Via Skepchick comes this irritating article from Stephen Prothero that attempts to shame the “bad” atheists by upholding the supposedly “good” atheists, who are good due to a supposed gentleness. I knew I was going to dislike it the second Prothero started to engage in gender essentialism, suggesting that the atheist movement needs more women, because women are too sweet and gentle to point out that there is no god, which seems to be the major crime of the meanie “New Atheists”. Or that’s all that I can figure, since he rolls up Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris into one bundle, ignoring the strong differences between the three. (Hitchens is a legitimate asshole, Harris is kind of a sap, and Dawkins’ major crime is that he speaks honestly about stuff that you’re supposed to pussyfoot around.) But don’t take my word for it; Prothero’s argument really does seem to be that the best kind of atheism is an atheism that isn’t atheism at all.
The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.
These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.
That is a terrible analogy. I’ve seen some stinkers, but that one wins the award of the day. Being gay or being straight isn’t a truth claim, except insofar as it’s self-evident that a person who sleeps with members of this sex or that and claims the label is telling the truth about themselves. But that homosexuality exists doesn’t mean that heterosexuality doesn’t. Sexual orientation is actually pretty close to handedness, even if it has a great deal more political weight. The majority of people are right-handed, but some are left-handed. This fact is interesting, but shouldn’t be the source of strife or oppression.
But the debate between religious people and atheists exists on a plane beyond whether or not one should be allowed to believe what you want (which most people agree, outside of religious fundamentalists). Whether or not there is a god is not a matter of personal preference or inherent tendencies. It’s a truth claim. It’s less like being gay or straight, and more like claiming that you believe that gravity works or that E=MC2. If there is a god, there is one and atheists are wrong. If there’s not, atheists are right. And the anger about how ungentle atheists are comes from this inescapable conclusion, or at least the unwillingness of some atheists to say, “Well, even if there isn’t a god, your wishing makes it true for you.” And that appears to be Prothero’s argument—the best atheists are the ones who pretend that the truth claims of religion are something they aren’t.
That’s why the “women are nicer” argument is so fucking insulting. The insinuation is that women are weak-minded and put eagerness to please above a basic understanding of the difference between personal preference and a truth claim. Or, at best, that it’s a good thing that women’s voices are discredited routinely, because when women make truth claims about god, it doesn’t matter as much. If women are “nicer”, i.e. more willing to pretend that a claim is a preference and/or back out of a situation where someone’s talking bullshit, it’s not a good thing. It’s because we’re not taken as seriously.
You can see this in the list of “good” atheists Prothero trots out. I fail to see how Susan Jacoby or Julia Sweeney are any different in their approaches than Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. Jacoby can have snarling contempt for unreasonable people that makes Dawkins look like a pussycat, and Sweeney gets plenty of laughs making fun of religious beliefs for being so damn incoherent. The only way you could think of them as gentler is if you don’t think women’s voices are and should be easier to dismiss.
Look, I think believers and atheists should practice tolerance and get along. Of course I do. But practicing tolerance doesn’t mean that you have to pretend that a truth claim isn’t a truth claim. As believers feel free to make claims about the way the universe works, then they should be challenged on it. That’s what happens when you make truth claims. That your claims are hard to back up is unfortunate, but that isn’t the fault of atheists, and calling atheists mean because this is true doesn’t change that. Having your arguments disproven isn’t assault, and using terms like “pummel” implies coercion that is not going on. You’re free to believe that the moon is made out of green cheese, but being free to believe that doesn’t require that other people coddle that delusion.