The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World

March 19, 2010

Last week, in my first blog post, I wrote that there are major problems with how Americans view the relationship between politics, morality, religion and belief. In that piece, I focused mostly on the shortcomings of the typical liberal response to the relationship between religion and politics, barely touching on other secularist responses. This week, I'd like to outline the problems I have with one well-known response to the typical liberal camp: the pure atheists. While these atheists have aired many quality arguments against religious belief, and pushed dialogue on religion and its relation to politics, there are too many shortcomings to form an approach based on atheism.

Starting in 2005, American public was hit with a fresh wave of secular thought criticizing organized religion and religious faith. It started with Sam Harris’ 2004 book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.” Soon after, Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion,” 2006) and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” 2007) published books similarly critical of religion. Moreover, in 2006, Harris penned a rejoinder to his book, “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Religious critique of this kind wasn’t contained to bookshelves, either -- the Web exploded with blogs, podcasts, and self-made YouTube videos. Perhaps the most prominent Web-based atheist is the biologist P.Z. Myers, who runs one of the most-read atheist blogs, Pharyngula.  

Many have called these authors and their followers the “New Atheists” -- practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief. These atheists were not content to disbelieve and go on with their lives; they also wanted to let religious beliefs know they were wrong (though it should be added it is not like these men broke into homes; they sold books and wrote blog posts).

But this new, bold assault on religion did bring many secularists out of the woodwork. What made the wave somewhat unique was a call by men such as Dawkins and Myers to organize around atheism and sharp rhetoric. A year after his book was published, Dawkins launched the Out Campaign. Lamenting that too few atheists were public about their disbelief, Dawkins started the operation in an effort to have atheists stand out and become visible as atheists, loud and proud. Dawkins even designed pins and t-shirts with the scarlet letter “A,” a symbol of someone’s atheism, to be worn in public. P.Z. Myers jumped on board with the movement, arguing at the Beyond Belief Conference in 2007 it was imperative for atheists to out themselves as such.

There has been, as one would expect, bountiful criticism of the arguments found in the “New Atheist” books, and the philosophical merits of atheism. Aside from that, it is generally agreed that some good did come from these books in that they pushed important issues to the public. However, an issue that received less focus was a more strategic one: the fact that many atheists were defining their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism. Oddly enough, Harris picked up on this observation. In 2007, he gave a talk called "The Problem With Atheism" at the Atheist Alliance International conference, describing some tactical problems with formulating a movement based on atheism. Pulling from his observations and my own, what exactly are the problems with the atheistic approach to the world?

First: what is atheism? By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes “God definitely doesn’t exist” or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first problem with atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.

This brings us to the second problem: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer. As the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has noted, the larger predicament we face is uncritical adherence to ideology -- a problem that spans more than just religion. From birthers to Tea Partiers, from climate change deniers to conspiracy theorists, there is a lot of unhinged thinking out there. The approach must be more comprehensive.

The third problem with atheism is the tendency of adherents toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief, thinking that anyone who believes in God or other religious claims is stupid. In fact, neither of these men believes all religious people are stupid, as they have both written and spoken about how a large problem humanity faces is that very smart people can cordon off certain beliefs -- for example accepting all the benefits of the modern life sciences but rejecting the what underwrites it, the theory of evolution.

However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer). This attitude has trickled down, as well: for their followers, too often pride has led to arrogance -- and not arrogance about the specific position on religion, but general intellectual arrogance at that. There is not enough room or time here for an exhaustive sampling, and a quick visit to Myers’ blog, or YouTube to watch some clips from Hitchens or Dawkins would give you a better insight, but consider some of the following: Hitchens has charged that Christianity is a “wicked cult”; Dawkins has said that “it is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane”; and Myers has publicly desecrated a communion wafer and called the WWII Pope Pius XII a "sniveling rat bastard."  And these are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Dawkins has called for even sharper rhetoric (note: the first post is a Jerry Coyne story; scroll the comment 16 for Dawkins' input). While these statements might be true, aren’t there more sophisticated, thoughtful, and inviting ways to put them? Do these statements make discussion attractive to other parties? Does it allow for progressive discourse?

