Yglesias, as is his infuriating gift, makes one of those points that seems glaringly obvious only after he’s said it. To wit: If you assume their goal is to persuade people to agree with them, the “New Atheist” strategy of being an enormous douchebag seems counterproductive. Since folks like Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett, even if prickly by nature, do not seem to be massively stupid, maybe the right inference is that their goal is not to persuade people to agree with them. Rather, they’re “preaching to the choir” as a means of movement building. A lot of things suddenly fall into place on this assumption.
First, it makes sense that atheists with a mind to organize would have to put more initial effort into rallying the base, so to speak, than outreach. And this is so for roughly the same reason that you see a fair number of chess clubs, but very few we-don’t-play-chess clubs. A group of people who share a significant affirmative belief are already halfway toward being a sort of proto-community. Not thinking something is, on face, a weak candidate for the basis of some sort of self-conscious shared identity. So if you’re keen on there being some such shared identity, there’s groundwork to lay.
Second, arguing people out of their faith, assuming you thought this were a desirable sort of thing to do, just seems like a losing proposition. I’m not sure it is a desirable thing to do, really: I’d rather certain repugnant beliefs often rooted in religious faith were less common, and I’d certainly prefer that the faithful not go translating their scripture into legislation, but that sort of concern seems better addressed in the particulars. Moreover, the sorts of folks who trigger those concerns are probably also the least likely to be talked out of their whole worldview. If anything, plucking the low-hanging fruit just seems apt to remove the moderating forces from the relevant discursive community.
But supposing one thought this were a worthwhile endeavor, it would still seem pretty hopeless. People generally aren’t argued into a faith in the first place—that’s why they call it “faith” and not “a conclusion.” Rather, they inherit one, and stick with it insofar as it seems congenial for any number of reasons. The ones who are disposed to be argued out of it, as a rule, manage to argue themselves out of it unaided; the arguments are not really so complicated as to require a Dawkins to lay them out. Anyone who hasn’t managed this for themselves by their late teens presumably doesn’t care to be dissuaded, and really, why should any unbeliever care especially , if that’s what makes someone happy?
I’m not actually persuaded there are good reasons to care about there being a self-conscious community of atheists either, but I can at least think of a few reasons you might care about this, as opposed to about the number of people who share your personal metaphysics. First, insofar as there are young people who have talked themselves out of it but are fearful of owning up to this in their particular social context, I can imagine it being useful for there to be some visible community of folks out there to validate the choice, to signal “hey, it’s not just you; we find it all a bit silly as well.” Second, in a democracy, there’s something to be said for having an identifiable interest group, at least when there are the aforementioned folks bent on turning their favorite sacred text into statute.
Again, that said, I’m not persuaded all this is a good idea. God knows (so to speak) I don’t want to attend atheist meetings. What do the minutes look like? “Sure isn’t any supreme intelligence out there, eh Jane? — You said it, Bill!” The kids seem to manage well enough, and a little adversity on the way probably builds character. And there’s a sufficient rough and ready political coalition to oppose most theocratic incursions without having to insist on some sort of metaphysical consensus as well. But at least on this model, the behavior of a lot of reasonably sharp people isn’t just obviously dumb and futile.