The Rhetorical Atheist Falcon and Yeats’s “passionate intensity”: Directness of Speech and the Problem of Nuance and Qualification in Debating Religion

I like directness in speech. But if this is the case, why, at this very blog, do I so often critique the rhetorical directness of New Atheists like Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins? Isn’t this a gross contradiction?

I don’t think so. Here’s why. I see my critiques as a way of keeping my eyes open, and not letting the “spell” of directness—however rhetorically pleasurable and admirable in its honesty—blind me to the fact that directness carries with it real world consequences that should be thought about, and should give one pause.

The very strengths of Dawkins, Myers, and Coyne (their “confidence atheism,” their directness, their gifts for the delicious turn of the rhetorical knife) are also precisely their weaknesses. Why also weaknesses? Because once you choose as your way of being in the world “confidence anything” (confidence atheist, confidence theist, confidence Republican, confidence Democrat) you become like William Butler Yeats’s falcon in his great poem, “The Second Coming.” Your falcon-flying rhetoric begins to take your life over, and the falcon can no longer find the falconer’s hand, and the center ceases to hold. Nuance and making cautioning and qualifying distinctions start to become signs of weakness. Civil dialogue and engagement with opponents slowly but surely gets displaced by a fierce moral earnestness that barely listens to others, and is marked by impatience and mockery.

When you become a purveyor of confidence and directness you can definitely build an Internet audience, but it has a “deal with the devil” quality to it, for you are acutely aware that if your rhetoric should ease into too many qualifiers, or if you start making nice with your enemies, your audience will dry up. You will be like Franz Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” with nobody coming around your cage anymore.

And so you’ve got to say it more directly and more confidently with each new round of controversy, and act more theatrically. And soon your life becomes a theater where the audience whispers to one another, “How’s the ‘Atheist Hunger Artist’ going to top his last rhetorical flourish or stunt? Boy, he’s really out there, isn’t he? He’s full of passionate intensity. I wish I were that brave.”

It’s precisely this dynamic that led PZ Myers to destroy a Catholic wafer on the Internet last year.

In case you missed my falcon reference above, here’s the opening stanza to Yeats’s poem, ‘The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Of course, there is a danger of living life away from “passionate intensity” as well. One of the admirable qualities of the New Atheists—or “confidence atheists”—is that they are not “pod people” ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). As the director of that film, Don Siegel, once said:

People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger; the spark has left you.

Quote source: Movies of the 1950s (Taschen 2005, p. 297).

In some ways, the New Atheists, in their rhetorical flamboyance and obnoxiousness, bring to the fore these questions, which are good ones: 

“What, exactly, should we do about the irrational in us and around us? How should we respond to the weird things and passions that are so tightly wound into our human psyches? Should we disown them or work with them?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to The Rhetorical Atheist Falcon and Yeats’s “passionate intensity”: Directness of Speech and the Problem of Nuance and Qualification in Debating Religion

  1. Grad Student says:

    I disagree with your general statement here. If Martin Luther King Jr. had not been confident in civil rights, wouldn’t the civil rights movement have suffered?

  2. Pingback: “Avatar” and the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: Correlation or Causation? Did the Internet Cause Jared Loughner? | Prometheus Unbound

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