Who’s More Effective at De-Converting Christians?

There’s a fantastic interview with Zach Weiner, the man behind Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, at The Freethinker.

And it features one of my favorite SMBC comics:


Here’s the exchange that stood out to me the most:

FT: There has recently been a change of tone in the discourse surrounding religion, with the so-called New Atheists arriving on the scene and causing a stir. One of these is PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who has featured your cartoons on a number of occasions. What do you think about this?

ZW: I enjoy watching debates featuring the so-called New Atheists, but I’m not convinced that they’re terribly productive. I prefer the work done by people like Carl Sagan, Neil Tyson, and E.O. Wilson. It’s probably just personal preference, but I feel like passive approaches are often more effective when trying to reach out to people and change their beliefs. Bill Cosby once said (when critiqued for not dealing with race explicitly in his comedy) that he thought he could help fight racism by getting people to enjoy his comedy albums before they realized he was black. That is, a person who might be anti-black might hear his comedy, like it, later find out they were of different races, and then be moved to reconsider his viewpoint. I think a similar thing might be said about Carl Sagan. You read his books, see his shows, become convinced that he is smart and thoughtful, then find out he’s an Atheist; maybe then you start thinking, “well, these non-believers may have a point.”

… Although I probably agree with a lot of the views held by the New Atheists, I find their approach too scathing, and often more about being personally right than about getting people involved in the use of science and logic as ways of viewing the universe. If you are a strong atheist and wish to shape the world to your view, your time would be much better spent teaching an after-school program about logic than going to atheist club meetings and posting about how stupid fundamentalists are.

The New Atheists tend to preach to the choir. In the process, maybe several people on the fence falls over to our side. It could also be argued that people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have created stronger Christians than more atheists.

Still, no doubt those atheists are invaluable in rallying the troops.

What we need more of, though, are people who can connect with religious people and get them to listen to what we have to say.

Who’s more likely to convert atheists to Christianity: Rick Warren or Francis Collins?

Rick Warren may have a bigger reach — by a huge margin — but I don’t think he connects with atheists. To me, Collins is the obvious answer.

Who’s more likely to create new atheists: PZ Myers or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Even though Tyson doesn’t even use the word to describe himself, I’d say he’s far more likely to do it, for exactly the reasons Zach mentioned.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad to rally the troops, or poke fun at religion, or cease pointing out how ridiculous religious beliefs are. It takes all kinds.

But the ones who have the ability to get the other side to listen are rare. We’d be far more effective with more of them.

(Incidentally, I think the type of response Zach gave is what Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum intended to do with Unscientific America… but instead, they’ve just pissed off the atheists. If the book is a success, it’ll only be because it has a chance to reach a Christian audience. But it’s too early to tell whether they’ll embrace it.)

  • Myrdek

    I think you underestimate the value of the new atheist. Think of them as the soldiers in the trenches.

    Religion is it’s own worse enemy but most religious people never actually see how much harm is caused by their church. The anger, hatred, lies and manipulation would easily be ignored without the likes of PZ and Richard Dawkins to push them.

    The new atheist pokes them and since religious peoples are used to being respected for no reason, they panic. They overreact and show how violent and non-christlike they really are. Thus making the more moral christians around them feel disgusted and ashamed to be associated with them. It also gives the atheists hidden among them more courage to voice their opinion.

    Your also right about rallying the troops part but you seem to underestimate the value of it. Without a certain cohesion, a certain community between us, we are very weak and vulnerable to attacks. We need generals to organize us into an effective force.

    Yes it does cause some christians to dig in and strengthen their belief but we can already see a new schism has been formed between light/moderate christians/catholics and the fundies. The fundamentalists are effectively cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. Making enemies of everyone who isn’t like them because they feel threatened.

    This is a war and we can’t win a war with only politicians, we need soldiers as well.

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    I think the first question that should be asked before you get to this one is whether or not Atheists are in the business of “converting” Christians.

    I am not out to convert anybody, but more to make sure that people know that there is a solid intellectual alternative to religion. That’s why I blog, that’s why I am a member of an atheist organization, that’s why I am participating in the upcoming podcast.

    What we need to acknowledge is that there are a great number of religious people who are doubting their faith, they have diverse backgrounds and reasons to be questioning their faith. Some may be trapped in a situation in which their whole social circle is a fundamentalist in-crowd and don’t even know that there is an alternative. There may be those who are socially comfortable with their faith, but growing intellectually dissatisfied and looking for more. There may be people in therapyy who want to know if they declare their atheism that there will be a supportive anti-religious group that will “have their backs.”

    So, one approach is not going to be sufficient to protect and/or advance secularism, humanism and atheism.

    That’s the big mistake that accommodationists are making. They have their job to do, and I do welcome the friendly reach across towards religious people, to make contacts and friends and to “dialog” with them. But the mistake is to decide without taking into account the larger audience that theirs should be a predominant approach.

    When there are a large array of divergent message “receivers” they, and you, Hemant, need to recognize that there needs to be a divergent array of message “senders.”

    I love the shows that Tyson does, he is funny, entertaining and makes a persuasive case for non-God cosmology. But many of his receivers may like the science and it may never even occur to them that this is in conflict with their religious beliefs.

