Defending a Daily Dish Reader

During Andrew Sullivan’s time away from his blog, Patrick Appel has posted a little series on atheists (starting here).  Blogger Freddie deBoer criticizes atheists for focusing too much on religion (read his original post to see if that’s in dispute).  A Dish reader blasted Freddie for bad reasoning.  Freddie posted a rejoinder.  Here’s my defense of the Dish reader, which I sent to Mr Appel.

Dear Patrick Appel,

I have to defend the reader who criticized Freddie.  I reread Freddie’s original post attacking atheism as being defined by objection to religion.  The reader doesn’t seem to be misinterpreting Freddie very much at all.  Freddie’s right that atheism compels you to nothing, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong or odd for an atheist to notice the problems with religious faith and want to speak out against it.

Freddie’s condemnation of Sam Harris is especially strange since Sam actually called out atheists at “an atheist convention” for using the term “atheism,” which Sam also believes to be content-free.  Dr Harris is an atheist but he’s not defined by atheism – his public life is better defined through challenging irrational and dogmatic beliefs.  Certainly religion is a particularly deep well of unreasonable ideas and also is more commonly sheltered from criticism so it is understandable that he might focus on it. 

So what is Freddie’s point that was misunderstood? Is it just that atheism doesn’t compel one to criticize religion.  Sure, he’s right.  But it sounds an awful lot like he’s criticizing atheists for criticizing religion.  The only alternative is that he’s complaining about a non-existent problem – I’ve never read an atheist that claims atheism forces them to oppose religion. Atheists, as one would expect, notice the irrationality in religion more than even secular theists. Unsurprisingly, some (probably not even most) of these atheists spend a lot of time attacking religious ideas that they see as harming society.  It is not “anger at the God [they] say [they] don’t believe in,” as he uncharitably and falsely insinuates that vocal atheists are liars. 

Not noticing the irony, Freddie blatantly misunderstands and straw-mans the Dish reader.  Freddie spends a large portion of his response arguing that Christians and religious moderates can defend “Enlightenment values” and fight religious extremism too.  I challenge you or him to find one place where the emailer claimed otherwise.

Also, tactics weren’t even touched in Freddie’s first post or the emailer’s response – why he focuses so thoroughly on them in order to defend himself is beyond me (unless it’s to deflect attention from the poverty of his original argument).  He also doesn’t muster up that much evidence that atheists are poor advocates for defending secular liberal values.  Can’t atheists and religious secularists fight against extremism?  An atheist by definition can’t do it as a religious moderate.  So is Freddie recommending that atheists lie about being atheists or that they just shut up about religion all together?    

Freddie doesn’t even consider that religious moderates might also deserve criticism – are atheists allowed to do that?  Many have thanked Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for pointing out faults in their religion. 

I also have to point out that Freddie’s claim that “opposing those actions has nothing to do with eliminating the religious devotion that supposedly inspires them” is absolutely absurd.  First of all, there is nothing “supposedly” about their inspiration.  In the sentence immediately before he writes, “people do things out of religious conviction that must be opposed.” (my emphasis) This is the sloppy thinking by apologists for religion that too often gets a pass.  Is he really arguing that challenging the religious beliefs that motivate certain harmful actions is pointless?  I agree that many terrorists can’t be reasoned out of their faith but many other (more reasonable) believers can.  He can go on “without thinking about religion” as long as he wants, but thankfully many will continue to confront the unreasonable faith-based dogma (no matter how “moderate”) that retards secular progress and shelters fundamentalism.

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