April 4, 2007

Atheist Strategy in the Age of New Atheism: External Attacks

I remain unconvinced that much is new about the "new atheism," however, I do welcome the attention atheism is receiving in the mainstream media. Used correctly, this is an opportunity for us to put atheism in the mind of the public, correct the many misconceptions, and to encourage believers to question the value of the superstitions to which they cling. At the same time, I encourage my fellow atheists to think strategically about how best to use this opportunity. The price of suddenly finding ourselves in the spotlight is that our mistakes will be amplified, so it is imperative that we remain mindful.

The Nature of External Attacks

Although some Christians are at least trying to recognize the value of our position, it seems accurate to characterize the most vocal Christian response as one of condemnation. While this is nothing new, there is an interesting component of the Christian response that warrants recognition. As Austin Cline recently pointed out, many believers simply refuse to address our criticism of religion and instead focus on creating imaginary types of atheists to attack (e.g., "fundamentalist" atheists, etc.). This approach puts us on the defensive and lets the Christian off the hook in that he/she can continue to ignore our points about religion.

The more outspoken the atheist, the easier it is for the Christian to confuse the matter with labels of "militant," "fundamentalist," and the like. Because the uninformed public is bombarded with Christian attacks on atheists at a much higher frequency than the actual words of atheists, they form a hostile mindset before they ever hear from us. When they do eventually hear from us, it is virtually always from Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. The manner in which Harris and Dawkins frame their criticism of religion, combined with the preconceived notion that atheists are "militant," "fundamentalist," etc. has the predicted effects.

My comments here are not intended as criticism of Harris and Dawkins for what they have said about religion. I agree with them, and I applaud their willingness to speak out. The question for me is not about how we can somehow water down our approach but about how we can supplement it with other approaches designed to defuse the Christian tactic I just described.

Responding to External Attacks

The first thing we must do is define "new atheism" for ourselves and publicize what this term means and what it does not mean. According to Gary Wolf, credited by Austin with coining the phrase, it seems that we can characterize it as an assertive form of atheism in which the atheist makes no attempt to apologize for one's atheism and in which the atheist is willing to speak out. Thus, the term describes atheists who are willing to discuss atheism, who do not shy away from it, and who are not interested in remaining silent of religion if they believe it is harmful.

My second recommendation is that we continue to highlight the contrast between religious extremism and atheist extremism. It is true that some atheists seem to make the same cognitive errors that are evident among religious extremists. However, there is simply no atheist equivalent to militant believers, fundamentalist religion, religious terrorism, or the many other dangerous forms religion takes in our modern world.

Third, we need to recognize that the Christians who attack the straw man of militant atheism are doing so as a defensive maneuver so they do not have to consider the irrationality and devastating consequences of their faith. While we are contrasting religious extremism with atheism, we must simultaneously maintain our criticism of religion. Our goal is not one of proselytizing but one of encouraging believers to think critically.

Fourth, we must take a deep breath and respond to the attacks with a cool head. This is important because Christians would like nothing better than to bait us so that we begin to look more like the militants they have created. Remember, reason is on our side. Science is on our side. Even common sense is on our side.

Fifth, don't back down. Religion by itself is nothing more than a set of irrational beliefs. However, we cannot ignore the consequences of acting on these beliefs. Whether it is bombing abortion clinics, flying planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11, using starvation as an opportunity for proselytizing, interfering with end-of-life decisions, or blocking stem cell research, the negative impact of religion is evident for all to see. We should be angry. All persons who value freedom, reason, and compassion for others have reason to be angry.

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