I think it is an admirable human trait to love and admire someone who has done a lot of good in the world, and so I don’t begrudge the fanzine style atheist followers that sites like RichardDawkins.net and Jerry Coyne’s blog generates. How can I, afterall, be too critical of something that, in a different context, I’m guilty of as well? For example, I love Barack Obama. I worked hard for him last year, blogged my heart out for him, and don’t feel I need to deconstruct him. And since the election, I feel vindicated in my belief that he would make a good and honorable president.
But my love for Obama is just me. You might think it hilarious that anyone would talk about a politician without irony. Yet that’s how I feel. But as an agnostic, I don’t feel that way about hard atheists like Dawkins or Coyne. I like to take swipes at them and deconstruct them sometimes. But other people don’t. Let the deconstructers deconstruct and let the fans express their fandom. I just wish there was less cussing and demonization at atheist sites. There really is a hard core on atheist threads that treat their fandom for atheism like a religion that is under siege. But I suppose that all movements attract fanatics. Still, I wish it were otherwise.
And as for Dawkins and Coyne, even though I disagree with them on many points, I deeply admire both of them as human beings and intellecuals, and I think that they both bring far more good than evil into the world. I’ve read Dawkins’s books, for example, from my teen years, and I wouldn’t like to see the world without him. I can see why people like him so much. They have very good reasons.
In contrast with Dawkins and Coyne, I’m far more ambivalent about PZ Myers. I really feel that he is a noxious presence on the New Atheist scene. He tugs the movement in illiberal directions at times, and I find that, even when I agree with him, I can’t get his most illiberal gestures out of my mind (like the Catholic wafer incident of last summer).
Still, I understand righteous outrage, and I think that New Atheists are motivated by a moral impulse. But that very moral impulse can lose its sense of proportion. I think that what drives the New Atheists is best summed up by Nobel Prize physicist Steven Weinberg, who said at a biology conference at the Salk Institute in 2006:
The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion . . . Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilization.
The comment sounds extreme to me. Weakening the grip of religion on the psyche is more important to civilization than, say, splitting the atom? Really? I think that, even in exceedingly smart atheists like Weinberg, the temptation is strong to paint religion with simply too broad a brush. His comment above borders on the hysterical. But this is what motivates the New Atheists. And in some ways religion, especially fundamentalist religion, rightly invites this outraged moral indignation. In general, religion’s pretentions and unironic proclamations of its own innocence have always been cloying. But in this respect, atheism is very much like religion.
Source for the Weinberg quote: God’s Undertaker (Lion 2009), a book by Oxford mathematician, John Lennox (p. 8).