Open letter to Michael Shermer in response to his letter...
Michael Shermer recently wrote an article for Sciam which covers the same issues he spoke about while on our show.
Here is the full original article:
These two blogs offer an opinion that I align myself with...
Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad. Among many metrics available to track this skeptical movement is the ascension of four books to the august heights of the New York Times best-seller list—Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Hachette Book Group, 2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)—that together, in Dawkins’s always poignant prose, “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled.” Amen, brother.
Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.
I don’t see the link here. We should be cautious about irrational exuberance whether it is irrational exuberance by being too extreme or likewise… irrational exuberance about being too passive. I don’t see how you’ve shown that the authors listed have ever reached an irrational exuberance. As you noted on our show you wrote a positive review of The God Delusion, consider Sam Harris a friend, and liked Hitchens book, you just take a different approach then they do. In fact I was surprised to hear you wrote a letter like this considering your recent appearance on our show where it sure seemed like you found quite a bit that you approve of in what we and the authors listed have done.
As we seemed to agree on that show, atheist diversity is acceptable and some will be more passive than others. People like Harris, Dawkins, and we here at the Rational Response Squad understand why someone would want to put a positive foot toward science as opposed to a negative foot toward religion when approaching life. Some people prefer this world outlook so much so that they’ll always be like this. They may even live their entire life without being confrontational towards religious people or its concepts. I understand those people exist, can respect that, and think those people are important. In fact I wish I had it in me to be that type of person. People like Dawkins, Harris, and those close to me simply have a hard time thinking like that. We think we must speak up so that several generations from now our great great grandchildren don’t have to.
I personally was one of these “respectful atheists” for a while. After 8 years of discussing religion online and 8 years of the Christian right gaining power I realized a different approach may be crucial to save our country from the interferences of religion in government. Unfortunately it seems that since our religious population tends to elect leaders that are religious or biased towards religion affecting change at the government level hasn’t always been successful. It would seem then that another approach would in fact be to affect the people, the people who vote. While I very much support the extremely crucial litigious sort of work that several major atheist orgs do, I see changing the hearts and minds of the people as another way to cut off the beasts head. Changing the hearts and minds of the people will occur via a multi pronged approach. Some will best be served by becoming curious and picking up a copy of skeptic magazine. They may find breaking the chains of religion to be calming and enlightening through your magazine. However not everyone operates in this manner. Some people don’t realize there is a reason to rethink questions like God when you pass the age of reason, they’ve been taught to embrace based on faith, and therefore critical examination hasn’t crossed their mind on the issue. A case could be made that the authors listed above were the catalyst for a great many confused people that had no clue that they should turn on their thinking skills and abandon irrational god belief in order to find their solace in life. Different strokes for different folks. We respect that some people will be positively affected by a simply scientific approach and I think we all hope that you, Greg Epstein, and those that align their beliefs with yours find reasons to respect our blunt and yet honest approach. After all if it wasn’t for us (and the authors listed) there would be a lot less attention for the community at large. As Brian Flemming noted in his blog during Epstein Gate, it’s in poor form when atheists receive a platform from blunt talkers like Harris and then use their platform to talk down about his methods.
In response to your bullet points
1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.
I’d bet a few dollars that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett (why is Dennett even part of this list?) would all agree with your first point. I can find positive views of the world and how to live it from all four of the aforementioned gentleman. All of the men listed are well known for holding critical thought and reason on a pedestal. To infer that their movement is simply “anti-something” (I don’t even believe this is a “movement”) is to not know much about what the men listed are trying to accomplish. I am sorry to note but feel compelled to note that the view that this “movement” is simply “anti-something” by itself is a view typically held by those with such hate and vitriol for us that they prefer to hold a delusional outlook of our position in an attempt to impugn our character and efforts.
2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested…
You’ve included a man nicknamed Darwins Rotweiller on your list of “new atheists,” there is certainly much championing of science and evolution from the crew listed. We make tons of positive assertions. For the most part we all agree and assert that “faith is irrational as a means for determining beliefs that are logical to hold” would you agree? It seems awfully odd that this is a point on the list, as I contemplate which positive assertions to list I realize that the list is hundreds of thousands of assertions long, that maybe you’re just not inclined to see it that way, and that maybe I shouldn’t even bother listing any (as I know that you’re already very familiar with their work). Should you seriously not be able to find any positive assertions for science and reason from the works of books listed and from the efforts of groups like mine, I can provide a small list upon request.
