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.


Just kidding.

 

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.   

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Comment by Richard ∑wald on March 16, 2012 at 9:17pm

"Internal disagreements should remain internal."

Respectfully, …I disagree. Once Secularists go down the path of non-transparency, we've as good as lost the battle. 

Comment by Reason Being on February 15, 2012 at 8:38pm

I agree with all of the comments made below and your post Katie.  I am relatively new to the atheist blogosphere and have already seen some of this.  It really is too bad.  We are all so segregated in the real world, it is a shame that we are often that way in cyberspace as well.  Will we all ever be one big happy family---most assuredly not, but we should strive to put a common face to the public.  There are many things that do agree on.  I also agree with Anne T below.  I have met some atheists on forums and blogs that are every bit as dogmatic, rigid, and self-righteous as theists.  They are not the people who will help our cause in the long run, yet every group has its extremists, so perhaps they are to be expected.  For my part, I do not concede things to people lightly, but I always try to talk rationally and calmly--any other way and I find the conversation really doesn't get anywhere.  I think it would behoove us to take your advice and do that with each other a bit more often.

Comment by Russell20 on February 15, 2012 at 7:31pm

This is what Dr dawkins had to say about the episode on his own web-site

Jump to comment 9 by Richard Dawkins

Oh dear RD, not remembering the full title of On the Origin of Species...tut tut, but I feel they will reuse that over and over.

Yes, I think we can safely rely on them to do so! The fact that I got it in the end, thereby demonstrating that I knew it all along but was temporarily flustered by the unexpected ambush will by no means deter them! Never mind. It was, in any case, not a good comparison because the Mori poll question was multiple choice. The polled 'Christians' were not asked "What is the first book of the New Testament?" and expected to enunciate a word-perfect "Matthew" (a one-word memory feat as opposed to the 21-word memory that was asked of me). They were only asked to choose from one of the following: Matthew, Genesis,, Acts of the Apostles, Psalms, Don't know, Prefer not to say. 39% chose "Don't know" and only 35% chose Matthew.

For me, the single most telling finding from our survey was that as many as 40%, when asked why they called themselves Christian said it was because "I try to be a good person" (don't we all?). Yet at the same time only 10% said that when seeking moral guidance they go to religious teachings or beliefs, while over half prefer "to draw on their own moral sense" (which is what the rest of us presumably do anyway).

Also significant is that comfortable majorities of those who call themselves Christian support equal rights for gay people and support assisted suicide for the terminally ill. And more of them oppose than support reserved seats for Bishops in the House of Lords. There's lots more good stuff in the survey, which I truly think may turn out to be a devastating blow for those who want to maintain the privileged position of Christianity in British public life.

Richard

Tuesday, 14 February 2012 at 9:41 AM | #917575

 Below is a link to the results of the survey reffered to by Rd

http://richarddawkins.net/articles/644941-rdfrs-uk-ipsos-mori-poll-...

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on February 15, 2012 at 5:34pm

I dont know anything bout Fraser. Down goes Fraser. But I recall Huffington asserting how there is no contradiction between science and religion. Now that is embaressin. Init?

Comment by annet on February 15, 2012 at 3:03pm

Forgetting the subtitle is hardly embarrassing but his elevatorgate response was disappointing. I agree we need solidarity but one problem is that we are not a unified minority. We don't have much in common and there is no internal avenue for us to hash out our infights.  There are many self appointed atheist "purists" that are not even tolerant of humanists let alone theists (or  people who forget subtitles.) Arguing with them is like arguing with a theist, you cannot even agree to disagree. Sorry if this sounds negative, it is not meant as such, perhaps just devil's advocate.

Comment by Loren Miller on February 15, 2012 at 3:00pm

The idiot-children who wanted to get on Dawkins' case because he couldn't remember the full title of Darwin's Origin of the Species may associate themselves with another term. Like "atheist," it also starts with "A", though this one ends with "E" and has "S-S-H-O-L" between those two.

As to Dawkins' opponent, Mr. Fraser, I would wonder if he was as schooled in the contents of the book in question as he was interested in its title. This brand of debate by minutiae does not serve him well, any more than it serves the subject matter.

Still, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. As the creationists really have nothing to back up their position, I suppose their reduced to such cheap tricks.

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