The Future of Atheism: Beyond the Question of God

December 03, 2010

Recently at Pomona College in California, three atheists—one of them a Point of Inquiry host—got together to debate the future of the movement.

And some sparks flew.

Topics raised included the rise of the so-called “nones” (those professing “no religion” in surveys), the lack of representation for atheists in the U.S. Congress, and the debate between moderate or “live-and-let-live” atheism as opposed to a louder and more aggressive version.

Despite their disagreement, it was clear that it’s an exciting time for the movement, as atheism becomes more visible in American life. Where do we go from here?

The students in the packed audience have that in their hands.

Panel participants were:

David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Mr. Silverman attended Brandeis University and specialized in computer science; he worked as an inventor at Bell Labs for 8 years. He then served at American Atheists as national spokesperson, vice president, and finally president, a post he assumed this year.

Hemant Mehta writes the “Friendly Atheist” blog and serves on the board of directors of the Foundation Beyond Belief and the Secular Student Alliance. He has also appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and is author of the book I Sold My Soul on eBay, released in 2007.

Chris Mooney is a host of Point of Inquiry.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 3rd, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots, we have a special show for you this week. It’s a live recording of a debate that occurred recently at Pomona College in California about the future of Athie ism. The event was entitled. Now what, Athie isn’t beyond the question of God. It featured yours truly American Atheists President David Silverman and Heyman’s Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist blog and a board member of the Secular Student Alliance. The moderator was Rose Green, a Pomona student who thought the event needed to happen because her campus didn’t have an atheist group. After the debate, before a packed room of students, maybe that will change. And so, without further ado, I take you to Pomona. Good evening. 

Good evening. Good evening. Hi. 

My name’s Rose Green and I’m a committee chair on the Pomona Student Union. And I would like to thank you for joining us at this evening’s event. Now what Athie ism beyond the question of God? First, I’d like to thank the Public Events Committee without their generosity. None of this would have happened. The Pomona Student Union is a nonpartizan student run organization dedicated to promoting honest and open discourse on campus. While a substantial portion of campus dialog occurs in formal settings such as in class or at events like this one, we do not want the discussion to end here. We encourage you to take this discussion further after this event and to challenge your assumptions while debating this topic with others. The views expressed in this event do not necessarily represent those of the PSU or its members. And please visit our Web site, PSU, Dopp Pomona, PDU for information and upcoming events in the last 20 years in the United States. There has been a substantial increase in the number of atheists and the number of people who will openly identify as such. In the last few years. Atheists have become more outspoken, launching media and publicity campaigns around the world for various atheist causes. This holiday season for different national atheist organizations will be advertising across America in favor of Athie ism, with slogans ranging from Don’t Believe in God. Join the club to the American Atheists. You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason despite this expansion of public atheist. The Athie is a movement. If there is one still remains fractured. Some atheist seek allies with other political minority groups and even liberal religious believers. Other, more hard line or militant atheists reject any such alliance and seek the elimination of religion altogether. Today’s atheists have moved beyond the question of whether God exists. However, questions of atheist morality, politics, allies and the future of Athie ism still remain. With this in mind, the Pomona Student Union would like to welcome Chris Mooney David Silverman and Hamar Mehta for a discussion on the future of Athie ism and the atheist movement. First to introduce our speakers. Chris Mooney is a journalist, commentator and author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Republican War on Science, Storm World Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming. And his new book, which he coauthored with Cheryl Kirshen, Bomb Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. He and his Kirshen mom also write the Discovery blog, The Intersection. He’s a contributing editor to Science Progress, a senior correspondent to The American Prospect, and a contributor to many other publications, including Wired, Salon and Slate. He’s also the host of the Point of Inquiry podcast for the Center of Inquiry, and he graduated from Yale University. David Silverman is the president of American Atheists. Very recently, the president of American Atheists. He hosts the Atheist Viewpoint Television Program and writes the No God blog. He’s appeared on numerous public affairs and news programs, including Hannity and Combs, The O’Reilly Factor, CNN, Fox and Friends at NPR’s All Things Considered. And he graduated from Brandeis University and received his MBA from Penn State. Metta currently teaches high school math in the suburbs of Chicago. He’s author of I Sold My Soul on eBay and the Friendly Atheist blog. He’s also on the board of directors of both the Foundation Beyond Belief and the Secular Student Alliance, of which he was the chair of the board last year. He has appeared on numerous television shows, as well as the front page of the Wall Street Journal. He graduated with a double major from the University of Illinois at Chicago and received his masters from DePaul University. Please join me in welcoming our speakers. Here is the first question. In the last 20 years, the number of atheist and nonbelievers in the United States has doubled and the number of young atheists has quadrupled. How would you describe the state of Athie ism today, considering this increase as well as the current political and religious climate? 

Well, hi, everybody. 

The first thing that I would like to say is that the amount of atheists has not doubled or quadrupled. What has gone up is the amount of atheists who identify themselves as atheists. When I was young, I was the only atheist I knew. But that doesn’t mean I was the only atheist. I was just the only atheist I knew. And in order to find out about atheists, I had to take my bike to the public library and I had to ask for books on atheists. And I had to find the book on atheist. George H. Smith’s. The Case Against God. And that was my original exposure. Nowadays we have the Internet, which is the main growth tool of Athie ism in the world. 

