Earlier this week, Barbara Bradley Hagerty did a piece on atheism for NPR entitled “A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists.” In it, she describes what she sees as a major split between New atheists like Christopher Hitchens and old school atheists like Paul Kurtz. There certainly are differences of opinion within the atheist community, but I think she greatly exaggerates them.
There are no atheist dogmas that we are fighting over; the dispute she talks about is primarily about tactics. Just because people have different views about what are the most effective ways of promoting a positive atheistic worldview doesn’t mean that there’s a civil war going on. All groups have some disagreements over tactics. For example, I’m sure there are some people in the pro-life movement who see it as counterproductive to show people pictures of bloody aborted fetuses, but they’re all still united in their shared goal of reducing the number of abortions.
Personally, I don’t see myself as a member of either camp. I don’t agree with everything Hitchens says, and I don’t agree with everything Kurtz says. But I think they both have important points to make.
I disagree with some New atheists who think that all religion is inherently evil. Certainly some religions have done immense harm to society, and we have a moral imperative to prevent the severe abuse that is sometimes done in the name of religion. But there are other religions like Jainism that do not cause people to harm others. I think that they are still delusions in the sense that they are false beliefs, but they may be relatively harmless delusions. I don’t see any more reason to actively fight against them than I do against non-religious beliefs that I see as harmless delusions, like contra-causal free will and Platonic realism.
I also think that some of the arguments the prominent New atheist authors use are philosophically weak and are easy to rebut. For example, I do not think that Dawkins’ “central argument” in The God Delusion is very strong. This bothers me because I fear that someone who thinks that they should expose themselves to at least one atheist book may read The God Delusion and then come away with an even stronger belief in God after finding problems with a couple of his arguments. Dawkins does make some very good arguments as well, but when someone finds a couple flawed arguments, they may just assume that the rest are flawed as well. But despite their flaws, and we’re all flawed somehow, I think the New atheists have done a very valuable service by getting the atheist message out there. While I may think that people like Graham Oppy make stronger arguments for atheism than Dawkins or Hitchens, you don’t get your message out in the mainstream media by writing philosophically rigorous criticisms of theistic arguments.
But I also have strong disagreements with some of the old atheists. I do not think we should keep our beliefs to ourselves, and I do not think that religion should be accorded some special status as an issue that it is taboo to discuss. I also definitely do not think that science and religion should be treated as Non-overlapping magisteria. As long as religions make testable claims like saying that prayer works, science has a right to test those claims. I also believe that blasphemy really is a victimless crime. While there probably are conditions where it could be counterproductive, it can also be a powerful demonstration of the religious freedom and free speech rights that our country was founded upon, as well as sending an important message to believers that not everyone shares their views. Trying to avoid offending any believers would be a fool’s errand, for there are some people who are offended by the mere existence of atheists.
Yet, I do agree with some of the points Paul Kurtz makes in the piece. Atheism itself is simply a lack of belief in God. In order to make the world a better place, we need to go beyond simple disbelief and explore issues of morality.
While the people who get the most media attention are the New atheists and their strongest opponents, I think there are actually quite a lot of atheists like me who are somewhat moderate. I don’t think atheists should be shy about their beliefs, but I also think that bashing religious people for the fun of it isn’t the way to get people to take your arguments seriously. I like making people really think about what they believe and why. People should look closely at whether they have good reasons to believe that their religion is the one that happens to be true. There’s no perfect way to do this; sometimes it helps to be understanding, and sometimes it helps to show how silly their beliefs really sound to someone not brought up in the religion. For example, it’s true that the God most people believe in is a magical invisible being who grants wishes. If I realized that one of my core beliefs seemed silly, I'd really want to research it to see whether or not it’s true.
But it’s also important to be understanding. I’ve had plenty of false beliefs over the years, and it’s never fun to have your own ignorance exposed. However, I still welcome learning that one of my beliefs is false because that’s the only way I come to know what’s true and because it can be dangerous to act on false beliefs. Just because there is tons of stuff I’m wrong about does not mean I’m a stupid person, and the people I appreciate the most are those who point out my errors with kindness and humility. At least that’s what I think is the best approach.
Atheists are never going to agree on everything, just like theists are never going to agree on everything. But the two things atheists share are a lack of belief in God, and the desire to make the world a better place.