    So, he may not “offend” people, but if the goal is to make a clear case that his explanations are related to atheism, that particular message is not clear. The so-called “strident” atheists are necessary for those about to take the next step.

    I really think that we need to stop denigrating Richard Dawkins within atheist circles. He carries a strong and powerful messsage about the lack of a connection between religion and the natural world and that it is irrational to make that connection. I have never, ever seen a tape in which the spittle flies from his mouth as he harangues Christians, and yet that is how they portray him. He delivers his message in a gracious, confident manner and is friendly to all challengers in his approach. His messages are challenging to the semi-religious listener, and perhaps because it is so strong then the defenders of religion feel backed into a corner so they lash out hatefully; and there is no reason for his fellow atheists to side with them.

    Finally, passive approaches are fine for some. If your neighbor is a lukewarm Christian, and you want to take on a ten-year project of converting hir with a dialog, go for it. Just keep in mind that the same time, they may also be on a ten-year project to convert you to Christianity. It may be friendly, but if evangelizing atheism is your goal (and we still haven’t even settled that question,) then it will take a whole lot of atheists a whole lot of years to make a dent.

    Keep in mind that Christians can be so easily offended as to fight tooth and nail against signs on buses and billboards that have “friendly messages” to atheists.

  • Bekka

    This is why I’ve always said that Richard Dawkins’ science books make a far more compelling argument for atheism than the God Delusion ever could. Read the science, start to understand the span of evolution and how tiny we are, or how small the earth is in the vastness of the universe, or whatever, and then the gentler atheist pushes flow naturally out of it. People are far more likely to be convinced that religion is false by truly understanding science and scale than by attacking their superstition directly.

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    Bekke, a one-size-fits all approach is not appropriate.

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.net Veritas

    H;

    I think that the most important thing New Atheism (how I detest that term!) has done is to put the proverbial flag out for secularists to rally behind. Five years ago, it would have been impossible to run a bus ad, let alone generate the appropriate amount of outrage needed to convince certain politicos that it is acceptable.

    We are still learning to organize, and unlike other groups that have felt the grip of minority status, we do not have a conjoined community to work with. Blacks in the 1960s lived in the same neighbourhood; lgbt people in the 1970s and to this day have migrated to their own communities, but there is no atheist Harlem, no atheist San Francisco. It makes like difficult.

    Luckily, we can network over the internet, and making people realize they are not alone is one of the biggest challenges we face. Atheism shouldn’t be closeted, and that’s why religious folk are railing against “New Atheism” – they’re fine with atheists as long as they are quiet, and hiding in a closet. Muzzled, effectively. “New Atheists” aren’t in any way more or less atheist than those who came before. They are simply more vocal about it.

    When it comes to the vocal nature of things, you have to look at the simple fact that, globally, more and more people are identifying as secular, especially in the West. This trend is observable before the outbreak of the “New Atheism”, but folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al give the religious types someone to yell at. They can blame the evil Dawkins for leading children away from the light, etc. So, I really think “New Atheism” is a term we shouldn’t embrace. Nothing is new with the way we see the world – what’s new is that we identify publicly, without shame.

    So, when it comes to it, I agree that atheists need to be humble…most of the time. But we need to be unafraid of being vocal when necessary, when our rights are being infringed. So, we need to be prepared to be organized.

    Personally, I think that being angry at theists, as some are, is a poor thing to do. Oh, I have my days. I live in Canada, but I work in tech support, talking to Americans all day (except for now, a fella from Sudbury, Ont. got through the American queue). And some of the things I hear on the phone bother me. Some people ask my religious preference first thing. “Oh, Benjamin. That sounds like a good Christian name (it’s Hebrew). Are you a good Christian?” “No ma’am, I’m a nothing.” *click*.

    Let’s continue to follow the lead of fellows like Dawkins and all of them in our willingness to be honest; but let’s follow the the lead of those who are quiet and humble with their lack of beliefs most of the time. Don’t be afraid to speak up…but at the same time, don’t define yourself by not believing. That’s the trap we risk falling in.

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com mathyoo

    To a degree, I can understand the points of both the accommodationists and the “new atheists” (I despise that term-they aren’t “new” and aren’t saying anything really new, just standing up for their nonbeliefs). I think we actually need both points of view and both types of atheists. The vocal atheists to keep us intellectually honest and stand up for our rights, to bring the arguments into the public view, and the accommodationists to mollify and engage the theists. We also need the middle ground, held by those like Sagan and Tyson, because so many theists will be responsive to that approach.

    I do have a bit of a problem with the accommodationists who are overly concerned with offending theists-no one has a right to not be offended, and pretending that the irrational beliefs of others are not only acceptable but somehow special is dangerous.

  • Tom

    Wow, I havn’t seen this kind of defensiveness in a while.

    Who’s more likely to create new atheists: PZ Myers or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik

    This is a war and we can’t win a war with only politicians, we need soldiers as well.

    President Bush might of well have said this. These New Atheist fanboys share the same believe in the myth of good vs. evil as neocons. Can’t you admit there’s a part of this war you are not winning?

  • Tom

    I do have a bit of a problem with the accommodationists who are overly concerned with offending theists-no one has a right to not be offended, and pretending that the irrational beliefs of others are not only acceptable but somehow special is dangerous.