This brings us to the fourth problem: the purely atheist view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together. It is seemingly as divisive as seeing the world as a Catholic and nothing else. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found -- and kindled -- more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing mostly or even entirely on theism divides us too cleanly on religious affiliation. Defining oneself as an atheist gives off the impression to those who do not define themselves as atheists that you have nothing in common. There are many good things included in religion (to be sure, they are found elsewhere and many are a product of the evolution of human nature) that cut to the core of human experience -- community, fellowship, awe and wonder, a desire to transcend yourself and do collective good. To stand opposed to all religion is to give off the impression you deny these. As Harris noted in his talk:

“Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at a moment like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment -- with peaks and valleys and local attractors -- and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.”

In short, the atheist approach does not serve to unite a broad group of people together for progressive dialogue or progressive change.

The fifth problem with atheism is that people have the tendency to see the atheist approach as “against” and not “for.” Of course, one cannot debunk or be against anything without really being for something. We are seemingly only able to critique if we have something to weigh the critiqued belief against. When Hitchens rips apart a religious idea, he is surely tearing something down -- but he is doing so because he values evidence, reason, critical thinking, science, democracy, and more. Yet the term atheism doesn’t tell others the reasons for critique.

We need to move beyond atheism. I am not arguing we ought to avoid admitting who we are (I am an atheist). I am also not arguing all atheists want to organize their lives around atheism. But many do, and given what I have said, it seems to be a mistake. Instead, it would seem smarter to look at the world more comprehensively (1).

One place where these atheists have gotten it right is in pushing for religious belief to undergo the same scrutiny all other beliefs do -- the argument that unfounded moral and ethical beliefs should receive critique similar to that for unfounded scientific or historical beliefs. So while one can believe and act with a free conscience, their beliefs are not free from scrutiny. As we have seen, not all secularists line up on that, and it is worth noting how valuable this contribution is. But it doesn't make atheism the desired approach.

To be sure, this is not an exhaustive account of the atheist approach, but I think it provides enough material to at least question whether any atheist approach is worthwhile.

Notes:

1. Of course, we can’t just snap our fingers and make labels disappear. We do need to use words of some sort. I have argued elsewhere that humanist, freethinker, secularist, and skeptic -- which all tend toward atheism but are not explicit in their denial and are more comprehensive -- seem much better words to me. But still, we’re stuck on labels. The truth is, it is near impossible to tell someone the enormity of our beliefs with one word. It is even hard to imagine a single word defining our beliefs about such broad topics as religion or politics. We see atheists and Christians and Democrats and Republicans at war, but they are not. Those two sides agree on more than they let on. But even if we need to have labels, that doesn’t make all labels equal -- and I would surely rank atheist below any of the labels listed above. 

Comments:

#51 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 5:29pm

As for everyone else, I appreciate (most of) your comments, and plan to post a response this coming week.

#52 J. (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 6:41pm

A few more thoughts:

It’s a strength of CFI and the humanist community unlike the authoritarian religions to be able to accept a range of different views among it’s members and to press ahead on many fronts.

The secularist community desperately needs an understanding (i.e. empathy) of the varieties religious believers and a variety of strategies. Should we regard Unitarians the same way as we do the fundamentalist christian right or the proponents Shia law or fatwa slingers or female circumcisers?

It’s not about being nice or being afraid to break eggshells. The humanist-naturalist-secular-atheist movement cannot change society by itself. Better alliances with religious progressives who share our views on separation of church and state and the use of science than estrangement or animosity.

#53 Ajita (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 6:55pm

There is widespread understanding among atheists that some of us must work with the believers, at least with the relatively reasonable ones. Again, that is not a reason for singling out the New Atheists, a group whose actions have done more for humanism than humanism has done for anyone (yet). As I said above (#44), freethought requires a pluralistic approach. We are not yet at that stage in our cultural evolution where freethinkers can afford to ignore, or worse, chastise the vital role that aggressive atheism plays in the movement at large.

#54 Scott Stafiej on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 7:04pm

This response does not address my particular thought on the content of this article. It is written, instead, to many of the negative comments above, particularly Ophelia.

It seems to me clear from Michael’s post that he is discussing public communication tactics; “let’s not huddle under atheism as a sole label,” seems to be his over all call. He then goes one step further in pondering whether “an angry, uncompassionate line of attack” is useful towards our goals.

It seems that every time someone within our movement ponders out loud whether the use of “atheism” as a label or highly charged anti-religious rhetoric serves our cause, a mob appears to prove just how divisive and unproductive charged rhetoric can be. In no way have I understood this post to communicate a soft-line on open critique of bad ideas. Nor has it been a call to deny reality/naturalism as some have suggested. It simply asks a question: “What are the best tactics to advance the cause of an open, critically thinking, secular society?”

