The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World

March 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


#1 Randy (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 10:24am

Way to attack the straw man, dude.

You entitle your post “The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World”, proceed to contradict yourself with “It is not a philosophy or a worldview”, and then go on to critique it as if it were such.

It’s hard to know how to respond.

I will say that the arguments you make about atheism and religion could also be made about democrats and communism.

#2 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 11:57am

“We need to move beyond and above atheism. I am not arguing we ought to avoid admitting who we are. I am also not arguing all atheists want to organize their lives around atheism. But many do, and given what I have said, it seems to be a mistake: it is too empty, too narrow-minded, and too divisive. Instead, it would seem smarter to develop something more comprehensive.”

I agree completely. Eloquent and well-argued statement Michael: We need to move, as Philip Kitcher and many others have said, “beyond disbelief,” to a positive and constructive appreciation of reason, naturalism, and humanism. I believe that is why Paul Kurtz founded the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry.

#3 John D (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 12:41pm

The answers to many of the problems with atheism you pose can be found in humanism.  Rather than the negative framework of atheism (meaning, a *lack* of belief in god or gods), humanism provides a positive framework of a moral philosophy for living life ethically.  Rather than try to tear down religion (atheist approach), we should be building up a more satisfactory worldview than those provided by religion.  Don’t just try to take away what people have - give them a better alternative.  If you build it, they will come.

#4 Historyscoper on Friday March 19, 2010 at 1:36pm

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#5 CFL (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 3:36pm

Very flaccid work, Michael. Example? End note #10. It wasn’t even Dawkins. It was Jerry Coyne. Now who’s ridiculous?

#6 spinozaist (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 3:55pm

True to form # 5. Someone is arguing that we need to move beyond atheism and now it’s time to bring out the clubs. You only prove his point.

#7 Ophelia Benson on Friday March 19, 2010 at 4:43pm

“Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.”

How is that an argument? Where is the argument? Of course atheism is not a philosophy or a worldview; so what? Is atheism a bad thing because it is not a philosophy or a worldview? If so then surely most things are bad. Atheism is just atheism; non-theism; why does it have to be more than that?

“This brings us to the second argumen t: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.”

No they don’t. Or rather, no we don’t. You refer to “men” throughout, but here’s a news flash: some “new” atheists are women. Be that as it may, of course we don’t do what you accuse us of. I don’t think there’s an atheist on the planet who thinks atheism is “either the problem, or the cause of the problem” - whatever that even means. Atheists don’t think religion is the only problem in the world. Really - we don’t.

Nice bile about PZ Myers, too. Nice failure to mention WHY he “desecrated” the communion wafer. Did you learn that from Chris Mooney?

Nasty stuff, I must say. Nasty scapegoating finger-pointing othering stuff.

#8 CybrgnX (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 5:03pm

I have to agree that atheism is not enough. But nothing will very be enough because religion deals with a fundamental fact that atheism cannot—-FEAR.
The sheep are fearful of EVERYTHING…sin-g0d-death-life-sex-etc.  All religions give a delusion of after death, at best atheism only admits there MIGHT be something after death and you will find out soon enough. And the religions also give answers of a sort about the other stuff, so the fear of thinking and reasoning is eliminated by just following some odd rules.  Atheism gives no absolute answers and requires THINKING!!!!
So no matter how well atheism does the vast majority of sheep will continue to be TERRIFIED of everything and keep the delusion.

#9 gray1 on Friday March 19, 2010 at 5:33pm

Strife gains attention and therefore sells more books so don’t expect any form of highly successful rhetoric on either side to change any time soon.  For those “famous authors” on the cutting edges of a cause it’s not so much about being reasonable as to the perceived ignorance of the opposing sides as it is about actually attracting dollars from those of like mind.  No one goes to a fight just to see the fighters shake hands.

That said, religion might be an easy target to attack but it is also a very large, stubborn and well entrenched one.  Without the necessity of going into any detail, I suspect that most of it continues to decay all by itself from within much faster than as a result of any scorn that is being heaped upon it by so many relatively puny attacks by by so many well qualified atheists. 

On the other hand, religious fundamentalists in many areas may still powerful enough or at least inclined to cause problems if actively outspoken atheists have something akin to actually celebrating a “blasphemy day”.

Just for fun:

#10 Randy (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 5:37pm

Bizarre. And here I am thinking that we should accept or reject world views on the basis of whether they are true, not on its consequences. But that’s just me.

