Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: the atheist wars

The arguments over atheism are getting pretty raucous. It's not coming just from the religious right. It's also on the secular left (examples here and here, or here on Science blogs here and here). Apparently there is supposed to be a new kind of atheist, the fundamentalist atheist: intolerant, rigid and deliberately offensive to the many gentlefolk believers that certainly exist. The two biggest targets for this charge are Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Daniel Dennett is getting off easy and the new book (Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam ) by Michel Onfray just translated from French has yet to make itself felt in the US (I'm reading it now and so far it's terrific. Very French and very unlike the other three, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett).

Because atheists are not all alike any more than are believers. I really liked Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation (at least what I read of it; I'm convinced, so I didn't finish it). I even quoted some of it here. But there are many of Harris's opinions I find odious (for example his support of torture). He sounds like an asshole. Which isn't inconsistent with his being godless. It just has nothing to do with it. Dawkins is clearly getting in the face of the believers but I have greater sympathy for that. I don't find him intolerant or rigid, just forceful in voicing an opinion that has a hard time being heard above the din of religious drivel that permeates our public world.

Insofar as I have a style preference, it would be for the kind of secular humanist tradition typical of the Enlightenment. Use reason for public policy and understanding the world. Beyond that, live and let live. If you want to believe in something irrational and stupid, that's your affair. Superstitions are common. I have my share. When I watch my team playing and things go badly, I'll take off the team jersey or hat I wear when I watch the games or uncross my ankles or something equally stupid. I know it's dumb. But it doesn't hurt anyone and it's all in fun. Unfortunately, the kinds of superstitions we find among the religious aren't usually so harmless. They have side effects that hurt others. So they aren't OK with me.

I know there are an awful lot of religious people whose beliefs are private and personal and essentially harmless. In some cases religious beliefs motivate people to do good things. While I don't see why believing in God is needed to do good things, I'm always glad when it happens. As long as there aren't other consequences-- like using good works for the purpose of evangelizing; spreading superstition isn't OK with me. I cheerfully acknowledge there is a significant amount of great art and music inspired by religion. Despite my godlessness, I am very fond of religious music. Bach's Mass in B Minor is a stupendous creation. Still, it's like when I hear AIDS or cancer patients talk about how having a life threatening disease has had the paradoxical effect of enriching their lives. I have no doubt of it. But that doesn't mean I approve of AIDS or cancer. I realize that for some of you, that's an invidious comparison.

In the last analysis, if being a Protestant or a Jew or a Catholic or a Muslim was just another personal pecadillo, like being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan, that would be one thing. But it isn't.


More like this

Amanda Marcotte on Pandagon discusses Sam Harris on Alternet, and they've both got smart things to say…but you have got to read the comments. Sam Harris says things like this: On the subject of religious belief, we relax standards of reasonableness and evidence that we rely on in every other area…
I'm about to hop on a plane and fly off to New York for a few days, and now it seems like everyone is sending me op-eds from all over the place that are screaming against the "new atheism". We must be effective to inspire such denunciations, and we must be striking deeply to cause so much obvious…
Nisbet and Mooney do it again, with an op-ed in the Washington Post … and I'm afraid they've alienated me yet further. I am convinced now that theirs is not an approach that I could find useful, even if I could puzzle out some useable strategy from it. In the very first sentence, they claim that…
I don't mean to pick a fight with a fellow Science Blogger, but I'm afraid I have to. If not a fight, at least register a strenuous remonstrance, if I may frame it that way. The object of my displeasure is Matt Nisbet over at Framing Science, who seems to have a bee in his neurons about what he…

Beyond that, live and let live. If you want to believe in something irrational and stupid, ...

Well, that's certainly tolerant on your part!

I realize that for some of you, that's an invidious comparison.

Hardly. It would have to be better done to rise to the level of invidious. It's just silly.

Did this "sermonette" have a point in its wanderings? Unlike some others, this one reads to me like a muddled and hurried first draft.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 14 Jan 2007 #permalink

I think if people didn't put their religions (and I am religious, after a fashion, by the way) in other people's faces, it would be a whole lot easier. I know it sounds terribly simple to say and much more difficult to do, but it might start with preventing religious groups from having so much power in the government.

