A Response to Criticism of “The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World”

March 25, 2010

My essay last week, " The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World, " produced much response, from those who thought my post was right on the mark, to those who think CFI should remove me from its blog. I have already responded to some concerns in the comments thread here, which I urge you to read. But I think readers here deserve a wider reply, so here it is.

But first, before going any further, I'd like to tackle one immediate and important issue: I didn't frame the essay clearly enough. As one commentator stated, my blog post about atheism makes almost no sense without reading my first blog post , in which I wrote:

"Instead of seeing secularism as a response to religion, as a promotion of atheism, we need a more universal secularism that values the free conscience; open, critical, honest inquiry; and certain ideals, a collective working together toward a more reasonable, peaceful, and just society. ... Put simply, I will continually focus on how we can have positive, productive, and progressive evidence-based discussion on the moral beliefs that so influence our democracy."

That is, I see that we are right, philosophically speaking -- but I also care about collective, democratic, evidence-based discourse and progress (just as, say, Chris Mooney cares about scientific literacy). To that end, I think rallying around atheism presents problems both inherently (the word doesn't say much) and in presentation and interaction with the 95 percent of the public who are not atheists. I would advise you go back and read my first blog post before reading my post on atheism, or the following.

Now, onto some criticisms ...

That was a sloppy essay.

I read a couple objections based on spacing, grammar, and structure issues. First, I made the horrible blogger mistake of posting my text from Microsoft Word, which created a mine field of spacing errors. Second, I admittedly made a couple grammar errors. Third, my essay was not as concise and clear as I would have liked. I wish these errors were not there, and I apologize, but now let's focus on the substance. 

What's the deal with CFI? Is it headed downhill?

Some responded to my post by lamenting that CFI is seemingly relaxing its critique of religious belief. Three responses come to mind here. First, as Ron Lindsay detailed in comments on the blog:

"I’d like to remind everyone that blog posts on Free Thinking represent the personal views of the blogger, not the official position of CFI. This allows our bloggers to advance views with which not all CFI supporters may agree -- and the result, one hopes, is a robust discussion of relevant points."

So, I am an official blogger for CFI, but my posts indicate my philosophy, not CFI’s organizational mission or philosophy. Now, I will admit that my views are voiced within CFI -- but that doesn’t mean the organization is going to run with them. To take one blog post from one employee and negatively brand an entire organization with it would be folly. Instead, why hasn’t this been seen as a wonderful example of the kind of open debate this organization is for?

Second, as for the turn CFI is supposedly taking, it seems people have quickly forgetten CFI sponsored the first International Blasphemy Day just months ago. 

Third, as we will see, I was not calling for the end of critique on religion; I was merely asking atheists to consider how such critique is carried out.

Why do you work at CFI? Are you really an atheist?

A few people around the Web seemed surprised I even work for CFI, let alone a blog for them.

I work at CFI because I believe in fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. This doesn't mean I agree with every single thing the organization does, nor does it preclude open debate on issues. It's also important to remember that CFI is not primarily an atheist organization. We are much more than that, and in fact, it seems Lindsay agrees that our non-exclusively atheistic approach is a good thing:

"I am an atheist ... But I am not primarily interested in persuading people to be atheists. Let’s say we wake up tomorrow and everyone in the world is now an atheist. Has the world become vastly improved? Will there be an end to all violence, hatred, poverty, misery? Somehow, I don’t think so. I’m not saying that, on the whole, there might not be  some improvement in our condition—if only because we have divested ourselves of harmful false beliefs—but atheism is not an end in itself."

Ron might have changed his tune by now, and I would be open to hearing about such a change, but his statement sounds awfully similar to what I'm saying. Like Ron, I am an atheist -- a fact to which my Roman Catholic family will attest -- but if my life is formed around opposition to anything, it is opposition to bad ideas wherever they may be found . I aspire to do this while simultaneously showing respect and courtesy to the holders of those ideas. They hold their beliefs for reasons I need to understand; they are humans, too.

Your definition of atheism is wrong.

Someone posted this in the comments, yet I did not see another definition posted to refute mine. The Greek root of "atheism" means "without Gods "(though the actual word atheist came about much later). To be an atheist, you need not be a hard atheist who believes God definitely doesn't exist, nor be a soft atheist who couldn't care less about religion. In either case, you would functionally and operationally be "without Gods." Where have I gone wrong?

Atheism is true, what else matters?

In my search for how and what to believe, I follow the Socratic line, "I have no particular liking for anything but the truth." But in trying to communicate with people in a pluralistic society, in working to implement real change, the truth (unfortunately) is not all that matters. The truth, the facts, arguments -- whatever you call them -- need to be presented, and in a manner in which other people -- different people from different backgrounds -- will find them understandable and comprehendible. Basically, context and presentation matter. This doesn't mean we should become sly operators of magical rhetoric; but we should understand the audience with which we're trying to engage. If thinking about problems a bit deeper than "what is true?" is a crime, then sue me.

You contradicted yourself: you said atheism isn't a worldview, yet criticized people who center their lives on atheism. How can it not be a worldview if so people claim it as one?

This might seem like a contradiction to the naked eye, but dig a bit deeper and I think makes sense. Certain people have formulated their lives and outlooks on atheism, and that is a problem because atheism is not a comprehensive worldview -- but I am not denying such people have a worldview. In fact, I know they do, I just think they're either narrowing it or not being open about it. You want to write a book criticizing religious belief and not build something else up? That's really fine by me; I think those books are needed. But please don't push people to start huddling under the "atheist" banner.

You said "many atheists define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism." That's not true.

In my piece, I wanted to specifically discuss those who embrace atheism as the core of their lives, but I also admitted that not all atheists center their lives around their atheism (that would be another contradiction of what I said about the emptiness of the word atheist). Apologies if this was misread.

But, perhaps more to the point: how do I know many atheists do such a thing? To support my claim, I referenced The American Atheists. I also referenced the local New York City Atheists (which, for anyone knowledgeable, is a militant atheist organization ) as an example of the "(Location) Atheists" groups we see around the nation. Then, of course, there is the Out Campaign.

You've also railroaded all atheists as radical, militant, and/or angry.

I did not intent to demonize all atheists, and this is my fault for lack of clarity. It would be impossible for me to substantiate a claim that all atheists are radical, militant and/or angry (and again, I would never claim such a thing anyway, given my argument that atheism tells us nothing about a person's character). My aim, rather, was to point out that the men leading the atheist movement sound perhaps a bit too angry.

You've shortchanged the accomplishments of the New Atheists.

I'll pull directly from my essay here:

"...these atheists have aired many quality arguments against religious belief, and pushed dialogue on religion and its relation to politics."

"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."

Are readers here willing to admit the issues are a bit more complex than black-and-white? While I think the New Atheists have done some good things, I can still disagree with certain tactics, like rallying around atheism or using sharp rhetoric. I think Paul Kurtz sums up my position rather nicely in the Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010 issue of Free Inquiry:

"... militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded...it is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism. The New Atheists, in my view, have made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination...What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly."

"While I certainly don't believe that we ought to abandon our criticism of religious fanaticism or allow religious doctrine to dictate public policy, the future of the secular humanist and scientific rationalist movements depends upon appealing to a wider base of support."

Say what you will about Kurtz, but there is something to this diagnosis. Let me quickly add here that I am not in favor of propping up some new religion in place of the old religion on the going out. But that's another discussion ...

You're calling for everyone to agree. That's not going to happen. Step out of dream world. Religious belief is bad for society and we need to fight it.

Like I've said, I don't recall where I said that we should stop rigorously discussing religious belief or that all disagreement should be quelled. In fact, even if religion went by the wayside, I know we would continue to disagree. Disagreement is inherent in our society. This means we need to think about how to get people of different beliefs and backgrounds to the discussion table for civil conversation. Defining yourself in opposition to others on such a wide scale, or insulting them, doesn't generally (I say generally because there are exceptions) seem to be among the better ways to do such a thing.

