Advancing the Atheist Movement: Dawkins, Dennett, and the Second Wave

Instead of fighting the old battle of atheism versus religion, the second wave will fight a battle against religious intolerance of atheism.

When I was in college, majoring in biology, my advisor gave me a copy of a recently published book called The Selfish Gene (1976) by some guy named Richard Dawkins. While I was unaware of the splash it had already created in the scientific world, it’s no exaggeration to say that I could actually feel my worldview shifting as I read it. The Selfish Gene reaffirmed not only my chosen career in biology, but my belief in material explanations for even the most complex questions. Reading it even caused me to seriously question the idea of free will. A few decades later I rediscovered Dawkins, this time in a different role as a leader of the new atheist movement.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Dawkins speak in Boston with fellow professor and atheist spokesman Daniel Dennett. After a conversation about language, memes, and the influence of the Internet, Dawkins and Dennett opened the floor to questions. Unsurprisingly, most questions were about religion and the atheist movement. At one point, Dawkins commented that the atheist movement was following the same successful path in the United States as the gay rights movement.

The author's original copy of The Selfish Gene, signed by Richard Dawkins (photo courtesy Geoffrey Hodge)

The author’s original copy of The Selfish Gene, signed by Richard Dawkins (photo courtesy Geoffrey Hodge)

I disagree. A look back through history shows that successful social movements like women’s suffrage, black civil rights, and gay marriage progress through two waves. The first step is to unite and mobilize the marginalized group, encouraging individuals to be proud of their differences, to stand up for their rights and to speak out against discrimination. The new atheist movement has done this well, and Dawkins and Dennett deserve much credit for carrying the banner. But creating a strong and vocal base is not sufficient to bring about social change. It requires a second wave, different in character from the first. The second wave must convince moderate people outside the marginalized group that discrimination against the minority group is real, harmful, and intolerable.

When I got a chance to ask Professors Dawkins and Dennett about this observation, suggesting that in order to isolate intolerant fundamentalist Christian views, the new atheist movement in the US should consider more outreach to liberal Christians, their answers were interesting. Dennett acknowledged that a second wave was needed, but ultimately agreed with Dawkins’ reluctance to reach out to liberal Christians. Dawkins’ explanation was quite revealing. To paraphrase, he considers liberal Christians to be deluded atheists—people who cling to religion despite being unable to accept some of its most basic tenets. He went so far as to say that he prefers dealing with fundamentalists, because they at least are true to their beliefs. Both Dawkins and Dennett went on to describe a hope that gradually more atheists will become public figures in politics and Hollywood, eventually turning the tide.

To me, this view is somewhat naïve. The overwhelming success of the gay marriage campaign in the US has not been due to a sudden increase in the number of people identifying as gay; the movement has succeeded because more and more moderate heterosexuals are convinced that it’s unfair to limit access to marriage based on ancient discriminatory beliefs held by some religions. Nor has other social change occurred due to a sudden increase in the numbers of women or African Americans. Again, these movements succeed by appealing to moderate people outside the minority and by portraying the source of discrimination as an unreasonable minority of misogynists, bigots, and homophobes. The rise of the term “homophobe” as a pejorative illustrates just how effective this strategy was. This was also the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s temperance, which created the stark contrast necessary to isolate the bigots and display them as unreasonable and undesirable elements of society.

Perhaps the views of Dawkins and Dennett should not have been surprising, but I hope they aren’t universal. They seem to be victims of what I call the scientist’s fallacy—the idea that truth is so powerful that facts alone will win the argument. If you’ve been paying any attention to US politics recently, you know that this is not the case. In fact, the politicization of scientific issues has led to some interesting research into the elements of persuasive arguments. It should come as no surprise that insulting someone’s beliefs is not an effective way to change their viewpoint. What is surprising is that even facts are often ineffective and sometimes even detrimental to changing someone’s mind. To succeed, the atheist movement needs to win not just the minds of moderate believers, but their hearts as well.

