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:

#51 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:15am

I tried to insert a link to a newspaper article about that survey, but it just deleted the link and the rest of my comment.  Great.

Here is the citation:  Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.  Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann.  American Sociological Review 2006 71 211-34.  (Full text available on Joseph Gerteis’ site at the University of Minnesota.)

And, here’s the rest of my comment:

As for blaming it on the so-called Four Horsemen, I’ll point out that this survey was published in 2006 based on data collected in 2003 and 2004.  So, atheists were disliked well before your scapegoats hit the public scene.  Do you have any evidence that these people are “hurting the cause”?  Or do you just not like them?

#52 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:16am

@joe,

I’ve been skipping over some posts. I don’t specifically see which study he’s referring to. One I know of is this:

http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1786422&page=1

#53 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:17am

I think atheists have always had a PR problem, and I don’t know of the NA approach has helped or hurt, but it’s worth pondering.

#54 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:26am

Interesting, apparently it is “A” week on Facebook.

http://cchronicle.com/2010/03/a-week-on-facebook/

#55 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:36am

Also, @joe,

Perhaps I wasn’t clear. My friend’s point is that we need an atheist movement in the short term, not a secular movement. Though not mutually incompatible, there is a difference between atheism and secularism, and I tend to side with the latter. But given even the argument that we need an atheist movement to overcome taboos, there is still a discussion to be had about how to best do that.

#56 Melody on Monday March 29, 2010 at 9:59am

Please keep in mind that our mission is not only to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values, but to end to the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever, whether the nonbeliever describes her/himself as an ATHEIST, agnostic, humanist, freethinker or skeptic.

Criticizing those who strongly identify with the atheist label is counterproductive to our mission. I also think using words like ‘militant atheist’ are not only a mischaracterization, but divisive and hurtful to the movement.

#57 Ben Nelson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:12am

Joe, in fairness to Michael, I tend to see more affirmative atheists argue from the “This is about honesty and integrity and truth to power” point of view than the “This is a strategic move based on the times we live in” view. Call them the Integrity and Strategist views, respectively. I’ve been arguing something like the Strategist views for the past year or so, just to break up the monotony of the discussion between those who hold the Integrity view and those who hold the Diplomacy view. Aside from a few asides by Coyne and Myers, it has been a somewhat lonely strain of argument.

#58 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:26am

Ben, really? Don’t you see both? I see both, and I argue both, too.

Anyway, Michael, I echo what Joe said in reply to you -

No kidding! Several people here have been telling you that all along!

To be sure, a point may be more vivid and gripping coming from a friend in real-life conversation rather than from strangers on a screen. But then you did write a post for the screen, so…you should make some effort to take in what people say in reply.

And this business about oooooh let’s ponder whether or not Dawkins and Hitchens have made things worse - you’ve done more than ponder, you’ve accused, in strong and scapegoating terms. So what we have here is:

A situtation in which atheists, especially in the US, are a despised and marginalized group; some atheists get books published by big publishers (see Tom Flynn’s editorial in the current Free Inquiry) and the books are best-sellers; atheism is in the news, and lots more people feel safe about being atheists and saying they are atheists; some atheists turn pale with horror and accuse the best-selling atheists of all sorts of social crimes and urge all atheists to go back to being ashamed of being atheists, to “admit” they are atheists when there is no escape but otherwise don’t even mention it.

That’s you. That last clause is you. Ponder that.

#59 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:31am

@Ophelia,

I think my friend made the differentiation better than I’ve seen done here, but then, like I said, I just haven’t been able to read every response.

As for your other comment, to repeat, I never said atheism is shameful. I said it doesn’t mean much and that there are other ways of doing what needs to be done.

I suppose only a new essay on how to go about that would suffice. I’m not sure how much more productive this conversation will be without that.

#60 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:47am

Ben,

I agree that Integrity/Strategy (I like your terminology) is an important discussion to have.  However, even the side you’re not calling ‘integrity’ needs to be honest and forthright.

I feel like this is especially important here, because atheism/freethought/skepticism/whatever is (or at least should be) based on logic and reason.  So, if you do fishy things for the sake of Strategy, you’re going to alienate the Integrity side of things.

Michael,

Well, I’m glad that your friend is so well-spoken.  I hope you speak with him/her more before your next blog entry.