And because of the Internet, it is really literally impossible for somebody to think they are the only person that they know or that the only atheist in the world. I did. 

But it’s literally impossible for that to happen if they have Internet access and if they put in even a smidgen amount of effort, simply going on Facebook or YouTube will totally erase that. What that means is that people will know they’re not alone. They will have friends. They will have interaction. They will have blogs. And that will empower them to not be in the closet. So what you’re seeing today is not just a growth of Athie ism. And I do want to make it clear that we are growing, but a growth of people saying they’re atheists and a decrease in the amount of closeted atheists nationwide and worldwide. It is a very good time to be an atheist. 

I can add to that Dave said he had to go to the library to find like v book on atheist. I became an atheist when I was a freshman in high school. And at that time, the only way I had access to get information about atheists was like going on AOL late at night, dialing up on the Internet and finding like the one or two Web sites put out by seemingly crazy people. 

But I was reading what they wrote on those like Statik pages, and it totally made sense. And that’s all there was. And now there are hundreds and hundreds of blogs about a theism. There are Web sites. I mean, I got an e-mail last year from a kid who just who said, I’m a high schooler. I ride the bus in Washington, D.C. every day. And I saw a billboard that talked about a theism and wow, I’ve never heard anyone say that. Agree with me on those issues. And just the fact that, like Dave said, you don’t have to be alone anymore is just the biggest thing. There was a study from the American I was the American Religious Identification Survey. 

I think it came out last year and it said the only religious viewpoint is what they used between like Catholics, Protestants. What have you and these non-religious or maybe none. But the only category that percentage wise increased in every state in America was the non-religious one. And again, that’s a dubious category because that could include people who believe in believing on what I consider nonsense. But it’s exciting. You’re not alone anymore. And I think that growth is probably the biggest change we’ve had in the past couple of decades. 

You’re not the only one anymore. You don’t have to be afraid. In a lot of places of being an atheist. And I can tell you, when I started working with the Secular Student Alliance in like 2004, we had about 40 college campuses nationwide that had atheist groups on campus. 

As of today, we have like two hundred twenty five. It’s to the point where students go to a campus and they’re surprised not to see a group for atheists on there. That’s really exciting for me. And I think I wish this was the case and I was in high school. 

I know I wouldn’t have felt all alone. So I feel it’s a good time to be an atheist. And and one of the things a lot of atheist groups and individuals are doing is trying to get more people to admit, Beran, they’re an atheist anymore. And we don’t really care what word you choose necessarily. I know some people like atheists, some like humanists, some like Bright. We even tell our affiliate groups, go on Facebook and search for posta Florian’s because people are going to use different words, but they’re out there and they might use different labels, but we’re there and you can find each other now. 

I don’t like the word admit. I think trumpet is a good word. I admit I don’t like good. 

It’s it’s great to be here. Let me chime in. 

There’s already a couple issues rolling around, and I’m going to differ only slightly. But before I differ, I want to say something important. People up here on the panel share ninety nine percent of their intellectual DNA. There’s little differences about strategy, but we all pretty much agree about things, so we’re going to be agreeable. I think, as we do it so. So there’s two things rolling around. One is changing religious demographics in the United States and the growth of a category that has been referred to as the nuns. And that’s in disputed. I’m not sure that the nuns are atheists across the board. I think that when you have non religious affiliation, what you have is people who are sort of a little bit Buddhist, little bit Catholic. And I like my crystal and I call myself spiritual and they might be a nun. That’s very different than a real outspoken atheist who wants to argue about it. I do agree very strongly that outspoken Athie ism is in the public square in a way that it was not when I was an atheist activist in college about 10 years ago, and we would have thrilled to the books that are now bestsellers and we didn’t have them then. So something’s going on. But I’m not sure that the really loud atheist voices, which are definitely highly visible, are necessarily articulating the messages that the nuns all want to hear. I think that’s a different matter. 

Good. Well, I was just going to say that, yeah. Chris and Chris is 100 percent right, that we’re what you’re what you’re looking at here is three people who differ on one percent of what we say. As far as what the nuns are, Chris and I do differ as far as how many of those nuns are atheistic. I view the nuns as far more atheistic than others. But also, there are a lot of people who still call themselves religious that are atheists. There are people out there who call themselves Jews and Christians that are secular. So outside of that category of nuns, there’s people who responded to that research as Jew or Christian, and they’re just as secular as you and me. As far as the message going out from the louder section, yeah, we’re not all what we’re not going to support the entire market. 

And while we all have to realize is that you’ve got three different segments of the atheist market up on this table right now and American Atheists. Yeah. We’re the loud ones. Yeah. Where the blunt ones. Yeah. We call religion a myth mainly because it is. And if you don’t like to hear it, well, that’s OK. You can find another atheist organization that you might agree with. And that’s all good. 

And I think what’s important to know is no matter what, we haven’t. It’s not like atheists get together and work on. Let’s have this same message to go out there. We all have different perspectives. But I don’t. I don’t think. I think regardless of the perspective you have, whether it’s the more outspoken, very blunt atheist or even the ones that are calling for more moderation in any of those categories, they’re going up. There’s more people willing to subscribe to any of those viewpoints. And I think that’s a big change regardless. And yeah, they’re going to clash and butt heads every once in a while. But the overall message is, look, there are we are not enemies with each other. We do have common goals here that we can work together on, even though we disagree. I maybe want to call ourselves what attitude, what tone to take. 