Dawkins and Dennett do not want to ally with liberal Christians; they want to convert them to atheism. They believe that continued criticism of religion will swell the ranks of atheists to create an eventual majority. This is essentially a fundamentalist view of atheism, in which opposing views must be overcome: conquer religion first, then discrimination against atheists will be eliminated. But this may not be the right approach. Evolutionary biology and neurobiology suggest that we may be hardwired for religion. Liberal churches address a need for spirituality and community without the harmful fundamentalist insistence that the rest of the world must conform to their ideas. Instead of fighting the old battle of atheism versus religion, the second wave will fight a battle against religious intolerance of atheism. In this battle, the liberal churches are our allies. They are the people who will help elect the first openly atheist president over the objections of the fundamentalists. This is a battle that can be won long before religion disappears (if it ever does), and in winning this battle, the scientific worldview embraced by atheists will regain influence.

Atheist fundamentalists like Dawkins and Dennett will continue to play an important role in the social movement as outspoken critics of the harmful influence of religion on society, but their progress will be incremental. They have blazed a trail, but it is up to moderate atheists like me, and hopefully you, to bring about the second wave of social change.

Although I may not have been able to convince Dawkins to reconsider the strategy of the atheist movement, I did get one thing I was after that evening: he was kind enough to sign my thirty-five-year-old copy of The Selfish Gene.

  • Bob Kresek

    Great article. Totally agree.

  • Matt

    I agree. The general atheist stereotype – even among the liberal religious – is angry, condescending, and intolerant against the religious. Combating that stereotype will require working with the more moderate believers. For example, tell a Catholic friend that you agree with Pope Francis’ views on climate change and economic injustice, even if your underlying motivations differ. We have plenty of common ground with moderates. We need to act on it.

    • pennyroyal

      just as long as you ask your Catholic friends their thoughts on overpopulation making every environmental issue far worse and the Vatican’s war on women and war on birth control.

      • Matt

        All fair questions, though I find it more effective to lead with the common ground stuff.

        • pennyroyal

          I’ve done that all my life but I’ll settle for being provocative now to wake people out of their delirium over this holy writ of Pope Francis’. People lie by omission or by commission, as Paul reminds us. The pope’s omissions are hugely consequential, or so I think most would agree.
          Check out Catholics for Choice.

      • Recoloniser

        But moderate Catholics will agree with you on those issues. The majority of Catholic women use contraceptives and aren’t the least bit reluctant to say so.

        • pennyroyal

          I’m talking about worldwide. The Vatican’s influence is insidious and deep: South America, especially.

      • Cathym803

        FYI: 85% of Catholic women in the US use birth control. It is a non issue in this country… as well as many other Catholic countries. the ideas of use of birth control are changing all over the world…Because of women. Church can’t stop that process. The Vatican’s war on women isn’t working well- they just ended the “investigation” of the nuns.Hmm, the Irish ,as a country, just voted in same sex marriage. You need to use facts rather than emotional sniping!

        • James

          Birth control with pills to prevent birth is fine..How about abortion? Is that birth control?

      • RegularJoe62

        What exactly would you hope to accomplish by ginning up a confrontation on birth control when you already know you have common ground on other issues? Polarization is not your friend.

      • James

        So you think that a war on women is because of birth control pills? Do you consider abortion a war on babies?

    • Togo

      How ironic (and sad) that the second part of your statement affirms the first part.

  • Patricio Duarte

    Thanks. Great article.

  • Zen Ferno

    This is fantastic. Do you have any guidance on how or where one might start?

    • Geoffrey Lee Hodge

      Matt said it well. Respectful dialog between atheists and believers that focuses on the social, political and moral beliefs we hold in common instead of a relentless focus on the one big issue we differ on goes a long way in my experience.

  • youredumb

    Many atheists also identify as anti-theists. I feel that I’ve been an anti-theist for almost as long as I’ve been an atheist. Anti-theists believe that most organized religion is harmful to humanity. Personally, however, I’ve accepted that anti-theism probably won’t come to a head during my lifetime. Atheism will become more widely accepted throughout my lifetime, but anti-theism will be further down the line.

  • Leland Beaumont

    Is there a word, analogous to “homophobia” that can help
    propel this second wave?

