I'm late in on this one, I know. Forgive me; this week was not a good one to be flying out from the UK. Still, I just have to address this post from Matthew Nisbet. According to Nisbet, atheism isn't a civil rights issue; atheists in America just have a PR problem.
Well, I'm not going to get into the debate over what constitutes a civil rights issue, although I do think there are some cases where unfair discrimination has been clearly shown to exist (Ebonmuse has a good reply on that side of things). Instead, I'd like to comment on the PR problem itself.
I think it bears repeating that the original "PR problem" is hardly atheists' fault; religions are traditionally suspicious of outsiders, and atheism is about as 'outside' as you can get. Most of the myths that fundamentalists (and sometimes others) believe about atheism did not arise from the actions of any actual atheist.
Nisbet says that Dawkins and Harris are contributing to the atheist PR problem, presumably by being too strident. I'd be interested in the opinions of American theist commenters, there. If you've noticed the media attention to Dawkins and Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, how has it influenced your view of atheists? Do you think they are making it harder for atheism to be accepted by mainstream Americans?
I'd also like to say in defence of Dawkins et al that even if they are to some extent preaching to the choir, it's a choir that doesn't usually get preached to (for obvious reasons). I don't agree with everything they say (and, I confess, have yet to read a single one of their books), but -- well -- look at this. 59th minute, I'm sorry to say; it's in the question session when Richard Dawkins was reading at Randolph-Macon women's college in Lynchburg, Virginia. A woman asked "Is anger a common symptom of a person who is going through the deconditioning process from their parents religion?"
"I don't know," says Dawkins. There is a certain amount of laughter. "Um... ah... it had never occured to me. Um... does anybody else have personal... um...." More laughter. "Um, I -- I think, sort of, fear is probably more common, and I mean fear of -- of what their parents are going to think, rather than anger, but I could be wrong, um, I'm -- I'm interested in that. If that question is based on personal experience I'd be interested to hear more." Turning to the audience: "Is that a common experience?"
"Yes." From several voices.
"Wow." Dawkins has to check: "Anger on the part of the person who is undergoing the deconversion themselves?"
"Yeah." In chorus.
"Anger against whom, or what?"
A slight pause, then lots of voices, but it's the woman with the microphone who we can hear clearly: "The entire process, having all the clergy people and authority figures push this as a norm which was anathema to the trials of reason."
See? This is important. "Is it normal...?" Atheists have to be able to ask questions like that. They have to be able to come together, to feel they're not alone. And I get the distinct impression that in America that can be difficult. In raising the profile of atheism, Dawkins, Harris and others are doing important work, and I don't think the picture they paint is so negative as to negate that.
Nisbet's statement almost seems to imply that atheists should shut up and keep their heads down. If so, he's wrong. I'm right behind Dawkins' statement that atheists in America need to make themselves known. Not militantly, for the most part. N0t confrontationally unless confrontation is an unavoidable part of calmly stating ones atheism. But not apologetically, either. And in the public sphere, there's room for atheist criticism of religion. Writing books, giving speeches at which attendance is entirely optional, and appearing on TV are all fairly innocuous ways of presenting ones position, to my mind.
Just as long as we stop short of knocking on doors asking "Have you denied the holy spirit yet?" ;-)