#61 Ben Nelson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 11:23am

Ophelia, I guess I’m reminded of the Summer of Moonenbaum 09. I often saw you as presenting an Integrity position, a kind of rearguard, saying, “Why are you telling us to shut up”, that kind of thing, with many posts ending with words to the effect of, “That’s all we’re saying”. And when you did post on the issue, it seemed like a case of pointing out the other side’s inconsistency. For instance, IIRC one of the umpteen questions that you gave to Mooney (that he never got around to answering) was to the effect of, “How do you know the NA’s are doing harm?”, which skirts on the issue of consequence and strategy but is still compatible with hedging one’s bets. But that’s the most I remember.

Maybe I should be slightly less vague. I recall posting quite a lot on Intersection and Jean Kazez’s blog arguing pointedly in favor of a measure of confrontation in service of persuasion. And I recall being a bit of the odd one out in that sense. Not a bad sense, not the sense of “boo hoo I’m so lonely and neglected”, but just in the sense where I say, “Hm, interesting approaches”.

At the very least there must be a difference in emphasis if my memory is to be salvaged. But by all means if I’m wrong then I’ll pinch myself between my toes as punishment.


Joe, of course, quite true. There’s certainly no Deep Rift that has to be there between Integrity and Strategy. Well, maybe there’s a rift between Mooney/Kirshenbaum and everyone else, but for normal atheists and agnostics there’s only a difference in accent between Integrity and Strategy because they happen to coincide.

I guess in hindsight there are subtle textual clues that tip one off to the idea that Integrity folks are Strategy folks. i.e., the occasional (entirely apt) derisive mentions of Lieberman in connection with Mooney/Kirshenbaum seems to be a strategic critique. In any case, I’m quite interested in the Leo Straussian approach to truth-telling, while people like Sam Harris are really not at all interested in that.

#62 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 12:02pm

Ben, oh well I’m not saying I don’t veer back and forth between the two, because I do. And I think I sometimes avoid the ‘confrontation is good’ line because…well mostly because I have a lot to say about it, so I tend to put it off for another time. I suppose I think if I start to say anything about it I’ll find myself writing a 20,000 word comment, so I save it. But I think other people combine the two.

Actually that was one reason I found the questions a good form. I could just list them, so they didn’t have to lead into each other. There are a lot of issues in play here, and to do them all justice requires a lot of typing - which some heroic people have done, like Paul W and JJE (and you). The questions were a way of at least making a semi-exhaustive list.

#63 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 12:12pm

Michael,

I think my friend made the differentiation better than I’ve seen done here.

Well frankly I doubt that, and coming from you -

No, I shouldn’t go there. But I will just repeat that so far, at least, you have done a startlingly bad job of arguing your case.

I never said atheism is shameful. I said it doesn’t mean much and that there are other ways of doing what needs to be done.

No, I know you didn’t say ‘atheism is shameful’ in those words, but you decidedly did imply it. You have been a student of communications, no? Surely you’re aware of the role of implication. And ‘it doesn’t mean much and there are other ways of doing what needs to be done’ is of course very far from all you have said about atheism in these posts and comments.

#64 Ben Nelson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 12:30pm

Yes, certainly a complicated issue. Often too complicated for me to sort out with a prior opinion.

Now that I think of it, sometimes it seems like we have a bit of role-reversal. So for instance, late last year there was a post about Oliver Kamm and “antagonism” towards religion. Despite my admittedly Straussian leanings, I thought that self-identification with a confrontational attitude was excessive (though my condemnation was no deeper or wider than to whine that “it’s booorinnng”). In that sense I hum along to the same tune as Michael, but maybe in a different key.

The trouble, if I can put it in these terms, is when you make antagonism a part of your identity, like the evil opposite of the Integrity position. Atheism is far too interesting a subject to be left to mere trolls. And if THAT is all that Michael means when he insists upon the role of reason and emphasis upon freethinking, then I would think he’s right. But there are fine gradations along the line, and he might want to go farther than I would. I am sure this rich tapestry shall unfold soon enough.

#65 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:09pm

“No, I know you didn’t say ‘atheism is shameful’ in those words, but you decidedly did imply it. You have been a student of communications, no? Surely you’re aware of the role of implication.”

I am. I am also aware that certain people will read into what I write whatever they want, regardless of what I actually write or mean. Such is the nature of things.

“And ‘it doesn’t mean much and there are other ways of doing what needs to be done’ is of course very far from all you have said about atheism in these posts and comments.”

Not really. My entire first problem with atheism, in my first essay, was that atheism is a very small and empty cup and doesn’t tell us much about a person. I don’t know what else you’ve been reading but this has been my main argument against atheism across the web.

#66 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:24pm

“Well frankly I doubt that, and coming from you -

No, I shouldn’t go there.”

