As one might expect, the recent emergence of atheist writers onto the public scene continues to face a hearty backlash. As a non-believer who often finds himself in the widely sneered at camp of “milquetoast” moderation, facing a little backlash and self-criticism is, I think, a healthy thing. And when Sam Harris keeps harping on Francis Collins’ mostly harmless infatuation with a waterfall, I have to admit I cringe a little. Not that I don’t also cringe at Collins’ attempts to “poetically” mash science and religion together, but honestly, let the poor man have his Jesus in the dewy grass.
That said, however, its getting pretty frustrating to see so many criticisms of the “new atheism” that are simply, well, crummy. While there are questionable points of style and substance worth seriously debating, Harris and Dawkins in particular are both literate and measured enough to have by and large kept their arguments and condemnations on point and productive (Hitchens is another matter for another day). Consequently, I find that criticisms of them as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned public discourse” tend to be predictable exercises from the playbook of intellectual laziness. Exploiting the “angry atheist” meme. Complaining that their ideas are not “new” but avoiding entirely the rather more important questions of whether they are correct or specially relevant at this moment in history. Most irritating of all is how rarely these critics ever delve into any actual substantive arguments, or even bother to cite legitimate examples of the author’s supposed crimes: instead we are treated to brief and dubious summaries that reek of straw men.
A recent USAToday opinion piece by Tom Krattenmaker is a case in point: it manages to lambaste modern atheist writers in one fell swoop without ever actually citing anything they’ve said. Its single substantive example is a quote from an anonymous correspondent, who is given no time or place to explain or defend their (admittedly harsh) view further. His vague summary of the “secularists'” opinions claims that they make broadsides against “all religion” without distinction or further nuance, an assertion which anyone that has read these books knows is false. He even raises the usual “Stalin, Hitler, Pol-Pot” example without any apparent recognition that both Harris and Dawkins have addressed this complaint directly in their books. Could Krattenmaker simply not have read them in the first place? I find it hard to discard the idea out of hand.
Now, to some extent, the critics do have a valid complaint when it comes to the less literate and far less measured atheists out there in the wilds of the internet. Many of the sloppy equivalences Dawkins and Harris are actually quite innocent of can be found amongst their less sophisticated fans. There are legitimate defenses of this as well, of course. For one thing, many of the non-believers today entering public debate on this topic are doing so for the very first time, waking up and realizing that they are different than those around them, rejecting old beliefs, or even enduring the trauma of rejection from family and friends. They may well be overly nasty, dismissive, or even boldly ignorant, but often for forgivable, as well as very temporary, reasons. And of course, via the fine art of nutpicking, a few rash or extreme comments from universally unavoidable idiots can be used to make any group or point of view look crazy.
Still, non-believers simply cannot avoid or deny the reality that we have long been painted as nasty, undeservedly arrogant, and close-minded, and that the image is already well embedded in the public imagination. It doesn’t much matter whether the stereotype is fair, or that our critics can get away with far worse even while snidely lecturing us on civility. It just is the way it is, and if we want to play against type, then we really are just going to have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
In this light, I think Michael Shermer’s own entry into this debate over tone has been been somewhat misread as being more accusatory than it actually is. As I read it, it’s more of a “let’s keep these principles in mind as we move forward with this” than an actual finger-wag. Many atheist activists bristle at the idea of “framing”, and honestly, to the extent it basically means giving some irrational claims a pass just for tactical reasons, I share the disdain. I do want to treat religious moderates as allies, but not at the price of condescending to them about our outstanding differences (how is that supposed to make them respect us in any case?). To that end, I think Shermer has done a decent job of compiling some worthy cautionary concerns that don’t actually preclude being critical and honest. You can make skeptics wiser, more nuanced, and more understanding of other people… but trying to make us less skeptical, or selectively skeptical, is ultimately a fool’s game.