Wot’s it matta?

What does it all matter? I’ve been engaging in a couple of blog discussions of that question – about why people get so riled about Mooney and Kirshenbaum, what’s at stake, whence comes all the heat. (I’ve also lost a friend over it, a price I resent paying.)

One way of explaining is to quote a little of the preface to The God Delusion. It starts with Lalla Ward’s misery at school and her parents’ asking why she never said she wanted to leave and her reply: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

Lots of people don’t know they can, and it is worth letting them know: you can. (You can even invoke ‘Yes we can’ if you want to. Why not?)

Dawkins goes on to talk in particular about the US and its religiosity:

There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves. Partly, this is because the very word ‘atheist’ has been assiduously built up as a terrible and frightening label…The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago…The reason so many people don’t notice atheists is that so many of us are reluctant to ‘come out’…Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them. [pp 3-4]

There: that’s part of why. It’s because of that. It’s because of social pressure, majoritarian pressure, the pressure of public opinion and rhetoric and ‘framing.’ It’s easy for me to be an atheist, but I’m a nerd living in a big coastal city; the fact that it’s easy for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone. It’s not. It’s hard for a great many people – it’s not a live option – or if it is it’s one with a huge price tag attached. And that’s bad because there is nothing wrong with being an atheist. It’s not a crime, not even a thought-crime. So Dawkins is right – people in the US at least need to know they’re not weirdos marooned on Planet Theism, and the only way for them to know that is for it to be true, and the only way for it to be true is for more and more atheists to be openly atheist as opposed to bashfully apologetically silently atheist.

This has started, partly thanks to Dawkins’s book. Sure, there’s a lot of irritating bluster along the way – but that’s not the end of the world. There is also a fair amount of worthwhile discussion of what we know and how we know it, and that makes a nice change from legless chat about what ‘God’ wants us to do. M&K have a fixed idea that all this will cause Americans to hate science, or to fail to stop hating science, or to hate science more than they already do, or something like that – but M&K have yet to offer a coherent argument for exactly why they think that and why the rest of us should think it too. Nothing daunted by the lack of an argument, they are trying very hard to persuade everyone that they are right and that atheists should go back to being bashfully apologetically silent. But we don’t want to do that. That’s the whole point – we want to stop doing that and do the other thing instead. We think M&K need a much, much more compelling argument than anything they’ve offered yet to convince us to go back into our little pens.

So that’s what it all matters.

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