Attention conservation notice: 3200 words attempting to correct what may be a fatally flawed analogy between New Atheism and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to the civil rights movement.

i-4e9c58d2a2ee3bc45f3cb4d12cbcaa46-_Users_jgrr_Library_Application-Support_ecto_attachments__images_mlkihaveadreamgogo.jpgIn replying to Jason’s post the other day, I skipped over some important issues that were peripheral to my main point. But I want to double back on a comment he made that I’ve seen New/Affirmative/Extreme/gnu atheists toss out rather too often. The claim is that they are, in some sense, analogous to Martin Luther King, Jr. Jason, being sophisticated and smart, and knowing that using analogies on the internet is like doing a really futile thing, took the time to deploy some troll repellent:

You know perfectly well that I am not likening the situation of atheists today to that of Blacks in the sixties. Nor am I suggesting any significant similarity between King’s critics, many of whom were motivated by racism and not sound strategy, and NA critics today.

I hope that my criticism of this line of argument will be taken in that same spirit. The differences Jason mentions really do matter, and certainly complicate or even invalidate the analogy, but that’s a different blog post. Taking the analogy on its own terms, I’d like to argue that there’s a stronger analogy between accommodationism and King’s approach, and between New Atheists and King’s critics within the civil rights movement. Note the italics! Accommodationists and New Atheists are part of some sort of broad movement, I’d like to think, so I think that this analogy is more appropriate than a look at King’s critics from outside the civil rights movement. And like Jason, I hope you’ll take this analogy as it is, and not draw implications beyond what I’m writing.

Note, too, that others have made this argument (e.g., PZ Myers in the CSH debate that started this off), and I hope no one takes this as a critique aimed specifically at Jason; it’s a response to a widespread and (IMHO) erroneous historical argument. I think Jason did a good job of laying out the nature of the analogy, so I’ll use his comments as representative of the general argument. As such, my comments may diverge from the finer details of Jason’s argument, to get at other forms I’ve seen the argument take. I hope the discussion doesn’t get bogged down in arguing about Jason’s particular intentions.

First, I will take this statement of Jason’s as representative of something like the agenda of New Atheism:

[Josh] wants to win people over to evolution by showing them that, at worst, they need to make only small alterations to their religious values … trying to win people over to a way of thinking about specific political issues by working within their previously held ideas. On the subject of evolution I am pessimistic about the strategy because I believe it is based on a false premise.…

if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.

Rather than working within the existing system, Jason wants us to change the system in some more radical way, making atheism mainstream, and de-emphasizing (or perhaps even rendering moot) theism.

Jason describes the analogy with Dr. King, which he motivated by quoting the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

there are clear parallels between what King heard from his critics in the sixties and what New Atheists hear today. King did not achieve his success by thinking about framing or by working within the value systems of those who were hostile to civil rights. He did it by working around them, until pretty soon the national zeitgeist changed.

This is a powerful argument, and if it were historically accurate, would be a compelling case for New Atheist tactics.

Alas, the history is Whiggish and wrong.

i-b113a9fc0c27feb198d2d3c367a2d717-MLK-LBJ.jpgHere are Dr. King’s words to protesters after the march from Selma to Birmingham:

we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. … Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.

Is that framing? Heck yeah. Anyone who says King didn’t use framing has simply not read King’s speeches, or doesn’t know what framing is. They are skillfully framed, beautiful examples of the art. He never conceals his views or his aims, but he finds ways to express his views through values shared even by those in his audience who oppose him.

Throughout his speeches, King locates his efforts within the context of the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, fully aware that those documents were written by, passed by, and intended to protect, slave-owning racists. Yet he worked within that system, taking those words and values Americans treasure deeply, and holding them up as a mirror. He told the crowd in Birmingham: “Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote.” Nothing says “working within the system” like a call for change at the ballot box. Promising change through voting rights assumes that the system itself is sound, and only the implementation is flawed. This looks like the incrementalism Jason decries.

King did his work in partnership with a host of people who did not fully share his political agenda, nor his skin color. (Here, by the way, is where Jason’s analogy gets complicated: is atheism meant to be like race in the civil rights movement, or is atheism analogous to the political platform of civil rights? I take it that the intended analogy is between atheism and race. If not, what is the political platform of New Atheism? King’s goal was not to make civil rights mainstream, his goal was to enact laws and end specific discriminatory behavior. Read the speech for a litany of detailed and specific examples he wants people to work to change. I don’t see him talking about making blackness “mainstream,” indeed I see him stepping outside the context of race, to talk about poverty, war, and social justice more broadly, keeping the coalition broad. And to extend (perhaps over-extend) the analogy, I have a hard time imagining Jason or Dawkins or Harris dreaming of a day when, just as King dreamed “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” atheists and theists would join hands as sisters and brothers. )

Did King simply “work around” those hostile to him? Hardly. His goal for himself and his followers, stated rather clearly and repeatedly, was to win friendship even of his enemies, to turn the other cheek to those who attacked him and to win them over through nonviolent, loving, and insistent action, always aiming towards a series of incremental but significant victories regarding clearly specified policies. King and his allies filed lawsuits to end discriminatory practices, and relied on the courts and elected officials to enforce those laws. That is working with the system. And it is the sort of legwork which New Atheists are wont to trivialize as mere holding actions when taken by accommodationists.

