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Clearing the Ground

A recent comment by Sastra on EvolutionBlog made me laugh:

When atheists make their arguments against fundamentalist forms of God, the moderate believers both approve and disapprove. They agree with what they say, they can't stand the extremists either, but of course there's no reason for atheism as a reaction! Those people may be in the majority, but they don't represent real Christianity at all. So atheists are seen as being just as extreme as the fundamentalists. No God on one side, Too Much God on the other -- and then the sophisticated, reasonable, Just Enough God in the middle.

I'm still chuckling over "Just Enough God". But this remark also reminded me of an observation I made last May, in "The Golden Mean": the tendency of people to believe that the truth always lies in the middle, as if the correct position on any issue could be found by taking the average of the two most extreme positions. In religion, just as in politics, there are many who think this way, even if few would state it so explicitly.

This is why it's so important, if we want to build a robust, organized, effective atheist movement, to cast our net broadly. We need to criticize all religion and all faith if we want to carve out a space in which atheism can flourish and grow. If we confined our criticism to the religious terrorists and other hate-spewing fundamentalists, believers would say that, yes, those people are wrong and it's all well and good to refute them, but faith in general is still a good thing that should be encouraged. If we hold back and refuse to criticize all faith, whether out of fear or a misguided desire to be popular, we leave ourselves defenseless against this assertion and will be unable to explain why one should be an atheist rather than a believer.

In fact, as Sastra insightfully observed, we are regularly chastised for focusing our fire on the crude, belligerent literalism of the fundamentalists, rather than the allegedly more subtle and sophisticated conception of God held by many believers. Then, when we do give arguments that apply to these views, we're accused of being nasty, bomb-throwing atheists attacking moderate believers who never did anybody any harm, and why don't we focus on the fundamentalists who are stirring up all this trouble?

The only aim of these complaints is to silence us, and we should disregard them. Most of the people who decry atheists' supposed incivility and extremism were never going to join us anyway; in other words, they are concern trolls. We do not need to argue them down, and it shouldn't be our aim to do so. Instead, we should be concentrating on the basic steps of building a movement: reaching out to those who already agree with our goals, as well as those who sympathize but have yet to declare their allegiance.

At the same time, we should be taking a strong and principled public stand against all forms of religious faith, thereby shifting the Overton window and making atheism a more familiar and acceptable position in public discourse. This is quite possibly the most important step, contrary to the misguided fears of those who think our alleged radicalism will alienate the public. On the contrary, it will move atheism into the mainstream, and very likely will win over a large number of people who might never have considered it as an option otherwise. Criticizing only the fundamentalists will do nothing to establish atheism as a good, acceptable option. To do that, we must clear the ground of all forms of faith and show by argument and example that nonbelief is a defensible and respectable position.

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