Andrew Brown Has It Wrong; ‘New Atheism’ Isn’t All About Deconverting People

Over at the Guardian, Andrew Brown writes about a conversation he had with philosopher (and New Atheist author) Daniel Dennett. One of the topics that came up was how Dennett feels compelled to help people think rationally — out of religion — while Brown see no reason to do that. As the title of the piece says, he’s “an atheist but… [he] won’t try to deconvert anyone.”

That’s one hell of a straw man argument, of course, intended to make Brown appear more tolerant and rational than Dennett:

Andrew Brown

The reason that I don’t go around trying to deconvert all my Christian friends is that they know the arguments against a belief in God so very much better than I do. I can entertain the possibility that Christianity is true. They have to take it seriously. I don’t believe I ought to love my neighbour, however much patience and humility this takes. I know that prayers go unanswered: they know their own prayers do.

Brown makes it sound as if we atheists are always picking fights with theists, as if there’s no way we can coexist with people who believe in something different. Obviously, that’s not true. There are many atheists directly involved in interfaith work, and I would argue that most of us, while we’d love to persuade people to drop their faith, are far more interested in maintaining separation of church and state. In the process, if people start questioning their faith, so be it.

The “New Atheism” isn’t about forcing atheism on other people. It’s about being open and proud about it, and understanding that faith is not a virtue, and not letting religion get away with all of its privileges.

While we’re on the topic, though, why is Brown giving Christians this much credit? No doubt many are brilliant, but most of the religious people I know are not religious because they’ve weighed the evidence and come down on the side of God. They’re religious because it’s what they’ve always been and they’re comforted by it. Throw an argument against God in their direction and they’ll deflect it away instead of responding forthright.

Maybe Brown and I just know very different Christians.

There are two other really obnoxious points Brown makes — but it’s possible an editor wrote them and not him because they appear in the subheading:

New atheism won’t tolerate the freedom to believe in God. But life’s far more interesting if we admit we might be wrong, right?

We “won’t tolerate” religious freedom? Absolutely false. Atheists as a whole are fully in support of religious freedom, even if we think religious people are wrong. You don’t see us protesting outside churches or legislating our atheism or flipping out if someone were to burn a copy of The God Delusion.

And to suggest that we should believe in something we know just isn’t true for the sake of making things interesting? That’s the sort of thing said by someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the beauty of science and the fact that this is the only life we have so we better make the most of it.

As one commenter at the Guardian noted:

Trying to understand the world in all its baffling complexity and uncertainty is an intellectually braver position that swallowing up a story about some invisible parent figure loving you and offering eternal life…

If you’re an atheist, you’re under no obligation to state it publicly or persuade other people to join you. There’s very good reason to do both, but you’re not a “bad atheist” if have your opinion and you leave it at that. But let’s be honest here. If you’ve rejected faith because you understand the difference between real evidence and personal experience, and you understand how Christian mythology is just a variation on mythologies that came before it, and you know that anyone who asserts the improbable better be able to back it up with proof, you do have a leg up over religious people.

That doesn’t make you an intellectual snob. It makes you honest.

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