    It seems to me that New Atheist fanboys are more concerned with offending theists and getting some kind of emotional relief, rather than trying to change their mind. It’s too much work, and who cares about dumb people anyways?

    *Since some people wonder, I don’t believe in God. I also don’t believe in humiliating people who don’t agree with me

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    And Tom, can’t you admit that by using the pejorative “Fanboy” you are part of the problem?

    Don’t be so “holier than thou” towards “New Atheists” if you are going to be so patently hypocritical.

  • AxeGrrl

    Bekka wrote:

    This is why I’ve always said that Richard Dawkins’ science books make a far more compelling argument for atheism than the God Delusion ever could. Read the science, start to understand the span of evolution and how tiny we are, or how small the earth is in the vastness of the universe, or whatever, and then the gentler atheist pushes flow naturally out of it. People are far more likely to be convinced that religion is false by truly understanding science and scale than by attacking their superstition directly.

    I completely agree.

  • Claudia

    Sadly I don’t really think we’re at a point where we can pick and choose what we need more of and especially what we need less of.

    Frankly, we need more of everyone.

    Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (especially Hitchens) are very very unlikely to convert any overt theist. So do we need less of them. Of course not! Their function is not to take true believers and turn them into atheists, it is to take indifferent atheists and semantic agnostics and raise their consciousness to the point where they understand that fighting in the battle for rationalism is important. I called myself a “closed agnostic” (ridiculous, in retrospect) until I read The God Delusion. The “four horsemen” may not have converted a single theist, but they’ve woken up thousands of previously indifferent atheists and also rallied us to the point where a fearful closet atheist can know that he or she is not alone, that there is a community their to lend support.

    Of course merely fighting for education is essential, the other strategy is not an alternative, it is complementary. I live in Europe, and atheism is quite common here. So common in fact that your average atheist has little education in science. The only reason that science is such an integral part of the “New atheist” (ugh, can’t we come up with an alternative name?) movement is because science has come under attack by theists.

    We are all part of the same movement. Those that may become atheists some day (or at least non-aggressive towards atheists) will not be converted by Dawkins. They may however be converted by the quiet education and consciousness raising of a person who was moved to become active in the fight by Dawkins.

  • Russ

    The single most important function performed by the so-called “new atheists” is to publicly juxtapose the defects inherent in religion-based decision-making with the need for political leaders to make decisions using reason, data, and empiricism. Unlike Sagan or Tyson, these vocal atheists loudly and publicly highlight those places where religion adversely affects thinking, and, therefore, can negatively impact public policy decisions.

    I seriously think that Dawkins perceived the grave threat posed by religion when the depth of the religious backwardness of last US President became known. When the most powerful military leader on the planet holds a religious mindset of welcoming an end to the world, he endangers us all. Sarah Palin claims to know through her religion that the world will end within 50 years. I do not want her, or her religious notions, involved in planning for the future of the US or the planet.

    Further, I think that Dawkins knew that to present his opposition to religion from a political standpoint would have found him butting heads with the Bush administration which would have lead to lost battles for him both home and abroad.

    During the 2008 Presidential campaign, religion was a legitimate topic of discussion and I’m convinced that it was possible only because of the efforts of the likes of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens.

    By opening religion to public criticism and debate, they have performed a great service for all humanity.

  • Myrdek

    I’ve thought of a nice analogy (I hope) for this struggle.

    Imagine this is high school and a group of 5 bullies constantly harass you. Two of them are fundamentalists while 3 are more liberal but following along.

    Every morning they come push you and since you don’t fight back, you move 1 step backward. You try to talk to them, plead and convince them to leave you alone. The more liberal ones feel guilty for being part of this and after a while you manage to convince one of them to leave. Now he’s being bullied as well because he doesn’t want to fight back either.

    That’s the passive atheist approach. You might convince 1-2 to leave but you will always be bullied and eventually you’ll have been pushed back so far that you won’t even be able to hang out in the school anymore.

    The active atheist is usually someone who was once passive but got tired of being bullied and one day pushed back. This will either lead to the bullies leaving him alone or the fundies to lose it and break his arm. If they lose it, the liberals will feel extreme guilt for this and might leave.

    If instead they leave him alone after he pushes back and decide to go harass someone else, the active atheist might go defend the new victim, and the next one. Eventually the bullies won’t be able to harass anyone because of this.

    Of course, we have to be careful not to become bullies ourselves by doing this. It’s pretty easy to keep the moral high ground when the religious fanatics shoot a doctor in a church though.

    Now imagine both the active and passive atheist working together. Do you see how much more effective it is?

  • Stephen P

    Who’s more likely to convert atheists to Christianity: Rick Warren or Francis Collins? … Who’s more likely to create new atheists: PZ Myers or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

    Rather than speculating about what might work, try asking yourself what has worked. Did the Religious Right get to their position of influence by calm reasoned argument? Like hell they did – they got there by being loud-mouthed, arrogant and insulting. That is what actually works in America. You may not like it (I don’t) but there is little point in pretending otherwise.

    Of course, if you find yourself in the company of a group of Christians who are interested in a reasoned discussion, then make the most of the opportunity. As said above, numerous different approaches are needed.

