You gave a simply lovely speech, dear

I’m late in doing a meany-atheist dance on Stephen Prothero’s sweet little valentine to the laydeez but here it is anyway.

Today, most Americans associate unbelief with the old-boys network of New Atheists, but there is a new generation of unbelievers emerging, some of them women and most of them far friendlier than Hitchens and his ilk. Although the arguments of angry men gave this movement birth, it could be the stories of women that allow it to grow up.

So men are angry and women are friendly. So angry is the opposite of friendly and vice versa. Well that’s wrong for a start – it’s perfectly possible for people to be both. Being angry about particular things does not rule out being friendly; it especially doesn’t rule out being friendly some of the time. Granted some people are friendly all of the time, but they tend to be bores or intrusive or both. Who doesn’t know this? People who are never angry about anything aren’t paying attention! You can’t have real compassion without anger. If you see the world as it is, you’re going to be angry some of the time.

That fact by itself makes Prothero’s ludicrously sexist opposition incredibly insulting. Men have the energy and passion and commitment to get angry, and women are lukewarm and permanently unthinkingly friendly. Well the hell with that – and fortunately it isn’t true.

I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.

That’s a lot of bad stupidness in one paragraph. One, that is not ‘the old line of the New Atheists.’ Very few ‘new’ atheists say simply ‘Religious people are stupid’ – that’s a typical anti-atheist canard, meant to inflame hatred against any atheists who actually argue the case for atheism. Two – that second thing is crap. If atheism is ‘just another point of view,’ then it really is on all fours with religion (and other ‘perspectives’), where we just choose whatever we want to believe and there is no need for a reality check or an argument or evidence. But atheism of the kind that goes to meetings, as opposed to just non-theism, is based on reasons. People are active or argumentative or meeting-attending atheists for reasons, real reasons, and we don’t agree that atheism is ‘just another point of view,’ because we think it gets things right. We think theism gets things wrong, and atheism gets things (the relevant things) right. We don’t think all points of view are pretty much the same kind of thing, all mixing it up together in the great salad bowl of life.

These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

No. Dead wrong. Wrong all the way down. Wanting to confront religion and dispute its truth claims frankly (which does not equate to having the goal of ‘a world without religion,’ which I think most of us know is a highly unrealistic goal and potentially coercive) is not an invitation to a duel, it is simply an expectation of an equal right to talk freely. It is also not the case that the ‘fair’ alternative is simply ‘a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect,’ because that’s not the real or the only issue. We don’t want to beg for recognition and respect just because we exist, because we are another point of view; we want to be able to say why religious truth claims are mistaken. That’s part of what ‘new’ atheism is about. We are of course legally able to do that, but we’re not always socially or institutionally able to, and that’s why there is a need for campaigning and agitation and, yes, anger.

There was one female speaker, however, and she spoke in a different voice. Amanda Gulledge is a self-described “Alabama mom” who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the “natural goodness” of her two sons…

Got that? Is it clear enough? She’s ‘a mom,’ so she’s acceptable – she’s not one of those angry loudmouth aggressive women who would dream of self-describing as say a lawyer or a geneticist or an engineer – no, she’s a ‘mom,’ and bless her heart, she speaks from that cuddly organ instead of from her pesky and doubtless feeble little head, and she talks about her children. Isn’t that sweet? Don’t you feel less threatened already? Now she’s the kind of woman we can approve of, we professors in religion departments.

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