I’ve been watching the “Four Horsemen” video, a two-hour conversation among four of today’s leading atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Right at the beginning, Dan Dennett brings up a point that’s also been on my mind. Speaking about his pre-publication editing of Breaking the Spell, in an effort not to offend religious readers:
“…it’s a no-win situation, it’s a mug’s game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude.”
“They play the ‘hurt feelings’ card at every opportunity and you’re faced with the choice of, well, am I going to be rude… or am I just going to button my lip?”
In the media, the “New Atheists” are regularly accused of being disrespectful, uncompromising, polarizing troublemakers who do not think twice about bashing long-held traditions or trampling on the delicate sensibilities of the religious. I cited some examples of this denunciation last year in “On Being Uncontroversial“, where I also noted:
…the denunciation of atheists has nothing to do with the language or tone of their criticism, and it especially has nothing to do with the accuracy of their criticism. On the contrary, atheists are called “shrill” and “hysterical” and “extremist” if they criticize religion in any way at all.
A religious reader unintentionally provided a perfect example of this, in the comments to my recent post “Little-Known Bible Verses VIII“. This post pointed out that, in flat contradiction to the Catholic church’s rule mandating priestly celibacy, the Bible not only allows but arguably mandates that clergy be married. A comment left in response carried the by-now-familiar whiff of outrage:
This [post] proves the old saying, “Scratch an atheist, uncover a fundamentalist”.
Evidently, pointing out that a religious sect is disobeying its own holy book is now sufficient to get one labeled an “atheist fundamentalist”. You couldn’t ask for a better demonstration that, as far as religious apologists are concerned, atheists should be seen and not heard. The defenders of orthodoxy, no matter what they claim, do not want us to be nicer; they simply want us to be silent.
As further evidence, consider this approving review from the conservative Weekly Standard, of André Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. The full review is behind a paywall, but the giveaway part is visible:
Most important, we discover that Comte-Sponville is not a cranky, cantankerous atheist. He was born into Christendom, and raised there; and though he eventually defected, he was never disinfected of its moral graces. He calls himself a “non-dogmatic atheist,” a “faithful atheist,” even a “Christian atheist.” Comte-Sponville might not believe in God, but he admires Him. An atheist he is; a heathen he is not.
As this review shows, what the religious apologists approve of is atheists who wish they were religious. That subservient, conciliatory posture is what they like to see, since it validates their presuppositions about the importance of theistic belief. By contrast, atheists who are proud and happy to be atheists, who have no need of superstition, and who are not afraid to say so – they will always be perceived as disrespectful and rude. We anger and offend many in the religious majority not because of any specific criticism or tone, but merely because we don’t wish we could share in their superstitions.
With that knowledge, let’s not worry too much about offending the believing masses. Those pundits and theologians who fret about how boisterous and uncivil we are, and who solemnly advise us that we should be more gentle and conciliatory if we want to succeed, in reality, are just playing a slightly more sophisticated version of the old Br’er Rabbit trick: “Don’t throw me into the briar patch!” They do not have our best interests in mind; they counsel us to tone down our message only as the first step of their desire to see us altogether silenced.
I’m not saying that anything goes. We should avoid ad hominem attacks because they are fallacious, even without considering their effect on people’s feelings. And we should not deliberately phrase our message with the intent of causing anger or offense. But since some anger and offense is inevitable, we also shouldn’t worry too much about sparing people’s feelings.
Let’s be atheist firebrands. We should boldly speak our minds at every opportunity, and never hold back out of fear of causing offense or a desire to be more popular. Let’s say what we believe and make our case with force and courage. History has taught us that, in battles of public opinion, conviction and passion often carry the day; fearful retreat and tepid compromise hardly ever do. Let’s ignore those who wish to silence us and let our voices be heard loud and clear. We will attract the kind of response we are hoping for.