Yesterday was a troll-caliber kerfuffle. I stated that Pagans, as a movement, do a better job of championing cultural pluralism and religious tolerance than atheists as a movement do. That shouldn’t be surprising since Pagans have a multi-decade head start on fighting for acceptance and have a direct interest in both of those issues.
But, insisting I was wrong, one commenter offered:
The core of the new atheist ‘movement’ …is that there should be no privileged respect for religion, any more than there is for a political viewpoint or a scientific hypothesis. Religion can and should be criticised as robustly as possible… religion should be treated with boxing gloves, not kid gloves.
…The use of extremely disrespectful language by new atheists is in this vein often a consciousness-raising exercise, to contrast with the unwarranted reverence with which religious attitudes and authorities are often treated. It’s the same disrespectful language with which (on a blog, at least) you might treat someone who held any other kind of laughable belief—for example, Rupert Sheldrake or Glenn Beck. [Drew's note: not on this blog, and I'd call such language puerile regardless of target.]
…If you see this as so wrong that you can declare it to be so by assertion, then you are not hoping that the ‘new’ atheism will reform—you are hoping it will go away.
This is an elegant statement of a common atheist position. It also proves my point. The defense here has nothing to do with demonstrating that atheists are by and large tolerant, it amounts to an apologia for why tolerance isn’t actually that important after all.
Luckily there are also reasonable and conscientious atheists who believe quite the opposite.
Atheist activist and Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy fellow Chris Stedman writes:
I am an atheist who wishes to promote critical thinking, compassion, and pluralism… I am far more concerned about whether someone is pluralistic in their worldview—if they oppose totalitarianism and believe people of different religious and nonreligious identities should be free to live as they choose and cooperate around shared values—than I am about whether someone believes in God or not.
To be sure, seeing an end to anti-atheist attitudes is a priority of mine. But it is a goal that is facilitated by relationship-building between atheists and the religious and by supporting meaningful communities for the nonreligious…
So let’s call it like it is. If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist—you are an anti-religious activist.
I maintain significant disagreement with many religious beliefs, but I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanizing generalizations about religious people. I am disappointed that such positions represent atheist activism not only to the majority of our society, but to many of my fellow atheist activists as well.
(You can also dive into Chris’ blog NonProphet Status and look forward to his book Faitheist coming out in mid 2012.)
This is where I wish I could say, “So, it turns out most atheists are like Chris, and I’m sorry for misrepresenting you guys.” But I can’t, because Chris’ position is far from a majority view in the tapestry of contemporary atheism. If intolerance were rare among atheists, Chris wouldn’t have to explain why it’s wrong, and my affronted atheist commenter wouldn’t excuse “extremely disrespectful language” as a legitimate tactic at the core of the movement.
I write this knowing that there’s a huge demographic of very respectful, tolerant, ethical atheists and non-believers. Some of you are reading this right now. If you dislike what I said—if you think the atheist movement should be depicted as championing tolerance as strongly as any other movement—good. There are things you can do.
Confront intolerant atheists about their views. Tell anti-religious activists to get their hate language out of your peanut butter, and when you read atheist blogs or attend atheist conferences, speak out against crude or belittling language.
If you stand up against intolerance among atheists, you’ll make a better atheist movement. And you’ll make my criticism obsolete.
Comments are closed to avoid a repeat of yesterday.
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