Do you know why P.Z. Myers desecrated a consecrated host?

Yes, I do, and the case behind the story is a perfect example of irrationality within religious circles -- but I think it's also a case of how atheists can lose the support of soft secularists and religious moderates through their words and actions. Again, we don't need to fool people with our rhetoric, or pull punches; but it would seem we can easily give people a more negative view of atheists through actions such as this.

Comments:

#1 Deen (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 2:40pm

In my piece, I wanted to specifically discuss those who embrace atheism as the core of their lives, but I also admitted that not all atheists center their lives around their atheism

You fail to mention that if these atheists exist, they appear to be a small minority of atheists. In particular, none of the atheists you mentioned by name appear to fall into this category. For instance, Dawkins may be best known for his outspoken atheism, but most of his books happen to be about science. The fact that people react much more strongly to his writings on atheism are a symptom of this society, not because he’s such a bad science writer.

But, perhaps more to the point: how do I know many atheists do such a thing? To support my claim, I referenced The American Atheists.

Being a member of an atheist organization is now proof that you define your life around atheism? That’s just ridiculous. People are members of lots of organizations, but that doesn’t mean their life revolves around it.

New York City Atheists (which, for anyone knowledgeable, is a militant atheist organization)

Really? Are they preparing for armed combat? Are they violent? I’m sure they have their faults, but the word “militant” is rather hyperbolic when referring to atheist organizations.

Then, of course, there is the Out Campaign.

Yes? What about it? Are you really suggesting there is anything wrong with encouraging people to be open about their unbelief? Would you rather have the alternative?

Defining yourself in opposition to others on such a wide scale, or insulting them, doesn’t generally (I say generally because there are exceptions) seem to be among the better ways to do such a thing.

What about all the comments pointing out that both diplomats and firebrands are necessary to get society to change? It takes more than this tacit admission that there may be exceptions to address this criticism. Six words in parentheses is not enough.

Do you know why P.Z. Myers desecrated a host?

Yes, I do, and the case behind the story is a perfect example of irrationality within religious circles—but I think it’s also a case of how atheists can lose the support of soft secularists and religious moderates through their words and actions.

Then again, it has also persuaded many people that the New Atheists were basically right: even the supposedly “reasonable” and “moderate” religions like Catholicism can be quite crazy when push comes to shove. I’ve also seen many people change their mind because of PZ’s stunt and become more outspoken themselves.

#2 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 2:42pm

Nope, I have not changed my mind. I am not an atheist missionary, nor would I recommend that role for anyone. What I do want is outlined in CFI’s mission statement, which is a secular society in which, among other things, religion no longer has a privileged position and does not influence public policy.
If religion has no privileged position, then religious beliefs are subject to criticism to the same extent as political beliefs, scientific beliefs or any other belief claim – and people should not be able to immunize religion from criticism by claiming criticism offends them. And that criticism can take the form of a scholarly essay or a sharp remark or a cartoon or any other form of expression.
Where some in the CFI community, and the larger community of nonreligious (whether they prefer to self-describe as atheists, humanists, skeptics or whatever), appear to have a difference of opinion is how and when criticism of religion should be expressed. This is not an unimportant issue, but I am not going to say any more about this topic (at least not as part of the comments to Michael’s post). However, I will note that CFI’s affiliate, the Council for Secular Humanism, is holding a great conference in Los Angeles on October 7-10 and one of the sessions will be devoted to a robust discussion of so-called “accommodationism,” with Chris Mooney, P.Z. Myers, Vic Stenger, and Eugenie Scott taking part. One thing I hope everyone can agree on is that vigorous and open debate about important issues serves everyone’s interest.
And forgive the shameless plug.

#3 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 3:26pm

Do you have to register to comment?  I’ve tried commenting as a guest twice now, but it’s not showing up.  Thankfully, Deen addressed many of the problems I had with this essay.

#4 Michael De Dora on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 3:49pm

I wasn’t aware the October conference would be tackling the issue of “accommodationism.”

*Checks flights*

#5 Don (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 4:05pm

I’ve read all three posts now, and they make many good arguments and have been unfairly attacked by some.

Concurring with some of the other comments to the other post though, I think that your claim that “new atheists” are filling their lives with the doctrine of “no god” is misleading. I would say these thinkers equally espouse belief in scientific, naturalistic, and philosophic viewpoints that line up with the main goals of the “Center for Inquiry.” Following the most reasonable and rational discourse, science usually, they arrive at the calcitrant disbelief in god. The point by Deen above about Dawkins having published more in science than he has on atheism is right on. I think it is hard to turn people onto the benefits of secular thinking or naturalistic rationality (and trust in our best scientific theories) without first dispossessing them of belief in the supernatural that constantly shrouds many of their most basic and important conceptions of the world.

Evolution is a good case in point. This has such importance for how we see the world and how we organize our society, but if one refuses to grant science and evolution enough credibility because of one’s religious beliefs, then one will not accept the important social consequences that evolutionary thought can bring us. To be conciliatory about evolution, something that many secularists refuse to do (they thoroughly disapprove of ID in school curricula), would grant religious belief superiority in the public forum. Those denying evolution strictly from religious justification, should also never concede to the secular wishes of those who believe we should be publically educating kids in evolution. The point there is that the dividing issue is not what lies on top of the worldviews (whether evolution is a good theory or not), but is deeply imbedded in the worldviews themselves. From that standpoint, the viability of god and religious belief, and making that the first and primary question, is probably the most logical point of attack, ala “atheism”. In other words, the goals of secularism will only succeed alongside the goal of spreading “atheism”. Other posters (and Michael) readily commented on the importance of the “new atheism” in igniting secular values.

#6 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 4:44pm

Hmmm ... I’ll try my original comment again.

——-

I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’ve done a whole lot to support your position here, Michael.

You said:  “In my piece, I wanted to specifically discuss those who embrace atheism as the core of their lives[.]”

Who, exactly, does this?  As ‘evidence’ that people exist who center their lives around atheism, you mentioned two atheist groups and Dawkins’ Out Campaign.  Um, what?  Belonging to a group defined by its atheism means atheism is the core of your life?  Publicly declaring yourself an atheist means that atheism is the core of your life?  Seriously?

You then continue on to say:  “I did not intent to demonize all atheists, and this is my fault for lack of clarity.”

Yes it is.  Especially since, as far as I can tell, you are still attacking either: (1) all atheists (they’re Out by definition, after all!), or (2) a complete strawman atheist whose whole entire life somehow revolves around atheism.

Finally, you say:  “Defining yourself in opposition to others on such a wide scale ... doesn’t ... seem to be among the better ways to do such a thing.”

You say this immediately after quoting Paul Kurtz, who (if I’m remembering his anecdotes correctly) is fond of telling stories from the 1980s about being completely demonized by the religious right for promoting secular humanism.  So, does it really matter what label we use?  The whole lack-of-god thing is going to come up eventually, correct?

#7 SimonSays on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 4:59pm

Personally I’m just confused now. On the one hand you rightly say that the term “atheism” doesn’t mean much except to state that someone does not hold a god belief. I’m with you there.

But on the other hand you’re inserting terms like “militant atheism” and “new atheists” without really defining them. I’m sorry but I just don’t know what those mean!

This is a similar thing that happened when Paul Kurtz referred vaguely (though you at least name names) to “fundamentalist atheists” a few months ago and Ron very rightly asked for clarification on what this term even means-much less who Paul was referring to.

Do they mean “very anti-religious” or “less tolerant of religion” perhaps?

My concern is that unless we start speaking clearly about we mean, the discussion will degenerate into a situation where empty insults are thrown out and nobody knows what the hell anybody is talking about any more. You’re a smart guy so don’t think there’s danger of that with you, but the blogosphere can quickly turn nasty elsewhere.

#8 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 5:05pm

“I can still disagree with certain tactics, like rallying around atheism or using sharp rhetoric.”

