University Atheist/Secular Humanist societies should beware the recent rise in what theists are calling “New Atheism”, the approaches of people like Richard Dawkins and some YouTubers while welcome to the debate, need mitigating in the fairly liberal, University Environment.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that being honest and forthright about the fallacies of religious thought is honourable and that Richard Dawkins does it exremely well. He can put things into lay-english very well, has the force of integrity built up by years as a scientist, is witty and humourous whilst not falling into the trap of screaming and shouting to gain more attention.
This is great for television, in speeches and in debates but can in my view be a problem when this adversarial and occasionally combative philosophy pervades a group to the exclusion of all other viewpoints, as had until recently appeared to be the case at Southampton Atheist Society.
The problems of such a take-over range quite widely, but there are one or two to which I would particularly wish to draw attention:
Atheism – by definition of being a lack of belief in a deity or deities – is unique amongst belief systems in being a “broad church” comprising people who both have been brought up in a religious belief system and those who have not. In todays multicultural society that means that any group of atheists may consist of ex-Christians, ex-Muslims, ex-Jedi, Buddhists, cultural atheists and any number of other people. There is also a curious tendency for people of any ex-religious grouping to have a soft-spot for the religion which they left, especially if the transition was long and peaceful (Richard Dawkins himself has said that he holds a soft-spot for the Church of England).
It is very hard for some people to make a transition from one belief system to another, and it almost certainly isn’t as though you are switching on a light; as this video from the world of the YouTube may demonstrate:
If you are in the process of this transition when you come to university and you come up against the sort of “dawkinsian new atheism” that i’m talking about at the society’s stall, what impetus is there to join the society if the people involved won’t be sensitive to your lingering beliefs, or the soft spot you have for the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Some of the people I have spoken to about it say that these people are not just insensitive, but can be down right rude and condascending. Religious groups and churches are often more than willing to let atheists and agnostics attend their meetings and are open to debate, The ulterior motive being “we might convert them”. Why can we not be just as open but without the motive, afterall we just want people to think for themselves… don’t we?
This leads to the second problem I want to bring up, which is that any group showing “fundamentalist” tendencies, whatever they may be, is unlikely to attract the “moderate” members of their group needed to ameliorate their group and make it more appealing to outsiders. Now I’m not saying that you have to be wishy-washy liberals about everything, merely that just because someone shares your viewpoint or belief system doesn’t mean that they are forced to employ your methods and traditions.
As an atheist I more than likely agree with everything that the four horsemen (Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens) say – but the way I like to do things is very, very different. I’m a scientist and hold to the belief that if you can expose someone to the evidence without biases and in a way that encourages the use of a scientific method and mind-set, you’ll be fantastically more convincing than a rhetorical preacher who requires the flock not to think.
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