As several prominent atheists have now criticized the speech I gave at the Atheist Alliance conference in DC—without, apparently, understanding it—I thought I would take a moment to clarify the point I was making about the use of the term “atheist.”
Is it really possible that PZ Myers and Ellen Johnson think I was recommending that we stop publicly criticizing religion or that I am hiding my own atheism out of “shame and fear”? I would not have thought such a misreading was possible, given the contents of my speech and my rather incessant criticism of religion in my books, articles, and lectures.
My point, with respect to the term “atheist” (or any other), is that the use of a label invites a variety of misunderstandings that are harmful to our cause. There are many people in this country who do not believe in God and who understand that there is conflict between science and religion, but who do not feel the slightest inclination to join an atheist group or to label themselves in opposition to religion. These people are “atheists” by any measure, but you will never meet them at one of our conventions. They have read the writings of the “new atheists,” sent us letters and emails of support, are quite fond of criticizing religion whenever the opportunity arises, but they have no interest whatsoever in joining a cult of such critics. And there is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety.
Here is a way of separating my position from those of my fellow atheists who insist that there is power in a label. Let’s call it the “press conference test”:
Imagine President Bush announcing his veto of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research at a White House press conference. A reporter for a major television network can ask one of the following questions. Which would you choose to best strike a blow against religious ignorance in this country?
1. Mr. President, what rational basis is there to worry about the fate of three-day-old human embryos? These embryos do not have nerve cells, much less the nervous systems they would need to suffer their destruction on any level. Your veto, frankly, seems insane to any educated person, and it is painfully obvious that it was the product of religious metaphysics and superstition—not science or morality. Do you ever worry that you may be dangerously misled by your religious beliefs? What can you say to the tens of millions of Americans whose suffering will be needlessly prolonged by your faith-based thinking?
2. Mr. President, as an atheist, let me ask what rational basis is there to worry about the fate of three-day-old human embryos? These embryos don’t have nerve cells, much less the nervous systems they would need to suffer their destruction on any level. Your veto, frankly, seems insane to millions of atheists in this country, and it is painfully obvious that it was the product of religious metaphysics and superstition—not science or morality. Do you ever worry that you are failing to represent the interests of millions of atheists who also vote, or that you may be dangerously misled by your religious beliefs? What can you say to the tens of millions of Americans whose suffering will be needlessly prolonged by your faith-based thinking?
Which question would you like to see asked on the evening news? To my mind, (1) is clearly better than (2). Much better. And yet, many atheists are behaving as though they prefer (2). They seem to believe that our goal, as advocates of reason, will be best served by our using the term “atheist” without concern for its associations, thereby removing its stigma. They believe that announcing ourselves as a constituency in increasingly visible ways is the best strategy for success. Well, all I can say is that question (1) would probably have the support of 200 million Americans today. Question (2), while virtually identical in content, would likely alienate 180 million of these people. What is more, if we ever succeed in marginalizing beliefs in invisible gods and magic books, question (2) will seem utterly anachronistic.
So pick your strategy.