He has a response of his own that I’d like to share. The last paragraph, especially, is well worth reading:
Karen Armstrong’s reply highlights an important issue for the freethought movement. Do we come across as absolutists, and if so, what are the consequences? The answer to the first part is clear: Armstrong apparently views many nontheists as touting religion as purely evil. We all know many nontheists who feel this way and are vocal about it. That message works very well for “inreach” to nontheists and those already on the road to freethought. It is a message that is important for our movement and that has been critical to getting nontheists thinking and communicating.
As for outreach to the faithful (the vast majority of the population), we have a different situation. This type of absolutism puts them immediately on the defensive. To those who see their religious experience as a positive force in their life, the message of religion as completely negative fails to resonate. A discord is immediately created between their positive experience and the negative absolute. The discord leads these people to become protective of their beliefs which shuts down much of their willingness to contemplate new ideas. When this happens it is extremely difficult to get them to consider the messages that are truly important in a world where it is impractical to eliminate religion. If we put them in a state of defense, we cannot effectively promote that nontheists are equally capable of being ethical, that we should not be discriminated against, that no idea is above criticism and that governments should put liberty above dogma.
In reality, religion is not all evil. It most certainly has been a force of great evil, but it also has been an enabler of enormous amounts of charity and helps bring a feeling of tranquility to many of its adherents. I disagree with Armstrong when she says that religion was designed “to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition.” That was one purpose, but it was also created to control people, to motivate warriors, to fill gaps in knowledge before the advent of science and for many other reasons. Ironically, her opinion is just as guilty of judging religion in terms of an absolute. In her case, she assumes the origin and intent of religion is purely good.
It is a fact that religion is not going away anytime soon. Since we must live with it, we also must work to help it evolve to being a more beneficial force. If we take the approach in our outreach that religion is absolutely evil then our message will not be heard and we will marginalize ourselves. Instead, we need to marginalize the religious fundamentalists. To do this we need to build bridges with liberal and moderate theists. The first span of the bridge is accepting that religion is not simply good or evil, but that it can be good and evil. We should continue to directly criticize the flaws in religion and never hold an idea above questioning. Some will still be offended by this, but we can open far more minds if we make our points without the absolutism that alienates those that we hope to influence.
Todd’s response affirms why I feel so strongly about the need for positive dialogue with liberal theists. They’re far more closely aligned with our views on social issues than with the religious fundamentalists. Since religion is not going away anytime soon, it’s good to have them on our side in certain cases.
We can (and should) still criticize religion, but when it comes to issues like gay rights, stem cell research, or a woman’s right to choose, those liberal theists have our back. I’d much rather have them on our side and get issues like those resolved instead of pushing them away because I choose to focus on the “existence of God” question.