Sleeping with the Enemy

In Christianity & Atheism on July 2, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

In response to my writing about why I didn’t think The God Delusion was very good (here), Hitch asked how I — clearly part of the ideal target market for that kind of apologetic — would write such a book.  It’s an interesting thought experiment of a sleeping with the enemy sort, and here are some of my preliminary thoughts on it, even though I don’t wish to be seen as telling atheists what to do.  But for me, the problem isn’t so much writing the right book, it’s implementing the right strategy. 

1.  I’d start with a different approach.  The stereotypical atheist seems to be an angry, young, white male, perhaps with Asperger’s, who hates religion and says so, loudly and incessantly.  As with most stereotypes, it’s unfair in general, but also has an element of truth.  The atheist apologetic literature, in toto, seems targeted towards the stereotype in approach and style.  I’d change that. 

2.  I’m all in favor of evidence-based thinking, but the common atheist apologetic focusing primarily on evidence misses a crucial preliminary step.  This literature seems to presume a major ethical obligation to examine the evidence intensely on every point and at every step.  I think that’s unrealistic and even a bit daft.  For most people, and especially with respect to their foundational commitments, if they see something as working in general, they’re not going to invest the time and energy to question it very much.  It’s a key point and one the atheist apologetic literature doesn’t get (and often can’t seem to conceive).  Most religious people think their religion is a positive force in their lives.  Harping about how evil and wrong it is, especially angrily, isn’t likely to change that anymore than foreign demonstrations about evil American imperialism are likely to change American minds.

3.  Atheists need to recognize all the reasons people find religion valuable and provide viable alternatives.  Despite the dispute between Josh Rosenau and P.Z. Myers over how much people actually believe of what they profess and what that means, everyone should recognize the powerful human benefits of religion and, at present, how devoid of those elements the atheist “movement” (to the extent that’s even a coherent idea) is.  Humans are social and thrive in community.  Churches provide that.  In most areas of the USA, church groups provide crucial services to people in need and a positive social outlet to the general populace.  To this point, the atheist “community” offers precious little of any of that.  Since this is a key component of how and why religion “works” for people, having similar outlets would make it more likely that you can be heard on why you’re right and seen as viable lifestyle alternative.  The atheist apologetic literature seems to suggest that it’s an intellectual and philosophical alternative.  But I don’t think it can hope to succeed without being a substantive lifestyle alternative.

4.  Atheists also need to stand for something.  This is a tricky point because, on the one hand, atheism implies no necessary affirmative belief and, on the other hand (as I’ll discuss later), pushing any sort of ideological purity isn’t likely to help either.  But if you’re going to ask people to jettison an important affirmative basis for who they are, I think you need to offer something in its place.  Offering little more than a lack of belief and general skepticism (as powerful and helpful as skepticism can be) is a pretty pitiful alternative.

5.  There is nothing particularly winsome about atheism as generally presented.  I suppose that some people are attracted to being one of the “Brights” (one of the most misconceived campaigns imaginable), but beyond the stereotypical atheist, I don’t think what’s offered looks particularly appealing.  I can appreciate that anger and vitriol can be useful means to attack prevailing paradigms, but atheists are asking people to choose them and their key life choices.  It’s one thing to be angry and harsh to get people to recognize you and accept your place in society.  It’s quite another to act like jerks and yet expect people to join you. 

6.  I suspect that atheist triumphalism is as tiring and off-putting to the general public as American triumphalism is to the rest of the world.  At the risk of sounding like Chris Mooney, is spending all your time telling people how much better than them you are really the best marketing strategy and is that really the brand niche you want? 

7.  Atheism claims that it implies no ideology but acts as if it does.  Generally speaking, based upon the polling data I’ve seen, 30% of the American population is politically liberal (by U.S. standards), 30% moderate, and 40% conservative.  Much of the atheist apologetic literature (including TGD) seems to say that only 30% need apply.  Since I think reasonable and secular grounds can be offered for the other general alternatives, I think it is a major mistake to do so.  It’s also a mistake because it enhances the us versus them divide that I think you should want to overcome.  Even if I thought the anti-accomodationist position were justifiable intellectually and philosophically, I would still see it as bad strategically. 

Am I on to something?  I hope not….


8 Responses to “Sleeping with the Enemy”

  1. You are still in criticism mode, not construction mode. Let me tease out what I mean.

    1. “angry, young, white male, perhaps with Asperger’s” [..] “approach and style. I’d change that.” Ok, how?

