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Friday, 6 July 2007

Atheist PR

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?" ;-)


Pseudonym said...

Atheists have to be able to ask questions like that. They have to be able to come together, to feel they're not alone.

I agree with that. However, I humbly submit that it's clear from the exchange on the video that not only is this not Dawkins' purpose, he doesn't even understand what the issues are.

It would be really nice to have a book of advice for the atheist who hasn't "come out" yet, but I doubt that it will come from Dawkins or Dennett.

Lynet said...

It's true that Dawkins doesn't have the experience to speak to atheist coming-out. He's been pushing the idea for years (e.g. his TED speech in 2002), but he never properly had to do it himself, not as atheists in some parts of the USA have to. So it's part of his purpose, but you're right that a book specifically aimed at atheists who have not yet come out would be nice, and I agree that the four high-profilers (DDHH) can't really do that one.

I also think, though, that unapologetic defences of atheism help that purpose along to some extent; I think it helps if you have a public voice.

Stentor said...

I don't think people have any business criticizing others for being too "strident" about religion if their religion was founded by a guy who went around saying "woe to the Pharisees!" and chasing people out of their temple.

Alon Levy said...

Coming together and sharing experiences is less useful than it sounds. It suffers from all the limitations of a feminist consciousness raising group, chief among which is that the participants aren't representative of anything except people who go to consciousness raising groups.

For example, consider one outlet I went to a few weeks ago where secularists came together, the Center for Inquiry. That was a campus activism training conference in a Buffalo suburb, and I don't doubt that the things people said about running a secularist campus group were true, or at least representative. But they're not representative of all American secularists or even nontheists (two different things - in the US, two thirds of nonreligious people are theists).

A big clue for that is the regional breakdown. There were few people from Northeastern universities, and even fewer who weren't from the Buffalo area. The region in the US which is friendliest to atheists produced the fewest participants, even though it hosted the conference. So it's very likely the participants weren't a random group of 70 nontheistic students in the US and Canada, but rather a random group of 70 of the most religiously oppressed or otherwise marginalized students.

L.L. Barkat said...

I admit I find it fascinating that atheists would want to develop some kind of group identity. I thought that this is perhaps part of the criticism of religion... too much group identity... which eventually eclipses the individual.

(And, even saying this, I have this odd little thought about what a Western perspective/fear this is... to be eclipsed as an individual... just a little side thought.)

Lynet said...

Alon and LL,

Good points, both -- though my opinion is simply that group consciousness can be taken too far, rather than that it should be avoided entirely. I wouldn't advocate losing ones consciousness to a consciousness-raising group.

So, Alon, yeah, coming together and sharing experience should be a small part of the development of ones understanding, supplemented by communicating with and trying to understand those outside ones group. The good that I'm trying to describe is simply that it can make a huge difference to think that, firstly, you're not alone, and secondly, that people like you can speak up. I'm not advocating community as a way of finding truth, just as a way of gaining courage in ones own truth. Yes community can work both ways there, and should not be entirely relied on. But it helps.

L.L. Barkat said...

So, I'm curious...

what might constitute group consciousness that's taken too far? In other words, what standards do we use to judge this by?

The Cob said...

Never been here before but I wanted to tell you I liked the post. Lots of good questions and thought in your post. I'll be back.

Lynet said...




I think there's always a tradeoff between the strength we gain from belonging, and the loss of judgement and/or self that can result. In the end, I guess it comes down to doing your best and deciding for yourself how to deal with the conflict between the two.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Arghh! I just wrote you a very long comment - in word no less - and lost it anyway.

Can you please put what you are trying to say in statistical terms for me? It sounds to me as though you are saying such a group for atheists would have such a skewed population that the variance would likey be unequal - invalidating the median or mean as a representative position (loss of personal identity)

Lynet said...

Halfmom, truthfulness requires me to point out that atheists do have group feeling and are swayed by it. We value thinking for ourselves but that doesn't mean we always succeed at it.