Of course, that would mean that government officials would have to stop pandering, and that would be a laugh, eh?

Apparently there is supposed to be a new kind of atheist, the fundamentalist atheist: intolerant, rigid and deliberately offensive to the many gentlefolk believers that certainly exist.

Well, in a lengthy discussion about Scientism on the Mixing Memory Scienceblog, I did encounter individuals who made the claim that scientific knowledge was the only legitimate understanding the world. I wouldn't call it fundamentalist thinking, since they weren't intolerant, rude, or offensive, and they weren't part of any extreme, conservative wing of Scientism (which is what 'fundamentalism' refers to when applied to religious organizations, afaik.)

I've used this article in the past to discuss the term with people:

I guess the first definition, Karen Armstrong's, could be twisted to apply to these people, if 'spirituality' was changed to 'non-spirituality' (a pretty big change):

"embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis"

Very well said. There are many religious people who are just fine folks, but religion itself has no equal in causing misery and hatred. And mischievous religious groups have gotten a free ride by hiding behind the religious cloak held in place by those very same fine folks. It is time to wake up and move on. We need more people like Harris and Dawkins shouting the truth from the rooftops.

By trailrider (not verified) on 14 Jan 2007 #permalink

Scott: You are choosing to miss the point. When someone lives and let lives, there is and always will be judgment. Live and let live does not mean universal acceptance of all things in a loving and embracing way. It means you do your thing and I'll do my thing and let it be at that. I'm still going to look at you and say, 'Gee, I'm never going to do that' or 'Gee, maybe this person has a couple of things I can learn from' or 'Gee, that's downright stupid (like crossing ankles for a sports team), but I'm going to do it also'.

People judge people early, often, and instantly. It's how we survive. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit. How do I know? I got 10 bucks right here that says you have judged my first paragraph conciously or semi-conciously i.e. gotta listen for it a little.

My point? Just because everyone judges everyone doesn't mean we are going on a jihad to exterminate the other or even enact laws infringing the other. Once someone acknowledges the other, then they can live and let live. Doesn't mean they have to agree with them; it requires that you acknowledge that something exists in order to ignore or accept it - in the let it be sense.

Beyond the huge harm that religions have done and continue to do, even those "nice" religious people who don't wage holy wars, don't call for stoning homosexuals, don't torture people to "save" them, they often do unintentional harm. How about all those nice mother's days sermons. I can tell you that when you sit in the congregation hearing all mother's being praised and you are being abused, you as a child feel like you must be bad (since all mothers are good your mother must be right in abusing you). The preacher doesn't mean to do that but it happens. Mother Theresa meant well to care for people but by not embrasing birth control caused harm. Any Christian Doctor who goes overseas to physically save people and doesn't offer free birth control along with saving lives contributes to eventual poverty and starving.

Atheists don't seem to have a problem with birth control and don't wage holy wars and don't preach to children that mothers are the saints of God

Scott: You are choosing to miss the point.

Interesting, Darin. From my perspective, you're falling right into the same trap as the author (and the same trap as those against whom you rail) - you have the answers, and all I need to do is accept your judgements, and the world will be a better place.

Just because everyone judges everyone...

Well, that's about as dogmatic a statement as I've heard recently ...

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 14 Jan 2007 #permalink

Scott, I think he's not asking you to accept his judgements. He's asking you to accept that he *has* judgements, and that these may or may not be coincident with your own.

By Lisa the GP (not verified) on 14 Jan 2007 #permalink

In the last analysis, if being a Protestant or a Jew or a Catholic or a Muslim was just another personal pecadillo, like being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan, that would be one thing. But it isn't.

But it can be. Most people I know have some sort of religion in their lives, and for most of them, it does have little more effect on me than a personal peccadillo. I even participate in their rituals, sometimes. As long as participation doesn't require any pretense of belief on my part, I'm usually happy to go along.

