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Organizing the Non-Chess-Players Club

October 15th, 2008 · 26 Comments

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.

Tags: Religion · Sociology



26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AemJeff // Oct 15, 2008 at 3:07 am

    You don’t want to attend “atheist meetings.” I probably don’t either; but generally organizing skeptics, at some level, at least helping to create networks – that strikes me as reasonable goal. If a couple of people screaming “God is poopiehead” in the public square helps that project on some level, I’m all for it.

  • 2 Christopher Monsour // Oct 15, 2008 at 3:51 am

    I think what Dennett and Dawkins are really concerned with is rationalism. I think that, like most scientists, they place an extremely high value on having a true, useful, and systematic understanding of the world in both theoretical and practical terms. They believe that the fundamentally rational and secular worldview is the great triumph of the modern world, the central turning point in human intellectual history. Before the rationalist awakening we were chained in the cave, seeing only the flicker and shadow of puppets; since the awakening we have come, finally, to have a consistent and satisfying picture of the whole workings of the universe, from the symmetries buried in the substructure of the atom to the tangled patterns of information and energy that govern life at our physical orders of magnitude, to the large-scale structure of a universe more vast by far than the one a pre-rationalist thinker would have imagined even when he thought he was imagining the infinite.

    Anyway, for them this is an aesthetic stance, but a moral one too. They see irrationality as the root of most evil. They see violent religious fanaticism, American Christianity, and new age syncretism as just points on a spectrum, just different exempla of what goes wrong when you let go of Occam’s Razor and Bayes’ Theorem.

    I imagine, as well, that they see their project as part of a long-term one. I think you’re putting a lot of weight down on the notion, for which I don’t find much evidence, that the “ones who are disposed to be argued out of it, as a rule, manage to argue themselves out of it unaided.” In my own experience, there are lots of people out there who have rationalist instincts but who are genuinely not exposed–at least not in any sympathetic way–to a systematically rational and secular view of the world. Lots of people don’t know an atheist, any more than I know a Ku Klux Klan member, and they’ve heard the word used in roughly the same way that people in my social milieu talked about the Klan: as an object of ridicule so extreme and far from one’s own experience as to seem barely real. Beyond those folks, I would guess that there are quite a few others who won’t come to see themselves as rationalists in a world where the rationalists (who are vastly overrepresented in the cultural elite, of course) adhere to the etiquette that religious belief is not scrutinized or criticized in polite company, but will do so in a world in which rationalism is generally understood as something to be proud of and religious irrationality is treated by cultural elites as retrograde.

    And I think what Dawkins and Dennett are mostly concerned with doing is advancing that cause. People were taught their worldview by their parents in 1639, after all, and yet people really do think differently now than they did back then. Dawkins and Dennett see themselves as doing what they can to push the future of human thought in a rationalist direction.

  • 3 Christopher Monsour // Oct 15, 2008 at 3:54 am

    I would add, however, that while Dawkins and Dennett are real scientists, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are blowhards who just really, really like feeling smarter than everyone else.

  • 4 Dean Chung // Oct 15, 2008 at 9:58 am

    I heard an NPR piece on an atheist summer camp, which struck me as a silly idea. However, it does seem to provide evidence that there is really a desire to form a “belief” set around atheism.


  • 5 Adam // Oct 15, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Well, what Christopher Monsour said.

    I’d add that another motivation for Dennett and Dawkins is to advance the idea that it’s legitimate to ask religious believers to justify the precepts of their faith. I think they find it genuinely frustrating that huge areas of philosophical or moral inquiry are simply taken off the table as a legitimate subject of discourse, primarily out of custom or a misplaced sense of respect for beliefs rooted in divine revelation or whatever.

    Stephen Pinker (who also belongs in the New Atheist club, I’m pretty sure) has a different angle on the same project. He has attacked the concept of taboo, the notion that some ideas are simply to dangerous to be engaged by civil society. Although he doesn’t seem to focus overly much on religion, Pinker, like Dennett and Dawkins, is basically taking on the notion that, in this post-Enlightenment era, any ideas should get a free pass.

    This aspect of New Atheism sits somewhere in between the goals of disabusing believers of their faith and forming a club of the already faithless. Instead, the idea is to take religion off its pedestal. Believers can still believe, non-believers can cheerily not-believe, but religious belief should no longer be so privileged in society, a mark of obvious moral superiority.

    On a different note, it’s worth pointing out that Dawkins — although a brilliant person and an intellectual hero of mine — is without question also a bit of a douchebag, and I imagine he does get a kick out of tweaking believers. I can’t speak for the others, although Hitchens verily drips douchiness. Also, there’s a certain “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy” pique that undoubtedly drives the discussion.

  • 6 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I haven’t read any of the recent best-selling atheist books, so I cannot comment on whether they reveal their authors to be “douchebags.” If these are not attempts at persuasion, then what would attempts at persuasion look like? Won’t any book that says your deeply held faith is mistaken be regarded as disrespectful and offensive?

    Also, I think the fact that these books have sold so well indicates that there are a lot of people who know that religion is not for them but never determined whether that reaction was based on their understanding of the world or just a matter of taste.