#11 Espinoza (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 6:03pm

First, you should learn to write; this piece is abysmally written.  Second, you should learn to argue. Divisiveness is not in itself bad.  Were the proponents of civil right in the 60s being politically inept because they were dividing people?  Sheesh!

#12 Tyro (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 6:11pm

Huh.  A lot of talk about the problems with atheism without dealing with the simple, obvious point: is it right?

Has CFI become post-modern in order to defend religion?

#13 NewEnglandBob on Friday March 19, 2010 at 7:01pm

De Dora Jr., you can go and hide your head in the sand, but the atheists are now a larger group than ever and making tremendous progress. Atheism today is equivalent to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s but better organized. About 25% of US residents do not believe in a god now. This will increase to a majority within 50 years (or sooner) and the US will be more like Europe

#14 PAUL kURTZ (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 8:01pm

Dear Michael: May I congratulate you on your thoughtful piece about critiques of religion.  Surely, we agree that theism needs to be critically examined by atheists, agnostics and skeptics. However, it is how this is done that is very important—using rational methods of inquiry,not hatred or animostity—if we can avoid it. We also need to put forth a naturalistic cosmic view, based on the natural sciences. It is also important that we defend a set of positive humanist values that enhance human happiness and social justice. We are not simply Naysayer, but provide affirmative alternatives to dogmatic religions. Secular ethical humanism is constructive, not simply negative—though criticisms are of course essential. How would we feel if our critics simply sneered at us without presenting objective arguments and evidence.

#15 Eric Pepke (Guest) on Friday March 19, 2010 at 9:47pm

I am conflicted about this.  I’m fairly old, and I remember a time when the public face of atheism was dominated by such gentleman as Asimov and Sagan.  O’Hair was brash, but nobody really paid much attention to her.  Asimov and Sagan made punchy points, but I don’t recall either having been directly insulting toward the religious.

Trouble is that during that time, I also saw Christian fundamentalism explode to mammoth proportions, their momentum hardly even slowed by the innumerable sex scandals to which they were prone, boosted by their contempt and insults.

Insulting Christianity worked.  Gentle atheism didn’t.

#16 Rodney Cooper (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 3:11am

Are you suggesting we atheists give ourselves a make-over?  I like us just the way we are warts and all.  In the free-market of ideas, I believe that the truth will win the day, and the truth is, there really is no god.  One can’t help but be a bit exuberant about something as awe inspiring as that fact, and ones acceptance of it, especially in the face of a life-time of lies perpetuated by our social environment.  I’m sorry if I missed the nuanced meanings in your piece, but I’m a much simpler person than that.  Atheism is a big deal.

#17 steve (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 5:58am

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

Well, that’s a very negative definition.

I always looked at atheism as a specific instance of refusing to accept the truth of a proposition without evidence. Since the religious are the most egregious producers of non-evidence based claims, and these nonsense claims intrude on the public sphere (i.e. my invisible sky fairy says gays are evil, wimmen are baby factories etc. ad nauseum), then to that extent atheists will be a “problem” by asking for proof for these claims.

And they should ask for proof, very loudly and very rudely.

You should get Chris Mooney to “interview” you on the new improved Point of Inquiry. What a pair you would make.

#18 AdamK (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 6:47am

Are you going to change the name of the organization to the Center for Unsupported Assertion?

#19 Deen (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 6:55am

Actually, “New Atheists” like PZ and Dawkins already do all the stuff you want them to do, like promoting a science-based worldview. They just don’t show respect for what they see as bad ideas, and I guess that’s where your problem is.

Also, in arguing that it is a mistake to proudly and openly label oneself an atheist, you appear to be buying into the general atheist stereotype that lives in the general population. Instead of supporting those organizations that want to give atheism a more public face, you’d rather have them cave in to the pressure and come up with a new label for themselves.

#20 latsot (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 7:33am

“Atheism isn’t enough. This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.”

You know, I have to think that abandoning harmful superstition counts as a forward move.  The simple act of my letting go of my faith as a child was tremendously liberating.  I didn’t need to replace it with anything else to gain value from it.

I can’t help but think that standing up for the truth - and for the only reliable method of finding the truth - is more important than pretending it’s reasonable to believe in supernatural things.  Creationism is only part of the battle and abandoning reason itself to gain a win in this one area seems far too high a price.  Especially since there’s no evidence it will work anyway.