    • MiltonDValler

      “Reality Phobia”
      from Religion Free, by Keith Howard

    • Sonnie Sowers


      • Leland Beaumont

        Part of the difficulty in moving beyond theism is admitting your gullibility in having believed theism. If your parents promoted your theist beliefs, then leaving theism requires leaving a trust in your parents. If you have been accepted by a theist community, then you are leaving that behind as well. But perhaps the biggest difficulty is coping with your own realization that you have fallen for phony beliefs for so long. We need to provide an easy path for people to leave all that behind and move beyond theism. The fear is not of non-theists; it is a fear of rejecting your own long-held beliefs and of admitting your gullibility.

        We need to overcome the Asch effect. No one likes to be duped. No one likes to think of themselves as a sucker.

        • Sonnie Sowers

          I agree. When talking about leaving the religion that was a part of your’s and your family’s past, it is important to try to be as respectful as possible. However, if we want a word similar to homophobe to help bring atheism out of the closest, atheophobe is appropriate. No one likes to think of themselves as hateful people. Even the most vocal anti-gay leader of the church will claim to be loving. Atheophobia and atheophobe should not be used to throw insults in others faces, but help them understand that the fear and/or hatred of atheists is contradictory to the type of person they want to be.

        • Polly Ballantyne

          It also helps for people to have a ready answer to “what DO you believe in?” I identify myself as a Humanist instead of an atheist because it is easier for people to accept that I believe in something rather than nothing.

      • Leland Beaumont

        How about “Anti secularist”? I prefer “secularist” to “atheist” because it is more positive. We are against those who oppose secularism.

    • Argument by Neologism is no substitute for the change in thinking that the author of this article calls for. Even people like anti-vaxxers or 9/11 truthers could invent words to make it sound like people’s disdain for them is based on bigotry rather than a realistic aversion to arrogance and melodramatic rhetoric.

      Wouldn’t it be better if we made it seem like we think religious people should be tolerant of our nonbelief, rather than that they should be happy to hear us call them “suckers”?

    • pennyroyal

      I agree totally. The word “homophobia” is inadequate and misleading. It’s far more than fear.

  • ccmclaugh

    Geoffrey, You lay out a good argument, and one that needs to be made. The atheist movement needs a second wave that builds upon the first. But you counter Dennet and Dawkins rigid approach with your own rigid approach. Could it be that more than one approach is useful or necessary?

    • Geoffrey Lee Hodge

      It wasn’t my intention to be rigid, or even to counter Dawkins and Dennett. The article is just my set of observations about how social movements succeed and I am certainly open to other ideas. In fact, I believe the efforts of the new atheists to call out the worst aspects of religion is still important–necessary but not sufficient–to bring widespread social change.

  • calliopejane

    The belief that truth must win out, and so strategies should focus primarily on getting people to see religion’s logical flaws and clear lack of correspondence to reality, relies on an assumption: That having knowledge and action based on truth and reality is the value of utmost importance to people. As a psychologist, I am well aware that is simply not the case in the population at large. While most people do value believing they know “truth,” it’s just not everyone’s MOST important value. Many people (I’d guess the majority of them) value things like love and acceptance, connectedness, and social support FAR more highly than they value being objectively correct about the world.

    In contrast, the atheist movement is disproportionately populated by people who value objective truth very highly, even more than acceptance and interpersonal relationships. I understand that; I am one of those people, unwilling (perhaps cognitively unable) to ignore reality in order to to retain love and comfort.

    But I also understand that my ordering of values is not universal, and that other people can have a valid (and in a sense, rational) approach to life in which they value other things more than objective truth. We need to understand that and acknowledge it, as an important feature of human psychology, in order to make inroads with those people. To ridicule people’s basic human values or the way in which those values are prioritized, simply because it doesn’t correspond to our OWN priorities, will drive away potential allies in our struggle for a recognition, respect, and a secular public sphere.

    My mother once gave one of the most self-aware statements I have ever heard exemplifying this phenomenon. She was a liberal religious believer, who was totally accepting of my nonbelief (and gayness, btw), but didn’t have any interest in debating religion. A couple years before she died, when she was well into her 80s, this topic came up and she said, “Honey, I’m old and I’m happy, and I just have no interest in changing my whole worldview now.”