    But let’s face it – your average small-town Oklahoman or Michele Bachmann supporter is about as likely to pay attention to reasoned atheist arguments as a died-in-the-wool hard-rock fan is likely to pay attention to Scarlatti sonatas.

  • justanotherjones

    I agree that it takes all kinds, and I appreciate the work of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris just as much as I do those who are more passive.

    To ask someone like Hitchens to “tone it down” would be like telling him to “sit down and shut up”.

    I have never, ever seen a tape in which the spittle flies from his mouth as he harangues Christians, and yet that is how they portray him. He delivers his message in a gracious, confident manner and is friendly to all challengers in his approach.

    I have heard of this “rabid Dawkins” many times, too, but I have not seen it either. I wonder if the people making this claim have ever actually seen him or if they are getting their info from Fox News types.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Myrdek:

    Imagine this is high school and a group of 5 bullies constantly harass you. Two of them are fundamentalists while 3 are more liberal but following along.

    But you are already assuming that the religious are like bullies in the first place, which is often flat out false.

    Stephen P:

    Rather than speculating about what might work, try asking yourself what has worked. Did the Religious Right get to their position of influence by calm reasoned argument? Like hell they did – they got there by being loud-mouthed, arrogant and insulting.

    Yes, the Religious Right has been very effective at hardening partisan lines and screwing up reasonable debate. Do we really want to emulate this?

  • Erp

    I have to point out that Rick Warren is considered quite soft by a lot of evangelical standards.

  • Miko

    Robert Heinlein used the “Cosby tactic” in at least a few of his novels, by conveniently omitting references to the races of his characters until somewhere around the middle of a novel.

  • Gordon

    The accommodationists are misguided in their effort to get other atheists to sit down, be nice and STUF. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to be clearly trying to quiet the voices of some atheists. M&K’s book creates a big debate that wastes lots of valuable time within the diverse and growing atheist community. While complaining about Myers, Dawkins and Hitchens the accommodationist never once offer a solution to the problem of the Texas Board of Eduction where its prior chairman, Dr, McLeroy, believes god created the earth less than 10,000 years ago. In February 2009 McLeroy had the Texas Board vote on a “challenge to evolution”. The accommodationists seem to be saying that all atheist should be quiet about the McLeroys of this world.

    Even Neil deGrasse Tyson does not remain quiet about this type of situation. In February 2009 he spoke at the University of Texas. When asked, he said the following:

    During the Q&A, an audience member asked Tyson about conservative members of the state Board of Education who want to teach the “weaknesses” of the theory of evolution in Texas high school classrooms.

    “I think they should stay in the Sunday school,” Tyson said. Calling intelligent design theory a “philosophy of ignorance,” he argued that a lack of appreciation for basic scienctific principles will hurt America’s scientific output, which has been the largest economic engine in the country’s history.

    “If nonscience works its way into the science classroom, it marks…the beginning of the end of the economic strength this country has known,” Tyson said.

    So the difference between Tyson and Dawkins seems to be that Dawkins would have mentioned the Texas situation in the body of his speech while Tyson waits to be asked.

    The atheist community needs more people like Myers, Dawkins and Hitchens not less. Yes, Myers crossed the line with the cracker stunt and should be roundly criticized for it but on the whole he is very valuable to our community. He has repeatedly said he does not care what anyone believes. However, he cares a lot when the believer brings stupidity into the public square and tries to implement stupidity into public policy. His voice and others like him is incredibly valuable in beating back stupidity in the public discourse.

    Hemant, you may not be asking for Myers, Dawkins and Hitchens to stop their efforts. If you are asking them to not publish books like “The God Delusion” I would like to know that. So please reply. You may just be saying that Tyson is better at converting Christians which I think is probably true. If your post is simply aligning people on the Christian conversion index ok. But I get the message that you want more than that. That you want some atheists to change their methods and message. Is that true?

  • tmm

    Let me say my story.

    For about a year, I didn’t believed god or religion. But I decided, “As there is no harm in following religion”, to just follow religion.

    Until I read Dawkins. Then I realized there is actually a harmful side of religion and thus decided to trun to an atheist.

  • Stephen P

    Yes, the Religious Right has been very effective at hardening partisan lines and screwing up reasonable debate. Do we really want to emulate this?

    Of course we don’t want to. The question is, in the short term at least, to what extent we have the choice.

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.net Veritas

    Gordo says:

    The accommodationists are misguided in their effort to get other atheists to sit down, be nice and STUF.

    Well, we shouldn’t feel the need to be quiet. Ever. No-one should, not me, not you, not the crazy KKK folks. Freedom of speech is imperative to democratic discourse, and that’s what we’re participating in. Luckily, this isn’t a theocracy (no matter how much people insist it is!). We are entitled to be proud in our lack of beliefs. But aggression in pushing it….we just have to be measured and pick the right fights.

  • Tom

    And Tom, can’t you admit that by using the pejorative “Fanboy” you are part of the problem?

    Don’t be so “holier than thou” towards “New Atheists” if you are going to be so patently hypocritical.

    As I believe it was the honorable Master P that said it, “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” I think New Atheists are hypocrits themselves, so I take license to be somewhat one myself.

