A Memo to Fence-Sitting Agnostics

In the Guardian last week, Tracy Quan had a column titled Agnostic about atheism. It strikes a note we’ve heard before: Quan, though a nonbeliever herself (she describes herself as a “‘cafeteria’ atheist and secular Catholic”), is embarrassed and uncomfortable to hear atheists speaking out forthrightly and wishes we would stop.

Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy non-believers gets on their soap box.

…Some of us are too delicate for evangelical excess. Whether it’s atheistic or religious, we find it embarrassing.

Apparently, Quan finds it a radical notion that some atheists, in a world where millions of people are still being killed and oppressed in the name of religion, aren’t content to keep their convictions quietly to themselves and would rather speak out in defense of reason. In her own words, she is “too delicate” for that.

Let’s contrast that position against some relevant facts. Religious ideologies are still causing untold harm to millions of innocent people. (Personally, I’m far more embarrassed to share a species with monsters like this than I ever have been by anything Richard Dawkins has said.) Theocrats the world over hold the explicit goal of conquering the planet and forcing everyone to think like them (although some would settle for a compromise solution of suicidally annihilating themselves and their enemies in a blaze of glory). Religious groups in America, in Europe and elsewhere openly lobby against human rights and express their fond wishes of returning women, gays and atheists to second-class status. This is a battle of ideas that needs to be fought. If Quan doesn’t wish to join the effort, she has every right to excuse herself and opt out. But to cast aspersions on people who do want to fight back? That’s rather like a snobby member of the nouveau riche who ridicules the idea of donating to charity, because why would anyone with good taste ever want to help those nasty, smelly poor people?

Quan’s next point is that atheists who oppose religion must deny its cultural fruits:

If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.

…Run from religion, if you must, but you can’t hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food…. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings – from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans – which I, for one, find fascinating.

I’m sure the wonderful diversity of religious head coverings makes up for all the blood that has been shed through the ages, but never mind that. So, according to Quan, if we don’t believe that religion is true, we can’t appreciate anything that has been created by religious people? This is just silly. That claim appears to be more a straw man of her invention than something actually advocated by the outspoken atheists she finds so uncouth and embarrassing.

We do not have to throw Michaelangelo’s David or the sheet music of Mozart’s Requiem on the scrap heap just because we’re atheists. In like manner, we don’t have to consider the Parthenon or the Pyramids to be worthless rubble just because the gods believed in by their builders are long dead. As I’ve said many times, atheists can and do admire the human ingenuity and craftsmanship that went into creating great works of religious art and literature. We just don’t share the beliefs that lie behind them. These are not inconsistent positions! In fact, they are fully in accord with our stance that the credit for humanity’s achievements should go where it belongs – to human beings.

Einstein found religion “childish” but described atheists as creatures who, harboring a grudge, were resistant to “the music of the spheres.” In other words, resentful puritans.

I don’t know who in particular Einstein was referring to, but I find it absurd to claim that today’s atheists lack proper reverence for the majesty and mystery of the cosmos. I’ve written about the topic many times myself, as have others. Again, Quan indulges in the fallacy so often used by religious apologists – to link religion with the good things of life such as art, music and science – and then assert that to throw out one is to discard all the others. In reality, these things are not the property of religion. Though atheists lack belief in God, we can and do share all the other aspects of human cultural and scientific history.

Quan does give glancing acknowledgement to the reason why atheists often feel compelled to speak out:

Yes, religion can be abusive, and we’re often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it’s sickening. If I thought evangelical atheism could end violence, I would be happy to tolerate the embarrassment factor. But I’m not convinced it can.

Why is she not convinced it can? This is really the central claim of Quan’s entire essay – that the “excesses” of evangelical atheism serve no good purpose – which makes it all the more astonishing that she does not even attempt to defend it.

For that matter, it’s not even clear exactly what Quan is asserting. What precisely is the claim here? Is she saying that religious people are going to keep killing each other over differences in belief forever, so we might as well just accept that the violence will continue and stop trying to do anything about it? That would be an astonishingly bleak and fatalist position. Or is she saying that we could stop the violence, but only through a different strategy? If so, she doesn’t even hint at what that other strategy might be. What purpose does it serve to complain if you don’t have an alternative to offer?

Let’s now look at the real consequences if all atheists were to be as mild and passive as Tracy Quan would like. Here’s some words on that topic from someone who ought to know – Taslima Nasrin, the courageous Bangladeshi freethinker and feminist who’s been hounded out of her home country by violent fanatics calling for her death. On one occasion, she was physically attacked by elected legislators belonging to a Muslim political party. Now India is stalling her request for asylum because the government, though majority Hindu, is fearful of a backlash from Islamists. Here’s what Ms. Nasrin had to say about this:

“I told the truth. I cannot resist from telling the truth. Freedom of expression means the freedom to offend people. If you can’t offend others, how can you change society?

…When the so-called secular people, only because of votes, bow their head in front of fundamentalists and appease them, then they destroy the country. That is the most dangerous thing.”

Personally, I will never be embarrassed by a brave woman like Taslima Nasrin, who has faced more bigotry and danger than most Western atheists ever will. I hope she continues to speak out, and I hope many other atheists join her.

I understand that some people dislike confrontation. And I grant that the work of confronting comfortable prejudices is uncomfortable, risky, sometimes even dangerous. But that is no reason to abstain, because the alternative – letting the loudest-voiced religious bigots have their way – is not an option. We will fight back, and we should fight back. Anyone who’s too delicate for confrontation does not have to participate; but if so, I politely suggest to these people that they get out of our way, and who do care enough to risk discomfort in the name of standing up for free thought and human rights.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    Spot on as per usual! Thank you for yet another good post!

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    Maybe because Quan used to be an escort she feels she has to kowtow to religious sensibilities otherwise she is concerned theists will use her background against her.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    To look at a millennia-old history of abuse and injustice, violence and bloodshed, deceit and willful ignorance, done in the name of religion — and then to look at a few years of atheists being snarky in print and on the Internet — and to see the snarky atheists as somehow the greater problem… it’s absurd.

    I would also add this:

    But I’m not convinced it can.

    Really. And the increasing number of people who say in recent polls they are atheist or agnostic is attributable to… what? Other than the outburst in recent years of large numbers of outspoken atheists and atheist writers?

    The only tool we have is our willingness to say, loudly, so everyone can hear us, that the emperor has no clothes. It’s a tool that seems to be working. We shouldn’t be using it?

    Maybe it won’t work. But we shouldn’t try? We shouldn’t try to make a deeply mistaken, demonstrably harmful idea about the world disappear from the human mindset… simply because it might embarrass the delicate sensibilities of Ms. Quan and others?

    Insert rude gesture of your choice here.

  • Christopher

    Whether people like Tracy Quan like it or not, she’s in the culture war. If she’s the type that’s predisposed towards avoiding conflict in this ongoing war so be it, but for crying out loud let the culture warriors fight it out without hearing people like her mope about it! Either get off the sidelines and into the trenches or else shut up!

