On Varieties of Moderation

The rise of the atheist movement is drawing attention in popular society, even from bastions of the traditional press. However, most of the media organizations paying attention to atheism show little interest in why atheists are finding a voice, instead preferring to repeat the usual stereotypes. A recent column in Newsweek, “Moderates Storm The Religious Battlefield“, is no exception. I’ve criticized them before; it’s time to do so again.

The article opens with an acknowledgement that atheists have the same right to participate in the political process as anyone else, acknowledging the widespread criticism of Mitt Romney’s December anti-atheist speech. However, the author, Lisa Miller, is still determined to condescend:

This victory, if you want to call it that (an overwhelming number of Americans still say they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate), was hard won. It owed much to the loud and intransigent rhetoric of its main proponents…

Though the editorial offers no examples of this “loud and intransigent” rhetoric, it does fire a few revealing shots at today’s most prominent atheists – revealing in the sense that they expose the author’s own prejudice.

Instead of fire and brimstone, you had the hyperrational insistence of Sam Harris…

The what? “Hyperrational” insistence? What on earth does that even mean? This reminds me of a passage from one of Carl Sagan’s books where he mentioned a true believer who criticized James Randi for being “obsessed with reality”.

…the high-minded bomb throwing of Hitchens, and the wacky relentlessness of Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford who spends so much time on his own Web site that it’s hard to imagine he has time to do his job.

Ah, yes, Richard Dawkins’ dedication to speaking out for what he believes is “wacky”. Those silly, comical atheists! It’s just so funny how upset they become when they see people murdering and torturing each other in the name of God!

As is usual in attack pieces like this, Miller relies heavily on an attitude of belittling dismissal, but provides no examples of anything atheists are saying that is incorrect. Nor does she provide any examples of anything we’re saying that she thinks is an unfair criticism or an ad hominem attack. Instead, the mere fact that we’re taking a position and standing forthrightly to defend it is what draws her ire. She bemoans the “ruthless certainty” of many atheists and calls it “dangerous” – as if it was conviction in one’s own position that was the problem, rather than the willingness to do violence to those who disagree.

In the end, this piece boils down to the same old complaint: Those angry atheists are speaking out again, and they have the audacity to actually take up a position they believe in and argue for it! Why can’t they be more like us sophisticated media types? We know that only crude, lowbrow bomb-throwers actually have opinions. Informed, sophisticated observers like us don’t do that – instead, we study issues from every possible angle and remark on how complex and fascinating they are. But we would never dare say that anyone is actually right or wrong. That would be biased, you see.

Sarcasm aside, I’m not against humility or doubt in the appropriate proportion. We should all keep in mind the possibility that anyone might be wrong – and atheists do this, mostly by explaining of exactly what it would take to change our minds. (By contrast, the vast majority of believers are not so open-minded.) But being willing to change your mind if the right evidence turns up does not rule out believing your position is true and defending it strongly in the meantime.

It seems clear that what Miller and other media types are asking is for a state of perpetual doubt and uncertainty, for no one to ever have opinions or take positions on anything. (Miller praises a book which she describes as “an… attack on everybody who’s sure of the right answer”. Only in religion is being ignorant viewed as a good thing.) It brings to mind a comment I read last year:

In short, a lot of the so-called moderates weren’t for moderation or anything: They were for maintaining the status quo, which happened to include a lot of double-standards favoring the fundies on the far right.

This is a perfect description of Miller’s piece. Instead of attacking atheists – whose worst crime, after all, is the terrible sin of writing books – why doesn’t she take on the fundamentalists who are still seeking to conquer the world and impose their will on others by force? The danger they still pose, by any reasonable measure, far exceeds the danger posed by a few atheists speaking their minds. Her call for “moderation” simply seems to be a call for returning to the time when religious groups had unchallenged authority and atheists had no voice at all.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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