The (Even) Newer Atheist Approach: A Letter to Kirk Cameron from an Atheist and a Skeptic

October 29, 2009

Kirk Cameron and Jim Underdown. Photo by Brian Hart.

Dear Kirk,

We met last night at the Beverly Hills library after I officially “responded” to David Berlinski’s talk. (The talk, incidentally, was supposed to be about the “New Atheists,” though Berlinski barely touched on that subject during his meandering speech.)

When I first saw you there, I asked one of my fellow atheists “Is that the banana boy?” Sorry to reduce you to that, but I’m sure you’ve taken more than a bit of razzing for your YouTube video (below) with Ray Comfort that purports to show how a banana is the “atheist’s nightmare” because it’s a great example of God’s handiwork.

Justly so. I quote from the video, “The banana and the hand are perfectly made one for the other…(it) has a point at the top for ease of entry… just the right shape for the human mouth… curved toward the face to make the whole process so much easier.” Personally, I thought the same attributes apply nicely to a dildo, but I’m sure that wasn’t your intention.

The “banana video” notwithstanding, you seemed like a decent guy, and I don’t want to define you or judge you by that video or even your enthusiastic Christianity. I know and love lots of Christians even though I disagree with their religious beliefs.

I’m writing because I detected in you the sincerity of a true inquirer. During the Q & A, you asked a good question about whether scientists shun Intelligent Design because they are uncomfortable with the notion of an almighty creator. I answered that the belief in a loving God who could grant eternal life would be more comforting than dealing with the idea of one’s simple death and decomposition.

You seemed to listen and ponder what was said, so I want to mention a few other points that might not have made it into last night’s discussion. Sometimes we all get so embroiled in our own side’s arguments that it’s hard to hear what your adversary is really trying to say. So, for what it’s worth, please consider a few thoughts…

First, it’s ok to criticize or look for fault in the theory of evolution – or any other scientific idea for that matter. The process of science depends on criticism and challenge to keep it honest. Smart people checking the work of other smart people keeps the ship of science afloat and sailing forward. And anyone could and should ask questions.

Critics serve an important function in the world of scientific and philosophical inquiry, but there is a difference between an honest questioner and a gadfly who only attacks ideas because of a preexisting agenda. Like the “researchers” who were hired by cigarette companies to find that smoking doesn’t contribute to cancer rates, folks like David Berlinski who shill for the Discovery Institute start with an answer and try to build roads back to a question. Or even worse, they seek only to degrade ideas they find uncomfortable without adding anything to the body of knowledge. This disingenuous strategy is not one of inquiry but of indoctrination and often leads to a myopic view of the evidence. The definition of a closed mind is one that no amount (or quality) of evidence will ever change.

Second, check your emotional attachment to your beliefs – any beliefs. Do you really think the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series next year, or do you want to believe it? Is your belief in God or creation founded on reasonable assumptions, or is it appealing because it makes you feel good. Even though we humans have these (comparatively) advanced brains that can grasp complex concepts, emotions often cloud our judgment.

Finally, please don’t paint non-believers as somehow evil or immoral. Most of us in the U.S. are ethical, tax-paying Americans just trying to live a good life. Many of us come from religions that at some point simply didn’t satisfy our intellectual side. We come to science and atheism not out of hatred for religion or a disdain for the religious, but out of a search for knowledge and truth – a quest people of all perspectives can relate to.

So there it is. I invite you to the events at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood, and to feel free to question or even argue your ideas in a safe intellectual environment.

I hope to see you soon.

James Underdown
Executive Director
Center for Inquiry— Los Angeles


#1 J. (Guest) on Thursday October 29, 2009 at 9:11am

Are the gratuitous offensive remarks (e.g. “dildo”) and patronizing tone (e.g. “I know and love lots of Christians…”) of a piece with the recent Blasphemy contest? I hope that CFI leadership will use this occasion to prompt consideration of what approaches are likely to be productive and whether the secular movement is capable of realizing it’s goals while alienating believers who share our goals. One doesn’t even have to be a believer to find these remarks offensive and alienating.

#2 Andy (Guest) on Thursday October 29, 2009 at 9:39am

Thank you so much for this! I can’t tell you how sick I’ve gotten of many atheists’ tendencies to simply make fun of the religious…as if that’s going to do any good. Are we really surprised that religious people are so averse to atheist arguments when they often seem pointed at other non-religious people.

It’s time that we re-evaluate our approach and understand that religious people do not want to be mocked for something they deeply believe. If we preach about the horrors of religion, a good, moral, religious person will rightly claim, “Well I would never do that, and that’s not in line with who I think God is.”

We need to show some compassion and make it clear that it’s possible to be moral without religion. In his letter, James is articulate and shows respect to a very influential Christian, and while time will tell if this approach is effective, I think it’s worth trying.

#3 santa on Thursday October 29, 2009 at 11:04am

This was a confusing conundrum of contradictory claims of caring and callous criticism. You show some caring for Kirk’s feelings and try to come off as a nice guy, while at the same time mocking him. I’m not quite sure I get it. You say you don’t want to judge him by the stupid video, then you show the video. Maybe there is some sarcasm here? Personally I’d prefer calling an idiot an idiot and saving the soft gloves for those who are actually trying to understand science. Many fundies are simply uneducated. KC cannot make any pretense of that and deserves no respect in my opinion. Atheists have been quiet for hundreds of years (often out of reasonable fear). Many HAVE re-evaluated that approach and choose to FINALLY laugh at fairy tales and those who promote them (in all their incompatible variations) as the ONE TRUTH.

#4 Bullshido (Guest) on Friday October 30, 2009 at 5:49am

Personally, I enjoyed the letter.  If aggressive fundamentalists aren’t met with a reasonable amount of contempt for their antiquated, bronze-age views, they’ll just continue being emboldened and push their agenda even harder.

However, if he had read this I’m sure he immediately stopped upon seeing the word “dildo”.

#5 Mitchell Kent (Guest) on Saturday October 31, 2009 at 5:37pm

Even a bush appointed, conservative, federal juge, (self proclaimed born again Christian), Ruled in the Dover Pa trail that ID is nothing more than creationism and is not science. He also said the DI people were fundamentally dishonest.

#6 Derek_M on Sunday November 01, 2009 at 1:49pm

I was at this event. James, I have to say that you should focus on the silly creationist celebrity rather than the actual discussion. Your defense of atheism was terrible and your passive aggressive comments about Berlinski in this entry are no better. When I read your credentials I have to say I expected more than a comparison between Santa and God….that is a truly sophomoric error. Perhaps you should read Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologia’, which Berlinski mentioned several times in his talk.

#7 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 11:29am

Preaching to the choir rather than addressing Christians rationally.  The dildo comment ended your rational approach in the eyes of a believer, I’m sure.  From there you were really just talking to the door you closed and the nonbelievers behind you.  A complete lack of tact in one statement can discredit the rest with a target no matter how accurate. Given that this seems to be a trend lately with other blogs and issues of support, it’s not surprising.  A little knowledge of the effectiveness of cultural sensitivity in communications could go a long way with CFI.

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