#21 Deen (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 7:41am

@Spinozaist in #6: Excuse me? Pointing out an error is “bringing out the clubs” now? If you’re upset about CFL calling the blog author “ridiculous”, may I point out that that only refers to how the author characterized Jerry Coyne’s article? Without even a single comment explaining why it would be ridiculous, I might add.

For people who are so concerned about the tone of a debate, you are surprisingly willing to demonize your opponents by labeling their criticism as “bringing out the clubs” and “assaults”.

#22 Ronald A. Lindsay on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 7:48am

Having read some of the comments on this blog post, 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.
My own (personal) view is that Michael makes a number of valid points. On the other hand, in places he tends to lump atheists together as though there were a monolithic bloc of atheists with specific, uniform positions on certain matters, including tactics to use when addressing religion. Not only is that false, but it seems internally inconsistent with one of Michael’s theses, which is that atheism by itself is too narrow and limited, consisting solely of a rejection of god beliefs.
I also think it a bit unfair to suggest atheists endorse “sneering,” at least if by “sneering” one means unadorned insults against believers. On the other hand, sharp observations and comments, that can be supported by reason and evidence, are perfectly appropriate when directed against ANY belief, whether it is a religous belief, atheism or humanism. Indeed, one concern I have is that some treat humanism as a scared cow with affirmations or principles that are akin to scared texts that cannot be questioned. The last thing we need is a creed. We are critical thinkers above all and we should welcome pointed scrutiny of our own views—and not hesitate to subject other views to critical examination.

#23 steve (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 7:56am

#22 Ronald A. Lindsay “we should welcome pointed scrutiny of our own views”

Too bad the pointed scrutiny was entirely missing in this article.

And in this case the blogger in question is “executive director of the New York City branch of the Center for Inquiry” which in my opinion moves the opinions expressed in this article out of the personal and into the “official position of CFI” arena.

Just some critical examination on my part ...

#24 Ronald A. Lindsay on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 8:08am

Steve: As our “About” page plainly states, the views expressed by the blogger are her or his own:

CFI titles are for identification purposes only. I am president & CEO of CFI, but when I blog I express the views of Ron Lindsay and no one else. Same with Michael and same with our other bloggers.

#25 Tyro (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 8:23am

Having given this some more thought and re-read it to make sure I understood it, I still think it’s a confused, muddled mess.

For instance, the piece is titled “The Problems with the Atheistic Approach to the World”, as if atheism was not just a stance on a particular issue but a way of life, yet his first “argument” is to say that atheism is not a worldview or philosophy.  Doubly ironic then, to spend much of the rest of the piece acting as if it was.

Second, he constantly attacks “atheism” while only presenting arguments against the behaviours of specific *atheists*.  Which is it?  This is an elementary error and may be excused once or twice but it’s repeated over and over and looks instead like some amateurish equivocation.

Third, many of the arguments aren’t even consistent.  Take his second point, that atheism (atheists?) are too parochial by attacking only religion when there are other dangerous ideologies, what he calls “unhinged”.  Then in the next two points he says that atheists (again he says “atheism”, but it’s clear by now that he has long since stopped talking about atheism, just doesn’t realize it yet) are too outspoken when criticizing irrational beliefs (something he said we need more of) which leads to hurt feelings and which creates divisions when we need allies.  So, point two is that we need to speak out loudly about more things and points three and four are that we need to pick our battles and speak softly lest we offend the dear, poor creatures who might ally with us.  Sheesh.

He wraps up by saying that atheism is negative (as if he hadn’t just said that some ideas were “unhinged” and needed to be opposed), and we should be positive, speaking up for rationality or humanism instead (not spelled out, but implied).  Well, so what?  Do we have to choose one over the other?  If we defend rationalism, must we stop being atheists?  If we support evolution and global warming, must we accept Jesus?

And am I the only one who finds it bitterly ironic that he should waste a huge post attacking atheists, giving a long list of grievances against atheists and atheism without once presenting a single positive alternative and without once standing up and saying what he believes in, only to end by castigating *atheists* for being negative?  The entire blog post was relentlessly negative and he appears totally oblivious.  Yes, you might say, we can’t list all our beliefs in every single piece but isn’t that the whole point, that Dennet, Dawkins and all the other atheists in the world all have other beliefs and values which they will speak up for in other areas?

The whole piece drips with confusion, hypocrisy, negativity and a blissful lack of awareness of historical struggles.  I’d hoped it would improve with some time but on re-reading, it just got worse.

