June 5, 2007

Atheism: Not Just a Rant Against Religion

The Washington Post recently published an article by Benedicta Cipolla of the Religion News Service asking "Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?" The article notes that some humanists have criticized atheists for needing "to offer more vision than rhetoric." Never mind that many atheists have recognized that atheism is nothing but a lack of theistic belief and have embraced secular humanism. Once again, we seem to have a story that helps publicize atheism while simultaneously disparaging atheists.

The central point of the article is that prominent atheist authors are being criticized by fellow freethinkers for not offering enticing alternatives to religion. That is, "vehement arguments against religion" should be supplemented with explanations about "how a godless worldview can be good."

This strikes me as a clear case of manufactured conflict because I just do not experience this debate anywhere but in mainstream media. I don't see it on the blogs or in the forums, and this tells me that atheists and humanists are getting along well, united in our opposition to religion and preference for reality.

I do not necessarily disagree with the point that more than atheism is necessary. In fact, I have suggested this in previous posts (even though we atheists are supposed to be willfully ignorant of such thoughts). I object to the portrayal of atheists as somehow not realizing or accepting this idea. Yes, many of us do criticize religion. However, many more of us are focusing on providing a positive alternative to religious delusion. After all, this is kind of the point behind the Humanist Symposium!

Some of us embrace secular humanism, others gravitate toward science and nature, and still others see no need to replace religion with anything except reality. How is this diversity a flaw?
"Atheists are somewhat focused on the one issue of atheism, not looking at how to move forward," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association. While he appreciates the way the new atheists have raised the profile of nonbelievers, he said humanists differ by their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders on various issues. "Working with religion," he said, "is not what [atheists] are about."
This is simply not accurate. Many atheists do work with theists in organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Who are these atheists who focus on nothing but atheism? I don't think I've ever met one. We may not all call ourselves humanists, but it is simply not true that most atheists are about nothing but atheism. To the contrary, most atheists I've known spend relatively little time obsessing about atheism.

It seems that the real criticism certain humanists have is for those who see little value in working with religious people. It is the tactics of some atheists to which these humanists object. And yet, I am not sure that this criticism is reality-based itself.
"Atheists don't really ask the question, what are the vital needs that religion meets? They give you the sense that religion is the enemy, which is absurd," said Ronald Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit.
I have certainly been asking these questions. So have most of the atheist blogs with which I am familiar. Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett certainly ask them in their books. Are we outliers, or are articles like this painting an inaccurate picture of atheism?

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