  • 7 Daniel // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:22 am

    South Park did it.

  • 8 Aaron // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Sam Harris is working for his PhD in neuroscience, so he’s at least striving to be a scientist. Dennett’s a philosopher, and unfortunately the only real philosopher out of the bunch.

  • 9 Soda // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Christopher, Sam Harris is not a real scientist *yet*. He’s pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at the moment (Stanford I think).

  • 10 Soda // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Ugh. Aaron beat me to the punch by a good 9 minutes. 🙂

  • 11 Daniel // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:37 am

    What Dawkins/Dennett etc. do is framed as if there are two parties: the self-righteous, sanctimonious, intellectually snotty atheist and the religiously observant who is being verbally assaulted. You’re right to say that there is a third party, the atheist choir, for whom the argument is a kind of performance. The fourth party (or another third party, whichever), I think, is the religious people who are already self-righteous and sanctimonious, and are POTENTIALLY intellectually snotty. The performance communicates to them: hey, want to REALLY be “right”? Over here dude. This is probably most effective on teenagers whose parents’ religiosity borderline-failing to take hold.

  • 12 Frank_A // Oct 15, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    “Sam Harris is working for his PhD in neuroscience, so he’s at least striving to be a scientist. Dennett’s a philosopher, and unfortunately the only real philosopher out of the bunch.”
    I don’t think a lack of PhD credentials makes you less of a scientist. If you are using the scientific method as a job or part one’s life work (like the UK’s olde Royal Society), then I could say then you are a scientist.

    What a theist like me finds weird/funny is how a Presbyterian minister, Thomas Bayes, now has his Theorum become a cornerstone of atheism. Or the Franciscan, Occam. Or even Newton, that infamous alchemical mystic. I guess if the Romans’ could successfully co-opt the Hispanians’ gladius…

  • 13 Soda // Oct 15, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    “What a theist like me finds weird/funny is how a Presbyterian minister, Thomas Bayes, now has his Theorum become a cornerstone of atheism. Or the Franciscan, Occam. Or even Newton, that infamous alchemical mystic. I guess if the Romans’ could successfully co-opt the Hispanians’ gladius…”

    Were there many atheists that were contemporaries of Bayes, Occam, or Newton out in the open? If not then it’s not really that weird is it?

  • 14 Soda // Oct 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    And Frank_A, don’t forget Darwin was at one point studying to become a clergyman. Weird? Or simply statistically probable for the time?

  • 15 Travis // Oct 15, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    A movement dedicated to secular rationalism is all well and good, but what bothers me about the New Atheists is that in large part their movement seems to be dedicated to the proposition that religious belief, and therefore believers in general are both stupid and bad.

    A movement dedicated to hating people who have different beliefs seems pretty problematic to me.

  • 16 Soda // Oct 15, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    “seems to be dedicated to the proposition that religious belief, and therefore believers in general are both stupid and bad.”

    “And therefore?” Really?

    Smart people can’t believe stupid and bad things? Two posts above someone noted Newton believed in alchemy.

    I think the logical leap you’re making is problematic.

  • 17 Dee // Oct 15, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    I think all of your points on why it’s not a ridiculous idea for atheists to congregate (haha) are very true. But I also think you’re missing the point. Not all atheists are going to want to join an atheist group, just like not all Democrats will join a Democrat organization. The ones who do join have more in common than their non-belief in a god, they generally care about political issues that affect non-theists (and often non-Christians). They are sometimes interested in learning more about this whole religion thing that large numbers of people subscribe to. They debate over how to or whether to combat irrationality and promote reason in the public sphere. And a lot of the time, they just want to hang out with people who don’t get offended at religious jokes. I was a bit surprised at first that so many people came to meetings at an atheist group I’m personally involved in. But after a while, I just realized this is a fun group of people to hang around with.

    On a different note, it’s been my experience that Richard Dawkins and particularly “The God Delusion” has played a role in some people’s “deconversion” to atheism. That is, Richard Dawkns at least is not simply preaching to the choir. Of course the book is not going to convince a hardcore fundamentalist. However, I know a number of people who would say “yes I believe in God” but it’s more out of inertia than any sort of personal conviction. “The God Delusion” is also targeted at those people, sending the dual message of:
    1. There’s this thing called atheism and it’s an option as well
    2. Look at how ridiculous and even dangerous religion is.

    On a final note, Travis, there’s a world of difference between saying that religious belief is stupid and bad and saying that religious believers are stupid and bad. And similarly there’s a huge leap to get to hating religious believers. I can think that my grandmother’s religious beliefs are ridiculous and wrong and harmful. But I can still love my grandmother.

  • 18 Julian Sanchez // Oct 15, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    OK, on consideration, my reaction to the idea of some sort of “atheist congregation” is probably conditioned by the fact that probably 80% plus of my friends and acquaintances are atheists or agnostics, and the remainder tend to be extremely low-key about their beliefs. I suppose if I almost everyone I knew were strongly and vocally religious, I might want an occasional respite.

  • 19 Greg N. // Oct 15, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    As someone whose main intellectual interests are libertarianism and atheism, I find myself wondering why this analysis doesn’t apply to libertarianism as well.