In relation to Dawkins or Hitchens or PZ, Michael says the following:

“..there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer).”

I hardly consider a critique of someone’s tone to be the “back-stabbing of atheists” as Ophelia puts forth. Both Dawkins and Hitchens are supporters of free and open discourse. Unlike the religious, they welcome dissent from their thoughts and tactics. This is the strength of a secular society.

The supporters of the Center for Inquiry and the readers of this blog presumably have a few key traits in common: a love of reasonable discourse, free thought and inquiry at the very least. For this reason, it is slightly disappointing to see such a strong, emotionally charged reaction to such a reasonably written article.  One may disagree with the ideas Michael puts forth or even his manner of presentation, but this should not stop us from offering an objective, constructive critique.

#55 Ajita (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 7:26pm

“It simply asks a question: “What are the best tactics to advance the cause of an open, critically thinking, secular society?””

Certainly not by indulging in divisive tactics before the discussion has even begun.

You are depicting the article as a lot less divisive that it really is. The article makes some pretty arrogant assumptions. This is the reason people are reacting emotionally to it. The funny thing is that I have rarely described myself as an atheist in the past 3 years of my activism, preferring to use Naturalist or freethinker, and I’ve had my share of annoying confrontations with atheists who are adamant that concepts such as contemplative medidation or pantheistic ritualism are antithetical to the movement, but that is no reason for me or anyone else to cause frictions within the community. It is obvious what Mr. Dora’s article is doing to people’s impression of CFI (even if it shoudn’t, since his views don’t represent CFI altogether). I am in full support of the author’s and CFI’s agenda regarding promoting a comprehensive strategy regarding promoting freethought. I’ve been deeply involved in such actions myself. But when this strategy begins to denigrate the role of certain subsections of the movement, ones that have been extremely important in establishing it’s current prominence, it ends up having the opposite effect to what is desired.

#56 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 8:30pm

First of all, I liked this.  Those that don’t get it should try emailing the author first rather than post your lack of understanding so openly and rudely.  It makes you look a little stupid.  Disagreement is great and encourages further thought.  However, some of these posts are just rude and blame the author for responders’ ignorance.  My highschooler got this.  Yes, it had grammatical errors.  No need to be a horse’s butt about that.  It’s a blog for crying out loud.

Despite grammar, Michael has shown a great understanding of the power of words.  Words are more than mere definitions.  They are emotionally charged and it isn’t just the person speaking the word that gets to charge it.  Communication is transmission and reception.  Reception is the most important part to get right, but depends largely on the recipient.  If the word “atheist” takes on a common vernacular meaning beyond being a non-believer we have to accept this and adapt in order to progress.  I was involved in a meeting just today where we discussed the notion that our center, in order to grow and bring in those on the fence, must have something to offer the community along with our statements against religion.  If we are only viewed as hateful people, those fence sitters will feel they must choose between CFI and their religious loved ones.  They may feel, as many have told me before, that their jobs will be put at risk if associated with such an organization.  In fact, I know one author that uses a pseudonym because he wrote an atheist book for kids and was concerned using his real name could cost him his current job.  Those worried about losing jobs are the ones CFI financially needs.  You know, the ones with high paying jobs that they risk losing if associated with a radical group.  We must consider what it takes to become a figure in the community that is viewed as positive or CFI will suffer more than grow.  The word “atheist”, thanks to Dawkins and the like, has become even more of a sour word to a moderate that might be ready to listen thanks to endangering their position in life if they adorn the mantle of “atheist”. 

The claim by post #15 is also inaccurate.  Many things have facilitated the growing non-religious movement over the last decade or two.  It would be ignorant to fail to recognize that media coverage of radical groups and radical religious attacks wasn’t instrumental.  It would also be unjust to neglect mention of the internet and the fairly recent ability of atheists to find each other much easier so that we can group together.  As someone “fairly old”, I would have thought that would have been an obvious change for you to note.

