by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I take issue with the "certainty of some atheists and most fundamentalists deeply grating" business. Equating atheists and fundamentalists is absurd (almost comically so), I can't believe this nonsense so often substitutes for an argument (including, most prominently perhaps, by Robert Wright). What is the certainty of atheists? That the God of Abraham is no more likely than Zeus? That a personal God has no more force in the world than astrology? Come on man. Enough with the straw men. This fundamentalist atheist stuff isn't clever or insightful. Please take on a real argument and not this nonsense.

I'm not arguing that atheism and fundamentalism are the same. I wrote that the certainty of some atheists and most fundamentalists irks me. What bothered me about Dennett's article was his policing the acceptable atheist discourse, shoving non-belief in a personal God onto a narrow ideological foothold and saying that atheists must not allow others their illusions. Another reader:

Ironically, I don't see any support in the quote you cite for the certainty with which you state your own opinions, i.e., that Dennett is disturbed by tolerance, or that some atheists have certainty about some things.

On the first point, Dennett is not calling for intolerance but responding to intolerance from those who do not want him to state his opinions and argue for them. I would think anyone who writes for a blog would be in favor of allowing opinions to be expressed and argued. If you think he is wrong or uncivil about it, you should provide some evidence, which the quote does not.

Dennett states that he is confident that the belief in belief is wrong (i.e., the argument some make that religion provides an invisible "Big Brother" to keep humanity in check, and that this function is essential to civilized society). Confidence is not the same as certainty. If it grates you that some atheists are confident about some things, please don't let that annoyance cause you to twist their words.

I am quite confident that there is no Santa Claus, although I too retain a slight nostalgia for the days when I believed in magic.

I take the point about confidence vs. certainty. And I've absolutely no problem with Dennett stating his opinions or arguing forcefully for what he believes. But telling fellow non-believers they ought to be less courteous to the faithful strikes me as intolerant of other forms of atheism, perhaps more so than of belief itself. Overconfident atheism and fundamentalism both make the question of God appear effortless. For many individuals, if not most, it is anything but. Another reader gets closer to what I was trying to say:

I think you hit the nail on the head in your comments about the certainty of atheists.  I grew up Methodist (currently not practicing) and while my relationship with Church and church-goers has always been complex, even when I tried atheism/agnosticsm on in my college years I couldn't see the point in being overly heavy-handed about it.

 
So you're "certain" beyond doubt that something isn't real.  Fine, religion has been used against people since the dawn of religion, but what is real is that a personal relationship with a spiritual being also works for a lot of people for a lot of different meaningful and constructive purposes.  So you think or know or you think you know God isn't real and we should approach all our emotional and intellectual needs with the known and certain -- do you approach all manner of fiction this way?  I realize that Santa Claus and similar childhood constructs aren't real, but I'll let my son figure those out on his own, and they have a value to me.  I don't sit him down for story time every night and preface it with "Son, you should know the talking dogs in this book are bullshit." 
 
I suspend disbelief every time The Empire Strikes Back shows up on my channel guide.  Please don't tell me that explosions in space would lack the oxygen conducive to either produce fire or transmit sound. I like the idea that perhaps there is something at the bottom of Loch Ness. I've had my life or worldview influenced and altered by literature and theatre, most of which never actually happened. And if I find appealing the notion that my ancestors are watching down on me or over me as I navigate myself through life's tests, just let me be. I'll do the same for you.