A Response to Criticism of “The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World”

March 25, 2010

My essay last week, " The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World, " produced much response, from those who thought my post was right on the mark, to those who think CFI should remove me from its blog. I have already responded to some concerns in the comments thread here, which I urge you to read. But I think readers here deserve a wider reply, so here it is.

But first, before going any further, I’d like to tackle one immediate and important issue: I didn’t frame the essay clearly enough. As one commentator stated, my blog post about atheism makes almost no sense without reading my first blog post , in which I wrote:

"Instead of seeing secularism as a response to religion, as a promotion of atheism, we need a more universal secularism that values the free conscience; open, critical, honest inquiry; and certain ideals, a collective working together toward a more reasonable, peaceful, and just society. … Put simply, I will continually focus on how we can have positive, productive, and progressive evidence-based discussion on the moral beliefs that so influence our democracy."

That is, I see that we are right, philosophically speaking — but I also care about collective, democratic, evidence-based discourse and progress (just as, say, Chris Mooney cares about scientific literacy). To that end, I think rallying around atheism presents problems both inherently (the word doesn’t say much) and in presentation and interaction with the 95 percent of the public who are not atheists. I would advise you go back and read my first blog post before reading my post on atheism, or the following.

Now, onto some criticisms …

That was a sloppy essay.

I read a couple objections based on spacing, grammar, and structure issues. First, I made the horrible blogger mistake of posting my text from Microsoft Word, which created a mine field of spacing errors. Second, I admittedly made a couple grammar errors. Third, my essay was not as concise and clear as I would have liked. I wish these errors were not there, and I apologize, but now let’s focus on the substance. 

What’s the deal with CFI? Is it headed downhill?

Some responded to my post by lamenting that CFI is seemingly relaxing its critique of religious belief. Three responses come to mind here. First, as Ron Lindsay detailed in comments on the blog:

"I’d like to remind everyone that blog posts on Free Thinking represent the personal views of the blogger, not the official position of CFI. This allows our bloggers to advance views with which not all CFI supporters may agree — and the result, one hopes, is a robust discussion of relevant points."

So, I am an official blogger for CFI, but my posts indicate my philosophy, not CFI’s organizational mission or philosophy. Now, I will admit that my views are voiced within CFI — but that doesn’t mean the organization is going to run with them. To take one blog post from one employee and negatively brand an entire organization with it would be folly. Instead, why hasn’t this been seen as a wonderful example of the kind of open debate this organization is for?

Second, as for the turn CFI is supposedly taking, it seems people have quickly forgetten CFI sponsored the first International Blasphemy Day just months ago. 

Third, as we will see, I was not calling for the end of critique on religion; I was merely asking atheists to consider how such critique is carried out.

Why do you work at CFI? Are you really an atheist?

A few people around the Web seemed surprised I even work for CFI, let alone a blog for them.

I work at CFI because I believe in fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. This doesn’t mean I agree with every single thing the organization does, nor does it preclude open debate on issues. It’s also important to remember that CFI is not primarily an atheist organization. We are much more than that, and in fact, it seems Lindsay agrees that our non-exclusively atheistic approach is a good thing:

"I am an atheist … But I am not primarily interested in persuading people to be atheists. Let’s say we wake up tomorrow and everyone in the world is now an atheist. Has the world become vastly improved? Will there be an end to all violence, hatred, poverty, misery? Somehow, I don’t think so. I’m not saying that, on the whole, there might not be  some improvement in our condition—if only because we have divested ourselves of harmful false beliefs—but atheism is not an end in itself."

Ron might have changed his tune by now, and I would be open to hearing about such a change, but his statement sounds awfully similar to what I’m saying. Like Ron, I am an atheist — a fact to which my Roman Catholic family will attest — but if my life is formed around opposition to anything, it is opposition to bad ideas wherever they may be found . I aspire to do this while simultaneously showing respect and courtesy to the holders of those ideas. They hold their beliefs for reasons I need to understand; they are humans, too.

Your definition of atheism is wrong.

Someone posted this in the comments, yet I did not see another definition posted to refute mine. The Greek root of "atheism" means "without Gods "(though the actual word atheist came about much later). To be an atheist, you need not be a hard atheist who believes God definitely doesn’t exist, nor be a soft atheist who couldn’t care less about religion. In either case, you would functionally and operationally be "without Gods." Where have I gone wrong?

Atheism is true, what else matters?