You know, I’m really I really get upset when I look in the paper and I read about the clash within Athie ism, the clash within Athie ism. And I just want to make sure that you all get this because I’m president of American Atheists. If there was a clash between atheists ism, I’d be in the middle of it. And it is such a minor thing that it’s really it’s not a significant thing. The the disagreement that we have among the groups is healthy, it’s proper, and it’s a good thing. And it simply means that we’re not all toeing each other’s lines. 

It’s it’s a very good thing. 

Well, I’m not sure that I agree with that. I’ve been in. 

Yes, you do. 

Well, you see, I mean, I actually think it’s it’s it’s toned down a bit. But I’ve been involved in some pretty dramatic and harsh, argumentative online combat with people who are, you know, as, again, share ninety nine percent of my intellectual DNA. 

I certainly thought that it was pretty, pretty vigorous and pretty pretty contested. And it was it was kind of amazing because I did often try to say, hey, you know, we don’t disagree about much. We just disagree about, like, little tiny things that most members of American public are not that really excited about at all and don’t even know that people argue about. But nevertheless, I’ve seen some pretty brutal infighting. 

I think you’re going to see individuals fight with each other. That’s bound to happen. But the I can speak for the national organizations of which I’ve been involved with a number of them. I know Dave has to. We’re working together more now than we ever did before. And only now has all those articles. Have all those articles started coming out about how this clashing is going on? The groups aren’t arguing. 

Yeah, they’re individuals that are going to differ on tactics and whether we should, you know, a car made accommodate any sort of Christianity. Is it okay to believe in Christ is be a Christian and believe in science and accept science? 

Yeah, you’re going to have those discussions. But if the message is, look, let’s let people know that atheists are out there, let’s tell people that religion doesn’t make any sense. 

Depending on the tone. Yeah, we’re going to differ. But the message is still there. We’re here. We want you to be okay with admitting that. We want people to know that they probably know an atheist and may not even recognize that themselves. Yeah, we’ll differ on the tone. But again, we’re not fighting with each other. It’s not like there’s giant email battles like American Atheists who put out that billboard. How dare you? No one’s doing that. 

Great. Thank you. 

The second question, considering their number, atheists are disproportionately under a. Presented politically, the first and only atheist Congress person, or at least the only atheist identified a congressperson is in office currently. And in a 2007 USA Today Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans said that they would not vote for a qualified candidate for president if they were an atheist. 

This was the highest group in the survey. Many atheist leaders have advocated moving the atheist movement in a much more political direction. 

Should the atheist movement become more overtly political? And if so, what should the atheist political agenda be? 

I can step in here. Let me give a little bit of background on the one atheist member in Congress. So a few years ago, the atheist organization, several of them working together as part of the Secular Coalition for America, we kind of asked ourselves the question, how is it possible that there are 535 members of Congress and we don’t know a single one who is openly, publicly an atheist or what whatever label they call themselves? So we had a contest. We said if you can identify the highest ranking elected public official in America who is openly non theistic, we’ll give you a thousand dollars figuring, you know, best case scenario. Dick Cheney’s an atheist. Worst case scenario, it’s like a local dog catcher, which which just proves the point. Rose just said that atheist can’t get elected in this country. And it turns out the people of California, a couple of them mentioned, hey, our congressman Pete Stark, he calls himself a Unitarian, but he’s not a theistic. He doesn’t believe in God. And we contacted Stark’s office and we said, hey, is that true? Can we go public with that? And their office was pretty much. Yeah. Yeah, you could say that. That’s fine. 

That easy, really. OK. So so we did. And the backlash there was virtually none. The only person who got really mad was Stephen Colbert. And that was the best thing that could have happened. 

Where does he represent where? Yeah, I forgot which district, but he is a congressman from California. But I think one of the things we learned while I know in California, but one of the things we learned going through the process is he and I don’t know the names, frankly, but from what I hear it there’s probably probably way more non theistic people in public office, Congress, people, senators who just, you know, they got to get reelected. They don’t want to come out as an atheist because they don’t want to get hurt in the polls. So I think one of the goals for the secular coalition for America in the next decade or so is to get more of those people to come out of the closet, maybe when it’s more politically OK for them to do so. I get that, but hopefully sooner. And that includes Republicans as well as Democrats. Now, the question of should we become more political? Well, yeah, I’d be great to elect people who support science. And I don’t really care. Faith support Athie ism. I don’t really look to my senators to tell me what to believe in. But I think it’s always good to have rational people in Congress. I don’t think we’re going to get much traction if we tell atheist. You all have to vote this way. I think you could say, look, there are some causes here that you should vote for the candidate who supports positive science standards, who supports, you know, civil rights for gay people, equal rights. You can always say that. May think a lot of progressives in general are going to get on board with that. But part of one of the downsides and upsides, Davey ism, is we’re not going to follow along just because someone tells us it’s the right thing to do. We’re going to do that on our own. It’s like it’s been said, what, herding cats? It’s tough. So it’s not it’s not like we’re going to say, hey, you if you live in distress district, go vote for this person. It’s not as easy as that. So I don’t think it’s like you’re going to see a giant political campaign for atheists, but hopefully in the coming years you will see more candidates. I saw a couple this election cycle who at least are willing to come out and say, oh, yeah, I’m an atheist. I mean, I’m not running on that. That’s not my platform. But I don’t believe in God and I don’t really care if my constituents believe it. I’m not here to disparage them. But, yeah, I don’t personally believe in that. There’s nothing wrong with that. I, I heard a candidate say that he lost, but I’m we’re gonna hear more of that in the future. 

