Theist-Atheist Discourse: Some Thoughts on Victor Reppert’s Post

Victor Reppert and I have been having a productive and healthy exchange about the tone of theist-atheist discourse. If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to read his latest post on the topic.


Before commenting on his post, I want to provide a sort of “disclosure” statement about biases, similar to what you might find in a peer-reviewed medical journal article about a new drug. I am not a so-called ‘New Atheist.’ In fact, I don’t even care for that label, since I think there is literally nothing “new” about the “new atheism” from a philosophical perspective. I’ve only read one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins. While I was very impressed by his book The Blind Watchmaker when I first read it years ago, I was not impressed with his God Delusion. In fact, I’ve criticized his “Ultimate Boeing 747” argument for God’s nonexistence. I own Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, but I haven’t read it yet. I have not read any of Harris’s or Hitchens’s books.

Probably one of the things that does genuinely differentiate ‘New Atheists’ from other atheists (like myself) is their tone and their approach to activism. I agree with Dawkins that there is nothing wrong with questioning, challenging, debating, disputing, etc. religious beliefs. I probably disagree with Dawkins over when, where, and how to go about doing that. (I’ve publicly criticized atheists before when I thought their tone was out of line: see here, here, and here for examples.)

I also disagree with the goal of trying to condemn theistic belief as irrational, partly because I don’t think it is irrational and partly because I think that’s a counter-productive public relations strategy.As an atheist and an American, I am extremely grateful to live in the United States where the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion (or lack thereof) for all Americans, including minorities like me. That was a big motivator for me to join the U.S. Air Force; I took very seriously the saying, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I, for one, worry about religious zealots trying to take away the civil liberties of atheists like me; it would be horrible if ‘New Atheists’ were so offensive to the theistic majority that theists actually did strip away the rights of atheists.

Comments on Reppert’s Post

Let’s turn to Reppert’s post. He writes:

Jeff: I think the New Atheists are doing things which are a fundamental betrayal of the basic rules which must underlie all discourse concerning matters so serious as religion. It affects people like John Loftus, who has some interesting ideas, but invariably ruins the possibility of serious discourse with him by propagandistic tactics. A kind of atheist fanaticism is brewing, which makes undermines the very process which makes atheist-theist dialogue at all rewarding.  

I suspect he is probably correct that certain tactics do “ruin the possibility of serious discourse,” which is exactly why I have suggested that everyone examine what their goals how and then figure out the best way to achieve those goals.

I do not know if I agree with Reppert that “a kind of atheist fanaticism is brewing.” For example, I don’t think the New Atheists are worse than Madalyn Murray O’Hair; in fact, they are almost certainly better than that. More important, though, is that I think it’s an open question whether New Atheists are representative of atheists in general. I am not sure they are. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are representative of a majority of atheists who go to events like the Reason Rally, but in my experience most atheists are not “card-carrying atheists” who join atheist organizations and go to conferences.

Of course, since I am an atheist, I recognize that my assessment of the “brewing atheist fanaticism” risk may be very different from Reppert’s.

No, no, no, no, no, heavens no. This is a poison pill that is going to effectively wipe out serious and interesting exchange on religious subjects. It means that I can try to persuade you to believe as I do, and since my arguments are sooooo good, if you don’t buy them, then we have to use ridicule tactics on you. Defenders of each side have to do their best to make their case, it may persuade some, but not everyone, but that’s what argumentation is for. As Lewis says, argument has a life of its own, you follow the argument where it leads; there are aspects of the belief decision process that we may not be able to put on the table, and so we do our best and leave it at that. If we are Christians, we leave the rest in the hands of the Holy Spirit. If we engage in rational discourse concerning these matters of profound significance existentially, we make a commitment to the process of following the argument where it leads.

 I agree, which is why it is difficult for me to imagine scenarios where I, for one, would engage in mockery or ridicule of theistic beliefs. If I did, I would do it with the full awareness that I was ending the possibility of genuine dialogue.

It is, for example, very easy to come up with a description of evolution that makes it look stupid. I’ve heard it a million times. If I do that, and then let out a horse laugh, have I made an argument against evolution? Of course not. Distinguishing real absurdity from the appearance of absurdity generated by a tendentious description is part of what we need to do to learn how to think. Dawkins and those that follow him are so opposed to religion that getting peopel to reject religion is more important than being faithful to the process of rational discourse. The end justifies the means, even if that means isn’t really a rational process at all. Some of his statements make him sound like a schoolyard bully who will do anything to get what he wants, in this case, to turn people into atheists.

I think it is easy to show that if your goal is to get more people to become atheists, then ridicule and mockery is not the most effective way to achieve that goal. At least, that is the approach I have tried to take. Again, this is why I try to get people to think about what their goals are. I haven’t specifically talked about this with Dawkins, so I don’t claim to know what his response would be. It’s possible (though I think unlikely) that he would say that ridicule and mockery are his ends, not his means. A more likely explanation is that he either (a) believes ridicule and mockery are or can be an effective way to get people to reject religion, or (b) he has another goal and ridicule and mockery are a means to that ‘other’ end.

This seems to me to be caused by hatred. I understand the frustration he has experienced as an evolutionary bio

logist, (I’ve been told that all evolutionary biologists get a lot of hate mail from Christians), but that doesn’t make his tactics acceptable.

Is it caused by hatred? It could be. I don’t know. I do agree with Reppert that ridicule and mockery can often be quite rude.

Not only that, but when he calls raising a child in a religion child abuse and compares it to sexual abuse, he is implying that the government should have the right to interfere with this process, as the government does interfere when there is sexual abuse. This is something that undermines something that previous atheists have attempted to defend, and that is the separation of church and state.

I hadn’t even thought of it that way before, but I see Reppert’s point. I think calling “raising a child in a religion child abuse” is over the top. As for the idea that it is comparable to (or even worse than) sexual abuse, I think that’s absurd. One wonders if there are any atheists who’ve experienced sexual abuse who would agree with Dawkins on that point.

I don’t have any comments on the rest of his post. I do want to close with one final comment, which is that I think both theists and atheists have contributed to the situation. Bad behavior by some theists does not justify bad behavior by atheists. And I do think it’s appropriate to mention bad behavior by theists, as a reminder that both sides have contributed to the situation. I’ve complained about this before, but see here and here for examples. I’m also inclined to include the institutional bigotry of the Boy Scouts of America against atheists as another example: where is the outcry from theists against the BSA’s policy of discrimination against nontheists?