Observations and inanities by a second-shift assistant supervisor in the Puppy-Grinding division of the Evil Atheist Conspiracy® (our motto: "Sure it's cruel, but think of the jobs!"), your host, Brent Rasmussen.
There has been a lot of interesting commentary on atheist activism from very disparate sources over the past couple days, and a theme is emerging: How atheists hurt the feelings of the religious.
First there has been a long series of entries on Andrew Sullivan's blog concerning the merits of faith mockery, mostly in the form of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This has directly seeded other discussions on the same topic at places like the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, where there are posts by various authors, and I have commented on a couple of them. Meanwhile, a book review by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic, which I can't recommend highly enough, has also spurred many a blog conversation at such places as the American Scene (home of Alan Jacobs, writer of one of my favorite--and now defunct--blogs, TextPatterns).
One of the more interesting pieces I've come across comes from the United Church Observer, a small church publication from Canada, which places one of its journalists reluctantly aboard a cruise for the Atheist Alliance International convention. There, Jocelyn Bell comes to some important realizations about hernonbelieving neighbors (sorry, it's Canada: neighbours).
You might assume anyone so committed to atheism that they’d attend an atheist convention would be . . . arrogant, angry, paranoid about people of faith, reacting to a childhood spent in oppressive fundamentalism, scheming to convince “theists” to drop their destructive religions and embrace rationality and science, and every bit as fanatical as those they oppose. Certainly that’s what I assumed.
The not-believing-in-God part notwithstanding, atheists — at least those I met — are actually as diverse a group of people as you’d find anywhere. Many had come to this convention seeking a safe place to express their views without fear of condemnation and looking for a bit of moral courage in their fight for the right to be non-religious. In the post-9/11 world of radicalized religion, their movement has gained momentum and has itself radicalized.
And indeed, Bell comes across some folks that leave a bad taste, ranging from those simply a little uncomfortable having a theist in their midst, to some frothybickerings over labels, to those who shout about killing fundamentalists. She chooses, however, to highlight the very inclusive words of Brights co-founder Mynga Futrell:
“Don’t waste time trying to convince other people of the error of their world view, as though rational reasons were all it takes. How many times have I heard that religious people are stupid, insulting the very people we need? We have to be part of the body politic. We have to be pragmatic to be effective. It’s religion’s intrusion into our civic institutions — that’s what really counts. We can’t have influence if we don’t change.”
Cheers to that. But I now recognize that people of faith also have to examine their negative assumptions about atheists if we’re going to prevent further radicalization and all get along.
The lesson that I took from Bell's piece was one that I am learning over and over: Atheists are too often the victims of representation by our least able communicators. Of course she will have to write about the jerks she meets, but she also now understands that the jerks are not representative of the whole group. She came to the convention essentially afraid of having her feelings hurt, and though she was challenged, she walked away unharmed. She's still a believer, of course, and reaches philosophical conclusions at which I and my fellow nonbelievers would obviously cringe, but she's learned to understand something about atheists from the encounter, and so has this nonbeliever learned something from her retelling.
Notably, an introductory piece from the publication's editor preps us for Bell's journey with an important question:
Are rank-and-file atheists as cranky as their leaders?
Now that hardly seems fair, does it? It is unfortunately a dominant perception that atheist leaders, particularly the New Atheists, are mean-spirited and militant (this is the thrust of the Ordinary Gentlemen piece to which I previously linked and railed against in the comments section). As I have noted time and time again, the norm seems to be that any questioning of the rationality behind a person's religious conviction is a form of assault, and should not be allowed in polite society, a restriction we would never put on matters of politics or policy.
This problem is succinctly identified by Suhit Sen in the Times of India :
There is somehow a dominant social consensus that criticism of religion or debate about religion is a no-no because one shouldn't hurt other people's religious sentiments.