But what are the causes them. Because the ones that I heard you say I think are very productive and very positive and I would have said the same ones. 

In fact, I made some notes and I, I did make essentially the same ones. Let’s support you know, let’s let’s oppose religious interference in scientific research like stem cell research. Let’s support the teaching of evolution of those not a federal issue. Let’s support, you know, civil unions. Let’s things like that. What I wonder about is how much is the agenda? You know, let’s get under God out of the Pledge of Allegiance because that kind of thing doesn’t really motivate me very much. It seems like an issue that’s largely symbolic and not actually that important, but incredibly divisive culture war kind of issue where if you pick something like that, you’re just going to get people incredibly angry for not much gain. And I fear that there’s going to be a lot of picking of those kinds of issues, which I think is less. Less productive. 

I can tell you from my experience working with some of the groups that might pose some of these legal battles and Dave can maybe back me up on this or correct me. I’m trying to get under God out of the pledge has never been one of the priorities of any of these atheist organizations. There are definitely individuals. Michael Newdow, for one who who make that a big issue and want to see that taken care of. And I agree with him. I think he’s right. It shouldn’t be in the pledge. But that’s not the goal. But for these organizations. And I can tell you, the secular coalition for America, we were able to meet with the White House administration this past February. And we talked with the administration about three issues that we cared about and none of them had to do with the let’s let’s stop Christmas like no one cares about it. We talked about things like we don’t want to see military proselytization. We don’t want to see religious groups get money for faith based initiatives and then say, oh, we’re going to fire you if you’re gay. And we don’t want to see, you know, people will allow their children to die because they’re Christian scientists and they don’t want to take their kids to a doctor and then they don’t go to jail because of religious exemptions in the law. I think those are things a lot of religious people could actually get onboard with. Oh, totally. And I don’t think any of the priorities of those groups are to get under God out of the pledge. No, I just think when you enter the public sphere, you want you want allies. 

And so if you’re standing up for equal rights for religious, non-religious people, that I think that’s very good. If you’re actually in the public sphere acting politically to convert people to be like you, that’s a different thing. And I think that that’s good to not play play as well. 

It’s not going to play as well. And frankly, I would kind of be disturbed if I heard any atheist candidate saying, you know, saying the things that a lot of atheist bloggers do. 

All right. So what we’ve heard is just a couple of points that are really pushed by the media that are simply not true. We are not trying to convert anybody. American Atheists does not try and make anybody act like us. 

American Atheists does not do anything to outlaw religion or to convert religious people. That’s not what we do. We bolster atheists. But it’s a better story if you say we try and convert people. We don’t try and take in God. We trust off the coins while we did. 

But we don’t do it now. 

Well, we don’t try and take under God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s not what we’re doing. You don’t knock on doors to convert people. We don’t. Not recently about the media, but it plays better in the media. 

If we do so, what you’re hearing is the reaction, the sensationalization of non stories and the cover up. I hate to use that word because it sounds fishy, but it’s true. 

The cover up of the real issues, the real issues are all under the umbrella of the separation of church and state. Gay marriage is a separation of church and state issue. STEM cell research is a separation of church and state issue as atheists. 

We must become more politic and we must vote separation of church and state. We also understand that one of the things that the opponents of separation of church and state will do is try to divide. They will tell you that this is not that issue. This is a gay issue. This is a science issue. Science, mythology and science class. That’s a different issue. They are not. We have one issue, one very broad umbrella issue, the separation of church and state. If it fails, this country dies. If the separation of church and state is eliminated, America as a country dies permanently. 

We are in a situation where we have a five to four majority in the Supreme Court. 

If we lose that majority, they can and will and intend to eliminate the separation of church and state. 

And this country will change for the worse forever. And this is why we fight. 

I have a couple disagreements there. I I’m I’m very liberal. And I don’t want the Supreme Court to be any more conservative. But I don’t know that what they could do, given all of the existing law is quite as dramatic as you suggest. There’s a lot of limits to what you can do when you have such a body of case law establishing the separation of church and state. 

But also, I mean, what do we mean by can you read what Samuel Alito says? I know. I know. But this state is a myth. He’s a Supreme Court judge. One of them, yeah. I mean, you know, it’s these four. 

There’s only nine. 

I actually have faith that the separation of church and state in this country is fairly robust. And usually you get encroachments on the edges of it. But I haven’t seen any gigantic dents in it, in my opinion. But that’s that’s one point. It’s certainly important to defend. 

But I actually think, you know, we’re defending a very, very strong fortress is all in all, I would say. 

And then the other point, I think, where do you think there are people who want to turn that down, who are running for Congress? 