    2. You raise two points. I’m rephrasing “Don’t change what is working” and “Most religious people think their religion is a positive force in their lives. Harping about how evil and wrong it is, especially angrily, isn’t likely to change that”. Many atheists don’t have a problem with not changing a working system. But if something does not work it needs change. For example creationism in class rooms. Creationism in astronomy. Superstition in medical sciences (children dying because of irrational vaccination fears) and so forth. How to raise these issues, especially when the main source of the problems can be traced to ideologically hardened positions such as conservative evangelical Christianity?

    3. “Atheists need to recognize all the reasons people find religion valuable and provide viable alternatives.” I very much appreciate that point. It’s not important just interesting to note, that believers discussing atheism do by and large not do this either. This is not a symmetric relationship. But this is not the topic here and I agree. Here is the challenge, how to write a book about disbelief that is not open to this criticism yet accessible to the casual reader. The book can in length not exceed 500 pages paperback. Is it enough to mention examples of the good? Or does this need to be exhaustive?

    4. “Atheists also need to stand for something.” I think this is a standard problem of atheism. Atheism does not stand for something but atheists stand for many different things. Science, philantropy, social justice, tolerance,… But it works differently for us. We do not try to imbue atheism with these labels. Atheism is not a positive category. We just happen to not believe in the supernatural. The positive qualities can be anything form being an outstanding actor to being a succesful businessman to promoting an anti-hunger campaign. Atheism just will never get credit for it, because we do not do this _because_ of atheism. We do this because these are good things to do. Atheism simply can and should never stand for something. Being good, doing good, that’s something to stand for. That’s a positive category. So how does one write that so that it makes sense to you?

    5. “Brights” “act like jerks”. I never liked the Brights label. And I don’t like people acting like jerks. However if someone calls himself holy but does mean things or is Christian and acts like a jerk we do not brand them the way we brand atheists, again there is an imbalance, but this again is not the topic. Disbelief has the problem of a strong label, because most of us do not want any label. It doesn’t make sense to be an a-yeti-ist. But we have to explain ourselves. Over history unbeliever have struggled with negative labels and stereotypes. “Brights” is yet another ill-conceived way to shed these negative labels. Is there a label that could actually be neutral or positive? Or can we, as most unbelievers would prefer, even have this discussion without requiring labels at all?

    6. “atheist triumphalism” I think there are two parts to this. One is the actual. I don’t want to deny that some atheists believe and exhibit a sense of superiority. Again believers have this too, and we don’t criticize it in their case, but not the topic. But there is a related concern. If one wants to be evidence-based and wants to actually improve things, one has to be able to make comparisons and make judgements along the line “looking at the evidence X is better than Y using this measure Z for comparison”. It seems to me that sometimes unbelievers making legitimate comparisons is misconstrued as triumphantism. How to avoid that trap while still being true to evidence based discussions?

    7. “Atheism claims that it implies no ideology but acts as if it does.” This is a tough one. There are millions of lines of internet discussion on this. As said atheism is not a coherent body. I personally don’t actually accept that label for reasons that would be too long to explain here. There is a certain coherence to some very basic aspects of it. No belief in god, evidence-driven. As for the rest? Well it’s tricky. Dawkins is a European. Even a centrist position in Europe is pretty much left if not far left of the center in the US. This is not a function of Dawkins atheism but conflated with other factors. Is Hitchens left or right? He is left on some issues, and right on others. Ayn Rand? A hero of the libaritarian right. Clarence Darrow? One of the most esteemed jurists of the USA, by today standards more left than right. But let me also try to explain. Evidence-driven thinking biases towards progress. If you look at evidence and things seem they need improvement that is a progressive attitude. Academia is more progressive not because there is some devious bias to select for liberals. No, the scientific method and the desire for new solution naturally biases towards people who want that, this is not an ultra-conservative stance. You want new outcomes, you probably think in progressive categories.

    Much more critically here is to counter the “us versus them”. Most unbelievers want freedom of religion and from religion. This is the most inclusive possible position without joining another world view. How to make that case?

    The question of strategy is an interesting one. Lets set this aside for this book. The goal is to write a book you find useful and doing the right thing. We can discuss strategy at another point.

    Hope that makes some sense.

    • 1. Treat the person with respect even when his or her ideas aren’t respected. Quit with the games. For example, re TGD: By any reasonable measure, people of faith aren’t necessarily delusional. We may be wrong, however, and it’s fine to say so, even strongly. For example, re GING: By any reasonable measure, religion doesn’t poison everything. It is too often poisonous, and is perhaps even a net negative (though I disagree). Make your case, but start by keeping the hyperbole in check.

      2. Rigid ideology is a problem even broader than religion and I don’t have a ready answer for how to defeat it except by repeatedly pointing to the facts and scrupulously refusing to interpret those facts ideologically or too broadly.

