I’ve been away all day, shuttling family about, so I’ve been trying to catch up the ongoing drama in the conflict between those simpering accommodationists and us mean new atheists. If you’ve got a little time — there is a bit of tl;dr about it all — read Sam Harris’s exchanges with Philip Ball. Sam Harris we all know; Ball is a very reputable science writer who is also very much one of those “I’m an atheist, but…” fellows. It’s an infuriating conversation because, as usual, rather than talking about what us “New Atheists” actually think, Harris has to constantly go back and address the blithe misconceptions of the accommodationist.
But Harris’s conclusion in particular is worth reading anyway.
I realize that my tone of chastisement has probably grown very tedious and could be mistaken for hostility. But I can’t help but feel that there is a great asymmetry between our points of view – both in how fully they have been thought out and in their degree of the moral seriousness. I see the perpetuation of ancient tribalism and ignorance (read “religion”) to be a grave problem, and the source of much unnecessary suffering in the world; you claim that the problem is either not very serious or that it is unavoidable–in either case there is not much to be done. You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God, and when specific instances are pointed out to you, you deem them to be inevitable (if it’s not religion it would be something else), or you defensively say, well of course I object to that instance of religious stupidity: parents shouldn’t withhold blood transfusions from their children!… But the truth is, a comprehensive response to the problem of religious ignorance is possible, and a piecemeal response is totally unprincipled and bound to seem so. Our world has be shattered, and is reliably shattered anew with each subsequent generation, by irreconcilable claims about God and his magic books. Until we stop enabling these competing delusions–by our silence and by our silly attempts to change the subject–we will have no one to blame but ourselves when medieval ideas come crashing into public life–as they do, and will, to our great detriment.
It’s a weird thing to argue with an atheist who claims religion is unavoidable (Oh? So what’s so special about you?) and isn’t that bad or is actually beneficial (So why aren’t you going to church for your health?), but they’re out there and they are irritatingly inconsistent.
Then there’s the mischaracterization of outspoken atheists and the apparent contempt for theistic scientists. Here’s another example of that attitude.
We should not overlook the New Atheists’ support for science, progressive views and legitimization of non-belief as a viable alternative. Unfortunately, their record is also marked by an intolerance of religious people and the alienation of potential progressive allies.
That always baffles me. So if I say that I’m proud to be an atheist, I think theism is a profound fallacy that is incompatible with scientific thinking, that’s intolerance and then these religious allies are going to get pissy and decide evolution isn’t worth defending anymore? That’s an awfully broad interpretation of intolerance, and an extraordinarily dismissive opinion of the theistic evolutionists. I guarantee you that no matter how rude a New Atheist might be to religion, Ken Miller will never give up on teaching evolution or trying to explain science to creationists. The accommodationists can stop trying to scare us into silence with these goofy, unrealistic threats.
The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes. This kind of mistaken solicitousness for the sensitivities of religious people, the fear that they will take their ball and go home if others are mean to them, is not new. During the run up to the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, there were many accommodationists of that era who did not want Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes because they felt that his scorn for religious beliefs would alienate potential religious allies. We now view Darrow’s performance in that trial as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools.
There is no downside to godless vigor. Nobody has come up with a reason yet why we should sit down and shut up.