Oh hai, why can’t the new atheists be nice?
Why can’t they, asks “interfaith” atheist (don’t ask me, I don’t know how that works) Chris Stedman via a guest post on his blog by someone called Karla McLaren. He says “It’s a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement.” I don’t agree. I think it’s just the 14 millionth installment of “new atheists are bad and mean ick.”
Atheism, McLaren informs us, is more visible thanks to those books by the four New Ones, or as she calls them, “the Fractious Four.” Yes really.
I call them the Fractious Four, which has a cool superhero ring to it (even though their superpower is to argue with everybody).
Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written polemics against religion, and true to the polemical form, they’ve taken a moral absolutist stance which asserts that religion is orders of magnitude more harmful than it is beneficial (if it is beneficial at all). Dennett is a philosopher, and his work is nuanced and, well, philosophical – and I often wonder why he’s included with the polemicists. However, he is, so on we go.
We do? Why do we? Why not not include Dennett if you think he doesn’t belong? Why swallow the clichés whole in order to barf them back at us, even the ones you don’t agree with?
The Fractious Four have put forward some very attention-grabbing ideas in a post-Twin Towers world, where many of us have seriously questioned the purpose and limits of faith and supernaturalism. However, the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them. But see, that’s the point of a polemic … you put forward the most extreme version of your argument, and you don’t make any room for moderating views.
A polemic is a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror. If it’s done skillfully, a truly masterful polemic is melded with a careful overlay of logic, scholarship, and verbal skill. A polemic is made to be powerful and arresting, and it can be a very beautiful thing indeed. But it’s not something you should make a career of, because it’s exhausting (both to create, and eventually, to witness).
And so on, and so on. It’s all like that – treacly and belligerent at the same time, and of course wildly inaccurate in the usual way of gnu-haters. This is the basin of warm sick that Stedman urges on our attention.
The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.
In order to move forward, we need to rely on more than mere polemics. How about if we try dialectics?[iii] Dialectics can be just as fun as polemics (and they require just as much skill), but dialectics have the added benefit of creating community, building intelligent synthesis out of seemingly intractable positions, and teaching people how to manage – rather than merely weaponize – their emotions.
It’s one long “shut up, ur doin it rong, stop doin it the way ur doin it and do it the way I do it, stop arguing and get busy creating community.” It’s written in a fey style so that it perhaps comes across as friendly, but it is in fact very unfriendly indeed. It’s packed with fiercely hostile language about argumentative atheists and their rage and extremism. With friends like these we’ve already got all the enemies we could possibly find room for.