Consider, too, his shout-out in the speech to President Johnson, who helped kill his share of civil rights laws during his decades in Congress. Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson makes no bones about Johnson’s racism, and his apparent sympathy with segregation (or at least with segregationists in the Senate). But King wasn’t trying to “work around” the President or his value system. King lobbied Johnson, as he’d lobbied Kennedy before, pushing for civil rights legislation, and for federal enforcement of existing laws.

Jason’s account makes it sound as if King was an uncompromising and iconoclastic leader. But that misreads King and the history of civil rights. Remember that it was Malcolm X, not Dr. King, who insisted on change “by any means necessary.” Indeed, Malcolm X criticized King using logic analogous to that Jason deploys against accommodationism. (I repeat that this is an analogy. New Atheists aren’t Malcolm X, there aren’t atheist nationalists that would parallel Malcolm X’s black nationalism, neither I nor any other accommodationist would claim to be Martin Luther King reborn, etc. It’s an analogy, please don’t overinterpret it.)

i-0a2b20027e8036126c70fd58304efec0-MLK-MalcolmX.jpgConsider Malcolm X’s attack on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the event at which King delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech. The event drew a multi-racial crowd, and was co-organized by leaders white and black, and built around an agenda broad enough to cover the concerns of labor unions (once notorious for their racism) and civil rights leaders, whether they were Southern Blacks or white communists, Christians or Jews or Muslims. One might see the diversity of this crowd as a strength, and the willingness of historically racist unions to join the effort as a success for King’s strategy of outreach and constructive engagement.

Malcolm X took a dimmer view. He rallied his audience by appealing to racial solidarity:

What you and I need to do is learn to forget our differences. …You catch hell ’cause you’re a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason.

So we are all black people, so—called Negroes, second—class citizens, ex—slaves.…

We have a common enemy. We have this in common: We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have this common enemy, then we unite on the basis of what we have in common. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy — the white man. He’s an enemy to all of us. I know some of you all think that some of them aren’t enemies. Time will tell.

Something about his insistence that all white people are the enemy, even if they vote for civil rights laws or help register black voters, seems analogous (with all the caveats above) to New Atheist arguments that religion is the enemy, even if it is a religion which accepts evolution and other sciences, and which opposes fundamentalist efforts. Where King dreamed of black and white together, and moving past race to a place where people were judged by the content of their character, Malcolm X accepted the notion that the black and white races could not coexist, differing from segregationists in which of the two incompatible groups he preferred to see as superior. Similarly, New Atheists accept creationist claims that science and religion are incompatible, holding that creationists’ error is in thinking that science should be subordinate to religion in that conflict rather than vice versa. To extend Jason’s analogy, I think there’s a parallel between King’s call for “a day not of the white man, not of the black man… of man as man,” and accommodationist calls to look past religious labels and ideology, and to judge people by their willingness to accept science.

Where King worked within the system, Malcolm X called for a revolution, and dismissed King’s incremental approach, tied to small, specific policy goals, with victories won in court or through political shifts:

you don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn—the—other—cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. [The] only kind of revolution that’s nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution.

Martin Luther King, who is viewed by history as a brilliant and successful leader of the civil rights movement, a tactician who shepherded his movement from success to success, gets a different gloss in Malcolm X’s contemporaneous telling:

Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent.…

Any time a shepherd, a pastor, teach you and me not to run from the white man and, at the same time, teach us not to fight the white man, he’s a traitor to you and me.…

The slavemaster took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education — a little education; gave him a long coat and a top hat and made all the other slaves look up to him. Then he used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today, by the same white man. He takes a Negro, a so—called Negro, and make him prominent, build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity. And then he becomes a spokesman for Negroes — and a Negro leader.

Malcolm X is calling Martin Luther King, Jr. an accommodationist and worse, and there’s no two ways about it. Indeed, that section is just the set-up. Here’s the red meat:

The same white element that put Kennedy in power —— labor, the Catholics, the Jews, and liberal Protestants; [the] same clique that put Kennedy in power, joined the march on Washington.