    • Wesley Edwards

      When I was in college I ignored the cognitive dissonance that I garnered as I learned about the fossil record, evolution, the age of the earth and etc in preparation for a geology degree. I didn’t feel much urgency to resolve it. I actually avoided it. One day when I went back home & to the church beside my home with all of my frinds and the Sunday school class was watching an Answers in Genesis video I was like “No. This is not true, this is pseudoscience.” That’s when it all started coming to a head for me. My mom died in 2002 and the pastor was like God this, God that, and she’s in a better place and all I could think was God Damn, Damn God. I had a fox hole moment where my faith basically evaporated. I realized consciously or unconsciously that I had none.

      • James

        I am a Believer in Jesus and I appreciate your comment. WE look at the same science..and we will not agree on assessments. I never felt indoctrinated ..I learned at an early age what allegory and literal mean ..Jewish story telling is well known..But Jesus is another story I believe did happen without question as far I.m concerned……I have a brain… an can you NOT feel indoctrinated by atheist scientist? The article clearly demonstrates an agenda of INDOCTRINATION..they call it EDUCATION!…I am a retired Industrial Engineer and I love science. Most people do. I do not trust many scientist when a philosophical view is entrenched with the ”evidence”..It is a common practice…Look at Lucy….tell me why her feet and hands are displayed to look like a humans? What do the Dawkins of this world fear?…..For that matter..what do any atheist scientist fear?…The answer? Being humiliated, as if Dawkins would know what that means, but he will know how it day!

    • oregonred

      “Truth” is a very difficult thing to determine. Even more difficult is “objective truth.” It is interesting that you write about it as though only atheists have the “truth” and no one else.

      To me, that is as fundamentalist as any Bible believer. Of course, you believe you are right, but other people believe they are right.

      I respect all opinions because they are so closely held by many people. I don’t tell them that everything they believe is a lie and only I have the “truth.” That is insulting to them as much as it would be if they said the same thing to me. Frankly, I don’t know for sure who has the “truth”, but I do know what I believe it to be for me.

      • JNWesner

        We get our “truth” from experience and research. As I was taught, yours comes from revealed truth thousands of years ago. I don’t see them as being equally substantiated beliefs.

        • Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I’d say that we’re privy to so little of the experience or research that makes up our “truth,” particularly about our physical universe, that it qualifies as a sort of revealed truth.

          Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t reviewed any of the primary research that supports species evolution or the Big Bang. I just assume scientists oughta know.

          • JNWesner

            Shem, from my admittedly finite knowledge — as members of Congress say, I’m not a scientist — evolution is considered pretty solidly nailed down. Hundreds, probably thousands, of attempts to find it basically wrong have all failed solidly. Big Bang, I’d say nowhere so much. But in science no answer is considered permanent; there is always some chance of refuting it. With evolution, there have been many tweaks, and probably shall be for a very long time. But it hasn’t been defeated. A “revealed” truth is thought to be a deity speaking through a human, but I’d as soon think it’s a result of ingested chemicals.

          • Don’t get me wrong. I’m no more religious, and no more skeptical of expert opinion concerning evolution, than you. I just think it’s helpful to remind ourselves how often we believe things we can’t understand, because we prefer our received wisdom expressed in science-words.
            It didn’t seem to me like our buddy oregonred was saying there’s no reason to affirm the validity of species evolution or the Big Bang. He seemed to be saying that the “truth” isn’t so simple and straightforward when it comes to matters like the dilemma of existence and what it means to be human.

          • James

  ’re so wrong..the atheist took over science in will be decades before the truths will unravel the lies ..just like Piltdown…Nothing is nailed down..only in an atheist mind would that hold any water! Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.” (16) Note: Tipler since has actually converted to Christianity, hence his latest book…then read about Antony Flew and how he was verbally attacked by ATHEIST SCIENTIST./..I was raised with his words pounding on my brain while in University.

        • oregonred

          Did I ever say that I believed in a “revealed truth?”

          The answer is “no” because I didn’t. Re-read my comment to ascertain that I am correct about this and you are wrong.

          In my opinion, “objective truth” is not held by atheists any more than it is by religious people because none of us know absolutely what is the “truth”. We can make judgments based on what we consider to be the best evidence, but to say what we believe is the “absolute truth” is to paint the world black and white (which too many people try to do anyway).

