Why Do We Need New Atheists? Can't We Just Spruce Up The Old Ones?

Today’s guest post, by skeptic activist and accomplished author Karla McLaren, is a doozy (and I mean this in a good way). In it, she talks about “New Atheist” polemic, and the need to move on to dialectics. It’s a hugely informative and clear-eyed assessment of the state of the atheist movement, and I recommend you read it from start to finish with an open mind and a critical eye. As someone who acknowledges the importance of the so-called “New Atheists” for cracking open the space to allow for the conversations about atheism and critical thinking about religion that I have — for facilitating greater atheist visibility and a change in our cultural climate that has made my work possible — and the many things they say that I agree with, I also deeply appreciate Karla’s assertion that we need to move beyond polemics in order to build a sustainable movement and healthy communities. Without further ado:

barbrawlSo here’s the situation, if you’re not familiar with it. Atheism, which has traditionally been a rather disrespected minority[i] viewpoint, is enjoying a surge in visibility. This is due in a large measure to the popularity of books by four authors: Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004, Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007). Collectively, these four authors are known as the New Atheists. Some also call them The Four Horsemen, though I call them the Fractious Four, which has a cool superhero ring to it (even though their superpower is to argue with everybody).

Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written polemics against religion, and true to the polemical form, they’ve taken a moral absolutist stance which asserts that religion is orders of magnitude more harmful than it is beneficial (if it is beneficial at all). Dennett is a philosopher, and his work is nuanced and, well, philosophical – and I often wonder why he’s included with the polemicists. However, he is, so on we go.

The Fractious Four have put forward some very attention-grabbing ideas in a post-Twin Towers world, where many of us have seriously questioned the purpose and limits of faith and supernaturalism. However, the Four (Dennett excluded) have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them. But see, that’s the point of a polemic … you put forward the most extreme version of your argument, and you don’t make any room for moderating views.

A polemic is a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage; not just with sadness, but with despair; not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror. If it’s done skillfully, a truly masterful polemic is melded with a careful overlay of logic, scholarship, and verbal skill. A polemic is made to be powerful and arresting, and it can be a very beautiful thing indeed. But it’s not something you should make a career of, because it’s exhausting (both to create, and eventually, to witness).

It’s also not something you can use in a relationship or a conversation, and it’s not something you can build a movement upon, because the intensity of emotion in a polemic is too extreme for most of us to manage deftly. Your polemical rage, if you try to use it in a conversation, can make you look scary and mad-intolerant. Your polemical despair, if you try to use it to convert your religious friends, can make you seem constitutionally incapable of seeing the bright side of life (or the importance of religion for people who may have nothing else). And your polemical terror, if you try to blog about it, can make you look like a wild-eyed doomsday prophet (who is nearly always wrong).

A polemic has its place, but it’s not a tool of normal interaction, because its purpose is to dramatize an extreme position and silence all critics and all moderating voices. Actually, a polemic is not a tool as much as it is a weapon; therefore, if you’re going to use it skillfully, you have to be at the top of your game intellectually, academically, socially, and ethically.

But even if you are at the top of your game, your polemic can easily backfire. Here’s why: the form requires that you come out swinging from an extremist position, and that you choose only those examples and philosophies that support your ideas, while dismissing or ridiculing the examples and philosophies that don’t.

This is why it’s so easy to critique a polemic; it’s not nuanced because it’s not meant to be. It’s not all-encompassing, because it’s not meant to be. It’s not scholarship, it’s not philosophy, and you can’t create a lasting movement based upon it, because it’s a burning brightly kind of thing. A polemic is a display; it’s dramatic theater. It’s made for igniting passions and selling books, for forcing sudden and unsupported change, and for shaming any opposing voices into stunned silence. A polemic is not and cannot be sustainable, and it should not last too long, or it just gets shrill and sucks all the novelty and majesty out of the original argument.

stopfightingWhich brings us to our current predicament. A number of atheists have taken the work of the Fractious Four to heart, and they’re fighting to utilize polemicism as the leading voice of the atheist movement (this is the New Atheism), such that atheists who aren’t offended by religion, or who actively work to understand and communicate with religious people, are branded pejoratively as “accommodationists[ii].” The idea is that if you don’t continually and loudly protest all things religious, spiritual, and supernatural, then you are tacitly agreeing with and supporting them. And since these ideas have been shown to be unrepentantly incorrect, why would you do that? Why would you accommodate something that has been shown to be injurious and unjust? That’s the hard-line, polemical New Atheist position.

Just so you know, Chris Stedman, who is working at a Humanist Chaplaincy to create awareness of atheism and humanism as worthy approaches to morality and life, is branded by some New Atheists as a super-accommodationist. This is because he works hand-in-hand with religious and spiritual people, but does not confront them about their beliefs or suggest that atheism is the paramount ideology. If I were publically aligned with atheism (I prefer the non-polemical position of agnosticism), my somewhat analogously respectful connection to people in the New Age would surely brand me as a super-accommodationist as well.

But Chris and I aren’t the only kinds of fellow secularists the New Atheists disparage. In atheism (and sadly, in the skeptical community, where people should know better), it is quickly becoming verboten to criticize or even question the polemical approach (Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, Michael McRae, and many other top-notch skeptics and atheists have been repeatedly attacked for pointing out that polemical confrontation can polarize far more people than it might liberate). If you challenge (or even question) New Atheist behavior, you are seen as stifling freedom of speech, disavowing the utility of the polemical, and protecting religions (and thereby supporting everything that is illogical and fraudulent in the world since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before that). Which, of course, is a totally polemical overreaction! See, once you get a polemic going, it’s hard to stop it.

But it’s not impossible if you understand how to put that weapon down. In the spirit of disarmament, I have to say that yes, the Fractious Four have caused some harm by making hard-line, polemical confrontation seem like everyday talk to a very vocal subset of atheists. However, as if by providence (!) I have heard from a few people who were able to break away from high-control religions (fundamentalist, insular, cultish denominations) specifically because Hitchens and Dawkins were so single-minded, vociferous, and polemical in their denunciation of all things religious.

There’s a way that the fervent emotional appeals in these books can reach into areas that would otherwise be completely sequestered from critiques of religion. These books don’t just open doors; they can demolish them and make possible the escape of people who were (perhaps unknowingly) imprisoned behind those doors. However, as I look at the way secondary New Atheists (readers of all four books) and tertiary New Atheists (people who simply enjoy an online brawl) have used the weapons the Four popularized, I often cringe at the savage glee with which these people carry out their attacks and sully the communal discourse.

Polemics exist because they are necessary weapons in specific instances, especially when they’re aimed at ideologies or institutions that are hidebound and seemingly untouchable. But healthy and lasting social change can’t be built on polemics alone – and you shouldn’t use polemics within a movement if you want it to survive. Polemics are shrapnel bombs lobbed over high castle walls, and they don’t merely break down doors; they also take out the castle walls, fill the moat with debris, and collaterally kill whatever unfortunate birds happened to be flying over the castle that day. Polemics may destroy old ideologies, but they can’t create a new and sustainable movement.

If atheism (old, new, and just-discovered) is to become a sustainable and welcoming minority rights movement (or even just a nice place to hang out), then it requires community-builders, dissent voices, ambassadors, comedians, argument that is intentionally non-polemical, and an eventual buy-in from the majority. That necessary evolution is made more difficult if secondary and tertiary New Atheists maintain their interest in continual polemical intolerance, in intractable polarization, and in imagining that any critique of their approach requires the donning of full combat armor.