Ron and Michael, I disagree with both of you in that your positions with CFI make your words CFI words.  It doesn’t matter if there is a disclaimer.  That is a legal matter.  The rest is a public perception matter and the public doesn’t care about your disclaimer.  You know that is true.  If you want to post personal thoughts not to be associated with CFI, you should do it on your own blog website.  Otherwise, disclaimer or no, it is viewed as a CFI staff member writing on a CFI site and thus they are words of CFI.  Besides, do you really think most the public is reading your disclaimer or keeping it in mind as they read a post? That is not being very realistic.

#57 Reba Boyd Wooden on Monday March 22, 2010 at 12:37am

I think one of the great things about a “freethinking” organization such as CFI which values “free inquiry” is that even among staff and leadership, people are allowed to have different viewpoints.  We should not lump all atheists into one group just as we should not lump all people who are religious into one category.  There is quite a variety both ways. I think the (hard to pick a term that is not loaded in one way or the other) nonreligious need to have a tent big enough to hold both the more strident ( I don’t not like the term militant. ) atheist and the (I don’t like the word accomodationalist either.)  I think we need the more strident atheist.  All social movements have had those who were out in front, getting the headlines and the attention for the movement that the softer approach does not get.  However, having said that, there also needs to be those who are more quietly building the institutions that offer the positive alternatives for people to turn to once they have left religion.  Organized religion satisfies human needs such as the need for community.  As the executive director of a local branch, my energy is put into trying to do just that.  However, I am quite happy to have Dawkins, Hitchins, etc. out there blazing the trail and taking the heat,  every social movement has needed both the trail blazers and the more quiet institution builders. 
Maybe that is the “good cop”/” “bad cop” mode.
The important thing to remember is that we need to show respect for each other’s point of view and keep our discourse civil.  We should confine your disagreements to issues and not lower ourselves to making personal attacks.

#58 SimonSays on Monday March 22, 2010 at 8:12am

My two cents is that all this talk of “re-branding” and “labels” geared around avoiding the term “atheist” are misguided and shortsighted.

I’m not saying everyone should call themselves an atheist. Call yourself whatever you like. However…IF someone wants to call them self an atheist, I see no problem whatsoever with that.

Atheists are not some shadowy nefarious bunch that needs codewords and front groups. If someone truly believes that atheism is a respectable conviction (as I do), then why on earth would we discourage them from saying so if they make that choice?

The fact that Dawkins or Myers says something means absolutely nothing quite frankly unless we buy into some sort of “guilt by association” mentality. For better or worse, Dawkins speaks for himself. You can support his organization or not. He is neither our “party leader” nor of course our “pope”. Same is true for Myers.

The argument that “atheism is a tainted word” or that we’ve been vilified too much really says nothing at all. Jewish people have been vilified by various groups for thousands of years, you don’t see them trying to “re-brand”. And with good reason. If anything, vilification of atheism should only EMBOLDEN someone’s resolve to stand behind their principled stance.

#59 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 22, 2010 at 8:43am

Michael DeDora in a comment -

“Instead, why hasn’t this been seen as a wonderful example of the kind of open, honest debate this organization is for?”

Because it’s not wonderful.

That’s the first reason. It’s badly written and it’s not argued at all.

It’s also not all that honest - for instance in saying what PZ Myers did to a communion wafer without saying why he did it.

And then, there’s the fact that what it is urging (rather than arguing) is in tension with ‘open, honest debate’ itself. It is urging one side of a debate to be much less open and honest and instead to talk less (‘get on with their lives’), to argue less (‘the “New Atheists” - practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief. These atheists were not content to disbelieve and go on with their lives; they also wanted to let religious beliefs know they were wrong’), to refrain from saying what they really think about theism on the grounds that to do so is ‘divisive’ and insufficiently ‘moderate.’ The article as a whole (and in its parts) is profoundly opposed to the principle of free inquiry and free discussion.

#60 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 22, 2010 at 8:51am

Scott Stafiej -

“I hardly consider a critique of someone’s tone to be the “back-stabbing of atheists” as Ophelia puts forth. Both Dawkins and Hitchens are supporters of free and open discourse. Unlike the religious, they welcome dissent from their thoughts and tactics.”

Fair point. But…there’s a difference between dissent and name-calling. De Dora’s article leans heavily on name-calling and finger-pointing and accusation that leaves out vital information (such as why PZ Myers did a demonstration about a communion wafer). I think De Dora is doing a good deal more than dissenting, or critiquing someone’s tone - I think he’s adding his voice to a loud, vehement, often inaccurate, hostile chorus that is intent on shouting atheists back into the closet. I’m not convinced that Dawkins and Hitchens are supporters of that kind of thing.

