Some Atheists Dissent and Modify Their Claws

A_From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

In my mind, it all started with those signs on the sides of city buses. You know, the ones that say things like, “You can be good without God” or “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” There are quite a few other pithy sayings as well, if you care to look. Soon enough, it hit me—the quaint social roles of the sly village atheist or disenfranchised ex-believer just ain’t what they used to be.
What’s put the “new” in the New Atheist movement is their assertiveness, or even outright aggressiveness, in the public space. For instance, at a recent speech at the University of Toronto, Christopher Hitchens exhorted that “religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt,” and he is well known for practicing what he preaches when on the speaking and debate circuit.
This is in contrast with the more laid-back style of traditional atheists, such as that practiced by Paul Kurtz, the original founder of the Center for Inquiry (among other secular and skeptical organizations). Kurtz sought to offer a positive alternative to religion, known as eupraxsophy—roughly, a collection of philosophical commitments and practices that provide a cosmic outlook and ethical guide to living. He often joined in alliances with religious groups on matters of social justice, and hence had a much more cooperative disposition with religious institutions (though not with religion itself). Fortunately for everyone, some atheists, like Kurtz, dissent and modify their claws.
Then there’s Sam Harris, a subspecies of atheist with yet a different rhetorical manner than either of these two kinds. He takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach between the aggressive and cooperative style. “It’s really just a matter of conversation, and releasing these taboos that prevent us from applying pressure to people’s religious beliefs,” he says. As an example of where pressure is needed, he points to evolution-denying politicians: “there’s no penalty paid by these guys endorsing the starkest ignorance about the state of our knowledge about biology.” In Harris’ view, “there has to be a price paid.” Social pressure is being successfully applied to racism, which has fallen into disrepute in the last 50 years, and “real progress” has been made in talking about this social problem; likewise, he argues, “we can make the same kind of progress in talking about religion.”
Harris might want to recalibrate his manometer, though, since the pressure against racism and the pressure against religion are not of the same variety.
Although racism is straightforwardly bad for those to whom it’s applied, and demonstrably bad for societies that advocate it, the case for religion is much more ambiguous. In his discussion on whether religion oppresses women, for example, Nicholas Kristof makes some particular observations that apply more generally to religion’s role in greater society:

I’ve seen people kill in the name of religion, and I’ve seen people reject condoms in the name of religion even as a tool for fighting AIDS (which usually means people dying). But I’ve also seen Catholic nuns showing unbelievable courage and compassion in corners of the world where no other aid workers are around, and mission clinics and church-financed schools too numerous to mention. And in Islamic countries, I’ve seen mullahs who are hypocritical misogynists but also some imams who are leading a push for education and justice.

Admittedly, taking only what Kristof (or anyone) has seen is but anecdotal evidence. Fine—but just how would one measure billions of hidden, unreported acts of kindness or of oppression and then quantify these into a risk assessment for deciding whether to be religious or to allow freedom of religious practice within a society?
The difficulty is not just gathering the data but asking the right questions. This always struck me as the problem behind Richard Dawkins’ histrionic claim that religion and faith-based education is a form of child abuse. Yes, sometimes injurious results come from religious practice and religious eduction, but sometimes wondrous results appear too. Yet what’s injurious and what’s wondrous? Dawkins likes to anecdotally cherry-pick sexual abuse stories for appraisal of religion’s effects on children. This method nicely poisons the stimulus-response well by setting up emotional revulsion just before a discussion on religion. But he does not seem to give equal time to stories about children who started as throwaways of society and then found success in life through opportunities provided by institutions dedicated to religion. (Call me, Richard, I’ll be happy to supply you a few.)
If something really is an evil, then social pressure, even to the point of aggression, may be called for. But since religion’s overall effects have not been (and perhaps cannot be) scientifically established one way or another, I find it somewhat ironic that those New Atheists who rightly advocate evidentiary thinking by means of scientific investigation so readily default to either offensive vitriol or a bad-until-proven-good stance against religion.
There’s more than a bit of dissent within the ranks of atheism on how best to engage religion without alienating society, and my hope is that some healthy crossover from agnosticism will make all of them a bit more fit for our 21st-century environment.

