Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What a good little atheist you've been!

Susan Jacoby says, in her new Washington Post column (or is it a blog? what's the difference anymore?) called The Spirited Atheist:

I was somewhat taken aback recently when I found myself on a list of "kinder, gentler atheists"--most of them women--compiled by a religious historian attempting to distinguish between socially acceptable atheism and the presumably mean, hard-line atheism expounded by such demonic figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. This nasty versus nice dichotomy is wholly an invention of believers who are under the mistaken impression that atheism is a religion in need of a good schism. ...

Pleased as I was to find myself on a list in the company of such other spirited atheists as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the witty, recently published "36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction," and Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of "Doubt: A History" (2003), it is nevertheless slightly insulting to find your name used not only to place female atheists in a special category but as a foil for a mythical enemy known as the New Atheists. The latter consist, in [the author, Stephen] Prothero's view, mainly of Angry White Men who believe that all religious people are stupid and that "the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison."
Here's the article she's talking about, in which Prothero extensively criticizes the anti-religion writings of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett without deigning to summarize any of their actual ideas. This has become the norm in critiques of the "new atheists": don't bother to engage with what they've written; simply declare that they've gone horribly awry and hope that your readers trust this conclusion. (I've complained about this before; see point #4 in this blog post about David Brooks.)

Meanwhile, Prothero describes a female atheist's presentation at a recent atheist conference as down-to-earth, emotional, and maternal (I don't even like referring to her as "a female atheist" rather than just "an atheist" or "Amanda Gulledge," but Prothero focuses on her gender as if it were her defining characteristic):
Amanda Gulledge is a self-described "Alabama mom" who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the "natural goodness" of her two sons who somehow manage to be moral without believing in God or everlasting punishment. But the key turn in her talk, and in the event itself, came when Gulledge mentioned, in passing, how some neighborhood children refuse to play with her sons because they have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior.
I do admire Prothero's article for drawing attention to how a softer, more anecdotal approach to critiquing religion has advantages over the more rationalistic, scientific approach of someone like Dawkins. That is a point worth making. But I'd like to see more focus on the commentators' actual words and ideas rather than their demographics. Framing the debate in terms of gender is probably a good way to drive more web traffic to an article like this, but we should be wary of attempts to reduce the atheist movement to conveniently PC gender stereotypes.

Finally, I feel compelled to point out that Prothero repeatedly criticizes Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins/Dennett for being not just men but white men. While he at least analyzes the gender angle, he doesn't bother to explain why the race of those writers is supposed to be a problem. (He doesn't clarify if any of the atheists who do earn his seal of approval are non-white.) It's as if we're supposed to smirk and nod in knowing recognition of how silly those "angry white men" are for being so white and so male. This kind of critique should not be an accepted part of the public discourse, but that's a subject for another post. [UPDATE: Here you go.]


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Purely in my opinion, there's a valid difference in the way we perceive the hard-line atheists and the kinder, gentler atheists, and its *not* in their ideas but in their attitudes toward those who don't share their ideas. The Dawkins-style atheists are so intolerent and arrogant, with such a sense of superiority and in many cases such a narrow understanding of what religion is, that they cross the line from science into fanaticism. Yes, all atheists disbelieve in the divine, but that's not the point of the criticisms against some of them.

The racial makeup of the vocal atheists is not accidental or irrelevant. Black people on the whole have a very different experience of religion than Northern European whites. The view that religion has had a historically negative influence makes little sense in the context of the black experience.

John Althouse Cohen said...

The racial makeup of the vocal atheists is not accidental or irrelevant. Black people on the whole have a very different experience of religion than Northern European whites.

Just to be clear about my last paragraph, I wouldn't necessarily have a problem with that kind of analysis, if it had appeared in the article. I'm not saying race is irrelevant. My problem with Prothero's particular invocation of race is that it's done only in passing, as if the mere mention of the whiteness of the people he's criticizing is so devastating that no elaboration is needed.

The view that religion has had a historically negative influence makes little sense in the context of the black experience.

I think you mean that blacks have additional reasons to view religion as historically having a positive historical influence. That doesn't mean blacks are unable to make sense of the idea that religion has had negative historical influences. We shouldn't assume that blacks care only about themselves, or that they're necessarily unmoved by any arguments of any of the "new atheists." For instance, Sam Harris criticizes the Catholic church as complicit in the Holocaust, but you wouldn't say that this argument doesn't make sense to gentiles. Many writers criticize religions as patriarchal; men as well as women are able to appreciate this argument. And so on.

Anyway, even if the discussion is just restricted to the black American experience, is it true that there are no black atheists who feel that, on the whole, Christianity has offered false hope to blacks and done more harm than good? I don't know. I don't know of enough black atheists to have an opinion on this question. But I wouldn't rule out that a black person could have this perspective. Hm, I just did a quick Google search and found this example.