Thursday, November 4, 2010


Over the past few years I’ve read many articles about the Gnu Atheism in major media venues. I’ve seen a wide range of quality, and it seems that some, though with the best of intentions, are unsure about the best points to hit and how to hit them most effectively. It’s for them that I’ve written this guide.*


Gnu atheists should be presented as uncivil, strident, aggressive, arrogant proselytizers and rigid fundamentalists. Don’t worry about finding concrete examples to support these generalizations. If you absolutely must quote from a gnu, keep it short and divorced from the complex background and context which would only confuse the reader. You’re firmly within the consensus, so you’re on solid ground. At the same time, whenever possible – as when discussing large-scale surveys showing declining rates of belief – present nonbelievers as merely having “doubts” about God. This is perfectly consistent.

Similarly, gnu atheism shouldn’t be presented as an intellectual position. Repeatedly emphasize their hostility to organized religion as the source of their disbelief. It helps if you acknowledge that there are some legitimate reasons for this hostility – shows you to be fair and balanced while leaving aside those pesky ontological matters.

You’re also safe presenting gnu atheists as cold, hyper-rational, solitary automatons who lack an appreciation of beauty or sense of wonder. Pay no attention to those who are artists, writers, or musicians, or to any of their works describing the wonder of scientific understanding and the sense of cosmic connectedness that follows from this deeper empirical knowledge. Leave aside the enormous spectrum of atheist writing on any number of ethical issues. And no need to discuss gnu atheists as people with families, friends, and communities. There’s nothing dishonest about this. You’re writing about that one dimension that is the guiding focus of their lives: rejecting religion.

In fact, the analysis of gnu atheism not as a position concerning reality but a symptom of something larger, an expression of a (post)modern spiritual malaise, will vault your article right up into the top intellectual ranks, all the more so if you can present this spiritual condition as the root of many contemporary problems. This lends a profound, dare I say existential, element to your writing, and people will take you very, very seriously.

Contrast is always good. Look for critics! Starkly oppose the gnu atheists to more accommodating figures. Sagan is a great standby. He’s not around to speak for himself, so present his positions as you understand them. One oft-used approach is to refer to The Varieties of Scientific Experience – just the title, not the content or context. It’s common knowledge that Sagan is very generous with religious ideas here, so there’s not much point in looking for parts where he isn’t, or where he notes his fear of a growing religious fundamentalism. And of course his political activism has no place in this discussion. Sagan was a hero. He was beloved. The gnu atheists have nothing in common with him.

To keep the story focused, be as presentist as possible. Neither outspoken atheists of the past nor the history of atheism in radical and social-justice movements, including feminism, are relevant to your contemporary portrait. (It is, however, standard to talk about “faith traditions” as unchanging and free of conflict.) Leave out anticlerical and other atheist movements (including those fighting anti-Semitism, fascism, or dictatorships) and rational education efforts and their history of repression at the hands of organized religion. If you need to talk about atheism in the past, Stalinism is a great fallback, but be sure to leave it vague!

Another winning comparison is to the religious. Gnu atheism is so obviously religion-like, the differences so negligible, that it suffices to assert it without caveats. It’s convenient to point this out, but be aware that it’s a bit touchy. You don’t want to insult your bosses and moneyed readers by bringing any negative aspects of religion into relief, so tread lightly. It helps to distinguish the simplistic folk religion you think the gnus reject from the sophisticated, rarefied theology of the religious leaders and experts. Again, there’s no need for any specifics here, and abstract terms are best. Common believers aren’t your readers of, ahem, interest, and probably won’t understand you anyway, so you can dismiss their silly, primitive beliefs. It’s also widely-accepted practice to minimize substantive belief altogether, focusing on either some studies claiming the evolutionary benefits of religion and/or the value of religious community.

With regard to community, there are several directions in which you can go, and all are effective with your audience. As noted above, it’s perfectly acceptable to discuss atheists as outside of communities. (Readers will naturally judge that only religion can offer a certain kind of community, and that neither atheism nor any other basis for camaraderie – interests, fun, social struggles - is equivalent. Atheists therefore have to construct a substitute for this religious benefit or fail.) Don’t bother looking for atheist-skeptical or other nonreligious communities - they are few and far between.

Alternatively, and perhaps more enjoyably for you and your readers, you can focus on real atheist-skeptic communities, portraying them as either monolithic or riven by conflict. In the unified variant, the community is white, male, very old or young, right wing, and sexist/racist. The lack of norms is a distinguishing feature. There are few women or minorities, especially in leadership roles, and they are not respected. This is of course specific to gnu atheism and religion, and due to the exact same causes. Respected atheist women, minorities, and leftists in leadership roles have spoken eloquently about representation. Using quotations from them about their nonexistence is fine, as long as it’s done with a delicate and subtle touch. In the conflict version, disagreements over politics, tactics, or representation are acrimonious Deep Rifts. Deep rifts sell!

Keep in mind that you’re writing about gnu atheists. There’s no call to blather on about contemporary religious oppression or violence or deference to faith claims. Leave this in the background. It’s reasonable to talk about the ethics of civility (apocryphal pious grandmothers on death beds especially), but the ethics of belief are beyond the scope of your piece. If you do wish to discuss religious beliefs, be sure to present “God” as a clear, well-defined, unified concept. Spelling out that concept would require too much space, as would harping about the differences amongst different factions of believers. There probably won’t be room for discussion of contemporary investigations into cosmology, biology, or neuroscience, either, so leave those out. “We don’t know” is usually effective.

Remember: this is about gnu atheists. The focus should be on them. Questions concerning the existence of deities or the epistemic status of religious beliefs are vulgar and hurtful.

*Inspired by this, itself inspired by this.


  1. Damn upstart atheists. *Applause*

  2. hit the nail on the head with that one


  3. Nice summary of gnu atheist bashing bingo.

  4. SC, this is incredibly well-done.

  5. This makes me want to go out and get a job as a journalist on some medium sized Midwest city

  6. Comprehensively sums up opportunistic writing about gnus. Thanks to Sven DiMilo for linking it on Jerry Coyne's blog.

  7. I love this post. You have created a template that can be used for years!

    And, SC, you are helping!

  8. Oh, but you forgot the good old days when atheists were nice, like Bertrand Russell and H. L. Mencken

  9. Wow! All done in a nutshell. You know, they have the postmodernist generator. I'll bet that from these rules, you could generate a gnu atheist basher generator. The Bunglefishes could be replaced with a chip!

  10. Wow. This describes about 100% of articles I have read on the 'gnu atheists'.

  11. Thank you. Wonderful job.
    Rev. El

  12. You should also point out that there are many people who are scientists who are also people of faith, so there's obviously no conflict between science and religion.

  13. Brilliant, simply brilliant. It's no wonder Richard Dawkins picked it up.
    Not coincidentally, it perfectly reflects an ongoing discussion I'm having with a couple of accomodationists on "Thoughts from Kansas" over on Scienceblogs.

  14. SC, you have a very nice touch! I hope they're hanging their heads in shame.

  15. Finally I get around to telling you how nifty this is.

    (If the bewareware allows me to post, that is.)

  16. i'd like to see a round-up of the bad coverage. specific citations for each of the missteps displayed here would be great.

  17. Here's my response, "How to Write About the Religulous, a Guide"