Category: Expert Opinion, Featured Expert Opinion


12 Responses

  1. Larry Mavis says:

    As a scientist and science educator it always disturbes me to see science held up as the provider of ‘truth’. Those who do this often cherry pick their facts as this article correctly points out.

    I think that Professor of Statistical Theory, University of Cincinnati, George Box had it right when he said in 1979; “All theories are wrong, some are useful”.

  2. Tom Rees says:

    I think there’s two things here. Firstly, the equation is not religion with racism. It’s with racism with anti-atheism (remembering that atheists are the most reviled minority in the USA). The question is how to respond to that. Some argue that the confrontational approach only serves to make that minority even more reviled. In that regard, the analogy to the debate over racism is pretty apposite.

    Second, I think you misunderstand Dawkins’ analogy of religion and child abuse. Sure, there are some cases where religion leads directly to terrible misdeeds, but that’s not the crux of the issue.

    The issue is this: religious education, as it’s currently formulated, equates to a kind of mental strait-jacket. Children are frequently *not* taught about religions. They are told they are a certain religion, their eduction is restricted to a one-sided view of the world, and expected to conform to the beliefs given to them.

    The abuse comes from not providing children with a fully-rounded, open education that will provided them with the tools to become what they want to be.

  3. Hi, Tom. Thanks for the comments. (By the way, I’ve actually read one of your recent articles, and will draw from it in a future post of mine.) Let me make an extended comment on your “mental straight-jacket” charge against religious education.

    First, you are correct that children (in the U.S., anyway) are not often taught about other religions (and it’s worse elsewhere.) However, there are LOTS of things we don’t teach children, because they are not developmentally ready for it. Furthermore, their education need not be restricted to a one-sided view of the world, as you claim, at least not permanently; since, these other viewpoints will come down the pike in social studies classes first, and in general humanities classes later in High School, and perhaps even college, if the kids are fortunate enough to attend.

    Second, many of my friends have children, as do I; and, yes, we expect our kids to conform to the beliefs we give them, though mostly to the ethical beliefs, at first, and certainly not slavishly to the mythical ones, nor even to some of the dogmatic ones if there’s good reason to see those beliefs as tied to a different time and historical culture. It’s case by case reasoning. You see, not everyone religious person in the world is a fundamentalist.

    It’s an easy matter to locate well adjusted, successful children out there who are raised by religious, liberal-minded, reasonable adults. These children grow up, test within the psychological norms of adult behavior, and lead successful lives, without hostility or complaint against their family heritage of faith. These children are not “abused”, for they eventually get a “fully-rounded, open education” and they have all they require of whatever “tools to become what they want to be.”

    Third — and this is important — Dawkins (and others) in the New Atheist movement too often set up fallacious, scare-crow arguments against traditional religious viewpoints and practices, when they should instead carefully note the empirical facts of specific people (or people groups), and then, as scientists and careful thinkers, kindly distinguish on sound empirical grounds when religion is damaging and when it’s not. This, my friend, is just not happening in the New Atheist movement.

    The New Atheists don’t have to like the fact that there are intellectually astute and well-adjusted children (and adults) out there who are advocates of a religious life; but, as people allegedly dedicated to reason, they should at least have the guts to admit it.


  4. Brint,

    Thanks for the fine article. I largely agree with your analysis. One of the aspects of the New Atheism that I find less than scholarly is their narrow appropriation of what counts as knowledge. As someone who hangs around Christian Fundamentalists more than most scholars, I see this same tendency in their ranks.

    This leads me to think that the New Atheism parallels Christian Fundamentalism in both its narrow consideration for what counts as legitimate knowledge and the concommitant fanaticism of their view.

    I propose that we eschew Fundamentalism in all its forms — both Christian and Atheist — and open ourselves to the evidence we find in the natural sciences, social sciences, theological sciences, religious experience, and moral intuitions.