There is a fear among New Atheists that moderating and dissenting voices are trying to erase the polemic as an avenue of approach. But that’s a polemical overreaction. No one is suggesting that we burn New Atheist books or silence their authors. Those bells have been rung. We can’t un-ring them, nor should we. The Four Horsemen of New Atheism did their work well, but they cannot help us clean up the battlefields they created. That’s not their job. The clean-up, the strategizing, the community rebuilding, the future imagining, and the alliance-making — this is not a job for bomb makers.

crazyenoughIn order to move forward, we need to rely on more than mere polemics. How about if we try dialectics?[iii] Dialectics can be just as fun as polemics (and they require just as much skill), but dialectics have the added benefit of creating community, building intelligent synthesis out of seemingly intractable positions, and teaching people how to manage – rather than merely weaponize – their emotions. Moving to dialectics doesn’t erase the polemic; actually, dialectics require polemics, or there wouldn’t be anything to synthesize.

I grew up as an atheist in the 1960s, but my family was not a part of the formal movement spearheaded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair because it was too fractious. When I first heard the term New Atheist a couple of years ago, I had hopeful visions of an energized, spruced up movement that maybe, just maybe, wasn’t so enraged or contentious. Whoops! I understand and honor that rage, and the despair, and the terror that go with it, but now it’s time to dial it back and do the hard work it takes to create a workable, inclusive community for old atheists, new atheists, secularists of every stripe, and all refugees from religion and superstition.

karlaKarla McLaren ended her New Age healing career in 2003 to study the social sciences and the ways that social forces shape behavior. Her most recent titles are the book The Language of Emotions (2010), and the sociological study “Inside and Outcast” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2010), co-authored with cult expert Janja Lalich.

[i] In censuses and polls taken over the last half century, atheists’ numbers have typically been quite low (the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey put atheists at 1.6% of the population and agnostics at 2.4%. However, 11.8% of people either didn’t know what they believed about God, or refused to answer the question). Many social scientists and atheist proponents have surmised that the real nonbeliever population could be as high as 12% due to the underreporting that occurs among minorities. In general, if people can hide their minority status or their unpopular standpoints from pollsters or census takers, they sometimes do (which could place the refuseniks in the atheist category).

[ii] As you may recall, this word was first used by black Americans in the Voting Rights era against people who were seen as being too subservient and too accommodating to whites. I could write a whole ‘nother post about how interesting it is for atheists to imagine that their struggle is similar to that of African Americans.

[iii] Dialectics is a process of taking a thesis and its diametrically opposed antithesis, and working in community to create a synthesis of the two (not a capitulation or a compromise).

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  • http://emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com Emily Hauser

    Healthy and lasting social change can’t be built on polemics alone

    I want to get that emblazoned on my forehead and brush aside my bangs every time I walk into any movement with which I am active, on any issue.

    And I’ll get this on my lower arm, and raise my sleeve if anyone gives me the chance: “Polemics may destroy old ideologies, but they can’t create a new and sustainable movement.”

    This is terrific. Thank you.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/04/16/angry-slippers-are-angry/ Phil Plait


    I need to ruminate on what you’ve written here, but my initial reaction is that this is dead-on correct.

    This whole idea of polemics having its place, but needing followup that’s less, well, polemical, is something I struggled with while writing my DBAD talk at TAM last year. I eventually had to drop it due to a simple lack of time during the talk, and also because I think I would’ve lost focus on the other issues I was covering.

    You’ve crystallized a lot of what I was thinking, and I thank you for that.


  • Chris

    Why do we demand one or the other? Why do we have to “tone it down?” Why can’t there simply ALSO be a more humanist aspect of the movement, and therefore have both parts?

    I also have a problem with the assumption that “atheism = polemic.” You state as much when you prefer the “non-polemic position of agnosticism.” 99.9% of atheists are agnostic atheists. You are, in fact, an agnostic atheist. It’s pointless to subclassify. If the secular movement is going to move forward, we can’t have people quivering in fear before the word “atheist,” especially within the movement. Atheist means not a theist. Any other meaning is generated by the individual.

  • http:jetson.wordpress.com Jetson

    Atheism is only one thing. After that, all bets are off. If it is indeed enjoying a surge, which I believe it is, then it must be working quite well. Perhaps I am jaded, or even biased, but I do not see the “polemic” epidemic that seems to come from this message. I see a variety of approaches, from a variety of atheist-agnostics.

    Let’s also not forget the inherent bias in the “outspoken” group of New Atheists. If the surge is true, then a normal distribution is in there somewhere!

  • Somite

    “The idea is that if you don’t continually and loudly protest all things religious, spiritual, and supernatural, then you are tacitly agreeing with and supporting them.”

    No. The idea is that if someone brings up the supernatural atheists are able to disregard it because there is no evidence for it. No need for a protestation.

  • http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com SocraticGadfly

    My biggest protest against Dennett is not over atheism but over evolution, namely his claim that it’s algorithmic. He talks in his books about “greedy reductionism” without exhibiting a trace of irony that that is exactly what he does himself

  • http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/indexExp_111189.htm Jeffrey Eldred

    So I’m wondering if you have actually read the books you are criticizing. They are passionate, they are usually on point. When they are not on point, they don’t seem to do so at a higher rate then less passionate works. Moreover, you should be able to point out the flaws.

    No one here is arguing that nuance is not a valuable thing to use in a discussion. The problem the New Atheists have is not that there is a standard for discussion, but a double-standard. Why is it always the atheists who are out of line when they, say point out that the Pope’s opposition to contraceptives might be problematic?

  • Jason

    This is ridiculous. Any time a civil rights issue is raised, the privileged gentry who feel left out complain that those who raise a voice against it are being polemical. Frankly, I’m appalled that you’re trying to diffuse legitimate anger. The fallacy here is that there exists such a thing as common ground between atheists and people who think atheism is a manifestation of pure evil.

  • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

    The issue for me with the (three) of the Four Horesmen is that they miss the point. Arguing (mostly) with and about Creationists is like arguing mostly with the trolls on a discussion forum. Their position is boring and obvious, and irrelevant to the larger community of believers and quiet atheists or agnostics who have been living with life the way it is for a long time.

    Is it justified to be angry at trolls? Is it justified to be angry that there are a lot of people out there who hold unexamined opinions and strong prejudices based on those opinions? Yeah, sure, it’s justified. But the three’s response: to do a lot of angry yelling and lump reasonable religious people with nuanced opinions in with the extremists. Is that a healthy response? Is it productive?

    No. It makes people who want to be vocal about an atheist/agnostic culture, and its potential, look like fools because have poster-boys who look like fools.

  • Karla McLaren

    Hey! Thanks for responding!

    Phil and Emily, I appreciate your from-the-trenches support. I’ve been watching the movement closely for about ten years, and I’ve been fascinated by the response to the DBAD speech. It was a damned good speech, and the response has been so telling!

    Chris, I’m not demanding one or the other; I’m asking that we have both. I love a good full-on snark-out, but it’s a specific form. It doesn’t work everywhere. And, since you sort-of asked, I chose agnosticism because atheism is just too small for me. There’s no there there; it’s a non-starter. I know that no human conceptualization of god is plausible, but to say that we can, with our tiny, wacky human brains, know for certain that nothing else is possible … well, the position just seems silly to me.

    Jetson! Yes to your point about normal distribution, which seems to be rather stable. I don’t see that the atheist numbers are increasing, though the numbers of the “unchurched” seem to be.

