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….