  • Karen

    Excellent essay and you make some terrific points. I will refer to it the next time I hear whining about those “mean atheists” who are so outspoken and angry. Thanks.

  • random guy

    I think people like Quan are victims of the shroud of respectability that religion has. Its what Sam Harris talks about all the time. That for some reason it’s understood that religion be given respect when it doesn’t deserve it. She seems to admit that, religion causes problems, and that she doesn’t personally believe in it. Yet for some reason she feels it is necessary to defend religion from simple outspoken reasoned argument.

    Thats why it is so unclear what Quan is asserting. Even though she is not a believer she has been so thoroughly conditioned by our culture to respect religion, that she defends it even when she has no good reason to. She even calls the act of criticism “crude” and states that “Christopher Hitchens, declaring that ‘god is not great,’ seems to have designed this phrase expressly to piss off the worshipful. Religion may be childish but so is a show of disrespect.”

    Yet she produces no reasoning to give such respect exclusively to religion. She’s not saying that its rude for a movie reviewer to say Indy 4 is not great. She has no problem with disrespect in general conversation about everyday things, she just has this one exception for religion. She doesn’t understand that all atheists are doing is applying the exact same level of frank discussion that is already acceptable for every other area of discourse. And for this we are called rude, radical, and wrong.

    Her article is shallow, but also very telling. Hearing these types of arguments come from a self-professed agnostic is indicative of how entrenched religiousness is in the minds of the population at large, even non-believers.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Thankfully there are several good comments below the article pointing out that Quan is attributing to Dawkins several positions that he does not hold. She obviously hasn’t read The God Delusion, or she’d know there is a whole section about appreciating religious art and literature.

  • hb531

    @random guy

    Yet she produces no reasoning to give such respect exclusively to religion. She’s not saying that its rude for a movie reviewer to say Indy 4 is not great.

    Wow, let’s not forget that people live their lives by these beliefs, however preposterous they may be. I don’t think many people live their lives by Indy 4. The respect is not so much afforded to the religion as it is to the follower. We atheists can partition the two, but for many followers, they cannot. Thus they feel any disrespect to their religion is a disrespect to themselves. This is important when interfacing with such people, and is entirely pointless when interfacing with fellow atheists. Would you want to hold a conversation with someone who immediately reduces your identity to a childish delusion? Would you consider this patronizing and disrespectful?

  • RiddleOfSteel

    Columnist Tracy Quan wrote: Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy non-believers gets on their soap box.

    If there are atheists who sometimes go a bit overboard in opposition to religion, I don’t necessarily begrudge them. Given the vast number of religious charlatans pushing their wares, I find it odd that Tracy Quan would take such issue with the small number of counterbalancing atheists. And I think as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, excess for an atheist seems to be where the atheist has a verbal argument with a theist, while excess for the religious is where the theist beheads someone. The two “excesses” do not equate. I could only wish that all we had to complain about from the religious, was them offending from the soapbox. Unfortunately from the religious person – it’s sometimes much more than just offending words with which we have to be concerned.

    And does not truth matter to Tracy Quan? What is wrong with wanting to share the truth with people? I don’t like being deceived or lied to – and I don’t like when it happens to other people either, especially impressionable children. In my home state of Illinois, only this past week was the preliminary injunction expanded statewide, preventing enforcement of the recently enacted mandatory so called “moment of silence” in the public schools. My son was having to waste time each day while that religious Trojan Horse moment was going on. What would Tracy Quan say about atheist Rob Sherman’s involvement in combating the legislation? It sounds like she could be there next to State Representative (Democrat) Monique Davis, condemning Rob Sherman in the statehouse, offended that as an atheist he would even dare to speak out.

    No, I think if we took atheist Tracy Quan’s advice, the religious would continue to run roughshod over our culture. It is our culture too after all, why should we not want to influence. But maybe that is why Tracy is so fascinated by religious artifacts, because it appears she is content to keep her own thoughts and ideas regarding religion hidden under a “veil”.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    Recently, a family member told me “I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist.” Huh? For some reason, people find the word atheist to be a source of embarrassment. Perhaps this is residu from religious upbringing? I can only hope that Ms. Quan will one day get over herself.

  • Polly

    Sounds like daytime TV:
    “Atheists who love religion”…next on Geraldo, followed by…”Gay NAZI’s for Christ.”

    What the hell is the deal with all these atheists who elect themselves as spokes-critters and stand up only to push atheists down?
    Are they infiltrators trying to quell resistance from within the ranks? Trying to project an image of atheists as being somehow in debt to religion for “giving us culture and civilization”?
    Do these people, using some twisted logic, think that they are acting as apologists for non-belief by literally apologizing for non-belief?

    The only atheists that I wish would shut up are people like Quan. If anything, we need to be more aggressive in getting the message out that unbelief is not only “OK”, but far more rational and can be much more fulfilling than living on faith.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    For some reason, people find the word atheist to be a source of embarrassment.

    It can be a huge source of embarrassment when you’ve been exposed to many Atheists who commit the same violations of ethics that fundamentalist Christians do (such as sweeping ad hominem attacks against the other side). Don’t get me wrong – I’m pro-Atheism. But I am also anti- anyone who says their way of thinking is the only “right” way. There is a big difference between saying Atheism is the most accurate way of thinking given what we can observe in nature, and saying Atheism is the only way of thinking. Too many Atheists to date have crossed that line (granted, it’s usually the less scientifically-minded of the bunch).

    Just as many have sullied the name of Christianity, many have sullied the name of Atheism. If someone held a gun to my head, I would rather proudly proclaim Atheist beliefs than die, especially as I have no delision of an afterlife. I don’t even mind if someone calls me Atheist. I do, after all, have the Scarlett A of on my blog to show my support. But if allowed to label myself freely, I would choose to avoid it altogether (as I eschew all labeling in general), and if gently pressed, I would simply use the word “nontheist”.

  • Polly

    Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it.

    This is particularly galling. It’s that kind of enthusiasm that causes revolutions in thinking en masse.

    Ebon,
    You are full of the evangelical fervor usually marking the recently (de)converted and I think that’s exactly what’s needed. From what you’ve posted about yourself, though, it seems you aren’t even a deconvert from some religion – kudos to you for being so passionate about disseminating reason in an unreasoning world instead of being glib and complacent like Quan would expect you to be, as an “old money(?)” atheist to use her analogy.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    hb531 wrote: Wow, let’s not forget that people live their lives by these beliefs, however preposterous they may be. I don’t think many people live their lives by Indy 4.

    My in-law is big into Star Wars, and seems to have joined a liberal Unity Church, because it allows him the latitude to practice something akin to a belief system based on “The Force”. He thinks we are bound together in this energy field. It’s interesting to watch him stand in front of meals with palms outstretched, exerting some kind of Force power over the food. It’s like he is Yoda lifting Luke’s ship out of the swamp in Empire Strikes Back. I do have to say though, that Yoda’s speech about The Force in ESB was kind of moving – more inspiring than some of the “real” religions I have encountered.