    I’m concerned about the “many (or variety of) approaches” meme, which, in my reading of it seems to give special license to people who enjoy attacking religious or spiritual people (rather than creating cogent arguments about religious or spiritual ideas). Though you may not subscribe to that special license, I do want to point it out here.

    Somite! So if I’m an atheist and I don’t disregard people’s religious, spiritual, and supernatural beliefs — because I find them fascinating anthropologically, sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, socioculturally, and neurologically, do I have to do so in secret?

    Gadfly, I love your gadding about. Still working on the Ev Psych book we talked about, and the guy takes Gould to task along with the EPs. It’s an intense read!

    Jeffrey, yes, I’ve read all of them, plus other books by each author, but I really needed works with more nuance, so I kept going. I was going to add on an addendum reading list of ten other books about atheism that I found really helpful, but the post got way too long. Sorry!

    And let’s be really clear about your suggestion of a double standard: When you’re protesting against a huge monolith like the Catholic Church, you almost require a polemical, because it’s specifically the sort of hidebound and seemingly untouchable institution that I wrote about above. Where I’m specifically questioning the polemical is in everyday talk, where it is totally out of place.

  • Karla McLaren

    Hi Jason. Dang! I worked so hard not to do ridicule, because it’s such a cheap way to write — and I think if I were writing about the issues you bring up, you would have a point. But I’m not, so I’m a little confused about your bringing atheist-hating people into the conversation. I know that the 2004 Pew Survey found that atheists were the most distrusted minority in the U.S., and were thought to be immoral and more likely to commit crimes — but I think that has alleviated a bit. However, I can’t imagine that distrust would alleviate if every atheist took up polemical anger as his or her primary emotion.

    I’m all for anger, but it’s just one emotion out of dozens. And it’s getting quite tiring to see it being used in place of just about anything else. Also, psychologically speaking, it’s not healthy to constantly rile oneself or other people up. Too much anger can be a sign of major depression in men, so I look at it with concern. Anger is a weapon that must be used with tremendous skill, and since most people don’t have that level of skill, it’s healthier to move the anger into the area of dialectic (Socratic and Platonic; not Hegelian!!) and do something purposeful with it. Not to erase the anger, but to make it a bit less toxic, and to competently address the situations that evoked it (to the extent that anyone can).

    Thanks Christopher Michael. I too am tired of the debate form and the troll culture. I call debates “dueling monologues,” and they bore me. Oh, and I’d love to have better poster boys for the movement; I think Loxton has been working out recently ;)

  • Jason

    Thanks for responding. Here is my response:

    The first thing I take issue with is the assertion that New Atheists have been incapable of advancing from the point of polemic, or that they all started from the point of polemics, or that their appeals were purely emotional. Having read three of the “fractious four,” I found Harris’ argument to be rather structured and heavily referenced (as was Dawkins’), despite containing some of the terror aspects you’ve described. He’s focusing on the subject of morality these days. Hitchens is on the decline, and while he still puts forth the occasional red meat, I remember reading that he’s been in close contact with Francis Collins over the past few months. Dawkins seems to have returned to the topic of scientific literacy while exercising a dismissive attitude toward religion rather than outright hostility. I would consider Hemant Mehta a New Atheist. He can be just as uncompromising as the others but has always maintained a dialogue with people of faith. To say they haven’t moved beyond the polemic is to neglect their current endeavors. Are they all busy trying to promote interfaith dialogue? Perhaps not. But they certainly aren’t brandishing a megaphone either. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other side.

    Most of the invective that comes from the NA camp is directed at harmful effects of religious beliefs, such as the subjugation of women, the oppression of minorities, death for apostasy, the killing of unbelievers or believers of the wrong sect, and the dangers of religious extremism in a post-cold war age, among others. A large amount of energy has been invested in combating antiscience. A minor amount of criticism has been levied at religious moderates, and the noises made by people such as Jerry Coyne about “accommodationists” do not compare to the primary thrust of the NA movement, if one can call it that.

    I’m confused as to why the accommodationist thing is even an issue, and I think it has been inflated quite a bit. This very article seems to begin with the premise that the New Atheists are bereft of all moderation; that they’re uncompromisingly intolerant; that not a single olive branch exists in all the land. Yet I find myself reading articles in which Christopher Hitchens–no friend of Islam–is among the first to defend the establishment of an Islamic community center (the unfortunately-dubbed “Ground-Zero Mosque”). Despite the claims of shrillness, I watch Sam Harris alongside William Lane Craig, and find Harris to be the civil one. Where is all this shrillness that necessitates the moderators? Where are the writers of all the anti-religious, anti-accommodationist manifestos?

    Ah yes, the internet. I had the same flash of recognition I’m sure everyone else felt when they read the line “I often cringe at the savage glee with which these people carry out their attacks and sully the communal discourse.” I’ve seen a great number of hateful tirades online, whether it’s in message boards, blogs or social networking; many of them brimming with stupidity and arrogance. These are people who memorize the lines but neglect to think. They’re the ones I think you should be directing this message to. They’re the ones Phil’s excellent DBAD talk applies to the most. But then, everyone with an agenda acts this way on the internet. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t hear about some report on how people are less inhibited under the cloak of anonymity, or how social networking can ruin friendships easily. People seem to act in a more base manner when they aren’t face-to-face with others. Why are atheists being singled out? In that context, it seems a bit unfair. In public? In the media? In places that matter, by the people who matter? The dialogue isn’t nearly as authoritative and bitter as it’s often made out to be.

    “But I’m not, so I’m a little confused about your bringing atheist-hating people into the conversation.”

    This was in response to the idea about the dialectic. Call me dubious, but I’m having trouble seeing how “God doesn’t exist”/”Live and let live” can be synthesized with mutually exclusive positions such as “Convert or die”/”Apostasy is death.”

    Thanks for reading, sorry it was so long!

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John S. Wilkins

    An excellent piece. One thing though: “dialectic” has a meaning that far precedes the Hegelian sense, which is basically incoherent, in my view. That is, a dialectic is a conversation between two or more people, in which one puts one point of view and the other responds, rinse and repeat. It is contrasted to rhetoric, in which style takes over. We have had a lot of rhetoric from the New Atheists, but very little dialectic.

  • Karla McLaren

    Thanks Jason; just so we’re clear, I’m saluting the primary New Atheists, questioning the secondary ones, and opening up a can of whupass on the tertiary ones. There’s a tremendous amount of editing that went on in this piece, specifically to weed out my own polemical ranting. Takes one to know one, I always say.

    I also specifically split out the later books and later approaches of the Four, because that’s not what’s causing the difficulties (and I had a wordcount max!). This is a very deep-rooted situation, and the articulations we could and should make could go on for quite while. So I don’t think your response is too long; it’s an awesome response!

    Now to the dialectic (Thanks, John!). Damn that Hegel, because he bollixed the whole thing up. The Pythons suggested that Hegel didn’t drink enough, and I’m leaning their way.

    Here’s my understanding of the dialectic, from the Latin dialectica, which means “the art of argument.” I’ve always found debates tedious and distasteful (I call them dueling monologues, snore), and when I discovered the dialectic, I went sort of nutz. I even own the domain ArsDialectica (the *art* of the art of argument) because I’m a complete fangirl. Idealism much?