#26 Tyro (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 8:36am


“As our “About” page plainly states, the views expressed by the blogger are her or his own”

Nevertheless, you must admit that it is problematic to see high-level executives devoting long pieces attacking a large proportion of CFI’s member base (all the while saying they seek greater inclusion).

What does this say about the political acumen of the executives, both De Dora and those who hired & support him?

What does this say about the direction of CFI when its directors show so much disregard for the views of its members?

I value critical inquiry and open debate but this isn’t asking questions but a tirade, and a particularly muddled one.  Whether it’s official position or not, this is being hosted on the official CFI site, it deals with core subject matter to CFI and comes from a leading exec.  You must realize that even with a disclaimer there is an implicit endorsement and it definitely appears as an indication of high-level views within CFI.  If you don’t like that, maybe you should be exerting greater editorial control over the blogs or asking some topics to be held on private forums like other organizations do.

#27 steve (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 8:37am

Ronald A. Lindsay: So is it just a coincidence that the president & CEO of CFI is making his (personal I assume) views known about an article expressing the personal views of another executive of CFI made on a blog that in no way represents the official position of CFI ?

Is this a service you perform for all the personal CFI blogs ?

This smacks of some backpedaling on the part of CFI and rightly so.

The sooner you distance CFI from the accommodationist, concern trolling pap expressed in this article the better.

#28 latsot (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 8:46am

Is the security question here *always* “What is another name for H2O?”

I’ve got this every time - anyone else?

#29 steve (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 8:55am

I got questions about fruit and cars as well as the water one.

Here’s a good question:

“Name of an organization that has abandoned it’s core principles in the name of expediency ?”

#30 kris (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 9:13am

I have to agree with much of this. I’ve been more or less been an atheist since childhood and realized it when I was in my late teens. I went through a period of Hitchens-like religion bashing until I figured out it’s human nature that is the problem, not faith. If you’ve ever done any sort of volunteer, peace or community service work the first thing you realize is the real faith based community is out there doing their best to improve things and aren’t shoving god down anyone’s throat in the process. There are plenty of evangelicals, too but they don’t really like to get their hands too dirty.

I’ve never hidden my atheism but, I’ve never felt any need to profess it, either. I feel that would be about as ridiculous as the people who tell me to “have a blessed day” and I feel no need to reciprocate the nonsense or declare myself. I actually agree with whoever the writer is who recently wrote about humans being hard-wired for religion, except I think his argument is too specific.  I think we’re hard wired for hope,faith, (whatever you want to call it) and tribal organization-call it community, and an inherent curiosity. Combine those together and of course humans are going to want to explain their existence, their origin, to define their purpose and since we seem to have a sort of inbred superiority complex obviously the scientific answers aren’t satisfying.

The “new” atheist as you call them really do put me off and they aren’t really new, plenty of the atheists I’ve met over the years are more anti-religion than actual non-theists. I’ve avoided most of them for the simple reason that I find them as annoying as the evangelicals. The current crop just write books about it because they can sell it and they hope to frame the argument along the way. Sorry, but as a movement I think atheism would be a mistake, doomed to failure because there is no core belief and create a powerful backlash where none exists now.

What I tell people who ask about my atheism is that I don’t believe in a divinity or god, I believe we are on this planet for less a trillionth of a millisecond, that’s all we get so we should try not to botch it too much and leave it in better shape than when we entered(we are failing miserably at that) and I tell them (I think it’s true, too) that since I am not a fanatic I could be as wrong as the next person about all of it but that shouldn’t be their concern.

#31 steve (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 9:25am

#30 kris:

What are your thoughts on the intrusion of religion into your personal life ?

When legislation is passed obstructing stem cell research, the rights of women to control their bodies, the rights of gays to have access to the same benefits as non gays, your right to choose how your life will end, for obviously religious reasons, it can and will affect you personally.

If this were not happening then there would be no need to “profess your atheism”, but it is and don’t understand how taking your position will improve things.

#32 Michael De Dora on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 9:50am

@CFL: for some reason the link in end note #10 is not taking you where I would like. The first post is indeed a Jerry Coyne piece; but scroll to the 16th comment on that piece for Dawkins’ commentary. I really think you will find it a surprisingly open call to become nasty.