  • Quath

    I have friends and neighbors that range from “spiritual” to mildly Christian. They all know I am an atheist and don’t really have a problem with it. But they will say stuff on occasion which makes me have to take a stand or shut up. For example, someone may say, “Leave the Pledge alone. It is fine the way it is. Why do atheists want to force everyone to follow their way?”

    Now I know some good rebuttals to these types of comments like “I prefer the more historical pledge which sought to unite us all instead of push religion.” I will go even further and mention the original pledge was made by a Baptist minister to show that I am not entirely against everything that touches religion. My friends usually back off even if they do not entirely agree. But it is work staying ahead of the issues so I can counter them.

    I think Quan has gone the other route and found it easier to agree with religous friends instead of know the issues.

  • random guy

    Wow, let’s not forget that people live their lives by these beliefs, however preposterous they may be. I don’t think many people live their lives by Indy 4.

    Thats sort of my point. Some people seriously believe these things, but the author claims not to. Why should she then be against someone criticizing these beliefs? I mean yes its one thing to be rude, but Richard Dawkins wrote a book, he didn’t give someone a raspberry and insult their mother. I don’t think writing a book detailing your position and reasons on an issue would make you a rude person. And yet this very claim is made by Quan simply because the issue he writes about is religion

    If you don’t believe in god, the bible, or jesus then seeing these criticisms should be no more offensive to you then seeing someone criticize a movie you like. It just becomes a difference of opinion. Yet the author clearly has hang ups about the mere criticism of religion, no matter how elegantly someone writes them.

    For some reason, people find the word atheist to be a source of embarrassment.

    You have to realize the term atheist was preceded or followed by “communist” for decades during the cold war. And when the big televangelists started up in the 70′s they used (and continue to use) words like atheist, humanist, and secular in the same context as words like faggot, pedophile, satanic, and sinner. Theres a good chance that most people in this country first encountered the word atheist being slung as an insult. For many people that may be the only context they had ever heard it used in, until fairly recently.

    So when your family member says “I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist” what they most likely mean is “I don’t believe in God, but I’m not one of those communist homosexuals who want start bibles fires with a burning American flag.”

  • Erika

    This quote from Quan

    Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy non-believers gets on their soap box.

    reminds me of me of people we call n00bs in my own fields of programming.

    A n00b is someone new to the field, or perhaps a particular methodology or tool. They are often enthusiastic about their new found love to the point where it is inaccurate and annoying.

    Some people dislike n00bs, thinking that they are an embarrassment and a disgrace (the Quans of the programming world). However, these people are often embarrassed because there know that they were those n00bs not too long ago.

    Those of us who have been around awhile, laugh at both groups. We have come to understand that over enthusiastic n00bishness (and over conservative self correction afterward) is a stage that most people go through. They will get over it eventually. They will still be enthusiastic, but their enthusiasm will be more nuanced and reasoned.

    And then the super programmers, the real veterans of the field, laugh at all of us. =)

  • rob

    I think conflating Quan’s distaste for atheist evangelism with a suggestion that we excuse religious persecution or permit bigotry against atheists or any other group is at best ignorant and possibly dishonest. The hardsell evangelism practiced by fundamentalists is distasteful, particularly on the far fringes of Christianity and Islam where violence is permitted and encouraged in order to convert the unsaved. I do not think Quan is excusing those behaviors, and i do not think she is employing a double-standard. In fact, she seems to suggest that both the rabidly religious and the rabidly antireligious should just leave her alone, and I can’t blame her.

    At no point does Quan propose we simply roll over and accept violations of our rights or persons. Other than her confusion about atheists’ ability to appreciate art from a different religious tradition (her apparent belief that atheists are unable to appreciate food is especially puzzling), nothing about this essay should be any more objectionable to atheists than PZ Myers’ assertion that religion should be “like knitting.” If we expect others to leave their religious convictions at home, then we should have the decency to do the same.

    Of course, like so many rules of thumb, your mileage may vary. Some atheists have no problem with Jehova’s Witnesses ringing their doorbell and are unperturbed by scientologists hounding them in the subway. I suppose these atheists should feel perfectly free to harangue anybody they want about the Great Truth.

    Personally, I reserve the right to screw up my face in displeasure when someone interjects religion or opposition thereof into an irreligious conversation, so I have the decency to keep my views on this subject to myself as well. If you want to talk about religion (and I frequently do), then I will be happy to explain why I am an atheist and what it means to me, but too often folks of all convictions are far too quick to leap into their “why I believe XXX and you should too” speech, but have no interest in listening calmly and quietly to the other side. Atheists are just as, if not more, prone to this, owing to the general defensiveness of a victimized minority and the specific need for those atheists who are breaking from a religious tradition to have a carefully thought-out, well practiced spiel to deliver to friends and family in order to dodge conversations they have already had a thousand times.

    There are those amongst us – and honestly, I sometimes think this site strays into this territory when Ebon fails to properly distinguish between humanism and atheism – who want to turn atheism into a rigorous ideology. It is not. Becoming an atheist does not suddenly make a person into a skeptic or a rational human being – or a humanist. The startling trend towards nonbelief in this country suggests that there are people with an attitude exactly like the one described by Quan, and at least some of them have “converted” to atheism in the same way that Madonna was a Qabbalist mystic for about three months.

    And, really, Greta:

    Really. And the increasing number of people who say in recent polls they are atheist or agnostic is attributable to… what? Other than the outburst in recent years of large numbers of outspoken atheists and atheist writers?

    Do you have any evidence whatsoever that this is in any way related to a decrease in violence over the same period? I fail to see the connection between winning converts and ending violence. In fact, I find the assertion that we could somehow end violence by converting enough people to atheism to be absurd and possibly dangerous. Do I need to mention Stalin?

    Also anybody who knows anything about Christopher Hitchens must admit that he may be a decent reporter, but childishness is definitely an attribute he has in spades.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I think conflating Quan’s distaste for atheist evangelism with a suggestion that we excuse religious persecution or permit bigotry against atheists or any other group is at best ignorant and possibly dishonest.

    If you think I’ve misread her, I invite you to show me what parts of her essay make you believe that. If what Quan really meant was, “Yes, of course atheists should speak out when their safety or their rights are in jeopardy,” then she has to explain why her column nowhere carved out such an exception and in fact strongly implied the opposite.

    In fact, she seems to suggest that both the rabidly religious and the rabidly antireligious should just leave her alone, and I can’t blame her.

    If Tracy Quan thinks that the rabidly religious are simply going to go away and leave us alone, in the absence of a strong movement to speak out against them and push back against their political maneuvering, then she is delusional. The same applies to anyone else who thinks that way.

    This just goes back to what I said in my post: If you’re opposed to religious violence but also opposed to nonbelievers speaking out forthrightly, then what do you suggest?

    If we expect others to leave their religious convictions at home, then we should have the decency to do the same.

    Because that strategy has worked so well thus far, right?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    And, really, Greta:

    Really. And the increasing number of people who say in recent polls they are atheist or agnostic is attributable to… what? Other than the outburst in recent years of large numbers of outspoken atheists and atheist writers?

