Sunday, July 19, 2009
The new atheism is over and done, and its angry tone of voice will not be missed.
First, they dramatically overestimated the number of unbelievers. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans are not currently members of any religious organization. This finding led to the claim that one in six Americans is now an unbeliever. But the data actually show that three quarters of the people in that 15 percent are "in between" religious commitments. ...
At any given moment, 15 percent of us may be unaffiliated, but most of those are believers. In a recent Pew Forum survey, in fact, only 1.6 percent of respondents identified themselves as atheists.
Second, the new atheists thought that books about science and logic would convince Americans to stop believing in God. They tried to use evidence and reason to change American hearts. But in the Pew survey, only 2 percent of respondents said that science and logic play any role their religious choices.
... We opt for religious affiliations that help us with our personal spiritual quests. When one stops working, we begin looking for another. ...
Yet the new atheists' biggest mistake, by far, was to be openly intolerant of religion. They mocked, derided and made fun of it. But Americans today are overwhelmingly committed to religious tolerance. ... Some of us do not believe in God, but virtually all of us agree that personal religious choices should be respected. The angry hostility of the new atheists struck exactly the wrong note.
[I]n America today, tolerance and freedom are stronger than narrow-mindedness and prejudice. And it opens the way for a kinder, gentler, more American brand of atheism. In our spiritual marketplace, there is plenty of room for atheist groups that can attract seekers by presenting unbelief as a practical option along life's way. Perhaps non-belief can be re-framed as a productive hiatus during the busy life of a spiritual migrant, or as a thoughtful expression of principled religious dissent. In these ways, atheists might begin to work with, instead of against, important facts about religion in America.
Now, Dr. McCane has some facts right. The number of religiously "unaffiliated" is clearly not the same as the number of "atheists." Moreover, Americans as a group are "cafeteria religionists" moving between sects and even religions easily and often. And, I think he's right that Americans generally are in favor of tolerance towards other religious beliefs ... as long as they are religious beliefs and not too different than their own.
But I forgot to give you the evidence he thinks demonstrates that new atheism is passé:
Sales of atheist books have fallen off the charts, literally. Months have gone by since one appeared on the best-seller list.
I have to admit that this seems to me like an overly flattering description of what the New Atheists have been doing.
If they really thought that science and logic were going to change American or any other hearts then they were charmingly naive. Waterboarding maybe but science and logic, no.
Seeing atheism hasn't changed for the last many thousands of year it seems suitable that the pearl clutchers at last recognize that Dawkins, Dennet etc are not new or militant in any way.
... a growing minority in this country, this Unscientific America that Mooney and Kirshenbaum write about, which is fed up with the false privilege granted to religion, that wants science to have a more prominent role, that is willing to be outspoken and critical, and that is more than a little exasperated with the tepid apologists for the status quo who believe that making nice with the Unscientific part of America is the solution. That minority wants a voice ...
... "new" (not an insulting term at all). If it is growing, willing to be outspoken where others support the "status quo" and wants a voice where none was had before, that is claiming qualities that are fairly described as "new". And given those same qualities, I'm not sure why such a group would deny the description "militant."
Because it's a patently unfair double standard between the treatment of atheists and theists, that's why the militant label is rejected. That's why I'll laugh at you if you call me militant.
If atheists write books and give speeches, they're militant.
How many people would call Francis Schaeffer, Rick Warren, or Joel Osteen militant? What about Mike Huckabee? Is he militant?
If you're religious, you're not a militant unless you take hostages or blow up a building. If you're an atheist or an agnostic, you're militant if you write a book or give a speech.
I'm considered militant mostly because I allow people to know I exist.
I do and I should have a problem with that kind of double standard, and I think that you should, too.
The people you mention aren't out saying that their "fed up" with the "status quo" or "exasperated" with their fellow religionists for their "tepid" support of their aims and demanding "a voice" that they feel they are being denied. Of course, that's because they like the status quo that gives them (it can be fairly argued) undeserved status. "Focus on the Family" or the "Silent Majority" sounds more like the opposite number of PZ's description of "New Atheists." And I'd call those people militants.
I don't think "militant" is necessarily a slur though. You can be a militant democrat (small "d"), for example.
