Are we making progress yet?

Julian has a new installment of Heathen’s Progress out, in which he sums up the progress so far, by repeating what he’s said in the previous installments, with links, then in the last couple of paragraphs asks if that’s progress, and tells the reader to tell him. It’s all rather stately and solemn, as if he were a government commission, but let’s do our best to help.

Since this series is called Heathen’s progress, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the festive break to see if I’d actually made any.

Back at the beginning, I explained that my purpose was to move the God debate on from the stalemate it seemed to be stuck in, to see what could come after the new atheism. When I said that “the battle lines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought”, I was quickly and rightly told that I should start by ditching the military, confrontational metaphors. Lesson one: how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter.

Well this is part of what makes it seem so stately and as-if-a-government-commission. It seems odd for one person to think he can move the God debate on, and to say that that’s what his purpose is. It seems…official, and powerful, and more than one person can usually do. It seems a little peremptory to look for what could come after the new atheism when it’s not at all clear that “the new atheism” is over yet. I think most gnu atheists, if you asked them, would laugh at the idea and say fuck no, we’re in the thick of it.

And then there’s the needing to be told that military confrontational metaphors are just that, and needing to learn that how issues are framed and the language we use really does matter. Actually I know perfectly well he didn’t need to be told or to learn; I know that because he’s been writing about both for years, so obviously he’s perfectly well aware of both. I suppose he means he needed to be reminded. (Then one wonders why. Is it because there’s so much pugnacious anti-gnu rhetoric around, and some of it has infected him without his noticing until readers pointed it out? Could be.)

Toward the end of his recapitulation of the entries so far, I come in for a tiny rap on the knuckles.

The clamour to sign up the articles from religious leaders and thinkers was notable by its absence. Many of the people I wrote to did not even reply. When it comes to the crunch, it seems that very few genuinely embrace, or are prepared to admit they embrace, a form of religion that doesn’t make supernatural claims. This finding was backed up by two surveys I conducted, which while far from authoritative strongly suggest that churchgoers do, indeed, hold traditional beliefs about such things as Christ’s resurrection and the need to worship God. (Oddly, many people have claimed I was surprised by these results, when, as I explained in a reply, I have never expressed any amazement at all.)

The penultimate link is to my “Surprised, surprised,” in which I quoted several people who were bemused “at Julian’s effortful discovery and announcement of what everyone already knew.” He says it’s odd that people claim he was surprised when he never said he was, and yet, in the very next paragraph he says

I think the real movement has come from grappling with the question of how important literal belief is to religion. From an agnostic position, I have become convinced that it plays a very important part…

Quite, and that’s all I meant, and that’s all the others meant. (Nobody said anything about amazement.) He laboriously discovered what a lot of people had been saying all along. It’s not particularly odd to point that out.

At the end the summing up is summed up.

Taken together, some in the blogosphere have suggested that in this series I have moved closer to the new atheists. I’m not sure this is true. For a variety of reasons (including unfortunate headlines others gave to some of my pieces) the extent to which I have disagreed with the new atheists has probably been overstated because it is the disagreements that I have found more interesting to write about. I agree with them that literal belief is not a straw man, strongly expressed belief is not aggressive dogmatism, we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and that science does pose difficult questions for many religious people. But I still maintain that much of the rhetoric has not been helpful and that in order to make progress we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst, and find common ground with more liberal believers in order to counter the more pernicious forms of belief.

The last sentence seems to contradict the next to last – or if not flatly contradict it, at least to take back the ground it had just seemed to yield. If we “have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst,” then we are not (and indeed should not be) “as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism.” It just doesn’t make sense to say that we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, and then in the next breath say we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst (emphasis added). It looks like having it both ways, or trying to – throwing a sop to “the new atheists” but then going on to say but all the same, do it this way and not that way; focus on the good not the bad; find common ground. Well you can’t have it both ways. If we really should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism, then none of that “you must meet them halfway” malarkey applies, because it certainly doesn’t apply to the way people have been criticizing atheism.

