(Not to be confused with this GNUism, which is also interesting and new. As a writer, I may decide to find a way to combine the powers of these two concepts and take over the world….)
In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about ‘gnu atheism’ on much of the atheist blog-o-sphere, particularly by Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and (of course) Ophelia Benson (among others). Despite what some recent articles have ridiculously claimed, the title ‘gnu’ is a take on ‘new’ (as in new atheists), and is supposed to show how seriously we take this title (hint: not very). As has been said by many people, including myself, there is little that is “new” about our atheism, it’s just that now we are getting more attention (and therefore actually being heard, which many people object to). We have always had this “strident and shrill” (as it is seen by some) tone, but in reality we are just after the truth, with kid-gloves off.
I suppose the new/gnu qualifier, while not being ‘new’ per se, allows us to distinguish us from other atheists in one regard. PZ Myers seems to have encapsulated the distinction best when he said the following:
Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that [Stephen] Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.
Is it true?
This is the bottom line. Whether it makes you feel better, makes life feel worth living, or if it has pretty art, music, or rituals we want to know if it is true. This has been a motivating question throughout my life, one that has alienated me at times. In fact, this desire for truth is what led me to discover first that I was an atheist (had been all along) and later that I was what was being called a “new/gnu atheist”. That is, there was no conversion or decision to join the ranks, this term just describe how I thought about the issues at hand.
But this question of “is it true” is relevant for more than religion, but also for many other things (astrology, homeopathy, etc). And I am finding, as I navigate the world and think about various issues, that this is a strong motivator for me for many things (if not all things). I find myself asking not so much whether this issue is helpful, pleasant, or even pragmatic, but whether it is true. And this often causes me to rub against people in the wrong ways, as I’m sure is true for others with similar personalities.
I am hesitant (for once) to site a recent example that acts as the cause for these thoughts, because of the arguments that this example brings up are controversial and I have not clarified my position quite yet. To reference the issue vaguely and analogously, I will say that my uncertainty of the truth of this question makes my questions appear as if I am trying to take a conservative stance on someone’s rights, when in fact I am asking if the action (and not their right to do that action) is one that even makes sense. I’ll say that an analogy would be the scene from Life of Brian where Stan declares that he wants to have a baby. The dialogue continues thus:
Judith: [on Stan’s desire to be a mother] Here! I’ve got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry.
Reg: What’s the *point*?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.
Now, I love this scene (and this movie), but the comedy here is sort of what I’m getting at at my vaguely referred-to issue. What does one do when faced with a question of rights when the right might not make sense in the first place? A question for another time, I think, but I’m going somewhere with that at some point in the future.
For now, what does this have to do with the term ‘gnu’? Glad you asked, because I was getting off-track there. I wonder to what extent the distinction between the gnu atheists and other non-gnus might be this preoccupation with the truth. The desire to find whether something is true or not is certainly not universally shared (perhaps it is not even very common), and it creates a distinction between people who will apply their skepticism to most aspects of their life (perhaps applying universally is an impossible feat) and people who will forgo such skepticism from many aspects of their lives for various reasons, but including the desire to keep it away from things which may not be true but make them comfortable.
Perhaps, as a kind of coining of a term, one can detach the ‘gnu’ from the atheism and view this qualifier as an independent term which would imply a priority of truth. As Matt Dillahunty has said on the Atheist Experience (and elsewhere), he wants to believe as many true things (and as few false things) as possible. I agree with him, and this is a personality trait that Matt and I share, which is why I life listening to him so much…because he reminds me of myself, or something (not that I am totally self-absorbed). And I think that those people who identify as Gnu atheists share this quality; it may be what distinguishes the gnus from the non-gnus. And since this attribute is applied to more than their views on gods or religions, they are ‘gnu’ in more than a religious sense. They are gnus generally. They are, perhaps, Gnuists.
Now, one might say that this coinage is stretching a little, and I can see that. Others might point out that this term is superfluous because the proper application of skepticism (which does indeed lead to atheism) is equivalent to this term in many ways. I agree, but I sort of like the term used in this way for the single purpose that it acts to pull out this very issue of applying skepticism properly to all things (or at least trying to), rather than leaving it aside for some things (such as religion) as many in the skeptical community do.
A gnu is a person who wants to ask “is it true” about all things. They are not accommodating any issue simply because it might avoid controversy or offend someone. It will imply that they are an atheist (unless, of course, it can somehow be demonstrated that a god actually exists), but it also implies that they are asking “is it true?” to more than just gods.
Here’s a handy mnemonic device: “Is it true?”, you’re a gnu!
Perhaps I should start a church of Gnuism. It would be similar to my old idea to start a temple of Gnosis Dionysus, but with less Dionysian hedonism and more questions. OK, you are right, let’s keep the hedonism.