by Jesse Galef –
I’ll admit to being confused and disappointed by Michael De Dora Jr.’s post on the CFI blog last week entitled “The Problems with the Atheistic Approach to the World.” I’ve met Michael a couple of times and like him a lot, and I’ve found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him in the past. Not only is he Executive Director of CFI-NYC, he’s also a new co-blogger on Rationally Speaking with Massimo Pigliucci and my sister, Julia Galef. Clearly, he’s in esteemed company.
But reading his recent post left me scratching my head. I wasn’t quite sure where to begin responding, and a question kept popping up in my mind: who or what, exactly, is he talking about? Nowhere does Michael actually address the “Atheistic Approach to the World,” as the title implies he would. His criticism spans “the radical atheists” to the very label “atheist” to Dawkins and PZ’s tone. More often that not, his target is a strawman – such as the assertion that atheists “tend to think” religion is the only problem in the world. As I read, I kept thinking: “Well, yes, that view would certainly be a problem – if anyone in the world held it.”
I won’t go through point by point – Jerry Coyne already did so with his characteristic fervor. Instead, I’ll try to get to one key source of disagreement: who the new/radical atheists are. I’ve selected a couple quotes:
“However, an issue that received less focus was a more strategic one: the fact that many atheists define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism.”
“[A]theists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.”
I surely disagree with atheists who hold those views. But… they don’t exist. You won’t find a single person who “defines their entire [life] around unbelief and critique of theism,” or anyone who thinks religion is the only problem in the world.
If this is Michael’s view of the atheistic approach to life, no wonder he’s against it! In his post, he portrays it as needlessly divisive, full of arrogance, and stubbornly refusing to address topics other than theism.
The atheist approach to the world is just fine – as part of the picture. It isn’t, in itself, all there is to life. But that’s true of any label. What makes the ‘atheist’ label so valuable is that it serves as an underlying foundation for growth in many different directions. There are atheists who are also skeptics, humanists, or just plain members of their community – but they’re all united in caring only for secular concerns. That’s an important step forward. Beyond that, every atheist brings his or her own interests and passions to the world – as it should be.
Every atheist who pushes back against dogma and theistic belief is doing it for some reason: we do it because we care about children’s mental and medical health, we care about science education, we care about research, we care about politics, we care about ending discrimination.
There’s a discussion to be had about what tone is most effective in achieving our myriad goals. For the record, I’m a big fan of Greta Christina’s view that a movement takes all sorts – let the firebrands be firebrands and let the diplomats be diplomats. There’s also a discussion to be had about how we should label ourselves. But in order to include those topics, perhaps Michael’s title should have been: “The Problems with Having Only an Atheistic Approach to the World: Why We Should Do More and be More Polite When We Talk About It.”
[Update]: Michael’s response to comments on his post went up earlier today, after I’d written this. He admits to framing his post poorly and being unclear, and tries to address some of the criticisms. I’ll put up my thoughts tomorrow.