#33 Gordon Campbell (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 10:45am

From the first paragraph: “...there are seemingly too many shortcomings of forming an approach on atheism”. The reader has to do a lot of work here to figure out what these prepositions mean. “Forming an approach on athiesm” has shortcomings? An approach to atheism, or an approach to something else based on atheism? Is it worthwhile bothering to pin this down? It’s only “seemingly” after all. OK, It’s poor form as a rule to quibble about points of grammar and usage (and people in glass house and all that). But in this case, fuzzy and unclear language reveals some fuzzy and unclear thinking.
“I think it provides enough material to at least question whether any atheist approach is really worthwhile”??? ANY??? I’m glad that this assertion is qualified by “I think”.

#34 Deen (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 11:18am

What, Dawkins is musing out loud on his own forum that maybe we might use “sarcastic, cutting wit” at the irredeemably religious? Oh, the horror!

#35 Ophelia Benson on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 11:52am

And another thing. There’s a certain, shall we say, lack of humility here. The opening sentence is

“Last week, in my first blog post , I wrote that there are major problems with how Americans view the relationship between politics, morality, religion and belief.”

Well! That’s choosing a large field of operations, fer sher.

#36 steve (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 1:14pm

#32 Michael De Dora Jr.

Band aid on a cancer patient, re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Classic displacement behaviour.

The problem is not with a broken link or 2, it is the conflation of what is true or not with what makes you feel good or bad.

“This isn’t right,” Pauli is supposed to have said of a student’s physics paper. “It’s not even wrong.”

And so with your article. It is such a mish mash of mangled syntax, bad grammar and fuzzy logic that it’s impossible to pick a starting point for criticism. Sort of like late at night in the car trying to tune in a radio station and getting jumbled fragments of evangelical preachers, phone in talk shows, C&W music and exhortations to buy a used car from crazy joe, he has prices that just won’t be beat.

#37 Deepak Shetty (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 1:47pm

I find a lot of your points inconsistent.
a. You characterise Dawkins/Hitchens/Myers brash/outspoken. Is this not true of most religious persons? They do proclaim their faith (and a good percentage as the best faith, the only true faith) - They wear all kinds of stuff that is supposed to show their faith publicly, they want their practices to be given government approval and display. Is the Pope/priest brash because he says his church is the one true church? If so then atleast you are consistent , if not , you have double standards.

b. Atheists call religion one of the problems or one of the biggest problems. No one pretends that religion is the only problem or that eliminating religion will suddenly transform the earth into paradise.
Its then quite a mis-statement to state “atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent”
For e.g. are women mistreated? Yes. Is religion a cause or major cause? Yes. Is it the only cause? No way. I challenge you to find a new atheist who says that religion is the only cause of gender discrimination, but religions teaching is a major cause.
For some problems like the teaching of evolution, yes it looks like religion is the only major cause. But ignorance is also a cause and getting rid of religion wont get rid of all ignorance

You also believe that atheism divides the world. What exactly do you believe about religion? Do you think it is a unifying force? Do you think the muslim looks at the hindu and says oh he is religious as well, we must be brothers whereas that fellow hes an atheist , he is my enemy?
Why then do you only talk about disbelief as a dividing force?

You seem to believe that atheism should be a full fledged structure like religion. It should tell you how to achieve peace, or be a better person or how to treat others or how to form a community. I don’t think anyone wants that , we have different branches to deal with those aspect. All disbelief does is that it eliminates one irrational behavior and hopefully some of the bad effects of following that irrational behavior. If you believe that some people do good solely because of their belief in religion , then you need to demonstrate better evidence that this is the case.

And finally, surely you admit some religious practices are wrong/ bad? Lets take the Roman Catholic church stance on contraception or on gay rights. Surely you believe that is wrong? Write a carefully reasoned, non confrontation, non strident, non outspoken essay demonstrating why these views are wrong, publish it somewhere. Get some religious people (who believe what the church says) and ask them to read and evaluate your essay for the non qualities that the essay doesnt have. I bet you , a good percentage of people will accuse you of the same arrogance you accuse new atheists of. I also bet you that you will change exactly 0 views. Care to try?