I’d say that sharp rhetoric in and of itself isn’t the problem. Rather it depends on why it is sharp. It’s one thing to be sharp simply by stating facts bluntly, or by unapologetically arguing one’s case. It is another thing to misportray the opposition, to imply that they are morons or nuts, or to jokingly suggest that they be sodomized with rusty knives. (Unless you suggest that they be sodomized “sideways,” which magically makes it all better.) Obviously the former is valuable, but the latter, not so much.

#9 Ophelia Benson on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 5:28pm

Yes - this still has a lot of problems.

“I think rallying around atheism presents problems both inherently (the word doesn’t say much) and in presentation and interaction with the 95 percent of the public who are not atheists.”

But you could say that about any idea not shared by 95% of the public, and the result would be total stultification. This is one of the problems I have with Mooney and with the whole ‘framing’ idea - this weirdly functional idea of discourse and thought. We can’t be always second-guessing ourselves with “what would 95% of the public think of this?” - unless of course we’re running for office, in which case we would have to give up the freedom to say what we really think. But most of us have the luxury of not being forced to do that.

“Second, I admittedly made a couple grammar errors.”

Well, no - a lot more than that. There were whole words missing. Do try to proofread yourself more carefully. It’s well worth it: mistakes just throw readers off.

“it seems people have quickly forgetten CFI sponsored the first International Blasphemy Day just months ago.”

Nope, but I also remember a huge fuss about it from within CFI.

“if my life is formed around opposition to anything, it is opposition to bad ideas wherever they may be found. I aspire to do this while simultaneously showing respect and courtesy to the holders of those ideas.”

Are you assuming “New” atheists don’t? If so, you shouldn’t. And then, there is a difference between respect and courtesy between people in conversation and so on, and what is allowable in public discourse. Chris Mooney thinks Jerry Coyne’s New Republic review of books by Ken Miller and Karl Giberson was uncivil; I don’t; these things are not always obvious.

“I don’t recall where I said that we should stop rigorously discussing religious belief or that all disagreement should be quelled.”

But the fact that it is not self-evident what you mean by “respect and courtesy” is part of why you seem to some readers to be implying that. You need to do a lot more to define your terms.

The point about PZ Myers wasn’t just to ask if you knew about it, but to indicate that it’s part of the story and you should have mentioned it. To omit it just looks like smearing him.

#10 gray1 on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 11:52pm

If success can be defined by the number of varied responses and reactions, congratulations are due here on a job well done.  Nothing raises hackles quite like criticism, regardless of whether it’s just trying to be helpful. 

Knowing which buttons to push… priceless.

#11 Michael De Dora on Friday March 26, 2010 at 2:52pm

@Ophelia,

I am admittedly thinking about all of this through the eyes of a diplomat (that’s at least what I’ve been called), so that might be creating the room of disagreement between us. I have no interest in trying to stop people from critiquing beliefs; I do have an interest, however, in trying to set the conditions in which that is best done.

#12 Michael De Dora on Friday March 26, 2010 at 2:58pm

@Simon,

When I speak of something like “radical” atheists, I mean people who would want us to huddle under the “atheist” label or who critique religion very sharply without considering the worth or consequences of such harsh rhetoric.

I have to admit that this can go both ways. So while it may be that we need Dawkins and Hitchens and Myers to gain attention, I just wouldn’t want their approach spread across the entire movement. But at the same time, I wonder how much moderate support we lose by having our leaders act and speak in such ways.

#13 Michael De Dora on Friday March 26, 2010 at 3:00pm

@gray,

Look, I think this is generally a discussion worth having, if we can keep our heads straight.

#14 Ophelia Benson on Friday March 26, 2010 at 4:49pm

Michael,

A diplomat - that’s interesting. But if so, surely that could be where you go wrong. Diplomats have a particular role; they’re not required for everything. We don’t have to be diplomatic about everything. We’re not talking about different countries here. You’re talking about atheists and some nebulous plan for a progressive campaign for - whatever. Well atheism and campaigns for progressive whatevers are not at odds; it’s just not obvious why they need diplomats. I don’t think they do need diplomats. You seem to have a firm conviction that atheism is somehow incompatible with…pretty much everything else, but you have yet to explain why. Why would the existence of outspoken atheists make progressive campaigns harder to achieve? What, exactly, is the mechanism here?

If there is a mechanism, maybe it applies just as much, or more, to right-wing campaigns, and thus you should be cheering the “New” atheists on. That makes just as much sense as the assumption that the mechanism applies only to progressive campaigns.

As for trying to set the conditions for how critique is done - don’t you think that’s a little presumptuous? More than a little, really. Why would it be up to you to set the conditions? Why would it be up to anyone, and if it were up to anyone, why would that be you?

Sorry - but I really find this kind of thing irksome. Atheism is not a crime, or morally wrong, and we ought to be able to express it in any way we like without a lot of heavy breathing about imaginary obstacles to unspecified progressive campaigns.

What you’re urging on us is just a return to conformity - you do realize that, right? You’re holding up the majority, and telling us to stop doing what the majority disagrees with. Have you read Mill and Tocqueville? Since you’re in political science, I assume you must have, but if so they must have rolled right off you.

I really think you should give this some thought.

#15 Ophelia Benson on Friday March 26, 2010 at 4:55pm

And about your reply to Simon - there is no such thing as ‘people who would want us to people who would want us to huddle under the “atheist” label - that’s a worry of your own invention. I don’t even want to ‘huddle under the “atheist” label’ myself, and I certainly don’t want anyone else to. Nobody wants that. It’s a phantom.

You’re worried about phantoms, and you’re using the phantoms in an effort to control what atheists do. This is both silly and illiberal.

#16 Michael De Dora on Friday March 26, 2010 at 5:52pm

@Ophelia,

If I’m reading this correctly, you seem to agree with me that we shouldn’t use the atheist label as a front; yet somehow you seem to ignore many of your fellow secularists really love their atheism, and don’t want to let go of it. Some response to my blog posts—and I’ve scoured the Web to read all the response I can—would suggest the same. I can collect all of these and e-mail them to you if you would like.

So, back to the point: Dawkins’ Out Campaign, all the atheist organizations, all the atheists who don the red “A” lapel pins and “A” t-shirts and the “A” symbol as their Facebook profile photos, all the blogs out there named after atheism—none of this, to you, would represent even a slight form of rallying around atheism?

I must ask, how involved in the movement you are? That is, are your feet on the ground, in the grassroots? I don’t ask this to demean you, I ask in all honestly and sincerity. Because my experiences over the years in meeting people involved in the movement tells me that many secularists are more proud of their atheism than anything, and want to let other people know about it by wearing such garb, joining atheist organizations, ridiculing religion at every turn, etc. Me, I’d rather see the word completely almost disappear from our vocabulary. I know that’s a bit much to wish for, but you see what I’m getting at.

#17 Michael De Dora on Friday March 26, 2010 at 5:53pm

@Ophelia,

I’ll respond to your other post in time.

#18 Michael De Dora on Friday March 26, 2010 at 6:02pm

@Ophelia,

By the way, as noted in the Harris comments thread, I really am trying to have a civil and honest conversation here about the matter (this is not to charge you’re not trying to do the same, I’m just restating that). I don’t know if we’ll find any agreement, but I’d rather try to parse all this out and get it into the open than run away from the conversation. I find it to be a really important topic. Moreover, I don’t like feeling that I’m wrong—I’m sure you don’t either—and I know I can quench that without knowing I’ve heard all the arguments.

At the same time, I wonder how much further we can take this before we start running in circles. Let’s try to keep aware of that, because I think we’d both agree there comes a point where the conversation becomes counter-productive.

#19 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Friday March 26, 2010 at 7:14pm

“You contradicted yourself: you said atheism isn’t a worldview, yet criticized people who center their lives on atheism.”

It’s not just that you criticized people who center their lives on atheism, but that you wrote of there being an “atheistic approach to the world” or “atheist view of the world,” which implies that atheism is supposed to be a world view.

