As Trinifar says, we’re witnessing a great atheist schism. While there are actually several different types of atheists participating (I wonder if we’re just playing into the hands of anti-atheist rhetoric by pretending we are, or should be, a homogenous group), the tendency is to classify the participants into one of two groups. I’m not really sure, at this point, what we should call these groups. Those on one side of the schism have been called Churchill school atheist, skeptical atheists, new atheists (new to what, I’m not sure), “meanie” atheists, and several less flattering names (anti-religious bigots comes to mind). Those on the other side (which includes me) have been called Neville Chamberlain atheists, appeasers, and probably some other names I’m forgetting. My own inclination is to call the first group positivist atheists, but I know of some positivist atheists who consider themselves members of the second category, so that won’t really work. I don’t really know what to call the second group, largely because they seem to be much more heterogeneous than the first group. For example, while it’s pretty clear that all members of the first group are positivist (they are committed to a fairly strong version of scientism, at least), as I’ve just noted, some members of the second group are positivists, some are just strongly pro-science and reason, and some are relatively ambivalent about the epistemological status of science.
Furthermore, it’s not always easy to tell where the division lies, or what, exactly, the schism is about. For the most part, the first group — let’s just call them new atheists, as inaccurate as that label is — has framed the schism, and if you read around, it’s their version of it that you’ll see. According to them, the schism is about criticizing religion. They do it a lot, the way they see it, those in the second category — let’s call them old atheists, just for contrast — are against criticizing religion. Their frame has been bolstered, recently, by the framing science discussion, in which some have renewed their call for the new atheists to tone down their attacks of religion. But let’s be clear on this. I have yet to see an atheist say that atheists should not criticize religion at all. In fact, I suspect that most atheists aren’t big fans of religion in general, or specific religions that they encounter on a regular basis in particular, and have said so from time to time. I myself have said some not-so-flattering things about Christianity, describing it as a source of misogyny, homophobia, and intolerance in general. In fact, I would go so far as to say that religions tend to be inherently misogynistic and intolerant, because they reflect the inherently misogynistic and intolerant cultures that produce and maintain them.
But there’s a difference between being critical of religion, even harshly so, and insulting religion and the religious. I can say that religion is inherently misogynistic, while recognizing that there are plenty of religious people who aren’t misogynists (to the extent that it’s possible, in our society, not to be a misogynist). I doubt many old atheists would have a problem with me saying this, even if they disagreed with the content of my criticism. And because I intend my criticism as a step towards dialogue and change, I can actually discuss this with religious people. The new atheists, however, spend a lot of time insulting religion and the religious, whether they’re calling all religious people irrational or stupid, describing parents teaching their children about religion as child abuse, comparing belief in the Chrsitian God to belief in fairies and unicorns, or just endlessly mocking the religious. And that’s where the old atheists and the new atheists part ways. The old atheists feel that it’s imperative, both for improvement of the atheist image among non-atheists, and in order to create social change, that our criticisms of religion be voiced respectfully, even if forcefully. The new atheists have, in the words of one of their leaders, “nothing but contempt” for religious belief, and therefore feel they’re justified in their rudeness.
Which leads me to another of the new atheists attempts to frame the schism. While they’ve vigorously denied attempting any such thing, it’s quite clear to me, and to many others I think, that the new atheist-suffragette analogy was an attempt at framing. Even if you reject that, it was clearly an attempt to legitimize the new atheist rudeness by comparing it to sufragette (or feminist, gay rights activist, labor movement, civil rights activist) rudeness. But as I tried, and failed, to convey in my previous post, there’s a fundamental difference not only in what the new atheists and suffragettes were trying to acheive, but also in their particular forms of rudeness. The suffragettes, civil rights activists, etc., were rude in ways that disrupted the status quo, in order to call attention to their plight. The new atheists are rude simply in that they’re running around insulting large swaths of the population, and displaying an utter lack of respect for their most cherished beliefs.
No matter how hard the new atheists try to frame their side of the schism as the righteous side by comparing their methods, if not their mission, to those of clearly righteous movements, the fact remains that it’s blatant propaganda. And no matter how much they insist that we old atheists are trying to silence them altogether, or calling for them to stop criticizing religion, the fact remains that it’s not criticizing religion that we object to, but the way in which they do it, which is wholly uncritical.
I still think that dialogue is possible between the two sides, and the schism need not be permanent. But in order for there to be dialogue, the new atheists have to recognize exactly what it is about their behavior that the old atheist are objecting to. Even if the new atheists disagree with our objections, unless they’re honest about what those objections are, and stop pretending that we’re trying to silence them, or trying to appease the religious by forcing new atheists to tone it down, conversations are pretty much impossible. And if atheist are as embattled as many new atheists think they are, these days, then a schism is the last thing we need.