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. …

…They controlled it so tight — they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown. And everyone of those Toms was out of town by sundown. Now I know you don’t like my saying this. But I can back it up. It was a circus, a performance that beat anything Hollywood could ever do, the performance of the year. [White union leader Walther] Reuther and those other three devils should get a Academy Award for the best actors ’cause they acted like they really loved Negroes and fooled a whole lot of Negroes. And the six Negro leaders should get an award too, for the best supporting cast.

Why repeat this? No New Atheist wants a revolution, and Richard Dawkins is no more Malcolm X than he is Martin Luther King, Jr. But if we’re to discuss the lessons of the civil rights movement, I think we should remember that King’s approach bore many similarities to “accommodationism.” If we’re to talk about the civil rights movement, let’s ask which camp treasured its militancy, anger, it’s heat, its uncompromising nature. Let’s accurately describe which camp eschewed outreach to people who shared their policy goals even if they did not share the same race (which seems to be analogous to religion/atheism in this analogy) or other overarching ideology (atheism in one case, black nationalism in the other – very different things!).

And if Jason or others want to talk about King’s critics, honesty dictates that they acknowledge that King was criticized for being too accommodating, too willing to compromise and to work across ideological and racial lines, for being too accepting of the existing system. At the time, King’s approach was seen by a vocal and non-trivial fraction of the broader movement as being too weak, too focused on legal tweaks and not enough on broad societal change. Those critiques sound a lot like what I hear leveled at accommodationists. The criticisms of New Atheists sound more like what Malcolm X faced than what King faced. Here the analogy begins stretching unrecognizably – both men were assassinated for Pete’s sake, and passions are thankfully less heated around this matter – so I’ll go no farther.

At the end of the day, I’ll just note that Dr. King’s strategy of engagement with potential enemies and working through the system was successful. In 1948, Lyndon Johnson’s maiden speech in the US Senate was an hour-and-a-half disquisition on the wonders of the filibuster, the threat to states’ rights if poll taxes were outlawed or if lynching were made a federal offense, and the horrors which would ensue should a Fair Employment Practices Commission end workplace segregation. By 1965, thanks in part to King’s ability to find shared values and frame his message in ways that could compel even long-time protectors of segregation, President Johnson was using his legislative clout to force through the most sweeping civil rights law since Reconstruction. Johnson had abandoned his states’ rights language, and was talking about human rights.

“There is no Negro problem,” he told Congress. “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” And he looked beyond that bill, and stepped squarely into King’s footsteps, even borrowing the chorus of a famous civil rights protest song:

But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

i-c456dabc2185a8bd2f8df00a50c95ffb-LBJ-MLK-VRA.jpg

Comments

  1. #1 Ian
    October 15, 2010

    Great post Josh. Reminds me of how little I know about the civil rights movement, about MLK and Malcolm X. Definitely learned something. (And yes, IMO, your analogy works quite well).

  2. #2 J. J. Ramsey
    October 15, 2010

    BTW, sentiments similar to “Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding” can even be seen in the Letter to Birmingham Jail that Rosenhouse quoted:

    You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

    I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

    I am hard-pressed to see the New Atheists as not fostering bitterness and hatred.

  3. #3 Michael Fugate
    October 15, 2010

    One thing that needs to be asked – would King’s approach have worked without the fear of something more radical looming in the background? We will never know.

  4. #4 Barry
    October 15, 2010

    That’s a long post Josh. Let me slim it down to a single sentence.

    Josh doesn’t like gnu atheists to claim their arguments are similar to MLK because it is Josh who thinks he is closer to MLK and those nasty atheists should stop making that claim.

    OK…maybe one more sentence.

    And it will be Josh who brings down the whole rotten religious eddifice and save science through his MLK-like accommodationism.

    Sign me up.

  5. #5 Left_Wing_Fox
    October 15, 2010

    Still think this whole nonsense is a result of bad framing.

    We should not be claiming that science and religion are “Compatible”, as this is a major point of disagreement between atheists and theistic scientists. It divides our camp into atheists and the religious, and strengthens the arguments of fundamentalists by forcing scientists to agree with them.

    Instead, we should be focusing on the primacy of evidence, and the utility of the scientific method. That’s the fundamental point we want people to understand, and the area that theists and atheists who respect science agree on. Compared to that, the disagreement on how much of the scientific method we apply to faith is less important, and can be presented as part of the open dialog necessary for good science and a co-operative society, and provides a united front against the fundamentalists who believe that faith and dogma trump evidence.

