I decided to Coyne a new world to replace “faitheism,” and it’s in the title. “Accommodatheism.” It’s the tendency of some nonbelievers to try to make common cause with believers, or at least to stop criticizing them. (Watch Chris Stedman steal this word for the title of his next book!)
A prime example of accomodatheism is a new piece in Slate (which, along with Salon, now seems to be going after the low-hanging atheists). It’s by atheist Steve Neumann, and has the unfortunate (and largely irrelevant) title, “Cut it out, atheists! Why it’s time to stop behaving like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins.”
Overall, the piece isn’t horrible—not nearly as dire as some of the recent atheist-bashing pieces in Salon and the Guardian—but it still seems misguided. Neumann is an atheist himself and has little truck with religion, but, in the tradition of Chris Mooney, he thinks that loud, strident atheism, à la Dawkins and Maher, is inimical to the cause of atheism itself. We are, he says, polarizing Christians and preventing them from accepting our message because we’re too “in your face.”
Of course there’s not the slightest bit of evidence for this. Indeed, the number of “nones” (those who don’t identify with any formal religion) is growing in the U.S., as is the number of atheists. All this is happening in the very era of Hitchens, Dawkins, Maher, and Dennett.
Dawkins can in fact point to hundreds of people who have abandoned religion because of his books and talks (I always refer to his “Converts Corner”), yet I still haven’t heard of a single person—not one—who says, “You know, I have doubts about God, but when I hear that loudmouth Dawkins and his strident atheism, it made me want to hold onto Jesus even tighter.” (At this point I realize someone out there will tell me that one such person exists, but I want at least a thousand to counterbalance Dawkins’s converts.)
Nevertheless, Neumann proposes in his piece something called “The Atheist Positivity Challenge” (APC), whereby we’re supposed to refrain from going after Christians for one month. To wit:
I’d like to challenge all atheists, myself included, to refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month. Let’s call it The Atheist Positivity Challenge, or the APC for short. The purpose of this challenge is to draw attention to two things: The fact that gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive; and the need to rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.
. . . Refusing to indulge our desire to vilify the easy targets will make us look less arrogant and therefore less aversive. Not only should this make us less susceptible to open animosity, but it should help accomplish atheist goals which, as author and blogger Greta Christina put it, are about “reducing anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state.” I know it seems like blasphemy to refrain from criticizing loonies like [megachurch pastor Mark] Driscoll, but we need to have “faith” that the cultural forces currently in play will accomplish what we want.
There are several problems with this besides the lack of evidence that our “arrogance” and “aversive” behavior is turning America off atheism. First of all, lots of people follow the “easy targets,” and criticizing them may indeed sway some people on the fence. And those “easy targets” are doing some pretty bad stuff, like trying to prevent gay marriage, enforce the teaching of creationism in the schools, and trying to stave off abortion and birth control. Do we stifle ourselves when Christians say that? Is that going to help our cause?
Second, can we still attack Islam? Or is that an easy target, too? For Islam is by far more dangerous than Christianity, and a lot of religious criticism is directed that way. But of course attacking Islam turns Muslims off far more than attacking Christianity does Christians. Why is just one faith exempt from criticism? (Do Jews count, too?)
Third, is just one month of laying off Christians supposed to make a difference? Is this like a Lent for Atheists? And when we go back to our normal activity after that, will things be much better with the faithful, and atheism will be advanced? Does Neumann really believe that? If he does, I’d question his judgment.
Neumann notes that atheists are in poor repute, which is true, but he says that it’s our own fault:
While many millennials are de facto atheists or agnostics — or at least politically secular and socially tolerant — atheism still doesn’t enjoy a very good reputation in America. In a 2011 survey, for example, atheists were distrusted as much as rapists; and even this year atheists and Muslims are in a statistical tie for most disliked. This is the main impetus for the APC. I think that we outspoken atheists, the ones who actively contribute to the culture wars by blogging, writing articles and engaging in public debates, have to ask ourselves: Are we sincere when we say we have a positive worldview? I mean, it’s not enough to just have positive beliefs — that is, beliefs in something, as opposed to not believing in God — what is needed is an emphasis on positivity itself.
After accusing us of insincerity when we advance a positive worldview (talk about arrogance!), Neumann ignores the fact that people like Dawkins, Grayling, Harris, and Hitchens all did that (remember Hitch’s final speech in Texas where he extolled the virtue of the secular, thinking life?). Did anyone read The Magic of Reality? Or Grayling’s works on humanism? How about Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up? Nope, no positivity there.
So we have to lay off Christians for a month and be more positive and happy and stuff, and that, dear readers, is how we’ll promote atheism in America?
If you believe that, I have some
swamp real estate in Florida I’d like to sell you.
Have atheists really hurt their cause by being negative and criticizing Christians? I doubt it. We are not, by and large, negative, and criticizing religious belief has brought many people to nonbelief. Our supposed negativity and criticism are, in fact, just excuses that religious people use to go after atheists. If we’d just shut up and be positive, they say, all will be well. Sound familiar? It’s the same advice offered to women who wanted to get the vote and, later, blacks who wanted equal treatment under the law.
I thought long and hard (well, not really that long and hard) about Neumann’s advice, and I think it’s just silly. If he had the slightest amount of evidence that this would do something to loosen religion’s grasp on America (say, 1000 Christians who would sign a document saying they’d give up their faith if we’d refrain from criticizing them for a month and be more positive), I’d take him seriously. But right now I think he’s talking out of his hat.
And Salon is silly for giving him space to say this, and mean-spirited in using a title that disses prominent atheists while telling us not to diss Christians.