Hey Jude (I promise that’s the last time I’ll do that),
I made a numbered list of the salient points in your post. I find that an organized summary of what another person has said aids me tremendously in crafting my reply to it, as well as giving both parties a good frame of reference to address, reinforce, and evaluate the various points of multi-topic posts such as this. I have done my best to be neutral and fair in summarizing what you have said, and if I am not representing any or all of these points accurately, please let me know and I will be happy to adjust this list as necessary.
1. Definition of terms
A) Weak atheism – simple lack of belief
B) Strong atheism – assertion that there is no god or gods
C) Agnosticism – similar to weak atheism, but more emphasis on the doubt portion
2. Proposition p: As one approaches the strong end of the atheism/agnosticism scale, faith becomes required to maintain one’s position on either or both of these scales.
A) Subproposition p1: A strong atheist has no proof that god cannot exist.
B) Subproposition p2: A strong agnostic has no way of knowing whether or not god’s existence can be known.
3. Proposition r: New Atheists vary in their placement along the strong/weak atheism/agnostic spectrum, and their beliefs (worldviews) are based in science and evidence, not faith.
A) Subproposition r1: When New Atheists criticize religious claims, they do so when the religious make scientific claims of reality.
4. Discussion of tactics
A) Mockery and aggression encourage the religious to view atheists in antagonistic terms.
B) Minorities advance their causes by soliciting sympathy.
i) Humanization is a necessary prerequisite for sympathy.
5. Conclusion c: Therefore, if you encourage atheists to be nasty, aggressive, and confrontational, it would result in even in even more distaste for atheists.
A) Subconclusion c1: Pick fights with the religious less, and do more work charitable works. You’ll change more minds.
I’ll address these points in order. I have no major disagreement with anything you said in statement 1, even if I could quibble over the fine points, I will refrain from doing so. This topic is “New Atheist vs. Accomodation,” after all, not “Two Guys Debating Pedantically Over Miniscule Differences in Definitions of Atheism.”
I do, however, have a slight disagreement to raise with you over proposition p, which I’ve summarized in number two above. You are correct in your identification of a person’s degree of belief or disbelief in god as a spectrum, from strong belief and knowledge of god’s existence on one end and equally strong disbelief and knowledge of god’s non-existence on the other. For the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s a seven point scale from one to the other, with absolute certainty having a corresponding value of one, and its opposite as having a value of seven. At seven, we might say, “I know for certain that god does not exist.” Seven is your “strong atheist” from 1B, above.
But the intermediate stage just prior to seven is of interest as well. Let us say that six is someone who would agree with the following: “I think there is a very low but nonzero probability of god’s existence. It is very improbable that he/she/it does exist, and I live my life on the assumption that he/she/it does not.”
I myself am a six on this scale, but a “hard six,” leaning very strongly towards seven. This is because I am entertaining several proofs that demonstrate to my apparent satisfaction god’s nonexistence, for a given definition of god. It is useful to remember that proof is a very slippery word, and has different definitions in formal logic than it does in the sciences. In short, the past two hundred fifty words have been building to this: if it was shown that the existence of god was logically impossible, the same way that square circles and married bachelors, then it does not require faith to go from category six to category seven on the scale of belief.
I am wary about coming to conclusions on the basis of logic alone, however, so that’s why at present I only say that I am leaning towards seven. Nevertheless, I offer this as a way that someone could claim certainty in regards to god’s nonexistence without turning the matter into a faith-based-proposition, unless you count logic as a belief, in which case we should just close up shop and head home. [/wry amusement]
One last thing about 2A: Michael Jordan (not the basketball player) has a book, The Encyclopedia of Gods.
In it, it contains more than 2,500 of the world’s deities. Every monotheist in the world would happily admit to being a seven on the scale I described above in regards to at least 2,499 of these gods. Thus, I contend that strong atheism in the absence of evidence is an accepted and valid position.
Now then, on to proposition r. I have no disagreement with you on this point.
With regards to subproposition r1, I also agree with that. However, I would put a question to you: Almost anything that a believer could say about god seems to me to be inherently a scientific claim. “Jesus was born of a virgin. God created the world seven thousand years ago. God guides evolution. God chose the prophet Mohammad to deliver his message. God (through the angel Morai) revealed golden plates to Joseph Smith. God wants you to send me money.” Can you conceive of a statement about god a believer could make that isn’t scientific in some way? Even the most personal of experiences ultimately reveal themselves to be scientific in some way. “I hear god’s voice/I know what god wants/I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” These are all scientific claims. Think about it: God comes bursting in from whatever otherworldly or outside of space/time domain the believer says is god’s own, sending messages and information that can be deciphered by human brains. And this has nothing to do with science?
