Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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New atheism & child psychology

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2 minutes to read Why do new atheists form beliefs, and argue for them, in the same way as my four year old son?

Today I was instructing the children to clean up the living room in preparation for an unexpected visitor. In the process I had the following exchange with Miles, who is four:

Me Miles, pick up your shoes and put them where they belong.

Miles They’re not shoes; they’re sandals!

Me You know what I mean, so stop arguing and do it. Sandals are a kind of shoes. Then take those dishes and put them on the counter.

Miles I’ll take this one.

Me No, take them all.

Miles But I can’t carry them all!

Me Obviously you can’t carry them all, so obviously I meant one at a time. My goodness man, you’re like a New Atheist reading the Bible!

Miles I’m not a man!

In light of how much time I’ve spent debating new atheists, it has been very instructive having children—but especially having a little boy. I keep being struck by similarities in their ways of thinking. For example, not only is Miles disposed to argumentative literalness despite repeated correction, but he confidently asserts beliefs as incontrovertible facts merely on the basis of momentarily wanting them to be true. Indeed, he will insist not only on things he couldn’t possibly know to be true, but also on things he knows to be false. Then, when challenged, he resorts to special pleading or outrage in lieu of trying to reason together.

These sorts of epistemic and argumentative strategies mesh intriguingly with Peter Pan Syndrome, which became rampant in the West around the same time as new atheism. As Wikipedia notes, PPS is characterized by coveting independence and freedom, chafing at boundaries and limits, and tending to find any restriction intolerable.

This is, of course, entirely circumstantial and anecdotal. Yet it strongly suggests to me what my own experience as a new atheist also confirms: that new atheism is not motivated by rational considerations so much as by a kind of arrested cognitive development.



Your dialogue with your son had me laughing.

I have also noticed a hyperliteralism amongst atheists. And others have noted an autistic/ Aspergers tendency. Do you think this is because people like this are more likely to be atheists, or is this a feature of atheism? I read Why I Believed by Daniels. While more nuanced than most as he was well read as a Christian, it seemed that on his way to apostasy he bought into some atheist arguments that are quite weak. And from memory there were some hyperliteralist complaints about the Bible. Could this misreading be part of the deception of the atheist? Or perhaps, despite hyperliterist arguments being weak, they are the only ones available at times, and the preference for the atheist is disbelief?

How would you view your own thinking prior to conversion?

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

I think young men on the autism spectrum are more likely to be attracted to atheism. I can’t speak for women. There is a kind of clichĂ© that if you’re into things like computers or motorbikes or indie music or videogames, you’re probably an atheist. I think there’s something to that. Geeks are attracted to atheism, and especially to new atheism.

I think there are a number of factors at work to cause this. Geeks tend to be insecure about their place in the world. They tend to think and feel differently to “average” people, and are often resentful that they don’t fit in or aren’t understood. That’s especially important with respect to the relationships they have with their fathers—which statistically is predictive of atheism. They are prideful and like to flatter themselves, especially when they’re young and haven’t learned that being precocious is a temporary phenomenon. They like to play at being smart but they’re also lazy and don’t like to work hard (if it feels like work). They like to think they have superior insight due to their intelligence and sense of isolation. But what they usually have is actually a kind of mechanical aptitude rather than a well-rounded intelligence that encompasses intuition, language and so on. They like science because it is very rule-based; all syntax. They like programming for the same reason. But because of their pride and laziness, they try to apply mechanistic approaches to everything, rather than acknowledge that not everything is susceptible of mechanistic reduction and analysis.

That, I think, is at least in large part what accounts for their almost comical inability to not only read a text properly, but to even accept the notion that the way they are reading it is improper. I think a lot of them just don’t know how to get their brains into a gear where a text is a product of a person, rather than a machine. They don’t “get” people. All this also explains why they are attracted to a nonconformist subculture like the new atheism, where they can see themselves as characters in a narrative that promotes reason and logic, but without actually requiring the use thereof. And also where they can see themselves as kind of heroic, fighting dimly-conceived forces of pigheadedness and ignorance; rather than coming to terms with their inability to relate to people, with their dislike for social conventions—and recognizing that they are simply reacting against these things and building a false narrative to justify it.