Also, what you described as problems with atheism aren’t so much problems with atheism as problems with certain atheists or groups of atheists, or problems with how people deal with atheism.

I also wouldn’t say that the “Out” campaign is in and of itself a bad thing, and if it had been started off by someone like Hemant Mehta or Carl Sagan instead of a guy who coined the playground insult “faith-head” and said facepalm-worthy things about theology not having moved on since about 200 C.E. (*cough* Protestant movements *cough*), I’d probably get an “A” sticker or whatnot. In principle, an “A” symbol is not much different from a rainbow flag.

#20 SimonSays on Friday March 26, 2010 at 7:51pm

Michael, thanks for responding. I guess this is where we ought to address an even more fundamental question:

Are PZ, Dawkins, et al, really our “leaders”?

I would argue that they are not. Dawkins-having an actual organization with donors, a board, and a mission statement may be a bit more beholden to a constituency, but PZ speaks for himself as far as I’m concerned. However, in no way would I consider them as speaking for the entire movement.

I’m not trying to flatter you or anything, but I would consider someone such as yourself who actually develops the real world secular community as much more of a “leader” than someone like PZ who writes a blog-no matter how engaging that blog may be. At the end of the day, you -and others like you- are actually accountable to the community (full disclosure-my wife is also a CFI Executive Director).

Don’t get me wrong, Dawkins sells a lot of books and gets big crowds, but that doesn’t automatically make him a leader with responsibilities and obligations to a particular community.

#21 Deepak Shetty (Guest) on Friday March 26, 2010 at 10:37pm

“I wonder how much moderate support we lose by having our leaders act and speak in such ways.”

Ah atleast you are asking this as a question. There are some who insist that they *know* that a lot of support is lost. Most moderates I know are quite capable of ignoring aspects they don’t like, so a moderate who for e.g. likes Richard Dawkins’ science writing isn’t going to stop reading his books because he called poor old Yahweh genocidal.

“who critique religion very sharply without considering the worth or consequences of such harsh rhetoric.”

So you believe the Danish cartoonists should not have drawn pictures of the one true prophet?

#22 Deen (Guest) on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 7:20am

@Michael De Dora:

yet somehow you seem to ignore many of your fellow secularists really love their atheism, and don’t want to let go of it.

You say that as if they shouldn’t love their atheism, and should let go of it. Why? What’s wrong with atheism, or being an atheist?

So, back to the point: Dawkins’ Out Campaign, all the atheist organizations, all the atheists who don the red “A” lapel pins and “A” t-shirts and the “A” symbol as their Facebook profile photos, all the blogs out there named after atheism—none of this, to you, would represent even a slight form of rallying around atheism?

No, it means that they’re not afraid to proudly show their atheism, and that they won’t hide it, as if it’s something to be ashamed about. It doesn’t mean they are now defining themselves exclusively as atheists.

I still don’t get what your problem is with the Out Campaign. You claim that “rallying around atheism presents problems ... with the 95 percent of the public who are not atheists”, but the problem is that there are a lot of atheists among that 95% who won’t admit it. We know there there are many atheists who hide it for fear of being ostracized by their community or even their families. We know they even exist among the clergy. We know that there are many more who won’t even admit to themselves that they are atheists (because many of us outspoken atheists went through such a phase ourselves).

But by staying hidden, they give the public the perception that the religious have more support than they really do, and atheists less. And so they stay hidden, under the false assumption that a huge majority thinks it’s shameful to be an atheist.

So what’s wrong when an organization tries to get people to show publicly that being an atheist is nothing to be ashamed of? Who wish to show that there are more atheists in society than people generally think? I can understand people not wanting to put a scarlet A on their own blog, for instance because they don’t want their blog taken over by endless religious discussions. It’s a reason why mine doesn’t have one (but you are making me reconsider). But I can’t understand at all why anyone would think it’s a bad idea when someone else wants to prominently show their atheism. By opposing the Out Campaign, along with some of your other comments, you appear to be defending the idea that atheism is shameful. I have a hard time believing that’s your real intention, but I don’t understand why else you could be making these remarks. Please explain yourself.

#23 Ophelia Benson on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 9:37am

Michael,

I don’t think there’s much danger at this point of the discussion running in circles, because I think there’s still plenty of room to nail down terms and otherwise clarify exactly what we’re talking about. Mutual willingness to try to listen and respond does help!

If I’m reading this correctly, you seem to agree with me that we shouldn’t use the atheist label as a front; yet somehow you seem to ignore many of your fellow secularists really love their atheism, and don’t want to let go of it.

No, I don’t agree with you about that. I’m not even sure what you mean by it. Do you mean talking about it? Or do you mean parading down the street holding an atheist banner when there’s no parade? I think the latter would be absurd while the former is entirely unexceptionable (provided it’s not done in other people’s churches or mosques without an invitation, and so on). Like Deen, I don’t see what’s wrong with secularists not wanting to let go of their atheism - but then I’m also not sure what you mean by that.

“none of this, to you, would represent even a slight form of rallying around atheism?”

Well I think you chose an imprecise term there. Self-identifying as something is not identical to rallying around it. I do of course agree that atheists are as it were finding each other in various ways, particularly cyber ways (which is no bad thing, not least because it’s global), but ‘rallying around’ implies more than that. Also your point throughout seems to be that atheists are doing that to the exclusion of other things, and I don’t think you know that, or that it’s true.

I don’t know what you mean by “I must ask, how involved in the movement you are? That is, are your feet on the ground, in the grassroots?” First, which movement? The putative ‘new’ atheist movement? A or the secular movement? Something else? Second, what do you mean by “feet on the ground, in the grassroots”? Do you mean face to face, in real life? Or something else - more oriented to political change, for instance?

I agree with JJ Ramsey here (stone the crows!). I can easily see simply not liking certain styles of atheism - finding some jokes irritating, boring, off-putting, childish, and the like. I have that reaction myself often enough (stone the crows again!). I too don’t much like ‘faith-heads’ and I don’t generally use it (I may have occasionally in the past, I’m not sure). I can see all that, and I can see saying so - I can see trying to improve atheist taste and style. But you’re claiming way more than that. You didn’t address any of my points about majoritarianism and conformity, you didn’t explain why we should be trying to say only what 95% of (US) people would (according to you) agree with.

#24 G Felis aka thinkmonkey (Guest) on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 1:40pm

I didn’t know about this follow-up post when I was commenting at Rationally Speaking, and I think this is a much more appropriate place for this discussion.

Over at RS, you said: “But atheism is not about reason and evidence. You can’t just snap your fingers and have atheism mean something different overnight. And why try to fix atheism when there are better, more comprehensive words out there, like freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc?” You’ve said considerably more than this here, but nothing inconsistent with the idea expressed above that you find even the label and concept of atheism problematic in some ways. And that still seems unmotivated and unjustified by any of the arguments you’ve offered.

I’ll now address what I take to be your claim - indeed, your repeated insistence, though sometimes couched in unclear and wishy-washy terms - that ‘atheism’ is a poorly chosen central/motivating concept for a movement or campaign, and that another should be substituted. Like some other commenters here, I’ve already pointed out that there is as a matter of demonstrable fact a positive side to atheism, insofar as the actual atheist writers under discussion (except perhaps Hitchens) - and all the atheists I personally know - are dedicated to the advance of science, and more broadly dedicated to advancing a reason and evidence-based approach to knowing and living in the world. But that positive side has an inevitable negative; the ‘for’ has an obvious ‘against’ - to wit, faith.

Despite the oft-repeated insistence of the faithful (and of those who would shield them from all criticism, however legitimate), faith is NOT simply “another way of knowing.” Rather, faith is a way of insuring that one *cannot* know: To embrace a belief on the basis of faith not only eschews but actively denies the only demonstrably reliable basis for justifying one’s beliefs and therefore actually knowing anything: the careful gathering of evidence and application of critical reasoning. Since the latter is exactly what is meant by the use of the word “inquiry” in “Center for Inquiry,” the problematic nature of faith cannot be a new idea for you, Mr. de Dora.

