Friday, June 08, 2007

The "new atheism" controversy explained!!!

In my previous post about whether atheists should try to stamp out religion, I think I made the question a little more complicated than necessary.

What it really comes down to is this: There are two types of atheists, which (for simplicity) I'll call the "nice atheists" and the "mean atheists." As P. Z. Myers points out, it's absurd to call atheists "militant" since it's not as if they're burning down churches -- they're just criticizing religion. However, it's not unreasonable to suggest that some atheists are not very nice.

The difference between the mean atheists and the nice atheists is that the mean atheists think that religion is ninety-nine parts pure stupidity mixed with one part lying, opportunistic con artists. And they want to tell that to religious people whenever they're asked to "respect" someone's faith.

The nice atheists, by contrast, believe that religion is more complicated than the stupidity-plus-con-artists model and/or that we should at least make an effort to get along with religious people.

The fight between the two groups is this: When the mean atheists and the nice atheists get together, it's not so much that it annoys the mean atheists to be asked to play nice. It's more that they just want to be able to call the nice atheists names like "sniveling milquetoast" and the like. Y'know, while they're at it. Because when it comes right down to it, the mean atheists just want to have fun. And I respect that.

Because I'm a nice atheist. ;^)

This firmly tongue-in-cheek post is dedicated to all of the atheists who don't like to "respect" people's faith... ;^)


Anonymous said...

I'm just glad the mean atheists are there to get people's attention. Atheism was too silent in America. I see them as the fuel in the engine a nascent atheist movement in America. Let's hope it counteracts some of the influence that the Christian fundamentalists have had in American politics.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jonathan!!!

I agree completely. And I think it's crazy that the "new atheists" are called "fundamentalists" and "militants" for criticizing religion. If criticism is enough to get them branded with such terms, then it's clear that the poles of this debate were in very serious need of shifting, and I'm glad the new atheists are there doing it.

See also my comments on Hemant's post about the new atheists.

Even though I feel like it's important to try to build bridges and alliances with religious people, I'm mostly kidding about calling the "new atheists" mean. I just like having a little fun with them. ;^)

Anonymous said...

From a conflicted, bi-polar mean/nice atheist: you, Chanson, are the quintessential nice atheist which makes LfaB my own little safe place for when I need to recover my humanity. Thanks for that.

And to second Jonathan, the "mean" ones are getting the public's attention and that's a good thing. And I'd add that these so-called mean atheists are generally not as mean as you might suspect. Just for example: PZ, Harris, and Dawkins do allow for the complexity of religion and I've been impressed again and again by the thought that Harris and Dawkins in particular have put into understanding religion.

Really, I think Harris and Dawkins at least ... and probably PZ and Hitch as well ... have given it much more thought than your average religious apologist (the ones that are most likely to do the mean atheist cheerleading). Sure PZ gets boisterous and Hitch can be less than sympathetic, but I think we often mistake their sharp criticisms for "meanness" -- which I don't think quite fits the definition of the word.

It's a question worth asking: "isn't it possible that religion needs a good dressing down? Isn't it possible that sharp criticism is called for?"

PS. I'm not asking you these questions, Chanson, because I see from your last comment that you you've already answered.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mel!!!

Very true!!!

By PZ, you mean pharyngula's PZ Myers, right? He's the one who inspired this post. He likes to make fun of the nice atheists on his blog sometimes, and since I think his jokes are funny, it makes me want to play too. :D

Anonymous said...

Yes, the very same.

And I see. You're just "teaching the controversy" so to speak. :) I agree that the meanies need some of their own medicine from time to time.

C. L. Hanson said...

"Teaching the controversy"? LOL, exactly!!!

Cyn Bagley said...

Hi Cl... I liked the post... I never understood the nice/mean atheist.. I just thought that it was going towards Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.

And there two kinds of religousity.
1-Religious types--Believe in
God, go to church, listen to the pastor or preacher, give their time and money to the church.

2-Sprititual types--Believe in some type of God. Refuse to go to church, refuse to give their money to the con artists, believe that most church institutions are social.

I am the second type. ;-)

So as you can see there are as many ways to split religiousity as any thing else. When there are more than two people together, there is some type of dissension. (wink)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps when the mean/nice theists respect the right of atheists to live as they choose, the mean atheists can relax a bit. Until then, I'm all for the mean atheists. Although, is it really being "mean" to provide people with facts and encourage them to be rational? I guess sometimes the truth hurts.

Bull said...