But haven’t you already? On your blog, you suggested that someone at CFI made a mistake by hiring me because, like George W. Bush, I lack “many of the skills and most of the learning he should have had in order to do the job he got” and because I seem to come off as a “fairly naive undergraduate (of course, I’m not sure you are aware of my main responsibilities at CFI; blogging is actually not one of them). Amazingly, I thought P.Z. Myers had the most reasonable comment over there. Kudos to him. But back to the point, feel free to say what’s on your mind, Ophelia. You already have and I wouldn’t want you to stop now.

#67 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:34pm

The trouble, if I can put it in these terms, is when you make antagonism a part of your identity, like the evil opposite of the Integrity position. Atheism is far too interesting a subject to be left to mere trolls.

Well, in truth, I think that depends on who you are. When bores do it it’s just boring, but - you can see where I’m going with this. Gore Vidal, for instance. Hitchens. Kingsley Amis at his best (and some of the time at his less than best.) Admittedly I can be led astray by this - I’ve been known to think someone was a Hitchensesque misanthrope only to be confronted with real, thorough, savage misanthropy. But still, that’s not usual.

I’d forgotten the Kamm dispute…

#68 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:36pm

Michael,

I was going to address your comment that this is all about atheism being a “small and empty cup.”  But, instead, I’m going to recommend you take the time to actually read all the comments here, and then go ahead and write another entry.  The benefits of promoting atheism have been gone over a number of times here.

I’ll also take the opportunity to turn your point on its head.  You’re framing atheism as no big deal; something most people in this “movement” (for lack of a better term) are, but not the source or goal of the movement as a whole.  Well, couldn’t it be viewed as the one thing we all have in common?

For instance, I’m not particularly interested in secularism; I support it, but politics and law really aren’t my thing.  I’m much more interested in science and skepticism; perhaps you’re not.  But, aren’t we both atheists?

I’m guessing you’ll say that it would be better to say that we’re bound by “reason” or “rationality” (or some such term), but I disagree wholeheartedly.  Of course, I only have personal anecdotes, but I’ll tell you that 100% of my religious friends don’t like it when I even vaguely imply that my position is rational/reasonable/logical/etc and theirs isn’t.  Wouldn’t this be the Brights fiasco all over again?

#69 cheglabratjoe (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:48pm

Michael,

As someone who is probably your age or younger, I sympathize with you that the comments over on Ophelia’s blog were a bit condescending.

Of course, the people making those comments acknowledged as much right after they said it.

And, frankly, you do seem to be writing and responding with a bit of pomposity.  You do realize how obnoxious the following text makes you seem, right?  “I am also aware that certain people will read into what I write whatever they want, regardless of what I actually write or mean. Such is the nature of things.”

Finally, come on.  This is the internet.  People can be mean on it.  I think you’re going to have to get used to it.

#70 Michael De Dora on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:54pm

@Joe,

I don’t mind the comments over at Ophelia’s blog; I’ve seen much worse. I just didn’t want to pretend that Ophelia hasn’t gone “there,” wherever that is.

#71 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:55pm

Michael, yes, you’re right, I’ve been harsher elsewhere than I have here, I suppose because talking to is different from talking about. But okay, since it’s out there - I would think CFI would want someone with better writing and arguing skills than you have so far demonstrated, in that job.

No, I never thought blogging was one of your main responsibilities! Indeed I assume it’s voluntary.

I am also aware that certain people will read into what I write whatever they want, regardless of what I actually write or mean. Such is the nature of things.

Maybe it is, but I maintain that I have done no such thing. Your implication that atheism is shameful was in your suggestion about “admitting” that one is an atheist. What’s to admit if it’s not shameful?

My entire first problem with atheism, in my first essay, was that atheism is a very small and empty cup and doesn’t tell us much about a person.

But the whole post reeked of hostility. If you can’t see that…well, you ought to be able to, that’s all. It’s all over the place -

“American public was hit with a fresh wave of secular thought” “the “New Atheists”—practitioners of a form of atheism that is outspoken and brash in its condemnation of religion and religious belief” “this new, bold assault on religion” “P.Z. Myers jumped on board with the movement” “many atheists were defining their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism”

And so on and so on - that’s just from the first few paragraphs. You betray your irritation and dislike in nearly every sentence. You apparently think you don’t. Well - if so, you’re mistaken.

So no, I’m not reading into what you write whatever I want, I’m reading what you wrote. I’d never heard of you before I read that post, and I certainly wasn’t expecting energetic hostility to atheists at CFI, so I had zero reason to decide in advance to read your post as hostile to atheists. I read what was there.

#72 Ben Nelson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 4:27pm

Right. So Mr. De Dora believes that atheism is a small cup, in that it doesn’t necessarily imply reason or an evidence-based epistemology. It is worthwhile to ask: why does this matter? Does it matter at all?

