Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Atheists who don’t like atheism.

Every one in a while I run across a “can’t we all just get along” article from some atheist who just doesn’t understand why other atheists just can’t seem to get along with theists. Articles like this one:

Heavens, we atheists have become a smug, dreary lot

Now, I have no problem admitting that not all atheists are bastions of rationality, or acknowledging that some statements or arguments made for atheism or against religion are bad. (Zeitgeist anyone?) So I readily acknowledge that there are legitimate criticisms of atheism as a social movement, as well as legitimate criticisms of actions taken by organizations and people within this movement. The problem I often see with articles like this one is that the author, being someone who is not at all involved with atheism as a movement, is essentially criticizing that movement from the outside, and uses their identity as an atheist to give an air of legitimacy to their criticism. Unfortunately, their ignorance about the issues makes their particular criticisms fall flat.

The author starts here:

When people are asked who they’d invite to a dream dinner party, the list often features pillars of the world’s religions – Moses sharing grapes with the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed chatting over a cup of decaf. No one ever imagines the world’s great atheists at the table, probably knowing that they’d just grumble about the seating arrangements and why they weren’t invited to be keynote speakers at the next God-free convention.

It’s a bizarre criticism, since they essentially brush every outspoken atheist in history with the same stroke. For my part I wouldn’t invite any religious leaders. I’d be more likely to invite Thomas Paine, Nietzsche, perhaps Robert Ingersoll, but certainly not Buddha or Jesus. I couldn’t possibly be less interested in what they had to say.  There are plenty of atheists, agnostics, and deists I would love to see at that table, but admittedly this is a rather subjective game. Where the article really goes off the rails is in the next paragraph.

I say this as an atheist: My goodness, we’ve become a smug, dreary, proselytizing lot. We, the fervent unbelievers, have won the war and yet are still behaving like persecuted outsiders.

First off I, I’m not a big fan of using the word “war” to describe what atheists are doing here, but even if we were to use this term what on earth would make her think we have won it?

Atheists now have their own “church,” the Sunday Assembly…We have our own rock stars

She lists having our own church and famous people as if those were our only goals. It is completely absurd, it would be like saying that black civil rights leaders should have stopped making such a fuss in 1975 because hey they got The Jefferson's and Good Times. After all, there were famous black people; what more could they want? Clearly the civil rights movement was about more than promoting a few black people to celebrity status, and so it is with atheism as well.

Of course I will acknowledge that atheists have made some headway, but the reality is that there is no single “war” to even win when it comes to atheism. For instance many organizations and individuals fight for church state separation, this is not an atheist specific goal though as there are many theists who also believe in protecting the this ideal, and while we have made progress in this area the issue is hardly “won.” Another issue is creationism, again many theists believe in evolution and promote it’s teaching in schools, so not atheists specific, but also far from over. So to submit that our job is done and we can all shut-up is at best incredibly naïve.

She continues:

Religious observance and worship are down, all over the Western world, and skepticism is up.

This is highly questionable. Certainly in certain parts of the world religious observance is down, but it has actually gone up in other areas. Also, while more people are more skeptical of organized religion, many of them have not traded that in for scientific or skeptical thinking; they have just replaced organized religion with new age beliefs and other non-scientific conclusions which are sometimes more harmful than organized religion.

She then brings up some of the pope’s statements about atheists made recently adding:

When the Pope’s on your side, you know it’s time to pack up the martyr complex and go home.

Anyone who really listened to the pope’s statement knows that he is not actually on “our” side. For one, none of his recent statements have accompanied any changes in church doctrine or policy as of yet, and for two his statements are not actually a softening of the church's position. As far as I can tell, he is trying to improve the churches P.R. without actually changing anything.

Most of the rest of her article goes into criticizing Dawkins and a few other prominent atheists. Again I think that there are legitimate criticisms of Dawkins’ work, but I think the author does a poor job of it. Though my real problem is that the author treats the discussion as if there are only two sides, those in Dawkins’ camp and those in hers. The author acts as if you are an activist atheist you must agree with Dawkins or if you are one of those live and let live types you must agree with her. I would submit that the face of atheism is far more diverse and complex than that.

I would leave you with a thought that I always find a bit ironic when I read pieces like this. People like the author are irritated by more activist atheists like myself for apparently wanting everyone to conform to our ideas, but what exactly is the author doing except asking other atheists to conform to her ideas about how an atheist should behave? As an activist atheist I don’t much have a problem with atheists who don’t choose to speak out as much. Most atheists, and people in general for that matter, aren’t going to share the same exact set of interests and knowledge as I am, or at least have gaps in their knowledge that I may not. In a way I’m kind of glad of this, because if everyone cared about the same issues in the same way there would be no reason for me to write this blog. See, when it comes to discussions like this, most of us activist atheists are quite comfortable with the idea that not everyone is going to be as involved as we are. So why are the non-activist types so determined that we be as uninvolved as they are, even going as far as insulting us with terms like “smug” and “dreary” to encourage such uniformity? After all, can’t we all just get along?

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