In my search for how and what to believe, I follow the Socratic line, "I have no particular liking for anything but the truth." But in trying to communicate with people in a pluralistic society, in working to implement real change, the truth (unfortunately) is not all that matters. The truth, the facts, arguments — whatever you call them — need to be presented, and in a manner in which other people — different people from different backgrounds — will find them understandable and comprehendible. Basically, context and presentation matter. This doesn’t mean we should become sly operators of magical rhetoric; but we should understand the audience with which we’re trying to engage. If thinking about problems a bit deeper than "what is true?" is a crime, then sue me.

You contradicted yourself: you said atheism isn’t a worldview, yet criticized people who center their lives on atheism. How can it not be a worldview if so people claim it as one?

This might seem like a contradiction to the naked eye, but dig a bit deeper and I think makes sense. Certain people have formulated their lives and outlooks on atheism, and that is a problem because atheism is not a comprehensive worldview — but I am not denying such people have a worldview. In fact, I know they do, I just think they’re either narrowing it or not being open about it. You want to write a book criticizing religious belief and not build something else up? That’s really fine by me; I think thos
e books are needed. But please don’t push people to start huddling under the "atheist" banner.

You said "many atheists define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism." That’s not true.

In my piece, I wanted to specifically discuss those who embrace atheism as the core of their lives, but I also admitted that not all atheists center their lives around their atheism (that would be another contradiction of what I said about the emptiness of the word atheist). Apologies if this was misread.

But, perhaps more to the point: how do I know many atheists do such a thing? To support my claim, I referenced The American Atheists. I also referenced the local New York City Atheists (which, for anyone knowledgeable, is a militant atheist organization ) as an example of the "(Location) Atheists" groups we see around the nation. Then, of course, there is the Out Campaign.

You’ve also railroaded all atheists as radical, militant, and/or angry.

I did not intent to demonize all atheists, and this is my fault for lack of clarity. It would be impossible for me to substantiate a claim that all atheists are radical, militant and/or angry (and again, I would never claim such a thing anyway, given my argument that atheism tells us nothing about a person’s character). My aim, rather, was to point out that the men leading the atheist movement sound perhaps a bit too angry.

You’ve shortchanged the accomplishments of the New Atheists.

I’ll pull directly from my essay here:

"…these atheists have aired many quality arguments against religious belief, and pushed dialogue on religion and its relation to politics."

"One place where these atheists have gotten it right is in pushing for religious belief to undergo the same scrutiny all other beliefs do — the argument that unfounded moral and ethical beliefs should receive critique similar to that for unfounded scientific or historical beliefs. So while one can believe and act with a free conscience, their beliefs are not free from scrutiny. As we have seen, not all secularists line up on that, and it is worth noting how valuable this contribution is."

Are readers here willing to admit the issues are a bit more complex than black-and-white? While I think the New Atheists have done some good things, I can still disagree with certain tactics, like rallying around atheism or using sharp rhetoric. I think Paul Kurtz sums up my position rather nicely in the Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010 issue of Free Inquiry:

"… militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded…it is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism. The New Atheists, in my view, have made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination…What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly."

"While I certainly don’t believe that we ought to abandon our criticism of religious fanaticism or allow religious doctrine to dictate public policy, the future of the secular humanist and scientific rationalist movements depends upon appealing to a wider base of support."

Say what you will about Kurtz, but there is something to this diagnosis. Let me quickly add here that I am not in favor of propping up some new religion in place of the old religion on the going out. But that’s another discussion …

You’re calling for everyone to agree. That’s not going to happen. Step out of dream world. Religious belief is bad for society and we need to fight it.

Like I’ve said, I don’t recall where I said that we should stop rigorously discussing religious belief or that all disagreement should be quelled. In fact, even if religion went by the wayside, I know we would continue to disagree. Disagreement is inherent in our society. This means we need to think about how to get people of different beliefs and backgrounds to the discussion table for civil conversation. Defining yourself in opposition to others on such a wide scale, or insulting them, doesn’t generally (I say generally because there are exceptions) seem to be among the better ways to do such a thing.

Do you know why P.Z. Myers desecrated a consecrated host?

Yes, I do, and the case behind the story is a perfect example of irrationality within religious circles — but I think it’s also a case of how atheists can lose the support of soft secularists and religious moderates through their words and actions. Again, we don’t need to fool people with our rhetoric, or pull punches; but it would seem we can easily give people a more negative view of atheists through actions such as this.