heart and mind

The New-er Atheists: Two movements battle for heart and mind

In In the News by Steve Wilkinson6 Comments

The term ‘New Atheist’ is beginning to get a bit old already. It is still relatively new, chronologically, at least in relation to centuries of classical atheists. The movement seems to have arisen, or at least gained popularity, after the events of 9/11 (2001) in the USA. It was characterized by a shift towards the use of rhetoric, emotion, fear, and embodied very ‘religious’ type behaviors (some argue mirroring religious fundamentalists), despite the often claimed ‘reason’ branding.

However, in more scholarly circles (even among atheists, humanists, and skeptics), New Atheism has started to fade as it has become recognized that the tactic, while stirring up the core base, hasn’t been so effective beyond that. That said, there is little doubt it has had an impact on society in general.

A new strategy

A couple of recent movements have dropped much of the vitriol of atheists like Richard Dawkins, and have exchanged it for some new strategies. The reason I want to highlight these movements, is that I believe they present a real challenge, not so easily countered. They, in fact, utilize the strategies many in Christian apologetics employ, and often target the same audiences: the mushy middle and the unequipped Christian.

Peter Boghossian – The battle for mind

You might have heard of Peter Boghossian recently, as Christian apologist Tom Gilson has written a response to Peter’s book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. Tom has been on a number of popular apologetics programs, (1)Reasonable Atheists and Reasonable Believers Are Targeting the Same Group, Tom Gilson – Answering Atheist Tactics (January 7, 2014), Couldn’t find a link via CrossExamined.org, but Tom writes about it here. discussing his own response, Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician: What He Gets Right, (Some of) What He Gets Wrong, and How Christians Must Respond. You can actually get this e-book for free at Tom’s website, or through Amazon.

I heard Peter speak back in October 2013 on a skeptic’s podcast I listen to, The Malcontent’s Gambit. While I feel Boghossian got a number of things wrong when he started talking about Christianity, such as his definition of faith, he gets a lot of things right as well. Despite our differences, I found myself really liking the guy and agreeing quite often. For example, he rightly critiques what he calls the ‘affinity ghettos’ of the contemporary academic left. He concludes (rightly) that this damages his efforts to promote truth, just as I feel it does my own. He says that the move in tolerance of people to tolerance of ideas, has been devastating. Amen! However, he also concludes that this allows ‘faith’ ideas to flourish, which he sees as false. This is called epistemic relativism, and we should join hands with Boghossian in defeating it. How often have we heard Christian apologists such as Greg Koukl speak on this topic?

He also laments the loss of civility in discourse, as well as the censorship happening all over the country (and world) on debate over various topics and ideas. He mentions a recent attempt to have a campus debate on a matter related to Islam, and notes that it was the leftists screaming about it, not the Muslims. He says this is so condescending to the Muslims, failing to fairly engage their ideas.

Notice how closely much of this matches what Christian apologists might say. I’d almost think he read Greg Koukl’s Tactics book, as he also employs the use of ’Columbo-style questions’ and the Socratic method. In other words, Boghossian is going after the mind, and in my opinion, doing so very effectively. At the same time, some of his critiques of Christianity are almost laughable, such as his picks of Christian evidence to examine being Transubstantiation and speaking in tongues. Have you ever heard a Christian apologist use either as evidences for Christianity?

Tom Gilson brings out the background that Boghossian is trained in philosophy, a teacher/professor, and a specialist in persuasion theory and behavior-change theory. He not only knows it and teaches it, but has effectively put it to use in the Oregon state prison system. He’s going to be someone important to contend with, as these techniques can apply to spread truth just as much as inaccuracy. And, while I said I like Boghossian, I don’t like his intent. He wants to remove bad ideas (ie: religion) from being a what he calls the ‘adult table.’ In other words, he doesn’t want to suppress things from being discussed, but only ‘true’ things should be considered important in the public square. All else is relegated to the ‘kids table,’ though certainly free to take place.

Sean Faircloth – The battle for heart

Someone you might not have heard of, is Sean Faircloth, a long-term state legislature member and politician. I also recently heard him being interviewed by Alan Litchfield. In 2009, he became executive director of Secular Coalition for America, and more recently, in 2011, became Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I’ve actually noticed a change in Dawkins’ public behavior over the last year or two and wonder if this might be part of the reason.

