CFI Blog Tilts at Windmills March 25, 2010

CFI Blog Tilts at Windmills

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.

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  • Aaron

    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.

    Richard Dawkins says “hi”.

  • Jesse Galef

    Richard Dawkins includes “atheist” in his identity. He also pushes for better treatment of children, better science education, reform of libel laws… it goes on. He has quite a lot of goals beyond the critique of theism.

    The only possible charge is the title of his documentary, “Root of All Evil?” But that wasn’t up to him:

    Dawkins has said that the title The Root of All Evil? was not his preferred choice, but that Channel 4 had insisted on it to create controversy.[1] The sole concession from the producers on the title was the addition of the question mark. Dawkins has stated that the notion of anything being the root of all evil is ridiculous.[2]

    If you insist, feel free to say that he should have put his foot down. But we can’t really think he believes religion is the only problem in the world.

  • I read it last week when it went through my rss reader. I scratched my head, sighed and said, “Bye Bye CFI.” Then I unsubscribed from their rss feed. Opposing viewpoints are fine but that was a very poorly presented argument. There’s a limit to how much nonsense like that I’ll put up with.

  • mikespeir

    When atheists congregate, whether on the Internet or real-world venues, the occasion tends to have atheism as its focus. While here (or there) we will naturally gravitate to subjects that are pro-unbelief and contra-belief. That’s hardly surprising, but shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the other 99 percent of our lives revolves around the same things.

  • Valdyr

    When has Dawkins ever said that religion is the only problem in the world? And where were you when Dawkins was having a successful career as a professor and biologist long before writing any books on atheism? Not exactly what I’d call “building [his] entire life” around critiquing theism.

  • Michael De Dora Jr.

    All I will say is, please read my response post and the conversation I had with Ophelia Benson in the comments of that other post. It will help immensely in understanding what I was trying to say.

  • Aj

    And Christopher Hitchens thinks that religion poisons everything, not that religion is the only thing that poisons, there’s a pretty important difference. As the “main source of hatred” implies there are other sources. Grammar, logic, use it. This is one of the points that betrays the ignorant, bigoted, and irrational nature of the critics of Dawkins and other atheists. They do not, seemingly refuse to, understand the arguments before dismissing them.

    Many at the CFI disagree with Dawkins and others about strategy, therefore they will lie about them. No atheist I have met thinks that religion is the only problem, many see it as a major problem, and a few view it as the main problem. Yet this person claims that many atheists believe it’s the only problem. The context is a blog post promoting a strategy. Others offering a different strategy can easily be dismissed if you are dishonest about their premises.

  • Trans Sami

    “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.”

    Name a single group of athiests who meet for several hours every single sunday to discuss how right athiesm is and every other religion is stupid and evil. A single athiest who believes that every single non-athiest deserves to be brutally tortured for eternity.

    This is just more double standard BS, whenever athiests are a fraction as vocal about their beliefs as thiests they’re labeled as ‘militants’.

  • Barry

    Good post. I haven’t read the piece in CFI, but it sounds like he said to himself, “Whenever I think about atheists, the topic of atheism seems to be attached to them.” If he thought a bit longer or harder, that might not have happened.

  • muggle

    Trans Sami beat me to it. Exactly what I was think. Here it is once again, telling Atheists they shouldn’t be what’s accepted in theists. Double standard bullshit indeed.

  • Aaron:

    Richard Dawkins says “hi”.

    Except… no. Dawkins doesn’t even nearly fit that description.

  • HP

    As a rationalist skeptic whose interests are more directed against the paranormal than religion, I find it infinitely amusing that the Center For Inquiry shares an acronym with the Charles Fort Institute.

  • RBH

    The problem with De Dora’s post isn’t the “framing,” it’s the content. He needs to rethink what he’s trying to say, paying just a dab of attention to what the “New” atheists actually say.

  • Valhar2000

    The problem with De Dora’s post isn’t the “framing,” it’s the content. He needs to rethink what he’s trying to say, paying just a dab of attention to what the “New” atheists actually say.

    If past experience is any sort of guide, he won’t. People who make arguments like this have created a fantasy world that they like to inhabit, and they will not leave it to return to the bleak reality.

    He’ll keep saying the same old crap, and idiots of various persuasions will congratulate for him for doing so, which will be all the validation he needs.

    I hope I’ll be proven wrong on this, but I doubt I will.