“Atheism” does by strict etymology just mean the absence of belief in a god, i.e. theism - but theism is primarily grounded in faith. (Vanishingly few believers claim that their belief exclusively rest on non-faith grounds, and none of those claims are at all plausible.) So, to embrace atheism is to reject faith in all gods. Moreover, atheists who promote and advance atheism precisely because of their dedication to critical inquiry must logically reject faith in general, not just faith in gods: This rejection of all faith-based belief springs from the same dedication to critical inquiry that motivates the atheism of most atheists in the first place, so there is no plausible reason to view broad advocacy of critical inquiry and opposition to all faith as inherently more than or different from atheism itself. To do so would be to illegitimately privilege the mere etymology of the word “atheism” above atheism as the overwhelmingly majority of the published atheists under discussion (and all the atheists I personally know) actually live it and write about it. Please stop doing that.

#25 G Felis (Guest) on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 2:53pm

Moreover, since advocating critical inquiry means opposing faith, and both humanists and secularists can be found among the ranks of the faithful, two of your three proposed “more comprehensive” words are in fact wildly inappropriate central/motivating concepts for a movement or campaign advocating critical inquiry because they are too broad: That is not to deny that the primary concerns of humanists (human rights and welfare) and secularists (separation of church and state) are and ought to be among the primary concerns of atheists under any label who seek to advocate and advance a critical inquiry-centered approach to individual and social life, and surely atheists can and should ally with religious humanists and religious secularists on those matters: But even the religious believers most firmly dedicated to humanist and secularist causes are not and cannot be wholly the allies of advocates for critical inquiry insofar as they persist in valorizing and promoting faith as if it were a legitimate and valuable way of determining what to believe about and how to act in the world, when in fact faith is a pernicious and perpetual obstacle to acquiring reliable knowledge and making justifiable decisions.

(Of course, I am not denying that believers do acquire reliable knowledge and make justifiable decisions: The point is that they can only do so to the extent they do not use faith to determine what to believe and how to behave. Even Francis Collins of “a frozen waterfall inspired me to realize that trinitarianism was true” infamy has explicitly said that his faith plays no role in his actual scientific research.)

As ‘freethinkers’ are not religious believers by definition, your other proffered term is at least apt - but I don’t see how the term is in any substantial sense “more comprehensive.” Your preference for the term ‘freethinker’ seems to be based entirely on your conviction that the negative or oppositional tenor of atheism is inherently problematic (both by the bare definition of the word ‘atheism,’ and atheism and as expressed by the actual published atheists you have targeted for criticism). I (and others) have argued that you have supported that conviction very poorly, and further that you have broadly mischaracterized those you criticize. Nevertheless, I would never criticize you or anyone else just for personally preferring to avoid the negative or oppositional tenor of ‘atheism’ by taking ‘freethought’ (or ‘secular humanism’ or any other terms you choose) as the central/motivating concept and terminology for your advocacy: If you want to emphasize that you’re for critical inquiry and deliberately de-emphasize that you are against faith in all its forms (even though to be for one is necessarily to be against the other), then by all means call yourself a freethinker or whatever instead of an atheist. But why must you insist on others adopting your preferred approach?

I’ve already explained ad nauseum why I find your arguments against taking atheism as a central/motivating concept and terminology for advocacy to be problematic and unconvincing (and so have others, though so far you seem not to be reading these criticisms with much of an open mind). However, I also think that you’ve failed to consider - or provide any counterarguments against - the positive arguments for deliberately choosing a more oppositional and confrontational approach to advocating critical inquiry as embodied by the atheists you’ve been criticizing. In response to many criticisms like your own, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and many others have explicitly declared their own personal preference for AND argued for the strategic effectiveness of taking a clear stand not just for good ideas, but against bad ideas - hence my own appreciation for the term “affirmative atheism.” Yes, I’m for science and critical inquiry, but that also means I’m against faith. I’m especially and specifically against treating ancient myths as if they were authoritative on any matter of fact or morality. And I’m proud to say I’m against such things in the clearest and most forthright way possible - by declaring myself an atheist and publicly advocating atheism.

You are perfectly free to try to convince us to do otherwise, of course. But the way in which you’ve chosen to try to convince us has been to make sweeping and unjustified criticisms of what I’ve decided to call ‘affirmative atheism,’ and those arguments strike me (and not just me, judging from the reactions of others in these two comment threads and elsewhere in the atheist blogosphere) as very much like the sort of concern trolling that the faithful themselves engage in when they tell atheists to be more polite and respectful, less critical and hostile. It’s fairly obvious that the faithful don’t really think that atheists would be more successful if they were nicer, but instead offer their “advice” because they just don’t want to be criticized, and they know they don’t have any legitimate counterarguments to the reason- and evidence-supported criticisms atheists make. It’s also fairly obvious that the demands by the faithful for more diplomacy on the part of atheists really just amount to a demand for the return to the unquestioned and unquestionable privileged status of religion in public life, and that they really just want us to STFU. What I don’t understand is why some atheists - who presumably DO actually want advocacy for critical inquiry and against faith to be successful - make the very same implausible, unpersuasive, concern-trollish arguments. Again I ask you, please stop doing that.

#26 Michael De Dora on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 6:44pm

@Deepak,

“So you believe the Danish cartoonists should not have drawn pictures of the one true prophet?”

Actually, I think the Islamic response to mere cartoons garnered a ton of support for open inquiry.

#27 David Galiel (Guest) on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 8:32pm

There is a danger (an all too common one) of thoughtlessly adopting pejorative rhetorical framing that has been deliberately used against the very groups you seek to represent.

When you use the term “militant atheists”, you fall prey to that danger.

Militants fly planes into buildings. They blow themselves up in busy marketplaces. They burn trains full of people of opposing beliefs. They throw acid in the faces of young girls in order to prevent them from attending school.

Militants shoot doctors who perform abortions. They scream obscenities at grieving widows at military funerals. They throw stones at cars driving on the Sabbath. They kidnap young children and force them to join rampaging armies. They rape the women of opposing factions in front of those women’s children. Militants kill, harm, oppress, and intimidate.

Militants justify harm to others in the name of their beliefs. Are there any contemporary atheists who are calling for harm to others in the name of “New Atheism”?

I see some people writing books, and posting on blogs, and respectfully debating theists in stuffy academic settings on college campuses, at the end of which there is always a shaking of hands - not a drawing of swords.

Presenting a strong opinion, without even the hint of a call for repression of opposing views - much less violence - is not “militant”.

The only new thing about “New Atheists” is that they are not apologizing for who they are, or for believing that religion is, on balance, harmful to society. Most importantly, they are encouraging young freethinkers not to feel bad or dirty for having secular thoughts - just as the Gay Pride movement helped young men and women gain dignity and self-acceptance as homosexuals in a heterosexually-dominated society.

I see no evidence of a militant faction of atheists seeking to violently impose their will on the world. I see no militant factions throwing Molotov cocktails at churches, vandalizing tombstones with scrawled Darwinian grafitti, or creating mocking gauntlets for Churchgoers to run en route to their Sunday services.

Not even the “militant” New York Atheists.

I urge you to reconsider use of the term “militant” in conjunction with “atheist”. It does your argument no good, and serves the cause of atheist acceptance in American society not at all.

#28 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 10:20am

Michael - if you’re going to answer at all, don’t ignore all substantive arguments and just answer one small question. That looks evasive, and insulting besides. That’s the kind of thing Mooney does, and it’s a major reason his reputation is in shreds with so many former fans.

Don’t pretend most of us haven’t said anything worth responding to.

#29 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:07pm

Furthermore (she said, returning to the bone), you didn’t even answer Deepak’s question properly. He asked about the Motoons in the context of the logic of your claims about those “who critique religion very sharply without considering the worth or consequences of such harsh rhetoric.” He was asking about the logic of your claim, and you didn’t answer that at all.

