Are the new atheists militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical…in a word, bad? All those accusations have become a way for many people to close the book on a view they find unsettling. How convenient to have a way to dismiss the challenge to religion. See–they’re evangelical! They’re just like the people they criticize! So we can ignore them.
I think this is all pretty dubious. I rather like the new atheists. To be quite honest, I hugely enjoyed the four authors who get lumped together under this epithet–especially Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But I’m going to praise a different sort of atheist–a friendly atheist. And don’t get too concerned that I’m using a nice word for the type of atheist I have in mind. There are millions of nice words in the English language. If I praise a violin for the way it sings mellifluously, does that mean I’m criticizing drums for being percussive? No, not at all.
I’m going to call you (me, anyone) a friendly atheist if you meet these conditions (I’m in the mood for a little precision):
(1) You’re firm in your belief that the world is deity-free, and possibly you enjoy debate, but you doesn’t particularly want to convert anyone.
(2) Atheism is not a basis for your identity. When you think “I am an X,” perhaps you think “I am a liberal democrat” or “I am an American” or …. whatever. But you don’t think “I am an atheist.” Why not? Because the beliefs and values you consider important are ones that cut across boundaries defined by religious belief.
(3) Outside of a forum for no-holds-barred intellectual debate, like a philosophy class, you want your discussions about religion to have a tone of mutual respect.
Alright, so here’s my thesis (can this possibly be daring?)–it’s good for there to be friendly atheists. What’s good about them is that they “play well with others.” That was one of the abilities we used to get graded on in elementary school, back where I come from, and I think it’s important.
Why play well with others? One reason is self-interest. Atheists are not fully included in public life, in the US. Over 50% would not vote for someone who didn’t believe in God. There are various reasons for the distrust of atheists. Some have nothing to do with whether atheists come across like violins or drums. Nevertheless, I do think the friendly atheist is much more likely to be welcomed as “one of us” and trusted to represent the interests and aspirations of various voting blocs.
It’s also important to be able to interact respectfully with non-believers because it’s so important to make common cause with people who share your desire to…fill in the blank. An interesting feature of Peter Singer’s new book on extreme poverty is that he doesn’t hesitate to appeal to the reader’s religious motivations to give, even though he doesn’t share them. It’s also intriguing that, though he has a column in Free Inquiry, he never seems to use it to clobber religion.
If you’ve read Julian’s articles on the new atheists here and here, and the responses to them at various blogs, you can see I’m casting my vote mostly with Julian. I’m just putting the point a little differently. I’m not attacking the drums (let there be drums!), but praising the violins. There’s also an issue of proportions. Drums are loud. They tend to drown out violins. That’s why you have a couple of drums in a symphony, and a lot of violins. I’m really not sure how the symphony of atheists comes across to the public (an empirical issue–and I have very little evidence) but it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be good if it sounded like all drums.