  6. #6 Ophelia Benson
    October 15, 2010

    Accommodationists and New Atheists are part of some sort of broad movement, I’d like to think

    No doubt you would, but what broad movement? We’re all part of some broad movement, but the differences within those are sometimes big enough to make a real difference. This is why I’m always asking what Chris Mooney means when he says “but how is this helping?” or “but will it work?” I want to help a lot of things, I want a lot of things to work, and some of them seem to be things that Chris Mooney cares less about than I do, therefore we simply really do disagree on some basic goals.

    Many accommodationists – including you, Josh – are sometimes willing (or downright eager) to say such malicious and inaccurate things about gnu atheists that it becomes absurd to think of them as allies.

    King had lots of critics who shared some “broad” goal of attaining civil rights eventually…but so slowly and in such an apologetic way that it was absurd to think of them as allies of an activist civil rights movement.

    That’s what this “some sort of broad movement” looks like to me. I want to make atheism an available, live option, now. I want to expose the stigma on atheism as an illiberal absurdity, now. That means I don’t think people who are working to enforce the stigma on atheism are allies.

  7. #7 Barry
    October 15, 2010

    Left_Wing_Fox: “the disagreement on how much of the scientific method we apply to faith is less important”

    I’ve never asked Ken Miller whether he believes in transubstantiation, but I do know that he said he takes communion. Canon Law requires belief in transubstantiation and not doing so is an excommunicable offence. So, two questions. First, is transubstantiation a testable scientific hypothesis? Second, how does Miller square science and belief in this case? I’ve had it pointed out to me that he doesn’t believe the Catholic church is right on stemcell research, but that isn’t something for which he can be ejected from the church.

    I ask because you mentioned the primacy of evidence as a basis for drawing together theists and atheists. Maybe Miller isn’t a good example but it illustrates the point I think.

  8. #8 Thewritingcode
    October 15, 2010

    For the complete story of the ’63 march — and the tensions surrounding King, Malcolm, and other key players — see “Nobody Turn Me Around : A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington” (Beacon Press).

  9. #9 Saikat Biswas
    October 15, 2010

    Josh : “Something about his insistence that all white people are the enemy, even if they vote for civil rights laws or help register black voters, seems analogous (with all the caveats above) to New Atheist arguments that religion is the enemy, even if it is a religion which accepts evolution and other sciences, and which opposes fundamentalist efforts.”

    Even with your caveat that we shouldn’t overinterpret it, I fail to see how this is even an analogy in the first place. Despising every single white man regardless of their views and outlook is not the same (every which way you consider it) as being inextricably opposed to a particular religious doctrine (New Atheists are, after all, opposed to religious doctrines, not the people who supposedly hold them). Individuals are not the same as ideas. Individuals hold widely varying beliefs and outlook, sometimes even different degrees of the same. But any given idea is fixed and immutable. If the same idea is interpreted differently by persons X and Y, then it is usually the case that the difference also extends to how both of them even conceive of it. For example, you cannot claim yourself to be a Christian in any meaningful sense if you don’t accept that Jesus is your saviour and that he died for our sins (whatever that means). Sure, not every self-proclaimed Christian believes it. But the idea itself is a core, immutable concept (as well as patently ludicrous). People who call themselves Christians are free to choose how they define their faith but having made their choice they essentially immunize it against revision or even reinterpretation (I’m discounting the few who are always able to shift and adjust it when they find it convenient to avoid any debate).
    It is the same with Islam. You cannot call yourself a Muslim unless you submit yourself fully to the will of Allah and accept every word of the Koran as his. Again, there obviously are people who call themselves Muslims but who refuse the dictum (some of my own friends fall into this category). But even they hold opinions heavily influenced by their faith that are just as weird if not downright objectionable.
    It is wrong to say that any religion accepts evolution. How can it possibly do that? Religious ideas (monotheism anyway) precede Charles Darwin by centuries. Yes, it is true that many religious people accept evolution and many other scientific findings. They may even go over their holy books and cherry-pick parts of it to show that these findings are entirely consistent with their faith. Some even go a step further and come up with passages to claim that many recent scientific discoveries were in fact already predicted by their holy book (and somehow they are never able to find these predictions before science actually makes the discovery). I know of Hindus who claim that quantum mechanics is adumbrated in the Upanishads. Similarly, you cannot claim that religion opposes fundamentalist efforts. The opposition comes from religious people, often urged by completely secular ideas.
    In the end, I think the problem is how you define religion – by its fixed doctrines, or by the action of its followers who are often capable of thinking for themselves and who are constantly revising and reinterpreting their own faith. If you accept the latter method (and I know you do), then it is only natural to ask how much of that reconsideration is directly and solely attributable to the doctrines of their faith? In what sense can you call them ‘religious’ if, in revising their attitude and outlook, they have actually disregarded the central essence of their faith? As Sam Harris notes, are we then to conclude that the true representatives of any faith are really those who are actively in the process of losing it?

