Polite Atheism

Guest contributor Spencer Mulesky, over at Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist, asks “Are Atheists Paying Too Much Respect to Religious Beliefs?” His conclusion is that atheists need to be more confrontational: “any time that religion or supernatural claims come up in everyday conversation, we have a duty to be critical, even if we come off looking like dicks.”

Carly Jane Casper responds to Mulesky, claiming that it is unproductive to quarrel with religious people. I imagine that she would be sympathetic to Stephen Fry’s comment, which is quoted earlier in the post: “It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it.”

This is a quote from an Intelligence Squared debate about Catholicism. On that day, Fry shared the stage with the late Christopher Hitchens. Unlike Fry, Hitchens sought out argument for its own sake and could often be found playing devil’s advocate with friends and acquaintances. Fry has himself admitted that he enjoys watching people like Dawkins and Hitchens, even if he feels like their style of rhetoric is too much for him.

The word accommodationist usually comes up in these discussions, and I think it’s probably one of the main points of contention within the contemporary atheist movement. Should atheists seek compromise with the religious? Should they respect religious people, if not their religious beliefs? Do they need to work with the moderates against the extremists?

Sam Harris advocates for conversational intolerance, which mainly involves treating religious claims like any other claims, but his target is the public figure, not the old lady who you see wearing a cross in the elevator. Casper argues that “There is no progress to be made by hating faith, by mocking those who have faith, or by demeaning them for their beliefs.”

Some of the responses in the comments indicate that the atheist movement needs both types of people—those who engage in interfaith dialogue, and those take more aggressive positions. It seems to me that atheists have differing ideas about what progress means for their movement.

Casper thinks “interfaith dialogue is integral to achieving a truly secular society,” that atheists should adopt approaches that convince religious people to “abandon their beliefs” and that the debate between religious and non-religious peoples is about truth. Rather than quarrelling, she thinks that the most productive approach is to have “honest dialogue that comes from talking philosophy with the religious.”

Mulesky on the other hand appears to take a position more in keeping with Hitchens’s views regarding disputation and Harris’s conversational intolerance, which is that atheists should point out “intellectual fraud,” and most importantly, challenge religious ideas on ethical grounds. Hitchens, for example, didn’t care about movement progress or convincing people to abandon their beliefs. He thought that religion would always be with us, that there would always be conflict, and that the only response was to fight. The title of Hitchens’s book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was not just meant to be provocative.

The challenge for the atheist movement is not so much determining how to treat the religious or their ideas, but how to address the community’s real or imagined divide between those who want to “quarrel” and those who want to go along to get along. Successful movements typically have a variety of often contradictory positions and they all position themselves through the characterizations of alternatives that they oppose, and it’s not unusual for participants to struggle over interpretations. Do you think that the two positions can be reconciled with one another? Does the movement benefit from both groups?