#61 Tyro (Guest) on Monday March 22, 2010 at 9:21am

Instead, why hasn’t this been seen as a wonderful example of the kind of open, honest debate this organization is for?

As Ophelia says and many people (including me) have detailed, it isn’t so much wonderful as muddled and contradictory.

More importantly, it seem antithetical to ‘inquiry’, which is what CFI is known for.  It is riddled with assertions and smears and very few arguments.  Critically you don’t once acknowledge the fact that atheism isn’t merely an ‘approach to the world’, but a position based on evidence and reason!  Before attacking atheists, you’d think you would have the decency to either say that it is first and foremost a question of fact.

#62 Deen (Guest) on Monday March 22, 2010 at 9:29am

@Joe Oliver: may I point out that your comment is also quite rude? “It makes you look a little stupid”, saying commenters “blame the author for responders’ ignorance” and “My highschooler got this” are not exactly friendly words to start your comment with. Especially not when you want to criticize others for being rude.

In fact, I know one author that uses a pseudonym because he wrote an atheist book for kids and was concerned using his real name could cost him his current job.

You say this, and you seriously think the problem is with atheists being rude? Why not lay the blame where it belongs: with the people who would fire others over something so trivial as a little rudeness against religious ideas? That sort of hostility goes way beyond anything that Dawkins delivers.

#63 Daniel Schealler on Monday March 22, 2010 at 1:20pm

@Scott Stafiej & Ophelia Benson

Just to throw in my lot with Ophelia, consider Michael’s following reference:

10. You might be best served making a quick visit to Myers’ blog, or YouTube to watch some clips from Hitchens or Dawkins, or even Google their names and key terms. Also see, for instance, this ridiculous blog post by Dawkins (note: the first post is a Jerry Coyne story; scroll the comment 16 for Dawkins’ input).

Link from the quote is http://richarddawkins.net/articles/3767#368197

For those of us who do actually follow the link to Dawkin’s comment, it may not be entirely clear how it is in any sense ridiculous. It’s Dawkin’s open speculation on the tactics we employ when engaging the religious. Specifically, he speculates as to whether we should even bother engaging the irremediably religious or the fence sitters who haven’t thought about it much - yet. And if the focus is the fence-sitters, he speculates again as to whether naked contempt of religion might in fact be a useful persuasive tool for engaging those fence sitters, and thus swell the number of people who are opposed to religion thinking it can call the shots simply because it is religion.

It’s only a medium-sized comment of Dawkin’s - not an essay - but as far as comments go, it’s reasoned and articulate, and makes a few good points. Additionally, it’s open speculation rather than some kind of mission statement.

I can’t see anything ridiculous - which is to say, deserving of ridicule - in that comment by Dawkins whatsoever. And I challenge anyone to demonstrate why it would be ‘ridiculous’ by any meaningful definition of the term.

The only interpretation of the term ‘ridiculous’ as employed by Michael in his section of his article that makes sense to me is that it is used synonymously with ‘openly and strongly disagrees with Michael De Dora Jr’s point of view’.

I hope the irony in this isn’t lost on anybody.

So Scott, I may not have used the same strong terms as Ophelia, but her general thrust is accurate. De Dora has not only misrepresented the very individuals he claims to criticize into twisted caricatures of themselves… He’s also labelled and name-called, in my view inappropriately. Given that the thesis of his article seems to be that he is arguing for more polite and respectful communication, it should be disastrous to his argument that he’s violating his own rules…

But as I speculated elsewhere, something to me seems off about this article. There seems to be multiple layers going on, and I’m not sure I’ve understood everything clearly. In content, it looks like it is addressed to the very ‘new’ atheists De Dora is discussing… But the style and tone seems calculated towards appealing to theists and other accommodationists. And once that is acknowledged, the misrepresentation and name-calling of the ‘new’ atheists Michael is discussing makes a lot more sense.

The more I think about it, the more confident I’m becoming that Ophelia and the rest of us who have (reasonably, in my view) taken umbrage with this article might have actually missed the point.

Of course, I’ve directly asked Michael about this, and it remains for him to clarify the intent of this article… But I have a growing suspicion that we ‘new’ atheists are utterly irrelevant to this article. It doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with us, or our actual positions and views. Even insofar as it is a discussion on tactics, the tactics recommended here don’t even seem to have anything in common with achieving our actual goals.