    After all, not even the most hardcore atheist cares about someone’s belief per se. We care only to the degree that a person’s belief will affect the world. No one cares if President Bush is saved; we care that his foreign policy might be influenced by his reading of Revelation. No one cares if bin Laden merely thinks martyrdom is swell; we care when he uses that belief to convince others to fly planes into our buildings. And so on.

    Similarly, libertarians don’t care about their political opponents’ beliefs per se. We care about the effect those beliefs have on the world around us. It doesn’t matter if a congressman thinks demand curves slope upward; it matters if that belief influences him to cast the deciding vote on a minimum wage law. It doesn’t matter if a Senator merely thinks the 4th Amendment is outdated; it matters if that view influences him to approve, say, overly broad wiretapping power.

    Libertarianism, like atheism, is primarily a negative philosophy. So, couldn’t one reasonably say, “I don’t want to attend libertarian meetings. What do the minutes look like? “Hey, still no role for government, eh, Jane?”

    But as you’re well aware, (at least not all) libertarian meetings are not like that. At Cato U, for instance, attendees might learn comparative advantage from Boudreaux or the history of liberty from Palmer. There might be a breakout session on the environment, and another on, say, eminent domain. I’ve never been to one, but why couldn’t attendees at an atheist convention learn about the basics of evolution from Darwin, or the scientific method from Shermer, or “how the mind works” from Pinker, or a breakout session on arguing gay rights from a Biblical perspective.

    You argue that trying to argue someone away from their religion could be counterproductive, because we might pick off the more reasonable from the religious groups, leaving the worst knuckle-draggers in charge of a powerful political interest group. Maybe. But couldn’t the same be said of libertarians? If we pick off the market-conservatives and libertarian0friendly democrats, what would be left in the major parties? If your argument works against atheist proselytizing, does that mean Cato should shut its doors (and reason, etc.)?

    I teach in a small, rural, north Florida community. Nearly every one of the kids I teach believes homosexuals should have no right to marry. And nearly every one of them believes this because they think the Bible tells them so, and the Bible is never wrong. You might be right that the existing political consensus is enough to ward off the Bible-thumpers’ politics, but I’m not sure. The root of the problem – the entire problem – is the religious belief. And if organizing a strong atheist movement can help embarrass these people away from the churches that teach them this garbage (and, in turn, make them vote for things like Florida’s proposed anti-gay marriage amendment), then I’m all for it.

    Just like I’m for organizing libertarians.

  • 20 Travis // Oct 15, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    Soda and Dee,

    I’m not arguing that hating a belief is the same thing as hating the believer. My apologies for not making myself clearer.

    I’m saying that its disturbing to me that a lot of vocal atheists do seem to hate believers, or it least hold them in extreme contempt.

    I’m an agnostic myself, so it doesn’t bother me that there are communities of people who don’t believe in God, but it bothers me to see them attack people who do.

  • 21 Greg N. // Oct 16, 2008 at 6:22 am

    Above, I meant “Dawkins,” not “Darwin,” of course. Because, you know, Darwin’s dead.

  • 22 Zach I. // Oct 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    I’m really tired of the whole “Dawkins, et. al. are douchebags” thing being tossed about as if it’s bloody obvious. I hear this alot, but I never hear any evidence offered in support of it. What have they said that’s so terrible? I never hear any specific examples. Criticism of this sort is invariably vague and appears to me to be premised on the idea that any challenge to religion is radical, no matter the challenger’s manners. Ironically, this would seem to validate the “New Atheist” goal of depriving religion of its privileged status. We should be just as sensitive to people’s religious beliefs as we are to their political beliefs. Which is to say, not very.

  • 23 Brendan // Oct 19, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Add me to the group who has no interest in going to atheist group meetings — wait, that didn’t come out right — but there’s another reason I’m very happy to have the Four Horsemen being out there getting in people’s faces: I believe that raising a strong voice of opposition works for a lot of listeners who are kinda, sorta, religious. Agreed: we’re not going to convert the deeply devout. But it’s good for people who just sort of take it for granted that the faith card is the perennial ace of trumps to hear some pushback.

    I’ll chime in with the point made up above that it’s quite helpful for atheists in certain communities to be made aware that they’re not freaks and not all alone in their thinking. It’s hard to remember that possibility when living in environments where secularism and liberal faiths are dominant.

  • 24 Brendan // Oct 19, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    Oh, and just for the record: I don’t think any of the Four Horsemen are douchebags. I find them all quite appealing. The real douchebags are the Falwell/Robertson/Dobson/etc. crowd, and it’s wonderful to hear their sort of braying be skewered so elegantly.

  • 25 aaaaaaa // Oct 22, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    When you wrote this post were you trying to convince people who believe in this batshit theory that it’s probably wrong? Or were you trying to help build a movement to restore rationality to politics? My guess is that you largely just wanted to entertain your readers and ridicule people stupider than you, and I think that’s probably part of what motivates the new atheists as well.

  • 26 Julian Sanchez // Oct 24, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Uh, actually, I was genuinely hoping to make some money. Sadly, no takers yet.