Let me try harder to be fair. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what he means by “free” – maybe he means legally free. Except that wouldn’t make sense, because we already are legally free – so he has to mean what I mean, which is socially free, rhetorically free – i.e. not constantly subject to silly social pressure to be nicer to religion. But then maybe he thinks that that kind of freedom is not in tension with practical advice to “find common ground” for the sake of…some larger goal, in this case countering “the more pernicious forms of belief.” Maybe he does. In that case the last sentence doesn’t contradict the previous one…but I still think he’s mistaken, because I think that putative practical advice is very often just a disguised version of the silly social pressure. I think at this point it’s damn near impossible to distinguish the one from the other, and I think people who give that kind of putative practical advice should be sharply aware of that.

Is that progress? You tell me.


  1. julian says

    I don’t think the last two sentences contradict each other. We are free to criticize religion (meaning we can point out it’s faults and short comings) and we should try to find common ground (not necessarily religious or ‘spiritual’ and in order to build stronger channels of communication) while emphasizing the good (so that the bad becomes less relevant to the religion. I imagine this is more for believers than non believers)

    It isn’t something I’d agree entirely with but that’s my reading anyway.

  2. says

    But he doesn’t say “we are free to criticize religion”; he says
    “we should be as free to criticise religion as people have been to criticise atheism.” He says not just free, but how free. He gives himself a demanding standard to live up to.

    You’re right that saying just “free to” would leave room to add limits to the freedom, though I would still quibble with that, because it does smack of not really meaning the “free to” bit. But he didn’t give himself even that much wiggle room.

  3. jamessweet says

    I had yet a different reading of those two sentences… and this is partly based on something Bagginni said in one of the other Heathen’s Progress columns, but please don’t make me look it up 🙂 Anyway, I think what Bagginni is getting at is that instead of the gnu atheism strategy of attacking ordinary belief and dismissing the rarified forms of faith that are compatible with science as being merely a curious exception, he would prefer a strategy of praising the rare-but-compatible form of belief and encouraging people to shift in that direction.

    My main objection to this is that it’s too easy for the moderate belief to be part of a bait-and-switch. There is a class of believer who, when asked to defend their beliefs, will take the metaphorical route, but when surrounded by fellow believers will take the literal route. I think that by advocating for the rare/compatible faith and against common belief, you run the risk of punching air. People will just say, “Oh, of course my type of faith is the good kind,” and won’t actually question anything.

    FWIW, there are folks I think should indeed adopt the latter strategy, but it’s not the gnus; it’s those liberal moderate believers who already espouse a more-or-less compatible form of belief. Too often, their target is atheists, whereas the obvious target is the vast ranks of literal believers.

  4. devdasdavids says

    A tangential comment: I found out today that, according to the Chambers Dictionary 12th Ed., the collective term for a group of gnus is… an implausibility of gnus. I found that amusingly ironic given that this is the very opposite of what gnu atheists are about.

  5. FresnoBob says

    But I still maintain that much of the rhetoric has not been helpful and that in order to make progress we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst, and find common ground with more liberal believers in order to counter the more pernicious forms of belief.

    This seems like he’s advising that criticism itself should be abandoned. Or at least that we shouldn’t criticise pernicious forms of religion unless we’re doing it with the approval of liberal believers with whom we’ve struck some kind of non-aggression deal.

  6. sailor1031 says

    Julian has been merely tilting at windmills. Religious belief or lack thereof is a private matter. The issue is not whether atheism is more compatible somehow with metaphorical religion than with literal religion. If anything metaphorical religion is the more unrealistically based of the two. And it is not whether religionists actually believe all that dogma or not – we already know that they do, no matter how “metaphorically”. The issue with which we must concern ourselves is that of keeping religion out of the public square and out of the laws so that there is justice and equality for all – not just for religionists.

  7. says

    I don’t know… in my reading, it comes across as sharing more or less the same end goals as any “new atheist”: to combat literal belief, hold it up to criticism, get people to think critically, and keep dusty old myths from having any influence in the public sphere. But the difference is in the strategies he sees as being most likely to lead to success.

    If we approach Christians with the same angry, combative rhetoric they approach us, it puts them on guard and ready to fight, and they’re just going to see us even more as an adversary out to destroy their precious faith.

    Remember the whole “you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place” thing? I think that’s important. What the belief is about is NOT reason and rational arguments. It IS literal belief, but the basis for believing it is quite unlike most literal beliefs people hold. It’s not based on observation or experience. The belief is fed emotionally.