I prefer to refer to people like Dawkins as "evangelical atheists" because I don't think that they are mean. I think that turnabout is fair play and if the world's religions are free to try to convert everyone to their dogma then it's only fair to allow the atheists to persuade people that atheism is a more tenable position than theism. Besides, I've never heard Dawkins claim that anyone should just trust him or should pray about what he says and trust their feelings.

Texas said...

I thought this post was right on the mark! I find the dichotomy between "mean" atheists and "nice" atheists very perplexing. (Just so you know, William Rowe a very famous atheistic philosopher of religion made the same distinction and he called them "friendly" vs. "unfriendly" atheists. The difference was whether or not the atheist believed that it was possible for theists to be rational, and still incorrect.)

Hegel makes an interesting critique of the deception model of religious belief. He argues that people are able to be deceived about facts, but not about the "grounds of their belief." People who believe on "faith" know that they believe on "faith", and are not deceived about that.

Railboy said...

When nice atheists say they respect religious beliefs, I find that what they usually mean is:
A) they respect a person's right to have religious beliefs,
B) they understand that a person's relationship to religion is complex, and that many very smart people believe in such things,
C) they think the actual religious beliefs themselves are stupid.

I've been a 'mean' atheist for about a year now. I decided that it's condescending to believe A & B while sweeping C under the rug.

The funny thing is that this new attitude has done wonders for my relationship with my (highly religious) in-laws. Now instead of tiptoeing around their views like they're a bunch of excitable children, we just talk about this stuff head-on like the equals we are.

If only it worked like that every time... But honestly, is there anything more insulting than when someone assumes you won't understand / can't handle their opinion? Trust me, religious people can take care of themselves. Be as proud of your beliefs as they are.

By the way, all you Spiritual Types are idiots too, and I do not respect your beliefs.

AnnM said...

I have a friend who came to me in the midst of a spiritual crisis, before I quit the church, and I played nice atheist. Actually nice apostate, because I wasn't yet an atheist. I didn't feel it was my place to mess with her religious beliefs.

Boy, do I regret it. But probably not as much as her husband does; he's the atheist who provoked her crisis. She's now a devout mormon, leaving a real schism in their marriage.

I have to agree with the mean atheists: What's wrong with the truth? But I really appreciate Johnny's point about deception -- which I suppose makes me a friendly mean atheist.

J. J. Ramsey said...

sam-i-am: "What's wrong with the truth?"

Nothing. However, it is a mistake to say that the mean atheists are on the side of truth. There is nothing truthful, for example, about calling the NCSE moral cowards for making allies with theistic evolutionists, which Dawkins did in TGD when he likened the NCSE and similar people and groups as "Neville Chamberlains". If anything, the reason the mean atheists often get called "fundies" is because they often choose simplistic demonizing over a reality-based view.

C. L. Hanson said...

Wow, thanks for the fantastic discussion, everyone!!!

As I thought, there's a big range of thought on this among atheists. As I said in my previous post, we're not all following one leader in mindless lockstep, but rather everyone has their own ideas and opinions.

Hey Cynthia!!!

True, theists and atheists alike cover a wide range of human types.

Hey Homer!!!

Good point. On the one hand, if the goal is to make the world safe for atheism, one strategy is to promote religious freedom to the max. As I said in my previous post, one means is to make alliances with theists. However, I also think that widening the range of debate -- as the new atheists are doing -- can also have a beneficial effect.

Hey Bull!!!

True, turnabout is fair play and atheists have every right to try to deconvert people.

Personally I don't go out of my way to deconvert people becuase I don't believe they have souls to save. If they read what I've written and agree with me, I won't say "No!!! Go back to church!!!" ;^) but at the same time if I merely succeed in getting them as political allies in the fight for freedom of/from religion, I'm satisfied with that.

Thanks Johnny!!!

I'd add one precision to your point though: From talking to theists, I've found that quite a lot of them -- as you say -- recognize that their belief is based on faith. Those are the theists I tend to respect more. I've met other theists who really do think that the external facts support their position, and that observable reality supports young Earth creationism, etc. These people are wrong, and have been horribly shortchanged by the public education system which should be offering a real education to everyone, not just the advantaged.

Hey Railboy!!!

That is a very good point!!! Very often atheists' avoidance of the subject of religion is because of a fear that the listener is just too stupid and juvenile to handle it. I think Dawkins covered this in his book, right?

