I am sometimes asked what I think of today’s leading atheists, people like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris.

I am saying this as someone who doesn’t own a Bible (I suspect the Smithsonian’s replica edition of The Jefferson Bible doesn’t count), but does have copies of Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on his living room bookshelf.

I think they’re generally assholes in how they go about doing what they do. I have no issues with their goals of destigmatizing non-belief and working for a religiously pluralistic society that doesn’t favor any particular creed. How they go about arguing their corner, though, is not infrequently painful. Sometimes, I feel they cross the line into bad taste and deliberate offensiveness.

I am not alone in feeling this way. I am not the only atheist who thinks Dawkins is the world’s best argument against becoming an atheist, because who wants to hang their flag on that jerkface? Patton Oswalt feels the same way:

“I feel, as an atheist, about people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher the way that Christians must feel about Fred Phelps. Look, being an atheist means you don’t give a fuck about what anyone believes in. I don’t think any of it’s real, but you can go ahead and do it. I’m not trying to destroy religion. I just don’t care about it. I have my own moral code, as twisted as it is, but it’s not a bunch of old, desert fairy tales that I live by.” (Source)

That’s pretty much exactly how I feel. I don’t care what anyone believes; if it makes the person happy and their belief doesn’t harm me or anyone else, what do I care? I have my moral code; very simply, it’s “Don’t be an asshole.”

Where I differ from Dawkins — and a big part of why I think he’s an asshole — is that he thinks that believers are foolish and stupid to believe, while I don’t think that at all. (His “bright” meme — atheists should adopt a new term to describe themselves — made pretty clear what he really thought; if atheists are “bright,” then by extension theists must be “dim.” That’s the reason I won’t use the term “bright,” because I think it’s deliberately insulting to believers.) I don’t think that what believers believe in is true — obviously — yet I recognize that what they believe in gives them meaning, structure, and happiness, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with having meaning, structure, and happiness in one’s life.

I agree with something Ricky Gervais, also an atheist, said in an interview in 2013: “It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for, we have everything to live for.” When you get one shot at life, you better make it count. Spending time being a miserable git or making people miserable just isn’t worth it.

Why be an asshole like Dawkins or Harris or Maher? That won’t convince anyone to abandon their belief in god, and it may push someone who was on the edge of questioning religion away from embracing atheism.

Kevin Smith gave the world the Buddy Christ in Dogma. Maybe we need an atheist comic to give the world a Buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley or Buddy Thomas Paine or Buddy Sagan as the icon of a kinder, gentler atheism.

One thought on “The Jerks of the Atheist Movement

  1. For archival purposes, a comment I made in Facebook from a conversations stemming from the link share this post was adapted from:

    In my experience, Mahatma, there’s a reticence among atheists to criticize the prominent atheists. On the blogs I follow, it’s Oswalt who’s getting blasted as a traitor to the revolution because he’s criticized atheists and is insufficiently militant toward religion. I have a theory why this is and, though I’m not sure I can explain it, I’ll try.

    There are atheists who labor under a misapprehension that everyone can and should embrace atheism, and so any accomodation with religion as a fact of life is a betrayal of the atheist utopia. I think the atheist utopia (much as I love Star Trek) is as unlikely as the libertarian utopia, because utopias fail to grapple with reality in some fundamental ways. For the atheist utopia, that would be the structural advantages that religion has in society. I don’t mean churches and tax exemptions or anything like that. I mean the fact that children of religious parents are raised to be religious, usually in the faith of the parents. I’ve heard it said that children are born atheists, and I think that’s absolutely true. But a child isn’t really free to discover the world — or what she thinks about the world and how it works. On an individual level atheism (and other belief systems or faiths, for that matter) are disadvantaged in the marketplace of ideas because a belief system was created and reinforced over and over throughout the individual’s life by the time she reaches the point of awareness of other systems.

    I personally go further than this. Besides recognizing that, structurally, not everyone is going to be amenable to atheism because of how they’re raised, I also recognize that not everyone can psychologically be an atheist without suffering a massive cognitive shock. Becoming aware of the scope of the universe, in both space and time, and figuring out where you, as an individual, fits into that is not something that everyone can do. I’ve seen friends go to the edge of that, and I’ve had to talk some of them down from the ledge when they realized, psychologically, that they were on the edge of the abyss. I didn’t have any trouble adopting a viewpoint of existential nihilism. Carl Sagan’s COSMOS did a lot of the heavy lifting for me when I was young; I was already comfortable with my insignificance on a cosmic scale. Not everyone can go there. Religion is their framework. Religion is their comfort. It’s not their crutch. It is how they understand their place in the universe. Take that away, take away their meaning and their happiness, and what’s left is trauma.

    I’m getting to my point.

    It’s this acceptance that there will be believers and that’s not a bad thing that, in my opinion, is the crux of the criticism of Oswalt. I see Oswalt saying, “I’m not trying to destroy religion. I just don’t care about it,” as a sign of maturity and respect. Oswalt probably thinks the things I think above; he’s not a believer, but there are (and will be) believers for various reasons, and he’s okay with that. But to some, that attitude is nothing less than a betrayal because it’s not a blanket condemnation of religion. And that kind of attitude, one of accomodation and acceptance of religion, is especially irksome to some because Dawkins and Harris have been such loud voices condemning religion (to what I consider unconscionable extremes — Dawkins has likened raising a child in a religious household to abuse, Harris has argued for a nuclear first strike on Muslims because he finds Islam especially pernicious). Criticism of Dawkins and Harris, then, seems like an attack on the atheist cause and, by extension, the atheist utopia, which leads to people leaping to their defense almost reflexively.

    Tangentially, I’m critical of those who use the term “agnostic” and believe that makes them intellectually and morally superior to those who use “atheist.” (A very good example is Neil DeGrasse Tyson. His “Big Think” video where he belittled the term “atheist” was utterly assholish.) “Agnostic” is not some middle ground between the theism and atheism. “Agnostic” and “atheist” are not related terms. They are orthagonal terms that describe different things — agnostic describes whether something can be known, atheist describes whether something exists. The people who use “agnostic” as something superior to “atheist” really should know better; they’re manipulating language to be assholes and to make themselves feel big.

    That tangent, though, has nothing to do with calling out Dawkins. :)

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