And I don't remember what I said originally, and I didn't think I was saying what I seem to be supposed to be saying, and . . . I'm trying to figure out whether I should try to figure out what my point actually was. I suspect it was more about what atheists aim for and less about what we actually achieve.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

But that would just seem to make them "people" not necessarily atheists. It does not seem logical that you are saying that only atheists think for themselves and the evangelicals can only function within a "group" mentality - for that seems to be contrary to your apparent character. I think, perhaps, what I am suggesting is that within a given group of "evangelicals", the mean and median may be closer together than in some other affinity groups - but that does not necessarily invalidate any individuals views - it just means that, given the data, we came to the same conclusions individually.

Hope this makes sense - because it seems to me that mathematically, there should be some meaning in the differences between groups versus those within groups when the general group identity has come about through individual choice (as opposed to brain washing - cults like Waco, not counting in my book as anything individual at all)

Lynet said...

It does not seem logical that you are saying that only atheists think for themselves and the evangelicals can only function within a "group" mentality

What confuses me about this discussion is that this post says nothing about atheists thinking for themselves at all! So we're discussing something that I'm supposed to have said elsewhere as introduced in LL's comment. Unfortunately I'm not sure exactly what that thing is or what point I was supposed to have been making.

You're right, though -- I wouldn't make such an absurd generalisation. At least, I certainly hope I wouldn't! I don't pretend to be an expert on how evangelicals think. Especially not American evangelicals. I'm a New Zealander. So you're asking me to comment on something that I have very little experience of. I'll take the plunge; forgive me if I say something which you know to be false. I trust you will think critically about my remarks :-)

I think, perhaps, what I am suggesting is that within a given group of "evangelicals", the mean and median may be closer together than in some other affinity groups - but that does not necessarily invalidate any individuals views - it just means that, given the data, we came to the same conclusions individually.

An intelligent comment; there are two things I would like to point out, though. Firstly, I don't think you can apply that sort of reasoning to children who have been brought up in an evangelical faith. They didn't come to such conclusions individually at all; rather, they were told that if they didn't believe certain things, they'd go to hell.

Adults who choose an evangelical church may well have done some individual thinking in order to get there, and yes, clustering of opinions within the group such as you describe does not per se invalidate any such thinking. However, I would argue that religion pretty much always contains within it aspects which try to limit critical thinking (any religion which places emphasis on 'faith', for instance, would fall into that category). The strong clustering of opinion which may well exist in evangelical groups surely has its roots in unfavourable rhetoric directed against those who disagree, and threats of hellfire, and the way beliefs can be strengthened when held by those around you and weakened when disagreed with -- particularly when there is very little evidence to provide an alternative source of strength in your belief.

Since I think that the idea that there is no God is well supported by the human experience to date, naturally I would expect those who think for themselves in something approximating an objective fashion to be much more likely to be atheists. The question of how many of those who are atheists are so because they have genuinely thought things through for themselves is a different one, and one that I am not qualified to answer. However, atheism does at least have the advantage that almost all atheists at least pay lip service to the value of critical thinking, and would not exhort us to have faith for the sake of faith.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Several points:

