This morning I read an article that crystallized a concern that has lingered in my mind for some time. In the February 14, 2012 UK edition of the Huffington Post, Richard Dawkins was reportedly referred to by some secularists as “an embarrassment to atheism”. I looked around the site, making sure I hadn’t been tricked by some cleverer branch of Fox News that had disguised itself. No, it was indeed HuffPo that was reporting this. I concluded that Dawkins must have been caught saying grace or something and read on in terrified suspense. Finally I got to the paragraph that revealed his grievous error: in a recent radio debate against the former Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Giles Fraser, Dawkins had been unable to name the full subtitle of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. And then, in frustration, he stabbed Fraser.
For forgetting the subtitle to a book that everyone refers to simply as The Origin of Species, the atheist world is ready to throw Richard Dawkins under the bus? After all he’s done for this movement? For our standing in the world? Aside from the fact that he’s 70 years old and could be expected to forget trivial details from time to time, this is a man who has written 12 books himself, along with dozens of academic papers and articles, and made 8 documentary films. Obviously, he’s got a lot on his mind. But some in the atheist movement saw fit to label him an embarrassment to atheism over an irrelevant and inconsequential senior moment.
That is the true embarrassment to atheism. This tendency of secularists to attack one another in the media, on the internet, and at public events is pervasive and ultimately paralyzing. The secular movement the world over has more than its fair share of enemies. We literally have people who want us dead and in hell for what we (don’t) believe. And yet one sees these atheist-on-atheist attacks constantly. Every week there is some new dust-up rocking the non-religious blogosphere, or someone’s published a book that either attacks other atheists or is immediately attacked by them. I am pointedly not using specific examples here, because naming names is not the point. We’ve all done that before, and it needs to stop.
For a group of people who advocate reason and pragmatism, this is an incredibly bizarre tendency. It is quite apparently counterproductive to our self-interest to incessantly criticize one another over what are comparatively minor quibbles. The harsh reality is that we are grouped together by necessity, not by choice. We don’t have a choice in this. Divided we fall, and united we crawl, on good days.
I do understand why this has become a norm in modern discourse on atheism. A group that is populated by thinking people will have internal disagreements. I am not naïve enough to suggest that we will ever all fall into one neat, sycophantic line. Thinking people will never simply accept statements unquestioningly, even those made by their allies. And this quality, put to the right use, is one of the most beneficial aspects of the secular community. But far too often it is exercised only to our detriment.
Internal disagreements should remain internal. They should be dealt with personally, quietly, and respectfully. Instead, the average atheist’s first instinct upon reading or hearing something s/he disagrees with is to go throw metaphorical tomatoes at whoever has offended them. Or to say ridiculous things such as “Richard Dawkins is an embarrassment to atheism.”
We need to see the bigger picture, because it isn’t a pretty one. We are an under-represented minority, and until we learn to pick our battles, we won’t win any. Try to name a successful movement characterized by infighting. What we need is to re-instill our pride and our solidarity, rather than always squabbling over minor semantic differences. The religious right in America only gained the power it has today through the decision of different Christian sects to band together to form a powerful political and cultural bloc, rather than opposing one another as they had historically done. And that decision has allowed religious extremists to seriously damage the governance, culture, and image of the US. Fighting one another won’t undo that, ever. We need to remind ourselves of who our friends are; our enemies won’t ever let us forget.