Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The new atheists

It is currently a hot topic among both atheists and others about whether the "new" atheists (mainly Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins) are annoyingly and unnecessarily "angry". The response among atheists seems to take one of three forms:

  • Yes, we are angry, and here's why.
  • This is a false accusation. Whenever we debate theists at all, somebody will say that this is inappropriate and angry.
  • We agree. These guys are too angry, and it is hurting our mission.

I think there is some truth in each of these, and I'd like to discuss them in turn. Firstly, what is the anger about? I think there are several causes of justifiable anger: (a) in response to an admission of atheism, people are often "excommunicated" by their family, friends, and community. (b) There are numerous cases of real harm being done in the name of religion. When people fly airplanes into buildings, you can argue all you want that it is politics, but it is clear that religion is playing a role here too. When the pope says that condom use is wrong and causes more aids cases, this causes real harm, and is purely religious. Finally, (c) when atheists in general are degraded and regarded as somehow sub-human. Supreme court justice Scalia said that the first amendment "... permits the disregard of devout atheists." And George H. W. Bush said "atheists should not be considered citizens".

"Moderate" theists almost invariably will claim that each of these cases is limited to "extremists" and does not justify the condemnation of religion in general, and especially their religion in particular. However, I think that extremists are more common that moderates seem to think, and in their silence they effectively condone extreme behavior, no matter how harmful it may be. So when atheists condemn harmful behaviors that are happening right now, this is should be regarded as a moral duty and not as a fault. If they sometimes paint with too broad a brush, perhaps they can be forgiven, especially when it affects them personally.

Moving on, is debating religion a kind of anger that should better be avoided? In America we have freedom of religion, after all. Over time this has developed into religious tolerance. The latter means that, with certain limitations, people are expected to keep their religion to themselves. There are, of course, evangelicals of almost all major religions, as well as those who promote their own religion through writings and speaking. But people seem to draw the line at calling out other religions, and especially all religions, as wrong. But what else is an atheist to do, besides just keep quiet. Many of us are simply dumbfounded by the ability of so many people to continue believing the most bizarre things, despite massive evidence against them. We feel like we just want to shake some sense into people. We know this usually won't work, so we may try to do it in the gentlest and least threatening way possible. Granted, Harris, et. al., aren't taking this approach, so perhaps it is fair to criticize them for shaking a little too hard. But if gentle persuasion is still regarded as intolerance and anger, then anybody who doesn't just keep quiet is angry. So be it.

What about the four horsemen? Except for Daniel Dennett, who I think was writing a calmly reasoned scientific treatise, the other three clearly were not. I think the other three were clearly expressing some of the anger I have just discussed. Whether this anger is excessive depends on what you think their goal was. If you think their goal was to convert theists to atheism, I would say they are too angry. Although I have heard reports of conversions that they did inspire, I have explained in an earlier post why I think they will not succeed well at this goal. But their strong words did achieve a different goal. Their sheer popularity served to wake up the world, theists and atheists alike, that atheists are not just a few shady characters with no morals who can safely be ignored. It gave atheists some pride, allowed them to join growing groups of like-minded people, and encouraged them to speak out, with or without anger.

So is there a schism between "new, angry" atheists, and others. I don't think so. I think there are plenty of atheists who are still in the closet, or who otherwise keep their religious opinions to themselves. Then there is a new group who are inspired to speak out. Since atheists, by some reasoning, can have nothing constructive to say, if they speak up, they are intolerant and angry. So if there is a schism, it is only between the quiet ones and the noisy ones.

All of this is not to say that some of the noisy atheists really are intentionally expressing anger. Whether this is justified depends on the goal. Many people have the simple goal of getting equal rights for atheists. Historically every political "right" gets established as such only after some level of "fight" which involves some group of people expressing their justifiable outrage. But if your goal is to convince people to stop believing crazy stuff, you clearly can't do it by yelling at them. It may be that no reasoned argument will be very effective in general, but if enough people speak out in enough different ways, it may have some positive effect.