    Basically, in my understanding of it, dialectic is smart people’s conflict resolution where everybody wins and you get a clever, crowd-sourced answer that increases intelligence, whitens teeth, and teaches you to play the electric sousaphone in just two hours. Hegel’s version, not so much.

    I see the kind of fierce, stubborn polarization behavior within atheism just about everywhere these days. People of all stripes are really digging in and creating a hated “them” who deserve all disapprobation from the vaunted “us,” and they’re fecking up some extremely important things. So it’s a human problem.

    My hope in questioning it here is that atheists and skeptics are a very unusual group of people who actually know what a polemic and a dialectic are. If anyone — if any group — can do the emotional and intellectual work of creating synthesis from extreme divisions, it’s us. All this IQ power has got to be good for something other than math, physics, web design, and trivia contests.

    We’re already extreme outliers and weirdos because we question (and work to understand) religion and superstition; it would be fun if we could also be extreme outliers and weirdos because we question (and work to understand) polarization, scapegoating, and the unfortunate human tendency to demonize the “other.”

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John S. Wilkins

    In short, if we could be reasoners. But nobody should ever play the sousaphone.

  • http://www.tribalscientist.com Mike McRae

    Karla, thank you so much for including me amongst such esteemed communicators. I’m truly honored.

    One thing I’m especially careful of today is finding match between terms and defined communities. I find it hard to know who is and is not included by the term ‘New Atheist’, given the breadth of views and approaches taken amongst atheists as they communicate on the topics of rationalism, science and theology. Some who will define themselves as New Atheists will undoubtedly feel they’re not polemics, and perhaps rightfully so.

    What we can say for certain, however, is that there are examples of communication on the topic of atheism that are clearly polemic in their approach, and that the outcomes of these acts of outreach are up for dissection and discussion. I feel we should endeavour to keep to specifics where possible, and collective terms such as ‘New Atheist’ tend to cloud the issue with arguments on who does and does not behave in such a manner, rather than provide clear direction for effective communications strategies.

    Nonetheless, an excellent piece.

  • Just a thought

    I don’t think that the atheism of the late 19th century and early 20th century was a **disrespected** (minority) viewpoint. There were many interesting discussions back then.

    The difference is that the atheists back then thought that theism was *wrong*, while the New Atheists think that theism is *evil*, and a needs to be combatted for the good of humanity. Thus the escalation in the war of words, rather than in the war of ideas.

    For New Atheists, it is no longer a question of philosophical disagreement, but the future existence of our species. New Atheism is a reaction to 9-11, the emerging power of the Religious Right in the USA and the apparent political clout being enjoyed by fundamentalist political parties world-wide.

  • Karla McLaren

    John, case in point, though it’s not electric: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MypmT0kwBR0

    Michael, thanks for your critique. I thought about using the in-crowd term Gnu Atheists, but backed off of it early and opened the critique up a bit with my primary, secondary, and tertiary classifications). It’s not perfect, but I think it’s better than using that group’s self-chosen tag against them.

    Just a thought, you bring up a good point. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s excellent book “Doubt” really helped me understand the importance of doubt and apostasy as historical movements, and it’s one of my ten favorite books on atheism.

    I like your distinction between wrongness and evil. It’s funny — 9-11 was a huge factor in my leaving my spiritual beliefs behind, so I totally grok the New Atheist anger (we’re a part of the same movement). I’m just saying this: the changes we want for other people are valid, but if *they* don’t want them, yelling and ridicule won’t make anything better. It just makes the world uglier.

    I see the transition away from supernaturalism as a long, difficult, and often painful process. You lose so much, and if the only communities left to you are filled with angry, vituperative people, you lose even more.

    I was so glad to see Chris Stedman’s work, because it filled me with hope: There could be loving, intelligent, funny, inclusive, and hip secularists that I would actually want to be around. He’s certainly a dreamer, but he’s not the only one.

  • Stephen Goeman

    “I propose a pact with the faithful… as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy, imposed on me by violence, any of these things, you are fine by me.” Who said that? Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins is on record saying that religion is NOT the “root of all evil”, although one of his documentaries was titled this against his will. Harris studied eastern spirituality for almost a decade and has concluded that certain spiritual practices are not only valid, but important to mental and physical health. You don’t cite the arguments or the content of the Horsemen, so your labeling their tactics as polemical is suspect and needs backing up– especially since their is evidence that they ARE nuanced. Your characterization of the Horsemen relies entirely on their public perception, not what they have actually written– it’s arbitrarily redefining what the Horsemen stand for, and then beating them over the head with this new definition.

    The way you deal with Dennett is also problematic. Portions of Dennett’s book are VERY tough on faith– going even so far as to criticize saying “I don’t have faith, but person X does and it is fulfilling for them so it must be OK.” Compare Dennett’s near death experience to Hitchens’ present condition– Dennett wrote a lengthy piece criticizing those who prayed for him (“Did you also sacrifice a goat?”), whereas Hitchens acknowledged the sentiment of those praying for his recovery. And yet, Dennett is the friendly and nuanced Horseman. (This is not to say that I don’t think that Dennett is nuanced, as I do admire more or less all of his work; I think it shows a lack of research and a lack of a coherent view which you are arguing against. Dennett clearly embodies what you think is faulty, perhaps more so than that “strident” Hitch.)

    Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to post a follow-up article where you examine just what is wrong with the new atheists, using citations and specific examples from text, speech, or action. It is not clear just what you are criticizing. This piece reads too much as an attack against individuals rather than on ideas.

    I want to make it clear that nobody is a stronger supporter of interfaith than I am. However, I think we can advance this cause without pitting ourselves against the Horsemen. We should pay attention to what they have said and written, and we can see that they agree with us interfaithers on almost all points. I think this is an inspirational truth.

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    As soon as Karla McLaren returns the money she stole from people as a “New Age Healer” con artist, she can be taken seriously on other matters. Until then, she’s a thief and a fraud.

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  • Rieux

    This article amounts to a series of ludicrous and offensive misrepresentations—of the “Fractious Four” (what an insulting sobriquet), of their books, of the current state of Gnu Atheism, and of the preening superiority of Ms. McLaren’s supposed approach to “creat[ing] a workable, inclusive community” among atheists. I have a hard time understanding how anyone with an actual interest in creating such a community could write such a demeaning and inaccurate attack on people who deserve none of the bile served to them here.

    As an initial matter, the notion that the “Fractious Four”‘s work uniformly consists of “deeply emotional appeal[s] made not just with anger, but with rage” is an absurd falsehood. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is no polemic, as McLaren concedes (making her decision to include Dennett in her “Fractious Four” insult hard to fathom); meanwhile, Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation bear no resemblance to the “rage”y description—and the notion that Dawkins’ The God Delusion is an “emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage” is a damnable lie. Only Hitchens’ god is not Great contains an ounce of the animus that McLaren pretends suffuses the writing of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris alike. (The idea that God Delusion or End of Faith “put th[eir] ideas forward at the end of a fist, and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them” is yet another offensive falsehood.)

    Shame on McLaren for so thoroughly misrepresenting the nature of the works she attacks.

    Second, McLaren’s account of Gnus’ criticism of accommodationists like Stedman is, once again, woefully dishonest. Statements like “atheists who aren’t offended by religion, or who actively work to understand and communicate with religious people, are branded pejoratively as ‘accommodationists’” is a brutal falsehood. The actual critique of accommodationism from “The Four,” as well as from P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson and many other Gnus, has nothing to do with anyone failing to be “offended by religion, or … actively work[ing] to understand and communicate with religious people.” No honest reporter of the disagreements between Gnus and accommodationists could possibly publish such an absurd synopsis of the Gnu critique; it would appear that McLaren hasn’t the slightest idea of what that critique actually is.