3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people’s consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in “The Burden of Skepticism,” a 1987 lecture, “You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it.”
While Sagan was an amazing man, other amazing men have said otherwise. Isn’t it possible that there is rational middle grounds… can you see how a diverse approach from a diverse group can be rational? Engaging in ridicule doesn’t make one irrational if they’ve come to conclude that the person they’re speaking with has become semi-impenetrable to reason. Sometimes people need a reality check and sometimes condescension is just what one needs to kick them into gear.
Sam Harris brought up a good example in a truthdig interview…
“I think this is a war of ideas that has to be fought on a hundred fronts at once. There’s not one piece that is going to trump all others.
But I think we should not underestimate the power of embarrassment. The book Freakonomics briefly discusses the way the Ku Klux Klan lost its subscribers, and the example is instructive. A man named Stetson Kennedy, almost single-handedly it seems, eroded the prestige of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s by joining them and then leaking all of their secret passwords and goofy lingo to the people who were writing “The Adventures of Superman” radio show. Week after week, there were episodes of Superman fighting the Klan, and the real Klan’s mumbo jumbo was put out all over the airwaves for people to laugh at. Kids were playing Superman vs. the Klan on their front lawns. The Klan was humiliated by this, and was made to look foolish; and we went from a world in which the Klan was a legitimate organization with tens of millions of members—many of whom were senators, and even one president—to a world in which there are now something like 5,000 Klansmen. It’s basically a defunct organization.
So public embarrassment is one principle. Once you lift the taboo around criticizing faith and demand that people start talking sense, then the capacity for making religious certitude look stupid will be exploited, and we’ll start laughing at people who believe the things that the Tom DeLays, the Pat Robertsons of the world believe. We’ll laugh at them in a way that will be synonymous with excluding them from our halls of power.”
Again, why is Daniel Dennett on this list?
4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest consciousness raiser of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.
I speak up because I see a travesty on our planet. I see a society with tons of promise and hope but its being hindered. The science that we hold near and dear is under attack, it’s happened before (see: burning of Alexandria Library). At this moment in time it’s important for us to call a spade a spade. Those who have a belief in a god are not able to logically, philosophically, or scientifically defend their view. We know that faith is not a valid means of determining the existence of anything, and we should be pointing this out… this is science! If I held a belief that I couldn’t prove you can bet your life fortune that I’d want someone to call me out on it. I don’t care if they’re calling me out on it with all the kindness they can muster or all the hatred they can spew. I want to be called out on claims that I make illogically and I want to live in a world where it’s ok and normal for us to do this all the time. So when you speak of the golden rule, keep in mind that from what I know of myself and all of the authors mentioned we are in fact acting exactly as we would want others to act towards us.
My last problem with this point is your first three points. You’ve implied or inferred inaccurately that that “new atheists” or the authors listed, or whoever you’re referring to are simply anti something, don’t embrace science, don’t make assertions, and aren’t rational… which to me is either one big “prejudgment” or one incredibly jaded and vacuous view of the position of those listed.
5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.
But religion does threaten science it does threaten our freedom, it has for a great many years, as illustrated in each of the books from the authors you’ve listed. You said you read their books, right? This last point of yours seems like you’ve given us an open pass. You say as long as it doesn’t threaten science and freedom we should be respectful, but since it does threaten science and freedom one could infer that you think we can be disrespectful.
On the issue at hand… we noted in our podcast with you, we promote freedom of disbelief, I believe to some extent all of the authors you mentioned do as well, and inferring that they don’t is a gross mischaracterization of their position.
As King, in addition, noted: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.
I agree with King. Through scientific understanding some day hopefully the majority of the planet will understand how in fact we are all connected, and that there is actual proof for the claim that we’re all related. We care for the future of humanity and all humanity and that is why we speak up, not because we’re Nazis, fascists, freedom haters, racist, or prejudice. I hate to have to point it out yet again, but inferring any of those negative stigmas again is a gross mischaracterization of the authors positions and an opinion typically held by those deluding themselves to reinforce theistic self delusions.
A Rational Atheist,