  10. #10 J.J.E.
    October 15, 2010

    Accommodationists and New Atheists are part of some sort of broad movement

    I reject this. I’ve seen you claim on many instances on this very blog that you don’t care about people giving up religion. You care about acceptance of science, especially evolution.

    So, while GAs are allies in your fight, you are not a part of any movement of which the GAs can be said to be a major constituency of. That alone is enough to toss out the analogy.

    @ J. J. Ramsey

    I am hard-pressed to see the New Atheists as not fostering bitterness and hatred.

    Two points. First, honestly, really honestly, have you every heard of friend of a friend of a friend’s mother’s brother’s former roommate even intimate a hint of an instance where GA created bitterness and hatred where it didn’t exist before? Does it make religious people hate seculars when before they didn’t? Does it make secular people hate religious people when before it didn’t? Even a single 7th hand anecdote? Seriously.

    Second, if you are going to invoke bitterness and hatred of the GAs (the GAs for god’s sake, people who write books and blog posts) you lose every shred of credibility unless you acknowledge that such a position requires 100-fold more bitterness and hatred on the behalf of religious people. Remember, GAs haven’t beaten people, fired them, shunned them, etc. The intolerance of a huge proportion religoius people far outweighs the (so far imaginary) intolerance of GAs. Seriously, get some fucking perspective.

  11. #11 Egbert
    October 15, 2010

    “Accommodationists and New Atheists are part of some sort of broad movement, I’d like to think,”

    I don’t think so. I think the ‘accommodationists’ are co-opting it, undermining what the confrontationists (new atheists) are trying to achieve. Accommodationists have set themselves up as the thought police and the middle-men where there need not be one. The truth is, a lot of the more rational accommodationists don’t really identify themselves with accommodationism but rather seek a different approach or strategy. I think the likes of Chris Mooney are in fact confrontationists but with a different approach. You want to get on the confrontationist bus, because it’s going somewhere, but you want to be the driver, and then you put the breaks on and tell everyone where they ought to be heading for. You’re basically wasting everyone’s time arguing with the wrong people. [Please don’t analyse the bus analogy to death!]

    There is a need for self-criticism in any movement, but accommodationism is not ‘in the movement’ and is not even interested in its own self-criticism but only criticising the confrontationists. If you want self-criticism, then you need to join the right people, the ones confronting religion head-on. If you want to try a different approach, no one is stopping you. We’re not criticising you, you’re criticising us but not joining us, simply slamming the breaks on and on and on.

    In fact, why are you not criticising religion? There can be no criticism without confrontation, you can’t be critical and accommodating. The way of accommodating is non-critical to religion but critical of criticism itself.

    And as for taking the words of MLK Jr, he was a baptist preacher! And Malcolm X was a muslim! Clearly the analogy becomes lost once you start taking the analogy apart and expose the opposite. The real goals of MLK Jr and Malcolm X were religious (the infidels were the common enemy) ones and therefore they wanted to be equally heard.

    “I take it that the intended analogy is between atheism and race. If not, what is the political platform of New Atheism?”

    King’s goal was to get his and the black community’s lawful rights, he wasn’t interested in changing his colour to white or changing the colour of his opponents to black. Religion is different, it’s not about personal identity it’s about free speech and criticism. Religion, mostly evangelical religion, wants to turn everyone religious. Atheists, in particular the confrontationists, want to turn everyone atheist. That is fine, because human rights protect free speech and free criticism.

    This is why you’re breaking down the analogy the wrong way. You’ve turned religious belief and religious condemnation of others as an issue of personal identity, that must be respected just like the colour black, or the gender female or any other minority identified in such a way. But opinion is completely different. Atheists have an equal right to say what they want and criticise others just as the religious have an equal right to say what they want and criticise others. You’re effectively asking atheists to shut up and not criticise and are therefore not helping at all.

    Confrontationists (gnu atheists) are asking for equal status in their freedom of speech and freedom of criticism. Their politics is based on natural rights. They’re also asking for the basic principle of secularism to be maintained that guarantees the freedom of both the non-religious and the religious. You’re either in agreement with that or there really is a serious problem.

    “Why repeat this? No New Atheist wants a revolution, and Richard Dawkins is no more Malcolm X than he is Martin Luther King, Jr. But if we’re to discuss the lessons of the civil rights movement, I think we should remember that King’s approach bore many similarities to “accommodationism.””

    Thanks for the sermon reverend Josh. Please read my post above about the difference between personal identity and freedom of speech. It is fundamentally important to understand the difference between criticism and dark-skin. We’re not trying create a revolution and destroy secularism, we’re trying to save it.

    “At the end of the day, I’ll just note that Dr. King’s strategy of engagement with potential enemies and working through the system was successful.”