Sure. Who are in Congress? 

Well, some don’t even know it’s in the First Amendment. Well, right. 

But, yeah, I’m just saying I’m I’m just saying that they don’t terrify me that much because I think that it would take a lot more before it was really threatened. Then the second point is a one about one about conversion. I mean, here we were just celebrating all the figures that show the country becoming more secular. And that was that was a good thing. 

I mean, it’s kind of conversion. And, you know, when you look at the prominent atheist authors, I think that the message is that religion is a problem. That there was less of it. The world would be a better place. I mean, it’s not that it’s not Infowars or. No, it’s not. Door to door. 

But I mean, there is a sense in which it implies conversion. And I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with that because I actually think that, you know, I’m not sure that religion is the cause of a lot of the problems. It’s often claimed to be I think that, you know, people are the cause and they seize upon ideological things. They seize on nationalism, they seize upon religion, they seize upon without religion would be a whole lot harder. Well, if I in any case, religion is. 

Let me have you can you can justify. So also. So I think that there is that implication. 

Whereas I actually think that when people do bad things, it’s for a lot of different reasons and religion can be the justification. But a lot of other things can be to even. 

I mean, even Richard Dawkins, who’s the biggest best seller out of them, has said religion isn’t the root of all evil, but it certainly helps justify a lot of it. 

I have never said an American atheist has never said that religion is the cause of evil. The cause of evil is greed. Chris, religion is a tool. It’s a very, very well either. 

There’s there’s a lot of there’s a lot of cause. So so I feel like that message, you know, is is implied or stated here. And I think that that doesn’t make some people uncomfortable. I’m not sure I feel that good about it, although I do think that people are probably going to be better off for the most part, if there’s less sort of irrational dogma in their lives. But at the same time, I think that religious identity can do wonderful things for people and is needed vitally for people in many circumstances, especially when their lives are hard. They’re going through a divorce. They’re going through a death in the family. This is what they have to turn to. And no doubt it makes you stronger. So I worry. So I think. And right. 

Didn’t get high on heroin. I don’t make a divorce much better for you if you’re high on heroin at the time. But it doesn’t make it a good thing for you to do. I mean, if somebody die, I think that you can just really trivialize. It’s not really trivializing it all. It’s a completely valid analogy. 

And again, what it’s it’s it’s an inflammatory analogy that doesn’t help. It’s not an inflammatory analogy. It’s like it’s an exactly correct analogy. So religion is like being high on heroin. Yeah. Now, listen, what I’m what I’m saying is that just because that’s maybe that’s unworthy of Fox News. I mean, on the other side. No, no. 

Now what you’re saying is that that religion has it’s that religion has its positive side. And that’s probably something on which you and I are going to disagree because I do not see a positive side of religion and I do not see a. Need for religion for anyone, except for those who are convinced that they need it from from other from religion. Religion convinces you that you need religion and then you think you think you need religion. Well, you don’t. There are lots of atheists out there who get through all the good points and the bad points of life without religion. So you don’t need it. 

The one thing you don’t need or need it, but plenty has going for it is they have a better infrastructure than we have at this point. If I’m going through a rough time, no doubt a church is going to help me because they have more people who can come to my disposal. They have they have facilities to help me. They have day care on campus. I mean, they can help out, but that doesn’t mean what they believe is right. And I think there’s a bigger issue here. 

But those are the two separate issues. This one is the doctrines which I do not accept in any way. All right. I’ve been an atheist my whole life. So they wouldn’t appeal to me. I also think they can’t be intellectually defended, et cetera. The other is the community, the structures which probably maybe could be built without any of the doctrines, but such as the world that it’s built that way. The infrastructure is so incredibly critically needed. 

Sure. I think whenever we have at the intersection of church and state, though, whenever we see religion play a role in politics, it’s never the building of community. It’s pushing that doctrine on all the. Oh, sure. 

Well, yeah. But then that’s when it gets politically active. But I mean, for the most part, active. No, I was just. But I’m talking about what role does it play in people’s lives. And I’m saying it’s not just a doctrinal one. It’s one for, you know, counseling you when you are in need. It’s one for structuring the patterns of your existence. I agree that these things can be done secularly because I do them. Secondly, I’m just saying that for a lot of people, it’s a good thing it’s there. 

All right. And on that note, the third question, a substantial debate is occurring in the atheist community about moderate or live and let the atheist versus the more militant form of a guess which side I’m on. 

Critics argue that moderate atheists are being walked over while militant atheists risk increased intolerance, as well as a loss of possible allies in other political minority or moderate religious groups. 

Which direction would you advocate atheist? And why? 

How did I get in the middle of this? Can I start, please? Kickett. OK. 

First things first. I don’t like the word militant atheist. OK, militant atheist implies violence and we do not support violence in any way. Also, we want to make it clear I want to make it clear that under no circumstances do I want religion outlawed. Under no circumstances do I want religion illegal. Do I want a secular nation? Yes. Do I want everybody to live a happy, healthy life? Yeah. And do I care if somebody is religious? 

No, I don’t. If they come and ask me, I’m going to tell them what I think. If they want pussyfooting around the word mythology, they’re not going to get it from me. 

That doesn’t make me militant. It makes me honest. It makes me truthful. 