If every claim the religious make about god ultimately comes down to a scientific claim, as I contend, then r1 makes a distinction without a difference. Anything to do with religion is fair game for atheistic critique, because everything to do with the actual content of what is believed is ultimately a scientific claim about the universe.
Now, eleven hundred words later, we can come to the meat of what this conversation is supposed to be about in the first place. I realize that I’m being long-winded, but I felt that the points I raised above were worth at least some comment so that you have a better sense about where I’m coming from with the particulars of my atheism.
4A has a bit to do with Phil Plait’s speech at TAM 8,
in what has been called the “Don’t Be a Dick” school of atheism. If you have the half-hour to watch Phil’s speech, all I will say is that you could find worse ways to spend your time, but the website I linked to summarizes the content.
However, even in the “Don’t Be a Dick” school of atheism, Phil does not advocate that atheists and skeptics refrain from attacking religion. In fact, “Again, to be clear, I did not say we should back down when confronted. I did not say we should be weak against ignorance. I did not say we shouldn’t be angry. I did not say we should be passionless.”
The problem, I think, comes from the privileged place religion enjoys. All a person has to do is say that such-and-such is their faith, and it is the social norm to exempt such-and-such from criticism. If a person were a libertarian, a conservative, a liberal, a communist or an anarchist, no one at all would think it amiss to ask him or her to justify or explain why he or she held these political beliefs, and the hostile reaction you describe in 4A does not come up when talking about a person’s position on the tax code nearly as often or as instantly.
But religion is a kind of conversation stopper. And because people don’t have “thick skins” about their religious beliefs, they perceive even the most milquetoast criticism of the belief as an attack on them, and react defensively.
This is not the fault of the atheist who criticizes religion or the actions of the religious. Perhaps it is more tactful to keep the “special sensitivity” in mind, but I think it far better that religious belief looses this “get out of criticism free” card. The reasons why I think this is the preferable outcome has to do with my response to points you make later on, so I will refrain from mentioning them here.
When we come to your conclusion, you mention that atheists would serve their cause better by focusing on charitable works, thereby promoting a positive message of atheism and spreading their message that way. This brings us to, I suppose, another meta-question about what atheism is all about.
Now, as I suggested above, there are those atheists who object to the privileged status of religion in public life. I have no problem with atheists trying to reduce the impact of religion in ostensibly secular countries. There is a reason that Christopher Hitchens uses “How Religion Poisons Everything” as the subtitle to one of his books. There is a reason that Sam Harris takes issue even with progressive, liberal, and moderately religious people. A full debate of the harm religion does it outside the scope of this discussion, but I mention it here because acknowledging that Hitchens and Harris and Michael Newdow
believe that religion does harm, and that mankind would benefit if the entire enterprise was just set aside like lead plumbing. In this sense, atheist activism is
a form of charity, if charity is about improving the human condition.
There are also those atheists who view the question of god as a scientific or philosophical position and do not see their charitable activities as a logical extension of their atheism. Even here, the atheist is on solid grounds in opposing religion, for there are scientific and philosophical arguments that can be made about the problem in believing falsehoods. In other words, even if a person's faith did no harm to anybody, there is still a case to be made that the belief itself, against logic or without sufficient evidence, is a negative.
I call myself a “Gnu Atheist” with a touch of irony, since there really isn’t anything new about atheism, what we’re saying, and the like. Granted, there are reasons to believe that nonreligious people, people of no religion, or flat-out atheists are growing in numbers, but I digress.
I think it’s about time to wrap this up, and I might as well make a point or two more. Extremely radical, militant Christians kill abortion doctors. Extremely radical, militant Muslims suicide bomb public places. Extremely radical, militant atheists write snarky books and post on the Internet.
Even at our most antagonistic and vitriolic, we’re still just speaking very frankly and bluntly, and religious people don’t like it. But we’re not burning them at the stake. When they could get away with that sort of thing, that’s what they did, so I think we should keep the relative perspective of the “attack” on religion in context here.
I will end this with a link to one of my favorite fairy tales.The Emperor's New Clothes
Would you suggest that the child refrain from pointing out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, because it would be perceived as an attack on the swindlers, and that the little child would win more support for his or her position if he focused on charitable work for his aclotheism? [/light snark]