This uncritical frame of reference is not a sign of tolerance. It is on the contrary a conspiracy of silence that breeds the kind of intolerance that is evident throughout the world whether on the part of Islamic fundamentalists who announce bounties for cartoonists portraying their prophet in a manner not to their liking; on the part of Hindu fundamentalists who vandalise art exhibitions on the grounds that their religious sentiments have been trifled with; or on the part of Christian fundamentalists who firebomb abortion clinics.
The unfortunate part is that people who otherwise would never dream of arguing in favour of stifling dissent are too often wont to make an exception when it comes to religion. This consensus, this conspiracy of silence has to be dismantled. It is not necessarily true that religion is all bad; it certainly is not all good if you look at history. But dissent and criticism have to be allowed to come out into the open. Not just because non-believers too have fundamental rights, but because a critique of faith is needed to keep the wheels of progress rolling.
Yes, that's the ticket. Unfortunately, this is not the framework in which we usually discuss atheism and religion. Usually, the topic veers into whether or not one of the New Atheists said something outrageous or if they were too condescending to believers.Never mind the substance of the claim, let's talk about what jerks they are.
Ali A. Rizvi takes on this very topic in the Huffington Post in the context of the "offense" caused by the various atheist bus campaigns (I will forgive him the use of the phrase "at the end of the day," acliché I have come to loathe with all my being):
At the end of the day, non-believers and rationalists will use words: they will question, challenge, and ask the religious for evidence supporting their beliefs and ideas -- applying the same standards to religious claims as they would to any scientific theory, political ideology, or legislative proposal. At the very most, they may satirize these beliefs and make jokes, all of which falls in the realm of non-violent free speech.
But what do the holy books -- which billions believe contain the indisputable word of God -- say about non-believers or those who question religion?
Rizvi then catalogues some examples from various holy texts concerning what horrific things one ought to do when coming across a nonbeliever, or what unspeakable tortures await them after death, a death that many bits of scripture suggest the believer bring upon said nonbeliever themselves! Rizvi goes on:
Apart from being sentenced to death here on earth for simply questioning these beliefs and scriptures, non-believers are also promised eternal damnation in hell, and considered to be immoral, evil agents of Satan that have gone astray. Hate speech, anyone?
Which side over here should really be offended?
Let's get real. The ad may not be the best idea ever, but it's fun, it's satirical, and it's a smart, funny response to similar ads from the religious community that aim to use fear and guilt to make you feel bad about yourself and give them your support and money (that they don't have to pay taxes on, by the way). These are the people that persecuted Galileo for saying the world was really not flat, but round, and still reject evolution in the face of evidence like fossils, molecular genetics, and the innumerable species of bacteria that have evolved over the last few decades to become resistant to penicillin. Worse, these ideas frequently find their way into our legislation, foreign policy, and public schools.
Indeed. Adam Rutherford writing for the Guardian narrows the scope of theists' problem with the new faces of organized atheism in the context of its association with Darwin and evolution:
I'm not very interested in labels like "New Atheist", "Militant Atheist", or even the notion that atheism is a movement. I've just got better things to do than believe in gods. When [religious think tank] Theos makes this association, let's be honest, they're knocking Richard Dawkins.
[ . . . ]
Of course there are religious implications for the truth of evolution. But if so many people truly do not understand it, and some people are indeed driven away from understanding it by an association with the personalities of atheism, then this is a losing battle. We must use this bicentennial year to promote understanding the science of evolution. When this truth is the dominant view, I'm sure that many more people will migrate from irrational and frankly daft fairytale views about the origin of species.
Whether or not you think Dawkins is enough of a teddy bear doesn't change the substance of his arguments, and the same goes for any position held by atheists New and old. Militancy, brashness, condescension; these and other descriptors are thin excuses used to avoid the real issues at hand. No one believes more than I that atheists need to improve their public relations and messaging, but at the same time fluffy notions of politeness toward superstition, and suppression masquerading as tolerance, are mere distractions. They need to be called so, and it's good to see that happening, if only from a few tiny corners.
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Update: There's even more discussion on the Coyne piece at Edge.org.
[Cross-post at Bloc Raisonneur]