  5. Paul DeBaufer says:

    Good morning,

    I never knew that there was a label, New Atheism, but this is the category I would have fit into not so long ago. I oft felt that religious education in religious based schools was a form of violation of the minds of children (sexual abuse is found equally in every quarter and has nothing to do with religion). I and a couple other biologist friends thought that religion was overall bad for society and should be banned. This based upon the seemingly total rejection of reason, and the substitution of superstition for logic. For me, I cannot speak for my friends in the scientific community, this was a response to neo-fundamentalism. In the last couple of years I read that as early as Augustine the Christian community has been dealing with those who reject reason and empirical evidence in favor of mythology. Even Augustine saw how this rejection of basic reason hurts the cause of Christ. I again find myself agreeing with Dr. Oord, we need to eschew neo-Fundamentalism in ALL of its forms, Christian, atheist, political, etc. It is these extremes that are the enemy of both the mind and the spirit.

    Paul DeBaufer

  6. Paul says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article!
    Keep up the good work.
    Paul Barber

  7. Chris May says:

    I have picked up the use of “Fundamentalism” in your conversations often. Are you defining this based on the historical movement, or is this a label given to people who see things from a different point of view than you? Is it pejorative? Or is it a term you use to attempt to communicate in shorthand?

  8. Ron Zimmer says:

    Spiritual philosophers of all ilks are using pseudo-science as leverage. It should be no shock that those trying to use science-like data to influence belief systems are cherry-picking data. They are not interested in the science, but interested in using the outcome to push a spiritual agenda. When atheism is rightly treated like any other belief system, the most aggressive, agenda-driven atheist will blend in with the rest of the fundamentalists.

    The fact is that abuse is a natural part of the broken human condition. It can be found in every system of religion because it can be found in all of humanity. Honest people of all faiths do not make excuses for poor behavior no matter the background of the offender. No belief system should be judged on the outliers.

  9. Tom Rees says:

    Hi Brint, I agree partially with what you say. I think that the ‘New Atheists’ might be better defined as popular demagogues. This king of demagoguery applied to Atheist arguments is new in the US (but not in Europe). Like all demagogues, they tend to overstate the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That’s what makes them popular and shocking. It’s good for debate, though personally I am not a fan of the style.

    However, I think that Dawkins would agree fully with your sentiments that religious children *can* grow up with a full rounded development. He’s said as much in numerous debates with religious figures here and in the UK (in fact, he’s said as much about Anglican leaders in the UK – that they’re reasonable, well-educated etc). All this is obviously true.

    The problem is not that parents pass on their values and beliefs to their children. It’s that we label children in a way that should not be acceptable. When that’s combined (as it often is) with segregation and restricted education, it amounts to a form of mental child abuse.

    In other words, it’s not ‘religion’ in its broadest sense that is child abuse. It’s just that the ‘untouchable’ aura that is often applied to religion allows practices that stem from religion that would not be allowed in normal circumstances.

  10. […] He writes: One of the aspects of the New Atheism that I find less than scholarly is their narrow appropriation of what counts as knowledge. As someone who hangs around Christian fundamentalists more than most scholars, I see this same tendency in their ranks. This leads me to think that the New Atheism parallels Christian fundamentalism in both its narrow consideration for what counts as legitimate knowledge and the concomitant fanaticism of their view. I propose that we eschew fundamentalism in all its forms—both Christian and atheist—and open ourselves to the evidence we find in the natural sciences, social sciences, theological sciences, religious experience, and moral intuitions. […]

  11. Re: educational child abuse, Tom, would you agree that Dawkins’ comments should be understood within the context of UK discussions about faith schools? For someone who does not know that this discussion has been going on for many years and that its political dimensions (Should public money be given to support a particular religion? What about Islamic school and terrorism? Etc.) make it even more heated, Dawkins’ comments seem pretty extreme.

  12. Tom Rees says:

    Arni, yes, Dawkin’s comments do relate to the UK debate around publicly-funded single faith schools. But more related to the current campaign against labelling children as ‘Christian’, ‘Jewish’ or whatever then closing their education.

    If I saw a child labelled as a Marxist by his parents, and then given a special education so that his marxist beliefs weren’t challenged, then I would view that as child abuse.

    But when this happens with religion, we see it as OK. The classic example is religious adults in the USA raising their kids in ignorance of evolution.

    See the last paragraph of this: and also Nicholas Humphrey’s 1996 Amnesty lecture:

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