    Indeed, and now his speeches and criticisms are ‘heard’ as are his religious view which were Christian and which you’ve rapt yourself in unwittenly.

    Now it’s time for atheists to be heard. We have a right to be heard and right to criticise and judge religion.

  12. #12 Michael Fugate
    October 15, 2010

    If religion didn’t exist, we would have almost no opposition to teaching evolution.
    So why are the people who are working to reduce the power and influence of religion over society declared the enemy?

  13. #13 Saikat Biswas
    October 15, 2010

    Josh : “Let’s accurately describe which camp eschewed outreach to people who shared their policy goals even if they did not share the same race (which seems to be analogous to religion/atheism in this analogy) or other overarching ideology (atheism in one case, black nationalism in the other – very different things!).”

    How can you get so many things wrong in just one sentence? You think race is the same as religion? Seriously?
    Let me first break down your description while still preserving its accuracy.

    Statement A : Malcolm X and his camp actively eschewed reaching out to all white people who also believed in equal rights for everyone because they were white.

    Statement B : The New Atheists actively eschew reaching out to all religious people who also believe in [blah] because they are religious.

    Except for the [blah], did I get that right? You can fill out [blah] any way you want (there’s an abundance of choice here since all you need is that belief in [blah] is shared by believers and atheists alike).

    First of all, no atheist shuns reaching out to believers because they happen to be believers. They do stop having a rational discussion with someone who has decided to abandon rationality completely. In other words, someone who has turned himself into a fundamentalist. Did the black nationalists have any such provisions?
    There are also those who do not completely abandon reason but nevertheless hold beliefs that do undermine their commitment to reason. In these instances, instead of treating it as an aberration that can be ignored, we squarely confront it and ask how supposedly intelligent people can believe that Jesus reveals himself through a frozen waterfall. Thus, in winnowing out the people with whom we expect to have a reasonable discussion from those with whom we don’t, we take into consideration the actual content as well as dimensions of their belief system. Even when we don’t accept their beliefs, we at least credit believers with holding their beliefs sincerely and passionately. To deny that faith does not inform or influence every action of the faithful is both dishonest and condescending.

  14. #14 Saikat Biswas
    October 15, 2010

    My last sentence should read : “Faith does inform and influence every action of the faithful. To deny it is both dishonest and condescending.”

  15. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    October 15, 2010

    J.J.E.:

    if you are going to invoke bitterness and hatred of the GAs (the GAs for god’s sake, people who write books and blog posts) you lose every shred of credibility unless you acknowledge that such a position requires 100-fold more bitterness and hatred on the behalf of religious people.

    In other words, the fact that the GAs at their worst aren’t as bad as the religious at their worst means that I should overlook the badness of the GAs. Sorry, bucko, but when the content of one of the books you mentioned slimes the NCSE with an argumentum ad Naziium, when the blog posts include caricaturing the religious as “pious twits” and “little old ladies who faint at the sight of monkeys,” or pretending that Sheril Kirshenbaum’s complaint about a “joke” about sodomizing her with a rusty knife was merely about dirty language, I think we might have at least a little problem here. Yes, it is very considerate of the GAs to not go so far as to beat people up, but that’s not an excuse for what they have done.

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    October 15, 2010

    Michael Fugate: “So why are the people who are working to reduce the power and influence of religion over society declared the enemy?”

    Well, for one, they have been trying to sabotage the work of other people who have been working to reduce the power and influence of religion over society, you know, by actually getting beliefs like creationism out of public schools. That’s at least one reason.

  17. #17 Barry
    October 15, 2010

    J.J. Ramsey: “they have been trying to sabotage the work of other people who have been working to reduce the power and influence of religion over society, you know, by actually getting beliefs like creationism out of public schools. That’s at least one reason.”

    Can you substantiate that? Especially the “sabotage” comment?

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 15, 2010

    Josh, sorry for the short reply to such a long and well-thought out post. I think the most serious problem with your argument is your casual likening of New Atheist rhetoric to that of Malcolm X. I see no comparison. As I mentioned briefly at the end of my original post, Dawkins et al are models of decorum in their public presentations, unlike Malcolm X, who was perfectly happy to use violent and threatening rhetoric. Even their books, commonly said to be so militant, strike me as generally pretty milquetoast relative to the sort of things Malcolm X was saying. (Not to mention relative to the sort of anti-atheist rhetoric that often comes from religious people). I also don’t see NA’s arguing that we shouldn’t make common cause with religious folks on local issues like school board elections.

    As you say, we can hash out the other issues next week in DC. See you then!