    Though of course I think the New Atheists are being less fair. I’m not perfect, and I acknowledge I used a pejorative, but this is a “war” after all like some of the posters are saying. Nothing’s far in war. I just think I’m being less unfair than the New Atheists. So come up with a better reason why I can’t call you a fanboy and I’ll have to find something else.

  • http://mojoey.blogspot.com Mojoey

    My 2 cents…

    I really don’t care what other people choose to believe. I view conversion as violent and intensely intrusive. So no, I’m not out trying to convince people to give up their faith. I’m more of a Crosby atheist.

    On the other hand, I have no problem with engaging in a debate if confronted by a Christian bent on converting me. I’ll take the gloves off and go for the kill. I think there is room for both approaches.

  • Zar

    There’s a place for both kinds of rhetoric. Is that so hard? A diversity of voices surely isn’t a bad thing. If you have an extreme fringe (please note that the “extreme” atheist fringe involves writing books and occasionally desecrating inanimate objects while the extreme religious fringe involves killing people, withholding civil rights and mutilating others’ genitals), then a mellow atheist looks positively mainstream. If we only have a mellow atheist with no outspoken atheist then that mellow atheist looks like an extremist. MLK and Malcolm X were both very important to their social movement.

    Believe it or not, there are a good number of people who do become atheists after reading something from one of the Four Horsemen. I’m one of them. It was Hitchens, oddly enough (I say “oddly enough” because I tend not to like the guy).

    And Tom, if the “new atheist” rhetoric gives you an excuse to be obnoxious, then I think it’s perfectly fair for me to call you a douche. Because you are acting like a raging douche.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    If and only if the goal of “new atheists” is to convert theists to atheism, then the new atheists are an abomination and a terrible failure. Not only do they fail at converting Christians, but they bolster theists of all sorts to rally to their causes and become stronger in their faith.

    I’ll tell you the on thing that would turn me apologetic towards Mormonism when I was in the church — it was anti-Mormons of any stripe. That made me search and comb for counterarguments and want to read up more and believe more.

    But if the goal of new atheists is to rally the troops or whatever, then perhaps they are doing something worthwhile.

    Personally, I don’t want to have more vocal atheists along with more vocal theists. That is a fight we will lose because we do not have the numbers. I would rather everyone be mellow, be presented science no matter what woo-woo they believe on top of it, but not be given any reason to be fired up for their woo-woo. If they are complacent about religion and listening about science, that’s the way to go.

    I’m not naive though. Because I know that some Christians are explicit enemies to science. So we *must* counter this forcefully. So I think the new atheists have a purpose there.

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    So come up with a better reason why I can’t call you a fanboy and I’ll have to find something else.

    This was in body of the same post as the one which used the term “fanboy.” I am just asking you to be consistent:

    *Since some people wonder, I don’t believe in God. I also don’t believe in humiliating people who don’t agree with me.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yes, I deploy the two approaches as appropriate. For a few years one of my neighbors would have a couple of Mormon missionaries stop in, and often while I was out on the porch with a smoke and a book. Nice long talks, I told them my views and asked them not to proselityze, and I learned a lot about their particular quackery. My goal: to make them realize atheists are people, with morals, courtesy, and consideration for others.

    Other times, like last year when a co-worker said she “couldn’t understand why Muslims murdered apostates, unless they’d become atheists,” I broke out the howitzers and lined up a time-on-target shoot that was, I’ll confess, rather fun. And it bears saying that some of my ammunition came from the Loudmouths.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Gordon:

    While complaining about Myers, Dawkins and Hitchens the accommodationist never once offer a solution to the problem of the Texas Board of Eduction where its prior chairman, Dr, McLeroy, believes god created the earth less than 10,000 years ago. In February 2009 McLeroy had the Texas Board vote on a “challenge to evolution”. The accommodationists seem to be saying that all atheist should be quiet about the McLeroys of this world.

    Gordon, I think you’ve just shown how good the New Atheists are at framing. The whole point of accommodation was to fight the McLeroys of this world, to let Christians know that being a Christian did not mean accepting Young-Earth creationism or any other sort of creationism in conflict with the scientific facts, to break the assumption that evolution entails atheism and give Christians leeway to be allies of good science instead of adversaries. Indeed, one of the big bastions of accommodationism is the NCSE. Now, with the New Atheists framing the debate to suggest that the accommodationists are bending over backwards to mollify all forms of religion, we now have people like you who are utterly unaware of how enmeshed the accommodationists have been in the fight against creationism.

  • http://www.unifreethought.com Trevor

    I just wanted to chime in to say I’m one of those atheists converted by Dawkins, Myers, etc. Maybe the other way is more effective, but both have the power to sway people.

  • Gordon

    J.J.:

    You said:

    we now have people like you who are utterly unaware of how enmeshed the accommodationists have been in the fight against creationism.

    I don’t think that conclusion accurately reflects my comment. Please note that I quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson fighting against young-earth creationism. The accommocationists present Tyson as an ideal for an atheist scientist. I must assume the accommodationists believe Tyson is an accommodationist. So I can’t be as you claim “utterly unaware of how enmeshed the accommodationist have been in the fight against creationism.”