Let’s use the same standards and apply them to theism. When somebody mistakenly uses the vague expression, “Theism is about faith”, we can pedantically correct them by claiming that revelation is being taken as a form of evidence for the person doing the believing. Hence, these believers do not have faith, because they think they have evidence. They think they *know* the mind of God, Zeus, and all the rest of it.

The question is, does anyone think that the pedantic correction in the above example is a game-changer, a defeater, that rationally ought to compel people to stop saying that “Theism is about faith”? Of course not. After all, *most* theists don’t have those vivacious delusions. *Most* theists believe because of faith, not because Jesus came to them in a vision riding a unicorn. We can say that the argument that a person makes against the proposition, “Theism is about faith”, is merely gratuitous.

Similarly for Mr. De Dora’s argument. Atheism is about inference to the best evidence-based explanation. Yes, you can critique that by saying that some atheists have a kind of negative faith, etc. But your critique does not defeat the usage, because most atheists really do care about the evidence. Your critique is merely gratuitous, in just the same way that a critique of someone who says “Theism is about faith” is.

#73 Josh Slocum (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 4:28pm

Michael,

I’m one of those commenters over at Ophelia’s blog who agreed that your remarks sound like they come
from someone who’s quite young, and hasn’t had the benefit of experience in other, similar social
movements. There’s no way to say that without the subject of the comment feeling codescended to, I
know (even though I don’t mean to insult you). I used to hate hearing that criticism when I was
quite a bit younger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t accurate.

Ophelia, G Felis, Deen, JJE, all of them have said everything I would have wanted to say, and better, but there’s one point I want to stress. I don’t think you would write the things you do about atheism if you’d had any direct experience in past social movements such as women’s rights, gay rights, or civil rights for blacks. And no, not because I think your emotional allegiance would sway your opinion, but because you’d actually understand that it’s legitimate, normal, and necessary to be outspoken. To make atheism “normal,” as another commenter wrote.

If I had but a penny for every time some straight person (or, more aptly, some timid gay person who
just wasn’t temperamentally inclined to candor) told me we outspoken, uppity queers were doing more harm than good, I’d be a very rich man. And just the same as today, the very act of not apologizing for or actively hiding the fact that we were queers was defined as outrageous, rude, provocative, and divisive.

And when it was necessary to be deliberately provocative, to yell, to demand treatment dollars for AIDS victims, to excoriate and shame bigoted politicians in public, we did that too. And it worked. It was groups like Act Up (no, I don’t agree with everything they ever did) that forced
change, not the retiring go-along-to-get along crowd. Provocative calls to action can’t do everything, of course, but they do force open the conversation and make space for diplomats.

It’s also important not to replicate the talking points of people who are intensely interested in
shutting secular/atheist people up. Many times (and it’s been pointed out to you), you’ve fallen into that trap, treating the ordinary, plain-as-rice refusal to hide one’s atheism as if that were equivalent to standing on the street corner with a megaphone harrassing old ladies. I know you don’t
think you’re doing it, but you are.

Finally, please understand the context you’re operating in. It may seem a little surprising to you
how much pushback you’ve been getting, since you’re understandably focused on what you, as just one
person, have written. But those of us who’ve been doing this longer have had it up to here with the ubiquitous scolding, shushing, and mischaracterization we’ve been getting for years. From religionists, and from people who ought to see us as their natural allies. Especially when they represent organizations like CFI.

Yes, I know that sounds obnoxious, though I don’t mean it to. But I have 20 years of experience
under my belt, first as a very young gay rights campaigner, and more recently as an outspoken
atheist. Things really do look different after a couple of decades in the trenches, Michael. Many of
the commenters here have years or decades more experience than I do, too. Those voices are worth
listening to; these are very intelligent, incisive thinkers. They are not your run of the mill drive-by Internet jockeys, and if they all point to similar shortcomings in one’s argument, one ought to take them seriously.

#74 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 29, 2010 at 4:53pm

If only Michael’s strictures were in the manner of Joe Hoffmann’s, I wouldn’t say a word. Michael, I’m sure you know Joe Hoffmann?

http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/neohumanism-a-center-for-intellectuals/

Now that’s how it’s done!

#75 eNeMeE (Guest) on Wednesday April 14, 2010 at 11:23am

wrote an essay about it, and gave you my reasons.

...which people don’t think make sense, are contradictory, are based on strawman views, or poorly worded. People have then pointed out why they think what they do, and you haven’t provided much to justify or clarify what you’ve said.

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