Look…the trouble is, given that you are the Executive Director of CFI New York, you really should make some effort to respond to reasonable criticisms. If you don’t, it looks as if you can’t, and if you can’t - then people will wonder why you are Executive Director of CFI New York. You’re a reflection on the organization, whether you like it or not, so you should make the effort - either in the original posts or in responses.

As it stands right now, the responses to your posts are a lot more thoughtful than the posts themselves. That’s a little embarrassing for CFI.

#30 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:10pm

Michael, you really seem to be suggesting that we use a different term than “atheism,” but you also seem unwilling to openly put your nickel down on a single alternative.  If people are indeed “rallying around” atheism in the way you’re claiming, what would you prefer they “rally around”?

I see problems with every alternative.  Secularism is only a small political aspect of the movement, and should be of more interest to the religious (even if they don’t realize it).  Humanism ... I consider myself a humanist and consume plenty of humanist material, but the hell if I can define it succinctly (or even at all).  Freethinker is okay, but is as wishy-washy and has a bit of the arrogance and hubris that “Brights” did.  I’m partial to Skeptic, but I acknowledge that it’s not a completely attractive term and that it has been co-opted by denialists.

Assuming I’m right about terminology/naming being a main beef you have, can I offer a suggestion?  It would’ve helped if you’d come out and said that by now.

#31 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:10pm

@Ophelia,

As an executive director, I am already busy. Moreover, as a graduate student, with a thesis due in a month, I am extraordinarily busy. This isn’t to make excuses, as I think I’ve contributed a ton to the conversation already. It just means you have to be a little patient with how often and quickly I can respond to the massive amount of comments I’ve received.

Michael.

#32 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:29pm

@Ophelia,

“Do you mean talking about it? Or do you mean parading down the street holding an atheist banner when there’s no parade? I think the latter would be absurd while the former is entirely unexceptionable (provided it’s not done in other people’s churches or mosques without an invitation, and so on).”

Talking about it, using it so widely in our vocabulary, wearing garb with it on there, naming organizations and movements with it ... there’s a way to have religious critique without focusing on atheism. My atheism is not why I think religious claims are bogus; I think they are bogus because of my valuing of reason and evidence.

“Well I think you chose an imprecise term there. Self-identifying as something is not identical to rallying around it.”

To some extent. I am an atheist. However, I rarely use the word. It is the difference between admitting who you are (an atheist) but not very publicly identifying yourself as such, not making it anything more than you also being an aUnicornist or an aRepublican. And not because atheism is shameful, but because it means so little, doesn’t tell people what you do believe in, and because there are already so many misconceptions with the label.

“Also your point throughout seems to be that atheists are doing that to the exclusion of other things, and I don’t think you know that, or that it’s true.”

To the exclusion of other things, no, but I’ve seen and met many atheists who seem to think their atheism is a very important thing, more important than many other things. There’s plenty of room here for people to have preferences—again, let’s keep criticizing religious belief to some degree—but why the focus on atheism?

“You didn’t address any of my points about majoritarianism and conformity, you didn’t explain why we should be trying to say only what 95% of (US) people would (according to you) agree with.”

Actually, I never said that. The other words I threw out there—humanist or freethinker or skeptic, for instance—are not philosophies 95 percent of people would agree with. But they are more encompassing. I’m merely asking us to consider how we look at ourselves as people, and how we brand ourselves to the public.

#33 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:32pm

@cheglabratjoe,

Humanist, freethinker, skeptic, or secularist sound better to me than atheist. However, I think my position is that we should generally focus less on labels and more on concepts or words like “reason,” “evidence,” “critical thinking,” “scientific knowledge,” and more. Note this isn’t saying we should drop them altogether, I just think they are limited.

#34 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:35pm

@David Galiel,

You make a good point re: the word “militant,” and I don’t like using the word myself because of the connotation. As I said in my first post, these men were writing books for public consumption, not breaking into homes. 

At the same time, militant as an adjective really does mean “active and aggressive in support of a cause.”

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/militant

#35 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 12:37pm

@JJ,

I said there is an atheistic approach to the world because I believe there is. This is not to say atheism is or can be a philosophy of life; but it can be the prism through which people see the world. And I think it’s a bad thing when that happens.

#36 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 1:20pm

Sorry about impatience, Michael. Understood about busy-ness. But…it is a very likely result of sweeping and somewhat hostile claims of the kind you’re making that there will be energetic responses.

My atheism is not why I think religious claims are bogus; I think they are bogus because of my valuing of reason and evidence.

I think that’s a distinction without a difference. To put it another way, it makes absolutely no sense to me. Nobody thinks religious claims are bogus because of atheism - that’s back to front - people conclude that religious claims are bogus because of reason and evidence, and that is how and why they are atheists. The word itself is just a word - but it points to thinking that religious claims are bogus because of reason and evidence. Nobody thinks the word itself has any argumentative power. Surely you don’t think ‘New’ atheists think it does?!

#37 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 1:51pm

To echo Ophelia’s comment, I have a serious problem with this statement:

“My atheism is not why I think religious claims are bogus; I think they are bogus because of my valuing of reason and evidence.”

Who here is claiming otherwise?  What atheists are saying that they disagree with religious claims because of their atheism?  This is certainly the sort of things religious people say about atheists; I’m told very often that I don’t see god because I refuse to.  But, they say the same thing to people who worship different gods, so it’s not like not using the term “atheist” or focusing on evidence/reason will stop that critique.

In case I’m babbling, here’s the point:  No atheist actually does what you’re saying they do, but no rebranding or refocusing is going to stop spurious accusations of doing it.  (Hell, here you are, an atheist yourself, accusing us of doing it!)

I’d also like you to unpack this a little more, if you have the time:

“This is not to say atheism is or can be a philosophy of life; but it can be the prism through which people see the world.”

What would a non-atheistic prism be?  A theistic one, right?  Or, are you merely criticizing *focusing* on atheism again?

#38 Deen (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 3:05pm

@Michael De Dora:

My atheism is not why I think religious claims are bogus; I think they are bogus because of my valuing of reason and evidence.

But those who make religious claims also claim they value reason and evidence. They just value faith as well.

The use of reason and evidence is also not what causes the prejudice against atheists. Nobody dislikes atheists because they apply reason and evidence, they dislike atheists because we came to the wrong conclusion: we don’t think God exists, and we don’t think we have to follow his laws. That is what makes people think atheists are a danger to their way of life, not our love of science or human rights or anything else.

And not because atheism is shameful, but because it means so little, doesn’t tell people what you do believe in, and because there are already so many misconceptions with the label.

So rather than correct the misconceptions, you prefer to surrender to the people who misrepresent atheists and drop the term? And what, exactly, do you expect that to accomplish? Do you think the prejudice will go away if everybody stopped calling themselves atheists?

Of course not. It doesn’t matter whether you call yourself a humanist, freethinker, skeptic, or secularist, fact remains you don’t believe in God, and are therefore an atheist by simple definition. Some people are going to draw their conclusions based on that fact alone. Trying to hide or downplay being an atheist not only makes you a godless heathen, it makes you a dishonest godless heathen. Who do you think you are kidding by avoiding the label “atheist”?

#39 Ben Nelson on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 4:07pm

Deen, most of the time when one utters a sentence that begins with the words “Nobody thinks…” or “Nobody says…”, they’re wrong.

For instance, in the original post, Mr. De Dora was correct when he pointed out that some atheists take religion to be a primary cause of conflict. I’ve had that very debate at a prominent atheist website only a few months ago. Some affirmative atheists do say it. They just don’t defend it very well after they’ve said it, no doubt owing to the fact that it’s an indefensible claim.

To take another example: “Nobody dislikes atheists because they apply reason and evidence”. I don’t know about that. There are people out there who resent, painfully resent, a syllogism. Some people have scripts for conflict resolution that are of the pro wrestling form:
1) Challenge.
2) Fight.
3) Either surrender or flee and plot revenge.

For people who have internalised this script, there are no options like “come to a reasonable consensus through careful negotiation and compromise”. That makes no sense. There’s always a vague threat lingering in the background. A contrary opinion means one and only one thing: it is a threat of embaressment.

