Atheism: Brutal Truth vs. Getting Along

One of the things that is hard for me to get my head around as a burgeoning skeptic is the the internally divisive nature of atheism.  Some atheists are hardliners in their rejection of religion and theism, and others are personally atheistic while tolerating religious belief and practice in others.  At first it appeared to me to be an atheist vs. humanist philosophy: both rely on secular reasoning and believe that religion is a divisive force, but atheists are much more anti-theist whereas humanists focus less on critiquing religion and more on “getting along”. 

But it ain’t that simple, is it?  Atheism and Humanism are not exclusive philosophies, and one is not better, or more good, or more focused on helping our fellow human beings than the other.  Austin Cline has written a little about this in his blog entry Humanism vs. Atheism, and he criticizes those who would identify humanists as tolerant and atheists as roundly intolerant. 

But the New Atheists are intolerant of religion.  From Wikipedia: “What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”  New Atheists believe that religions and theism are the source of much that is wrong in life, and that the world would be a better place if religion were to disappear from our cultures.  They believe that together we can make the world a less religious place, that through visibility of the issues we can get religion out of our governments, our legal arenas, our law enforcement.  They’re often loud, unapologetic and thus they become the target of mockery and even threats from religious extremists.  But they are not intolerant human beings, they are intolerant of  this one thing – religion – in our world.

Then there are atheists who, I suppose like myself as I currently am, say go on, go ahead, do your thing.  Atheists who regard their atheism as a private “belief”, not really anyone else’s business, just as others’ religious beliefs aren’t theirs. For a while I rather liked the term apatheist – one who regards the existence of a deity as a relatively meaningless and irrelevant question.  But I’ve come to think that with all of the crappy crap associated with religion and religious belief, and the majority of people who participate in religion, apatheism is also too simple of a road (just as apathy itself is too simple of a road for most of life).

From a 2006 WIRED magazine article, The Church of the Non-Believers, by Gary Wolf, in which he describes the attitudes of some of his friends:

Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'”

I’ve spoken with atheists who think this type of soft-spoken, private atheism is naive.  One woman told me that we haven’t earned private atheism yet, that it’s a luxury that we can’t afford, that we need to raise our voices up to decry the persecution of non-believers.  I had one jerk tell me that by being a “private atheist” I was like “one of those” silent dissenting Germans during the Holocaust and then he quoted the First They Came For… poem to me.  He actually quoted four verses of the poem to me.  Really?  REALLY?

I thought Gary Wolf’s WIRED magazine article was very informational, and a thought out, sincere exploration of the type of atheistic activism proposed by the New Atheists.  The article opens with this:

My friends, I must ask you an important question today: Where do you stand on God?

It’s a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I’m afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.

I think New Atheists see the bigger picture, they see the possibility of a world without religion and they’re willing to fight for it.  Perhaps less active “private” atheists see the world and their neighbors that are in front of them now and they want to get along in daily life, not be part of a revolution.

I participated in Boobquake (an activist response), but I also don’t take my neighbor to task for sending her kids to bible camp (a getting along in daily life response).  As with most things in life, there is no one instruction book or recipe that you can use across all situations.

The following writing from PZ Myers (Pharyngula) is what inspired my post today.  It is an excerpt from his post “Sunday Sacrilege: The Joke“.

Unfortunately, right now, I see the atheist community needlessly split between two poles. There are the softies who complain that believers don’t deserve ridicule, that hard truths and blunt speech and laughing at fervently held beliefs simply hardens hearts and drives people away, so we have to be sensitive and avoid confrontation; logic and gentle persuasion will win the day. Then there are the hard-edged ones (the current favored term for these is “dicks”) who point out that you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into, and that those fond beliefs are being used to hurt people, and must be strongly criticized and mocked. And that, really, religion is a clown circus, and asking us not to point and laugh is unnatural and dishonest.