    There’s this constant internal psychological cost/benefit thingy happening in people. “What is the benefit of maintaining this belief? What is the cost of giving it up?” Religion makes the emotional cost of sacrificing the belief as high as conceivably possible. Humiliation, loss of community, alienation from friends and family, fear of damnation, etc. And makes the emotional benefits as high as possible… love, acceptance, community, warmth, security, stability, meaning, purpose, sense of superiority, concrete ethics, external scapegoats, instant forgiveness, etc.

    So what we’re fighting really isn’t a logical battle. If all it took to convince a Christian to accept atheism was a well-reasoned argument, there’d be no progress left to be had. We’d have won eons ago. We’re fighting psychology, we’re fighting emotions, we’re fighting every easy, comforting, tempting, happy, warm, fuzzy, irrational tendency of the human mind.

    So knowing that we’re on a psychological, emotional playing field rather than simply weighing one conception of the universe (the one that makes sense and with which the evidence agrees) and another (the silly, mythical, heavily disproven one that makes no real sense at all), yeah… it IS practical to want to avoid adversarial rhetoric when addressing them directly, and IS a reasonable strategy to find a “common ground” we can coax them too, from which we can more effectively nudge them in the right direction.

    We are FREE to criticize religion as much as we damn well please, but it might not be a good idea if our intended goal is to ultimately lead people away from it and minimize its influence.

    The belief that arguments are fought in such a way that the more reasonable position wins is just as much a comforting myth as the sweet hereafter. We’ve ALL been in arguments where we know the other side just doesn’t care what we’re actually saying, is fighting what he EXPECTS us to be saying, and the more you push, the more he digs in his heels.

    We need to know this isn’t about which side has the truth. It’s about making people WANT to be on that side. So it’s entirely fair to suggest the wisdom of not just pissing off and alienating the people whose opinions we wish to change. Let’s give them honey AND vinegar, eh?

  8. azportsider says

    devdasdavids @ #4: “I found that amusingly ironic given that this is the very opposite of what gnu atheists are about.”

    Yes, well, gnus are also herd animals, which I decidedly am not. This is why I despise the term, and never refer to myself or any other outspoken atheist as a ‘gnu’.

  9. Ewan Macdonald says


    Nobody is stopping anyone from approaching the religious with honey. Accommodationists hold dear the idea, however, that their approach is the only correct one, and that everyone else is Doing It Wrong. It’s the most dreadful accommodationist canard that the gnus are sitting here barking “THOU SHALT OFFEND THE RELIGIOUS AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY.” It just isn’t true.

  10. John Morales says



    Yes, well, gnus are also herd animals, which I decidedly am not.

    The joke, you miss it. 🙂

  11. articulett says

    I think we should be as free to criticize religion as we are to criticize any other superstition, pseudoscience and the like. You can’t get rid of demons without erasing a few gods and angels in the process.

    From my perspective, the accommodationists are advocating “special treatment” of and deference for religious woo. The problem with this is that it gives the impression that religious superstitions DESERVE special deference, but no one has made a valid case why this is so. Why should Jesus-god belief garner more respect than belief in Scientology or Voo-doo or Moon landing denial?

    Many people are tethered to their faith because they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that bad things (such as eternal damnation)will happen if they don’t have the faith. We don’t do any favors to such people by giving them the impression that these manipulative notions are worthy of respect.

  12. kosk11348 says

    But I still maintain that much of the rhetoric has not been helpful…

    Helpful to whom? Helpful in accomplishing what?

    …and that in order to make progress…

    Progress towards what?

    ….we have to look more at the best that religion has to offer, not the worst…

    Ok, so what is the best that religion has to offer and can it be offered by things other than religion?

  13. Stewart says

    “Ok, so what is the best that religion has to offer and can it be offered by things other than religion?”

    1) The promise of an existence that never comes to an end; 2) yes, by anyone who’s mastered the art of lying.

  14. says

    Important Question:

    Leaving aside the question of whether the “best it has to offer” CAN exist without religion (the answer to which I think is clearly yes), I think we need to ask ourselves… ARE we offering that? What alternative are we presenting? Does it meet people’s cultural needs, or just the cultural needs of certain specific kinds of people?

