I was interviewed by humanistischer pressedienst about the New Atheism and American politics and religion. I am amazingly erudite auf Deutsch, so much so that I can only read what I said with considerable effort.
OK, I confess—the interview was in English, and it’s the fluency of the interviewer we ought to praise. I’ve put the original text below the fold for those of us who’d rather not read slowly with the aid of a dictionary.
1. You received quite a number of threads, even death threads, for mistreating a cracker that supposedly contained the body of Jesus. You never really made the impression of having any real fear of fanatical catholics on your blog. Is that true and if so, why?
I have a very optimistic view of the fundamental decency of my fellow human beings — and I also have a cynical view of their likely laziness. It’s very easy for them to make threats while sitting on their ass in front of a computer, but highly unlikely that any will try anything violent in the real world.
2. The style of your blog entries is often very polemical. Whom and what are you trying to reach with this rhetorical choice – or are you merely speaking your mind without using any particular strategy?
A little of both. A blog is a rather stream-of-consciousness kind of medium, and I simply write what I think. However, there is also a method to the madness: it unites and inspires people on my side of the arguments to get out and speak out, too.
3. In public speeches and discussions you are far less polemical than you are in your blog. Are you doing this on purpose or is it related to the medium?
Yes to both. A blog post is often a case of taking a strong position, and inviting discussion. Trying to soften the argument by being initially accommodating would blunt the effect. A public discussion with a group or an individual is a very different phenomenon — in that case, we’re trying to negotiate a bit, and figure out what each other are saying.
4. The United States were founded as a secular nation, yet it turned out to be the most religious of all western democracies. What, do you think, are the main causes of that development?
Europe tossed out its craziest and most extreme and most religious elements, and sent them abroad. From our founding, we’ve been built of disparate colonies that were often initially established to shelter religious oddballs.
We also have a constitution that guarantees protection of religious belief, broadly defined. It meant that this was an environment in which the wildest ideas could be expressed and sheltered by the government, so we’ve actually had the opportunity for a little natural selection of religious ideas, and the most extreme have done relatively well.
5. How worried are you about the future of secularism in the United States?
Very. I think we’re at a tipping point here; we could correct the slide into irrationality and become an Enlightenment state once again, or if the crazies succeed in demolishing our educational system, we could be on a one-way slide to third-world status in the next few generations.
6. How would you evaluate the importance of directly critisising religion compared to a more “educational” approach (teaching about science).
They are two different things. Both are important, and we can do both.
7. What, do you think, is the main success of the “New Atheists”?
Mainly, in opening up the discussion and getting people to argue about it. Atheism in the US was either ignored (or blindly associated with Communism), and now at least people are talking and becoming aware.
8. Is science in any way compatible with religion? And: Do atheists tend to be better scientists than religious people?
No to both. Science is a tool for obtaining knowledge using empirical evidence, skepticism and criticism, and constant testing. Religion is a tool for encouraging a false sense of certainty, of stirring up tribalism, and all it has to offer is mysticism and dogma. They are the antithesis of one another.
There are atheists who are bad scientists and theists who are good scientists. All that tells us is that people are quite capable of holding mutually contradictory ideas together in their heads. For instance, Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer, was both a brutal murderer and a devout member of the Christ Lutheran Church. We do not use that fact to claim that torture-murder is compatible with Christianity, or that Christians are better murderers than atheists. Similarly, pointing out the existence of individual scientists are practicing church goers says nothing about the compatibility in a practical, consistent sense of religion and science.
9. How do you evaluate the threat of Islam compared to Christianity?
I’m an American. Islam is a very low proximate threat to us; the rare, high-profile terrorist act does nothing to threaten the core of our culture. It is an absurdity that rational people should oppose, but I’m very remote from it.