Response to Katha Pollitt’s “The Atheist's Dilemma"
From The Nation, Dec 3, 2007
In this issue of The Nation, Katha Pollitt posits that what people like to refer to as the “New Atheism” is destined for failure. She argues that the devout will not be persuaded by atheists, particularly those like Sam Harris, who “[think] religion is completely stupid.” She goes on further to admonish us for not appreciating the so-called moderates of any faith. Ms. Pollitt is demonstrating her ignorance of the effectiveness of the atheist “movement” (although I hesitate to use that word) and the reason why even the moderate religious acolytes need to be called to account for their beliefs.
Ms. Pollitt is correct in some regards with respect to the most devout believers. Those people are not likely to be persuaded by anybody, and confrontation with atheists generally serves to push them further into their delusion and reinforces their belief. Cognitive dissonance can work either way, depending on how much one has at stake. I do not believe that a change in tactics or attitude will affect those types of people.
Moderate believers simply compound the problem by providing respectability and cover for the extremists of their ilk. Do I appreciate the more accepting people among the faithful? Sure. Ultimately, though, they are still responsible for perpetuating and propagating their worldview. If we could get to the point where the cafeteria Christians and Muslims are taken out of the equation, we could effectively stamp out the religious violence that occurs every day because it would be acceptable to excoriate faith-based belief systems. We could do exactly what Sam Harris talks about in his book, The End of Faith, which describes the effectiveness of ridicule as a tool for social change. As long as it is taboo to criticize religion, that will be impossible.
Her conclusion is that only the “angry teenager” would be persuaded by this type of argumentation, but I know for a fact that this is not true. With billions of Christians and Muslims in the world, it is difficult to gauge how many individuals are impacted by any particular meme, but the only way to change society is to change the people who make up the society. Being likely the most confrontational, and to some, offensive, group of atheists out there, we at the Rational Response Squad receive letters of hate, threats—and thanks. Many people have told us personally that we changed their lives with our in-your-face approach. We want to make it seem ludicrous to believe in fairy tales, and that does work for some people.
If Ms. Pollitt is looking for a one-track route to de-conversion, she’ll likely be looking from now until the day that she dies. Every person is different and will respond to the arguments against religion in many ways. That doesn’t change the fact that her assertion that we won’t change anybody’s mind is absolutely incorrect, and with hundreds of people that I could use as examples, I can only fathom how many have been influenced by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al.
It is odd that she turns around and uses an argument very similar to Sam Harris’ recent speech and article, “The End of Atheism.” She claims that once you have denounced religion and come out as a nonbeliever, you have nullified any potential influence you could have had. To some, it’s true. An atheist is put into a box, usually the stereotypical definition of evil baby-blood drinkers who are angry at god. The way to change that is to reclaim the word “atheist.” Come out to your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors so that they will realize how ridiculous it is to perpetuate that caricature. Atheists who kow-tow to that are just as guilty as the religious when they hide behind other, less-offensive labels.
What will the outcome of this “Golden Age of Atheism” be? Nobody knows. There are many who, like Ms. Pollitt, would like to convince us that being the silent minority is the correct tactic. They would like to see us shut-up and sit-down—just let everybody believe whatever they want to—it’s a personal issue. She wants to know if “art can succeed where atheism cannot.” Where is it that “atheism” cannot succeed? Is not the author of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” just as much of an atheist as I? He is just using a different approach. Atheists will succeed once we stop arguing with each other and start taking the danger that religion poses to the future of humanity seriously.