Why is Charlotte Allen so mad at atheists?

The LA Times offered me a little space to write a reply to Charlotte Allen in their online edition, so I did. You can read it at the LA Times or below the fold.

I’m already getting lots of unhappy email from people, so I must have done it right.

Charlotte Allen is very, very angry with us atheists — that’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from her furious broadside in The Times on May 17. She can’t stand us; we’re unpopular; we’re a problem. What, exactly, is the greatest crime of modern atheists?

We’re boring.

I can’t actually argue with that. It’s true. We’re all just ordinary people — your neighbors, your friends, your relatives. I know atheists who are accountants, real estate agents, schoolteachers, lawyers, soldiers, journalists, even ministers (but don’t tell their congregations!). Our leading lights are college professors, scientists, philosophers, theologians and other such pedantic, scholarly riffraff. For entertainment, they read books, and if they want to do something ambitious and dramatic, they write books. I’m one of them, so trust me, I know — we don’t exactly live the James Bond lifestyle. Calling us boring is a fair cop.

But still — why would anyone get angry about that? I find myself bored witless by games of chance, but I don’t write irate letters condemning all card players and demanding the immediate shuttering of all casinos. I’m afraid I don’t believe Allen. There are other motivations behind her denunciations, and they aren’t as simple as that she finds us boring.

She should drop the pretense that the objectionable part of our character is our lack of excitement. What really annoys Allen is that in our books, blogs and media appearances, we challenge religious preconceptions. That’s all we do. It’s admittedly not exactly a roller-coaster ride of thrills, but it does annoy the superstitious and the fervent true believers in things unseen and unevidenced. We are also, admittedly, often abrasive in being outspoken critics of religious dogma, but it’s also very hard to restrain our laughter and contempt when we see the spectacle of god-belief in full flower.

We witness many people who proudly declare that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, roughly 9,000 years after the domestication of dogs, 5,000 years after the founding of Jericho and contemporaneous with the invention of the plow. They cling to these beliefs despite contradictions with history, let alone physics, geology and biology, because they believe the Bible is a literal history and science text. We find much to ridicule in these peculiarly unreal ideas.

We live in a world where the majority of the population are quite convinced that they have a direct pipeline to an omnipotent, omniscient being who has told them exactly how to live and what is right and wrong, and has spelled out his divine will in holy books. Unfortunately, there are many holy books, and they all disagree with each other, and of all these multitudes claiming possession of such a potent source of information, we similarly see widespread disagreement. This god seems to be an exceptionally unreliable oracle — most of what he has supposedly said is wrong. We atheists do take glee in pointing out God’s lack of consistency, which I’m sure Allen finds irritating.

Contrary to Allen’s claim that we aren’t interested in criticizing the important elements of religious belief, we are: We go right to the central issue of whether there is a god or not. We’re pretty certain that if there were an all-powerful being pulling the strings and shaping history for the benefit of human beings, the universe would look rather different than it does. It wouldn’t be a place almost entirely inimical to our existence, with a history that reveals our existence was a fortunate result of a long chain of accidents tuned by natural selection. Most of the arguments we’ve heard that try to reconcile god and science seem to make God a subtle, invisible, undetectable ghost who at best tickles the occasional subatomic particle when no one is looking. It seems rather obvious to us that if his works are undetectable, you have no grounds for telling us what he’s been up to.

Allen requests that we atheists take religious belief seriously. We do; it’s hard not to take seriously a bizarre collection of antiquated superstitions that are furiously waved in our faces in our schools, on television, in our politics and even on newspaper editorial pages. That we take the intellectually bankrupt beliefs of religion seriously is precisely why we do question it, and will continue to question it, in our boring way: by simply speaking out.