The New Atheism: A Boon to the Religious Right?

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I have said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again - the only thing new about "the new atheism" is that the mainstream news media has started paying attention to it thanks to recent books by prominent atheists. Nevertheless, this recent attention has thrust atheism into the spotlight, offering us a platform we haven't had for a while. As a result, a growing number of atheists are coming forward and speaking out. In this brief window, the taboo of criticizing religious beliefs is increasingly fragile. And yet, some atheists and moderate Christians are starting to ask whether our efforts will have the opposite of their intended effects and end up bolstering religious extremism.

As atheists are given a greater voice, we become a more visible target for the religious right in rallying their base. Christian extremists have long cried persecution. Many Americans have found these complaints ridiculous, noting that control of the government isn't the strongest evidence of persecution. But our presence, as we become increasingly vocal, may signal a change. The uneducated may confuse our criticism of religion with persecution, benefiting the right. We must be careful that we do not play into their hands, strengthening them while thinking that we are making tangible gains elsewhere.

Next, there is a very real risk that atheism will be equated with another form of extremism in the minds of many Americans. Our more confrontational tactics must be balanced with an emphasis on education, critical thinking, and more subtle criticism. I am not suggesting that we abandon the assault on religion launched by our colleagues but that we supplement it with other approaches. If the American people come to perceive us as simply another form of extremism (and there are indications that this is already happening), our credibility becomes no greater than that of the Christian extremists we oppose.

I think that a backlash to our increased voice is almost inevitable, but we may be able to postpone or minimize it. I am not talking about the sort of immediate backlash evidenced in comments from prominent Christians (e.g., Falwell, Bush, etc.). Rather, I am referring to a larger scale cultural backlash which may rear its head over the next couple of years. Those of us who are enjoying what we may experience as a newfound freedom to speak out must be mindful of our tactics and their possible long-term impact. An over-reliance on in-your-face confrontation just may assure a backlash. The American people will only have so much tolerance for attacks on their cherished values before we are again shut out from public discourse.

So what do we do? The first step involves widespread recognition of the pitfalls we face, some of which I have addressed here. Beyond this, I think our greatest liability remains our lack of organization. I see a fragmented constellation of nonbelievers, many of which belong to no organizations and some of which belong to redundant groups with little collaboration. This may well be the fatal flaw that stops us in our tracks. What is needed to avoid these and other pitfalls is a strategic approach through which nonbelievers come together for reality-based planning and craft a multi-pronged strategy to minimizes redundancy, improve resource utilization, and facilitate deliberate, coordinated action.