In his post on atheism and civil rights, Ed Brayton takes me to task for my assertion that books like those written by Dawkins and Hitchens are not the cause of the public image problem faced by atheists. I had written:
Atheists don’t face a public image problem because of the books of Dawkins and Hitchens. They face a public image problem because of the bigotry and ignorance of so many religious people. Not all religious people, certainly, as the strawman version of their arguments would have you believe. But a much higher percentage than people like Matthew care to admit.
The real nuts will hate atheists without such rhetoric. They hate and fear all non-Christians as a matter of presumption and there is likely nothing that could persuade them otherwise. But for a more moderate, reasonable Christian who just doesn’t understand why anyone would be an atheist, likely because they’ve never known any, seeing militant pronouncements like that is certainly going to reinforce their fears of atheists rather than help reduce them. I think Jason is flat wrong to say that such rhetoric is not part of the “public image problem” of atheists. Such statements are amplified through the megaphone of the religious right’s media outlets specifically for the purpose of damaging that public image – and it works.
Neither Ed, nor Matt Nisbet before him, has provided a shred of evidence to back up the assertion that Dawkins and Hitchens are hurting the cause. Their conclusion seems to be based on nothing more than their own distaste for some of the rhetoric used by those gentlemen. Ed asks us to imagine a hypothetical Christian who, gosh darn it, just can’t imagine why anyone would be an atheist. How will that person react, Ed wonders.
Against all of this hypothesizing I would mention a few facts. Christopher Hitchens’ book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks. It is number four this week, up from number seven last week. Richard Dawkins, almost a year after the publication of his book, is still on the list at number 34. The combined sales of their books, along with those of Harris and Dennett, number in the millions. If all they are doing is radicalizing the base, I’d say the base is far larger than anyone imagined.
And, as I discussed in my earlier post, the state of affairs in which atheists are openly discriminated against in child custody cases, in which more than half the country would not vote for an atheist in his own party, and in which anyone (atheist or otherwise) filing suit in a church/state case can look forward to hate mail and harrassment from the faithful, is the one that existed before Dawkins and the rest arrived on the scene. In other words, all through the nineties and early 2000’s, when atheists were mostly silent and religion (as evidenced by the Republican takeover of the government) was ascendant, was also the time when hostility towards atheists reached a fever pitch. Are we really supposed to fret that a few snide remarks from a handful of writers is making things worse?
The pre-Dawkins/Hitchens world was one in which atheists were invisible and hated nonetheless. The post-Doawkins/Hitchens world is one in which atheism has a visible place in the culture, and in which every major media outlet has engaged in serious discussions of the issue. What fantasy world do Ed and Matt inhabit that that can be viewed as a step backward for atheists?
But let’s suppose Ed is right. Suppose there are large numbers of reasonable Christians so incurious and so uncritical of their own religious beliefs that they just can’t fathom why someone would dissent from their religious opinions. This person hears a snide remark from Dawkins or Hitchens amplified through the religious right propaganda machine and concludes as a result that atheists are contemptible and fear-worthy. Explain to me please how this is a counterexample to my claim that it is bigotry and ignorance, as opposed to Dawkins and Hitchens, that is to blame for the public image problem of atheists.
Ed has one more card to play:
To make an analogy to the struggle for civil rights for blacks, the most militant elements of the black community did not achieve much of anything for that struggle. Those who were calling for “death to whitey” were not the ones who helped affect change; indeed, I would argue that they undermined that struggle by giving ammunition to those in opposition and reinforcing the fears of those moderates on the other side who might have been swayed by more reasonable engagement.
This, alas, is a terrible analogy. First, the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle were genuine militants. They were calling for actual violence. There is absolutely nothing comparable between “death to whitey” on the one hand and anything the New Atheists are saying on the other.
Next, Ed has no basis for his assertions about who achieved what in the civil rights struggle. People like Malcolm X, who frequently used violent rhetoric in his speeches, certainly had a big role to play in the eventual success of the movement. The elementary school version of the civil rights struggle, in which Martin Luther King made a few speeches, led a few non-violent marches and suddenly everyone saw the error of their ways is rather simplistic.
What led to the successes in the civil right movement was the fact that Black people refused to be invisible any longer. And that visibility was the result of the efforts of a great many leaders using a variety of different tactics. Some of them militant, some of them not. All of it made a contribution.
And let us not forget that even Martin Luther King was regarded by many of his time as too conrontational and impatient. Read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail if you are confused on that point. The fact is that every time a despised minority starts standing up for itself there are always people lecturing from their armchairs about the need for patience and the ineffectiveness of anger and confrontation. The argument is always code for, “I find you distasteful and vaguely menacing. Please go away.”
Ed worries about moderates of the day being scared into bigotry by the inflamed rhetoric of certain elements of the civil rights struggle. For heaven’s sake, these folks lived in a time when blacks were denied many of the most fundamental of civil rights. The national guard had to be brought out to integrate the schools. Blacks and whites had to use different water fountains. (How does such an idea even occur to otherwise civilized people?) “Whites only” signs were ubiquitous. And Ed thinks the problem was a large number of White people who just needed to have it explained to them, politely and reasonably, that this was wrong? Obvious nonsense. The problem was that large numbers of White people had no particular antipathy towards Blacks, but were perfectly happy to ignore them and their plight. The leaders of the civil rights movement made it so that it was impossible to ignore them any longer.
And so it is with atheists. Those moderate Christians Ed worries about, the ones who run screaming when they are told that Dawkins or Hitchens made a snide remark, do not need to have it explained to them that atheism is a reasonable world view. They need to have their ignorance confronted and challenged, preferably by people ticked off by the fact that such outreach is necessary at all. It is visibility and a just cause that leads to social progress, not calm, patient argumentation.
If Dawkins and all the rest stripped every snide remark out of their books, that would not stop the right wing noise machine from painting them as dangerous extremists. The mere fact that they are endorsing atheism and having some success is enough for that. On the other hand, such a move would surely hurt their sales and lead to less media attention as a result. Flashy rhetoric attracts attention.
A number of years ago a talented philosopher named J. L. Mackie wrote a book called The Miracle of Theism. In this book he scrutinized, with patience and restraint, every argument for the existence of God then on record. He showed, with page after page of impeccable logic, that all were badly flawed. It was a marvellous book, and I’m sure the two dozen people who read it were enriched by the experience. But his book did not sell, was extremely boring, and had precisely no effect on the culture at large.
And let’s not overlook one last point. The snideness of Dawkins and Hitchens is directed at people and ideas who richly deserve such treatment. PR tactics are certainly important, but telling it like it is ought to count for something too.
This, I think, is what it really comes down to. Ed and Matt think that Dawkins and the like are casting their nets too widely to include religion generally, as opposed to just extremist religion. The rest of this, complaining about their tone, worrying that significant numbers of potential supporters are being scared away, or making fatuous comparisons to the wrong aspects of past civil rights struggles is nothing but bluff and baloney.