    Do you have any evidence whatsoever that this is in any way related to a decrease in violence over the same period? I fail to see the connection between winning converts and ending violence. In fact, I find the assertion that we could somehow end violence by converting enough people to atheism to be absurd and possibly dangerous.

    Um….

    I wasn’t trying to argue that outspoken atheism led to decreased violence. I was trying to argue that outspoken atheism led to an increase in atheism… which I think, in and of itself, makes it a worthwhile goal.

    Do I need to mention Stalin?

    Please don’t. That’s the reddest of all red herrings in the herring barrel.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Rob,

    Do you have any evidence whatsoever that this is in any way related to a decrease in violence over the same period? I fail to see the connection between winning converts and ending violence. In fact, I find the assertion that we could somehow end violence by converting enough people to atheism to be absurd and possibly dangerous. Do I need to mention Stalin?

    Because Stalin tried to convince people with sensable arguements, right? It’s not like he used to violence to make people stop people from thinking any way other than his, and it’s not like his being a dictator has anything to do with it; nope. It’s all because he didn’t believe in god and didn’t think other people should either, which is why most atheists are also mass murderers, clearly.
    Not to mention the killing had nothing whatsoever to do with the massive scale group think involved in communist parties, as I’m sure dissent was allowed and encouraged.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    If Tracy Quan thinks that the rabidly religious are simply going to go away and leave us alone, in the absence of a strong movement to speak out against them and push back against their political maneuvering, then she is delusional. The same applies to anyone else who thinks that way.

    That’s true, Ebonmuse — but not necessarily obvious. From here (New Zealand) and some other places, if you don’t look too hard it almost looks as if religion has just faded away without much effort on the part of atheists. In fact, I still retain vestiges of my old feeling that the best way to deal with religion is to be very, very quiet, don’t present any targets that could be mobilised against, and hope that people don’t notice while religion fades away. Don’t forget that Tracy Quan is speaking from the UK, where I bet you could have a similar impression. It’s unclear whether her radar even registers atheist activism in the USA, let alone places like India. I’d love to know how she would respond to the activist examples brought up in this thread, because I suspect she simply hasn’t thought about some of them at all.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Tracy Quan is American, actually.

  • LindaJoy

    Rob- You said, “I suppose these atheists should feel perfectly free to harangue anybody they want about the Great Truth.” Could you please explain what you mean by that? I have had that phrase “Great Truth” thrown at me by religionists. As I understand it, it is meant as a put-down of atheists. The last time this term came up for me was when I blogged on a site supposedly open to people of all faiths and those of no faith. The religionists were allowed to converse about their beliefs, but when atheists chimed in, they were cut off and accused of trying to push the “Great Truth”. While I agree that atheists come in all colors and have different approaches to dealing with these issues in their personal lives (which is fine), your use of that term raised a little red flag for me.

  • rob

    If what Quan really meant was, “Yes, of course atheists should speak out when their safety or their rights are in jeopardy,” then she has to explain why her column nowhere carved out such an exception and in fact strongly implied the opposite.

    I don’t see anywhere that she implies that atheists should allow themselves to be put to death or appease religious political maneuvering. There’s no need for her to make an exception for violent religious assault because she never suggests that it’s tolerable. “I find your condemnation of religion overbroad and abrasive” is not the same as “I will allow religious people to torture and murder you if you don’t stop.” The first is an assertion you are free to agree or disagree with. The latter is a violent assault. If you really don’t see the difference then you are apparently suffering from the same victimized mindset as Christians who think barring organized prayer in public school is an attempt to destroy Christianity.

    Of course, she does say, “Yes, religion can be abusive, and we’re often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it’s sickening.” She dismisses this assertion, apparently believing that the root causes of wars and abuse are not religious. I am inclined to believe that she is partly right. The root causes of wars are more likely to be economic than anything else, and the powerful men who hunger for conflict and conquest will slip easily into the shell of any other ideology to justify their appetites. It’s readily apparent that other ideologies can be used to support the same kind of war mongering and xenophobia that religion has and does. I oppose religion because I believe it causes other social ills that are inherent to the magical thinking it encourages in followers, not because religion automatically causes violence or a violent mindset.

    If Tracy Quan thinks that the rabidly religious are simply going to go away and leave us alone, in the absence of a strong movement to speak out against them and push back against their political maneuvering, then she is delusional. The same applies to anyone else who thinks that way.

    I agree, but in this regard it is important for us to note that many religious people are involved in the pushback against the rabidly religious. Quan acknowledges this when she says “Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have helped me to understand how a genteel Anglican must feel about some of those ‘other’ Protestants.” “‘Other’ Protestants” is pretty clearly an oblique reference to the fundamentalists who control the religious debate in the US, and the comment inherently condemns them equally. Later, she says more explicitly “Some of us are too delicate for evangelical excess. Whether it’s atheistic or religious, we find it embarrassing.”

    I do agree with the first part of your post, in that the atheist Quan is describing is pretty clearly a strawman of more reasoned atheists, including Richard Dawkins. Still, some of the (so-called) “New Atheists” have been prone to some sweeping generalizations that, in the absence of more nuanced arguments, seem unnecessarily broad and combative – i.e. “Religion poisons everything.” Hitchens, in particular, clearly crafts many of his soundbites to shock and offend in a plea for attention that could fairly be called childish. In addition, I have met atheists who are prone to the kneejerk reaction that anything religious – in fact, anything that is not blatantly antireligious – is bad. Obviously I find their positions poorly considered. As you note, it should not be necessary to reject all of Western history with the simple statement, “I do not believe in God.”

    In all, I find Quan’s essay rather garbled. Clearly a person who is not Muslim is capable of enjoying Halal food. Quan herself proves this. However, equating a pretty mild essay stating that overt religiosity is unpalatable to her support of torturous regimes is unfair, and borders on eliminationist.

    Um….

    I wasn’t trying to argue that outspoken atheism led to decreased violence. I was trying to argue that outspoken atheism led to an increase in atheism… which I think, in and of itself, makes it a worthwhile goal.

    Then you shouldn’t have written your post in such a way that you seem to be refuting Quan’s belief that an increase in atheism will not lead to a decrease in violence. The way you quoted her, it seems as if the conversation went

    “I do not believe converting more people to atheism will end violence.”

    “But more people become atheists every day.”

    Your response either implies a reduction in violence as a result of these conversions or is a nonsequitur.

    Please don’t. That’s the reddest of all red herrings in the herring barrel.

    I agree that Stalin committed his crimes for reasons other than his atheism, which is why he cannot be used as an example to demonize atheism. However, he did commit them despite his atheism, which is why he is a good example to prove that atheism will not end ideological violence – Quan’s original assertion.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Quan,

    Religion has staying power because it can adapt.

    Since when?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    The hardsell evangelism practiced by fundamentalists is distasteful, particularly on the far fringes of Christianity and Islam where violence is permitted and encouraged in order to convert the unsaved. I do not think Quan is excusing those behaviors, and i do not think she is employing a double-standard.

    Yeah, she’s pretty much excusing them. Yes, it is a double standard, as exemplified by the hilarious diagram on Daily Atheist.

