brother Blackford and P. Z., relished the talks of people like Dan Dennett, Carolyn Porco, and Lawrence Krauss, whom I'd never before seen speak in person, and was put into stitches by a Mr. Deity skit and Bill Maher's hilarious (and straight) reading of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life.

That "Mr. Deity skit" must have been a corker. And no surprise that assertions that life has purpose would drive a roomful of atheists to hysterics.

Still, a few things bothered me, most notably the air of self-congratulation (which I excused on the grounds of enthusiastic people finding like-minded folks for the first time), the "fanboyness" directed at some of the famous atheists (they hardly let poor Richard alone, and I'm not sure he liked that!), and the lameness of quite a few of the talks. Again, how much new can you say about atheism?

Perhaps atheists could spice up meetings with breakout sessions on litigation to suppress academic freedom in classrooms, or on the implications of promulgating an ideology that there are no objective moral laws, or on the invariable carnage of atheism in state power. That should keep them awake.

Coyne lists some of the negatives about atheist meetings:

- you tend to see many of the same speakers every time

Why not troll for more smug comedians, unemployed magicians, and once-upon-a-time scientists to bulk up the program?

- some of the most popular speakers are showing signs of conference-fatigue for all their obvious professionalism and generosity with their time.

Richard Dawkins is so annoyed that people won't buy his books unless he does these silly readings...

- topics tend to be similar.

There are only so many variations on "everything just happened and aren't we brave for saying it"...

- some talks can be predictable in content thanks to previous talks being on YouTube (one of the reasons why the Dublin Conference opted for panel discussions instead)

Yeah. You Tube is causing cancelations of all kinds of meetings everywhere...

- encourages fanboi-ism which is embarrassing to watch (and probably really irritating and embarrassing to be the target of)...

Richard Dawkins just hates attention.

- to an extent, a noticeable percentage of the people attending the conferences are the same each time as well...

This may not be accidental. Remember Fidel Castro's trick of having his small band of guerrillas circle continuously in front of New York Times reporter Herb Matthews to convince him that his forces were huge? Perhaps all of these atheist meetings are a ploy to convince us "atheism must be credible, because there are so many atheists..."

Oh the irony. Atheists insist that their ideology is a revolution in human understanding. Darwinism is "the best idea anyone ever had." "Lincoln freed the slaves. Darwin freed our minds." "Atheism is the apotheosis of mankind's long twilight struggle for freedom from superstition." Shouldn't atheists, now liberated from crass belief in God, revel in the deep insights offered by "science and reason and evidence"? Heck, they can't even keep each other awake during powerpoint talks.

The salient characteristic of atheism is its banality.

(Cross posted on Egnorance)