Of Reputations and Harsh Words

September 29, 2010

In my recent Huffington Post piece , I pointed out what is already common knowledge, that people who don't like the New Atheism are trying to slander it as a "know nothing" movement.

I never intended to repeat such slander against the New Atheism. I detest slander against atheism, and I fight it. A reputation, once lost, is hard to regain. But it is worth trying.

I  am part of the New Atheism movement, and I wanted to defend it. By the third paragraph of my post, I isolate any genuine "know nothings" to a small crowd. I wanted to protect the New Atheism movement, which I believe is trying to intellectually engage religion, from slanderous repute by religious people. Those atheists who do engage religion in the public square (I nowhere claim that all atheists must do so -- only some folks may have the time or inclination, of course) to try to de-convert religious people are doing noble work making for a better society.

I recently had occasion to meet Richard Dawkins (a thrill), and tried to explain that my blog defines my intended target in a later paragraph. Which it does, and my definition excludes Richard himself (and excludes the eloquent leadership in the New Atheism -- don't ask me to "name names" since I could not in good conscience call out by name any people who might fit the profile but they aren't trying to be part of any leadership). Although the term "know nothings" is mentioned in my first paragraph, I do not use it for my own criticism or intend to actually aim it at anyone until the later paragraph. So I accurately told Richard where my precise and limited meaning of a "know nothing" was, and no deception is involved. I am grateful to Richard for listening to my clarification where my own meaning actually is, and for the spirit of a fair academic hearing.

But many people may still suppose that I was claiming that all atheism is ignorant (not true!), and all the same, I am to blame for the blog's convoluted path. By the time readers' eyes reached any later paragraph, the damage had been done. Judging from the intense reaction, many people have assumed that I was trying to fault all of atheism for ignorance. Not true. I do believe that we can do even better, but that is just ordinary exhortation to keep fighting the good fight in the right way. Nor do I claim that an individual atheist must know anything about religion/theology in order to have their own rational worldview -- my point is only that replacing religion in the culture requires that Atheism includes atheists undertaking persuasive smart engagement -- and when did that become a surprising notion?

A reputation, once lost, may be lost forever. All I can do is to repeat what I've been saying.

(1) Atheists can intellectually explain and defend the superiority of the naturalistic and humanistic worldview.

(2) For those seculars who wish to intellectually engage religious people, familiarity with intellectual defenses of religion is essential, otherwise no debate occurs and no one learns anything on either side.

(3) Those few atheists who claim that NO intellectual engagement with religious people is possible, because religion turns off believers’ minds, are choosing a pessimistic and self-defeating tactic. Respectful dialogue with religious people can and frequently does work well, often better than only resorting to ranting and raging against believers.

(4) Humanism dictates a moral duty to treat people with dignity and respect rather than simply demonizing them as sub-human. Humanism recommends educated appeals to people’s hearts and minds, trying to persuasively lure people to replace religious fantasies and creeds. Smart strategies may range from clever blasphemy to scholarly debate, and they all open cracks of doubt of believers' minds.

We may conclude then that secular humanism has nothing to fear from treating religious people as people with minds too. The proud tradition of secular humanism has always worked well by offering firm yet respectful intellectual engagement. New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins (of course! a hero!) are admirably in this tradition, and their argumentative books are having agood effect, as we see. I call for following their fine example, as I do myself. I do apologize for harsh words (I won't use them again) that got applied to the wrong targets. No one could enjoy that.


NOTE added at 4pm:  Because it has been suggested that my comments about these matters must somehow reflect those of CFI, the standard reminder is useful, that my blogging only reflects my own views and not necessarily those of CFI, its management, or staff. Commentary should not be assumed to be stating a position or agenda of the CFI organization.