It makes me blunt. But it does not make me militant. It does not make me angry. It just makes me honest and straightforward and blunt. Now, people do not like it. People do not like having God compared with Zus, even though they are or religion. 

A heroine or religion to heroine. Very good. Oh, my God. God. Zus analogy is way better than the God juice analogy is pretty darn good. 

In fact it’s perfect. But so is the religion heroine. Our knowledge. That’s beside the point. 

What was the question again? 

Now the question is whether or not we should be more militant or will. 

We should be more accommodation elastic. Having said that, there is no such thing as militant Athie ism. I’m going to say that we must be honest not only with ourselves, but with our counterparts. Our religious counterparts do not and will not think Athie ism is their friend. They won’t. They think they’re closer friends. The closer friends to the to the liberal religions are the crazy religions. 

A Christian is a Christian. A Jew is a Jew. Atheist is a theist. And on the other side, there are the unbelievers. I might not be as. Nice in my answer, as Chris is, but I am not thought of as worse than Chris by the theists. An atheist is an atheist. They will help themselves and they will. And they’ve shown this over and over again. 

So if we are to pick a side, I’m going to say that we should be honest and truthful and we should look to ourselves for our help. We’re not going to get it from those who think we’re 100 percent wrong. 

Let me let me try rephrasing the question a slightly different way. It’s not just a question of should we promote militant Davey ism or whatever you want to call it, versus accommodating Athie ism? I think the question is there are so many religious people out there. There’s so many religious people who are fine with separation of church and state, who are not the fundamentalists, who adhere to every literal interpretation of their holy book. There are a lot of good people out there who happen to be religious. 

How should atheist treat them? Is the question. And I think there’s something to be said for there is a lot of issues that we can work with them together on. And we have. Whether it’s on Capitol Hill or just doing volunteer work, service work in our own communities. I think a lot of people I know there’s a secular student alliance college group in Ohio. There’s one in Illinois that when they have their alternative spring break, they for the past couple of years gone down to New Orleans with a local Christian group on their campus. They drove down there together to do good work because they know that’s something that needs to get done. There’s no reason religion should or not religion should stop you from doing that. So let’s work together on that. That’s great. Now, if the question is, you know, should we teach evolution in schools? A lot of Christians will say, yes, we should because you shouldn’t teach my religious belief in schools. Well, that’s great. But are they right that there are some religious people who are good people, kind people who think God plays a role in evolution? They think that. Well, let me stick to it. They think God plays a role in evolution. Well, no, God doesn’t. How do you treat them personally? I think I side more with Dave Side that says you can be more blunt with those people than do the politically correct thing and say, well, as long as we’re on the same page on those issues, I’ll let the other stuff slide. I no longer want to let that stuff slide. I want to pick that apart. 

This is a really the analogy you used is, I think, going to undermine your point. Does God play a role in evolution? Actually, it’s really according to, you know, for example, the Dover trial, as long as you accept the science of evolution. The court was convinced that the science is neutral. And if you believe that God plays a role and undetectable role. Right. One that’s not scientifically measurable as long as you’re scientifically accurate. 

That’s fine. Supposed to dimensioned the God part in class. But the science is supposed to be neutral. What made intelligent design not fine was it? They said that God played an active role that was scientific and measurable. 

So this is a good case in which actually a lot of people who believe that God plays a role in evolution, I would argue, are still completely compatible with the scientific understanding of evolution. Someone like, for example, maybe Kenneth Miller at Brown University, who’s the Catholic biologist and the and the question really is, do you want to pick that fight with them when they actually support the teaching level? 

I think that’s I mean, that’s what I was going for if I did. OK, make that clear. I think there are people like Ken Miller. I think there are people like Francis Collins who do a lot of good science. And I’m not the expert in that area. You would be more of that. But, yeah, you’re right. They support what we want to see. We want to see good science in the classroom. They support that. But still, they do believe in God. And they may believe that God plays, like you said, an undetectable role in the process. I don’t think he does. Now, what do you say? Do you let that thing slide or do you say, hey, look, these people are on my side? I like that Ken Miller was on the right side of that issue. I totally support, you know, everything he did in that trial. That’s great. But he’s still wrong if he thinks God plays a role in that process. There’s some people that like to pick that fight. And I don’t think you’re right. It’s not the strategically right thing to do. It’s not a tactically smart thing to do in a lot of cases. But I think Dave’s right. It’s more honest when you go after that fight as well. But it’s not I don’t think God was a role in this election. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work with them. I’m saying that we have to understand that there is truth and then there is a lie. If somebody who believes in God wants to fight for the separation of church and state, that’s great. OK. It’s when they stop fighting for the separation of church and state that we have to fight. It’s when they say, well, maybe God had a point of this and maybe we should teach both sides. That’s when we say, no, this is not science. This is mythology. So the question kind of gotten a little bit skewed here when you said, how do we treat religionists? We should treat everybody with respect. OK, to a point, really to. It’s it’s totally to a point. You give everybody the respect that you would expect in return. OK, but when they start talking about breaking the law because God wants them to. That’s when you have to stand up and say no. And you have to be prepared for that. You have to know that that’s gonna come. And that’s that’s what I’m saying. OK. We’re not talking. I’m not talking about going out and actively disrespecting everybody on our side who believes in God. I’m saying that we should understand that they are coming at it from a wrong place. They’re gonna go to the wrong place eventually. And we have to be prepared for that. 