Not incidentally, that is why I think Mr. De Dora is mistaken at the level of communication, cognition, and rhetoric. I suspect that he has not considered the different kinds of audiences that are out there, the kinds of latent scripts they deploy.

Nor do I think he has a pulse on the virtues they respect. Confrontation displays courage, and Americans can respect courage, but they can’t respect cowardice. And insofar as these strategic discussions from the accommodationist centre-left defaults upon invitational rhetoric, it (rightly or wrongly) will convey a sense of being weak-kneed and vulnerable to that kind of audience.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum almost come close to this in their book when they mis-reference Preston Manning, calling for an “audience-centered” approach to communication. Quite so! Sounds great! Now let’s try that, shall we?

#40 J. J. Ramsey (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 4:19pm

Michael De Dora: “I said there is an atheistic approach to the world because I believe there is. This is not to say atheism is or can be a philosophy of life; but it can be the prism through which people see the world. And I think it’s a bad thing when that happens.”

Of course, atheism itself can affect how one views the world. For example, an atheist is not likely to by the idea of two people being soul mates destined for one another. (Cue Tim Minchin’s “If I Didn’t Have You.”) However, the problems that you seem concerned about don’t appear related to mere atheism. For example, atheism in and of itself is not going to make one inclined toward likening theistic evolutionists to Nazis. (Yes, I am referring to Dawkins’ Chamberlain analogy, the one that Orac discussed and mocked on his Respectful Insolence blog.)

#41 morgan (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 4:46pm

There is no way to say: “I think that the things you believe on faith alone are completely wrong and I think it is important that I speak out because I value our secular society and I think people with your faith-based beliefs should be shown less public deference”, there is no way to say all that and for the other party not to be offended. The choice is: don’t say it (all of it, because it is what you mean and to water it down changes its meaning), or too bad for them. For years atheists didn’t say it. How has that worked out for us? Do you really think this diplomatic approach you support is a new approach that hasn’t been tried? The Dawkins/Hitchens/ Harris/Myers approach hasn’t been around all that long in comparison to the decades of atheists being diplomatic or silent. Atheists calling themselves humanists will not suddenly make the religious go “oh, ok then, we are not offended now”. It will not make our ideas any more compatible with theirs or palatable to them.

The new atheists are challenging a power structure head on. You suggest that this is damaging to atheists. The civil rights and feminist movements are evidence that vocal (often perceived as very non-diplomatic) opposition is imperative when your aim is to undermine a power structure supported by the majority. My own life is measurably better because of women who publically, loudly and repeatedly voiced their ideas of equality and did so knowing that they would be perceived as rude, dogmatic and as trouble makers (I guess that’s why this all feels so familiar). They did it anyway, because they knew that to challenge a power structure you actually have to challenge it and not let it continue to pretend that it is not deeply flawed.

#42 Melody (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 4:51pm

Paul Fidalgo tells you to “go ahead and organize your life around atheism.” I think it’s worth a read.

#43 Melody on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 4:55pm

And the link: http://blocraison.blogspot.com/

#44 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 5:04pm

To some extent. I am an atheist. However, I rarely use the word. It is the difference between admitting who you are (an atheist) but not very publicly identifying yourself as such, not making it anything more than you also being an aUnicornist or an aRepublican. And not because atheism is shameful, but because it means so little, doesn’t tell people what you do believe in, and because there are already so many misconceptions with the label.

So you’re saying, at least in part, that atheists should be more euphemistic about their atheism. They can “admit” they are atheists ( “admit” because it is of course shameful, despite your disavowal) when pressed, but they should tactfully conceal the fact otherwise. Not because it is shameful, but because “there are already so many misconceptions with the label,” and the way to deal with that is to bow to it and attempt to hide the facts.

Others have already said this, but you clearly haven’t taken it in, so I’ll just say it some more. You’re mostly just saying what you like to do and what you prefer - but then you are for some reason turning your preference into a rule for all. Well it isn’t a rule for all. You go right ahead and avoid the word “atheist,” I really don’t care, but I don’t see how it’s any of your business what other people do. You still haven’t explained that, you haven’t even made a pass at an attempt at explaining it. This is where the accusations of concern trolling come in. What business is it of yours whether I call myself an atheist or not? How does that pick your pocket? Are you somehow discredited or tarnished because other people call themselves atheists? Maybe CFI’s work is somehow made harder by the new prominence of atheists. Well if so, you need to explain that - not just make broad but empty assertions about what will, must, can’t help but happen.

JJE made an excellent point at Rationally Speaking - you should ponder it.

De Dora’s arguments are very understandable in a social context though. He’s expressing standard taboo aversion. It is taboo to criticize religion directly. And when he sees that taboo being violated, he reflexively directs his disapproval at the “offenders”. If one wonders why he doesn’t apply the same criticism to analogous forms of “angry divisive rhetoric” coming from churches, the answer is simple: it isn’t taboo.

JJE is right you know. All you’re doing is saying “atheism is taboo so quit talking about atheism so much, because it’s taboo.” But lots of us (“New” atheists) want to get rid of the taboo, and that’s why we dotalk about atheism; therefore your telling us to bow to the taboo is if anything calculated to prompt us to redouble our efforts. Your hand-flapping and “ssssssssssssssh"ing is just more tabooing, and all it does is piss us off. You may be winning devoted friends among the taboo-loving crowd, I don’t know, but if you’re really trying to give “New” atheists advice - well, it’s not working.

#45 G Felis (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 8:44pm

Michael, I was going to answer your response above (#32) - but Deen (#38) and Ophelia (#44) have already made the criticisms of your position that I would have made, so I’ll focus on a positive argument instead.

Of course there are misconceptions about atheism: More than misconceptions, there is ample evidence (objective and anecdotal) of outright hatred and bigotry towards atheists. For example, even with as much anti-gay bigotry as there still is in the United States (a lot less than there used to be, of course), there are many more people who would vote for an openly gay presidential candidate than an openly atheistic presidential candidate. (I’m sure you read that somewhat surprising survey result, too. It wasn’t in the news all that long ago.)

A large part of the credit for the decline of anti-gay bigotry (both overall, and relative to atheists) of course belongs to gay activists, and the success of gay activism in reducing bigotry springs in large part from the fact that more and more gay people have come out of the closet. Being gay has been more and more “normalized,” so that everyone not only knows gay men and women, they KNOW that they know gay people: The best and possibly ONLY way to turn someone from the alien, feared other - the perpetually demonized outsider - is for people to realize that members of the group in question are not in fact strangers. Not only are they not strangers, they’re people one already knows and likes and trusts: one’s neighbors and co-workers and doctors and dental hygienists and children’s librarians and…

The struggle to normalize homosexuality is ongoing, but the struggle to normalize atheism - at least in the United States - is still in its infancy. And atheism must be normalized, for several reasons: First and foremost, bigotry against atheism is a tool of social control - not primarily control of atheists, but of believers. All of the more dogmatic and authoritarian religious traditions and institutions spend a great deal of time and energy demonizing unbelievers because it is very effective at keeping the flock within the fold: They want their followers to incorporate the idea, on an almost instinctual level, that to leave the fold is to become a monster. One of the core goals of any organization or movement advocating a reason- and evidence-based approach to individual life and public policy - including the Center for Inquiry - must be creating a social and political environment where it is easier for any and everyone, believers and non-believers alike, to privately and publicly question dogma and authority. I can think of no single, more effective means to further that end than normalizing atheism.

Moreover, the more atheism becomes normalized - the more people see atheism as just another life choice people make, like identifying with a political party or choosing to marry/have children or pursuing an education (for those with the means) - the more social and political space is created wherein we can openly discuss religious affiliation as a choice people make and talk about *why* people choose atheism. Since the reason people choose atheism is reason itself - that is, atheism springs from reason- and evidence-driven critical inquiry - making it more politically and socially acceptable to explain, argue for, and advocate atheism is quite simply identical with making it more acceptable to advocate a reason- and evidence-based approach to individual life and public policy.

