Atheist strategy and ethics
February 23, 2007 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Dialogues with atheist figureheads, Richard Dawkins in particular, on strategy and ethics of atheist proselytism?

On the topic of high-profile criticism of religion, one common view - from many fellow atheists - is that many prominent critics are often counterproductively harsh, even cruel, in their attacks on religious beliefs.

This MeFi thread is an example.

Do you have any links to discussions on this issue, between the leading "bad cops of atheism" and the atheists who disagree with them?
posted by Anything to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Regarding Dawkins, I'm not only asking about whether it's OK to mock some average christian, I'm personally skeptical about some of his approaches to demonstrably hateful christian leaders such as Ted Haggard, who I think came across as stronger in the end of their debate in "The root of all evil", as well that ex-jew muslim fanatic in the same documentary. In both cases he seemed to have bitten more than he could chew, not intellectually, but rhetorically.

I post this question because I haven't found writings where he'd address criticism from our side of the fence at length.

Links to Sam Harris and others are also welcome, although I'm only really familiar with Dawkins.
posted by Anything at 9:03 AM on February 23, 2007


The thing that really struck me about Dawkins was when he asked the rabbi if he realized how ridiculous he sounded, and then the crestfallen look on the rabbi's face.

Now, here is a guy who probably could never bring himself to believe anything other than what he believes, so Dawkins is basically, in asking him to admit that he might sound ridiculous, calling him ridiculous. Now, I have no problem with calling religious beliefs ridiculous, but I do find his tactics to be counter-productive. He was granted interview time with a very knowledgeable man, and wasted that time asking him questions that we already knew the answers to, and, in the end, turned accusatory and allowed his exasperation to show.

I would like to think that he could have used that time to dig at the roots of the belief. Ask him how his parents presented the beliefs to him. Ask him about his early activities in the church. Ask him about his fears should he not live a religiously consistent life, according to his beliefs. Ask him about strategies they use for retention, especially among children Ask him if he ever contemplates the contradictions of what he preaches. Ask him if the global state of chaos and was is at all hypocritical with his religious system. Ask him how he reconciles those hypocrisies.

So, I'm not so much answering your question so much as saying I'd like to see some people who take a more moderate approach to the debate as well.
posted by jon_kill at 9:13 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, and references to sections of books they've written are also also welcome, as long you think they portray the criticism accurately.

Apologies for not thinking of every detail before posting the original question.

On preview: I appreciate the reply, jon_kill, but I do wish this thread be kept mostly to particular answers, at least until a few have been given.
posted by Anything at 9:19 AM on February 23, 2007


Some good discussion of a debate between athiests over methods here (NYT, reg required).

The linked article above makes reference to a conference last November, which featured somewhat heated debate between Dawkins and others over the best way to present the atheist position. Unedited video and associated information about the conference is available here.
posted by modernnomad at 9:31 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I started a thread in the blue a while back that might help you out. At one point near the end of the conference (I think it's in session 8), Dawkins admits that he used "completely the wrong strategy" in The God Delusion when trying to sway theists away from theism.

In addition, Scott Atran's book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion may be what you're looking for--for an engagement with issues that Dawkins generally seems to be concerned with, see chapter 9, "The Trouble With Memes," and chapter 10.10, "Secular Science and Religion: Coexistence or a Zero-Sum Game?"
posted by Prospero at 9:35 AM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks. I'll yet clarify that I'm particularly interested in links where prominent "aggressive" atheists seriously address these criticisms, whether conceding or not. Seems like discussion in and of that conference is partially promising.
posted by Anything at 9:58 AM on February 23, 2007


I would like to think that he could have used that time to dig at the roots of the belief. Ask him ... if he ever contemplates the contradictions of what he preaches. Ask him if the global state of chaos and was is at all hypocritical with his religious system. Ask him how he reconciles those hypocrisies.

