The New Atheism – The Next Step

Julian Baggini has writted a quite interesting article on this subject over on CiF. I mostly agree with it, but it has a bit of a problem. Here’s a quick quote from it:

What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

This can’t be dismissed as “mere perception”. Appearances count, which is why those able to present a more agreeable face have come to dominate the moderate middle ground, even if their arguments are often vapid and shallow.

The problem is this: Baggini has two messages, which aren’t really compatible. They are as follows:

1. The New Atheists are perceived as being too forthright and certain. Look at me, in contrast. See how I open my article with the words “When I threw off my Christianity, I did not throw out my Bible, I just learned to read it properly. Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it.” Lets all get better at presenting a “more agreeable”, less “contemptuous” face to the world, like moderate religious people and agnostics do.

2. The New Atheists have been too narrow in selecting their targets. They have drawn attention to some fundamentalists with nasty views, but there are still people wandering around with views that are equally bonkers, wouldn’t stand up to five minutes solid questioning, and need to be challenged, because they’re currently getting away with holding views that are frankly even more ill-thought-through than the religious loonies. The “fluffy brigade” are “flattering the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice.”

The first message urges us to stop pissing people off by seeming so sure of ourselves. The second one basically assumes that we’re right, and that it’s not just the fundies who need arguing with, but the woolly minded ones who think “God is love” is a terribly profound statement, not a load of fatuous guff. I’d agree with the second one, but I don’t see how we’re going to change anything of the perception of New Atheism by extending criticism to the people in the middle who are currently busy slapping themselves heartily on the back for being so chuffing moderate.

Of course, Baggini calls it a “conversation”, not criticism or an argument, but presumably the aim of the exercise is to cure people of their “woolly minded”ness, so I don’t quite know how that’s going to work. Presumably, these people are all so thick that during these “conversations” they won’t notice that we think we’re right if we just talk to them very, very softly.

It’s worth a try, I suppose.

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Agnostic Bus Campaign?

There is still an annoying confusion doing the rounds that any statement less strong than “I am absolutely certain there is no God” is not atheism but agnosticism. We can see it today in the faux surprise (expressed by religious sites like Ekklesia) at the wording of the Atheist Bus Campaign:

The slogan on the buses will read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

This appears to be a tactful retreat from Professor Dawkins’ previous claims that God “almost certainly” does not exist – but commentators are already pointing out that it is closer to agnosticism (uncertainty about whether God can be known as a reality or not) rather than atheism (outright denial).

This is a wedge that the religious like to drive between two positions that, typically, have more in common than they want people to think. After all, if you think atheists believe they can be absolutely certain there is no God, then there are almost no atheists in the world, and Richard Dawkins would, on that definition, be an agnostic. Here, for instance, is what Dawkins wrote on HuffPo two years ago:

Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think, and here’s why. […]

That sounds, to me, entirely compatible with what the Atheist Bus Campaign is proposing to put on buses. The difference is one of degrees, between “probably” and “almost certainly”, both phrases which acknowledge uncertainty. I would argue that the Atheist Bus Campaign chose the wording it did mostly because it was trying to be pithy, not because they wanted to water down the atheist position. They are, after all, calling themselves the Atheist Bus Campaign.

Similarly, Bill Maher recently went on the Daily Show to promote his new film Religulous, which is, to all intents and purposes, advancing atheist arguments. Nonetheless, Maher claims for himself not atheism, but agnosticism. Now, an agnostic is “someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, whether a god exists“. If that is the case, then why argue, as Maher (correctly) does, that the beliefs of religious people are preposterous? If you’re agnostic, you are allowing that there is a reasonable case to be made both for and against the existence of a particular God, or at least that there is no robust case to be made against their existence. So why try?

I think the problem here comes from the wide range of definitions claimed for atheism in common parlance. Atheism can be “either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. It is also defined more broadly as an absence of belief in deities, or nontheism.” Thing is, most atheists aren’t “affirming the nonexistence of gods”, they are “rejecting theism”. Religious apologists want you to believe that I believe there is definitely no God. I don’t. I just think the claims of religions are bonkers, and as such the burden of proof is on them, not me. But don’t call me agnostic. The only uncertainty I have is the technical kind of uncertainty that I also hold about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot, both equally bonkers propositions.

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