    What I do not understand is whether the accommodationists want the New Atheists (I hate that term and avoid using it) to stop doing what they are doing and to stop writing their books. The accommodationist never step up and say that but their writing includes a very strong message that this is their preference. If accommodations are trying to get New Atheists to stop doing stupid things that is just fine. PZ’s cracker stunt was stupid and childish. He should not have done that. But if accommodations are trying to get New Atheists to change their rhetoric, that is misguided. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett have never been anything but polite and civil while at the same time being forceful and direct in the public discourse. Some people can take offense when presented with a polite, civil, forceful, direct argument. The accommodationists keep complaining about Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett (and Myers) so I must conclude that accommodationists want them to continue to be polite and civil but to stop being forceful and direct. If I am wrong, please let me know.

    If any New Atheist wants an accommodationist to stop being a accommodationist, that New Atheist is just nuts. I want and encourage all accommodationists to continue in their effort. I would just like to know that accommodationists want this polite civil New Atheist to continue is his effort, too.

  • Myrdek

    I’m sorry but PZ’s cracker stunt was not crazy, it was the reaction from catholics that was.

    That stunt is exactly the kind of thing we need to show the world how insane religion is. If we don’t keep pushing back against religious intolerance then we’re going to be swallowed by it, lose everything.

    It’s a freaking cracker!

  • Gordon

    Myrdek,
    Not all stunts are reasonable. I love PZ. Think he’s almost always right in his comments and analysis. I just thought the cracker thing was childish. He didn’t have to go there. But whatever.

    PZ is going to the Creation Museum next week. A stunt leaving poop in the museum to demonstrate that the museum is full of crap would be childish, too. PZ, don’t go there.

    Pushing back hard on religious intolerance and the lunacy of its dogma is the right thing to do. While doing that, let’s not be childish at the same time.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    It could also be argued that people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have created stronger Christians than more atheists.

    Or not. I know of no data at all that speak to that claim, so it’s a pointless argument. I strongly doubt (based solely on personal experience with Christians and some anecdotes) that any Christian has been moved to deeper or stronger belief by the “New Atheists.” Some have become more vocal, perhaps, and certainly more defensive, but I’d be amazed if their beliefs changed toward stronger theism as a consequence of reading “The God Delusion” or Pharyngula or “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Gordon:

    I don’t think that conclusion accurately reflects my comment. Please note that I quoted Neil deGrasse Tyson fighting against young-earth creationism. The accommocationists present Tyson as an ideal for an atheist scientist. I must assume the accommodationists believe Tyson is an accommodationist.

    Yet you contrasted Tyson’s response with that of hypothetical accommodationists who would give McLeroy a pass, and apparently did not consider Tyson an accommodationist yourself.

    Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett have never been anything but polite and civil while at the same time being forceful and direct in the public discourse.

    If you think that calling believers as “dyed-in-the wool faith-heads” is polite, then I don’t think you understand what politeness is.

  • penn

    As a questioning Catholic a few short years ago it was PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and a few other “new” atheists that led me to believe that a life without faith was not only possible, but beneficial. I am currently an atheist because of them and their arguments, and I doubt I am the only one.

    So, I find it weird when people claim that accommodationists are better at conversion than aggressive atheists like PZ Myers. Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t challenge people’s beliefs, so why would they change their beliefs in response to him? At best they may become some sort of Francis Collins-esque theistic evolutionist, which is an improvement. But, it won’t in general lead to more atheists or more acceptance of atheists by theists.

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    PZ is going to the Creation Museum next week. A stunt leaving poop in the museum to demonstrate that the museum is full of crap would be childish, too. PZ, don’t go there.

    I believe you missed the point. A cracker is just a cracker; it shouldn’t matter what the hell you do to it.
    Defecating in public, on property that is not yours, is not acceptable in any stretch of the imagination. The fact that you compared the two strikes me as odd…

  • Gordon Reid

    J.J.
    I consider Tyson an accommodationist and his response to the question was excellent. I guessed that Dawkins would have mentioned the creationist Texas Board of Education in the body of his talk while Tyson waited for a question. This is a complete conjecture on my part concerning Dawkins but it seems to match the criticism of Dawkins for being too aggressive (strident). He is aggressive (strident if you wish) and would be likely to address the Texas issue on his initiative similar to how he acted during the University of Oklahoma speech. I also guessed that Dawkins would have given an answer that was similar to the one given by Tyson based on watching the talk by Dawkins in Oklahoma and other videos.

    As to politeness. Belevers is a pretty broad term that includes all or almost every Christian. It is completely false for you to claim that Dawkins called believers (all or almost every Christians) dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads. I completely reject your claim that I don’t understand what politeness is. You certainly can’t think that the dyed-in-the-wool part of Dawkins’ sentence is impolite. So the problem must be in how you respond to the words faith-head. I would no think someone was impolite if they called me a dyed-in-the-wool atheist-head, or dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist-head, or sceptic-head, or faithless-head. So what is impolite about labeling people that are immune to any argument or evidence that conflicts with their beliefs faith-heads. Could it be that people of faith claim a level of respect and deference that is undeserved. I would ask if you believe that faith people deserve your deference?