    The way this works is that if an atheist criticizes Mother Theresa, he is told that he is disrespecting religion because millions of people worship her as a saint. If the atheist then criticizes those millions of people for worshiping her, he is told that he is conflating most Christians with a minority of the lunatic fringe.

    Theresa -> worshiped by millions.
    Robertson -> worshiped by millions.
    Falwel -> worshiped by millions.

    We know from the historical record that when Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal government and his wife told her Darkie jokes to guests at the White House, the public reacted with an increased racial hatred towards blacks. This is generally how things work – leaders set the example, their followers fall in line. So when the 700 Club blames every hurricane, tornado, and 9/11 on secularists, abortions and homosexuals, we can in general attribute the behavior of the “hardsell” nutjobs to the general movement. We need only look at how rich Robertson is. He got rich by inciting violence against gays and abortion clinics, but the people who made him rich weren’t the violent actors but the general Christian community.

    But you know what, let’s just get right down to the heart of this thing. Nobody so much as flutters an eyelash when some Pentecostal preacher tells jokes about drunk Catholics peeing in their Holy Water. Or when someone like Hagee calls the Catholic Church the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of the Beast and drinking from the blood of the Jews. Complete with a diorama to show us exactly what this would look like. By comparison, what’s the most alarming thing said by a New Atheist? That religious indoctrination is tantamount to child abuse? You still think there is no double standard here? Of course there is.

  • LindaJoy

    Rob- umm… “Great Truth”?

  • rob

    LindaJoy,

    The phrase “Great Truth” in reference to atheism should set off alarm bells for you. I meant to slip it in as little “gotcha” at RiddleOfSteel’s needlessly indignant rhetorical flair “And does not truth matter to Tracy Quan? What is wrong with wanting to share the truth with people?” Which is, of course, the exact same excuse those other groups mentioned use for hassling me when I am least in the mood to hear it. Besides that, I think it fair to assume, in the interest of good faith objections, that Quan cares about the truth, and that her essay has taken the truth into account. I assume this for the same reason I assume that her strawman atheist is the product of misconception and not willful dissembling – because there is little reason to respond to it as anything but propaganda if it is all nothing but lies. Just because a person believes there to be no gods does not automatically mean they have an obligation to convert others to this point of view.

    Mrnaglfar,

    Your comments are bizarre and irrelevant, except to the extent that they support Quan’s argument that ending religion will not end ideological violence. Incidentally, in response to this comment which I can only assume is sarcastic: “Because Stalin tried to convince people with sensable arguements, right?” I would reply that Quan only wrote a pretty mild essay, and Ebon has accused her of colluding with fundamentalist regimes to torture women and possibly terrorize India.

    bbk,

    I agree that American fundamentalists seem fundamentally opposed to honest questioning, and so frequently resort to indignation rather than contemplation. However, I see nothing in Quan’s essay that excuses Hagee, Theresa, Robertson, or Falwell. I would guess that if you asked her, you would find that she groups them (possibly with the exception of Mother Theresa) in with those “other” Protestants, the ones that are as distasteful and embarrassing to the moderately religious as rabid atheists are to her.

  • velkyn

    I find that those who would say that atheists should just be quiet and “things will better” are just like those who told the civil rights activists in teh 60s to “be quiet”. I find that I think “quisling” isn’t too strong a term.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Rob.

    I agree that Stalin committed his crimes for reasons other than his atheism, which is why he cannot be used as an example to demonize atheism. However, he did commit them despite his atheism, which is why he is a good example to prove that atheism will not end ideological violence – Quan’s original assertion.

    Despite his atheism? What about not believing in god makes people incapable of committing violence? Granted, he was also a dictator who believed exclusively in the idea of communism, which as the previous essay points out, isn’t freedom from dogma, merely adherence to a new kind of it.

    But the big question here is such: Why does not believing in god need to end violence? Do you think if everyone didn’t believe in god that there would be a reduction in violence? Violence is part of the human condition, and to remove it is an unrealistic expection, but working to reduce it is a worthwhile goal.

    Surely, if people in the middle east didn’t believe in their faith all other things being equal, fewer people would be getting killed because they were gay, or women, or of the wrong sect of a particular faith. It gives people one less justification for killing other peoplee

  • rob

    Do you think if everyone didn’t believe in god that there would be a reduction in violence?

    OK, for everybody who didn’t bother to click through to the original essay and/or completely lacks reading comprehension skills, here is the original passage under discussion:

    Yes, religion can be abusive, and we’re often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it’s sickening. If I thought evangelical atheism could end violence, I would be happy to tolerate the embarrassment factor. But I’m not convinced it can.

    I am taking here Quan’s use of the phrase “religious identity” as a synonym for religious ideology. They seem similar in function, though it is possible Quan meant something different. I am also assuming the end of violence she mentions refers to ideologically motivated violence, not garden-variety murder or rape or what-have-you.

    Unfortunately, violence is endemic to the human condition. Working to minimize it is a laudable goal, and insomuch as religion teaches people to defer their own conscience to that of authorities, it does help violence to become embraced by a larger population.

    However, violent ideologies independent of religion are readily available. In a hypothetical world without religion, I expect we would see new versions of violent, authoritarian power structures flourish regularly and easily. The supply of outward justifications for murder of those different from you are only as limited as the human imagination. In Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi slaughtered each other over imaginary ethnic divisions that had nothing to do with religion but were every bit as illogical. Fascists unapologetically embrace violence as a means to an end, and the simplistic nature of that system allows it to mutate and infect any culture or society.

    Surely, if people in the middle east didn’t believe in their faith all other things being equal, fewer people would be getting killed because they were gay, or women, or of the wrong sect of a particular faith.

    Well, saying that if nobody had any faith, then people wouldn’t get killed for their faith is a complete tautology. Still, I am a bit confused. First you concede that eliminating religion would not reduce violence, then you seem to claim that it will.

    Homophobia and misogyny are cultural artifacts. There is significant evidence, in the form of Christians who are neither and atheists who are both, that eliminating religion will not eliminate these impulses, and that it is not necessary to eliminate religion in order to combat and reduce them.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    But the big question here is such: Why does not believing in god need to end violence?

    The rationale must be that since being an atheist doesn’t prevent you from being a Communist, who is predisposed to violence, then this means that it’s okay to be a Christian, who is also predisposed to violence.

    But maybe that’s still too complicated for some folks to understand the failure in common sense… so let’s put this argument into another form: since not being a crook doesn’t prevent you from being a liar, then it’s okay to be a crook. That’s pretty much what this apologetic amounts to.

  • rob

    I don’t think Quakers are predisposed to violence.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    In Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi slaughtered each other over imaginary ethnic divisions that had nothing to do with religion but were every bit as illogical.

    In fact, according to Philip Gourevitch (author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families), the Hamitic hypothesis played a major role in the ideological justification of the Rwandan genocide.

  • rob

    I would put it this way, actually:

    Since neither believing in God nor disbelieving in God makes you immune to violence, it must not be religion that causes people to commit violence.

