PZ links to Discover‘s letters section, where there are a range of reactions to a recent article about Dawkins (aka “Darwin’s Rottweiler”). “Talk about polarizing,” says PZ of the letters. Precisely! In the context of this country, Dawkins is a divisive figure — which means that he’s very good for some things and very bad for others.
Here’s what Dawkins is good for: Making people think critically about their most cherished assumptions. In this area, Dawkins completely rocks. I’m a firm believer that we desperately need public intellectuals who are willing to slaughter sacred cows, and there’s no cow killer who quite compares to Dawkins (except, perhaps, for Sam Harris, who has been coming on strong lately).
Nevertheless, it is not wise to go slaughtering sacred cows amidst one’s defense of evolution in America. Ask any pollster, any communications strategist–the tactic will backfire. And this is where the Dawkins approach isn’t so effective.
To me, it’s very much akin the strange quest to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Sure, it’s probably the right thing to do under the law. On the other hand, it’s largely a symbolic issue, and politically it does grave damage to the actual defenders of church-state separation because it gets the country completely outraged about “secular humanism.” Indeed, the political fallout is so bad that Democrats generally have to go and hide when something like this comes along. Meanwhile, if the pledge lawsuit had actually succeeded, we might well have gotten a constitutional amendment restoring it right back where it was–which would have been an even worse outcome from the vantage point of church-state separation than putting up with the pledge to begin with.
There’s a larger point here. My experience with the nation’s atheist community generally–and I speak from considerable experience–is that few of its members think very strategically about how to achieve their goals. They’re too angry, too ready to pop off about religion, too quick to file lawsuits, too eager to offend people. This is not, in my opinion, how you achieve positive cultural change. If you want to advance the cause of atheism and cut through societal prejudices, why not put out some positive messages for once, about how atheists have morals, have families, have fun, own houses, contribute to society?