Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Proselytizing Atheists?

Among all the other topics that I find interesting, I often find myself drawn to articles that discuss faith, atheism and how both groups of people battle between finding common ground and disproving each other's views.

This is why I found today's article by Lauren Sandler of the Daily Beast so interesting. The article focuses on the rise in atheism (15% of people now claim to have "no religion") and those within the movement who wish to publicly express their views through advocacy campaigns. Whether it was the campaign in London that covered city buses with the message "There's probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life", or the recent softer message of "Are you good with no God?" that was present in New York City subways, it is clear that there are deep divisions within the Atheism community about, well, proselytizing.

Here is a clip from the article:

These two philosophies are fracturing organizations at the top of the atheist activism food chain. Consider the Center for Inquiry, atheism's top think tank and one of the groups behind New York’s “Good Without God” campaign. The Center’s founder, Paul Kurtz, one of humanism's eminences grises, preaches maximum tolerance. His life's aim, he told me, is to “make it so a person can be a nonbeliever in our society and be respected and accepted.” As such, he thinks it’s counterproductive to preach against religion. “You can't begin by calling people names,” says the 85-year-old Kurtz. “It's self-destructive to nonbelievers.” When Kurtz’s own organization supported international “Blasphemy Day” in September (a day dedicated to openly criticizing all things God), Kurtz wrote a column in Free Inquiry magazine, an atheist publication put out by the Center for Inquiry, comparing the day to “the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era.” He continued, “There are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention.”

One of Blasphemy Day's supporters was, in fact, Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry’s editor-in-chief and Kurtz's colleague at the Center. Flynn sees a loud, proud, and socially unacceptable atheism as the best chance to achieve Kurtz's declared goals. He also draws constructive parallels to the raucous gay-rights movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. “If you think back to deliberately outrageous activism like ACT UP and Queer Nation, somehow after 10 years, gay was mainstream,” he says. “There were gay characters on sitcoms. How did this happen? That brashness and outrageousness, it desensitized America. It got everybody over that taboo.”


In my own reporting on Evangelical America, I've had occasion to read more than a few books that make up the massive Christian publishing industry. Most tend to share a few common traits: self-deprecating humor, a sprinkling of pop-culture references, testimonial doubt, second-person interrogations. Epstein has adapted the same model for nonbelievers, though he suggested to me that such influences were unintentional. “I don't consider myself evangelical,” he says. “I'm not out here trying to win souls.” He is, however, trying to build a movement, and Good Without God instructs readers in just how to do that: how to talk to people about Humanism, how to hold meetings in your home, how to write effective flyers—in other words, how to build a religious movement that doesn’t include religion.

I think that Sandler gets at a very interesting point in that last sentence that I quote above. I also think that that last sentence is at the crux of what divides those within the atheist community. Asking oneself if it is merely enough to co-exist peacefully with those who believe in God, or if it should be the mission of Atheists to point out certain so-called "absurdities" in religion. If the latter is true and attempts are made to start building an Atheist movement, then the question must be asked how one can build a movement against religion without falling trap to some of the same practices that Atheists criticize about religion.

It is an interesting debate to read about and observe, the "loud and proud" strategy versus the more gradual "let's talk about Humanism" strategy.

One thing that is not debatable is that these issues are far from being settled.

1 comment:

trey said...

"how to build a religious movement that doesn't include religion" Unfortunately, this may be what the left has actually done. I contend that the central idea of the believers of a smoothly functioning,workable, multi-cultural, democratic society is in fact religious: that is, that for some reason the most awesome powers in the universe (what ever they may be) have arranged things in such a way that well functioning human societies are a natural phenomena. That peoples who spent millenia apart undergoing seperate evolutionary pressures somehow came out as basically identical except for minor superficial differences. Its a comforting thought, almost as comforting as the Biblical account of human origins. However, there is little emperical evidence to support it. I'm no professional scientist but all the evidence I've seen suggests there may be significant differences between different groups. Differences that would make well functioning democratic societies appear very difficult to achieve. But nevertheless, these professed adherents to scientific explanations for natural phenomenona would probably fight to the death anyone who suggested that these natural phenomena actually worked on humans also and that a wise man would probably be highly cautious about how much openness he believed possible in a prosperous society. Oddly enough, though you wouldn't know it by the most vocal on both sides, evolution is in fact much more in line with a conservative political philosophy than liberal, multi-culturalism.