September 15, 2009
Being a new atheist means not saying you're sorry
The main complaint against new atheists made by accommodationists is not with what they say but with how they say it, their supposedly hostile 'tone'. They are accused of being rude, uncivil, arrogant, extreme, militant, shrill, strident, etc. but it is important to note that they are rarely accused of being wrong. This is undoubtedly because evidence and logic is on the side of those who claim that there is no god and that to believe in one is incompatible with a scientific worldview. Believers in god have to go through all manner of tortuous apologetics to argue in favor of even a Slacker God, let alone the super-powered miracle worker believed in by most religious people.
It is undoubtedly true that in the public sphere some atheists (including me) have made fun of some of the more preposterous claims of religion. In fact, in some situations laughing is the most appropriate response, as recognized by Thomas Jefferson when he said, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them." For example, what can you do about the 'nutters' other than laugh at them? The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo makes much the same point.
But pointing out the ridiculous implications of an opponent's argument is part of the polemical nature of public debate on any issue. It is no different than religious people confidently asserting that there is a god and that we atheists are going to hell or at least are 'not saved', whatever that means. As an atheist my feelings are not at all hurt and neither am I offended by such assertions. Why should I be since I don't believe in god or hell? From my point of view, such claims are merely laughable. Similarly, religious friends and relatives sometimes send me jokes that make fun of atheism and atheists. If the jokes are funny, I am amused. If not, it is just a few moments of time wasted. But there is nothing to be offended about.
New atheists are urged by fellow atheists like Massimo Pigliucci to be 'measured and humble' (in the manner of Carl Sagan) and not use the 'angry and inflated rhetoric' of Richard Dawkins. A new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton supposedly attacks the new atheists. In a review of it, James Wood (a self-described atheist) suggests that "What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief."
I think the terms 'humble' and 'disappointed belief' used by Pigliucci and Wood are important clues to what complaints about 'tone' are all about. The problem is that new atheists treat the statements "religion and science are compatible" and "if we get rid of their fundamentalist elements, religion is worth preserving" as merely propositions that can be examined dispassionately and analytically, using evidence and arguments for and against, similar to other propositions like "increasing the minimum wage will reduce poverty" or "increased carbon dioxide levels will increase the risk of global warming."
The new atheists conclude that both propositions about religion are untenable. Hence they say that religion and science are incompatible and that so-called 'good' religion encourages irrationality and also serves as a cover and enabler of bad religion and thus that we would be better off without religion altogether. They report their conclusions in the same matter-of-fact way that they would their conclusions about the minimum wage or global warming or any other proposition.
Wood, however, sees this as displaying "overweening rationalism" instead of "disappointed belief". It seems as if in order to be a 'good' atheist one has to feel bad about not believing in god. We are expected to go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of "I hate to say this but I don't believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize."
The absurdity of this expectation can be seen by looking at comparable situations that do not involve religion. Einstein, for example, was not accused of "overweening rationalism" and being arrogant when he introduced his theory of relativity that overturned centuries of belief in the validity of Newtonian physics. It would have been absurd to expect Einstein to have prefaced his papers with statements like, "I know that almost all people sincerely believe in Newtonian physics and may be really upset when I say that it is not valid. This makes me sad. However, the theory of relativity is just my personal belief and I think it is compatible with Newtonian physics and so people can choose to believe in both theories."
Instead, Einstein simply laid out his arguments and evidence as strongly as possible in order to convince people that he was right, which is exactly as it should be. Whether it would be accepted or not by the community at large depended on whether it was supported by the evidence or not. The level of emotional attachment that people had for Newtonian physics undoubtedly influenced how readily they adopted the new physics but Einstein was under no obligation whatsoever to soften his arguments to accommodate those emotions.
New atheists treat propositions about religion in the same dispassionate way. They are no more displaying 'overweening rationalism' and lack of humility than Einstein was. Why should the emotional attachment of religious people to the idea of god be accorded any more solicitousness that those of Newtonians to their theory?
What really seems to irk some people is that new atheists are not at all apologetic or regretful about their atheism. New atheists are cheerful about the nonexistence of god and do not hesitate to say so because they would like others to experience the same exhilarating sense of intellectual liberation.
POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on Jonah and the whale
God explains all the careful preparatory work that had to be done to pull off that stunt, and the unfortunate aftermath that the Bible neglected to report.