          There is always room for new evidence and discovery, particularly when you are talking about metaphysics.

      • Megaritz

        Are you saying it’s fundamentalist to think you’re right and that other people are wrong?

        It sounds to me like you think the poster to whom you’re replying is wrong. How are you any less fundamentalist?

        The fact is that nobody can avoid believing other people are wrong–no matter how hard we try. That’s because we all have our own view, and other people have views that contradict our own views. If we have any beliefs at all we HAVE to believe other people are wrong. That’s just the logical law of non-contradiction. Two contradictory beliefs can’t both be completely right.

        And when it seems that one belief is based on clear facts and good reasoning, and the other is based on nonsense, how can a person NOT believe the fact-based belief is true and the nonsense-based belief is wrong?

        Surely you won’t deny that you, yourself, believe that the flat earth theory is wrong? Yet by your own logic, that would make you fundamentalist.

        Disagree with atheists all you like, and go ahead and call us wrong if you like. Just don’t call us fundamentalists merely for thinking other people are wrong, unless you’re prepared to follow that never-call-people-wrong principle with complete consistency yourself.

        • oregonred

          I wasn’t saying the poster was wrong. It was the use of the term “absolute truth” which, in my opinion, is dogmatic.

          We don’t need another dogmatism – even if it is atheistic.

          • Megaritz

            I agree with you that absolute truth is not a useful concept in the real world. I am myself something of a fallibilist, in that–although I am quite confident of many things–I consider any view I have to be potentially mistaken, and almost surely incomplete.

      • calliopejane

        You really missed my point. I’m advocating AGAINST “telling them everything they believe is a lie.” I just didn’t base that position on the same reasons as you.

        First of all, I don’t think there is only one truth, and of course I’m aware that what we see as “reality” is a story our brain puts together from various inputs. But the fact that our perception of the world is subjective does not mean ALL possible propositions are equally “true.” I do believe there are things that are certainly false. Just because someone may believe that leprechauns have granted him the ability to fly does not make them truly able to do so. How “closely held” that belief is makes no difference to how “true” it is — should he jump off the top of a high building with his closely held belief, he will still almost certainly die.
        So I do respect peoples’ *right* to have whatever opinions they wish, but I do not regard all of those opinions as equally *true.*

        I think at the root of it, you actually agree with me, in your reference to how “closely held” beliefs are. Because, although how closely people hold some belief gives no evidence for its truth, it does give evidence for its *importance* to people. And that’s what my point was about. It seems that most (though certainly not all) atheists in the “atheist movement” CARE about separating reality from fantasy, we TRY to figure out what is true as best as any human being can, that’s what is important to us. But many other people don’t care about that as much as we do. They care more about their family, their community, their “closely held” beliefs (even if pure fantasy) that tie them to others and give them a sense of identity and belonging. And I said that we need to acknowledge that, appreciate what’s important to them. That ee should NOT belittle them as stupid because they have a different focus in life than ourselves, but make common cause where we have it, e.g., if they are for good science education, great, let’s work together on that.

        But refraining from insulting their beliefs does not mean I have to
        personally accept them as “equally true” either. There is something in
        between insult and adoption — simply keeping my opinion of their
        beliefs to myself unless it impinges upon my well-being or does active
        harm to others.

        So please don’t put words in my mouth. I never said “oh let’s go tell people everything they believe is a lie.” I said that was a COUNTERPRODUCTIVE strategy. I advised AGAINST it.

        Also, I am hardly “as fundamentalist as any Bible believer” in my “belief that I am right.” I am always willing — eager, in fact — to hear new evidence, and will change my mind if it seems warranted. It has happened in the past; I’m sure it will happen in the future. I most certainly do NOT believe I am “right” about everything (as if that were some end state one could actually achieve) — simply that I try my best to become “less wrong” as I grow and learn.

        • oregonred

          Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I was objecting to your use of the term “absolute truth” for atheists (or anyone else). Atheism, as an ideology itself, is not above creating it’s own dogma that people must believe because it is the “absolute truth.”