  15. articulett says

    Sure Natalie– there are all sorts of methods of reducing superstition. However, I don’t think trying to tone down the biggest critics of religion is an answer, nor are “Tom Johnson” stories supporting this notion that there is this militant cabal of new atheists getting in peoples faces at every opportunity.

    I am generally uncomfortable with the accommodationist approach because it feels dishonest to me. There is this pretense that some “woo” is more “scientifically respectable” than others– that it makes more sense to believe in some invisible beings(like gods, demons and souls) then to believe in others (like fairies, Thetans, and incubi). I can see the uses of giving this impression, and have utilized it myself on occasion, but to me the accommodationists are engaging in the equivalent of the “courtier’s reply” for the most part… and I prefer a more clear, honest, and direct approach to supernatural claims. Sure, the emperor might be wearing magical robes that only a few can see… I can’t prove it isn’t so. But I side with those who declare the emperor naked. And I resent those who try to malign those who speak the truth without mincing words.

    There are no invisible beings. Period. Or rather, there is no more evidence for the ones people believe in than there are for the ones they dismiss as fantasy. Fact.

    The biggest problem I have with accommodationists is that they don’t seem to have nearly the influence in encouraging rational thought as those they criticize– so their dismissal of new atheists comes across as “sour grapes” to me. And then there’s this weird need they have to push others to be more like them– For example, Baggini assumes that there is approach that is better than the new atheists he derides (a hyperlink to the the term “new atheists” in his blog links to a piece bashing Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, PZ, etc.), but he and other accommodationists have yet to demonstrate what that approach is or give evidence that it works better for achieving some defined goal… much less that “new atheists” are hurting this goal or should be silences or “toned down”. I think he can accomplish his aims better, perhaps, without putting new atheists down. Don’t you?

    I actually think that many new atheists exhibit “finesse and diplomacy”, but that anti-atheist bias makes people hear things they never said and miss what it is they are saying because it threatens the stuff they feel saved for “believing in”. I think some accommodationists miss the message because they have a knee-jerk reaction to defend faith even though they no longer have such faith. They still have a “belief in belief” meme– they think faith is something good and worthy of protecting and hear criticism of faith as being much harsher and more personal than it actually is.

    One thing the “new atheists” are doing that the accommodationists are not is that they are making faith more embarrassing. My goal isn’t really to make more atheists– that is a natural byproduct of fading superstitions. I think this will happen as increasing evidence shows that “souls” are an illusion of a material brain; it’s as silly to think that we have an “after-life” as it is to think that any other animals do. Material brains are required for consciousness– otherwise, we could assume that carrots or stones or water is conscious. I don’t think any religion is going to hold up well as this becomes more clear. What I want is for theists to keep their supernatural beliefs private– you can have your “woo”… just keep it private like you do your fetishes and you won’t have to hear what I think about it. I don’t think it’s right to ask politicians about their supernatural beliefs or expect them to have any. I want faith to be a private matter. I want it out of my face. I don’t want to have to walk on eggshells to avoid offending the indoctrinated. I don’t want Christians and Muslims to expect any more privileges and deference than they give Scientologists or wiccans or Moonies or atheists. I don’t want to know or care what magical things people feel special or saved for believing in or who they imagine is going to hell or why.

    How are the accommodationists furthering that goal of mine?

  16. Ken Pidcock says

    Regarding his parable, it would be interesting to know if, when she’s with the organic gardeners’ club, Flo feels compelled to talk about how the food they produce is cheaper, healthier and better for the planet, even though she knows better. I think she probably does.

