And if atheists don’t engage with religious believers, and spend most or all of our time with other atheists — we’re living in an echo chamber.
Is there any way we can win?
There was a recent piece in the Religion section of the Huffington Post by pastor/ chaplain Eliot Daley: Welcome, Atheists. But, Really, Why Are You Here? Daley seemed puzzled by the phenomenon of atheists who read his columns and comment critically on them. So in this piece, he asked atheists, “I mean, really, what are you doing cruising the Religion department?”
I’m going to leave it to someone else to do the line-by-line fisking of this piece. I’d love to do it myself, but my time is even more crunched than usual this week, and I just can’t manage it. (Oh, okay. When you bat your eyes at me that way, I can’t resist. The very quick- and- dirty version: 1: Our disagreement is with the harm done by religion as it often plays out — and with the truth claim that God exists. 2: An interventionist God is not a straw man — it’s believed in by billions of believers. 3: Yes, we’re familiar with the notion, most famously stated by Arthur C. Clarke, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — but that doesn’t mean it’s actually magic. 4: Yes, reason and emotion/ intuition are connected in many ways — but that doesn’t make the distinction between them “obsolete.” If you think it’s obsolete, then the next time you’re seriously ill, go to a faith healer instead of a medical doctor trained in rational methods of determining what your illness is and how it can best be treated. 5: If God is really real and atheists are simply tone-deaf to his existence… then show us some good evidence that he does exist. You can show deaf people evidence that sound exists — but believers have yet to offer any good evidence that God exists, either to atheists or to other believers with radically contradictory notions of what God is. And finally, 6: Atheists engage with religious believers for lots of different reasons. See below.)
But I really can’t do a thorough, line-by-line critique of everything this piece gets wrong about atheists and atheism. I just don’t have time today. And the main point I want to make is this:
When it comes to this question of engagement with believers, there is absolutely no way atheists can win.
If atheists don’t engage with religious believers — if we spend all or most of our time hanging around with other atheists — we routinely get accused of being an echo chamber. We get accused of living in a bubble, cutting ourselves off from anyone who disagrees with us. The mere fact that we even have atheist communities, both in the flesh and online, gets us accused of this.
And if atheists do engage with religious believers — if we spend some of our time hanging around with religious believers in public forums, making a case for why the god hypothesis is probably mistaken — we get accused of picking a fight. Of raining on the parade. Of, in Daley’s words, playing “the proverbial skunk at the garden party.” Of enjoying the spectacle of a bloodbath: in Daley’s words, “perhaps they are like the small percentage of NASCAR fans who freely admit that they go the races primarily in hopes of seeing a really hairy wreck.”
We can’t win.
Actually, come to think of it, I suppose there is a way we could win. We could engage with religious believers — without ever disagreeing with them. We could spend lots of time in religious forums — and only ever say nice, positive, uncritical things. We could stay out of our own bubble — and spend all our time in the religion bubble, and never, ever stick a pin in it to try to make it pop. Is that really what you want, Mr. Daley? If so, I suggest you express your ideas elsewhere. The Religion section of the Huffington post is not a private garden party, with a few uninvited skunks wandering in and ruining things for everyone. It is a public forum for the discussion of ideas.
Daley does propose, as one possible answer to why atheists spend time in the Religion section of the Huffington Post, the option that atheists “are sincerely trying to free others up from wasting their time so they can live more fulfilled lives devoid of God.” But he rejects this as an unlikely, “excessively charitable speculation.” He claims to ask this question out of curiosity and not disrespect — and yet he rejects the answer that is not only the most respectful, but the most obvious.
So let me try to answer both of these accusations: the accusation of the echo chamber, and the accusation of picking fights.
Many atheists spend time with other atheists — i.e., in the supposed “echo chamber” — because we need respite. We need community. There is real bigotry and discrimination against atheists, and we need emotional and practical support. We spend time in atheist communities for the same reasons LGBT people spend time in LGBT communities, for the same reasons African-Americans people spend time in African-American communities. What’s more, atheism and theism are, in many ways, radically different ways looking at the world… and like most human beings, we need and want the companionship of people whose values and visions we share. (And in any case, the notion that in the United States, atheists even could live in a religion-free bubble is absurd. We are surrounded by religion. As Daley himself acknowledges, atheists are generally very well-educated about religion — more so than believers, on average. We’re soaking in it. We couldn’t live in a bubble if we tried.)
And many atheists spend time engaging with religious believers in religious forums — i.e., “picking fights” — for lots of different reasons. Some are, in fact, obnoxious trolls just looking to pick a fight. Some are simply curious and want to understand how religious people think. There are probably lots of other reasons.
But for many of us, we engage with religious believers because we think religion is a mistaken idea about the world that does significantly more harm than good, and we want to talk people out of it. We debate with believers for the same reasons Democrats debate with Republicans, environmentalists debate with global warming denialists, supporters of same-sex marriage debate with its opponents, etc. We think we’re right.
If you think we’re wrong — convince us.
But don’t accuse us of picking fights, or being a skunk at the garden party, or being ghouls who just want to watch a bloodbath, because we’re trying to convince you.