Don’t Confuse Your Dennett with your Dawkins

Nica Lalli, author of Nothing: Something to Believe In, has a piece in today’s USA Today where she talks about how atheists, just like various religions’ followers, do not speak in just one voice:

… the word “atheist” has become synonymous with one kind of non-believer: the kind that writes books about atheism and is not very nice about religion.

But there is more than one kind of atheist. And even in the pool of (mostly male) writers who are called “atheist fundamentalists,” there are many differences. Don’t confuse your Sam Harris with your Daniel Dennett, and although Victor Stenger or Richard Dawkins may mostly agree with Christopher Hitchens, there are many disparities as well.

I’m with her so far. Atheists are not all alike. Just like people of any one faith are not alike.

She does get in some other important points as well:

It isn’t that I am not angry at some believers. These days, many atheists are angry. And we should be.

We are not liked by most people in our own country, and we couldn’t win an election unless the other guy was a child molester. We are regarded as threatening, unethical and downright evil. We are rarely even invited to the table when discussions among different religions (or beliefs) are held. We have no representation, and we get very little respect.

Nica suggests that we could start getting a seat at the table as by not fearing the differences in opinions that we all do have:

If people admitted that they don’t know the answers to all the big questions and stop being frightened by the possibility that there is more than one answer (or no answer at all), then we might be able to start a discussion that would be worth having.

Well, I don’t think Nica’s talking to atheists here.

I’ve been fortunate enough the past year to work with Christians whom I can learn from and converse with. The understanding is there and it’s mutual. That’s not the issue, though:

Once we start, we might see that we have more in common than we all think. Once we all agree to disagree, once we set the rules that no side is trying to convince the other of its rightness or wrongness, once we clarify that we are simply trying to understand each other — and then move on to other topics of common interest — then the conversation about religion and its place in our society can really begin.

Agreeing to disagree is nice in practice — you avoid arguments and can continue with your normal routine. But atheists have put up with a lot of religious bulllshit for decades (and more) as a result of this. All of the major atheist authors are saying that we need to speak up and make our voice heard. And part of doing that means ripping apart the religious convictions we’ve just “respected” for so long. There’s something to that way of thinking. I think it’s possible to do all this with a friendly face. But a lot of people won’t care how it’s presented. When you say you disagree with their beliefs, they’ll just tune you out.

There are a lot of people who do have a good understanding of the other side. I don’t think the conversation about religion’s place is the big problem here. A much more loftier goal, but one we do need to work toward, is to get those people who understand the other sides (and can express doubt, and do ask the hard questions) in leadership roles. Instead of people like, say, Pat Robertson or former evangelical Christian pastor Ted Haggard.

Once that happens, we might actually be able to fix a lot of them problems in this country, especially the social justice ones.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Vincent

    While I agree that we should “set the rules that no side is trying to convince the other of its rightness or wrongness” before having a dialog, I don’t think that applies to a dialog about religion. Put your religion aside to discuss child health care, but you can’t do that with “religion and its place in our society” when many people believe their religion’s purpose (and thus its place) is to convert everyone else to their way of thinking.

  • http://www.sadcrc.wordpress.com Calvin Moore

    I’d like to let you know, because of Jim Henderson’s ‘Lost Interviews’ and Hemant’s book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, I am hosting a panel discussion at my Christian school called “LOST: a candid conversation with those outside the church about those inside the church,” which features two atheists, a pagan, and a gnostic discussing why they’re not believers (they’ll also be speaking in our Philosophy of Religion class). It’s not a debate. Just a real desire to understand where people are coming from. So, welcome to the table. We all gotta start somewhere. Check out our website http://www.sadcrc.wordpress.com. As soon as the convo takes place (Nov 12) they’ll be audio up on the site and available on I-Tunes.

  • Jonah Emery

    What disturbs me as of late is the tendancy to label a human being anything at all – atheist or Christian! We are neither and that’s where a bridge can be built. We all need the same things to live, we have the same basic survival instincts, and can get joy out of the same stuff.

    What’s remarkable is that we are all searching for Truth and Good.

    That’s why I love the label humanist… cause I am a human before I’m anything else.

  • http://pam3la.wordpress.com/ Pamela

    Nicely written!

  • Darryl

    Once we start, we might see that we have more in common than we all think. Once we all agree to disagree, once we set the rules that no side is trying to convince the other of its rightness or wrongness, once we clarify that we are simply trying to understand each other — and then move on to other topics of common interest — then the conversation about religion and its place in our society can really begin.

    Of course we have a lot in common–we have everything in common!

    This approach is naive or disingenuous. I can agree to converse with anyone on any topic of mutual interest, and to look for common ground rather than to argue, but when there is no common ground on those topics that one side or the other thinks are critical, then the conversation will either become an argument or it will end.

    If, for example, a presidential candidate thinks that the U.S. is a Christian nation, founded on a Christian Constitution, and that the only candidate to prefer is a Christian one, or that Creationism ought to be taught in our public schools, then we will not “agree to disagree,” and I will be desperately trying to convince that person of his/her “wrongness.”

    Honestly, all but universalist Christians only care about our views so that they can develop new strategies for converting us. “Know your enemy” is what this is about. And we are trying to disarm them by showing them that we are not monsters. I’m not on a fact-finding mission; I know as much about religious people as I need to know.

    I am in a defensive posture; they are attacking. They have to moderate their views, not I mine. I am already a moderate. Without their moderation there can be no polite conversations.

  • http://www.drzach.net Zachary Moore

    I agree with Nica, even though I think that the main thrust should be to have atheists’ voices be heard now. But I hope that I’m on the leading edge of what she’s advocating.

  • http://infidel753.blogspot.com Infidel753

    There’s no reason why anyone should think that all atheists are alike, any more than all people who don’t believe in unicorns are alike. Any effort to establish one single “correct” approach to the problem of dealing with theists is doomed to failure.


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