  17. says

    Sure, I agree with the majority of what you’re saying, and I don’t have much patience or respect for the endless bashing of the so-called “new atheists” and how it buys into things like the Goldilocks fallacy and positions themselves as somehow morally or interpersonally superior to both “sides”. But at the same time I don’t agree with the position some take in response that there’s absolutely nothing to be said for often taking a gentler or more nuanced approach to trying to coax people out of their woo. Additionally, as said, they didn’t reason themselves into that position, so they can’t be reasoned out of it… they were lured into that position by emotional manipulation, and so we need to address this on an emotional level. We also don’t appear to be giving enough consideration to making atheism look like an appealing alternative that is capable of offering them what religion offers them. Atheism CAN offer art, wonder, beauty, community, etc. But when we don’t take care to diminish the image of us as a bunch of angry, cynical, impersonal, older internet white dudes with a dismissive tone towards everything but hard STEM, when we continuously present ourselves as a one-size-fits-all movement where you do it our way and adapt to our conditions or not at all… well… yeah, I can see why people wouldn’t feel any desire to listen to us or hang out with us long enough to see what we’re actually about. And telling someone they’re stupid and wrong ALWAYS pisses them off and closes their minds.

  18. Stewart says

    ” And telling someone they’re stupid and wrong ALWAYS pisses them off and closes their minds.”

    An unhelpful conflation. If someone is stupid, there’s not even much point telling them they’re wrong. If, however, they are wrong, that is by no means necessarily the case. I submit that there are certainly cases where people have been helped by being told that they are wrong. The all-caps “always” is insufficiently rigorous.

  19. says

    Yeah, probably right. I guess there are lots of people who don’t mind being corrected. But the “you are an idiot and your beliefs are stupid” stuff definitely doesn’t make someone want to agree with you. Again: emotional cost/benefit. Saving face. etc. There are lots of mechanisms in place that cause people to shut down the thinking part of their brains.

  20. Stewart says

    I sometimes see people I regard as being on my side being sloppy and hurling an insult rather than demolishing the argument in question. On those occasions I wish they’d do it better, but it never means I think the whole attitude of withholding respect from religion is wrong. They still remain more on my side than an accommodationist who sidesteps saying openly what we all know.

  21. robotczar says

    When I was young I sort of accepted the irrational (i.e., religion) as something that would eventually go away as enlightenment spread to the masses. After all, the 20th century should have been evidence enough of a) the power of science and b) the falsity that religion will either save us or explain why we are here. I did notice, however, that the scientists I admired seemed to skirt or ignore the obvious problems and contradictions between rational thought and religious dogma (it can’t be called thought). They seemed afraid to state the obvious: that religion (as practiced) and science were incompatible. I know they were justified to be afraid of going against the power of religion in the US. But, my assumption (and maybe their’s) was that eventually the truth would win out; and with proper education the majority would come to see that rational thinking was the hope for the future and that irrational though has a failed track record. That didn’t happen. We are still having monkey trials and denial of our real problems. In some ways, things are worse.

    I am older now. I now have the wisdom to see that religion will not just go away. The lure of the easy answer is too strong. The need to feel we are loved and will not die provides a situation in which the critical-thinking challenged will never move toward the rational without a lot of help. The correct behavior of the rational is to challenge and point out the irrational, not to make excuses for it, or meet it half way, or provide clever philosophical arguments for those who lack the cognitive ability to make their own. The refreshing new atheism lets atheism out of the closet and is taking the correct action of point out the failings and irrationality of religion. It is very unclear what compromise with the uncompromising will accomplish.

  22. says

    Who is this “we” who “should” or “should not” do this or that?

    Sometimes it seems to me that every major blogger (or network of likeminded ones)has a little gang of acolytes who think of themselves as some kind of team. This can all be a bit disconcerting and alienating to one who has never been much of a team player.

    (And, no, this isn’t a reaction to sailor1031. I was going to say this – more in reaction to JB and various respondents to Greta – long before I got down to those last two comments.)

  23. articulett says

    I don’t know of any atheists that are actually saying “you’re an idiot and your beliefs are stupid” though I know religionists THINK that new atheists are saying something like that. That is what they “hear”. That is the stereotype about “new atheists”. But if you ask them to link the most offensive things said or done by new atheists, they demure. Or they link to things that do not say what they imagined they said. I think many of the accommodationists are making a similar mistake.

    The real problem appears to be that religionists are having trouble with the understanding that atheists think their religious beliefs are as wrong, silly, and potentially harmful as the religionists thing those other “wrong” religions and superstitions are. And for the same reasons! Perhaps they think that we think they are “stupid”– because THEY think the Scientologists or the Moonies or the Muslims are stupid.