    Finally, the arrogant presumption that Gnus, unlike the superior McLaren and Stedman, are incapable of community building is belied by the huge and burgeoning real-life Gnu-ish communities that exist and that are growing all over the atheist world. We who are not restricted by McLaren’s myopia, in which there is nothing to Gnu Atheism other than “rage”y polemic, find community in innumerable local and national nontheist organizations, in addition to Pharyngula and richarddawkins.net and Why Evolution is True and Butterflies and Wheels and Daylight Atheism and Evolutionblog and Greta Christina’s Blog and Friendly Atheist and a hundred other smaller haunts. McLaren’s ignorance of every aspect of Gnu Atheism besides the “polemic” she pretends that Gnus’ ordinary criticism of religion constitutes simply blinds her to the overwhelming reality of the very real Gnu community that exists right now.

    McLaren, like so many accommodationists, has distinguished herself by publishing harsh, unsupported, and dishonest attacks directed at atheists. How anyone so disinterested in painting an honest picture of who we are, what we believe, and what we do thinks that she can retain the credibility to build a community that includes thousands of atheists she has just smeared escapes me.

    As McLaren notes, there are proper uses for outrage and polemic. One such use is to express the proper opprobrium toward dishonest attacks on innocent people. Shame on you, Ms. McLaren.

  • Hitch

    It’s kind of tired. This otherizing from within.

    On the one hand claiming that all approches are allowable but then grossly mischaracterizing and demonizing one set of approaches in the same breath.

    One person’s biting polemic is another persons simple understanding, clearly and unapologetically stated.

    I have no problem being nice and friendly with the religious. In fact I have much more problems with all the demonization that is going on, and the worst of it comes from within.

    So are secular students who draw smiling stick figures claimed to be akin to Nazis drawing swastikas. And we don’t even need the extreme end of the opposition to say that. Straight from the “bridge-building” interfaith community is enough.

    Truth is there is plenty of polemics to go around. And atheists are easy to target because just saying that they are polemical will get millions of easy head nods.

    And true bridge building takes people for what they actually say, not for what they can be made out to be. Would be nice if people actually quoted the writing of Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, or Dennett. Because doing so reveals how hard it actually is to paint them as so harshly polemical.

    But it’s all old. David Sloan Wilson calls Hitchens as genocidal by quoting him out of context. Harris is an out and out islamophobe if we hear his critics who don’t quote him. Dawkins apparently wants all religious parents incarcerated for having articulated that indoctrination may be a form of child abuse.

    But no, let’s not take people on what they say, let’s just brand them. Polemicists will do!

    In reality people start to articulate unwelcome positions and views. And there are a number of ways to silence those. The easiest is not to talk about them, but to try to characterize the style, the author, the supposed aggression, etc etc.

    And some fellow atheists are doing the best of work in that regard.

    And yes, all is permissible, but we ought to “dial back”. In other words, “don’t speak just so loudly and just so clearly”.

    A sustainable “movement” is the one where we have achieved the right of the individual to speak without being demonized.

  • Rieux

    Well said, Hitch.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    I agree that we need to invest in dialectics. But I also INSIST that we continue with our polemics. Additionally, this piece comes off as awfully preachy and more embarrassingly, dismissive of the New Atheists, who are an extremely important part of the Atheist/Humanist movement. I’m disappointed in both the author and editor for continuing to beat a long dead horse, the alleged “schism” in atheism. Why not write about something relevant, like building inclusive and diverse Humanist communities instead of maligning some of the members of those communities and their offensively titled “Fractious Four” spokespeople.

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com/ Jon Jermey

    The main thing ‘healthy and lasting social change’ needs is people: and the best way of getting people to adopt the cause is to point out how they are being royally screwed by the religious and their entrenched privileges, their access to power, and the unquestioning respect in which they are still held by most of the population. This is costing us money, costing us opportunities, causing political failures and avoidable suffering and death. If you want people to join your side, you need to show them what they have to gain. And the rapid growth of atheism as a social movement since the appearance of books by the Four Horsemen in the early 2000s indicates just how successful that tactic has been.

    The accommodationist tactic of being ‘nice’, on the other hand, promises no more than a continuation of the shafting, a smiling, forelock-tugging grovelling acceptance of whatever crumbs the privileged are prepared to sweep off their tables for us. We have seen advocates of this Uncle-Tomism before: they come up whenever a social movement comes within reach of victory, telling us not to stir the pot, to sit quiet and ask nicely and respond with profound gratitude to whatever we’re given. But they don’t show any hesitation in sharing the spoils when the battle is won.

    Let’s not be ‘nice’. Let’s be kind, and tolerant, and fair, but let’s make it absolutely clear that we are not going to be content with anything less than the absolute equality which we deserve and the right to spread our ideas freely and with dignity. After all, atheism is an open church; anyone who objects to being on the losing side is free to join us any time they want.

  • Robbie

    quote – Kayla McLaren

    And let’s be really clear about your suggestion of a double standard: When you’re protesting against a huge monolith like the Catholic Church, you almost require a polemical, because it’s specifically the sort of hidebound and seemingly untouchable institution that I wrote about above. Where I’m specifically questioning the polemical is in everyday talk, where it is totally out of place.


    You say opposing the RCC almost requires a polemic and then say the polemic does not belong in everyday talk. The huge neon flashing light problem with this is the RCC is in everyday life. If polemic is justified in opposition to it then it is justified everyday & everywhere the RCC shoves its nose.

  • http://www.atheistnexus.org/group/wonderism/ Wonderist

    The first few paragraphs of this piece just about made me want to puke. I had to take a break and come back to read it again later.

    Ms. McLaren, what do you call the approach where you make false claims and characterizations of your opponents, put forth the idea that these are accurate and representative of them, and then ‘demolish’ this false image? Is that polemics? Dialectics? I call it a fallacious argument: The Straw Man Fallacy, to be specific (or Straw Person, as I’ve been starting to call it).

    Is it ‘polemical’ to forthrightly and unapologetically state my reaction (wanting to puke) and disagreement with your position? I don’t think it is. I think it’s just honest free-speech. I don’t *need* to exaggerate or rely upon purely-emotional appeals in order to argue against you. All I have to do is say what I think is true, and back it up with rational argument and evidence.

    Since this is essentially what the gnu atheists have been doing from the beginning, it seems to me that you would probably label such honest, unapologetic speech as ‘polemical’, although it truly does not fit your stated definition of polemics.

    Your article is filled, from the second paragraph to the end, with false claims, exaggerations, and purely-emotional appeals. Not *once* did you actually point to any specific instance of this terrible ‘polemics’ you claim is so prevalent.

    Unfortunately, as we’ve so often seen (esp. with the incredible Tom Johnson affair), the facts and evidence have so far acquitted well-known new/gnu atheists from the ‘crimes’ they have been accused of, and usually point toward more serious irresponsible or even malicious smearing from the accusers themselves. I suspect, based on much past experience, that this is the case with your claims as well. I would like to see you back up your claims with evidence. Show us this rampant ‘polemicism’ among gnu atheism. If it turns out that, like Phil Plait, and his DBAD diatribe, you can’t even give us one example of ‘being a dick’, then what are we to make of your smears against gnu atheists? Are they only irresponsible, or are they also dishonest? Sometimes, it’s very hard to tell.

