Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Atheism DOES Matter

A recent article in the Washington Post from Jacques Berlinerblau proposes to tell the atheist community "How to make atheism matter".  Its pretty clear that Berlinerblau is part of a cadre of "academic atheists" who consider themselves the sole inheritors of a great tradition, and if only everyone would listen to the deep thoughts that they intone, everything would be wonderful.  However, each word he puts down speaks to his vast ignorance of the world at large, and a complete misunderstanding of the fact that atheism already does matter.  It is not, despite his labelling of R. Joseph Hoffmann's whinings as "important", a little idea; it is the god hypothesis that we are fighting against which is small.

First among the problems in this article is Berlinerblau's insistence that scholarly journals are where it's at for atheism.
As head atheist in charge I would first get my priorities straight: The intellectual crisis of atheism is actually far less severe than the political crisis. Pop atheists have certainly made atheism a small idea. Hoffmann himself emerges from the erudite and thoughtful Secular Humanist circle. Alongside that school there exists some truly excellent scholarly research about nonbelief.
In scholarly journals--where far too many religion reporters fear to tread--a completely different understanding of atheism is emerging. Those like Hoffmann who think seriously about their subject matter are routinely debunking popular misconceptions about atheism. Once the media turns its attention to this scholarship, produced by both believers and nonbelievers, atheism becomes a big idea again.
Yes, Jacques, we get it; you've got a serious bromance with Hoffmann.  But you can talk all you want about how everyone keeps ignoring you, when you have deep things to say about the nature of atheism, the questions of how the term can be defined, the impermanence of the self-identification of atheists, etc.  You still miss the biggest, most important point, the one which we here in the trenches have to deal with every day:  There are a bunch of people who still believe in god!  They don't have good reasons for doing so, and they don't care that all they have to go on is faith.

He then goes on to tell atheists what we "really" want, because obviously he knows this better than we do:
My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion.
Actually, Jacques, if you'd take the time to talk to the majority of non-believers in the country, or even just spend some time hanging out around Reddit and seeing what atheists are talking about, you'd see that we do indeed have serious concerns about theocratic regimes.  But we also see what you miss, namely that the problem is rooted in that god belief they all have.  The focus must be on establishing rational thought, encouraging people not to simply take things on faith and defer to authority, because that is the only way to permanently deal with the problem.  If we put down today's theocrats but leave the religious foundations upon which they draw in place, we will only see new theocrats spring up tomorrow like mushrooms after a rain.

Berlinerblau proceeds to point out that we should be pushing for freedom from religion, and that it is not exclusive with freedom of religion.  This is the only point on which I agree with him, and yet even here he jabs at straw men:
A clever atheist leadership would spend its resources not on billboard advertisements devoted to making the point that your God is a doofus, but to demonstrating that these two freedoms can exist in symbiosis. The key word is freedom. Southern Baptists, after all, want no more to live under a Catholic establishment than Catholics wish to live under a Southern Baptist one.
Is he even aware of the actual billboards that are being put up?  Because that's exactly the point that is typically being made with statements like "Don't believe in god?  Neither do we."  And maybe he's not familiar with one of the leading atheist organizations out there, the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  It wouldn't surprise me if he hadn't heard of them; clearly, he doesn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of the atheist movement.

He then suggests we "widen the tent", accepting more people into the movement.  Let's take a look at what he proposes.
Why must the admission price to American atheism be total nonbelief in God and hatred of all religion? Can’t the movement, at the very least, split the difference?
Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent? Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the Movement as well? Why can’t skeptics and agnostics join the club? What about heretics and apostates?
Two things come out of this statement, Jacques.  First, you're not familiar with the fact that atheism and agnosticism often go together, and are addressing two different things entirely.  Atheism is a statement about belief, while agnosticism is a statement about knowledge.  I, and many of my fellow atheists, are agnostic atheists.  We don't know with certainty that there is no god, but we lack a belief that the claim "god exists" is true.  Again, something I'd expect an "academic" to be aware of, and evidence that you have no idea what's going on in the atheist community.  We also have a number of skeptics among our ranks; this is because skepticism is also talking about something completely different.  Skeptical inquiry is a way of looking at the world that requires evidence to support a proposition before a truth claim is believed.  Many atheists come to their lack of belief because they are skeptics!  I'm among them; I simply applied skeptical inquiry to the question of god.

Secondly, you're asking a truly ridiculous question here.  Let me summarize what you just said: "Why can't you atheists accept into the atheist community people who still believe in god?"  Because, Jacques, they aren't atheists!  We're perfectly willing to talk to them, in fact we welcome it, but if you still believe in god, you aren't an atheist.  Its kind of in the definition of the word.  Now, we don't all hate religion; that isn't required, simply common.  And we don't all reject the supernatural entirely, although again, its incredibly common, as its a way that people often come to be atheists.  We aren't excluding most of the people you think we're excluding; the demographics just work out that the majority of us agree with each other.  If you'd talk to people, you'd know all of this. For all your talk about debunking stereotypes, you seem to cling to yours quite firmly.

