Over at Framing Science, they've been posting a bunch about how the New Atheists (led by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and to a lesser extent Stenger) are shooting themselves in the foot. As part of this group who sees himself as an antibody in the inoculation against further religious fundamentalist infection, I am keen to understand the objections. Basically, it comes down to us being too shrill. Informing people that they are deluded or mistaken about some of their key beliefs about the nature of the universe will get us nowhere because people quickly become offended, cognitive dissonance kicks in and they opt for the most comfortable position which is generally their squishy religious beliefs. I buy the argument. People like comfort in all forms, whether it's the culturally sanctioned Sunday morning seat in the pew to hear an unmarried man tell us about the roles of men and women in marriage or a few too many donuts to fatten us up before winter.
But I digress...
Framing Science has a little catalog of their recent posts on the New Atheism. I've perused some of it and find a fair bit convincing, troubling because it concedes too much, and troubling because it seeks to brush aside atheists' rather repressed status.
Michael Schermer makes some good points in a recent article at Scientific American. I've used only the headers of some of his points:
1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.2. Positive assertions are necessary.3. Rational is as rational does.4. The golden rule is symmetrical.5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.
I must agree with points 3,4, and 5 thoroughly with 5 as the most important. We must do to and for others as we want done for us. We must be honest, loving, and compassionate in our dealings or we run the risk of dehumanizing us all. The best way to do that is to be reasoned, informed, and loving in word and deed. At the heart of working democracy is the respect of the individual right to hold his/her beliefs. But the respect of the individual's beliefs do not necessarily follow. When they are transparently foolish or false in the light of all or the overwhelming majority of evidence, I needn't bow out and say, "You have the right to your opinion." Acceptance of the theory of evolution is not a matter of taste the way liking Neruda, Nielsen, or Napalm Death is. When an ideology infringes on reality, I must say, "Sorry, sir. But you are mistaken." And when someone stands in front of a gathered political body and declares the sovereignty of their sky god, its incorporeal avatar, and its carnal avatar in the form of its son over my nation and make subsequent legislation that flies in the face of all available evidence, I am going to be very motivated to annihilate them in the public war of ideas.
Therefore, I don't see how "Positive assertions are necessary" has been getting us very far in recent years. In fact, the Sagans, Krausses, and Goulds of the world (all of whom I love and admire greatly) did just that. Each of them, in word and deed, have promoted the scientific method, naturalism, and humanism beautifully by setting up positive examples and offering us the beauty of the natural world of which we are a part. A small part, but no less beautiful for our little role.
Positive assertions are necessary. We need to see the beauty and elegance that the universe offers us in its forms most beautiful: the Crab Nebula; the radial perfection of a nautilus shell as it spirals outward from the center constantly maintaining the golden ratio of the Fibonacci Series; the art of Kandinsky; the symphonies of Mahler; or as Paul Masvidaal wrote in the Portal song "Cosmos",
I long to live with some celestial beingsto adore in silence blissful friendsgliding into constellations of their smilesmelting into shining eyes
Celestial beings aside (which I do sometimes wish existed the same way that I wished dinosaurs were still around) I really love my community, my friends, my loved ones, and hope that all people can glide in constellations of their loved ones' smiles. That is positive. It is largely what I live for.
There is nothing more beautiful to me than my son's smile. The other night, I was pacing with him in the crook of my arm where he falls asleep most easily and I was overcome with how much I love him. He is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Nothing else has come close. Maybe my wife. Maybe. And that profound connection to him gives me even more meaning.
Why does understanding that that meaning results from my DNA's desire to replicate itself? That's just what DNA does. It replicates and has created remarkable ways for it do that, including stumbling on the emergent properties of cognition and its problem-solving ability. I am a cognizant being that wants to replicate itself and has done so and unsurprisingly found meaning doing it. What can possibly be controversial about that? Is it because I, following Darwin and Dawkins, have been able to trace one of the very hearts of Christianity - be fruitful and multiply - back to the material cause of DNA? Why should simple recognition of material reality discount me from holding public office?
This is where the "civil rights" issue kicks in. And yes, to an extent, I think that atheists have been kept down as a minority and encouraged to keep their mouths shut. Well, I won't.