J. J. Ramsey, in a comment on a recent post, suggests that accommodationists aren’t being extra harsh and burdensome to confrontational atheists because the accommodationists treat fundamentalists poorly too. Specifically, he responds to a comment by Jason:
I suspect what Stephanie actually meant was that accomodationists don’t take the same pains in treating “New Atheists” with the same kid gloves they treat religious folks.
But “accommodationists” don’t even uniformly treat the religious with “kid gloves,” as you put it. Toward the creationists, fundamentalists, and other denialists, they are quite willing to be aggressive. The NCSE has, for example, even mocked Expelled.
I’d really just like to put my head down now and say, “We’ve had that discussion. Get over it.” But hey, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Once more, with feeling.
This is what we call “false equivalence.” The fact that two positions within an argument are the most polarized you, personally, have seen doesn’t make them the same thing. Nor does it make the point somewhere between them a moderate position. This is particularly true when one “side” is distinctly in the minority, with the majority in control of most of the channels available for distributing messages. Even more true when the minority is heavily stigmatized.
That false equivalence is the only reason to compare “New Atheist” communications to fundamentalist positions. Confronting religion head on is no more “mean,” “distorting,” or “prejudicial” toward the religious than mainstream religious messaging is toward atheists. Need examples?
New Atheist: Religion is a delusion.
Mainstream: None so blind as those who will not see.
Fundamentalist: Satan resides in your heart.
New Atheist: Religious experiences and belief are the products of cognitive processes. They do not constitute evidence of god(s). Denying that denies science.
Mainstream: I believe in God because I have had these religious experiences. Denying that denies me.
Fundamentalist: Doubt is a personal failure to be fought against.
New Atheist: Religion requires assumption of facts not in evidence and/or contradicting our knowledge of reality.
Mainstream: Atheism requires assuming that what is tangible is the sum of what there is.
Fundamentalist: Denying your god is evil.
New Atheist: Raising a child to believe in sin and hell is a form of child abuse.
Mainstream: It would be cruel to deny your child the experience of God’s love.
Fundamentalist: You risk damning your children to eternal torment by allowing non-religious influences into their lives.
New Atheist: Religion provides a source of authority that is used to hurt others. It is also used to define an outgroup, who are “fair game” for persecution.
Mainstream: Religion provides the source of morality that keeps others from harm. It also provides a sense of brotherhood.
Fundamentalist: Our authority is God’s authority. Those who would threaten that authority must be dealt with or excluded in God’s name.
New Atheist: We must not allow any religion to use the political sphere to promote itself.
Mainstream: We must not allow other religions or atheists to use the political sphere to promote themselves.
Fundamentalist: We must root out all other influences in the political sphere.
And the one most important to the accommodationist promotion of science.
New Atheist: Science undermines the idea of religious myths as a rational interpretation of the world.
Mainstream: We recognize that science reveals the metaphorical nature of our texts but hold that faith is paramount.
Fundamentalist: Science is wrong because our texts tell us so.
People who buy into and pass on this notion that somehow “New Atheism” is equivalent to fundamentalism are perpetuating a narrative that privileges liberal religious thought as the non-extreme, non-confrontational position. They’re placing a burden on atheists to be more conciliatory toward religion than mainstream religion is toward atheism, simply by not recognizing that this is where the equivalence lies.
“New Atheists” are no more judgmental, dismissive, or offensive than the adherents of mainstream religions. They’re certainly not louder on a collective basis, and I doubt that they are on an individual basis either. The only reason that isn’t obvious is that the mainstream anti-atheism narrative is a constant background to life in our society. But really, it doesn’t take much work to stop and look at the evidence. It takes even less to find the true equivalence.