January 12, 2014

Atheists Promoting Rationality

Shadbolt House - a mix of modernist rationalit...
Shadbolt House - a mix of modernist rationality and constructivist theatricality. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I trust that you have seen Jeffrey Tayler's excellent article on Salon.com by now, 15 ways atheists can stand up for rationality. It is a good read, and I have two comments about it I'd like to make here. One concerns the notion that atheists can promote rationality, and the other involves the willingness to speak up on matters of religion.

First and most important, the idea that we atheists can (and should) stand up for rationality is something with which I readily agree. If we really aim to contribute to the erosion of superstition, magical thinking, sectarian conflict, and the like, reason is our friend. But what does this mean? I think it means that we need to make a concerted effort to be reasonable, rationale, and skeptical. I don't think this point can be emphasized often enough, as it has important implications for how we interact with religious believers and one another.

Time for a specific example of how this orientation to rationality can (and should) affect our behavior. Petty name calling is something that is not terribly rational in the sense that someone who mindlessly hurls various slurs and insults at others is not what most of us would consider a model of rationality. We need more models of rationality. In fact, more of us need to be models of rationality. And one of the things that means is that cruel name calling is probably something we should avoid.

Why do I mention name calling and not any of the other countless examples of how we might do better at modeling rationality? I pick this example because I think that refraining from name calling is probably one of the easiest things we can do and yet many atheists are not refraining from it. Why not start with making a change that ought to be a relatively easy one to make?

The second thing I'd like to address from Tayler's post is what he has to say about assertive atheism. I agree with him here, even as I acknowledge that this will probably be the most controversial part of his post.
There is no reason why we should shy away from speaking freely about religion, no reason why it should be thought impolite to debate it, especially when, as so often happens, religious folk bring it up on their own and try to impose it on others.
Of course, there are reasons why one might choose to shy away from freely expressing one's opinions on matters of religion. The key is that we need to be the ones making that choice in either way we decide to make it. In one situation, perhaps we should speak up and share our views on religion. In another situation, we might decide that it makes more sense to keep our views to ourselves. Perhaps we would achieve better outcomes if more of us were more willing to speak out more often. Still, I think this has to be a matter of individual choice.

Tayler says that he is not "counseling incivility," and I take him at his word. I read his post as seeking to empower atheists to speak up when we decide we'd like to and not as telling us that we must speak out in all circumstances. He does say that openly discussing the subject of religion, even when uncomfortable, is one way that we can "advance the cause of rationality," and I think he's right. Biting our tongues too often probably is not the best course of action, but we will each have to decide for ourselves how often is too often.

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