    If that is too complicated for you, let’s put it this way:

    Since both bakers and bricklayers lie, lying must be a quality independent of bricklaying and baking.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m reading rob’s posts and I’m not seeing a coherent argument; he seems to feel like being contrary across the board. Can anyone correct this impression?

  • rob

    Alex,

    Unfortunately, there has been no consistent argument from me because I’ve been responding to other peoples’ diversions (diversions I introduced in some cases through imprecise language or trigger words like “Great Truth” and “Stalin”).

    My first point, and the most important one to me, is that Quan’s essay does not deserve to be compared to capitulating to torture and murder. She expresses an opinion, a mild one, based on some misconceptions but that mostly boils down to, “I don’t like religious evangelism of any kind.” It’s a reasonable opinion and not unfair. She does not suggest that there is a different standard for atheists, or that anyone should sacrifice their rights for the sake of religious sensibilities. Based on this essay, I find the suggestion that she condones torture of atheists to be in poor taste, bordering on eliminationist.

    Much of the discussion has been about whether or not her belief that eliminating religion will not eliminate ideological violence is reasonable. Ebon and I clearly have two different interpretations of this passage, stemming from our different views on the root causes of violence. Ebon believes that religion causes violence and I believe that religion is only one of many varied cloaks used to justify violent impulses. Ebon believes eliminating religion will therefore eliminate the violence that stems from it, and I believe those impulses will merely gain new facades.

    Because of his views on religion and violence, Ebon thinks Quan is excusing religiously motivated violence – that she is suggesting it is more acceptable to allow religious people to kill than to speak out about atheism. Because of my views on religion and violence, I believe Quan is merely saying that hardsell evangelism is off-putting to her and she would rather not do it or have it done to her. If you believe the former, then perhaps this essay is comparable to the Indian parliament’s refusal to save a woman who will surely be killed as a result of their inaction, and it ought to be condemned as vehemently as possible for even suggesting that it is more desirable to allow an innocent person to die than to speak up. If you believe the latter, then simply disagree with her and move on with your life.

    The problem is ultimately the essay’s. It is a sloppy piece of work, born mostly of ignorance. It touches upon and discards topics that ought to be expounded for at least a paragraph or two, so that we wouldn’t have to have this conversation at all. Still, the casualness with which Quan tosses off the passage about violence supports my view that she was merely dismissing the causal connection between religion and violence, not suggesting that religious violence is acceptable.

    Consider this: if her essay is saying that religious violence is acceptable and should not be combated, her essay boils down to, “Sure, they may slaughter you and your family for not wearing a hat, but the food’s great!” If she is merely saying that religion is not the root cause of the violence committed in its name, then the essay boils down to, “I think atheists’ condemnation of religion is generally over-broad and abrasive.” This is a poorly considered puff piece in The Guardian with an ironic title. Which do you think is more likely?

  • rob

    Ebon, re: the Hamitic hypothesis.

    I have not read the book, but the summaries on that page make it sound as if the Hamitic hypothesis was one utilized by race theories embraced by the Belgians when they cemented the Hutu/Tutsi division, and not a motivating factor for the massacre. Is their supposed Davidian descent a key element of modern Tutsi identity? Did the Hutus cite this legacy in their propaganda against the Tutsi? My impression was that the massacre was the result of political instability and fear aggravating traditional resentment over land and power rights, not of religious imperative.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Rob,

    Well, saying that if nobody had any faith, then people wouldn’t get killed for their faith is a complete tautology. Still, I am a bit confused. First you concede that eliminating religion would not reduce violence, then you seem to claim that it will.

    If you read what I said:
    But the big question here is such: Why does not believing in god need to end violence? Do you think if everyone didn’t believe in god that there would be a reduction in violence? Violence is part of the human condition, and to remove it is an unrealistic expection, but working to reduce it is a worthwhile goal.

    See the words there reduction in violence? And how if people didn’t have faith-based reasons to kill, then faith-based killing would stop? Yeah, that would reduce violence.

  • rob

    Mrnaglfar,

    My apologies. I thought “Do you think if everyone didn’t believe in god that there would be a reduction in violence?” was meant to be a rhetorical question, to which we were to assume the answer was “Obviously not.” I thought this because you were arguing against my request to correlate an expansion of atheism with a reduction in violence. Apparently it was an actual, open ended question I was meant to respond to.

    No, I do not think an expansion of atheism would lead necessarily to a reduction of violence. I do think it would make certain kinds of violence easier to combat. I also think the entrenched and aspiring powers that have a vested interest in perpetuating religion also have a vested interest in perpetuating certain conditions that help the impulse for violence fester, i.e. class systems; xenophobia; concentration of power; paranoia; suspicion of intellectuals, education, and technology; scapegoating; apocalyptic thinking; and unchallenged authority. None of these conditions is unique to religion, and none is universal to all religions. The prescription for each, including religion, is generally education, economic opportunities, and stability. I view the expansion of atheism as an end, not a means.

    I do not think that people who disagree with me are automatically complicit in terrorism.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    I opine that violence and using violence to deal with issues has a bit of a learned trait aspect to it. If we learned from a young age that violence is wrong, then we would be less disposed to engage in it. So, how does religion fit into this? Religion teaches exclusion – in groups and out groups – that help to identify who one can be violent towards or not. Some religions also teach hatred and violence as ends to means. These teachings have been blunted by secular advances in morality, but they still exist. It seems to me that further blunting or eliminating these teachings would help to stem violence.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Getting religion would eliminate all violence- that much is obvious. However, it would eliminate all violence based on faith (which is alot). Next up- crazy political ideologies…

    Spreading sanity one step at a time! Hey- its what we do.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    Rob wrote: The phrase “Great Truth” in reference to atheism should set off alarm bells for you. I meant to slip it in as little “gotcha” at RiddleOfSteel’s needlessly indignant rhetorical flair “And does not truth matter to Tracy Quan? What is wrong with wanting to share the truth with people?” Which is, of course, the exact same excuse those other groups mentioned use for hassling me when I am least in the mood to hear it. Besides that, I think it fair to assume, in the interest of good faith objections, that Quan cares about the truth, and that her essay has taken the truth into account. I assume this for the same reason I assume that her strawman atheist is the product of misconception and not willful dissembling – because there is little reason to respond to it as anything but propaganda if it is all nothing but lies. Just because a person believes there to be no gods does not automatically mean they have an obligation to convert others to this point of view.

    I don’t know about any “Great Truth” – that’s Rob’s invention. Alarm bell ding dong;) But as for truth in the sense of what the evidence is indicating, I am all for acknowledging that – and sharing it. Why this common activity regularly engaged in by people should produce such consternation in Rob or columnist Tracy Quan, I don’t know. But the consternation is nothing new when the topic turns to religion, where practitioners will assume special status and greater protections from critique, inflating the “offense to the gentilities” out of proportion, such that even some atheists tend to fall in line. The critiques and methods being employed by atheists, and the scope of activities, simply don’t deserve the reaction much less severe descriptions – unless “rabid” now means to write some books and hold reasoned discussions.