I would qualify this even further to say that they think they've tried. Sometimes accurately, and sometimes even successfully. But all too often I think they are given the presumption of rationality just because they stand for rationality.
About McCane, he may be mistaken about the way New Atheism is trending, but I'm not sure what your quarrel is with his greater argument. There is a wide gray swath between theism and strict naturalism that we commonly signify with the word "spiritual." To some people this is just pseudo-science (though benign enough) like crystal healing and astral travels. To others it is a desire for a metaphysics with room for human meaning, however poetical.
An atheism that allows-even encourages--people to seek the latter is going to come of as a lot less warlike and merciless, and might just help to defuse fundamentalist efforts to paint godlessness as a spiritual wasteland.
Teleprompter, this is absurd.
What each and every "new atheist" has in common, and proudly so, is not mere positive advocacy for atheism, but also polemic against religion (and sometimes even against irrationality in general).
Perhaps this is the correct stance, but it still needs a word to distinguish it from the kind of atheism that respects people's right to believe whatever they like, nonsense or not. Or the kind that respects this right to a point, perhaps subject to some kind of reciprocity.
I personally find the ilk of Rick Warren just as "militant" as the ilk of Dawkins, in that each ilk considers itself to possess the One True Description of the world. This is, I think, a lower threshold for the word "militant" than John holds, which is more about public declarations of intolerance than private beliefs (though I'm sure Warren has said publicly more than once that the only road to salvation is through Christ, and even perhaps written books about this prospect.)
J.J. Ramsey, thanks for the link.
"Militant: aggressively active (as in a cause)"
Well, this depends on how you perceive aggression.
All I have done is openly state that I am an atheist. Is this aggressive?
People put up a sign that says "you can be good without God" and there are complaints about it. People call atheists militant for putting up signs and writing books which merely assert that we exist and that we can be good people.
Is it militant for me to say that I can be a good person?
When people call atheists militant, it's a sit-down-and-shut-up argument. It's a you're-on-the-fringe-so-I-don't-have-to-listen-to-you argument. It's bullshit.
Thony C. says it loud and clear:
"What the so-called new atheists have done is just that they have talked loudly and clearly in public about atheism and as far as the believers are concerned that is 'just not on'. What the new atheists have done is to level the playing field and the faithists don't like it."
The playing field is being leveled.
I can say publically that I am not religious, and that I believe I am a good person. Is this militant?
I'm tired of being told to sit down and shut up. I think you are missing the point of "new atheism".
In the past, it could be said that the only atheist people liked was a quiet one. Now we are bold enough to assert that we exist.
And that's very silly, because it shouldn't have to be an ordeal just to say that you exist. I mean, seriously, why should it be so divisive what I think about centuries old religious teachings? It shouldn't matter that much.
I should be able to be treated decently even though I am not religious. I want respect.
"What each and every "new atheist" has in common, and proudly so, is not mere positive advocacy for atheism, but also polemic against religion (and sometimes even against irrationality in general)."
Can one be an atheist without criticizing religion? In many places in the U.S. where I am from, merely stating that one is an atheist or an agnostic is seen as a vicious attack on religion.
I am merely asserting that I exist - but people see this as militant.
There are many things I disagree with Dawkins, et al. about. What my effort is, is to gain respect.
I am not asserting that I have the One True belief - I am asserting that I have a belief. Is that militant?
As I said before, many people see it as an affront just to admit that one is an atheist or an agnostic. This must change - that is the double standard.
"Whenever you directly attack or ridicule anyone in any way, you are being "militant", for better or worse. The very nature of the word "atheist" exists only in opposition to theism. If there were no theists, no one would call themselves an atheist. Yes, there are non-combative "atheists", but their focus is on living a more positive theism-free lifestyle, rather than directly attacking theism."
Is it an attack on religious beliefs merely to assert that I am an atheist? Many people would consider this alone to be an attack because religion has had such an esteemed and privileged place in society. Christianity is seen as the default "normal", and those who do not conform as seen as "other".
