Atheists like me are less willing to settle for the status quo
Jason Streitfeld says some very cogent things on the subject of public displays of atheism.
For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I’m not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us.
Indeed; and more: atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority, in an existing context in which religious authority is not just not rejected, not even just welcomed and embraced, but made all-but-mandatory. If religious authority weren’t always being shoved at us, it might seem otiose to bother rejecting it, but that’s not the situation we’re in – not in the US and not entirely in other parts of the Anglophone world either, let alone more frankly theocratic states. The pope thinks he has every right to order women to bear children they don’t want to bear, and to tell hospitals not to save the lives of pregnant women if it takes an abortion to do that.
News flash: The public already thinks atheists have no moral compass. People just don’t understand these issues, but they think they do. That’s the real problem: people are ignorant of their own ignorance. The public needs exposure to what atheists actually think–not in an inaccessible, academic way, but in a clear, practical and relevant way. Right now, they’re mostly relying on misinformation when they criticize atheists.
And, sadly, they’re getting even more misinformation, and old misinformation repeated and re-enforced, by some atheists. Even some atheists are telling people that atheists are rude, mean, intolerant, bullies, dicks – you name it.
Jean’s argument ultimately rests on the claim that people cannot learn what many atheists want them to learn, and that, at best, our efforts at education will be fruitless. This is what Coyne seems to be bothered about. It’s not just Jean’s conclusion. It is her argument that is so upsetting. Atheists like me are less willing to settle for the status quo. We are far less satisfied with the public’s current perceptions of atheism. Furthermore, we would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt. We are optimistic that the public can learn a whole lot more than Jean seems to think. Of course, atheists will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented for a long time to come. But the discourse might move forward nonetheless. It certainly won’t help if we stop trying.
The status quo aspect is key. The mantra that atheists should be careful of what they say in public (and when in doubt, err on the side of saying nothing) is just more of the same. We already have that arrangement, and we think it’s a bad arrangement, and we want to Fix It. It’s the status quo, and we want to change the status quo, so that things will be better.