You wrote: “My atheism is not why I think religious claims are bogus; I think they are bogus because of my valuing of reason and evidence.” Ophelia (at #36) and others have already pointed out the problem with the way you expressed this idea, but I want to dig in deeper and turn your claim on its head.

Yes, one privately becomes an atheist because one values reason and evidence, and reason and evidence convince one not only that specific religious claims are bogus, but also that faith is a generally bad way to go about determining which claims to believe. But if you not only value reason and evidence privately, but also want to advance reason and evidence publicly - because you are convinced by reason and evidence that the world can and does become a better place (with more happy, thriving people in it) the more people evaluate claims and make decisions based on reason and evidence - then there is no better means to that end than the public embrace and advancement of atheism.

You keep bringing up variations on a theme, expressed most succinctly with these words: “This is not to say atheism is or can be a philosophy of life; but it can be the prism through which people see the world. And I think it’s a bad thing when that happens.” For the reasons I’ve given above, this view is profoundly wrong-headed. Atheism is not primarily a prism or filter or perspective through which affirmative atheist activists see the world: Atheism is a tool of emancipation. More specifically, the effort to normalize atheism and to make the arguments for atheism both more widely known and less socially disreputable is a tool of emancipation, a means to advance the goal of that imaginable better world where more and more people learn to evaluate claims and make decisions based on reason and evidence instead of dogma, tradition, fear, pressure to conform socially, and so on.

Keeping your own atheism “under the radar” is your choice, Michael. I can even see how it can be useful and important in creating and sustaining political alliances with religious moderates to protect and advance secularist and humanist goals (although I have my suspicions that this can in many instances turn out to be a devil’s bargain). But your repeated encouragements for atheists in general to downplay their atheism - along with your comments which can and have been read as highly negative over-generalizations about outspoken atheists (which really don’t help with the demonization problems we already have in such abundance) - are directly contrary to what I’ve called normalization, and for the reasons I’ve given above are thus in direct opposition to goals central to the organization in which you have taken a leadership role. You may not agree with all of my arguments, but at least think seriously about them before you engage in any further atheist-shushing.

#46 Deen (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 2:12am

@Ben Nelson:

Deen, most of the time when one utters a sentence that begins with the words “Nobody thinks…” or “Nobody says…”, they’re wrong.

You might be right, there might be people out there who think that the mere use of reason and evidence is evil. But I think the vast majority of people will tell you they consider themselves people of reason who value evidence. Whether they really are such people is a different matter, of course.

Nor do I think he has a pulse on the virtues they respect. Confrontation displays courage, and Americans can respect courage, but they can’t respect cowardice.

I don’t think this is an issue of courage or cowardice. I think it’s an issue of honesty and trust. Obviously, a diplomat needs to have the trust of both parties he’s talking with. The problem is, many religious people simply don’t fully trust people who don’t believe in God. I can understand the urge to increase this trust by avoiding the association with the “atheist” label, and not calling yourself an atheist.

But you can’t repair trust that way. It will be all too apparent you still don’t believe in God, and it’ll be all too apparent you are trying to hide it, or at least dodge the issue. I think you’ll actually lose more trust that way than if you’d simply have been upfront about it.

I also shouldn’t have to explain that by avoiding the label “atheist”, you’ll also lose trust among those that think there’s nothing wrong about being out and open about being an atheist.

Put those two effects together, and I can’t see how anyone who considers themselves an atheist can help their diplomatic credibility by avoiding to call themselves an atheist.

#47 Ben Nelson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:40am

Deen,

No doubt, trust and honesty play their part. I think you’d agree that that’s compatible with my point, and we just differ in emphasis in that regard.

But trust and courage are intertwined in a deeper way as well. The reason why I lean heavily on this idea of courage and confrontation is in some part a reflection on the (mythologized) American character. Americans crave role models that are forthright. They do not *trust* gutlessness. Trust has to be earned the hard way.

That doesn’t mean that diplomacy has no place, it just means that you need a diversity of approaches. We need our diplomats, but we need our John Waynes too. Dawkins’s books are bestsellers. On the face of it, I think that really does tell us something about the rhetorical merits of the approach of the affirmative atheists.

Now, of course, you’re right to insist upon trust and honesty as the values of affirmative atheists. For one thing, as a question of integrity, they’re just the plain facts about what motivates the best among the affirmative atheist crowd. And for another thing, the rhetorical struggle will be a long one, and you need more than just strategic musings to keep you motivated down the line. I suspect that you would put accent on the first consideration and not the second one, but for my part I must insist on taking a wider view.

#48 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 8:28am

Just quickly, on the argument that atheism is attached to reasoning and evidence-based thinking.

First, the word just doesn’t include this sort of thing. This is why we continue to hear about Stalin, etc. Now, many atheists do reach the position through a good degree of reasoning. Yet this is still no guarantee a person is generally reasonable because the label still only addresses one issue, one position. Again I refer back to Bill Maher or the NYC Atheists, who kick members out for not being hardline atheists.

Second, I’ve also argued that while some atheists do reach their position on the issue through some degree of reasoning, other atheists do not care about religion and have come to their atheism through other processes, or perhaps even apathy. I think we oversell when we refer to the road to atheism being one of pure reasoning. Life is more nuanced than that.

#49 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 8:42am

“You’re mostly just saying what you like to do and what you prefer - but then you are for some reason turning your preference into a rule for all.”

Actually, I took my own preference, asked why it was my preference (or why it was more than a preference), wrote an essay about it, and gave you my reasons. You haven’t bought them, and are now trying instead to tell me that my view is my preference. No, it is my position, and you disagree.

“JJE is right you know. All you’re doing is saying “atheism is taboo so quit talking about atheism so much, because it’s taboo.”

That’s only a part of my argument. I laid out my reasons for not using the word as anything of importance because it’s so empty. I said that the label (and a purely atheist approach) is divisive in nature and not productive to dialogue. I said that the word has many misconceptions that don’t seem to be going away. In sum, I argued that since there are so many problems and shortcomings with the word both inherently and in practice, we should not desire to use it.

“But lots of us (“New” atheists) want to get rid of the taboo, and that’s why we do talk about atheism; therefore your telling us to bow to the taboo is if anything calculated to prompt us to redouble our efforts. Your hand-flapping and “ssssssssssssssh"ing is just more tabooing, and all it does is piss us off. You may be winning devoted friends among the taboo-loving crowd, I don’t know, but if you’re really trying to give “New” atheists advice - well, it’s not working.”

I actually had a conversation with my friend about this specific point last night and he opened my eyes a bit. He said that right now we need atheism; we need to tell people they can not believe in God and be fine. This, he said, is because of the social conditions we face. I think it is important to overcome such taboos (though I do wonder if we’ve oversold how poorly atheists are looked at, or if we’re looked at so poorly because Dawkins and Hitchens and Myers are nails on a chalkboard to the religious believer). But back to the point, the end game here isn’t really about atheism—but we need it now. And if we’re successful, in say, 100 years, the word atheist will cease to exist in practice in our nation. This mirrors, I think, what Phil Zuckerman found in his book Society Without Gods. When religion isn’t a force, atheists exist only in theory, not in practice.

Now, there might be something to that ...

#50 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:10am

I’m really trying to not be a jerk and dismiss your opinions, Michael, but you’re making it awfully hard.  Why did you need a friend to enlighten you about this issue?  The comments here have been saying that all along, and I’d bet many of the commenters’ opinions were informed by publications put out by the organization you work for!

“I think it is important to overcome such taboos (though I do wonder if we’ve oversold how poorly atheists are looked at, or if we’re looked at so poorly because Dawkins and Hitchens and Myers are nails on a chalkboard to the religious believer).”

Um, are you aware of the study G Felis *just* referred to?  The one showing that atheists are the least trusted minority group in America?  That’s tough to oversell, isn’t it? 

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.