HASSNERS.org highlights: This is Richard Greens' complete article which I've not edited (except for my highlights in green).
Background – the following article is a transcript of the presentation given by Richard Green of Atheism UK as a panel member at the July 2011 World Atheist Convention.
This is the burning issue. It was the subject of a similar discussion at last year’s fractious Council for Secular Humanism conference in California in the context of the relationship between science and religion. In this discussion at this atheist convention, we are talking about the relationship between atheism and religion.
“Confront” conveys a hostile or argumentative intent or manner with which atheists “challenge religious faith”. No matter how reasonably or politely they do it, they are accused of being hostile or argumentative, of being confrontational. As was said in the following passages from the “Four Horseman” discussion of 2007:-
Dawkins: “One of the things we’ve all met is the accusation that we are strident or arrogant, or vitriolic, or shrill. What do we think about that?”
Dennett: “Well I’m amused by it, because I went out of my way in my book to address reasonable religious people. And I test-flew the draft with groups of students who were deeply religious. And indeed, the first draft incurred some real anguish. And so I made adjustments and made adjustments. And it didn’t do any good in the end because I still got hammered for being rude and aggressive. And I came to realise that it’s a no-win situation. It’s a mug’s game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude.”
But – and here’s the thing – the accusation comes not just from theists and religionists but also from atheists and humanists. As Susan Blackmore has pointed out:-
A really clever trick – and I’m not sure how the great religions have managed to pull this one off – is to make the rest of us feel that we ought to respect people for believing impossible things on faith, and that we should not laugh at them for fear of offending them. In a society that strives for honesty and openness, that values scientific and historical truth, and that encourages the search for knowledge, this is outrageous – and it’s scary that we still fall for it.
The advancement of atheism entails challenging religious faith. But, such is the zero tolerance which religious faith has evolved as a defence mechanism for itself, this is always perceived by some, on both sides of the faith divide, as confrontation.
The alternative to confrontation is accommodation, which means (more in US than UK, usage): a “settlement or compromise”. But there is no scope for compromise between religious faith and the lack of it. There is no possible half-way house. You either have it or you don’t. You cannot have half a religious faith.
So, to “accommodate” means to “refrain from confronting” – completely. And “confronting” means “challenging religious faith”. Therefore, to accommodate religion is to abandon the advancement of atheism.
Why do we find such aversion to confrontation, even among atheists and humanists?
Well, many contemporary atheists still have a religious mindset; they believe in things that do not exist. They have replaced the concept of a super-empirical God with secular deities – usually collective constructs – such as the state, the nation or humanity
Of course, these things do, in some sense, exist as empirical facts, but they do not exist in any holistic sense as if they were sentient entities, singular conscious actors with intrinsic value, purpose, responsible for anything or as a source of morality. In the latter sense, they are mere abstractions.
Such atheists rely on faith in these abstractions to be confident in the existence of order and morality. They act as if their non-existence, or at least the lack of them as a rationale, would lead to chaos and immorality and they use them as an appeal to authority for justification of goals and actions.
The distinction, between those atheists who still have a religious mindset and those who do not, corresponds to the recently drawn distinction between “soft atheists” and “hard atheists”. Soft atheists refute the religionist claim: “Without God, there is no morality”, by way of the “Good without God” paradigm. But, far from refuting such religionist claim, hard atheists grant it. They hold that, just as there is no such thing as God, so there is no such thing as morality, only the illusion of it.
“Morality”, in this sense, means not our moralistic intuitions and emotions but a universal injunction external to them. The former are empirical facts; the latter is a figment of our wishful or fearful imagination, but is widely accepted as real.
Atheism implies amorality; hard atheists are amoralists. Soft atheists are moralists; they hold that one can be an atheist and still believe in morality.
Belief, in a universal injunction external to our moralistic intuitions and emotions, entails belief in an external source of it. For the theist, that source is a divine commander; for the soft atheist, it is a secular deity such as humanity – which arch-accommodationist Paul Kurtz has endowed with “global consciousness”. But the mindset is essentially the same, belief in something that does not exist. The reason why the soft atheist dislikes criticism of religion is that the same criticism can be levelled at the soft atheist.
The relationship with secularism is different. According to UK “Secularist of the Year 2009”, Evan Harris, in the preamble to his “Secularist Manifesto”:-
Secularism is not atheism (lack of belief in God) and nor is it humanism (a nonreligious belief system). It is a political movement seeking specific policy end-points. Many secularists are religious and many religious people – recognising the value of keeping government and religion separate – are secular.
Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, seeks to maximise freedom of religious and other expression and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. In addition secularism aims to end religious privileges or persecutions and to separate the state fully from religion which is a necessary means to that end.
That is secularism per se, independent of atheism. It accommodates religion because it does not advance atheism.
But secularism, for the atheist, is merely a sub-set of atheism. The premise of atheism is that the word “God” (or any other word), when used to refer to a super-empirical object or process, does not symbolize anything intelligible. Therefore, the theistic assertion “God exists” is false. The state and its branches cannot derive their legitimacy from “God”. “God”, “faith” and “religion” have no place in a state’s constitution (written or unwritten), its laws or its actions. The principles of secularism are but an application of the premise of atheism. Active secularism aims to remove religion from public life. Active atheism aims to remove religion from life, of which public life is a sub-set.
Religious faith makes people hold as true things which either have no truth value or which are demonstrably false or contradictory. Therefore, the world would be a better place without it – “better”, that is, in the epistemic sense rather than in the ethical sense. There is no need to seek a substitute for God as the source of order or morality. Indeed, to do so would introduce other falsehoods.
Challenging religious faith is an end in itself. IF it is perceived by some as confrontation (as it inevitably will be), then so be it. The alternative, accommodation, is either to do nothing or to admit quasi-religions based on secular deities.
The message to those theists, religionists, who display zero tolerance to the advancement of atheism, is: “Get over it!” And the message to those atheists, humanist and secularists, who share the same zero tolerance, is: “Look at your own mindset!”