The idea that religion=belief is a very Abrahmic idea, anyway; even a Protestant idea. As my wise and snarky religion professor told us, concluding (as one scholar did) that there was "no religion" in Japan (post WWII) because people responded to, "Do you believe in God?" with "???", was akin to going to India and saying there was "no music" because they didn't have pianos. Many religious traditions are more about ritual and community than about belief, per se.

I think my primary issue, as an atheist, with the "your religion is silly/wrong, and you are silly/wrong for believing it" argument is that I think it works against my primary socio-political concerns. I understand it as a genuine response to force-fed religion from the public sphere, but I think it is unnecessarily alienating. Not to mention it plays right into the right-wing trope that secularism and the separation of church and state are inherently anti-religion.

As I said, most people I know have some religion. And nearly all of them are opposed to government propogation of religion, let alone having creationism/ID (which they mock) taught in schools. Some of the people I know who are most vocal about keeping church and state separate are Christians.

Now, for those who want to have a religious debate, the logical arguments for atheism are worthwhile. (Although difficult to win, because the intellectually honest among the religious will admit they don't have evidence, nor need it, for their faith.) But for those of us who mostly want to be left alone, they're not the arguments we need.

Sure, it would be easier to battle religiously-excused nonsense if most people were a-religious. But in order to live a safe and free life, I don't need to persuade religious people God doesn't exist. What I need is for my government not to push religiously-excused lunacy on me and the rest of the country, whether that's Intelligent Design or Abstinence Only. In that, large numbers of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, and Pastafarians can be my allies. As well as my friends.

caia: Maybe we'll get there in the US someday. Europe seems well on the way. But there is a long road ahead for America.

I agree that the Enlightenment approach is best, though I would not mix it with condescending language toward religious persons and their beliefs.

Applying reason to religious faith is like applying a trowel to carpentry: wrong tool for the purpose. One may not have a rational basis for religious belief, but neither does one have a rational basis for ideas about beauty or preferences in the arts and music and so on. These things exist first & foremost in the realm of feeling, as primary emotions. Reason comes along later with an explanation (or a rationalization). And that applies to absence-of as well as to presence-of. We all know people who have no interest in music or literature or whatever: it does not move them. We all know people who devote their lives to music or literature. Two ends of a normal curve, with most of us in the middle. Same case with religion.

Meanwhile, the cause of reason or even of atheism is not helped by people such as Dawkins. It is one thing to get in-your-face about exposing the contradictions of a belief system or the ways in which it does harm in the world. It is quite a different matter to make statements of personal superiority for oneself or one's beliefs: that gets into the territory of ad-hominem, which in turn becomes an enormous digression from the subject matter.

Authoritarian atheists are just as likely as authoritarian christians (and authoritarians posing as atheists or christians) to go on a torturing and murdering rampage when they don't get their way. Just as likely also to demand that we obey and worship anybody whom chance or subtrifuge has awarded the title Mommy or Mrs President.

Authoritarian atheists use different words than authoritarian christians, but they mean the same thing.. often word for substitute word.

You are right to mention Europe, Revere. In North America, the zealots of a discredited political tradition have disguised themselves with the cloak of sanctity, in a failing attempt to delay their inevitable banishment to the dark pages of history.

Except for science's impatience with anything it cannot control, atheist rhetoric in ScienceBlogs addresses not priests but politicians.


"... religion itself has no equal in causing misery and hatred."

Check out the death stats for China and Russia under communism. I think they might have a good shot at taking the number one spot.

Chris: I think I would include Hitler and his death camps in that also.....wait, that was about religion too, wasn't it?

Chris: I think I would include Hitler and his death camps in that also.....wait, that was about religion too, wasn't it?

In an indirect way, yeah. But at that point, it wasn't about religious beliefs or practices (anti-judaism) it was about a crackpot race theory (antisemitism). But the 'blood libel' and supercessionist beliefs of the prior 1900 years obviously set the stage.

Chris: Russia is now under capitalism and their death stats are even worse. They improved under communism. But what does that have to do with religion? What about Venezuela under Chavez?