Jerry Coyne has a nice comment over here on this article by Mark Oppenheimer, entitled "Atheists Debate How Pushy To Be", which covers the recent Council for Secular Humanism conference in Los Angeles. Here's Oppenheimer's spin on the whole thing:
They agreed on two things: People can be good without religion, and religion has too much influence. But they disagreed about how stridently to make those claims.
Well, Oppenheimer is on to something here. Publicly forthright atheists currently seem to be locked in a debate about what it is smart, or nice, or effective to say - where "effective" may depend on your chosen goals. I think that this debate is something of a distraction, and I wish we could avoid it, but I don't think it's possible. So, against my wishes, I find myself involved in it. I'm currently running a series of posts (more in the series to come soon) commenting on Philip Kitcher's views, since these seem to provide the best critique so far of the "New Atheism" - perhaps not surprisingly since they come from someone who could almost be classified as a "New Atheist" himself but has a slightly different agenda from, say, Richard Dawkins. In the upshot, I'll doubtless keep blogging about this issue: I think it's necessary to talk about it, even though it's not my favourite topic at all.
Although there are a couple of snide comments, such as the comparison between atheists and Star Trek fans, which tends to poke fun at both, the Oppenheimer article is generally pretty good in the sense of being fairly straight reportage. The bit at the end, quoted by Jerry, is well worthwhile, so I'll also quote some of it:
“I’m not ‘out’ at my workplace,” said the woman, Claire, a 27-year-old arts administrator who asked that her last name not be used. “Because most people think atheists have no morals, I could damage the organization if I’m honest about where I stand on the issue,” she said.
Mr. Myers and other “confrontationalists” surely do alienate some potential Christian allies. But they may also give comfort to people like Claire, who feel like an invisible minority. Mr. Myers is way out of the closet as an atheist — proudly, outrageously so. We’re here, he’s saying. And we don’t believe. And we have science and reason on our side. Get used to it.
Yes, good. My only caveat about this (and Jerry's comment) is that it's a very American perspective - as is Chris Mooney's perspective of, "Don't frighten the religious demographic."
Even in countries such as Australia and those of Europe, which are far more secular than the United States, there is some point in standing up to challenge the epistemic, moral, and political authority of religion. Kitcher's analysis may be helpful to us with this. In these more secular countries, the percentage of out-and-out religious believers, in Kitcher's sense, may be quite low. Most people may fall into his secular, mythically self-conscious, and doctrinally indefinite groups. Nonetheless, many of them may tend to cede a certain degree of moral authority to religious leaders. Even when they putting arguments that have been given secular "translations", religious leaders are accorded a degree of deference, as if they are moral experts. Quite weak arguments can gain a, well, halo effect if put by people who are accorded moral authority.
It's worth reminding people that religious leaders are not moral experts. When we point this out, we may not cut much ice with Kitcher's religious believers - the people who really do base their goals, values, and so on, on supernatural doctrines. But we may well cut some ice with people in the other categories, who may instinctively accord more authority to religious leaders than is really justified.
Kitcher thinks - as I'll get to in a later post - that we have reasons not to engage in breaking spells, debunking delusions, and so on at all costs. Perhaps. That thought may give us some guidance about when to refrain from mockery and satire. But this cuts both ways. Many people who fall into the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally indefinite camps may be quite happy to be reminded, even through satire, that religious leaders don't have the kind of authority they so often claim. Even setting aside the special situation of the US, where various unusual circumstances apply, a more sophisticated awareness of the range of religious belief may well encourage us to fine-tune our approach, but not in all cases by turning the dial in the direction of being softer on religion.