    As to my question. I still do not understand if accommodationists want New Atheist to stop being forceful and direct in their public discourse. What do you say? Should we be less direct and forceful?

  • Tom

    It’s frustrating that this “Who are the New Atheists?” conversation has gone essentially nowhere ever since Sam Harris published End of Faith back in 2003? Was it? Anyways, I don’t find a lot of consensus even amongst people on the same side.

    I don’t really think people are being honest with their dialog. Because at this juncture we are still at “I think they (the New Atheists) are jerks!” and “If you don’t like them you’re a weenie!” So in a way I’m glad to be called a douche, because I think we’re actually getting some honest dialog going. I don’t try to be a douche, but I’m too outraged at the way the atheist snobbery is slowing us down and actually preventing lots of new people from joining the “club.” Really, I feel ashamed of being associated with so much of the high-horsery directed towards so many of the people out there who are looking for the truth and make wrong turns along the way.

    So when you reply, don’t hold back. I won’t. I don’t believe in that

  • Gordon Reid

    JohnFrost:
    You are right, it was a comparison that did not work. I shouldn’t have done it. However, let me point out that I said “leaving poop” which can be done with used doggy pick up bags. And after all, poop is just poop. Nowhere did I suggest defecating in public. That comes from you.

    The crack (sacramental bread) should be mocked. It’s just a freakin’ cracker. But physically taking something that someone values and physically damaging it seems to be going too far.

  • Tom

    Perhaps a useful word to you all who are using accommodationalist would be,

    Accommodatheist?

    I can see why you all might think we on this side of the argument are accommodating, so I’m happy to introduce a potentially useful term With it, we can begin to progress onto further, more applicable names.

  • benjdm

    Who’s more likely to convert atheists to Christianity: Rick Warren or Francis Collins?

    Both are nearly equally unlikely…Rick Warren is more consistent in his epistemology, I think.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Gordon Reid:

    I would no think someone was impolite if they called me a dyed-in-the-wool atheist-head, or dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist-head, or sceptic-head, or faithless-head.

    I would. I’d also think that it was a poor attempt at an insult, maybe a play on the kiddie slur “poopy-head” or the drug slang “coke-head” or the racial slur “rag-head,” but an attempt at an insult nonetheless.

    I still do not understand if accommodationists want New Atheist to stop being forceful and direct in their public discourse

    I think that they want “New Atheists” to stop implying that evolution entails atheism and to stop implying that theists are stupid or crazy.

  • darryl

    The new atheists are valuable for many reasons, but chief among them is that they prevent us from defining irrationality down in public discourse, or at least make it uncomfortable to say ridiculous things like “I see the virgin Mary in a drop of bird shit.”

    I had a recent conversation with a friend of mine who is Greek orthodox and quite sane, and yet he sees no contradiction of his own beliefs in his identification of Evangelical fundamentalists as nuts when they suspect that Barack Obama is the antiChrist, and he seems to have been convinced that his wife is a medical intuitive.

    A frontal attack will never work with people like him–rationality, probability, evidence, and such are not at issue for them. If you are going to change their minds you have to do it by seemingly irrelevant means. Crazy but true.

  • Gordon

    J.J. Ramsey:

    I understand and can see how a large segment of the population could take that faith-head line as a poor attempt at an insult. I would not experience it that way but that’s just me.

    Thanks for the reply to my question. I agree with the accommodationists (I’m not one of them) that “New Atheists” should stop implying that evolution entails atheism. Also, I agree that the “New Atheists” should stop implying theists as a group are stupid or crazy because there are too many theists that are not stupid or crazy. However, some theists hold theistic beliefs that are stupid and crazy. It is also true that some evolutionists hold evolution beliefs that are stupid and crazy. Calling what appears to be a stupid or crazy belief stupid or crazy only becomes a personal insult when the person holding that belief over-identifies with the belief.

    Take our Texas case as an example. Introducing the concept that the earth is less than 10,000 years old into the high school curriculum is a stupid and crazy idea. That idea needs to be called stupid and crazy. Telling the person pushing for that change in the curriculum something along the line of … your idea is of questionable merit but you should continue to work on the idea until it is better formed … might be accommodating but it does not communicate reality. Making high schools teach that the earth is less than 10,000 years old is a stupid and crazy idea. The person pushing that idea needs to be told the idea is stupid and crazy. We both know that the person pushing for teaching young-earth creationism is a theist. We both know that the next step is that this theist (and friends) will cry out against the awful attacks on their theism. But even so I claim that it is completely ineffective to accommodate this type of theist with kind words and polite, non-confrontational replies to their ideas. These type of theists will succeed at destroying the educational system in Texas given we treat them will respect and accommodation.

    To paraphrase what someone said before me, I call a rock a freakin’ rock and I call a stupid idea a freakin’ stupid idea.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Gordon:

    Telling the person pushing for that change in the curriculum something along the line of … your idea is of questionable merit but you should continue to work on the idea until it is better formed … might be accommodating but it does not communicate reality.

    But the so-called accommodationists are not being that accommodating. If anything, what they are saying is more like, “If you can accommodate your beliefs to fit the facts, then we can accommodate you.” McLeroy’s ideas are not only right out, but they’ve been right out from the very beginning, and the so-called accommodationists have been very explicit about this.