      3. Examples of the good should be enough. Good writing uses examples to illustrate and clarify the point made. We typically remember a good story far better than good analysis. Choose carefully.

      4. You make a great point, but one that is honored mainly in the breach. In my view, atheists too readily accept that label as primary rather than a positive one. It would be naive to expect the masses to accept a common label, but it would help if most atheists sought some positive moniker.

      5. I don’t think the balance is nearly so broad as you do, but I agree that that’s another topic. With respect to labels, I think they can be generally helpful even though misused and overused. Humanist is probably the best in my view, but it suffers from a ready claim that it glorifies people to the exclusion of God. I can image some variation of realist getting some play. The idea behind “brights” wasn’t a bad one, but the execution was dreadful.

      6. This one is the least troublesome one for me. Simply treat people (rather than ideas) with courtesy and respect. Avoid the temptation of losing your cool even when the opposition is being jerky. We have come a long way in de-stigmatizing the gay community in the last few years because of how they have gotten out and about in the community. Even the hardest-hearted fundamentalist will likely have a hard time denigrating gay people generally if he knows some personally. Personal relationships break down these barriers better than anything else, in my view.

      7. I would suggest to you that being evidence-driven demands a careful conservatism. Beyond carefully limited experiments, I think we should avoid “progressive” solutions unless and until they can be shown actually to work.

      I have had success in the First Amendment arena by continually asking if one’s judgment would be the same if another group were in the power seat. That can frequently alter thinking in a hurry. A willingness to accept honest traditions and real humility in the face of people who disagree would help too. In this area, too frequently I see a “tit-for-tat” mentality — opposing a public creche that’s been in the community for decades or instituting a prayer to open a public meeting simply because the majority thinks it can. My wife is an elementary school teacher, and she deals with this sort of issue by including and honoring all of the holiday traditions expressed by her students, whether sacred or secular, in December.

      We have a start, at least.

  2. 1. I agree. This is no excuse but it’s the publishing culture too. Catchy subtitles to drive sales. I wish that nuanced books had million sales, but it’s shock material like Glenn Beck who racks in the dough. Almost everything that is published is tendentious and hyperbolic. But don’t forget that there are atheist books with neutral titles too. New Atheism. Good without God. Letters to a Christian Nation. There is no praise for titles that are fine. I think the title question is easily solvable.

    2. “Rigid ideology” Well I agree, except that one persons opinion/interpretation of facts is another persons rigid ideology. Virtually all atheists I know are non-dogmatic with respect to the existence of the supernatural. It’s both permitted that it actually be proven to them. They don’t believe it because the evidence is considered insufficient to do so, but that’s it. Yet trying to make the case, one still has constant arguments that try to frame atheism as dogmatic. “It really is a faith too” etc. It is very hard to do this. Certainly I would content that if one reads and listens to Dawkins and Hitchens they are far less dogmatic than a title or a subtitle lets on. But people get stuck on detail like that rather than the big picture. It’s like people getting stuck by the slavery passages of the bible rather than the big picture.

    5. I like Humanist. There is an issue though. The issue of visibility. There has been very active work under secular humanism. Problem? Noone knows about it. At the same time atheist’s public image remained bad, despite atheists being good, using the secular humanist label and being largely not very visibly critical of religions. This is in part the problem of the “just be nice quiet and reasoned” call for nonbelievers. It has been tried. It got us a 47% distrust rate in the general population, a rate worse than Muslims during 9/11. The real challenge is how to be visible, be heard in our media culture without shock value, without confrontation and all that. I prefer to not have it, but having a ghastly public image while being nice is not cutting it either. Something has to give. I can pretty much guarantee you we would not have this discussion without the New Atheists. While I agree with some of your qualifications I cannot help but say that we need visible voices very badly. And better strategy to get it without the negative side effects, I’d be very happy to hear it.

    6. It’s interesting. I largely consider Dawkins and Hitchens to be very curteous. They do not mince words about their ideas and their criticism, but I have never seen them attack a person. Overall they are polite, in some sensible definition of politeness. I would differentiate that from some internet personalities. There I have seen stuff that I think is clearly over the line and I fully agree that they violated what you rightfully ask. But New Atheists generically have a bad image, even if an opinion is expressed politely. How to have a strong opinion without that effect, or what specifically is Hitchens say, doing wrong?

