Firebrand Atheism

firebrand_atheismAtheism has to deal with a lot of growing up pains. Big names like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Michael Shermer have faced an onslaught of criticism for being too conservative, didactically judgmental, or just plain obliviously sexist, racist, or disablest, with even accusation of misdeeds. It’s no longer an old white tent without contestation.

There have also been accusations that there is a “Big Atheism” and it’s too confrontational. We could see the start of it a few years ago when Religious News Network hired crossover atheists like Chris Steadman, who calls himself an interfaith activist or a Faithiest, where atheists should treat the religious respectfully.

Then there is the periodic concern that Atheist bulletin boards are too aggressive. As Massimo Pigliucci put forth.

“Few will listen to you if you start out the conversation by telling them that they are idiots.“. The counter argument to that is “The billboards are instead aimed at closeted atheists, trying to encourage them to come out and be counted“.

Again it’s really not new as Alternet and others said back in 2009.

The New Atheist movement is being led by several egomaniac intolerant fundamentalists. It’s relevant to ask about who they are, not just what they say or write, because the New Atheism isn’t just about non-belief in God. The leaders of this movement make loud, repeated, and bold claims about atheism being better and more moral, more ethical, and a vastly improved alternative to religion. They also name names when blasting religious leaders.

Now it’s being called Firebrand Atheism.

The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, defines firebrand atheism as simply telling the truth about religion, with the emphasis on the telling. He says we should make clear that it’s religious beliefs we’re attacking, not the person. He says, “I’m not attacking humans; I’m attacking those humans’ silly beliefs.”

Aaah for the old days when rebels would just create new organizations and do admin changes. Anyone remember Ellen Johnson, in 2008, who was run out because she said there should be a movement to not vote, to show strength?

“I didn’t vote because I’m tired of being ignored by the politicians… because I’m an atheist. All of the candidates court the religious voters and ignore me.”

She then urges the 11% of non-religious voters to “stay home” during the 2008 general elections.

Of course telling people to promote not voting is like rubbing salt in the wound of activism, and she had also said to vote shortly before. My, my. What she was looking for was attention of a big block not voting and they would ask why. Because there were and are no choices. No minority is represented less than atheists that I know of.

Silverman has brought in some statistics noting that until New Atheism there wasn’t much comment or recognition, with contrary comment back from his friend Massimo.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci concluded in a recent essay that Silverman’s kind of analysis “ought to be done by professional statisticians and social scientists in order to be convincing,” and that “the evidence adduced by [Silverman] to justify his firebrand atheism is shaky and inconclusive to say the least.” Pigliucci points out that one of Silverman’s own sources, sociologist Ryan Cragun, questions the validity of Silverman’s conclusions. Pigliucci quotes Cragun as saying, “causality cannot be statistically determined between whether searches for ‘American Atheists’ cause searches for ‘atheists’ or vice versa.”

Of course it’s impossible to really know since there haven’t been double-blind tests. Nor do we   know how atheism would had progressed without the New Atheist movement. It seems hard to believe that atheism would have gone as far as it has without raising controversy with such pejoratives as poisoning, no god, and delusion.

There is a current push to have a lovable fool, which feeds into popular anti-intellectualism..

As the authors wrote in the study: “Because they are liked by a disproportionate number of people, lovable fools can bridge gaps between diverse groups that might not otherwise interact.” That likeability factor is exactly what is needed in order to improve atheism’s image—and shift the Overton Window. The authors also say that since people are more likely to listen to likeable colleagues, we should “have widely liked individuals serve as evangelists for important change initiatives.”

Yet, the fear of hell has promoted more people to Christianity and Islam than the promise of heaven. These most successful religions won by conquest and domination. If softness were the most powerful influence, pagan and pacifist religions would have dominated. That’s why the all powerful equalizing single god made such a big tent effective.

In US history religious influence was formed by fervent preachers insisting that there be religious statements such as in god we trust and under god as well as national prayers and so forth. If you read their appeals there is no softness. Lincoln may  to have liked them but their appeals was the strongest voice around. The moderates swayed to the heavy voices. The trope is the squeaky wheel gets greased.

Indeed history is written by those who aggressively set forth in the world. It’s not a pleasant observation as most of us prefer peace but over and over again people have chosen authority and strength to form successful cultural and social change.

Clearly the Firebrand atheists don’t intend terrorism and physical harm but it is clear that Islamist terrorism has a disturbing effect of quelling opposition rather than raising it. Instead of objection to Islamist ideology, liberals and moderates point to imperialism and colonialism as the cause of problems rather then the direct ideology. Even when the extremists insist it is their ideology and not history or material issues moderates apologize for behavior they would find intolerable in their own. Liberals sided with free speech in Charlie Hebdo but refused to publish their cartoons under the guise of security, and apologetic tolerance of the terrorism.

The reaction to Charlie Hebdo was at first sympathetic and then rapidly twisted to justification for the terrorism, slipping into classic victim blaming. I fear that unless at least some atheists are firebrands the movement will stagnate. People like Dennett predicted the world would have gone secular by now and atheists aren;t even represented in government. Change against such requires strength. Even Gandhi knew nonviolence can only come after there is power.

I would risk violence a thousand times rather than risk the emasculation of a whole race. I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.

But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment. Forgiveness adorns a soldier…But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature….But I do not believe India to be helpless….I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature….Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.

Jim Newman,

About Jim Newman

Jim Newman is a philosopher. When I was young I wondered what was the ultimate truth. How should I behave? What makes it all work? I was intensely curious to know what it all means. It was enlightening to realize there is no ultimate truth, but nevertheless sufficient and necessary turth, and that meaning was a meta analysis of living one’s life. In this sense my work has been living large. Living and experiencing life has made me learn many things. Building boats, motors, houses, electronics. Raising animals. Teaching. Writing. Photography. Drawing. Knitting. Sewing. Cooking. Music. Painting. Hiking. Aboriginal living skills. All material aspects of reality that seem irrelevant until you realize they allow you to experience more. My epiphany came when I read Christopher Hitchen’s “Letters to a Young Contrarian” and I felt vindicated in my many meals of sacred cow.
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