    Plus there is this niggling fear that if they question faith… they might lose faith… and be damned forever– that’s a big incentive to find something wrong with the critics of faith.

    Oh yes, and they’ve been lead to believe that people that believe as they do are the most moral of all– just like the believers in all those other religions!

    I think it’s good to stir up religionists in this way. For some it may be just what they need to become freethinkers.

    I’m also all for making nice and accommodating and people doing whatever it is they think need to do to encourage reason and build communities and lessen superstition– but I don’t think “new atheists” need to change their approach. I don’t think they are really as “in your face” or “out there” or “strident” as their critics seem to believe. Rather, I think there is this perception about new atheists being a certain way and then a lot of rhetoric and semantics that encourages this bias and confirmation of this bias without any actual evidence to support the original belief. It’s socially acceptable to malign atheists in a way that it is not socially acceptable to malign any other minority group. It’s just assumed that these strident atheists are out there getting in every one’s faces and telling them how stupid they are when no-one is doing that nor have they ever done so.

    Lots of woo seems pretty harmless to me. I segued into new age woo as I left religion, because I was under the delusion (propagated by religion) that faith was good… and that you should be able to “feel” the truth. But I don’t really want to be propping up this idea that faith is a virtue anymore. However, I do think New Age woo undermines more fundamentalist religions and I’d rather see much more of such belief than fundamentalist Christianity or Islam. Sometimes I ask Christians who come to skeptical sites why they think I should take their beliefs about Jesus: the 3-in-1 god more seriously than they take the reincarnationists.

    However, instead of getting into discussions about god and such when the subject comes up in real life, I tend to opine, “I wish there was evidence that souls were real.” I sidestep the whole god thing and step away from any delusion promotion that people may be looking to engage in. If pressed I might point out that if there were any evidence that immortal souls were real, scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that information for their own benefit as well as the benefit of humanity (what could be more important?) and we wouldn’t need faith; the evidence would suffice. But as it is, there is nothing which distinguishes one persons belief about what happens after death from another’s… and no reason for me to believe that anyone actually knows anything about such things– or about anything supernatural or divine. Real things should be distinguishable from illusions when scientifically tested and souls (like gods) are not. I used to be silent when such discussions came up, but I didn’t want my silence to be perceived as agreement.

    I consider myself a new atheist… or at least a fan of the new atheists, and yet I’m too timid to get in anyone’s face and I restrict my criticism of religion to skeptic websites and meetings with other skeptics/atheists. No “woo” need ever know what I think of their “woo” if they stay away from such forums.

  24. articulett says

    And for the record, I don’t consider anything said to a “woo” on a skeptics forum “getting in their face”. If a woo wished to share their opinion on a skeptics forum, they are inviting skeptics to share their opinion in return.

    Getting in peoples face implies goes up to people minding their own business and telling them off. I don’t know of any atheists that do that. I think that is much, much more typical of believers.

  25. Natalie says

    articullett, I don’t disagree with you in any strong sense, and I totally understand where you’re coming from and relate to it. But I honestly have seen atheists say some pretty hostile things to believers and new agers and stuff, and take a very combative approach. I totally agree with you that that approach isn’t NEARLY as common as believers and accomodationists and other critics of “new atheism” suggest, but I also don’t think it’s fair to say it isn’t there at all. And my main objections here are

    – That it seems like a lot of anti-atheists are a bit overly critical of what is said by accomodationists. “Finding common ground might help in meeting our goals” is not, for instance, the same thing as suggesting religion deserves special deference or protection from criticism. It simply means considering our options and strategies.

    – That it seems like the atheist movement and community hasn’t put in as much effort as it could to accommodate people who aren’t coming from exactly the same socio-cultural position, or who have different social and cultural needs. e.g. ignorance of the role of churches in maintaining a sense of communal identity amongst people of colour or LGBT people or whatever and not being sufficiently self-critical of the shortcomings of an internet-and-media based community while not offering any alternatives, failure to be sufficiently self-critical of their own subject position re: race, gender, class, education, access to internet and media, etc. and failure to make the community as welcoming a space as possible to as many people as possible. So when we say that everything good religion offers (ethics, art, poetry, myth, wonder, beauty, community, etc) is possible in the absence of religion, that’s great, and it’s true, but we could do a much better job of DEMONSTRATING that instead of simply TELLING people that.