1)Isn’t it funny the way a “conversation” evolves over the course of comments and posts? Sometimes it seems to take a life of it’s own. That, in and of itself, always fascinates me.
2)Even children raised in evangelical homes and taught an evangelical faith must, at some point, decide if they believe any of what they have been taught. At that point, they must decide for themselves what they believe to be true and how it will be lived out in their own lives. If not, they are very hollow indeed – and, as you know, hollow structures have little strenghth when under pressure. It becomes quite evident as they grow what their real beliefs are because real belief is lived out in action.
3)By definition, an evangelical faith is based on an individual relationship with Jesus Christ, and that by your own choice, not one that can even possibly be made for you.
4)To be evangelical, to have faith and function on the basis of said faith, does not at all rule out critical thought. In fact, if you sit down on a chair, you do so with the faith that the chair will hold you up, yes? You come to this faith by experience with this chair or other chairs, or even seeing others interact with chairs. In this instance, faith is simply the outcome of observation coupled with critical thinking and analysis. While there is a chance your faith is misplaced and the chair you sit upon will actually collapse, the fault is not in your logic or critical thinking – it is in the object of your faith. So, I would suggest rather, that what matters is the character or veracity of the object of your faith and therein lies your argument, not with the actual ability or quality of critical thinking in the evangelical community.
5)“there is very little evidence to provide an alternative source of strength in your belief” I would argue that there is great evidence that the object of my faith is indeed going to “hold me up”, for the character of my God (I will use phrase as it hopefully is less offensive to you as you do not believe one exists) never changes. I see evidence of His existence everywhere and evidence of His faithfulness and strength in my own life and in the lives of others, just as I can see whether I think that a given chair will hold me up.
6)” Since I think that the idea that there is no God is well supported by the human experience to date, naturally I would expect those who think for themselves in something approximating an objective fashion to be much more likely to be atheists.” Again, I would contend that the evidence that there is a God who intervenes in human life is very strong, and would therefore hyposthesize that you simply have not been able, for whatever reason, to see it yet. My faith is based on the evidence of my life, on what I have seen, what I have tested and found to be true. It is also based on the history of others, both current and past, who bear witness to the same truth – that there is a God who does love and care for you whether you acknowledge His existence or not.
7)I greatly appreciate your willingness to converse with a stranger at such great length. It is clear that you are willing to take into consideration the viewpoints of others and to think about them as well as to take the time to clearly phrase your own. I find this quality of great value in one seeking to understand any system and how it works – of course, I am a nerd professor, so I would find such a student a great treasure.

Lynet said...

I am happy to be conversing with a nerd professor. Nerds forever!

If you say the chair will hold you, and I say it won't, we can test that, right?

But if you say there's evidence for God 'everywhere', and I say you're just pasting an interpretation that includes God onto a world that demands no such interpretation, how do we test that?

Furthermore, what if Muslims say there is evidence for Allah 'everywhere'? Is that evidence for their view of God or yours? How do we determine exactly how much that evidence can tell you?

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Good questions - and I have two comments (I know - a short answer - gasp - but I am writing a grant afterall and am at brain burnout point)

1) I can only tell you what I know to be true - and in the words of a famous bible character whom Jesus healed from life-long blindness, "who this man is I do not know; all I know is that I was blind and now I see." So, a significant part of my evidence is testimonial and therefore suspect because it cannot be reproducibly tested - however, I can tell you for sure - I know who I was before I met Christ personally and who I am now - and can verify that I was blind and now I see
2) the second comment is that you have to deal with what Jesus actually said about Himself whereas the chair cannot offer such testimony. He said He was God - and so, I think that gives us three choices - He was either a total lunatic of the schizo variety, a total liar - or indeed God.

Lynet said...

How about a partial lunatic? A partial liar? A legend?

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

No, and no again. A god who is only God sometimes is no god at all. Either He is who He said he was or not - and if not, none of it really matters anyway; if He is - then He is creator of all, deserving of all our devotion, love and obedience - of this I am sure. Though totally man, He was also totally God and again, we are back to the issue of the true character of the object of faith - and God cannot lie, nor cease to be faithful. So, no partial truth, no self-delusion, no scheme of man to make Him appear other than as He was.

But, the path to that surity is by grace through the channel of faith and those are gifts only He gives; we cannot even do that much for ourselves - and this is where the mystery comes in.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins is really not qualified to talk much about the United States. After reading his book, The God Delusion, it became clear to me that the American evangelical psyche is a mystery to him. He culturally just doesn't get the US and its more evangelical version of Christianity. This is important because many of the examples he uses for Christianity in his books are based on Anglicanism and The Roman Catholic Church....denominations that are much less responsible for America's religious flavor. When he does use American examples, they are always the most fringe individuals that have no actual influence in mainstream American Christianity

So, when he comments on how America responds to atheism and the interplay with Christianity, I would disregard most of what he has to say.

L.L. Barkat said...

Lynet, wow! I left for a few days, and now look at all this. You and Halfmom have been having a most engaging conversation. I guess the idea of atheists not thinking for themselves is something that just grew out of the question about group identity?

Always a danger once a person begins to come together with others.

Ah, but you and Halfmom have had the conversation already. I'm just here to say I was quite entertained (I find such discussions entertaining... what can I say?)