Yes, the very nature of the word atheist exists apart from theism. So yes, naturally, when I express my dissent from theism, I do cause some consternation among theists. But I'm not trying to be aggressive about it - it's just that people are conditioned this way by living in a society where their beliefs have been excessively privileged. I try to be courteous and respectful - I do not use the tactics of Hitchens, though I believe that they have their place.
I am not a combative atheist. I merely seek to assert that I am an atheist. Many people, however, see my willingness to acknowledge my atheist as combative. If this is indeed combative, then I am a militant.
Is it aggressive just to exist?
You be the judge, but I think many of you are very badly missing the point.
Of course dissenting from religion means that you are in opposition in some sense, but that does not mean you must be aggressive. That alone does not make you a militant, but many people have been conditioned to believe that the mere act of dissenting from the popular religion does make you a militant, and they use the word militant as a bludgeon - using the word militant as a label they can throw on those who disagree with them to get them to sit down and shut up.
I'm going to be respectful, I'm going to be courteous, but I won't sit down, and I won't shut up.
That's what "new atheism" means to me.
John Pieret, I really like you and I really like your blog, and I agree with almost everything you've written lately about the "accomodationism" arguments. I agree that those who do not know philosophy should stay away from it, and that those who contaminate science with their beliefs, even if they are atheists, should be readily condemned.
But I think you and some of your commenters are missing the forest for the trees as far as the "new atheism" goes.
Well, good for you, I guess.
What "new atheism" means to me is hypocrisy. It means doing a lot of talk-talk on the value of rationality while caring more about the rhetorical sting of one's arguments than their correctness. It means using the same tactics to dehumanize the religious that the leaders of culture wars (and even real wars) use to dehumanize their enemies. The epithet "faith-head" has a different target that the epithets "feminazi" or "Rethuglican," but otherwise it functions in the same way. If Rush Limbaugh can be said to be a militant Republican, then Dawkins and company can be said to be militant atheists.
Well, speaking for myself, it wouldn't be the first time.
I can certainly agree that some people (mostly theists) misuse the term to mean something like "uppity" once was used for blacks and apply it whenever atheists make the mildest sort of statement of their beliefs.
On the other hand, much of what you say about yourself seems to distinguish you from PZ's definition. There may still be some portion of the atheist community that can be fairly be called "militant," even if you can't be.
But, as far as I'm concerned, the term is not so useful to any discussion with or about atheists to justify in my mind giving offense and it is not one I use.
I'm going to be respectful, I'm going to be courteous, but I won't sit down, and I won't shut up. That's what "new atheism" means to me.
If you often "assert" your atheism out of context, then it is indeed combatative. I hate budweiser beer, but if were to constantly assert that around others who did, they would find to me to be obnoxious (and rightfully so). Of course, that doesn't mean that budweiser isn't obnoxious (it is).
Unrelenting advocacy for any idea can quickly grow tiresome. Being in the company of an atheist who is constantly going out of his way to disparage religion is just as annoying to me as a Christian zombie who feels the need to interject "God" in every other sentence (my mother is one of those). It's like being around some mindless salesman who is constantly trying to sell you something - "green eggs and ham".
Is it aggressive just to exist?
A mosquito exists though no fault of its own, but that doesn't stop me from smashing it into a bloody pulp.
I never assert my atheism out of context.
However, there is still much belief that atheists are immoral people, and there are a lot of people who have to lie about it *even when asked* because religion has been overly privileged in society. This is why the new atheists poke at religion - sometimes too much - but largely because it is put up on a pedestal and many people are treated badly who do not agree with it because of that situation.
Yes, I have a lot of differences with Dawkins and Myers - my main point of agreement with them is that it is appropriate to discuss atheism in public, and to speak boldly about when asked.
Yes, I do not do a lot of things they do, but that is entirely besides the point.
PZ often confuses many things - he often confuses people telling him to be quiet with people telling him to get his facts straight. That's his problem. And yes, I am aware that many so-called "new atheists" are hypocritical.
However, with that being said, I do not know if Dawkins dehumanizes religious people. What he does is criticize religious ideas, not religious people - so far as I can tell. I have seen him say many nasty things about religion, but that is not dehumanizing people, that is deprivileging ideas. But, if Dawkins has criticized religious people, I will condemn that. I have not read The God Delusion, but from his public statements I believe that many of the criticisms of him are uncalled for.