  19. #19 Deepak Shetty
    October 15, 2010

    Accommodationists and New Atheists are part of some sort of broad movement, I’d like to think

    Only when it comes to a very narrow question of getting science out to the public (it looks like we part ways when it comes to societal evils). And even in that narrow goal it seems to be the Accomodationist question is how do I get the public to listen to the experts in the field(and not how do i get them to understand)?. Im not sure I even agree with that being the best way.

    @J J Ramsey

    I am hard-pressed to see the New Atheists as not fostering bitterness and hatred.

    And the accomodationists are not as guilty (think Mooney , plait et al)? One difference is the new atheists have never claimed to be all about being nice and polite.
    The other is that sometimes being honest means people will hate you. That’s not your fault.

  20. #20 J.J.E.
    October 15, 2010

    but that’s not an excuse for what they have done.

    Like write books? Really, what have they done?

    slimes the NCSE with an argumentum ad Naziium

    Quote please? Or a sketch of the quote and the page number. I’ve read all of the books, so you can imagine my shock at hearing that NCSE was compared to the Nazis. (Otherwise, I have no idea what an argumentum ad Naziium is.)

    when the blog posts include caricaturing the religious as “pious twits” and “little old ladies who faint at the sight of monkeys,” or pretending that Sheril Kirshenbaum’s complaint about a “joke” about sodomizing her with a rusty knife was merely about dirty language, I think we might have at least a little problem here.

    Methinks you have a pharyngulation of the brain. Like You’re Not Helping, you take a skewed perception of a single part of a larger movement and apply that skewed perception to everyone in it. While it is relevant to point out the influence PZ Myers and his blog to the larger movement, it is not fair to characterize an entire movement with the comments of a single person. But that aside, you still still have no perspective. If the worst trespass you can find is a) from a single member of a movement; and b) is composed entirely hurling ad hominems and poo-pooing a terrible* comment on a blog; then I’d say the overall “movement” is pretty civil if those are the outliers. This is not to say that these aspects are merely less objectionable than religion (though they are). They are unobjectionable on an absolute scale of human interaction. This does not rise above the basal rate of human ass-i-tudiness for any topic. I rather suspect it is far below the baseline. Try reading some political blogs. Hell, just go read the comments posted to a partisan op-ed in a local newspaper. You’ll routinely find worse stuff (though not directed at religion — that’s the point). In general, people are asses, full stop. If that’s your point, then why do you direct your gadfly activities to the GAs? There’s a whole internet full of more polite than baseline asinine behavior that is still more objectionable than GAs. (Unless you subscribe to the question begging proposition that it is by definition rude to criticize religion.)

    * The comment in question was unquestionable objectionable, but you are objective either: 1) very forgetful; or 2) a liar, if you are saying that Sheril was singled out for sodomy.

  21. #21 J. J. Ramsey
    October 15, 2010

    Jason Rosenhouse: “I also don’t see NA’s arguing that we shouldn’t make common cause with religious folks on local issues like school board elections.”

    I wouldn’t entirely agree with this. True, the NAs don’t say outright that there shouldn’t be making of common cause at all, but when those who do are called “Neville Chamberlains,” well, that does come across as attempting to discourage such alliances. Furthermore, all the attempts at arguing that faith and science are incompatible seem further meant to imply that such alliances are futile.

    Deepak Shetty: “And the accomodationists are not as guilty (think Mooney , plait et al)?”

    Offhand, I’d say that, no, they aren’t even remotely as guilty. For example, I have yet to see Mooney or Plait compare their opponents to Nazis. I have yet to see an accommodationist make a “joke” that an NA should be sodomized with a foreign object, nor have I seen other accommodationists fall all over themselves to play down the sickness of such a “joke.” So far as I know, no accommodationist has gone into an illogical, mouth-frothy rant about an NA being a “witless wanker.”

  22. #22 feralboy12
    October 15, 2010

    Martin Luther King was fighting a bad, dangerous idea–racism. He may have reached out to white people, but I don’t recall him ever calling for any kind of respect for the idea of racism. That’s not something you accomodate. Bad ideas do not deserve respect
    MLK and Malcolm X took different approaches in fighting racism, and in the end both were shot for their trouble. By people with bad ideas who felt threatened by people with better ideas, no matter how non-threateningly those ideas were presented.

  23. #23 J. J. Ramsey
    October 15, 2010

    J.J.E.: “Quote please? Or a sketch of the quote and the page number.”

    Page 66, the section on “Neville Chamberlain” evolutionists. Orac had a lot to say about it on the Respectful Insolence blog.

    J.J.E.: “The comment in question was unquestionable objectionable”

    Indeed, but that not only did not stop Pharyngula regulars from trying to justify it, but PZ Myers’ own response was execrable. Not only did he try to pretend that it was merely about bad words, but then threw in a dog whistle making light of that unquestionably objectionable comment, “frob me sideways with a sniny dirk.” (Note that his remark is mostly a bowdlerized version of part of the original offending comment.)

