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Nicholas Kristof’s "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion" was published in yesterday’s Times, and is certainly a better piece of reasoning than the previous "Atheists Agonistes". But that said, it’s tediously of the same tone: the atheists should stop criticizing religion in public.
Dawkins and Harris are cited as the two "obnoxious atheists", also termed "militant", "in-your-face", "contemptuous", "mean" and "intolerant". Certainly they have strong opinions, but they are "militant" only discursively. Unlike their religious brethren, they aren’t actually threatening anyone with anything more than pointed arguments.
Kristof does make the good point that atheists are not politically tolerated in this country, and he does approvingly cite a pro-choice argument of Harris. But his string of epithets is not accompanied by any actual examples of atheistic obnoxiousness apart from the simple forthright argument for their position. Certainly, as claimed by one Pew researcher, Harris and Dawkins have an "aggressive rhetorical style", but this is so normal as to be inconsequential in the political haranguing of our public airways, so what precisely is the problem here? It would appear that Kristof simply wants atheists to stop saying what they believe; that is, he wants us to shut up. And that itself is a form of "intolerance".
Perhaps the weakest claim in the entire article is in Kristof’s final paragraph, where he says, "Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let╠s hope that the Atheist Left doesn╠t revive them." First of all, [i:4197fcc976]pace[/i:4197fcc976] Barry, the atheist movement is not entirely on the left wing. There are many displaced right-wing atheists who are quite happy with Dawkins and Harris. Secondly, and more to the point, where is the evidence that the Christian Right has "largely retreated from the culture wars"? This is at best an example of over-extrapolation from the most recent modest electoral success. One might argue with more reason that the turn in the political tide last November was due to some of the same variables that catapulted Dawkins and Harris to the bestseller list. Political and religious moderates, not to mention the "left", are simply [i:4197fcc976]fed up[/i:4197fcc976] with proto-theocrats getting all the political attention in this country.
But that is not to say that the religious right has decided to "retreat" in any important sense of the word. And any assumption that they will roll up their revivalist tent is about as likely as the Discovery Institute’s closing their doors and donating their funds to Richard Dawkins.
And until they do roll up the tents, we will need people who are rhetorically gifted, knowledgeable and [i:4197fcc976]willing[/i:4197fcc976] to get into the muck and argue forthrightly for the secularist, scientifically credible position. This is not an easy thing to do, and only a handful are willing and able to do it. Dawkins and Harris are two. And whatever their failings, we owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts.