“New Atheists” may chafe, but that doesn’t make calmer approaches to fundamentalism effective

Yesterday, TIME’s online edition ran a column jointly created by three fellows who purported to have a new answer to combating Islamic fundamentalism. They invoked the annoying term “New Atheist” a lot, and while they acknowledged that the stridency of some of the highly visible contemporary atheists has its place in productive discourse, in their view it would be preferable to approach would-be jihadists in a gentler, more diplomatic way.

I was immediately skeptical of this for reasons I will get to even though they are probably obvious to many of you, but I kept reading to see what this novel and apparently magical strategy appealing to jihadists’ kinder sides would consist of.

And then the column ended.

So, that was it. A pure puff piece, vacuous palaver that can be reduced to “It’s OK to for atheists to say what they’re saying, they just need to be nicer about it” with no loss of content.

First, do the authors really think this is a novel idea? That bloggers by the dozens haven’t been imploring Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers and others to tone it down for at least a dozen years now? Exactly how long was their shared vacation on a faraway planet?

Second, there’s this:

“The condescending speech of New Atheists — calling religious people delusional, for example — is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change.”

OK, so what do they suggest instead? Details, please. And does that mean these guys would take umbrage at my calling *them* delusional for harboring the idea that playing nice with religious extremists is an effective strategy?

The writers’ staggeringly inane embracing of passivism can be applied to other loopy and destructive beliefs as well. For example:

  • Don’t take climate-change deniers to task by throwing facts and data at their dishonest and ignorant blog posts. Just give it time, and their basements will flood and they’ll get bad sunburns and they’ll eventually acknowledge the truth without pesky scientists getting all in their faces.
  • Forget about arguing with anti-vaccine crazies. Let them believe what they want for now, because after enough of their children become seriously ill or even die from preventable diseases, they’ll reach the right conclusions on their own.
  • Enough with this New Evolutionism, wherein we mock things like the Creation “Museum” and buttress our unwelcome refutations of creationism with cold facts and evidence. Tens of thousands of years from now, creationists will have an epiphany and realize that a lot of animal species look markedly different than their 21st-century forbears. No more maligning Darwin — *poof*!

Get a clue, fellas. Saying that your strategy won’t work is not a proposition; it’s a claim backed up by empirical evidence. Sure, going over the top like PZ often does pisses the fundies off and arguably amounts to self-indulgent cruel sport in some instances, but as Hemant Mehta wrote about this on his blog “The Friendly Atheist,” there’s no way to tell people they’re wrong about something woven deep into their sense of identity that’s going to make them want to be friends with you.

Bear in mind, too, that the authors of this column aren’t talking about ways to disabuse everyday religious folks of silly ideas. They are basically talking about the Holy Grail of godless outreach — convincing those with the strongest religious convictions on Earth to relinquish those convictions.

In my experience, even religious moderates are no more likely to relinquish their beliefs or give an inch of ground than religious extremists are. They’re merely far more likely to treat atheistic exhortations civilly.

And what is a “moderate,” anyway? We tend to reward theists who are not actively murderous or publicly agitating against same-sex marriage by calling them moderates. Sorry, but there is nothing inherently moderate about believing that people can get up and do the Mashed Potato after lying dead for three days, or that there’s a god who gives a rat’s ass what we do with our genitals, or that heaven and hell are actual places, or that there are deities who not only hear prayers but respond to them. All of that stuff is irrationality writ large, and the only reason we don’t get to classify even this brand of believer as clinically delusional is because he or she is protected by tradition and sheer numbers.

In truth, it’s likely that the best way to win over religious extremists — insofar as this ever works to any extent — and get them to challenge their beliefs is to be forceful without getting overly personal, like Hemant does. He manages to blend a fair amount of snark (*friendly* snark, of course) with rhetoric that doesn’t come close to being intentionally hurtful and never maligns anyone’s intelligence. It’s not that hard, from a stylistic sense, to take dead aim at a given religion without tearing into the followers personally.

The problem for many of us is that it’s just too damn tempting to go the personal-attack route, especially when theists are doing the same. When I see some hillbilly football coach wondering aloud why atheists are even allowed to roam free in society, my first instinct is not to reason pleasantly with him. It’s to impugn not only his intelligence, but his accent, his literacy level, and other things best left out of ostensibly productive conversation.

All of the foregoing has me regarding the TIME column with something resembling incredulity. I can’t talk my friendly and non-combative religious friends out of the idea of “sin” and notions of going to Hell for thought crimes, yet I’m supposed to be able to convince jihadists to abandon their whole world view by smiling winningly at them and saying, “Fellas, can we just agree to think about the whole ‘Allah’ thing a little more?”


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