    Here are some claims that you made that need to be backed up with real evidence:

    “they’ve taken a moral absolutist stance”

    False. Ridiculously false.

    “[they] have put those ideas forward at the end of a fist,”

    Hyperbolically false. The enormously vast majority Gnus are non-violent, and I can’t think of any that advocate violence or force as a legitimate tactic.

    ” and in a way that questions the sanity and morality of anyone who disagrees with them.”

    False. Gnus are open to disagreement and debate. But they demand evidence. We question the sanity of those severly deluded by some religious beliefs/dogmas, and the morality of anyone who seriously bases their morality on the Bible, Quran, or other dogma, but this does not apply to “anyone who disagrees with us.”

    “and you don’t make any room for moderating views.”

    False. We make room for such views, we just strongly argue against some of those views when we think that they are actually wrong. You are free to argue back, of course, nobody’s stopping you.

    “A polemic is a deeply emotional appeal made not just with anger, but with rage”

    1) Begging the question. You have yet to establish the ‘polemical’ nature of the gnu’s arguments. 2) False. The vast majority of gnus do not ‘rage’, though they do rightly make use of strategic anger. See http://www.rationalresponders.com/strategic_anger

    “not just with sadness, but with despair”

    False. Most gnus I know have an abiding hope for the future, which is the opposite of despair.

    “not just with fear, but with gut-wrenching terror.”

    False. Most gnus I know channel their fear into awe, wonder, and curiosity, looking for ways to overcome social problems with dialogue, scientific research, community building, and activism. We reject terror/terrorism, and prefer wonder/wonderism.

    “It’s also not something you can use in a relationship or a conversation, and it’s not something you can build a movement upon,”

    False. While this may be true of the straw person ‘polemical atheist’ of your imagination, it is not true of *real*, *actual*, gnu atheists, or the gnu atheist approach. We can, and do, use our methods (our real methods, not the ones you falsely attribute to us) in relationships and conversations. And we *already are* building a movement upon it.

    “its purpose is to dramatize an extreme position and silence all critics and all moderating voices.”

    False. Again, straw person. Our actual position and arguments do none of the above. We don’t ‘dramatize an extreme position’, we simply *state* our *actual*, non-extreme position. We just do so unapologetically. Also, we welcome open and honest disagreement from anyone. It’s when we are lied to, or lied about (in the case of articles such as this one), that we challenge people and ask them to stop lying or repeating false claims about us.

    “your polemic can easily backfire. Here’s why: the form requires that you come out swinging from an extremist position, and that you choose only those examples and philosophies that support your ideas, while dismissing or ridiculing the examples and philosophies that don’t.”

    Straw person. Examples, please.

    “This is why it’s so easy to critique a [straw person]; it’s not nuanced because it’s not meant to be. It’s not all-encompassing, because it’s not meant to be. It’s not scholarship, it’s not philosophy, and you can’t create a lasting movement based upon it, because it’s a burning brightly kind of thing.”

    There, I fixed it for you. You had mistakenly written ‘polemic’ instead of ‘straw person’. Love the ‘burning brightly’ metaphor there, by the way. Straw people sure do burn brightly when you set them on fire.

    Etc. Etc. Nearly every single paragraph of this article is loaded with such falsehoods, fallacies, and mischaracterizations.

    “If atheism (old, new, and just-discovered) is to become a sustainable and welcoming minority rights movement (or even just a nice place to hang out), then it requires community-builders, dissent voices, ambassadors, comedians, argument that is intentionally non-polemical, and an eventual buy-in from the majority.”

    Thanks, but we *have all that already*. I am *already* part of a sustainable community of gnu atheists. I, and many others, have been going for years, and our movement is growing at a healthy pace. We are making inroads into the mainstream, at an ever-accelerating pace. And we don’t need to be anything other than Galvanized, Non-violent, and Unapologetic to keep our momentum going. That is, after all, what GNU atheism is *actually* about. Also, for more on what Gnu Atheism is about, see Comment 29: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/comment-29/

    “In order to move forward, we need to rely on more than mere polemics. How about if we try dialectics?”

    If by dialectics you mean things like the Socratic method of dialogue, then that is exactly what we’ve been doing from the very beginning. Asking questions, questions, questions. It’s amazing how ‘offended’ and defensive some people get when you simply ask them, “Well, how do you know that?” They tend to call us ‘strident’, ‘militant’, or even ‘polemical’ when we do that.

    I have a better suggestion: How about we try rational discourse, and scientifically informed, evidence-based reasoning? In fact, why don’t we try to promote *that* in itself! That is what we are doing. You can call it ‘polemics’, but then that would only make you demonstrably wrong.

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  • Bruce Gorton

    Okay Karla

    How do you tackle the following issue:

    In South Africa, the country I come from, we have a church currently appealing to the courts because the ASA banned one of its adverts.

    The advert in question ran on e-tv, and said basically that prayer can cure AIDS, if you have faith you should throw away your anti-retrovirals.

    Banning the advert isn’t going to put an end to the church hinting at that claim, it just stops it going on TV.

    How do you deal with that Karla?

    I can tell you how us Gnus deal with it. We figure there are issues that ordinary Christians should be damned uncomfortable with, and we are the only ones willing to make it so.

    We hold the moderates feet to the fire in every day life because otherwise, as we know from experience, they do absolutely nothing about the extremes otherwise. They’re too busy being moderate.

    Heck if you look at the whining from the moderation squad talking about how mean atheists were to the Pope in Britain they wouldn’t even defend their own kids from rapists in the priesthood.

    I know, we’re villains, we’re extremists and all of that. At least we don’t sacrifice children to our god of “respect.”

    If you want to criticise then give real flipping alternatives, heck put them into practice and show us that they work. Nobody is stopping you doing your own damn thing, but if you are going to criticise us, provide substance.

    Provide stats that show our approach is hurting the cause if you say we are doing that. When you make claims like Matzke did that Dawkins pulled the Nazi card at a scientific discussion – don’t give us a slide from a talk on authoritarian regimes. Give us a real example of card pulling.

    Pulling a card is a means of ending a discussion, not a brief comparison while talking about something else.

    When we take away the character assassination, claims that we are ignorant (because we all know accomodationist gives you the psychic power of knowing what I, a person on a different continent have and have not read, and what groups I have or have not spoken to), and the “how rude”s, in other words the empty noise from the criticisms we get? Nine times out of ten there is nothing left.

  • windy

    The post seems to admit that New Atheists have (or had) a role to play, so why does the title intimate that “we” might not need them at all? If you mean to argue for less polemics, why choose such a polemical title?

  • David

    @windy right on! This entire “essay”,(as I told her on facebook)is just the kind of Passive–aggressive bull from the “accomodationist” that annoys me to no end.

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  • articulett

    Allegations without links or evidence comes across as a “Tom Johnson” story to me. It’s the mark of someone seeking to confirm their biases– not the mark of a skeptic interested in the way she may be fooling herself.

    I did a little Google-fu, and the main criticisms I saw for “Chris Stedman” and “Karla McLaren” were from religionists. I didn’t find anything from supposed “fractious new atheists”– certainly nothing that matched the “polemics” of some of some religious folks. Until Karla provides links, I’m left to conclude that the unsupported allegations in Karla’s piece were more “fractious,” “polemical” and, dare I say, –”dickish” than anything the four horseman has written or anything any “new atheist” has said about the accommodationists mentioned in the article(unless it was in RESPONSE to prejudicing straw men on par with the ones Karla made in this article). Of course, opinions can vary when it comes to terms like “dickishness”. From my reading, Karla might be better served if she examined whether the criticisms in this piece might be more applicable to her than those she criticizes– and this might also be true of those who agree with this piece. I hope Karla et. al. model how they expected the “new atheists” to receive their opinions when we share our opinions of their opinions in return.