    By the way, when I use all caps, it’s just for emphasis of words… a way of emulating the speech pattern in my head. I’m not worked up or angry or anything, I totally respect your positions, and I’m enjoying this conversation.

  26. Natalie says

    … oops, when I said “anti-atheists are critical of…” I meant to say “anti-theists are critical of”… :p

  27. says

    Great stuff, articulett. I especially liked “One thing the “new atheists” are doing that the accommodationists are not is that they are making faith more embarrassing.” Yes. I think of it as putting believers on the back foot. I added this to Greta’s version of the goals of new atheism, a couple of days ago.

  28. julian says

    I don’t know of any atheists that are actually saying “you’re an idiot and your beliefs are stupid”

    I do. Several actually but I doubt they’d fit in with the normal “new” crowd. The ones I’ve met were all right wing, very casual about any kind of bigotry (except when they could cite it as an example of Muslim bigotry) and liked to use Wiccan as an insult (not for the reasons you might think. for them it was associated with women, feminism and how women are terribly irrational creatures) alongside po-mo (used to describe anything that they thought was irrational. usually concerns over racism).

    Funny thing I never see those guys (or those kinds of guys) in these discussions or used as examples. It’s always something by PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins or (until recently) Christopher Hitchens. And the quotes never support any accusations of bigotry against believers.

    That’s the weirdest thing about accommodationists and anti-gnus in general. There are people out there who’re guilty of what they’re accusing gnus of and yet they go entirely ignored.

  29. F says

    look more at the best that religion has to offer

    It’s been done, but why don’t those who are interested go ahead and do that. I think they’ll find that the best religion has to offer isn’t much to write home about. (But feel free to endlessly write about how we all should do it.)

    @ nataliebaldwin

    I don’t agree with the position some take in response that there’s absolutely nothing to be said for often taking a gentler or more nuanced approach to trying to coax people out of their woo.

    There will always be a few people at the end of any bell curve. This is hardly a majority position, so I don’t know why people constantly harp on this. However, the inverse of this is exactly how the accomodationists behave, incessantly berating everyone else for Doing It Wrong, while they do nearly nothing but complain about the tone of the “new atheists” instead of executing their Grand Plan for Building Bridges with the reasonable religious to get them to support things like education, science, equal rights, and respect for other human beings.

  30. Natalie says

    Yeah, to be honest, I really think you guys have made a lot of good points, and I think I’ll be rethinking my views on this a bit. Like… intuitively it makes sense to imagine that combative approaches aren’t productive in such a dialogue, especially when dealing with emotionally-based beliefs, based on experience with one-on-one conversation… but this isn’t one-on-one conversation, and is there actually any evidence to suggest such approaches have been less successful than more compromising or accommodating ones? Maybe the accommodating, deferential, “religion isn’t so bad” approaches have actually been the ones that did the most damage and have proven themselves ineffective?

    So thanks, everyone! I always appreciate being shaken up a bit and finding compelling arguments that leave me re-appraising my views and looking at things from new angles. Cheers! 🙂

  31. Stewart says

    “So thanks, everyone! I always appreciate being shaken up a bit and finding compelling arguments that leave me re-appraising my views and looking at things from new angles.”

    That’s what we’re here for!

  32. Gareth Chan says

    The party’s probably over, but in case anyone’s still reading: Greta Christina has made interesting points about the different ways atheists can voice their views. She has a great talk (available on YouTube) and several articles about how the atheist movement resembles the LGBT movement, and what it can learn from that movement; very similar arguments have taken place within that movement over the decades. One of her suggestions is that atheists should “let firebrands be firebrands, and let diplomats be diplomats”. Among other things, she believes that the two kinds of approach work better in tandem than either would work alone.

    The whole talk is on YouTube here: It’s about an hour long, but everything is worth listening to. The “firebrand/diplomat” bit starts at about 12’30”. Later on she makes similar points to Natalie’s, about making the atheist movement a welcoming destination for a wider variety of people.

    I’m sure at least some people will have seen/heard/read these points already, but they’re so relevant to the direction this thread has taken that I couldn’t resist mentioning them.


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