It all seems to add up to the conclusion that this article is entirely about appealing to and persuading the religious and the other accomodationists that Michael De Dora Jr. is their friend and ally. Which in and of itself isn’t actually a bad thing - I very much enjoyed, respected, and agreed with Michael’s letter to Constance McMillen’s high-school, for example. That he should possess a greater persuasive influence over the religious in that setting would be a good thing.

So it strikes me that Michael may actually be more interested in using this article to help him blend in with the very religious individuals he is attempting to engage and persuade. If I’m right, any sense in which this article demonstrates pretensions to actually discuss us is irrelevant. It isn’t about criticizing us. It’s about tricking them into opening up to being persuaded by De Dora the next time he gets around to engaging them over something-or-other.

Which doesn’t make the actual content of the article any less objectionable, of course… But in that light, the article makes a lot more sense, and it also takes the edge off his criticism (to me) when I consider that in this article, Michael may not be even remotely interested in us, our positions, or views, or our goals at all.

Again, it remains for Michael to clarify his intent, and I am very much open to his criticism and correction - paint my conjectures here as highly speculative.

But if I’m right about Michael’s intentions, I’m almost inclined to dismiss this article altogether. If it didn’t misrepresent us so unfairly, I may even have done so already.

For the record, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of diplomacy in the engagement of religion. I prefer the firebrand approach; it’s where my talents, inclinations and passions lie. But it should be trivially obvious that the combination of polite and compromising diplomats and the uncompromising critique of we firebrands is more powerful as a whole than either would be apart. I’ve always agreed with Greta Christina that we should let diplomats be diplomats, and let firebrands be firebrands.

I just wish Michael had found a fairer way to represent us while he’s off doing it.

#64 rob r (Guest) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 8:30am

What the heck is happening to CFI?

#65 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 8:57am

Creeping New Atheistophobia, is what it looks like.

#66 Joe Oliver (Guest) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 11:13am

@Deen,

You’re right.  I used rude terminology.  Guess I should have said intellectually challenged.  What you are wrong about is your claim that I criticized anyone for being rude.  I criticized them for making themselves look stupid.  Maybe you should reread it.  Or are you talking about my “horse’s butt” comment?  Again, my criticism is that being rude about grammar on a blog just makes you look stupid, too.  That is why I said there was no need to be a horse’s butt about it.  One should know what to expect from a blog versus from a position statement or the like.  This is a blog.

And the remark about my highschooler:  I didn’t even use any rude terms.  She got it.  Plain and simple.  Nothing rude about that.  I was simply pointing out that it isn’t written on a level that requires a high level of education to get.

I agree with you.  The blame is not on atheists being rude when it comes to someone losing his/her position in the workplace.  Didn’t say otherwise.  But, that doesn’t change the facts.  I mean, if you think you will be able to help an individual keep his/her job by placing blame on the boss, particularly in a no-fault state such as Indiana, you might reconsider the reality of things.  That simply isn’t how the real world works.  I do agree that it isn’t fair, but I don’t foolishly expect life to be fair, either.  So, I recognize there are methods that will work and methods that won’t and sometimes we have to get a little creative.  If we can’t force acceptance of a stance, which we can’t, then we have to try to transform the opinion of our stance so that we can function as part of society rather than struggle as outcasts. Some of us don’t have the luxury of holding a job that our atheism/secular humanism/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it doesn’t affect.  That is what people fear to get involved with.  They fear being labeled in a negative light that can endanger their livelihoods or put their children at risk at school (which has happened with some of our own CFI Kids members).  CFI needs those fence sitters to feel comfortable with coming in and becoming a Friend of the Center and potentially a donor.  Rather than exacerbate that negative view, why is it so bad to try and transform it in a positive manner?

#67 Daniel Schealler on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 1:09pm

@rob

The old humanists want to become the new religion, and those pesky new atheists keep spoiling their carefully crafted PR campaigns.

Credit to ckoproske for the link:
http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/religionandtheology/1963/decomposing_humanism:_why_replace_religion

http://www.paulkurtz.us/

^_^

#68 Deen (Guest) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 at 3:02pm

@Joe Oliver:

Guess I should have said intellectually challenged.

Oh yes, that would be so much better. This is a great example on how to show respect for the people who disagree with you.

