This is actually a few weeks old, but I just saw it. At the end of March, Frans de Waal wrote an essay at Salon.com that was quite inane and my friend James Croft wrote a typically thoughtful piece in response to it. He begins by quoting this section:
In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”
This kind of thing is tiresome enough when it comes from Christians — “why do you guys spend so much time fighting against something you don’t believe in?” — but it’s far worse coming from someone like de Waal, who is a justifiably well respected scientist. I’m one of those dreaded “accommodationists” or “appeasers” who thinks that some of our loudest atheist voices often engage in exactly the kind of tribalism that they deplore in Christians and that our critiques of religion are far too often overly simplistic and overwrought, but even I think this is absurd. Croft, who is generally viewed as one of those “soft humanists” rather than a “militant” atheist, had much the same reaction.
The practice of distinguishing between dogmatic and non-dogmatic expressions of belief is a wise one, and the questions de Waal poses here are actually quite interesting, sociologically speaking – but de Waal’s response makes it clear he is interested more in quip than query. Why do (primarily American) atheists wear t-shirts identifying themselves as atheists? What does atheism offer? These questions deserve fuller and more considerate answers than de Waal’s dismissive hand-wave…
De Waal flirts with a good point in positing that “the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces”, presenting the “thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma.” De Waal suggests that “The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones” – not a bad thesis in itself (though not remotely new: the great Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine gave a great talk on “the wounded” at Harvard’s New Humanism conference some time ago), and one which might go some way toward answering the questions he poses at the beginning, but he never develops the thesis with any sensitivity or nuance.
Instead of exploring his thesis with some consideration that atheists might have potentially serious reasons for choosing to act as they do, de Waal settles for a shallow pseudo-psychological diagnosis: “atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay?”
One really has to wonder what reality de Waal has been living in to pretend not to understand why atheists have begun to be “out and proud,” especially in American society. Our problems are not inner demons (though some of us no doubt have them), they are real people in the real world who use religion to justify a vast range of authoritarian policies that are not only bad for us individually but for society as a whole. It would be irresponsible not to be outspoken in opposition to the many ways that religion damages people, both individually and in groups.