This is the way it always works. I quit the nouveau atheist blogs cold turkey, and their nonsense starts popping up elsewhere so that I can’t escape it. That’s how I learned that some of them are now comparing their movement to the suffragists. The comparison seems to have been first made by Larry
Moron Moran in a comment at yet another blog (see, they’re everywhere!), and was subsequently endorsed by PZ Myers, who writes in a comment:
When we compare atheists to feminists, the labor movement, gays, or civil rights, we are not saying these are identical; in this case, it is to a narrower similarity, that these are movements to change a social attitude, and the question is whether past movements have accomplished this with deference to the existing situation, and whether “rudeness” played a role in breaking down barriers.
It’s difficult, at this point, to say anything other than, “Are you kidding me?” Watching white, middle-class, mostly ex-Protestant males (the dominant new atheist demographic) compare themselves to feminists, labor movements, gay and civil rights activists, or the members of any other persecuted group fighting for their social, political, and economic lives is just plain surreal. Or worse, as Trinifar notes, it’s just plain manipulative. It does, however, reinforce my armchair psychoanalysis of the new atheists: members of a privileged class who decided to create an identity simply to justify their own persecution complexes.
Despite my incredulity, I will try for a moment to take PZ’s comment seriously, in order to determine whether there’s some justification for the comparison. It is true that the new atheist movement is about social change, but is the sort of social change the movement advocates analogous to the social change fought for by the group’s PZ mentions? Those movements were about creating a society in which marginalized and persecuted groups could participate on an equal footing. New atheists, despite their eagerness to believe that they are somehow marginalized or persecuted, aren’t fighting for social change aimed at inclusion. Their movement is aimed, rather, at a more ambitious form of social change: the complete abolition of religion (if you don’t believe me, read the comments in the posts above, or those at some of my previous posts on religion and science). For this reason, a different comparison is more appropriate. As Tinifar puts it:
This neo-atheist goal falls into the same class as the Christian Theocracy movement’s goal for a Christian planet (which, we should note, is not something many Christians want to support). It’s a ridiculously far-reaching, Quixotic quest.
This is why, perhaps unwisely, some of us have been known to call the new atheists “fundamentalist atheists.” Their goal, methods, and their either-or world views are often indistinguishable from those of religious fundamentalists. But even if that label is unfair, their eagerness to compare themselves with suffragists in an attempt to justify their hostility, their utter contempt for pretty much everyone on the planet, and their broad feelings of superiority, is nothing more than dishonest propaganda.
UPDATE: Alright already! You’ve managed to make me feel bad about deleting Larry Moran’s comment (though you haven’t made me feel bad about calling him a moron — I’ll never feel bad about stating the truth). I’ve undeleted it, and it’s back where it originally was. Or at least it should be. Wait, let me look. OK, it’s there. I won’t delete any further comments by Larry, either, but my position that he’s a dishonest ass with a reading comprehension problem stands, and I won’t be reading any of his comments, so don’t look for any responses to them from me.
UPDATE: Since we’re now approaching 100 comments, which means most people won’t read the early comments, and since people keep repeating the same misunderstandings (misunderstandings I suspect are encouraged by some of the blogs they’re coming from), let me reiterate what I’m trying to say but didn’t say clearly enough in the body of the post.
First, I think it’s pretty clear that Moran, Myers, and others who’ve run with their analogy are trying to compare themselves to suffragettes and other groups (gay rights, civil rights, labor movements, etc.). It’s a nice and ironic act of framing. But while they’ve chosen the groups to which they compare themselves quite purposively, in order to paint their own cause in a better light, the explicit substance of their comparison is pretty simple,. It starts with the recognition that the suffragettes were successful by being rude, in a variety of ways. The next step is to note that both the suffragettes and the “new atheists” (who are really just “old atheists“) are after social change in a broad sense. Since they both have the same abstract goal, the success of rudeness for the suffragettes justifies the use of rudeness (and disrespect — was that a suffragette method?) by the “new atheists.” Some people seem to think I’ve missed this argument entirely, so I thought I’d spell it out for you.
Now here’s what’s wrong with this comparison: while similar in the very abstract, at no other level of analysis are the “new atheist” and suffragette causes even remotely similar. As i said in the post, the suffragettes were fighting to be included in society as equals. The “new atheists” are, according to their own words! fighting to rid the world of religion. Those are two radically different types of social change. One is fighting for inclusion in a society basically as it is before that inclusion (with that one obvious differences and any ancillary differences it might entail), while the other is fighting to exclude a very broad range of ideas from society. My argument was and is that this radical difference makes it impossible to justify the use of suffragette methods for the cause of the “new atheists” simply by pointing out that it was effective for the suffragettes.
To show how bad the comparison is, let’s assume for a moment that we really can just say that both the suffragettes and new atheists wanted social change, no matter how different the social change the two groups wanted are, and that this abstract similarity justifies the new atheists’ use of methods that were successful for the suffragettes. All we need for comparison and justification, in this case, are two things: the goal of social change (any kind), and a method that has achieved some success. The new atheists will then be justified in using that methodology. At this point, all sorts of analogies suggest themselves. In addition to the suffragettes, gay rights movements, and 19th century anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, there’s also Stalinism, Nazism, and racist movements in the American south in the late 19th century. All effective at creating and sustaining social change using violence, imprisonment, and other methods of suppressing dissent. And since effectiveness in achieving social change is the sole basis for justifying a method, new atheist should feel entirely justified in using those groups’ methods as well.
Obviously they shouldn’t, and wouldn’t. This is because effectiveness isn’t the only measure of the validity of a method for achieving social change. The “new atheists” aren’t aiming for the complete suppression of dissent (oh wait, they want to eradicate religion, so yes they are, but we can ignore that for a moment), so violence, while it could be effective, is not a justified method. We could of course argue that the suppression of dissent is itself not justified, and that therefore no method is justified simply because it can achieve this goal, but that would mean dealing with the details of the type of social change desired, and Myers et al. would have you believe that’s not important for the comparison. So that counter to my extreme examples won’t work. Unless they are willing to admit that the details matter,in which case, the analogy between the new atheists and suffragettes ceases to justify their use of suffragette methodologies, too, because the detail of their goals are so different. Unless, that is, Myers et al. really are trying to compare the two groups’ goals in the details, despite their protestations to the contrary.
In short, they can’t have it both ways: either the analogy is about the details, in which case it fails miserably (as the original post points out), or it’s dangerously abstract, in which case any method is justified simply by it having been successful at some point in history.