    From this atheist’s perspective, Karla does not come across as the diplomatic person she seems to imagine herself to be. I felt the same about Phil’s DBAD speech. In that speech, Phil admonished others to think of their goals before speaking– but I was left wondering if he thought of his goals before making that speech– and, in Karla’s case, in writing this piece? Did they achieve what they set out to achieve? To me, this sort of “tsk-tsking” of unnamed others –sounds like attempts at building oneself up by putting “gnu atheists” down. It’s hard for me not to think of it as implicit bias (if I’m being generous), or “sour grapes” –or dishonesty of the Wally Smith type. I suspect I would much prefer the unnamed “new atheists” they are admonishing as role models than what I see as the smarmy, passive-aggressive “the courtier’s reply” of the “accommodationists”. But without links, who knows?

    To me, an accommodationist is a person who treats religious superstitions differently than they treat other superstitions. Like Karla, they tend to make nasty allegations about “new atheists” supposedly “hurting some cause” when the new atheist treats religion like the superstition it is. Like Karla, accommodationists seldom provide evidence for these claims, and it they do, the evidence they provide does not support the claims they make(see Nick Matzke and his accusations about Dawkins “playing the Nazi card”).

    I think we can agree that there’s room for all kinds of approaches to decrease superstition and increase skepticism. I prefer the undiluted, honest, humorous approach of those whom I suspect Karla thinks of as “fractious”– over the approach of those doing the criticizing. I’m not against accommodationism for others, but I am against it when it involves straw man vilification against more out-spoken non-believers.

    I have a similar background to Karla in that I became a skeptic after having New Age beliefs. I often linked her 2004 article in CSI about her conversion. But now my opinion of her is lowered. I find myself distancing myself from atheists whom I perceive as furthering prejudice against atheists. I am embarrassed, because I was inadvertently like them myself at one time until I became aware that I had such a bias. Now I hope to make others aware so that the prejudice against atheists fades. I think the criticism of accommodationists is severely misdirected.

  • PZ Myers

    Shouldn’t a polemic against polemics implode in its own inconsistencies? I marvel that this one wobbles still, and even gets praise from oblivious commenters.

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  • articulett

    Karla, are you “agnostic” about chakras? Demons? Witches? Curses? Scientology? Hell?

    (Are you, Chris?)

    Should belief in these things be treated differently than god belief? Should disbelievers in these things be treated differently than disbelievers in god?

    I just read this article in the Washington Post today http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-do-americans-still-dislike-atheists/2011/02/18/AFqgnwGF_story.html

    I am concerned that opinion pieces like those written by Karla further the bigotry against atheists referred to in the article (though I’m gladdened to see linked evidence showing that the bigotry is completely unwarranted).

    If your true goal is to form a more “inclusive community” as you say, then I suggest you drop the straw man criticisms and Tom Johnson stories about “new atheists”. I don’t want to be “included” amongst those who are spreading this sort of bigotry. In the future, if you have a specific criticism, provide links and then suggestions for improvement. Isn’t that much more fitting with the goal of building a “more inclusive community” than what was written here?

  • NoMoreNobleLies

    “I chose agnosticism because atheism is just too small for me. There’s no there there; it’s a non-starter. I know that no human conceptualization of god is plausible, but to say that we can, with our tiny, wacky human brains, know for certain that nothing else is possible … well, the position just seems silly to me.”

    I think we can fairly certainly say that without an enormous re-interpretation of the commonly held concept of God, an agnostic is essentially an Atheist.

    New Atheists generally admit that we can’t know everything, but the God explanation gives us nothing above the already intricate understanding of the universe that we do have. God is not likely to be the answer even if these hidden spaces turn out to be far more amazing then we suspect (though the current vision can be pretty awe inspiring as it is… still without God).

    Agnosticism towards God is not a noble position, it is a noble lie.

    I believe humanity deserves more respect than that, they deserve to know the truth, no matter how much we think it may hurt them.

  • NoMoreNobleLies


    Hear Hear!

    You took on the one-dimensional analysis brilliantly. I have seen these polemical views against Gnu Atheists from a number of writers, they are one sided and damaging. Thank you for answering them so well.

    We are an ever more diverse, strong and growing movement that cannot be pigeon holed by the straw man tactics of Atheists and others who refuse to see the good side of the Gnu movement. Anybody who has actually looked into the movement will see that we do indeed have community-builders, dissent[ing] voices, ambassadors, comedians, [and] argument that is intentionally non-polemical.

    Take off your blinkers, the world has been changing outside your perspective.

  • astrokid.nj

    Out of curiosity, can you give examples of some other works (non religion) from the recent past that you consider polemic? And then show how some of the Gnu atheist work is similar?

    -A gnu

  • http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org Ophelia Benson

    The total lack of response to criticism is not very impressive.

  • Rieux

    I note that Chris Luna, Stedman’s subsequent guest poster, got in on the hit parade (above) before McLaren’s article caught the Gnus’ eye.

    I’m afraid it’s the same old gnubashing:

    The issue for me with the (three) of the Four Horesmen is that they miss the point.

    Demonstration that Luna has no idea what Gnus’ “point” is (or in fact points are) in 5, 4, 3, 2….

    Arguing (mostly) with and about Creationists….

    Bzzzzt! Fail. From the Horsemen (excuse me, “Fractious”) on down, Gnus challenge religion, not merely its hardcore subset. As Luna will go on to whine about below.

    [Creationists'] position is boring and obvious, and irrelevant to the larger community of believers and quiet atheists or agnostics who have been living with life the way it is for a long time.

    Spoken like a stuck-up Massachusetts resident who has no need to worry about his children being fed creationist garbage in their public-school science classes. Thankfully there are plenty of Gnus (and for that matter accommodationists and even religious believers) who are less clueless and apathetic about such matters than Luna is.

    “Irrelevant to the larger community of believers”: what callous tripe.

    But the three’s response: to do a lot of angry yelling and lump reasonable religious people with nuanced opinions in with the extremists.

    Boy, and this guy has the gall to accuse Gnus of “missing the point”? Unbelievable.

    Hey, Luna: Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens criticize “reasonable” (er, citation needed on that adjective) believers because, and to the extent that, they help to preserve the very elements of our cultural discourse that keep fundamentalism alive and dangerous. …And indeed keep non-fundamentalist religion alive and dangerous, given that—though apparently Luna hasn’t noticed—it’s not just fundamentalist religion that’s the problem.

    The fact that Luna helpfully decrees some strain of theology “reasonable” and “nuanced” fails to establish that it should be exempted from criticism, or that it remains blameless for the damage religion does to the world.

    Is that a healthy response?

    To call irrationality and inhumanity by their right names? Why not?

    Is it productive?

    Yes, very obviously. Check the stats: atheist organizations are bursting at the seams. McLaren can close her eyes, plug her ears, and holler “I CAN’T SEE YOU I CAN’T SEE YOU” all she likes, but Gnu communities are large, boisterous, and growing.

    I suppose it’s understandable that a promoter of religious privilege doesn’t find that progress “productive,” but then it would appear that that’s only his partisanship talking.

    No. It makes people who want to be vocal about an atheist/agnostic culture, and its potential, look like fools because have poster-boys who look like fools.

    Luna, buddy, you can “be vocal” all you want. Lay it all out and see if your ideas have the resonance that the Horsemen’s demonstrably have.

    But if you’re going to just continue your tired old trend of bashing uppity atheists, demanding deference to your favored religious believers and notions, and talking in lofty, evanescent terms about some fabulous new way you think one can be a good and acceptable nonbeliever, I suspect very few people are going to care.

  • http://wellexaminedlife.blogspot.com/ Brock

    I think the reason that the Big Four are so polemic is because they are in a position to do so. They are published, visible, already well-known thinkers, so being so “anti-” is very possible for them. And even when they aren’t so polemic, compare Dawkins to Hitch and Harris for example, their notoriety will cause public image to view them as more radical then they are, and eventually, they may even fill that mold.

    Bloggers, who may be famous, but not so much as the Fractious Four, tend to be less extreme in their rhetoric. Take Hemant Mehta, or our Chris Stedman. These internet celebrities are very open about their views, but have a much greater range of views, made possible by their less famous lives. What needs to happen I think, is for more people like Chris to become famous, to break the mold that the Four set up.

    After the bloggers are the every day people, non-religious folks who may or may not ever even think about religion, or may not not be open about their views. These people are afforded, by their anonymity, an even greater range of practice regarding religion.

    I think that without people like Chris, and the people involved with this blog, we would have no chance of breaking the stereotypes and misgivings people give the non religious, but with out the Dawkinses and Hitches, the movement would lose much visibility, and much of the impact it has on the life of everyday people.

    I was “deconverted” by a combination of a vocal “angry atheist” friend, the civil but critical blogging of Hemant Mehta, and the scathing rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens. Without the first two, I would still be a guilt-ridden Catholic, plodding through a parochial high school. Without the polemic, though I would never have admitted to myself what I already knew so well.

    Just the thoughts of a 17 year old Catholic school brat.

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  • Sam

    I have a problem with dialogue with religious people. The problem is that mostly, they fake their own experiences. If not fake consciously, then some other word, and I am not sure what the right one would be.

    Everybody talks of “The experience of the god that loves you”, but obviously this is an something that they HEAR from the preacher, not something that they come to themselves.

    They are expected to have a certain type of feelings.

    And it annoys me like hell, because believing in dialogue as well, I would expect them to be sincere, but their behaviour does not fit the word.

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  • Court Jesster

    I’m a little late in the game when it comes to commenting on this post, but my main reaction, was ‘yahooo, I’m not alone’ after reading Ms McLaren’s post.

    This is a topic I’ve been ruminating on for what feels like always.

    As a First Nations member of the French invaded part of Turtle Island, I had Catholicism thrust down my throat; no need to get too graphic, but you can take the “thrust down my throat” to mean, in every way conceivable. Being born non white, with a vagina but ambiguously gender presented, left me with 3 strikes and counting, so there was a lot of “proving” the dominant culture needed to do to train me. Exorcise the “evil” out of me, to replace it with their own version. They’re not very good trainers. Religious zealotry was only one of the mainstays. Allopathic psychiatry yet another of their many shittily executed “game plans”. So while I toyed with calling myself an “atheist” for as long as I can remember having independent thought (before the age of 10), I began to see the polemics of the modern atheist speakers with platforms, to be just as zealous as the religion thrust down my throat. No room to breathe if you dare challenge either. So I’m unashamedly agnostic.

    Why? Because I’m a smart and a dumb human…human enough to know that…..I don’t know. No one does. Not the pope. Not Dawkins. We’re all dumb and brilliant HUMANS, some more so in some ways, and some more so in others, and some, wise enough to be brilliant in many ways. But no one is perfect.

    I no longer think there are 3 main religions, I think there’s 4: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Atheism. The big four. The fractious four.

    I find the parallels of these supposed opposites rather ironic. You get shamed for judging the absolute-isms in any of the bricks and mortar places of worship (all three in some way or another considering themselves “the chosen ones”….how arrogant and repugnant), and you get shamed for challenging any of the supposed guru/deities of Atheism, mainly as “stupid” which I have heard Dawkins say frequently (equally arrogant and repugnant). All in ways that just don’t make me want to sit and engage with any of them for too long, because I don’t know many human beings who want to engage with others who will either shame you with your supposed evilness for lack of “faith”, or for your supposed lack of brain matter for not believing in the absolute-ness of no being or beings greater than, human beings. We’re it. I’m not so sure. It’s almost like the Atheists are deifying the human brain; the one occupied with the religion of Science. Oooh, sceince. It’s done a lot of good, but it’s also been used for a lot of…dare I say it? Evil!

    Science, as religion, cannot speak absolutes that can give an explanation for the vast experiences that each human lives. Most of theory is still, yet to be proven. Much has been proven, but I’m willing to bet, more hasn’t, but I can’t say that for sure. If the pope hasn’t experienced it, that doesn’t make whatever “it” is, invalid. Same with Richard Dawkins. If he can’t feel “it”, or experience it, or hasn’t, then that doesn’t necessarily invalidate “it”. If you don’t kneel to and obey your president or god, you’re evil, (patriotism, yet another kind of religion, used to silence free speech, ironically) and if you don’t agree with atheists, you’re stupid, vapid, lacking in free will/brainwashed.

    We all have to find a way to row this boat in a way that it can sustain itself, if in fact as a species we want that for humanity. But it may be mute and no longer up to us (if it ever was), and maybe humans aren’t meant to live on this planet forever. I DON’T KNOW. And neither does anyone. At least not for sure. Anyone who says otherwise, just wants you to drink their version of their kool aid, and STFU.

    Those who are so vehemently opposed to Ms McLaren’s views, seemed to have missed what she repeatedly said. That there’s a place for polemics, but like food, we can’t digest just one thing and expect it to sustain us. Many will actually feel sick and just want to walk away from the table. So you’re just left with different groups preaching to their own choirs. Nothing really changes. I’ve heard the pope and other religious big wigs say things that are absolute and insulting and carry an air of authority over all, that leaves little room for dialogue and I’ve seen folks like Dawkins insult people (attack verbally) their brain matter, because they don’t see things exactly as he does. No room for disagreement. So, I’d rather read them, listen to them from a distance, draw my own conclusions, instead of being attacked by the leaders of any of these four religions. Polemics is one way of getting “the word” out, however, it doesn’t have to be the only way, nor should it be the oft used way. Different contexts require different approaches.

    The only thing that anyone has ever said to me that felt truer than the truest of truths, when it comes to matters yet unproven (and a being(s) superior or not, to humans is not proven at this stage of human “evolution”) is “I really don’t know, for sure.” I’ve not heard anything as of yet, ring truer. ( To me.)

  • TrollGod

    It’s not a polemic. It’s an appeal to a different strategy than one commonly used. Why don’t the new atheists debate William Lane Craig using some cogent arguments? That would be another strategy.

  • barbara

    I think it’s wonderful that Karla mcLaren verbalizes her new stance so articulately. However, it is ETHICAL and RIGHT for her to cease making money off of the materials which she sold as a new age practitioner and which she still markets on various sites. Put your mouth where your money is…if you eschew the kinds of things you once wrote so passionately about, then please for the sake of decency, take those things off the market. They are harmful and it is wrong for you to secretly still profit from them.

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