So in general I like to be involved in controversial comment threads that I start, and I seemed have launched the most controversial one of my erstwhile blogging career earlier this week. Due to travel (Thanks to Scott and Jason and Jay and Claire for their hospitality in NY, DC and Philly, respectively, and it was great to meet raise a glass with Lizardbreath, A White Bear, Dave, Zuzu, and everyone in New York!) and grading, I was not available to explain and defend myself.
I’ll try and explain why I think the Dawkins approach to atheism in a few upcoming posts (a series, if you will). For now, I’ll endorse generally the line of reasoning pursued by Lemuel, Matt Weiner, and divguy. Here I’ll just be responding to one line of reasoning offered by my critics. This is the notion that there is a whiff of the dread “sensible civil centrism ™” to my post. There were several comments in this vein (and many more at Yglesias’ place, where accusations of Broderism a bit more common), but “Central Texan” gives us the distilled essence of this critique:
David Broder could not have put it better. I believe in something higher and invisible and you do not. Therefore you must yield to me an automatic assumption of moral superiority and deep insight rather than simple delusion. Oh, and keep your opinions to yourself and we will tolerate your existence.
This casts Linker any myself as the obnoxious and ineffective “Republican light” brand of democrat, acknowledging “republican facts” and shying away from calling Republicans on their dishonesty and various other depravities. I, of course, don’t care for this sort of politics, and criticize it strongly, so why should I follow this line when it comes to religion.
Well, it’s a terrible analogy for a lot of reasons, but I’ll focus on the most important one. I don’t care much for the aesthetics of the aforementioned political style, but the primary reason I oppose it is because it’s bad politics. One of the main reasons it’s bad politics is that on many, many issues, we have the numbers. People don’t like the war in Iraq and generally prefer more liberal positions on most domestic issues to conservative ones. Atheists, on the other hand, are currently a tiny fraction of our society. Bill O’Reilly’s protestations aside, atheists make up a very small percentage of liberals. So while I can see why such an approach might seem like a good one to Naderites, it should give the rest of us some serious pause. Furthermore, going on the offensive as atheists, Dawkins style, is to take the intolerant, poisonous Christianists, and lump liberal mainline religious moderates and liberals in with them, by minimizing the differences between them.
But much more importantly, I like my Democratic politicians proud and agressive because I have clear, concrete, reasons to want them do what they can to win. This is unsurprising; indeed, it’s a good part of what politics is about. Part of what makes politics possible is a separation between politics and comprehensive moral and epistemic approaches to the world. A key tenet of liberalism is to accept the fact of pluralism. The fact of pluralism isn’t a contingent one; that people disagree about which comprehensive doctrine is correct is almost certainly a permanent fact about free societies. What makes Dawkins as well as Christianists similarly illiberal* is that they are convinced that the rightness of their comprehensive worldview and the wrongness (both factually and morally) of others makes it possible to imagine their comprehensive worldview can concievably win out, and their role is to give birth to a future in which the light is seen by all, once their heart is touched by Jesus or they learn to unlearn the mythologies of history and youth and put their faith in science, or whatever. If you accept the fact of pluralism as a persistent social fact, and there’s good reason to believe you should, the actual rightness of your particular comprehensive worldview is irrelevent to anything discussed above.
*Christianists are, of course illiberal and pernicious in other ways that Dawkins is not, and their vision of hte world is obviously much worse so please don’t read this as an exercise in false equivalence.