Larry, let me ask you something. Take the His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman. I don't know if you read children's books, but never mind. The point is that Pullman as an artist can be quite a profound fellow, but Pullman as an atheist often says things that strike me as vulgar and shallow. This in spite of the fact that his little masterpiece takes a pretty dim view of belief. Pullman says, for example, that he can separate Blake's poetry from Blake's religion, and revile -- revile! sneer at, laugh at, etc. -- the latter, and do no disservice to Blake. That feels like bullshit to me though I could be wrong. This idea that faith, any example of faith, is automatically contemptible, a piece of sheer silliness, an incomprehensible lapse (no exceptions!) on the part of fellows who are geniuses in every other sense--this seems so, so damn vulgar. It seems (seems) nowadays that your mainstream atheist is as closed and self-congratulatory as your fringe fundamentalist--but also hip, unlike the latter. So you have this unbearably smug, narrow culture -- one more of those in a crowded world. It's awful.
First, about Pullman (and yes, I've read His Dark Materials books, and I do read books for children and young adults). He says things that strike you as vulgar and shallow. What of it? Even if I were to agree with your opinion, Pullman is just a person; everyone says stupid shit from time to time. Regarding Pullman's opinion on Blake, I can't form an opinion without the actual quotation in context.
That atheists find "any example of faith ... automatically contemptible" is an egregious overstatement. You have to be careful with "any"; all English words have a wide variety of denotative and connotative meanings. Just as Dawkins goes to some lengths in The God Delusion to exempt certain uses of "religion" and "God", such as Einstein's, from his criticism shows that our condemnation is not so blanket. Likewise too "automatically" suggests that the contempt occurs without reflection or substantive analysis, which is simply not the case, as even a cursory reading of atheist literature at every level will show. A general condemnation of a pervasive concept implies neither that the condemnation is universal nor that it is unthinking.
The use of "vulgar" is also curious. It's a very middle-class concept, denoting an offense against propriety. Atheists are often not interested in propriety, especially as it is a central theme in New Atheist criticism that the religious avoid critical scrutiny behind a shield of propriety. I'm not particularly interested in vulgarity and propriety, especially as an intellectual: if the truth is vulgar, I will choose the truth over vulgarity any time. I'm interested only if someone wants to argue that I'm wrong (and does so with at least minimal competence).
Of course, the idea that it is in any sense wrong or vulgar to criticize an idea held by "geniuses" is completely nonsensical. An idea held by otherwise intelligent people does deserves to be taken seriously and examined closely. But atheists have done so: we have held up scores of concepts of god, religion and faith to critical scrutiny, and found them sadly lacking.
Finally, I object to your characterization of the atheist community as "closed and self-congratulatory." This position is one that needs considerable support. Without support, I cannot exclude simple sour grapes.
Just because you yourself have not yet read much of the underlying literature does not mean it's lacking. One good place to start is the Secular Web Library. Please don't mistake a well-supported position that is more-or-less taken for granted for an unsupported position which is taken "automatically". I don't want to suggest the Courtier's Reply. If you have questions about the support underlying any specific atheist, naturalist, or scientific concept, position or argument, I'd be happy to address them.
But at the end of the day, just that you yourself are offended or displeased is not particularly interesting. You can't please everyone, and taking a definite position on a controversial topic will inevitably offend many who take the opposite position, especially when the latter has broad social sanction. We can live with charges of vulgarity, impropriety, "smugness" and the like. We're interested in the truth.
Our commenter continues:
Thanks Larry, here's one more example, and thanks for hearing me out. I read another little atheistic article recently, just a little response to that Deepak Chopra piece -- & what a piece! -- on Christopher Hitchens. I can't link to it now, I don't remember where it is. But it's a decent response to Chopra -- it creams him -- but then the author says a similar thing to the Pullman thing, but references Cardinal Newman; says, "Oh, I can admire Newman's scientific work and deride his religiousness for the childish garbage that it is." Now I'm not a churchgoer & I don't pray. I was raised in a very conservative environment but got out. I had some bad experiences, I tend to deride orthodoxy in knee-jerk fashion. But still, Larry, the lives of Newman, Blake, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard -- Wittgenstein -- I find them profoundly moving and instructive, and profoundly important for an understanding of the novels, poetry, philosophical works, etc., and I know -- speaking for myself -- that to sneer at the beating heart of the personalities of these men, no matter what my own views, would severely limit me, would shrink me, and would certainly shrink & gut my relationship to them. I can understand knee-jerk reactions as I say, and probably most of these reactions (I hope) have to do with taking so much shit from so many fundamentalists for so long, well, fuck them. But it seems one has to get past it eventually or become a fundamentalist, a dirty fundamentalist oneself. Thanks again.
First of all, neither of the comments you've referred to (and remember, without citations, we have no idea about the context of the comments) "sneer at the beating hearts" of any of these people. They (assuming you are paraphrasing and quoting accurately) "sneer" at a particular component of their ideology. And only your paraphrase of Pullman's comments on Blake sneer at anyone who might be considered a genius; Cardinal Newman does not appear in that class; to mention Newman in a list with Blake, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein is ludicrous.
Furthermore, You are committing the fallacy of similarity: because Newman has some general component of his personality in common with actual geniuses (and you have presented no argument that the substantive content of Newman's faith is even similar, much less identical, to those of Blake et al.) they are identical: anything said about one is said about all the rest. If the uncited author believe's that Newman's "religiousness is childish garbage", the only relevant inquiry is whether Newman', and only Newman's, religiousness really is childish garbage.
Again, you are not making a substantive objection, you're making an objection of impropriety. I will say again: I have not found any of the New Atheists particularly interested in propriety.
I infer from the general tenor of your remarks that you believe atheism to be shallow and unconsidered, and that atheists have not, on the whole, deeply considered the underlying philosophical issues with the attention that they do indeed deserve. Doubtless there are some atheists who are so shallow, just as there are billions of people who will blithely assert that things fall when you drop them without having deeply considered issues of physics, General Relativity and the problems reconciling General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. I dispute this opinion: having personally investigated the philosophical issues deeply, I have concluded that the case for God and religion — as traditionally understood by billions of people, including at least Cardinal Newman (I have not investigated the faith of William Blake specifically) — to be intellectually bankrupt. I have no more objection to "shallow" atheism than I do to "shallow" physics.
If you have something substantive to contribute, if you think atheism is actually mistaken, then I'm interested in hearing about it. But I'm not really interested if you're merely offended that your cherished heroes are subjected to scrutiny and found lacking in one or another respect, and you are unwilling to investigate and explore the basis of that scrutiny.
That's life in the big city, kiddo: do your research and contribute to the substantive discussion, or pout in the corner: it's all the same to me.