#38 Deepak Shetty (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 2:31pm

@Eric Pepke
Sagan and Asimov were great. There probably isn’t a new atheist I know of who acknowledge as much. The only people who dislike Sagan are you guessed it, religious folks. We have people dismiss the dragon in the garage argument as frivolous(some Australian journalist) or people who hate him for his being pro-abortion. There is also no proof that Sagan was more effective in convincing to fence sitters or to religious fundamentalists. He was liked and admired by people who were reasonable. But you didnt really see any major religious leader say wow Sagan has convinced me that the universe is really a great place and I dont need my 2000 year old book to explain its origins

#39 Barney (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 4:42pm

Mr. De Dora,
I think the main problem with this blog is that you yourself have a problem that you haven’t articulated properly, but are now blogging your thoughts about it, and leaving your readers to guess what you’re talking about. I’d first recommend that everyone goes back and reads your first thread here, because it’s plain that this one makes no sense at all without that one as a background.

In that thread and this, you state “there are major problems with how Americans view the relationship between politics, morality, religion and belief.” In the first thread, you say that other people at CFI are addressing the way a quarter (by your count) of Americans want to use their vision of ‘God’ as the compulsory basis of American morals; but you yourself have ‘concerns’ about everyone else. It would help if you explicitly explained why you think there are problems with everyone who *doesn’t* want to make everyone follow a particular God. You seem to have assumed that 75% of people must be at fault too.

Your first thread claimed that saying “we must leave our religious beliefs at home”, “we must uphold the separation of church and state” or “I might disagree, but to each his own” are all avoiding ‘a real debate’. I can’t see why you think this, and you didn’t justify it at all.

You seem to be insisting that those basing their morals on religions get to dictate the parameters of debate - that if they argue from a religious perspective, that everyone else has to argue from the viewpoint of that the particular religion. It may be that to persuade a deeply religious believer, you have to use arguments from their own religion (eg quoting Jesus on the subject of social justice), but you said this discussion was about “how Americans view the relationship between politics, morality, religion and belief”. It’s not about persuading the highly religious. It’s about ‘Democratic Discourse’, ie a discussion on how to make decisions for our society. The 75% of people you think are a problem are trying to have a real debate that doesn’t assume there is a God that is the sole source of our knowledge on morality. That 75% includes, as you say, religious moderates. They understand that, while they may have made a ‘leap of faith’, they can’t arrogantly claim that it has shown them ‘The Truth’ and that everyone else has to yield to their claims. They want the ‘real debate’, but you seem to want to deny that to them, judging by your first thread.

And so in this thread you have turned from attacking believers who want separation of church and state to anyone who labels themselves an ‘atheist’. You’ve set up a straw man (saying this in both threads) of a ‘fact’ that “many atheists also define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism”. There is no such ‘fact’; it’s your personal belief, and the rest of us have no idea how you arrived at it. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. For instance, the politics of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Harris are all quite different - you can look at their views on the Iraq invasion or torture, for instance. Clearly, the ‘New Atheist’ authors define themselves as far more than just ‘atheists’. Yet your post seems based on your personal belief that they are saying “be an atheist, and the correct moral path will be clear”. That kind of certainty belongs to the 25% you say you don’t have a concern about.

So, it seems to me you have an unspoken purpose behind this blog - you want to make sure that the blame for disagreement about religion or politics is equally shared by everyone, be they extremely religious, a moderate believer who wants the separation of church and state, an agnostic, or an atheist.

You’re acting as an apologist for the fundamentalists. If we know this is why you’re writing the blog, then then discussion will become clearer.

#40 David Newman (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 5:02pm

In my opinion, the definition of “atheist” used in this essay is too broad. Defining “atheism” as “the absence of belief in theism or God” fails to distinguish between those who deny that a deity exists (“atheist”) and those who have no belief about the existence or non-existence of a deity (“agnostic”). Failure to distinguish between these two groups and their positions is intellectually careless. I think there’s also a careless definition of “democracy” in the author’s first blog post. If the author can’t get simple definitions right, what reason do we have to think that anything else he writes is worth our time to read?

#41 Chamomile (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 5:29pm

Get someone to give you writing feedback next time. This makes you sound like a college student.  Anyhow, to the extent that you’re right and atheism isn’t enough, why are you trying to make
a career out of it? Lots of atheists regard atheism as a mere negative, but unlike you, they “walk the talk”—they’re spending their time doing something they consider important, like science, medicine, teaching, etc.

#42 Chamomile (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 5:33pm

ps I agree with 40-your definition of “atheism” needs work.

#43 Physicalist (Guest) on Saturday March 20, 2010 at 9:35pm

I’ve just a few worries about, or arguments against, your position:

My first argument is that your position isn’t a philosophy of a worldview, it’s just a complaint against the uppity atheists.

