A Schism Among Atheists?

A question I have seen raised recently, concerning a possible "schism" among atheists, is explored in this NPR story. The question appears to hinge on whether it is more productive to promote atheism by directly discounting or even ridiculing religious belief, or is it more productive to form alliances where possible with religious groups or individuals on areas of common concern. The article cites critics of religion such as Christopher Hitchens, whose book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is one of several published in recent years presenting a forceful case for atheism. Paul Kurz is offered as representing a quieter approach, less in-your-face and more respectful toward religion. An example of his way of promoting atheism is expressed well in this post at scienceblogs.com. Several interrelated questions are interesting to me: How much of this discussion reflects basic personality dimensions, or preferences based on personality? And is one "persuasion" approach more effective for some people than for others? Would "conversions" to atheism through the two methods differ in terms of how long they last? The list could go on, but it would be fascinating to see more research on such questions.


James Sweet said...

And is one "persuasion" approach more effective for some people than for others?

I am speculating, of course, but my intuition is that both "persuasions" are made more effective by the presence of the other. I have a blog post discussing the issue in more detail (that post specifically concerns the two "persuasions" regarding the compatibility of science and religion, but the same argument applies here).

To summarize, it seems to me that social change of any kind requires a healthy population of both "extremists" and "moderates" -- the former to push the boundaries of what ideas the mainstream is exposed to, and the latter to help the mainstream accept some of these new ideas.

Michael Nielsen said...

Thanks for the link, James.

Your comment alerts me to a point I need to clarify. By "persuasion approach" I mean persuasion more as psychological/interpersonal process, like the distinction between sudden vs. gradual conversion. It seems to me that people who are advocating an approach like Kurz does, are suggesting that atheists will have greater success in society by using a gradual process, whereas Hitchens advocates a more sudden change by hammering points home, so to speak. But my rush to write the post before class obviously resulted in some lack of clarity.

I think that your conclusion - that social change requires a variety of approaches - makes good sense. Thanks!

Michael Nielsen said...

Hmm, since I can't edit comments, I'm adding this link to point out the distinction between sudden and gradual conversion, which I clumsily described earlier. The link goes to the relevant section of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience.

Tom Rees said...

I think this is a peculiarly American debate, which stems from potentially conflicting goals: persuading people to accept evolution, and persuading people to reject God. It's peculiarly American because the USA is a nation with high levels of education and religion.

That debate is about whether or not to ally with religious people - whether this will increase the uptake of evolution or sabotage it (by compromising the purity of the idea).

My favourite fictional depiction of this struggle is the novel Satanic Verses, by the way. Quite appropriate for this debate!

There is a separate debate, which applies to all progressive social movements, about optimal tactics (noisy/militant vs reasonable/quiet).

Here I would say that it depends who you are talking to/about. Quite often, it's not what is said but the confidence and loudness with which it is said.

You need people like Dawkins and Hitchens to make atheism 'sexy'. But at the end of the day it's the millions of small, quiet debates that result in social change.