The modern atheist movement is getting organized and aggressive (for those who hadn’t noticed). It’s starting to build a focal point around a common message centered on reason, social justice, community, and poking at the worst forms of religious fundamentalism whenever and wherever possible. Heroes are emerging and they’re repeating common messages and creating catch phrases and rallying cries. While there’s much to appreciate about some of the culture impact of the movement, it’s the last activity in my list above that has the potential to cause the most problems. I’ve read many psychologists that warn about focusing too much on a person or a group you hate because in doing so you risk becoming just like them. I think some modern atheists may be falling prey to this problem.
I suppose there are good reasons for this type of “mirroring.” To stand up to a bully, it’s sometimes necessary to become bully-like. Many atheists, sick of being bowled over by their religiously fundamentalist antagonists, have gotten downright fundamentalist themselves. Even casual observers see this in political sparring matches all the time. Candidate Smith throws mud, candidate Jones must throw more mud or lose by omission. Perhaps it’s the only way to fight some battles.
But I think some atheists are becoming the very type of thinkers—or at the very least, adopting too much of the rhetoric—they despise. Richard Carrier, an historian who has been doing some solid scholarly work, has made somewhat of a name for himself among activist atheists. He recently wrote a blog post describing what he calls “New Atheism +” in which he tries to define a sort of manifesto for real new atheists who apparently want to distance themselves from apparent new atheists as well as any other irrational group out there. Fair enough. The modern atheism movement has a lot of steam behind it and leaders in the movement are working to ensure it becomes and stays mainstream and grows. Religion has it’s creeds and doctrines that provide it with psychological substance and something around which a community can hang their hat. Denominations have been good for religious propagation (we all need a tribe to be a part of) and probably will be good for atheism too.
Still, how much does the movement have to give up in order to create that “stickiness” I wonder. As I read through Carrier’s manifesto, a particular section caught my attention. Carrier identifies New Atheists + as those who embrace reason. That seems good. He writes, “The skill to think critically, skeptically, and rationally in all areas of life must also be promoted and cultivated.” Right on. But later, when laying out his doctrinal statement, under the heading, “We believe in being reasonable” Carrier explains that this partly means:
We believe in being logical and rational in forming beliefs and opinions. Which means anyone who makes a fallacious argument and, when shown that they have, does not admit it, is not one of us, and is to be marginalized and kicked out, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with. (Emphasis his)
Okay, he’s drawing boundaries and wants to “kick out” anyone who doesn’t adhere to the praxis exemplifying the doctrine. And Carrier even admits, to his credit, that reason needs to be a fundamental doctrine. But I wonder if this is just a bit too fundamentalist. Here’s the problem as I see it. One can make arguments that one thinks are sound. But I think it should be clear to anyone who is an avid observer of human behavior—and I would think particularly to an historian—that the reasonableness of an argument for an individual is not merely a matter of recognizing that the argument is valid according to standard rules of logic. Accepting an argument means the hearer comes to have beliefs not only about the argument’s validity but about the truth value of the premises. And this involves a very complex variety of interrelated and interdependent psychological states including having sufficient access to the stated facts in question, background beliefs, cognitive biases, emotional reactions, and a host of other things. What is clearly reasonable to one person may not be at all reasonable to another even if both hold that no logical fallacy has been committed. The problem then is this: if being reasonable means you only talk to people who share beliefs about the validity of your arguments, then it means nothing at all. If the only people you engage with are those that agree with all arguments you believe are valid, there would be no one to whom you would need to make the arguments!
A friend recently posted an image of the Muppets with a quote from the Jim Henson company stating that they were breaking ties with Chick-Fil-A over their anti-gay policies. In part the quote stated, “The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-Fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors.” In short, the Muppets were declaring that they won’t tolerate such intolerance! I responded by asking whether the Muppets themselves were being intolerant by not partnering with a company that held a diverse opinion different from their own. A friend of my friend responded with this: “Nobody said all intolerance is bad. Intolerance for stupid, arbitrary reasons is the problem.” But there’s clearly a problem here. Besides being a completely arbitrary basis for tolerance, if tolerance just means accept ideas we don’t think are stupid, then it means nothing at all (I’ll refrain from calling the criterion “stupid” but you can make your own judgment). Why would we have to “tolerate” sound, reasonable, intelligent ideas?
I think Carrier’s “reasonable” doctrine falls prey to the same type of incoherence. Carrier may believe he has shown Craig’s arguments for the historicity of the resurrection to be fallacious. But Craig clearly doesn’t believe Carrier’s arguments work. Craig believes his arguments are sounds and Carrier’s arguments suffer from some logical or factual problems and should be rejected. So who’s arguments are sound? Many side with Carrier and many others side with Craig. This is the nature of debate and “being reasonable.” If Carrier wants to marginalize and “not deal with” anyone who doesn’t see the soundness of his arguments, he’ll soon be talking only to those who agree with him and that will be then end of “New Atheism +”. If evangelical Christians get anything right, it’s at least the belief that non-believers need to be “evangelized.” Atheists need not only to be dealt with, they need to be brought into the fold though persistent, and, many times, aggressive confrontation.
I fully acknowledge that many conversations need to come to an end. Many so-called discussions are little more than an exchange of declarative statements sandwiched between ad hominems and straw men (and thanks to the internet, we now have unfettered access to all varieties of this type of “conversation”). But we tend to wash our hands of these discussions not because the other person doesn’t agree with our position but because the other person has failed to engage in argument in the first place. I can agree with Carrier that you can’t argue with someone that doesn’t at least attempt to make a reasonable argument. On the other hand, some of the most interesting and enlightening breakthroughs have taken place in the context of decades if not centuries-long debates where opposing sides exchange ideas making the best arguments they know how to make (this is what has been so attractive about philosophy for me). It’s when argument turns to dogmatism and a healthy acknowledgement of one’s intellectual deficiencies turns into a psychological wall of indefeasibility that barriers are, and probably should be, created. As long as someone is willing to admit that they could be wrong and has the patience to slowly chip away at opacity to get more clear on the truth, debate and conversation should continue regardless of how much we may disagree with our interlocutor.
Modern atheism should embrace this intellectual virtue or I fear it will fade away like it’s predecessors—and intellectually, go the way of the dogmatic religious system it’s trying to dismantle.