I have noticed something in the attitudes of atheists and other freethinkers toward religion, that it is strongly influenced by the experiences that person has had with religion in the past. Those with a fundamentalist or evangelical background have experienced the suppression of thought and fear of external ideas that goes with fundamentalist indoctrination, and may have seen families, possibly even their own, torn apart by religious differences. They are more likely to be strongly anti-religious, even if they self-censor at times to keep the peace. In fact, the perceived need for self-censorship leads to a great deal of resentment towards the very thought of religion. Religion as they have experienced it is thought-suppressing, guilt-inducing, fanaticism filled bunk. And they rage against it. Understandably.

On the other hand, those from a more liberal and open religious background seem to not quite understand what these former fundamentalists are all worked up about. Or those who have never been religious, but have had lots of experience with reasonable, accepting religious people who you can tell you are an atheist without them making faces at you like they are going to be sick or faint or go berserk on you. Lucky for them.

Somehow, I get the idea that Barbara J. King is likely to fall into the later description, even though I’m not sure what her background is. She is the author of a recent article on the NPR blog titled “Will Richard Dawkins Drive A Stake Through The Heart Of The ‘Reason Rally’?

She seems to think that Richard Dawkins’s outspoken criticism of religion is going to somehow work against the goals of the Reason Rally to combat negative stereotypes of atheists. I, probably the same as Richard Dawkins, does not think that the way for us to combat negative ideas of atheism is for the atheists to make ourselves quieter on the subject of religion, as if it were actually superior to be a religionist (of whatever kind) than to be an atheist as so many apparently assume.

From the article:

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

What does she think Dawkins means by faith, I wonder? She makes clear elsewhere in the article that she is a science-minded person herself and just as frustrated as anyone by the antics of the creationists to sell pseudoscientific crap to children. (My words, not hers.) Surely she does not consider it virtuous to believe claims that have not been proven, or that have been shown to be out of step with modern knowledge of the world? Once again, I think, the problem comes down to “tone.” Saying things like “faith is evil” is going to turn off religious people who have a very rosy view of the virtue of believing unquestioningly in things that one has not seen (see John 20:29). Nevermind that the belief in the virtue of such “faith” is exactly what is at the heart of the harm done in the world in the name of religion, from suicide bombers to Catholic parents who believe the word of the religious authority over that of their hurt child. This is the sort of thing that leads Dawkins and others like him to make such “hurtful and harsh” statements about faith. The hurt that has been perpetuated in the name of faith has been much worse.

I think I know where she is coming from. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who consider themselves believers in a religious tradition but are at the same time pro-science, pro-reason people. At the same time, these are the people who use their reason and learning to reject or reinterpret portions of their religious tradition to make it compatible with a rational life in the modern world. Their traditions have been influenced by secular thought in the direction of progress. Surely we should not isolate ourselves from those who follow the nicer parts of religious tradition and still hold common cause with us secular people.

On the other hand, we are not going to improve the cause of secularism and acceptance of atheists by muzzling the atheist’s criticism of religion. That does not lead to any progress at all, in fact, that just keeps us where we are right now. We will never have an equal place for atheists in society until we get rid of the fear of blasphemy and offense of the religious and lay out all these ideas on the table for open discussion.

Richard Dawkins has given the secular community a great boost, being the first (as far as I know) to stick out his neck and publish a book about atheism with a major publishing company. He’s not going to damage our cause by speaking his mind at the Reason Rally.

Me at a book signing with Dawkins on his tour for The Greatest Show on Earth.