Salvos From The Intra-Atheist Wars

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I've enjoyed your recent set of posts regarding Dan Dennett's (ongoing) criticism of atheist apologists for religion. You might find it interesting to look into the history of this little conflict: although the "new atheists" have only been publishing since 2005 or so, this back-and-forth between secular camps has already covered a lot of ground, and caused quite a bit of turmoil.

For all its cattiness, the conflict has raised some worthwhile questions. Most importantly, the debate over what constitutes respectful religious criticism is underlined by the question of whether religion's uniquely privileged status in society is justified, and to what extent it should be honored. Another issue, one where I completely agree with Dennett, is that "belief in belief" is often a patronizing attitude: "You and I, wise intellectuals that we are, have no need of a belief in God, and it's obvious to those as smart as us that no such god exists. But those other fools could never get along without their little pretend parent, so don't criticize God too harshly!" is a good compression of many such arguments. There's also a dispute regarding where to set the political limits of science activism. For example, many atheists have criticized the National Center for Science Education for bending too far backwards to appease the religious, in its quest to fight off creationist challenges to school science programs: By going out of its way to point out the possibility of theistic evolution and its compabitility with Christianity, has the NCSE crossed the line and endorsed a particular religious doctrine? Are its appeasement tactics--successful ones--bordering on unconstitutional? I'd say no, but the debate goes on.

If you're interested in this sort of back-and-forth, there are a few things worth looking at. First of all, you can watch Dawkins read the new preface to The God Delusion, in which he responds to his (atheist) critics.

And if you're really a glutton for punishment, at this very moment there is a Blog-O-War going on, in which PZ Myers at Pharyngula and the folks at The Intersection are embroiled in a personal and sometimes nasty spat over the role of tone, appeasement, and atheist activism in science education and outreach. Be warned.

 But I think the bottom line is that Dennett's remarks, while not especially clear in the context of the article you linked to, should be considered in the context of this intellectual conflict. I didn't read any intolerance or narrowness of vision into Dennett's article; he's just firing yet another salvo at the apologetic atheist camp, with which he has several legitimate differences of opinion.