As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
–Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado
We should be getting used to this now: our fellow atheists proclaim their eternal allegiance to the cause of godlessness, but then decry the incivility of certain people who besmirch our joint cause. The thing is, these miscreants are never named. If really pressed, the accusers usually name someone who has made intemperate remarks in the “comments” section of Pharyngula. It’s not clear to me why atheists, who, after all, are supposed to rely on empirical evidence and reason, are so reluctant to give examples of Atheist Bad Behavior.
And so we have, over at 3QuarksDaily, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, who are about to release a pro-atheist book. But, in a post called “Accommodationism and atheism,” they’re plenty peeved:
Our book Reasonable Atheism does not publish until April, yet we have already been charged with accommodationism, the cardinal sin amongst so-called New Atheists. The charge derives mainly from the subtitle of our book, “a moral case for respectful disbelief.” Our offense consists in embracing idea that atheists owe to religious believers anything like respect.
I don’t know who has called them “accommodationists”—it’s certainly neither me nor P.Z., and Aikin and Talisse are silent about who has ticked them off. But never mind. They go on to draw the usual distinction between attacking ideas and attacking people, and fault many atheists with the latter behavior. We’re said to regard the faithful with contempt, treating them to their faces as fools or even as being afflicted with mental illness. Here’s how, they say, we behave:
The proper response to this state of affairs [apparently rational but faithful people] is to address religious believers as fellow rational agents, to elicit from them their best arguments and their conception of what evidence there is, and to make a case for one’s own view. Correspondingly, it is foolish to begin with an effort to discredit the intellects of religious believers or to diagnose them as benighted, foolish, and intellectually cowardly. To be sure, there are plenty of religious believers who fit these descriptions. But there are plenty of atheists who do too. It is here we part ways with the New Atheists, as what makes one a fool is not what one believes, but rather how one’s beliefs are related to one’s evidence. . .
. . . But notice that to hold a person in contempt is to ascribe to him a capacity for responsibility. Accordingly, we do not hold the mentally deranged in contempt for their delusional beliefs; rather, we see their beliefs as symptoms of their illness. To see religious believers as proper objects of contempt, then, is to see them as people who should know better than to believe as they do. It is hence to see them as wrong but, importantly, not stupid.
The thing is, Aikin and Talisse do not name a single person supposedly guilty of this behavior, nor give a single example of it! We should be getting used to this, I guess, but it’s still annoying. Remember this unsupported accusation?:
Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.
Of course, it’s proper to hold some believers in contempt. Aikin and Talisse note that maybe this is okay if the people have been given a chance to see their errors:
Yet having false beliefs does not make one stupid; it simply makes one wrong. The stupid person is one who believes against what he takes to be evidence. And, as it turns out, there are very few stupid people. Yet there is a lot of false believing going on; in fact, we hold that in matters of religion, there is a lot of belief in what is demonstrably and obviously false.
So who are these atheists who continually harangue reasonable religious people, calling them stupid to their faces? I guess P.Z. and I sometimes mock the faithful, but those are almost always folks who have been informed of the evidence against their beliefs (creationists, for example) but hold onto them despite that. Clearly I don’t always treat the faithful with contempt. When I recently chewed over faith and science with some Methodists, for example, I was polite and civil.
Who are these sinners? It can’t be Dan Dennett—he’s cuddly and nice. (One of my great moments was getting a hug from him after Big Meanie Robert Wright went after me at lunch in Mexico.) Dawkins? He goes after religious beliefs like a pit bull, but have you ever see him be contemptuous to an believer unless she’s repeatedly shown willful ignorance? (Remember Dawkins getting mad at the woman who, refusing to look at hominin fossils, kept maintaining that humans hadn’t evolved?). Stenger? He’s firm but polite. Bill Maher? He’s a comedian, for crying out loud, and in Religulous he let the faithful mock themselves. Eric MacDonald? Give me a break—he’s as gentle as an atheist can be. Hitchens is a likely candidate, but, recently rereading God is Not Great, I found far more attacks on ideas than on people.
I applaud Aikin and Talisse for writing a book that diagnoses faith as an error. As they say, “We affirm in Reasonable Atheism that we believe that distinctively religious beliefs are false, and that religious believers are therefore wrong.” But why the failure to be explicit about those atheists who have a). accused them of accommodationism or b) pulled a Tom Johnson on the faithful?
I’m at a loss to understand these many atheists who say that they have “a little list”, but, like Joe McCarthy, refuse to divulge it. Are they trying to protect the guilty, who are, after all, fellow atheists? Somehow I don’t think that’s the answer. Perhaps the answer is this: while Gnu Atheists may sometimes descend to mockery, they spend far more time going after religious belief than after believers. That’s why the lists always come down to anonymous commenters on Pharyngula who suggest that the faithful perform sexual acts with rusty knives.
Perhaps Aikin and Talisse will come over here and give us their little list. I hope so. I’d like to see who among us is guilty of continual and contemptuous verbal assaults on the faithful. And let’s not have a few statements taken out of context, either. How about showing, among Gnus, the ratio of invective devoted to attacking the faithful themselves as opposed to attacking their beliefs?