From what I've seen, Dawkins and other "bad cops of atheism" seem unlikely to do this, because these questions provide opportunities for dialogue, apologia, and understanding. Those things can be counterproductive to the goal of making religion look ridiculous and atheism demonstrably more virtuous. That's the goal, stated more or less in most of his interviews. He is also aware that he polarizes debate and makes things harder for friendly moderates of both theistic and atheistic stripes. See this Wired article/interview with him.

(on preview -- I don't know that he truly seriously addresses criticisms about his tactics in that or any other interview. He acknowledges his tactics are problematic for some, but the sense I get is either that he either beleives they'll bring him the results he's looking for, or he's in a "Here I stand; I can do no other" kind of position.)
posted by weston at 10:08 AM on February 23, 2007


Dawkins admits that he used "completely the wrong strategy" in The God Delusion when trying to sway theists away from theism

If that was his purpose, then I've lost a little respect for Dawkins. You can't dissuade theists from theism because theists don't use reason, they use "faith" (i.e. magical, wishful thinking that works without, even in the face of, evidence). The atheist activist's (first) real goal should be to persuade atheists that the fight is just and can be won.
posted by DU at 10:09 AM on February 23, 2007


Reg-free link to that NYT article.
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:41 AM on February 23, 2007


There's an excellent debate-by-email going on between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at BeliefNet. The debate is remarkably civil and respectful. I have no idea how many people would consider Sullivan a spokesperson for their Christianity, but I would describe Harris's approach as fairly orthodox, along Dawkins's lines, but much kinder and gentler.

I saw Dawkins at a public standing-room only talk this week at the local university. Hundreds of people were turned away, and we were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the entrance, like at a Who concert with festival seating. It was a general science talk, but he got in the usual jabs at creationists and current American government. In person he is the quintessential charming old-school scientist.

Dan Barker, a writer and minister turned atheist, has published online some of his debates with theologians. Obviously his prior life as a minister gives him certain ammunition that Dawkins or Harris might not have. Barker continues to receive royalties for Christian musicals he write while a minister, which is pretty funny.
posted by ldenneau at 10:43 AM on February 23, 2007


wrote.
posted by ldenneau at 10:44 AM on February 23, 2007


I'd check into Sam Harris's book Letter to a Christian Nation, or rent the movie The God Who Wasn't There, and be sure to watch the extended interviews (except the one with the Christian school leader--it goes nowhere.) These aren't dialogs between atheists arguing tactics so much as atheist/deists (Harris, Robert Price and Richard Carrier) discussing the direction from which they approach or method they use to dismantle fundamentalism or faith in general.
posted by tula at 10:48 AM on February 23, 2007


Oftentimes it is better to call a spade a spade. Atheists are not accorded any respect or kindness by an overwhelming majority of the religious. The best one can hope for is a patronizing tolerance.

Dawkins' reactions to the views of religious believers are the natural reactions of atheists. The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic faiths are particularly vulnerable to logic but the others are not far behind.

The sooner their stranglehold on people is broken the better. I do not expect any quick resolution of this matter but anybody who uses reason as a weapon (in an articulate and cogent manner) towards the fall of religion has my support.
posted by hellhammer at 11:45 AM on February 23, 2007


from many fellow atheists - is that many prominent critics are often counterproductively harsh, even cruel, in their attacks on religious beliefs.

Not exactly an answer, but as an atheist myself I have zero time for any of these people. And it's not because their methods are "harsh" or "cruel." it's because the entire idea of attacking religion itself gives atheists a bad name and is just plain stupid.

Should we criticize the anti-gay bigotry of certain Christians? Should we point out that the immense suffering caused by the anti-birth-control stance of the Catholic church? Absolutely.

But attacking religion itself is always going to be counterproductive. It's bigotry and, if you're American, completely counter to the intents of the Constitution.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:47 AM on February 23, 2007


[a few comments removed, this is NOT A PLACE TO DISCUSS LOL XIANS. take that to metatalk and answer the poster's question. thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:59 PM on February 23, 2007


« Older Why aren't other carnivore species intelligent?   |   Funny Jewish Memoir Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.