The blame is not on atheists being rude when it comes to someone losing his/her position in the workplace.  Didn’t say otherwise.

Don’t lie. You made a direct connection between Dawkins giving atheists a bad reputation and this man having to fear for his job. How else am I supposed to interpret that passage?

That simply isn’t how the real world works.

I know. In the real world, the victim unfortunately gets blamed quite regularly. Please stop contributing to this nasty practice.

So, I recognize there are methods that will work and methods that won’t and sometimes we have to get a little creative.

And you think that staying meek and quiet and hidden is a way that works? How has that worked out for the last 2000 years or so?

Why can’t we just poke some fun at the religious and get them to actually grow a somewhat thicker skin? Is that really so horrible? We’re allowed to poke fun at everything else - we poke fun at the other political party, or at our business competitor, etc - why would religion be the only exception we can’t poke fun at? Yes, the New Atheists are breaking a social taboo, but it’s one that deserves to be broken. With some luck, criticism on religion will be seen as normal after a while.

And there always will be people who will be hateful of atheists no matter how we behave (heck, they’d probably still hate you even if you’d become a liberal theist). I don’t see why I should hold them in any more respect than they hold me. Alienating these people from me further is no great loss to me.

Some of us don’t have the luxury of holding a job that our atheism/secular humanism/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it doesn’t affect.

Fine, no problem, if you’re in such a situation, by all means keep a low profile. But don’t tell others who are not in your situation to do the same.

They fear being labeled in a negative light that can endanger their livelihoods or put their children at risk at school

Nonsense. It’s not the label they fear. They fear the hateful people who will judge you based on a label they don’t even understand. More victim blaming. Stop it.

Rather than exacerbate that negative view, why is it so bad to try and transform it in a positive manner?

Again, if that’s what you want to do, fine. Maybe it’ll get you your fence sitters and donors. Or maybe they’ll like the frankness of the New Atheists better. Who knows? Either way, just keep in mind that other people may have different goals and may want to pursue different strategies. What’s bad is when you think your way is the Only Way and everyone should follow it.

#69 Don (Guest) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 11:10pm

A: To all, take emotion out of it (to the best you can).

B: This comes down to strategy, how to move society forward to a more acceptable state of affairs.


To Joe Oliver 66,

Being practical in ones own life is okay and necessary at times. To claim that the whole movement (secularism, atheism, naturalism, I assume we are roughly on the same page) should move in that same step is short-sighted. I think it does need to be taken personally, not necessarily emotionally but instead deliberately and practically in our persons as an effort to bring socially acceptable standards forward (-be gay it will ruin a fundies day-kidding). Individuals can force others to see that the their standards are not universal (belief in the soul, judeo-christian moral system, for example) by simply being incongruous points of protest. Such assumed universals are deeply wrapped up in some of the core practices, institutions, and “values” that many in this country believe are indisputable. Playing nice and reproducing “normal” American living re-instills those beliefs and values as core universals. 

Quite frankly, I think there is an unbridgeable gap between the sides, and it is not something that can be cordoned off by separation of church and state. Our method of seeking reality in the world, whether it be through reason and science or through god and religion, deeply affects who we are and how we live day to day. The deep division between the multiple sides requires dialogue everywhere, a proper public forum, but for our side it requires being open (critically looking into ALL problems) and sharp (not pulling punches). This requires disrupting others’ world views in many places. Since they refuse to enter, and actually can’t enter, the public arena while discarding their religious beliefs, then there is going to be turmoil.

#70 Don (Guest) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 11:28pm

Sorry, I meant to say, that I think some of the rhetoric does cross the line, that it is not conducive to good public discourse, and alienates a large portion of the other side by not being respectful.

But, the “New Atheists” are right in not being afraid to go after all aspects of religion, and thoroughly examining and pointing out where those religious beliefs are holding our society and individuals back.

#71 GalinKinlin (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 7:43pm

I must say, sir, I do not agree at all. Those are not problems with atheism. Atheism should not be used as a philosophical guide. I will find my own damn philosophies, thank you. That is one of the reasons I am not a religious man. Find your own damn philosophy. What Dawkins and the others are doing for atheism is excellent. They are showing others their philosophies along with atheism. Just as religious leaders do. They are spreading their personal philosophies alongside something else. Which is exactly what we need right now. Atheism does not need to change. Atheism just needs to be coupled with something else, and that something else is a much more personal choice.