If that happens, I think I should lay out we didn’t really do it. What I see is the position that’s been called accommodation ism and why it exists, because I end up being a pretty well knows boy accommodation poster boy for. 

Yeah. Especially lately. And so let me tell you where I think it’s coming from as an atheist who’s been called in accommodations. I think it’s it’s a phrase that I don’t like because I think it’s meant as a slight. But in any case, it’s used so much that just for now, I’ll wear that hat. 

I mean, I think one of the main arguments is just psychological. 

I don’t believe that confrontation changes minds. I think there’s vast amounts of research that shows that when someone has a deeply held belief, if you crusade right at it with what you think are the facts, then you’re not going to persuade anybody. And we have all this research from psychology journals, political scientists. Do they test this in a variety of different circumstances, this great study. A friend of mine, Brendan Nyhan, at the University of Michigan, is a political scientist, and he just showed people in ideological subgroups, newspaper corrections. So conservatives, they would see, read and read an article that said, you know, or implied Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. There’d be a correction at the bottom. Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction. And then they would, you know, question them at the end. Their belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was stronger after they read the correction. OK. And the same thing, their belief that tax cuts increase government revenues was stronger after they read the correction, that there’s no possible universe in which this could be the case. And they found some of the same effects in liberals. 

There’s other studies showing that conservatives who are more highly educated are less likely to accept the science of global warming, who go to religion. You poll people, you say, you know, if if science were to refute your religious belief, what would you do? Keep believing this is how people work. So that’s one of the main drivers of this accommodation’s position, is to say, hey, let’s think about, you know, how important religious identity is to someone’s life. And then let’s say, what on earth is it going to do if you go right at them and you try to refute their identity, which is the whole core of how they motivate themselves and how they act in the world? What’s going to happen? 

It’s not going to work. 

It’s it’s just going to make them stronger. Is it, in your opinion, Krista? That’s what we do. I think that that’s the effect of much of this. Yes. I think that it’s our intent. I think that, Wolf, for example, I think that if you look at just the prominent atheist books, I think that that’s what they essentially have the effect of doing to pick up a book and open it in order to read it. 

I mean, that there’s a big difference between going up to somebody and trying to destroy that belief and printing a book of what you believe and putting it on the shelves and waiting for somebody who wants to hear your view to open it. 

There’s a big difference there. But I I also want to point out, just calling them names isn’t. 

I think you’re right. It’s not going to change their mind. I heard it. Someone’s once you need some people who are going to be the bitter pill that people have to swallow. And then there needs to be some people there who will hold up a glass of water and help you wash that down. You need people coming from different perspectives. Some people really can listen to people who are way more blunt and they can take it. Other people are going to get way more defensive about it and they can’t handle that. So if you’re talking about what’s a better PR move? Chris is right. I mean, it’s it’s not smart to take someone who might be slightly religious, who really identifies with their religion and say their religion is wrong. It’s not a smart thing to do. It’s not going to win over that many minds. But I think you’d be I don’t think you’re claiming this, but I think you’d be wrong in saying that some of those atheists like Christopher Hitchens, like Dawkins, like Samia’s, who have put out these books that are very clear and very blunt about what they feel about religion. Those books have changed a lot of minds and it’s hard to deny that. And some people wouldn’t have thought about that. Some people would not have lost their role. I actually received that one. 

I really I really have a problem with saying that somebody is is aggressive or hard line because they publish a book or because they espouse an opinion or write a blog. 

Well, you know, like a blog. No, I don’t either. What about. 

I mean. I don’t know, what do you think of. I don’t know. I don’t like the word aggressive either. What do you think about confrontational? 

Does confrontational? Is we starting the confrontation? I don’t what it. Is that accurate? 

Is there any word that is accurately describing it? 

I mean, a blond sonnen, loud. Which one would you like? Sort of. 

I don’t want you to. I don’t like the idea that you’re saying that we’re going out. That we are the militant atheists are going out to try and convert people. We’re not trying to convert people. If somebody wants to know our opinion and ask us if they go to our Web site, if they open our blog. If they open our books, they’re going to hear it. There’s. If they go try and go into my pocket or trying to go into my government, they’re going to hear it. But I’m not going out. Like I said, trying to start trying to knock people down. My wife is a theist. We’ve been married for 20 years. It’s it’s not something that we do. There is. I get the impression that you think that that’s something that we do. 

There’s this cartoon that says something like fundamentalists, Muslim, and you see someone trying to blow up something. There’s a fundamentalist Christian who’s trying to open up a creation museum and then a fundamentalist atheist who’s like holding a cup of coffee and reading a book. 

Yeah, no. There’s something to that. 

There’s a there’s a tension here over the issue of conversion. The issue. I mean, I think that you’re saying you don’t want to, but I think that, frankly, a lot of people in the atheist movement, they could be a much better world if it’s somehow happened. 

And they celebrate the statistics suggesting that has happened, that is happening. I honestly probably think it would be a better world. 