His next point, about knowing how many atheists there actually are, is in part a valid one.  But it ignores the highly important issue of social stigma.  Many people won't "come out" as atheists, even in an anonymous survey.  Its very hard to know exactly how many people are truly atheists.  The "nones" are indeed a growing group, and we do indeed have to acknowledge that the group is more diverse than people who self-identify as atheists.  But Berlinerblau doesn't propose a solution to this issue, so I will: put "atheist" on the surveys.  We're going off the only numbers we have; if those numbers aren't accurate, it isn't really something we can control, because we don't make the surveys!

Finally, we get to what we all probably suspected was coming: the accomodationist bullshit.
And while we are at it, why can’t atheists make common cause with religious moderates? In its first decade of operations new atheism has virtually assured its political irrelevance by acerbically shunning the very religious folks (think mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, etc) who are waging their own pitched battles with fundamentalists. “Even mild and moderate religion,” averred Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion , “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”
Evangelicals, it bears noting, achieved many of their greatest political triumphs by entering into what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency” with Roman Catholics and Mormons on issues like abortion, gay marriage, religion in public schools, etc. In other words, leadership put aside seething theological animosities in order to achieve pragmatic political goals.
In so doing, the Christian right successfully managed to curtail both freedom from religion and freedom of religion for countless Americans. The time has come for a strategic atheist defense of both these virtues.
So what you're saying, Jacques, is that we should make a "deal with the devil" because it would be politically expedient.  Yeah, that would be a great idea for a movement that prides itself on honesty and neutral evaluation of the evidence.  And the suggestion completely ignores the fact that the moderates have already for the most part made their alliances.  They may not agree with the fundamentalists on a lot of things, but hey, they can all get together on hating atheists!  Look, there's a pretty good reason we can't ally with the religious moderates; they all believe in god.  They're waffling metaphorizers who cling to faith even when the evidence is against them, and struggle mightily to ensure that no matter what happens, their holy books will always be right.

And they refuse to speak out against the crazies.  I have seen none of these "pitched battles" you mention between fundamentalists and moderates; the only people who get any press when they fight for separation of church and state, or argue against theocracy, or call out a fundamentalist church for their insanity, or insist that the Catholic church do something about their rampant corruption, are atheists.  I'd happily accept a moderate Christian standing by my side denouncing the people trying to get creationism into a school science classroom, but they're never there.  They don't want to be mean to their "fellow Christians", and they certainly don't want to be associated with us "godless heathens".  So they give their tacit support to the crazies by not speaking up, and by continuing to promote the very same holy books from which the wackos draw their ideas.  Dawkins, in the quote you provided, was 100% correct.

Lets face facts; Berlinerblau is writing an article about the atheism movement.  He's ridiculously wrong on almost all points, but he is writing it.  The "nones" are the fastest growing group on the religious surveys, and some of that growth comes from atheists.  The r/atheism subreddit has passed 300,000 members, freethought conventions are growing in popularity and attendance numbers, and most importantly, people are talking about the growing atheist movement, even if only to criticize it as Jacques has done here.  Atheism already does matter.  Berlinerblau is just disappointed that he doesn't.


  1. Matt. I want you to understand that you are using the same generalized misunderstandings of the theist camp that he is using in the atheist camp. A simple example is you say theists won't stand next to atheists to fight against creationism being taught in schools. Bullshit. Matt, that is a big focus of my life. I give money and support to organizations that fight to leep creationisn out of schools. So do many people I lnow. Dr. Kenneth Miller a theist and biologist testified in court that creationism/intelligent design is not science and should be kept out of schools in the Dover, Pa. trial. He has written books on it. Matt, many of my allies are atheists, many are theists too. Be both fight for most of the same things you do. Remember that.

  2. That's certainly heartening; I'm familiar with Dr. Miller, notably because Finding Darwin's God is recommended by Richard Dawkins. I will admit, there are certainly cases in which moderate, liberal Christians are willing to stand with atheists on important issues. Perhaps its an artifact of what gets into the media, but those people aren't getting much press. The modern atheist movement has been successful lately because we've gotten louder; perhaps its just that the people who are willing to stand with atheists are having their voices drowned out by the bigots who share, and very much misuse, the holy books.

  3. Interestingly, this post from PZ Myers just came across my newsfeed.

    "Unlike Padgett, I have a realistic view of religion. I do not think all Christians are creationists, as he falsely claims, but I also know for a fact that most Christians are damned insistent on the literal reality of Jesus, Heaven, Hell, and their sectarian views about how one can achieve or avoid a meeting with any of them."