Nice Atheists and Mean Atheists

By Becky Garrison 11-05-2007

Faithful Progressive offers this insightful comparison of religious extremists and their secular counterparts.

The historical trends which led to the rise of the simplistic and hateful religious right seem to be operating with full force among atheists as well. Simple fear has a lot to do with it, and fear is rarely the source of the best of moral thinking and behavior. And the same reluctance to speak out that at first characterized the mainline Christian response to the religious right seems to paralyze decent, ethical atheists and their leaders from calling an intolerant atheist what he really is: a dangerous bigot.

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (aka the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse) grabbed the media spotlight by bellowing out bestsellers. But when researching my book The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith, I found other atheists who choose to sing a more tolerant tune.

For example, in my email interview with Hemant Mehta, aka the Friendly Atheist, I asked him why he wasn't one of Dawkins' disciples. He replied, "In message, I am. In tone and style, I'm not. I'd much rather engage in a dialogue with religious people. I know I have the facts behind me and, as an atheist, I shouldn't fear holding my own in a debate or conversation. The New Atheists appear as if they'd like nothing to do with anyone who proclaims a religion. I think there is room to work with the religious while at the same time showing them the merits of an atheist perspective."

While Mehta differs in both his approach and some of his views with Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, they both share a desire to dial down the rhetoric. During my phone conversation with Epstein, he noted how "Christians have a responsibility to reach out to moderate humanists, because by shunning those who want to work with them, they're playing into the hands of the angry atheists."

Where I've found considerable common ground with Epstein and Mehta is that we've both witnessed ample evidence where both New Atheists and certain Christians have invested too much energy into converting the other instead of seeking out areas of cooperation around issues such as the environment, human rights campaigns, and separation of church and state issues. Also, we've both caught heat from our respective camps for our decision to engage in dialogue with our perceived "enemies." Simply put, we'd like to see more attention paid to cooperative acts of charity instead of engaging in Jerry Springer-style free-for-alls that all too often define 21st century intellectual discourse.

Now, I am not proposing a wishy-washy anything goes scenario where Christians park their faith at the door. However, it seems to me there's too much at stake for us not to start exploring the common areas of our humanity, so we can start to build bridges instead of bombs. How can we all move past our prejudices and our distrust of others so we can allow for a safe space to dialogue?

Becky Garrison's other books include Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church and Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church.

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