    7. That’s a statement of politics. I think that’s a separate issue. Just briefly I think the rhetoric in the area is polarized. Everybody works from the now (base conservatism) and progressiveness is only the identification what is seen as flawed in the now and needs change. There is no such thing as a pure progressive that knows and respects no history. And in fact there is no such thing as a pure conservative either. Most of what we call conservative actually has nothing to do with this process, it’s ideological not procedural matters. Some commentators like Glenn Beck use “progressivism” as an empty shell. He never defines what’s in it but warns people of it. But that’s a whole other topic. I do not think that a book can be written that does this question justice and is about unbelief.

    • 1 and 2. It’s more than just the titles. The text of TGD all but calls believers child abusers.

      5. You make a decent point, but I would suggest that the “something” which has to give is the atheist community (such as it is). In my view, it needs to be public about its good deeds and its interpersonal relationships. I think it’s fair to say that the gay community was utterly reviled even relatively recently. Even though there is still a long way for them to go, there has been a major improvement largely because of interpersonal relationships. It’s not a fast process, it takes a lot of work, and it’s not flashy, but it can work.

      6. Hitchens is an interesting case for me because I find him so interesting and engaging even when I disagree strongly. He gets more of a pass from me than, for example, Dawkins does and largely for that reason. Dawkins is particularly difficult since, when talking science, he is unfailingly polite, reasonable and engaging. My sense is that he simply hates religion too much to be reasonable about it. Of course, I’m not objective about this subject either.

      7. I don’t think it’s necessarily political at all. The principle, in my estimation, can and should apply to both traditionally liberal and traditionally conserbative causes. The current (and longstanding) nation-building venture in Iraq, for example, would fail by this standard.

  3. […] Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  The original post is here followed by a follow-up post here stemming from an ongoing discussion with Hitch.   I really want to comment quite fully on this […]

  4. 5. Well I’ll disagree but it’s fine. We already have great role models in Art, Business, Education, Research. Gays had to do flashy parades against violent protests to get to a state where being out there was safe enough. I don’t think that the gay movement got where it is now by quietly working on interpersonal relationships at all.

    Heck unbelievers like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates have great interpersonal connections and visibility. Still no credit for the unbelievers. Do people who watch Emma Thompson movies even know she’s an atheist?

    The point is that Christians are biased wanting other communities to be quiet. Of course that is the best outcome from a Christian perspective. You want it to be a slow process, ideally no process, or a vanishing process. After all it’s a “Christian Nation”.

    But no stigmatized minority I can think of has ever really managed to escape the stigma without rocking the boat, often very severely.

    Slavery, segregation, racism, women’s rights, gay rights. None goes without a massive uphill struggle.

    • I don’t think that the gay movement got where it is now by quietly working on interpersonal relationships at all.

      My information is anecdotal, but it suggests otherwise. Have you seen any data?

      The point is that Christians are biased wanting other communities to be quiet. Of course that is the best outcome from a Christian perspective. You want it to be a slow process, ideally no process, or a vanishing process. After all it’s a “Christian Nation”.

      That’s unfair, even though many Christians are guilty as charged. I want the process to work.

      But no stigmatized minority I can think of has ever really managed to escape the stigma without rocking the boat, often very severely.

      As I have noted previously, I acknowledge that a different approach might be in order when trying to overcome a cultural paradigm and that some “out there” behavior is helpful in that if pushes the Overton window. However, in each of the movements you name, the objective was merely peaceful coexistence and, ultimately, acceptance. Many atheists have a much bigger and more difficult goal. They want believers to join them. My best guess is that being “out there” will be much more effective in obtaining peaceful coexistence than it will be in gaining converts.

  5. On data, I will look. I’m not sure how one really would measure this, but perhaps some ingenious social scientist has managed. There is plenty of data on abuse against LGBT, but that’s not what you are asking.

    I’m glad you want the process to work. My suggestion would be to call out christians who demonize atheists just as much as calling out atheists as aggressive.

    For example in WorldNetDaily you will find a Christian praising the vandalism of the perfectly humble billboard with the original test of the pledge of allegiance. We can make it work by correcting all sides when they cross lines, but it’s easy to say that atheists don’t do it perfectly and ignore that the culture backdrop doesn’t act perfectly either. How about not demanding perfection on one side and letting the other side just do whatever. A little bit of accountability on all side seems to be a good strategy.

    But you have a point of course. Let me try to carve it out. There are lots of wonderful atheists out there who perfectly fit your description. They do great things and are great role models. But they just don’t spend the time to even talk about atheism because it’s irrelevant (and it is!). But people simply don’t know that they like that role model and that they do their stuff out of disbelief.

    I think someone has to do visibility and if these questions weren’t immediately politically relevant, such as how SCOTUS cases decide (towards more or less first amendment rights), I think we could indeed relax.

    But yes, I think we need to highlight positive role models. Absolutely.

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