I want to continue this conversation. (I’m sorry if I seem to be hogging the blog with religious topics. I know a lot of our readers are more interested in discussions about anti-science, superstition, and various other skeptical topics but the other bloggers seem to be busy right now, and this is the topic that obsesses me.)
Matthew Nisbet has written an interesting post at scienceblogs called, Why the New Atheist Noise Machine Fails.
I disagree, first off, with Nisbet’s title for his article. I think the new atheist noise machine has been incredibly successful in raising awareness, providing solidarity to atheists who are often isolationists, and in supporting and encouraging closet atheists to come out. Those are worthy goals, often disparaged as “preaching to the choir,” as if that were always a waste of breath.
Now, onto the content of the piece.
Nisbet starts with this paragraph:
In provoking the emotions of fear and anger among non-believers, the Dawkins-Hitchens PR campaign motivates many atheists to be ever more vocal in attacking and complaining about religion. Yet does this PR campaign reach beyond the base, convincing Americans to give up their collective “delusions”? Or does it simply create further polarization in an already deeply divided America?
He closes his article by saying:
The Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign provides emotional sustenance and talking points for many atheists, but when it comes to selling the public on either non-belief or science, the campaign is likely to boomerang in disastrous ways.
It appears that Nisbet thinks that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are writing evangelical books that are meant to de-convert or communicate with the faithful. As I’ve said above (and many times before), I don’t think that’s their goal at all. Nor do I think it should be. I don’t think we should be trying to de-convert people. The part about fundamentalist-evangelical Christianity that I find most distasteful is the evangelical part, the need to try to make everyone think like you do and to follow your beliefs. If I find that trait distasteful in believers, I would find it equally distasteful in unbelievers. (I do, however, think we should try to get people to think.)
I also find it odd that no one complaining about aggressive atheist books ever takes note of the two books I’ve read that are, in large part, addressed to Christian audiences and that are written in entirely different voices and styles: Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli, and I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist’s Eyes by Hemant Mehta. These books are both very well written, friendly approaches to explaining what it’s like to be an atheist in a country (the US) with such a large Christian majority. They are not polemics, and they are not aggressive in any way. Why are they being ignored? Because people like to stir up dirt and controversy. That’s my guess for now, anyway. (Why aren’t these two books on the bestseller lists either? Probably for the same reason.)
So what does all this mean? Should I not speak up when I think irrationality is being used by my friends to make unhealthy or otherwise unwise decisions in their personal lives? Should I not speak up when irrationality is being used in politics to make unhealthy and unwise decisions that have much wider implications? Not at all. If I have a friend who is going to use an alternative medicine approach to an illness she has, if I think she will harm herself, I will certainly speak out and try to provide information for her that will be helpful. I would not say, for example, “Homeopathy is bullshit, go to a real doctor before you die.” Instead, I would try to get some objective information for her to read and I would discuss it with her, if possible. In the end, if she decided to go with the alternative medicine, I would not call her an idiot, but I would say something like “I am not sure that’s the best decision for your wellbeing, but it’s your body. My thoughts will be with you and I hope you recover quickly.”
In the political arena, a stronger voice is necessary, and debate is the common mode of communication, rather than dialog. I hate debates, so will stick to conversations myself. But the point is, when irrationality is used to make decisions in politics, it is not just one person making a decision for themselves. It is a decision that spreads out into the rest of our lives, and perhaps to the entire world.
In the rest of the piece, Nisbet talks about and quotes an interview with Carol Tavris on the Point of Inquiry podcast. I haven’t read the whole transcript or listened to the podcast yet, but I plan to and may continue this topic further after I’ve had time to digest it.
So, how do you talk to your friends and family members about these issues? And what is the appropriate way to act and speak out politically?