Both sides are wrong, and both sides are right, and there sure aren’t many people standing at either extreme. You can reason some people out of indoctrination, and slow and patient instruction can win people over to atheism. I know some of them; they write to me and tell me that something I said actually led them to think through their position. But shock also works. Ultimately, people hold their religious beliefs for emotional reasons; deep down, fear and comfort, disgust and empathy are the tools religion uses to manipulate natural human desires. We would be idiots to shun emotional appeals, and it would also play into the ridiculous Spock stereotype of atheists as cold dead soulless people who substitute math for passion.

Sometimes you can reason people out of deeply held beliefs. But it helps if first you stir their discontent with those beliefs, if you wake them up to the fact that they look ridiculous…and that yes, there is a whole group of people who are laughing at them.

It’s another form of sacrilege, to make believers and belief the butt of the joke — and oh, they do hate that. It’s an entirely human response…so use it.

I appreciate PZ’s viewpoint.  It helps me get a better grip on the “why” behind the New Atheists’ “brutal truth” approach to their intolerance of religion.  PZ makes an argument for ridicule, but he also points out that ridicule won’t win ’em all.  I think he’s saying that ridicule has a time and place, and in certain situations can be an effective tool.  But then again, with great tools comes great responsibility to not be a tool.

Tough balance…


Six Days ’til Italy!

A sunflower field in Spoleto, Perugia, Umbria, Italy


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10 Responses to “Atheism: Brutal Truth vs. Getting Along”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Interesting post, B.

    It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about lately with my upcoming trip with the religio-so’s.

    Wow. Italy. Tina will be so jealous (she LOVES Italy).

  2. Atheism: Brutal Truth vs. Getting Along (via Biodork) « Le Café Witteveen Says:

    […] One of the things that is hard for me to get my head around as a burgeoning skeptic is the the internally divisive nature of atheism.  Some atheists are hardliners in their rejection of religion and theism, and others are personally atheistic while tolerating religious belief and practice in others.  At first it appeared to me to be an atheist vs. humanist philosophy: both rely on secular reasoning and believe that religion is a divisive force, b … Read More […]

  3. Agatha82 Says:

    Interesting post. Have you read Richard Dawkins? I find the man to be way too arrogant and as militant about his beliefs as the preachers who insist god talks to them. He’s just as bad as them, and I find the irony of that hilarious since he’s an Atheist.

    • biodork Says:

      I’ve heard this criticism – that some atheists are rabid fundamentalists, as interested in evangelism as some religious practitioners. I read Dawkin’s “Unweaving the Rainbow” about 12 years ago, and I have “The God Delusion” sitting on the “to be read” shelf. I don’t remember his tone in the books, but I have seen a few of his talks on youtube, and he is rather…strident. But I also agree with a lot of what he says.

      • Agatha82 Says:

        He’s a very intelligent man and comes across very well when he chats. I went to see a talk he did about 3 years ago, he certainly has a very compelling manner but I think he’s gone about some things the wrong way and could put off some people by being so militant. He is a great biologist though and I think you will enjoy The God Delusion. Well written.

  4. John Says:

    You don’t seem to comprehend the fact that the Wikipedia article you quote states the opposite of what you assert. You assert that “New Atheists” are “intolerant” of religion, but the Wikipedia article states that they say religion should not *simply* be tolerated.

    In English, “simply” here means “just, only, solely.” In other words, we shouldn’t *just* tolerate religion, but should *also* criticize it and counter it. Ergo, they are tolerating religion, but they are also doing more than mere, passive tolerance. Is criticism incompatible with tolerance? No. Is countering incompatible with tolerance? No.

    Like Agatha, lots of people complain about atheists being “militant,” but they are unable to point to anything specific which really qualifies as “militant.” Dawkins’ arguments and approach aren’t very different from many atheists who came before – there’s nothing “new” about his atheism than the attention it’s getting in the media. Nothing. Nada. I dare anyone to find a single thing in Dawkins’ writings that can’t be found in the writings of O’Hair, Ingersoll, McCabe, and so many others. Don’t toss around labels like “new” unless you can back it up with specific evidence and citations.

