Who sets the tone

Julian pointed out in a comment on Wassup with the new atheism? that a lot of people think that atheists are dogmatic anti-religionists, and that if we now have good reason to believe that this is the impression being created, we should think about altering our tune.

There is something to that, there’s no denying it. It is quite possible that vocal atheists are alienating huge numbers of people who would otherwise be secularists and/or liberal believers, with potentially harmful results. This is of course the drum that Matthew Nisbet never tires of beating, though he does it very aggressively and also very manipulatively (as in repeatedly claiming that Paul Kurtz is not a vocal atheist but a politely bashful one of the type that Nisbet favours – which is just absurd) – but the worry could be real even though Nisbet shares it. But…

But I still think, once we’ve thought about it, we shouldn’t alter our tune. Partly that is because people think atheists are dogmatic and rude and naughty because they keep being told that, endlessly, monotonously, and with wild exaggeration and often just plain invention. This is people thinking atheists are dogmatic the way people think Obama is a Muslim or a socialist or a guy who ‘pals around’ with Bill Ayers. People thought that during the campaign (and some still think it now) because rivals wanted them to think that, and set about to make them think that. Rivals made stuff up. Many theists are very very angry at Dawkins and at overt atheism in general, and as a result, they say things which are not accurate; they make stuff up. Now here’s the deal: I don’t think people should let that kind of thing set the terms of debate. I think we should resist. I think we should resist because that’s a bad corrupt stupid unhelpful way to carry on debate, and I don’t think we should let it win. I think we should deny it a victory.

This is what happens when reformers and innovators hit a nerve – people who don’t want reform and innovation tell whoppers about the reformers. It happened with second-wave feminism, and it hasn’t yet stopped happening – feminists still get called stupid sexist names for the crime of being feminists. That happened to me a few months ago on a blog I used to read, much to my surprise – it was like walking down the street chatting with a friend and suddenly finding myself in a roomfull of very drunk fratboys, covered with beery vomit.

That shouldn’t be what sets the tone, and it shouldn’t be what decides what we can say. It’s bullying, and we shouldn’t give in to it. That’s especially true because the overtness of the atheism is the whole point. It is the being silenced – the deference, as Jean said – that we are objecting to, so if we went right back to being silenced because believers demanded more deference – well, we would be giving up the very thing being disputed. Yes, it’s often good to build coalitions with believers and so on, but not at the price of forever pretending that there’s nothing the slightest bit dubious about religious beliefs. We’re tired of that, just as women are tired of being considered second-class citizens or afterthoughts or property or evil tempting sluts luring men to their doom.

So, no. I take the point, I see what is meant, I understand the risks (some of them anyway); but no.

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