My second argument is that you seem to think that atheists are the problem, or the cause of the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent.

My third argument is that you seem to be advancing a angry, uncompassionate line of attack against Dawkins, Myers, et al.

My fourth argument is that your view of atheists is dividing people rather than bringing them together.

Fifth argument: You’re focusing too much on what you’re *against* (the New Atheists), rather than on what you’re *for*.

Aside from that, I think I pretty much agree with you.  It is good to focus on the positive values of rational thought, science-based reasoning, etc.  I rather expect that Dawkins, Myers, et al. would agree as well.

#44 Ajita (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 12:22pm

The criticism here can be reduced to one line from the article: “Atheism isn’t enough. “


Name one atheist who doesn’t already know this? The way forward is pluralistic approaches in promoting rational thinking and removing superstition, and there are plenty of atheists involved in providing meaningful alternatives to reason. Ergo we have Secular Humanism, Skepticism, Naturalism and so forth. This post creates false dichotomies between atheism and positive approaches to promoting reason. There is a real dichotomy in the philosophical realm, which the author does point out, but this dichotomy is best expressed as a matter of fact, demonstrating the effectiveness of pluralism in freethought, and not as a matter of denigrating those who simply fight for the social and political rights of atheists and non-believers.

#45 Ajita (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 12:34pm

@40: The lack of belief in a deity is actually a form of atheism called ‘implicit’ or ‘soft’ atheism. It is not equivalent to agnosticism. Many atheists are of this kind. Of course, what you think of as atheism, the belief that a deity does not exist, is hard-atheism.

The position of the Implicit Atheist can be adapted from David Hume’s epistemology.

Agnosticism is the belief that god may or may not exist. This is quite different from the lack of belief that god exists.

#46 Daniel Schealler on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 1:37pm

Something about this essay feels a little… off.

Michael, if I may ask: Who is the intended audience of this essay?

The actual content of this essay seems to address and discuss the ‘new’ atheism that you are criticizing.

However, the overall emotional tone and style actually seems more calculated towards making an appeal to theistic audiences.

It just has a bit of an “Oh, I’m not one of those nasty Dawkins-style atheists! Look here at this blog article I wrote where I chastised them for being so mean spirited and such. See, I can be your friend against Dawkins and his cabal - if we could only sort out one or two things first…” feel to it.

Also, regarding your second argument: Consider the podcast for an example of how one of the ‘new’ atheists (Dawkins) actually feels about whether or not religion is a problem or the problem.

#47 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 3:53pm

That reminds me of another interesting point. Reading De Dora’s venomous remarks about Dawkins and Hitchens, one would never guess that Dawkins and Hitchens have in fact long been honored friends of the Center for Inquiry. Both wrote regularly for Free Inquiry - Dawkins in fact had a column, and maybe Hitch did too.

Ron says the posts are the individual blogger’s thoughts, no connection to CFI, but that frankly doesn’t make any sense on a blog that itself is part of CFI. Readers certainly aren’t going to think there’s no connection.

There’s something really a little creepy, to tell the truth, about seeing some young Mooney-wannabe talking ugly smack about Dawkins and Hitchens and being praised for it by Paul Kurtz himself. Not very loyal, Paul! Or grateful, either - I’m guessing Dawkins and Hitchens wrote for FI for way below their normal market rates, or even for nothing. No?

It’s an ugly business, this back-stabbing of atheists (for saying things, for chrissake) by other atheists.

#48 J. (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 3:58pm

Bravo, Michael. That religious beliefs are mistaken doesn’t entail that Atheism is the cure to the problems that religions have created, supported and failed to have solved. You can’t argue anyone out of a delusion nor is logic or invective likely change the minds of believers. I’d rather pursue the goal of strengthening secular society and the separation of church and state.

#49 Barney (Guest) on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 4:41pm

@24 (Ronald Lindsay),
and yet some of the Free Thinking bloggers are marked as ‘guest contributors’, while others, such as De Dora and yourself, are just ‘contributors’. This points to those being regular, and, well, ‘official’. Especially those who are officers of CFI.

#50 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 21, 2010 at 5:28pm

@Barney, I am an official blogger for CFI, but my posts indicate my philosophy, not CFI’s organizational mission or philosophy. I will admit that my views, dissenting or not, are voiced within CFI (and outside, too)—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, honest debate this organization is for?

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