    The “Great Truth” here is that for this discussion, Rob has largely invented a “rabid atheist” boogeyman to attack, with particular qualities of offense and intrusion to prop up his argument. It seems Rob fears that an atheist is going to try and hassle him with the “Great Truth”, when he is “least in the mood to hear it”. The horror. Although it might be interesting to witness door to door atheists with copies of “The God Delusion” in hand – convert or be damned for eternity. Or street corner shouting atheists waving copies of “Breaking the Spell”. I hate when that happens. But really, while Christopher Hitchens can occasionally be a bit of a boor – the rabid atheist you really want to watch out for is Sam Harris. Have you seen that guy, talking in his rabidly calm manner, having the rabid audacity to write some books and engage in discussions – the rabid lout;)

  • rob

    Excuse me, RiddleofSteel, but I did not invent the “rabid atheist.” If comparing the mild objections of a meandering, ill-informed letter to appeasing a vicious theocracy is not “rabid,” then I don’t know what is. A person ought to be able to disagree with you without having to be accused of supporting murder and oppression.

    “I don’t like evangelism of any kind.”
    “Well, that’s the same thing as saying I think non-muslim women in Muslim countries should be murdered.”

    Really, which of these sounds like the more reasonable person? The fact is, for the first half of his response, Ebon actually tackles Quan’s actual statements, making reasonable objections – some of which were a bit sloppy, such as falsely equating human rights with atheism, when the truth is there are human rights activists of all religious inclinations – that he has made to a dozen people who have said exactly the same thing before.

    Then he goes completely off the rails. He says that if all atheists were like Quan and did not seek to convert others, then apparently a Hindu legislature might weigh the consequences of pissing off the nuclear state just across their border, with whom they have a history of violent disputes, which currently harbors the most successful terrorists on the planet, and decide that the potential conflict outweighs the life of one woman. Does that even make any sense?

    Of course, maybe the politicians are not even thinking about Pakistan. Nasrin contends they are worried about losing Muslim votes. I suppose if Quan worked harder to convert people to atheism, Hindu politicians would care less about the concerns of special interest voters. Or maybe atheist politicians are immune to pandering. Or maybe Ebon believes that only atheists are capable of standing up to oppression.

    Truthfully, when Ebon says “Let’s now look at the real consequences if all atheists were to be as mild and passive as Tracy Quan would like,” the most obvious meaning is “Let’s see what the consequences would be if Taslima Nasrin [the only other atheist mentioned] was as mild and passive as Tracy Quan would like.” Well, since she was hounded out of her country for writing a novel about a Muslim raping a Hindu and not for evangelizing atheism, I suspect the world would be exactly the same.

    But fractured logic aside, the most disgusting part of Ebons’ response is this:

    But that is no reason to abstain, because the alternative – letting the loudest-voiced religious bigots have their way – is not an option.

    At no point in her essay does Quan even suggest this is an option. The reason I used the phrase “Great Truth” is because, like the Christians who are perpetually trying to sneak prayer back into public school, you apparently do not see the distinction between standing up for your own rights and proselytizing your beliefs. If you truly see the world as so black and white that the only two options are “convert everybody to atheism” or “allow religious fundamentalists to slaughter unbelievers,” then I suppose Quan is as complicit as Ebon implies in Nasrin’s impending fate. Luckily, we have RiddleofSteel, who I am sure is working hard, at this very moment!, to deconvert the Indian parliament, at which point I am 100% certain they will also cease to be vote grubbing politicians – a condition we all know is endemic to Hinduism.

    My only point is that it is equally reasonable to object to Christian evangelism as it is to atheist evangelism. When I say I do not want to be bothered by Christians trying to convert me, it does not mean I wish Christians to be murdered, and I would think them warped – “rabid,” even – if they interpreted it that way. Yet Ebon does exactly that, and you all give him a pass.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Rob,

    Your stance is reasonable, but you have no evidence that Tracy Quan shares it. You just assume that she does because the alternative seems irrational to you, but that doesn’t mean she agrees. As I said in my post, if Quan is suggesting an alternative strategy, then she should explain what she has in mind. Her essay makes no effort to do so.

  • rob

    Ebon,

    I have the words from her essay, cited above. I see no reason why she should have to preemptively defend herself from hysterical accusations. She may not share my views on violence, but she may not share yours either, and I see no reason that you would assume she ascribes to the more unreasonable – and by far less common – view that it is acceptable for religious people to kill those they disagree with. While the sentence we both cite as evidence for our respective claims is vague, it is casual, and the context evinces only a skepticism of the effectiveness of atheism to stem violence, not a condonation of murder. As the maker of the the original, more unreasonable, and alarmist assertion (not to mention the accusation of gross indifference dependent on your interpretation), I would think the burden of proof would be on you.

    I have been reading this blog for a very long time, and I enjoy your strident and passionate defense of atheism and your advocacy for humanism and rationality. That is why I found this entry and your disproportionate reaction so absolutely shocking. As a lifelong atheist, I find the magical thinking inherent in religion and spirituality utterly perplexing. However, I have no interest in making everyone who registers mild disagreement with my views into my blood enemy. If that is the direction you intend to take your rhetoric, then I can only say I am disappointed.

    I disagree with Quan’s belief that atheism must reject and disavow anything good that has developed out of religion (especially delicious food), as well as her reticence to help spread rational thinking – but, you know, defend her to the death and all that. I am interested in the root causes of violence, and to what extent faith exacerbates it, so if anybody wants to discuss that I would be happy to. However I consider my point regarding the original post made.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Now you’re the one who’s inventing straw men, Rob. I never accused Quan of saying that it’s acceptable for religious people to kill those they disagree with. She clearly doesn’t say that. What I am accusing her of is saying that atheists should not speak out in public, even to denounce religious people who commit violence.

    She says she finds that “embarrassing”. She “cringes” every time one of those “noisy nonbelievers” speaks out. She says we’re “resentful”. And most relevantly, she says she’d be happy to tolerate the embarrassment if evangelical atheism could end violence – but she doesn’t think it can. The inescapable conclusion is that we should not speak out even when violence is done in the name of religion, because according to her, it’s just embarrassing and doesn’t accomplish anything.

  • DamienSansBlog

    I agree that Quan’s article does not really engage the issues she raises. (I suspect this was because of space or deadline issues, rather than some kind of personal cowardice…though on the other hand, she could easily have chosen to select just one of said issues, and focus her writing on that.)

    But I am obliged to say that I sympathize with Rob and TheNerd. (Who, I am also obliged to note, are also atheists.) That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, including Rob, and if Rob wants to reject my sympathy that is of course fine with me. But — and I am terribly sorry for this — yes, Ebon, many atheists carry their atheism to unreasonable levels. Quan’s criticisms seem to be aimed at these particular atheists, rather than atheism in general. There is a difference between speaking out against legitimate violence actually motivated by a particular faith, and (for example) condemning all faiths, or inventing illegitimate claims of violence.

    (Though on the other hand, if we could all refrain from making snide comments about “Great Truths”…that would be cool with me.)