  • Tom

    Perhaps this is a better way of saying it:

    “If you are willing to accommodate your beliefs to fit the facts, then we can accommodate you, even if you are not always successful.”

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    I would. I’d also think that it was a poor attempt at an insult, maybe a play on the kiddie slur “poopy-head” or the drug slang “coke-head” or the racial slur “rag-head,” but an attempt at an insult nonetheless.

    Despite an explanation by Dawkins to the contrary that I’m pretty sure you’ve been told of before. Metalhead and gearhead are not derogatory terms, and there are a host of other “-heads” that are not insults. Rather than try to understand you’d rather keep on misrepresenting someone because that makes it easier to justify your bogus claims about them.

  • Gordon

    Please forgive my poor attempt at parody.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    Metalhead and gearhead are not derogatory terms

    That depends a lot on the context. Now, has “faith-head” ever been used in a context that indicates that the term could be positive or neutral?

  • Dietra

    Groundfighting:

    I have a few nieces that are very religious. They know that their Aunt Dietra is a heathen, but they love me anyway. None of them are comfortable with me speaking against what they have been taught, so I don’t go there. But I have been able to get them to sit still and really listen to the many reasons why atheism isn’t the horrible thing that they’ve been lead to believe and that atheists aren’t evil immoral baby eaters (Hemant as the exception). I’m hoping that this gentle approach will get them to one day allow me to probe a little more deeply into the truth of what they have been taught.

    Airstrike:

    We must have the “public face of atheism” so that new or newly out of the closet non-believers can see that there are others like them. These men and women have the tools and platform to fight the big religious organizations.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    That depends a lot on the context.

    No shit.

  • J. Allen

    Just the presence of a book called ‘The God Delusion’ on the shelves can cause people to question. Deconverting is usually a lengthy process though. But these books certainly have converted people who were ready to test their arguments.

    So we may need two types of atheists…but I’m not convinced that Cosby was any better than Chris Rock for African Americans. Cosby wanted to show that Blacks were typical people, and Rock wanted to point out the bullshit they go through, and they both reached different types of people.

    If you are scared of theist reactionaries then you are missing the point. Gay Pride parades don’t convince many homophobes by themselves, but by being out there they are becoming ‘normal’, especially to the younger generations who don’t remember when gays were scared and closeted.

    The only difference between the ‘come out’ gay movement and the new atheist movement is that there’s a better chance of our oppressors, or people on the sidelines, becoming one of us. But our main point should not be to convert but to announce ourselves, and let people seek truth on their own, because most Christians don’t realize that atheists are not depressed and troubled people.

    The Emperor has no clothes, and the New Atheists like to say so. For some people that will work…others are so emotionally invested in their faith that they may need lighter commentary to provoke the intellectual honesty required to acknowledge the possibility of nonbelief.

    I’ve read many stories of people converting when reading the ‘replies’ to Dawkins, and realizing their own side’s arguments were absurd. So I can accept that accomodationists have a purpose, but I’m not convinced they are better, though they may be the one’s needed to say ‘it’s okay to question what your parents told you’

  • Pingback: Atheism Evangelized | Quiche Moraine

  • VolcanoMan

    Like most people here, I think that there is room for both approaches. Plainly, Dawkins et al. serve an important purpose: they successfully turn questioning religious people, and passive non-believers into vocal atheists. Their methods only seem impolite and irreverant to some people because religion has, up until now, been able to thrive as a “special case” of mental illness, whereby it is rude to point out just how ridiculous the beliefs actually are.

    On the whole however, the vocal atheism we see today is a response to the growing normalcy of religion in the public sphere of Western democracies. Religion has always been a rallying point for those seeking wealth and power, but after the separation of church and state became enshrined in the laws of all democratic nations, faith became a personal decision, something confined to the home and church, and not used as a tool for dismantling the secular rationalism that people have fought and died for since the Renaissance. No more, however. Now it is the wildest wet dream of the fundamentalists to create new theocracies, and to forcefully cut off dissenters at the knees.

    People who scoff at the “we’re fighting a war” mentality clearly don’t understand the lengths to which religious zealots will go to achieve their ends. Here is where the Dawkinses and Myerses are most useful. “Crackergate” was a juvenile stunt, but its purpose wasn’t only to make fun of Catholics; the backlash, the death threats, the abuse he took over it highlights the danger we’re in. THAT was the message. Like a skilled practitioner of jujitsu, PZ used the Catholics’ zeal against them, exposed the violence behind a supposedly peaceful faith, and provided a very good reason for those who were already questioning their Catholicism to abandon it.

    Right now, people openly declaring their atheism or agnosticism make up at most 1-2% of the population, but those who are indifferent or undecided are in the 15-20% range. Accomodationists, over a long period of time, *might* get some moderate religious people to abandon their faith. But in the meantime, the so-called Four Horsemen are making vocal atheists out of those who are indifferent, undecided, or religious by default (having been born into a faith that they now question). To fight superstition, we need people to stand up to its dominance, defend our hard-won freedoms, and highlight the evil that is perpetrated by those with faith, in accordance with their beliefs or against them.

  • Pingback: Logic and Perspective | Tangled Up in Blue Guy


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X