I think there's a bit more to it than that, though. Sometimes the situation really is that two people understand that they're both aware of the basic facts, arguments, and evidence, and it's clear that neither person is ever going to convince the other. (Like the situation with me and my mom.)

In such cases, it's often more productive to "agree to disagree" so one can relate on other topics. It's not always a question of "I think you're too stupid to handle the truth," but rather it's "I know you've already heard what I have to say, so repeatedly bringing it up accomplishes nothing."

Also, are you calling me a "spiritual type"? WTF is up with that? Since when does nice = spiritual???? Please see my post Sexuality vs. Spirituality.

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

That unfortunately happens in a lot of marriages. On person has an epiphany that Mormonism isn't true and immediately wants to dump the whole thing on the partner. Sometimes the partner understands, but very often the response is to feel threatened and defensive and become 100 times more pious...

Hey J. J. Ramsey!!!

Thank you!!! That is essentially the point I'm trying to make. I don't have a problem with atheists who want to spread facts and deconvert people, but I do have a problem with atheists saying that those who want to form cross-worldview alliances are somehow closet atheists and cowards.

Eric said...

Excellent posts, all. I'm a little late to the debate but thought I'd throw in my 2¢ anyway:

Railboy, I happen to be one of those Spiritual Types you mentioned. Let me just say that my spirituality doesn’t define what I believe or “filter” truth in any way. The fact that I am a spiritual atheist does not mean that I hold any supernatural beliefs. It is simply the way I find enjoyment and meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. The moment I realized I was an atheist (as opposed to a hopeful agnostic) was a profoundly moving spiritual experience.

Carl Sagan was (in my opinion) a spiritual agnostic -- he disliked the term atheist -- and he used his spirituality to infuse wonder about the cosmos into millions of questioning minds. His "nice" approach was what converted so many people to science. How much airtime would Cosmos have gotten, really, if Dr. Sagan had instead launched diatribes against religion?

Now, I totally respect the place of mean atheists in the debate. I think each side is beneficial at different stages of our growth. I thoroughly enjoyed The God Delusion, and it in fact was partly responsible for my realization that I am an atheist. But I would not have appreciated it a couple years earlier. By the time most people read Dawkins, he is just preaching to the choir.

And chanson, spirituality does not always mean the brainwashed, guilt-ridden religious variety. Cynthia put words to it in her comment, without naming it as spirituality. As for sexuality ... what would the spiritual life be without sex? They are absolutely compatible in my book!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eric!!!

Excellent comments!!! I completely agree that different people need different things at different times. Also, I don't have a problem with people who are spiritual nor do I think that spirituality is incompatible with sexuality. However, I feel that spirituality is a particular personality/character trait that I don't possess, and I don't feel any worse off for it....

Eric said...


Yes! It is probably a very good thing that we don't all have the spiritual gene. It would be a sad world if we were all that way...

Believe me, my world is much less boring now that I have discovered your blog! :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Eric!!!

I like your blog too!!! You see I've added you to my sidebar.

Anonymous said...

Well I am not mean or nasty but I do take the opportunity to put forward the arguments against the most perverse religious positions I come across. I have certainly been regularly trying to take on those who put forward "Intelligent" design nonsense. As for the quieter religious types - if they leave me alone I usually leave them alone.

However it is long overdue that Atheists came out and made clear just how many of us there are and how strong the arguments against religion and "faith" are.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bunc!!!

That's great -- I agree that it's good to make it clear just how many of us there are and how strong the arguments against religion and faith are (while at the same time being willing to live and let live with believers who are willing to do the same).

Regarding taking a hard stance, I think Greta Christina did an excellent job of explaining why it's fine that different atheists adopt different tactics depending on their individual talents and temperaments: good cop, bad cop.

Anonymous said...

As always, there is (at least) a third type: I am an apathetic atheist that thinks that religion is ninety-nine parts pure stupidity mixed with one part lying, opportunistic con artists. Yet I don't care what other people think or believe and no intention of trying to change them, as long as they leave me alone.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rosie!!!

Actually, I think that position is pretty common among atheists. I'm kind of oversimplifying with this post, and I'm also mostly kidding with it. ;^)

Unknown said...

I guess I am a mean atheist. Otherwise known as an Anti-theist. I view religion as being the cause of so much suffering and irrational anti-expermientalist delusion that I think it has had a considerable negative net effect on humanity, and primarily serves the purpose of keeping an elite in power as the 'opiate of the masses'. Eastern Philosophies and Buddhism rank above other religions though.

I also have a strong personal reason and history of separating reality from fiction or imagination.