    What’s more, Dawkins is a lot less confrontational than all the preachers who have insisted that all non-Christians are going to hell. Yet, for some reason, all those believers have been accepted whereas a single atheist who dares to say “that’s absurd” is slammed as “intolerant” and “militant.”

    I recommend looking up “religious privilege” and “Christian privilege” to see how those concepts apply here and to what you are trying to say.

    “But then again, with great tools comes great responsibility to not be a tool.”

    I think there’s a problem with English here again. In English, “being a tool” is most fundamentally “being too stupid to realize that you’re just being used by others” or “a person trying so hard to fit in that they don’t realize that they look like an idiot.” In either case, they are being taken advantage of without realizing it.

    Does this apply to someone who way, way, way over-uses satire and ridicule? Hardly. Might it apply to someone who refuses to state what they think is the “brutal truth” and who avoids confronting popular religion in order to get along? Yeah, it might. Such a person may indeed be being used without realizing it. They may indeed be trying too hard to fit in. There are times to rock the boat and times when you should just relax – but before you criticize those who are rocking the boat, maybe you should make sure that your accusations aren’t actually more appropriate for your own behavior.

    • biodork Says:

      Thanks for the comments, John. I appreciate the time you took to reply, and I’ll try to do credit to your critiques.

      I think a lot of what you are taking me to task on is careful use of language. Since this is a written forum in which proper use of language is paramount to the strength of one’s message, you are right to call me out when you see errors in my usage and I appreciate that feedback.

      First, I believe that you are taking me to task on my use of the word “intolerance”, and I agree with you. I used intolerant incorrectly. Tolerance is a spectrum, but intolerant means “no tolerance”; it is the zero end of the tolerance spectrum. I meant to get the point across that the New Atheists are *less tolerant* of religion than others. We’re all *tolerant* of religion – we have to be! In the US atheists are in the minority; we’re surrounded by religion! If we were intolerant, we wouldn’t be able to function in society.

      Next you attack my use of the the phrase “‘New’ Atheism”, and I disagree with you here. New Atheism is an acceptable term, and people in the atheist community know what it means and implies. You can find writings for and against the use of the badge “New Atheist” all over the internet, but my post isn’t on that topic. As you well know, I did not invent the phrase “New Atheist” and so your admonishment that I “Don’t toss around labels like “new” unless you can back it up with specific evidence and citations.” is absurd.

      And I believe we have a lost-in-translation moment with my use of the word “tool”. “Don’t be a tool” can be used to mean “don’t be a jerk”, and this is how I mean it here. I’m saying “okay, use ridicule when it’s a appropriate to get your message across in a meaningful manner, but don’t just be a jerk for the hell of it.”

      “But before you criticize those who are rocking the boat, maybe you should make sure that your accusations aren’t actually more appropriate for your own behavior.”

      Let me avoid any possible misunderstanding with vague language: This is just an asshole statement, John. The whole point of this blog is that PZ Myers’ article has helped me understand why atheists have to “rock the boat” sometimes. This is an article in which I’m learning to embrace my inner boat-rocker. I’m not negatively criticizing New Atheists or atheism.

      Coming to atheism and to atheist activism is a journey, so maybe you want to lay off on those of us making the trek.

      Okay? Okay.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    On topic:

    And anyone who thinks Dawkins is a dick can shove it. I’m not kidding. He doesn’t raise his voice. He speaks plainly. He’s a little old man that could be blown over with a touch of a feather.

    People confuse criticism for militancy or arrogance with him, but then pastors, teachers and leaders in the church say things that are much worse in context than what Dawkins ever says.

    I’m an advocate of the friendlier smiling face of atheism, but there is a righteous indignation that the religionistas have been flaunting for centuries, and I don’t think it’s off limits for atheists to exhibit on occasion either.

  6. Patmos Pete Says:

    Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

  7. best funny videos Says:

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    […]Atheism: Brutal Truth vs. Getting Along « Biodork[…]…

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