You are damn right I frame my life around unbelief; i have no choice. Unbelief means that I cannot just site idly by and hope if I want something, I must change it myself. And for anyone going from praying for what you want, and basing your life on the hope of an afterlife, you MUST base your life around unbelief (amongst other things, of course).

Of course they regard religion as the problem. Are you dense? I’ll clue you in: There is not a single atheist in the entire world who believes in God. So why not start with what we all agree on? How can we fight something that we are not united against? You also claim that there are other problems. Pray tell, what are they? Human nature? Would you have Dawkins fight human nature for others as well? If he is anything like me, he has a hard enough time fighting his own damn nature, let alone someone else’s. There simply aren’t enough atheists to attack all the problems, assuming they even agree on the others, and assuming there actually are other problems. Since we’ve never been without religion, how can we say that it isn’t the only problem? It’s a good bet that there are other, smaller ones- but I see this as a damn, damn good place to start.

- Tyler

#72 GalinKinlin (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 7:50pm

I would also like to mention that this post should be taken down and rewritten with not only a clear goal, but a clearing up of the contradictions. I found it very difficult to articulate my arguments because I simply wasn’t sure what yours were. You said we were fighting too hard, but then you said we weren’t fighting enough. How Tyro managed to write his so well is beyond me.

#73 John (Guest) on Friday March 26, 2010 at 12:55am

There is room in the movement for atheists of all kinds.  Where do you get off telling all atheists that their approach to the world is problematic?  Just have your own approach and the ‘new atheists’ will have theirs.
(although I do think the ‘new athiest’ approach will have better results)
You don’t make progress in a movement as a minority by being nuanced, subtle, & basically hidden - no, you get in the face of the public, make your case, win support through logical discourse and freakin’ fight for your rights!  Man/Woman up!

#74 Steve Holden (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 6:33am

Whether or not it is the “official view” of CFI it is clear that the standard of debate here is unlikely to be high if officials of the Center can publish such ill-thought-out work.

Sure, atheism alone is not enough. Neither is free trade, or nuclear disarmament. But to argue that one should therefore abandon atheism as a label and even as a principle is ridiculous. To do so with such a lack of intellectual rigor tends to bring the CFI into disrepute.

This is not an attack, it’s an encouragement to try and do better.

#75 SimonSays on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 6:47am

Steve, the whole point of a blog is to have candid conversations without strict editorial control. It’s also about having a conversation via the comments. I wouldn’t hold the blog up to the same standard that I hold say Free Inquiry.

#76 Susan vD (Guest) on Saturday April 03, 2010 at 12:36pm

#1 Atheism is not a worldview.  Why is that a problem?
#2 Atheism is not the answer. Why is that a problem.  Religion isn’t the answer either.
#3 Atheists seem angry at being ignored and their rights trampled.  Why don’t you help us fix this problem?
#4 Atheism divides.  Religion is better at that.  The world “Catholic” means universal and whole.  Why would anyone name their religion after a false statement about humanity? If there were actually a religion that all believed instead of all these sects (that word means to cut up), then you might have a point. 
Getting along with other people is a good thing until other people start abusing your good nature and start trampling on your rights.  When church and state truly are separate, I think you will see atheists’ anger go away.
#5 Atheism is for science.  The problem with religion is that it is against science. That’s it’s only flaw.  But then that’s ALL it has.

#77 GMNightmare (Guest) on Sunday April 04, 2010 at 2:12am

“First problem with atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.”

How is that a problem? And no, it can carry us forward in a meaningful way, it solves problems brought on about religion.

“second problem:  atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent.”

Um, how about I just say no? I’m pretty sure we all, if not most, just think of it as “a” problem, and some of us not even that. Maybe some view it as one of the most drastic problems plaguing society. And so? We don’t have any rules to abide by this, see your problem #1.

“third problem with atheism is the tendency of adherents toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack.”

That is your opinion.

“fourth problem:  the purely atheist view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together.”

BS. Now you just don’t know what you are talking about. You can’t divide people by not having a faith in something. Religion divides people by faith, get it? Your whole point is from the view of a religious person… simply because it is that faith that separates people of other faiths.

“fifth problem with atheism is that people have the tendency to see the atheist approach as ‘against’ and not ‘for.’”

That’s not a problem of atheism, that’s a problem of the people.

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