A European professor just sent me an email that consisted solely of this (so much for civility!):
Calling someone an ignorant fool seems to be counterproductive, particularly if the goal is to build a concensus [sic] against the real enemy – militant religious fundamentalism.
The professor was clearly referring to my piece, “Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool,” in which Sacks described how morality could never derive from secular reason, why New Atheists were not “serious enough” (i.e., we don’t fully realize how deep is the spiritual void into which we’ve leapt, and that therefore we should be much more dolorous), and how only “fundamentalist” religions are bad.
I criticized these arguments, especially the oft-seen assertion that morality must derive from God, and an atheistic world would therefore be a barbarous one. That, and the other two claims, are simply ignorant. Rabbi Sacks’ pronouncements on morality are absolutely refuted by the existence of moral atheists, as well as largely atheistic countries that remain civil.
I adamantly deny that calling someone an “ignorant fool” is counterproductive, particularly if the fool is a religious one and our goal is to disenfranchise the unwarranted authority of religion.
True, such names surely won’t convert Rabbi Sacks and his acolytes to my point of view. But this type of invective has a different audience: those on the fence. These fence-sitters include people wavering in their faith and—especially—children who haven’t yet been completely brainwashed.
One of the main goals of New Atheism is to buff away the veneer of respect that surrounds the word “faith.” The statement that “He is a person of faith” was for many years seen as a great compliment. But this is rapidly eroding, for faith is belief held either for bad reasons, in the absence of evidence altogether, or indeed, in the face of counterevidence. Faith is not a virtue, but a vice. (That, by the way, is why science, which deems faith a vice, makes progress, while religion, which considers faith the greatest virtue, does not.)
So my answer to the good professor is this: all religions, and much of the world’s ills, are based on respect for faith. How do we erode that respect without making fun of it, or without emphasizing as strongly as possible its inimical consequences? We cannot get rid of faith while at the same time showing a phony respect to its adherents.
Rabbi Sacks belongs in Dara O Briain’s sack o’ fools, along with those who believe in homeopathy, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, Scientologists, astrologers, and spiritual healers. All of these ludicrous beliefs are based on faith. Nobody has a particular problem in calling adherents to those beliefs “ignorant fools.” So why does religion get a pass?