I don't disparage religion relentlessly as Jeff suggests. I just don't lie about it or stay in the closet when people bring it up.
I don't try to be obnoxious. If that doesn't make me a new atheist in your eyes, fine.
I realize that many of Hitchens' and others attacks are overextended and not based on logic.
The main tenet of the "new atheism" that I hold is that it's okay to be an atheist or agnostic and that when people ask me, I shouldn't hide to hide my beliefs.
I agree that there are many people in the atheist community who could be called militant according to J.J. Ramsey's definition -- in that they are very aggressive and relentless.
I do believe that the accusations of aggressiveness are overextended, and I only comment on the subject because of this impression.
As long as aggressiveness is not subject to a double standard, I will be happy. I just get the feeling sometimes that a lot of people would be more content if no one talked about atheism ever, which I think would be a severe disappointment.
Religion should not have a place of exclusive privilege and it should be okay to be an atheist and be open about it, if not aggressive or relentless (which I agree are negative).
Jeff, I don't appreciate the mosquito comment, and I think that was uncalled for.
It was not meant as an insult. I suspect you don't appreciate it because you simply don't understand it. It means that your mere "existence" is irrelevant to whether or not your viewpoints are worthy in the eyes of others.
To my ear, "faith-head" and "the dovecots of the deluded" (among others) are sneering terms, not compassionate ones; they display contempt not just for the sin, but the sinner. It's conceiveable to me that Dawkins did not mean them this way, but I can absolutely see why they are taken as "dehumanizing." In this world we have to take human psychology into account when we make public statements and if we are to be considered to be mindful of the common, universal human nature that leads to errors of passion we need to be more unambiguous than Dawkins has been about where the fault lies. Especially when we are admitting at the outset that the people whose outlooks we oppose are hampered by these passions. What would a scientist of human nature predict to be the outcome of such a stance?
Ironically, if you take Dawkins' meme theory at face value (and other aspects of his ideology of agency at the gene/meme, and not organismic level) then there is no place for the kind of disdain he characteristically reserves for religious belief. But Dawkins does not seem to be, by temperament, cut out to be a man of compassion and humility. He truly believes (it seems to me) that his own cast of mind is not only morally superior, but an effective hedge against the human desire for security and protection. it would be a more credible position if he did not seem to believe he needed to barricade himself behind it. Read The God Delusion, if you get time. It's the most complete statement he has made on this subject, and it is very revealing of some of the dubious logical and ontological reasoning that has led him to the positions he is now the public face of.
I don't appreciate your statement not because I don't understand it, but it is because I do understand your statement that I don't appreciate it. You would do very well to read underverse's comments detailing how NOT to portray those who disagree with you as less than human. You should emulate his standards.
That is fair. I have not read The God Delusion, so it is not very wise for me to comment on it.
If Dawkins says what you say he says, then I agree with you that those kinds of statements are not credible.
There is a fine balance between insulting ideas and beliefs and insulting the people who hold those dear.
I regret that Dawkins has apparently crossed that line.
It is not my belief that my ideas or opinions are inherently superior - or that they provide protection from the world in a way that other ideas do not -- there are problems with the way all of us perceive the world, and none of us are invulnerable. If Dawkins is pretending that he is invulnerable, I disavow such a belief. We are all irrational - but I believe that we can improve.
I believe that what you're doing is valuable. If proponents of rationality are being irrational, then we should criticize them.
However, this demonstrates to me that it is even more important to be aware of our own biases so that we can avoid such hubris.
I hope we can agree that rationality is important - just because people who advocate for it happen to be bad at it does not make it an unimportant idea. It is because we are so bad at it, that it is so important.
Indeed. There was an experiment described in the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo (which covers the Stanford Prison Experiment among other things) where student "supervisors" were more prone to give shocks to groups described as "animals" than to other groups that they supervise. This isn't as dramatic an example of dehumanization as one might see in wartime propaganda, but that is the point. Dehumanization happens in even less extreme sorts of conflicts, like culture wars, as well. It is the process of getting people to think of one's adversaries in terms of negative stereotypes, rather than as individuals who aren't so different from us.
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