    I recall we had a conversation about this issue maybe…five or six months ago? I’ve lost track of that discussion. In part, this was because my computer time was then engaged in confessing my sins to one Dr. Hartung, and finding out what his actual theories were. (I’m still not convinced, but neither will I misrepresent them again.) In part, this was because I am reluctantly convinced that my main opponent was either in denial about the material we were discussing, or had a poor grasp of reading skills. And in part, this was because my opponent seems to have the equal and opposite conviction about me. That said, if anybody wants to revive that conversation, here or (preferably) in the original thread, I’d certainly be welcome to it, though I can’t promise to be any less sporadic than I was a few months back.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    DSB,
    Are you referring to me as the one who “was either in denial about the material we were discussing, or had a poor grasp of reading skills?” If so, I invite anyone to go back and look at that thread and see if that is the case, considering that I actually pulled the source material and pointed out which passages you were wrong about?

    In general, the thing that gets me is that whenever someone complains about how vociferous “certain” atheists are, I can’t help but think that there’s a big component in there about how atheists aren’t allowed to speak up at all, lest they be labeled as too boisterous, or too vehement, or too whatever. It’s a cultural stereotype that needs to end now. As others have pointed out, if bringing up criticisms of religion that are based on fact and logical arguments, and using reason are too forward for some, well then tough. I’d rather be logical and reasonable and speak out against oppression and tyrany than sit idly by and let it happen just so that I don’t offend anyone’s overly delicate sensibilities. And, if you think that the words “oppression” and “tyrany” are over the top, then you haven’t been paying attention.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    Also anybody who knows anything about Christopher Hitchens must admit that he may be a decent reporter, but childishness is definitely an attribute he has in spades.
    I don’t claim to know much about Hitchens, but I do know that I’ve seen him on TV a few times, and he comes off as a pompous ass. I’m afraid I envision some closet atheists out there thinking to themselves, Well, I’m not sure I believe in God, but I don’t want to come out as an atheist, lest I become a supercilious, angry snob like that Hitchens.

    And then there was Madalyn. Ms. O’Hare had to be the most unpleasant human being I’ve ever encountered, non-believer or otherwise.

    Perhaps it is Hitchens, O’Hare, and their ilk that inspired Ms. Quan’s diatribe. If so, I might be inclined to forgive her excesses. There IS a difference between standing up and making reasoned and pointed commentary on the irrationality of religion, and just standing up and being a complete jerk. We do ourselves no favor by crossing that line.

  • DamienSansBlog

    OMGF:

    Are you referring to me as the one who “was either in denial about the material we were discussing, or had a poor grasp of reading skills?” If so, I invite anyone to go back and look at that thread and see if that is the case, considering that I actually pulled the source material and pointed out which passages you were wrong about?

    Yes, Sir or Madam, I was referring to you. We were, in fact, talking about the same source material: our difference, as I explained in my last post, is that you consistently interpret the text according to its most favorable meaning, even when such…intellectual gymnastics aren’t justified by either text or context. Since it’s clear that you’re not going to budge from that position, and nobody else seemed interested one way or the other, I stopped paying attention some time ago.

    Jim Speiser

    I’m afraid I envision some closet atheists out there thinking to themselves, Well, I’m not sure I believe in God, but I don’t want to come out as an atheist, lest I become a supercilious, angry snob like that Hitchens.

    Yes, just so, Mr. Speiser! The sad fact is that it’s not enough to be right, you’ve got to be both right and polite. Any given movement, “consciousness-raising” or “New Atheism” included, can do itself more good by laying out honey than vinegar.

    (That’s part of the reason why I’m excited about Ebon’s book. Ebonmuse has been more focused on the positive aspects of an atheist lifestyle than many other atheist writers, who tend to focus on the negative aspects of a religious lifestyle. But that’s neither here nor there.)

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Yes, Sir or Madam, I was referring to you. We were, in fact, talking about the same source material: our difference, as I explained in my last post, is that you consistently interpret the text according to its most favorable meaning, even when such…intellectual gymnastics aren’t justified by either text or context. Since it’s clear that you’re not going to budge from that position, and nobody else seemed interested one way or the other, I stopped paying attention some time ago.

    Yeah, like the part where you claimed that Dawkins insulted all those who disagree with him and I pointed to the relevant passage and showed you how you had missed the part about him saying that he was being overly optimistic about his goals? Yeah, that was some intellectual gymnastics going on there. You know, he flat out said something different from what you claimed he said, so I must be off my rocker to think that you were wrong. But, hey, whatever. I invite anyone to go back and take a look and see how you retreated from my point by point dip into the source material into a blubbering mass of, “I’m right, I just know it and I’m going to continue to say I’m right no matter what you say.” See, you’re still doing it.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Two visits to the lawless Internet in one day! It’s feast or famine in the SansBlog household…

    OMGF, I’m not arguing about this topic with you anymore. I know from past experience that if I do, this will happen:

    1. You’re going to quote something at me which either proves my point, or doesn’t matter.

    2. I’m going to tell you so, and may or may not point out that I’ve read it already.

    3. You’re going to say, “unbelievers just don’t understand what Passage X really means.”

    4. I’m going to say, “Ockham’s Razor”.

    5. You’re going to accuse me of not reading the material, or else of being in league with some theological Axis of Evil.

    I’m telling you that this thing you’re pointing at is a tree, and by the way, there’s a whole forest full of them. You’re squinting real hard and insisting it’s broccoli. I’m willing to listen to anyone else on this particular topic, and you should of course feel free to talk to Rob, TheNerd, Mr. Speiser, etc. But I think you and I have reached our point of stasis, here. Any further dialogue between us would just fall back into two separate, and mutually uncomprehending, monologues. For the things I did to bring us to that pass, I’m sorry.

    PS: When I apologized to Dr. Hartung, he requested a link to the thread. I had to tell him that I’d lost track of it in the chaos that is my-life-at-present. Now that it’s been pointed out to me again, I can send it along to him; it’s his decision, of course, what he does with it. Thank you, OMGF. (No, no, for reals this time! :) )

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sorry Ebon, this is getting off-track, so once again I’ll simply point to the link I provided so that anyone can go back and see what really happened.

  • misanthropope

    at the risk of posting something on topic, i’d like to say that Tracy Quan is infinitely within her rights to feel and assert that aggressive athiesm is tacky. THIS IS NOT A TEAM EVENT. i am no more interested in her view of how an athiest should behave, than i am in, well, yours. a couple points of average IQ and a couple months greater average education wouldn’t keep athiests from being as worthless as the christians, if they assembled a group identity and a dogma.

    addressing the least uninteresting off-topic point, the lack of a direct causal link between religion and violence (or at least, the unprovability of same) is a totally different thing from not being confident that eliminating religion would reduce violence. doing something obviously terrible to another human being requires either a deep personal need, a considerable exercise in courage, or allegiance to a set of empty words which offers untestable platitudes about how terrible things are actually good.

  • http://www,garybaumgarten.com Gary Baumgarten

    Tracy Quan will be my guest on News Talk Online on Paltalk.com at 5 PM Monday October 13.

    Please go to http://www.garybaumgarten.com and click on the link to the room to talk to her.

    Thanks!