The atheist wars?

There are surprisingly few conflicts between atheists. Certainly, nothing like the “clash of civilisations” currently raging amongst theists. Perhaps this is because non-theists seem to feel little need to organise into groups. As Richard Dawkins says, organising atheists is like herding cats!

However, conflict has arisen in recent years about tactics. Very often this is expressed as a criticism of the perceived “militant” atheism of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Dan Dennett (Breaking the Spell) Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) andMichael Shermer Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great. This criticism arose, often quite sharply, at the 2006 Beyond Belief Conference. More recently it was expressed by Michael Shermer in his Scientific American column entitled “Rational Atheism: An Open Letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens”.

Shermer, who describes his beliefs as agnostic, is the author of How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God and The Science of Good and Evil. He raises five criticisms in his column:

  1. Anti-something movements by themselves fail;
  2. Positive assertions are necessary;
  3. Hostility toward religion is irrational and only promotes a hostile response;
  4. Prejudging theists negatively only causes them to respond to us in the same way;
  5. Respect for freedom of belief and disbelief should be accorded theists, as long as religion doesn’t threaten science and freedom.

I think Shermer makes some points which are valid for non-theists wishing to interact with people of different beliefs – particularly in political and social activity. These points are important to any struggle to build a society which truly accepts the freedom of religion and belief guaranteed by international treaties, and by the legislation of many countries (including New Zealand). We still have a way to go to make these rights a reality. Building cooperation and common action in a pluralist society does require an appreciation of the more subtle aspects of political tactics.

Consciousness raising

On the other hand this struggle is more than winning respect from others. It is also about consciousness raising amongst non-theists themselves. Achieving personal acceptance that their beliefs are legitimate, valid and nothing to be ashamed of. Asserting the right to have these beliefs and to feel proud of them.

There has been a long history of persecution of atheists and free-thinkers in Western society and such persecution still exists in someOUT A countries. Consequently, consciousness raising and assertion of legitimate rights is an important task for atheists and non-theists. The Out Campaign, the Brights movement, atheist blogs and websites and the current publications of athiest books are all a necessary part of this process. In many ways this is similar to the early phases of the feminist and similar movements.

“Militant” atheism is an inevitable requirement of consciousness raising and atheist assertiveness. However, it doesn’t exist apart from the wider political strategy of building respect and cooperation in a pluralist society, of making a reality of the rights to freedom of religion and belief. True gender rights and equality required “militant” feminism, feminist consciousness raising and assertiveness. So too will true freedom of religion and belief require “militant” atheism with its consciousness raising and assertiveness.

Complimentary approaches

In practice atheist, or non-theists, require both the “militant” atheism of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, and the “rational” atheism of Shermer and other non-theists who have expressed similar views. In many ways the contributions of these two groups are complimentary and necessary. That is why I don’t hesitate to recommend all of the above books to non-theist readers

(Michael Shermer is the founder and publisher of Skeptic Magazine. Have a look at the video of his TED lecture: Why People Believe Strange Things).


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3 responses to “The atheist wars?

  1. Nicely written Ken! Enjoy your writing. Keep up the great work.

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  2. RE “The atheist wars?”
    Responding to Sherman’s statement “…as long as religion doesn’t threaten science and freedom.”

    There are a multitude of problems. Religion does indeed threaten science and freedom. It has ever since its inception. The Christians and Muslims have a long history of murdering non-believers and infidels in the name of god. How many people have they “offended” in their history? (I consider murder a rather serious offense) Believers so frequently hold that non believers don’t deserve the same rights as believers. They hold their belief with pure emotion and are not capable of examining their beliefs and thoughts. They are simply not capable of facing up to tough questions.

    So, how can we deal with them? At this time, there seems to be no viable answer.

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  3. I agree with the thrust of your argument Bryan. I think, though, on a lot of these issues there are differences within religions and atheists, in their social and political activity, need to act in a way that isolates the anti-science, anti-freedom elements and strengthens the positive elements. To treat them all as the enemy only strengthens the negative side.
    For example, I think we should be supportive of Christian groups who support evolution and oppose creationism. We should help more Christian accept science.
    Another example: we should be participating in discussions on religious diversity and advocating the point that freedom of religion and belief includes atheism and other non-theist groups. I think that the more theists we can get to accept that understanding the weaker the position of the really reactionary religious believers will be. I have discussed this in an article (Atheism and Religious Diversity) AEN Journal.

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