Richard Dawkins’ book, titled the God Delusion coupled with books by Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens has finally opened religion up to public scrutiny. These books soon catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists and have ushered in a rash of public debates about the effect religion has on our lives. It is pretty clear that Dawkins’ style of criticism has worked so much better at arousing public interest than our former attempts to appeal to reason have ever done. His open examination of religion has markedly change society’s attitude towards atheism. Suddenly the word atheist can no longer be so easily and contemptuously dismissed as not worthy of discussion
But just as we about to reach the crux of change that will make atheism fully respectable to our society, some humanists are effectively reducing the full effect of Dawkins and company’s efforts by openly criticising their methods. I think it is time we tried to understand why those professed non-theists among us discourage — indeed, oppose — Dawkins’ attempt to bring religionism before the auspices of public opinion.
An indication that some of these disapproving humanists are more than a little bothered by these outspoken non theist “attacks” on religion is shown by the way they distort Dawkins and friend’s criticisms by claiming they amount to a hostile, negative attack on a person , an individual, rather than on a particular world view—- even going to the extent of referring to some of the more outspoken atheists as atheist fundamentalists
( what those fundamentals happen to be are never mentioned)
They seem unable to understand that you have to assert yourself in order to make changes to public opinion. Surely the experience of both gays and feminists show us that you can not reshape public perceptions without arousing considerable anger and backlash. They seem unaware of what every advertising organization knows — — that you have to expose the weakness of your opponents position in order to justify your preferred alternative. Cultures resist change and it takes extraordinary effort to overcome that resistance.
This particular group of humanists point out that we should be tolerant of another person’s point of view and they are right about that but they should also know that we should be able to live with those who hold different positions than those we hold. I know people who are strongly critical of each other’s political stance, yet still seem able to retain their close friendships and I can not understand why that should not also be true when the topic is a religious one. We are not being hostile when we question someone’s religious beliefs -we, too, are entitled to an opinion. One has to wonder why our more conciliatory atheists/humanists feel religion deserves a separate category
Particularly when you consider how successful Dawkins and friends have been in bringing this topic into the public domain, it is hard to see why atheist critics continue to disparage his technique. Remember, for centuries it has been considered rude, indeed in very poor taste, to discuss religion in the public realm and as a result religion has been able to operate under the radar of reason. Richard Dawkins’ publisher told him that his book the God Delusion” could not have been published a mere 20 years earlier. Yet today that book was on the bestseller lists for months on end, as have books by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens . And now we are actually seeing pro atheist signs on buses in not only England but also in France, Spain and now Canada and the United States, opening up more debates, more opportunities to discuss religion out in the open. Whatever Dawkins and friends are doing is working and working for the first time in western history.
Further, when one considers how powerful and persuasive religion can be– note its amazing ability to elicit funds from its followers– and when one considers how small organized non theism is compared to this mammoth, it is hard to see why those who are free from its tentacles would be carrying out this kind of rear guard action against the efforts of their fellow atheists. But that is what many people, Michael Shermer included, have been doing . So the question we need to ask is what makes these professed non theists so opposed to Dawkins and friends’ efforts to expose religion to the harsh glare of reality?
Well, here is my take on that. While Humanists have essentially chosen science as their guide through life, we have also grown up in a religious culture, one in which our literature, our philosophies, evolved under the assumption that a deity of sorts was running the show and it is not easy for any of us to eject all facets of that musty religious stuff from our brains. Indeed, as Carl Coon points out (Progressive Humanism) our philosophy calls for an active and ongoing effort to dislodge old religious truisms from our cranium. I suggest that those among us who are hesitant to support Dawkins and company are still much more religious than they would give themselves credit for. One might say they have thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater–they concede there is no god but still cling to the Christian culture that they were educated in.
agm Andy Mulcahy