Sean is in some ways opposite Peter Boghossian. Peter, while I feel misguided, seems to be on a noble venture. Faircloth, on the other hand, seems set out to win. He has studied how the ‘Religious Right’ came to power, and seeks to emulate this for secularism in America. He is the author of, Attack of the Theocrats!: How the Religious Right Harms Us All-and What We Can Do About It. His focus is on organizing, lobbying, and politics. He understands the need for grass-roots efforts and having proper, focused, long and short-term goals.

His most recent effort is focused through SecularityUSA. They are using a tactic employed by former President Carter, who gained popularity in Iowa. The Iowa caucuses have become a major, long, media focus in the run-up to the USA presidential elections. He knows they can get major world-wide press coverage if they employ the right strategies. They see 2014 as a big organizing time; 2015 as a time to push into the public; all in preparation for 2016.

Their primary focus is to get religion out of government via the separation clause. They realize they will be heavily attacked by the ‘Religious Right’ and intend on using this through a coordinated effort with clergy and religious leaders to make it backfire.

But, I’m calling this an appeal for the heart, as one of their primary tools is going to be the use of horrific cases where ‘faith healer’ Christians have refused medical attention for their children, often leading to their deaths. Faircloth says, “Sometimes atheists, and I commend them for it in a sense, will say, ‘well anecdotal evidence is not good evidence,’ – true, but it’s strategic evidence. It’s the door opening. You tell the story of the human harm.” (2)18:18 min in Strategically, I would agree, and this is a method William Wilberforce used to abolish slavery and the Pro-life movement has been using to fight the abortion industry. The difference being that Faircloth has taken a fringe extreme that most Christians would also find appalling, and is painting the whole with it. That said, we must not underestimate the effectiveness this will have.

I almost think Gilson’s book, ‘Atheist Tactician’ would have been better aimed at Faircloth. This guy is a true political tactician aimed at organizing, on common ground, atheists, humanists, skeptics and free-thinkers in our society. Lack of organization and common voice have arguably been one of their major weak-points. And, I don’t doubt their ability to partner with many, if not all of the more liberal wing of Christianity and other religions.

I did agree with Faircloth on one major point besides the effectiveness of their strategy. He agrees with many Christians on morality being the only thing we can legislate (in opposition to the ‘you can’t legislate morality’ slogan). But, he advocates taking the term morality back from the ‘right.’ He has noticed through his political work that the ‘right’ often used the morality card to make their case, and the ‘left’ seem to avoid it, giving that point to the ‘right.’ But, he says, the ‘left’ shouldn’t be letting the ‘right’ be the only ones to play the morality game.

Conclusion

Tom Gilson said that Tim McGrew’s initial assessment of Boghossian’s work is that while he isn’t a heavy-hitter, as he makes a number of clear and crucial mistakes, that he will ‘rip through the average church-goer like a buzz-saw through balsa.’ (See update on this quote below.) I would agree, as while these ‘newer’ atheists largely setup a straw-man with regard to Christianity, they are quite right about the state of a large number of their target Christian audience and their ill-equipped state, not to mention the ‘mushy middle’ of the general populace.

These tactics will be effective. The question becomes who is better organized, with greater numbers, Christian apologists, or these new-er atheists? In the end, of course, God is in control. But, are we being faithful in our role as Christian case-makers?

Update: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Regarding the above Tim McGrew quote:
I suppose I should be honored that Peter Boghossian or one of his agents actually took the time to read my article, but imagine my surprise when I learned they pulled a paraphrased quote from MY article to ‘endorse’ Peter’s book… yes, you read that right, an actual endorsement on the Amazon site. I guess I was under the mistaken impression that book endorsements were usually given by the actual person giving the endorsement. I can be so naive sometimes! 😉

Well in that case, you might want to check out Dr. Tim McGrew’s ACTUAL opinion of Boghossian’s book. I’ll also include the full quote here for clarity: “My initial assessment: he’s not a heavy hitter, and he’s making a number of clear and crucial mistakes – BUT – he’ll rip through the average church-goer like a buzz-saw through balsa.”

That’s a bit of a stretch as an endorsement, IMO. As Dr. McGrew rightly notes, it’s more an accurate assessment of the sad state of Christian education and apologetics in our churches. Or, to put this another way, it doesn’t take all that much effort to ‘rip through the average church-goer like a buzz-saw through balsa’ these days (which, in fact, is actually included in the analogy… a point Boghossian or his agents seem to have missed!)

 

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