I know what I know… Confessions of a hand-wringer

This is a vision of my ideal atheist future:

I go to my favourite bookshop and the best seller for the month is a tome of essays crafted from cognitive firmament by brilliant atheist mind.  In this book, a basic justification for atheism is sketched before moving on to the meatier and more complex question of how atheists qua atheists could contribute to the socio-political sphere  in a meaningful and constructive way.

I’m dreaming, of course.  Over the past 100 years, atheism has taken an almighty jump back into its own dark age.  I have lots of musings on why this might be the case but, regardless of cause, it’s fairly obvious that — as noted by Paul Wallace and Denys Turner — the theisms attacked by atheists are not themselves particularly interesting.

So we get our Dawkins and Myers because they cause profitable controversy.  Oh, they’ve done something wacky and disrespectful?  Quick, put that in an online news article and harvest a bountiful crop of advertising dollars.

We’re never going to get anything intellectually interesting from Dawkins, Myers, Hitchens, Harris, or Warren Bonnett because there’s no incentive for them to do so.  They are far too busy with their acerbic and pretentious attitudes…

Curses!  Somebody beat me to the punch.  Here (via The Key of Atheist) is the wet and pretentious Andrew Lovley:

Atheist activists need not be hyperbolic when discussing the fate of science and rationality either, because honest observers will notice that many worthwhile scientific and philosophical contributions have been made by theists or deists. We need not pretend as if we are bound up in some Manicheistic battle between good and evil, a battle between the non-religious and the religious, and adopt the false dichotomies that are typically conjured up in theology. We can live and prosper with those who do or do not believe in god; more importantly, we cannot afford to ignore those who have no respect for human dignity. [Source: Lovley, A. ‘A Newer Atheism: The Case for Affirmation and Accommodation’ on Non Prophet Status]


Lovley subscribes to the ‘Atheists Are Just Theists Who Do a Lot of Crossing Out’ school of atheism.  After all, aren’t atheists just theists who disbelieve in one more god?  Or something.  And so a secular society is just our current society with all of its current values except you mumble when the ‘G-word’ comes up.

It’s a rubbish school of atheism.

The strangest part of it all is that we’re supposed to be beyond this infancy stage of atheism.  Nietzsche and Schopenhauer already demonstrated the difficulty spotting the religious taint (or, as Nietzsche wrote, ‘shadow’) in society.  Why are we back to the ‘This society minus God equals secular’ formula?

The Key of Atheist disagrees.  While they suspect (correctly) that Lovley has a nappy between his ears, they argue:

It gets kind of tiring to rebut this foolishness [that atheists should accommodate religion instead of antagonise it] in the exact same way every single time but here you go. First of all, we can doboth. It’s almost as if critics of religion and positive humanists can accommodate each other. Or even be the same people. Second, criticizing religion does get results, and here are some of them. Cards on the table Lovley: Where are the fruits of your alleged superior efficacy?  [Source: The Key of Atheist, ‘A “Newer” Atheism: Just What We Need’]

As an example, the example of gay activism is given where both antagonistic and cooperative models of activism were used to good effect.

[B]ased on comparison to analogous past events, [] the current fight over accommodation and confrontation is a complete waste of time. In retrospect, both tactics did more for the gay rights movement than either of them could have done alone. If the assertive types can find it in themselves to let the moderates be, and the moderates can quit wringing their hands about the imaginary ruin we’re all about to suffer thanks to the assertive types, then maybe both sides can actually go back to what they both do normally: Work.  [Ibid.]

Except there is a significant difference.  Confrontation was borne of the heteronormative response to homosexuality.  In the case of atheism, the confrontation is borne of civilised society’s response to douchehattery.  Billboards saying that religions are scams isn’t atheism.  Obtaining a communion wafer just to desecrate it isn’t atheism.  Completely misunderstanding Aquinas is probably atheism but we’d be better off if it weren’t.

I must admit to being the hand-wringer type.  I’m 100% of the opinion that atheists should be squarely behind quality religious education in schools and allowing politicians to explicitly affirm their religious views.  Why?  Because foul things lurk in the dark and the militant, dull-headed atheism of Dawkins, Myers, et al. tries to starve religion of light.  Instead of trying to combat it, let it grow until it topples over and dies a natural death.

We can use the meantime to write that tome of essays.

(Also: check out The Key of Atheism.  Even though I disagree with nearly everything, it’s quite a good read)

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

4 thoughts on “I know what I know… Confessions of a hand-wringer”

  1. I’m having some difficultly figuring out what it is that you’re actually arguing, so please excuse me if I’m mistaken in my attempt to summarise what you’ve said. I think you’ve said that the contributions of fierce atheist critics to the discourse on secularism has been negligible, and that confrontation is devoid of philosophical value and nuance because it is in response to prejudice and discrimination. You’ve also suggested that there is a ‘school of atheism’ which is a curious proposition, as to my understanding atheism is a position on a single proposition, and that is the existence of a deity or deities.

    I haven’t as yet been able to develop a clue as to what these foul dark-lurking things in the ‘militant, dull-headed athism of Dawkins, Myers, et al’ are. Enlighten us all?

    I do want to know what exactly you think that religious activists are doing. Do you think that religious activists are not succeeding in shaping parts of society and politics according to their ideals? Why do you think that religious extremism will, if left alone, ‘grow until it topples over and dies a natural death’?

    Do you not think that opposing those who would seek to change the society in which we live into a more oppressive and ignorant place is worthwhile? Or do you simply think that criticising religion doesn’t achieve this? If it’s the latter, how do you understand the apparent demonstrability of the effectiveness of that criticism in reducing religiosity?

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