  24. #24 Josh Rosenau
    October 15, 2010

    JJE, JJ Ramsey: Could we take it down a notch? I’m sure both groups have done things that the other group found awful, and rehashing all of those old disputes is unlikely to be productive of any useful meeting of the minds.

  25. #25 Josh Rosenau
    October 15, 2010

    Jason: As I tried pretty hard to make clear with repeated disclaimers, I’m not drawing an analogy between Malcolm X’s violent rhetoric and NAs, any more than you were claiming MLK’s remarkable presentation skills are reborn in NAs. I thought I made clear where I saw the analogy, and we can discuss that further if you like. But I don’t see where you get “casual likening of New Atheist rhetoric to that of Malcolm X.”

  26. #26 J.J.E.
    October 15, 2010

    O.K. Just making sure two things get highlighted:

    1) nobody compared anybody to the Nazis;
    2) nobody suggested sodomy nor was anyone singled out (neither Sheril nor Chris was named, so JJR might as well have suggested that it was Chris. I still have no idea why he bothered to invoke sodomy).

  27. #27 Deepak Shetty
    October 15, 2010

    J J Ramsey
    Oh man not that one again . You really need to get a clue on what a profanity is and that is my last comment on that matter to you.

    Comparing to a nazi is the same as saying the NA’s are just like the religious fundies , no? And using adjectives such as strident, aggressive, intolerant is the same as any other profanity which is the same as telling someone to not be a dick.

  28. #28 Josh Rosenau
    October 15, 2010

    JJE: Dawkins’s “Neville Chamberlain” characterization (specifically of NCSE and Gennie Scott) is an implicit comparison to Nazis. See Orac for details on the problems there. But can we please move past this?

  29. #29 J. J. Ramsey
    October 15, 2010

    J.J.E.: “you are [not] objective either: 1) very forgetful; or 2) a liar, if you are saying that Sheril was singled out for sodomy.”

    Fair enough. I tend to half-forget that Ms. Kirshenbaum wasn’t singled out because she’s the one who called out the objectionable comment, not that it makes the comment less objectionable.

    I’ll refrain from further comment on the matter, since our host has politely asked us to do.

  30. #30 Deepak Shetty
    October 15, 2010

    May I know why my comment was censored? Surely saying that NA’s are compared to religious fundies is equivalent to comparing someone to a nazi isn’t inflammatory?
    You could also have just said dont discuss the topic further instead you responded with a justification and then said please move on isn’t particularly fair.

  31. #31 J.J.E.
    October 16, 2010

    I’m sorry I spoke up. This is just discouraging. It always comes back to this doesn’t it? The most powerful and enduring majority view in the history of human thought yet again impels even those who don’t agree with it to support it. Plus ça change.

  32. #32 Barry
    October 17, 2010

    “For example, I have yet to see Mooney or Plait compare their opponents to Nazis.”

    The sad thing about this comment J.J. is that Mooney and Plait see other atheists as their oponents.

  33. #33 Chris' Wills
    October 18, 2010

    Josh,

    The gnus aren’t so much interested in defending science, excepting perhaps those who have grants, as in attacking those who don’t believe as they do.

    They seem to, honestly, believe that by destroying religion science will reign supreme and to also believe that they know the only path to The Truth (materialism/positivism is all their is).

    So to claim a common cause between gnus and the rationals is, I suspect, a project that has failed before it has started. Some gnus even seem to want to claim all skeptism/a true knowledge as being theirs.

    On certain things, common cause may be possible but the aims are different so the overlap may not be great.

  34. #34 Egbert
    October 18, 2010

    Chris’ Wills,

    I am interested in science and interested in truth. They’re both the same thing. I don’t know why you say gnus aren’t interested in science, when many are scientists. That seems like a careless claim.

    As for destroying religion, will telling the truth destroy it? If so, wouldn’t that be great. Such a simple thing like telling the truth, destroying religion. Let’s begin then.

    As for who is claiming to be the rational ones, well the ones that are telling truths, there is a clue. The ones not telling truths, or the ones with veritaphobia, those are the irrational ones.

  35. #35 Barry
    October 19, 2010

    Why are posts not appearing Josh? Trying to silence free expression?

  36. #36 Chris' Wills
    October 19, 2010

    @Egbert

    I wrote that they seek to destroy religion, I didn’t write that this would be done by telling the truth.

    The aim appears to be the destruction of something that offends their sensibilities and beliefs, truth doesn’t enter into it much.

    There is a difference between defending the teaching of science and promoting scienticism

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