But what I don’t think is that actually what we’re not calling confrontation, what we are calling may be loud or outspoken, is the way to even get that world. I actually think that if you wanted atheist to be viewed more positively and if you wanted people to be willing to move just a little bit over from where they are into that camp, then probably what you would do is you would try to show that it is what it actually is, which is normal, OK? Which is I and I know it is a new laws of atheists, but a lot of people think that they have things. So what you want to do is you want to show that atheists or ordinary people want to live happy lives, the American dream own houses, pay their taxes, all of those things. And I think that’s really different than the sort of like religion is wrong. 

But I think you can have, like O’Meally, you can have a million atheists get together and do their greatest service project in the world. We’re all going to donate blood and then build houses for orphans. And there would still be churches across this country that will say, well, they’re still going to hell. Right? Right. And that’s not going to be a no change is going to come in the closer to you, not the people and the extremes. But, yes, it’s going to take different methods because some people will respond to saying, oh, well, you’re an atheist like and I’m sure you’ve heard this, too, when they find out you’re an atheist, like, oh, but I thought you were a good person. And they’re surprised by that. And maybe some of them. You’re right that people really close to you might might change their perspective a little bit when they know someone who’s an atheist. Some people aren’t going to change unless they really and I it’s a violent thing to like unless they haven’t beaten in their face that look atheist. There’s nothing wrong with that point of view. 

I’m so glad you said that. And I mean, like, you can have that really nice view and like it. 

There’s some people are not going to just look at atheists doing good things and think anything better of them or think anything better of that point of view. You’re not going to get through to those people. And I really want to know what you think. Like, how do you reach those people who think the Earth is 6000? 

Well, this is I mean, this is this is really the new America hermetically sealed environments and the media helping it. Problem is really what we’re talking about here. The way the country is, the way people receive information. 

I mean, you know, the religious right has built its own universities, its own media channels, as a radio program does like you can you can basically take people almost from birth to grave and not have them hear anything that challenging. So, yeah. And when they do hear about ageism, it’s going to be Richard Dawkins has these awful things, you know, I mean, someone’s going to be telling them that they’re not going to be reading his book. 

They’re not going to be getting into his nuanced arguments can be strained through ideology. I think I think you have one point here, which is, you know, if someone if you ask random people on the street name a famous atheist, they’re going to name some of those names you’re talking about. They’re going to name Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Now they are. They are. But if you ask people to name names, someone who’s a famous Christian, they’re going to say Pat Robertson, they’re going to say Jerry Falwell, something like that. And there are so many Christians out there that that hate those guys that think they don’t represent Christianity either. And but you know what? Even those nicer Christians, if you asked me when I think about them, I mean, yeah, they’re really nice people. I think they do a lot of really good things. I think they’re totally wrong. But again, how do you get through to people? It’s going to take different ways. There are a lot of Christians who become Christians and live out their Christianity not because of people like Falwell and Jerry and Pat Robertson, the stuff, they do it because, you know, if you ask them what books they’re reading, it’s not their books. It’s the ones from the nicer, nicer Christian soup. But the only reason those universities get built. I mean, there’s a reason Pat Robertson has a show and the channels and there’s a reason those, you know, hard right. Religious right people have what they have. It’s because they have a group of followers of their own, too. I’m not saying I want to be anything like them, but I’m saying, look, there there is a way to get through to certain people and some of them aren’t going to get through to the other side. It’s going to take all these different type. 

And I’m increasingly persuaded by this argument. I think it’s one of the best arguments that I’ve heard since I’ve been in debates with atheists who are more whatever the, you know, the adjective is than I am. So I’ve been increasing, you know, sort of a thousand flowers bloom strategy or at least to, you know, different kinds of flowers bloom. But what I what I would then say is, OK, guys, if we were playing good cop, bad cop, how come nobody told me? Because I would have played, you know. 

I mean, but but it doesn’t seem like a matter of good cop. Bad cop. It’s a matter of market segmentation. Well, OK. 

I mean, you know, the atheist movement, there are about 40 to 50 million atheists in this country. If you use the broadest if you use the broadest term, that’s a lot of different people. 

And, you know, some of them are going to be hard liners and some of them. And that’s a good word for it. And some of them are going to be accommodation ballistic, if that’s a bad word for it. Harder or softer is fine, too. That’s not a that’s something that we all have to understand. 

And I think that’s something that we do all understand, is that this market is has to be segmented. There has to be different parts of Athie ism for different kinds of people. The question that Hammond was raising, how do you reach the people who think that the Earth is 3000 or 6000 years old? You don’t. You don’t. And quite frankly, you don’t even try. You don’t even expend the effort. There’s no reason to. If they would like to believe that, that’s fine. That is their constitutional right. We have no right to go in and tear it away from them, which is why we would not try. But unless, of course, they they come to us and ask us what we think or try and take our money to or try and not pay taxes or try and get into our schools. That’s when we get confrontational. That’s when we start to raise a fist and raise a picket sign and start to raise our voices. 

But when it comes to reaching those who think that the world is 7000 years old, they’re not reachable. I wouldn’t even go for it. I would agree with that. All right. Please give a big round of applause to our speaker. 

I want to thank you for listening to this special episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about the Pomona College debate on the future of Athie ism. Please visit our online forums by going to Center for inquiry dot net slash forums, then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. This week’s episode also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney