In Defense of ‘Arrogant Atheism’

Atheists are often accused of being arrogant, angry, and intolerant. Often these accusations are little more than ad hominem attacks meant to silence criticism that threatens cherished religious superstitions.

However, when a respected member of the atheist community calls for “An End to Arrogant Atheism,” the merits of arrogance in service to the cause of atheism becomes worthy of examination.

In a recent article for Huffington Post, Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, calls for “An End to Arrogant Atheism.” Speckhardt worries that arrogant atheism “is likely to leave religious people offended by, instead of interested in atheism and rational thinking.”

Claiming to be making “an argument about tactics and attitude” Speckhardt writes:

The problem with arrogant atheism is that it scares away those who would otherwise self-identify as atheists, and it prevents us from building the alliances we need in order to achieve our aims.

Speckhardt laments:

What’s often holding us back is “arrogant atheism,” which is seen when atheists speak as if their view is infallible, and act as if their unwavering non-belief makes them superior to those who do believe.

Speckhardt is right: the so called “arrogant atheism” exhibited by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others often alienates and offends the religious sensibilities of many. Further, it is often the case that some who may otherwise be sympathetic to the cause of atheism, and the secular values that many atheists promote, are offended by “arrogant atheism.”

Yet what Speckhardt misses, is that many confirmed atheists hunger for the so-called “arrogant atheism” Speckhardt argues against. Indeed, confirmed atheists need and deserve to hear the unvarnished truth, and that truth often comes across as “arrogant.” Atheists are only human, and like all humans, they want their thoughts and feelings represented in the conversation.

By protecting the religious feelings of others, we risk denigrating the lived experience of atheists and other freethinkers, and, perhaps more importantly, denigrating the values of truth and honesty. Speckhardt chastises Richard Dawkins for pointing out that  “religion is an organized license to be acceptably stupid,” and that “the combined number of Nobel Prizes won by Muslims was less than that won by a single English university.” Yet Speckhardt admits that both points are valid. Speckhardt does not challenge the truth of Dawkins’ claims, rather, his concern seems to be that such claims, while truthful, are impolite.

Ultimately, not every utterance in the service of atheism need be an attempt to convert the fence sitters and those suffering religious delusion. Atheists should feel free to speak for and to each other, without worry as to the feelings of the faithful. Atheists should not apologize for speaking their truth, even if that truth offends the feelings of the faithful and their allies.

Speckhardt is right to be concerned about tactics and attitudes when it comes to the promotion of atheism and the secular humanist values many atheists share. Speckhardt is wrestling with a dilemma all thoughtful atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers face. The sad fact is that many of those closest to us suffer and labor under religious delusion. To challenge their superstition with the cold light of reason is often seen to be hostile, arrogant, intolerant and insensitive.   As the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains:

There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly.

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