          Even religious people think they have the truth whether one agrees with them or not. For some, it is not only a matter of how long they have had the opinion, but one that they have researched, thought about, and determined to be truth.

          Truth, particularly metaphysical truth, is almost impossible to achieve. One would have to say that this is “truth” for everyone.

    • James

      Let’s be honest and frank about the issue of homo marriages. The courts overruled the voters and made it law…NC is an example. The agendas of atheist/evolutionist going after religious people is evidence they have proclaimed for many years…you simply verified what they’d known. It arrogance, to say the least. Intolerance of fundamentalist? What do you call Dawkins and Dennett? For that matter, what do consider yourself? Tolerant? What are you tolerant about? Look at the University..public schools…are atheist tolerant about the science taught without being challenged by the peasants? Scientist claim they have no political or religious bias or agenda.Not according to your article. Christians are very astute and far wiser than you give them credit. Liberal Christian means NOTHING to Believers in Jesus. .Hollywood is filled with Humanist/atheist and MARXIST/ Communist. Dawkins will perish and his mouth will be hushed so those who believe can enjoy their Lord! If Christian were not tolerant..we would not be here!

  • Comparing the atheist movement to the campaign for marriage equality is wrong-headed. As you point out, Dawkins and Dennett don’t just want religious people to accept atheists, they want to make atheists out of them. They’re promoting a debate culture that fosters conflict instead of understanding. This is completely different from the aims of the movements to end discrimination against African-Americans or the LGBT community.

    You’re right to call the New Atheists fundamentalists. I’m nonreligious, but I think Dawkins, Dennett, and Sam Harris fall into the fundamentalist category because of their conviction that they’re fighting the evil of religion, and that anyone who doesn’t support them is implicitly aiding and abetting the enemy. Theirs doesn’t seem to be a mature, historically-informed understanding of the phenomenon of religion or the most constructive way to achieve positive change in society.

    • mag00

      I think you are a bit mistaken about the foundation of antitheism. It is not so much that they are fighting against religion because it is *evil*, they are fighting against it because it is *incorrect*, and these incorrect belief systems have caused many incorrect opinions and beliefs to be formed that are not particularly productive or prosocial, and these incorrect beliefs have been the foundation of a lot of unjust and unnecessary laws and customs in societies around the world (for example, the way rape victims are treated in Islamic countries).

      It is generally the belief of the antitheist that we should eradicate religion because the world would be better off if everyone was firmly planted in reality and did not believe in a God. More would get done and we would be a more prosocial and productive society.

      • It is not so much that they are fighting against religion because it is *evil*, they are fighting against it because it is *incorrect*, and these incorrect belief systems have caused many incorrect opinions and beliefs to be formed that are not particularly productive or prosocial

        That echoes the oversimplified way Sam Harris defines religion: as a set of false beliefs about reality. All we need to do, goes the New Atheist “wisdom,” is make everyone change their false beliefs to better beliefs (naturally, the ones we hold), and then everything will be better in society. Isn’t magical thinking adorable?

        The popularity of this narrative in the atheist blogosphere is the main reason nonbelief is still marginalized in American society. It makes it seem like we nonbelievers are less interested in issues of social justice than in getting everyone else to think the way we do. Our stereotype of the dangerous, bigoted believer makes us feel virtuous, but it only reflects the politicized nature of religious belief in certain parts of the USA or the Middle East; we need to be more honest about the breadth of religious experience in the world, and the good as well as the bad things religious people have done throughout history.

        I think the truth value of what people believe is relevant, but it’s nowhere near as important as what it means to them. If someone supports marriage equality because “we’re all God’s children,” I have no basis whatsoever for objecting to that. If the Pope says Catholics should be concerned about the reality of climate change, do you really think that’s a bad thing?

  • Paul Schmeer

    I find it interesting that no mention is made about the social context that churches play, and why that is the reason people stay with their religion. Pure logic will not win numbers when the church is the center of their social life and brings a sense of cultural identity. You cannot just pull the rug of comfort out from under a church goer without providing a substitute to take it’s place. Atheism provides no substitute, but Humanist congregations provide a social context and sense of cultural identity that can take the place of churches. I read an article that about half of the Jews that attend temple do not believe in God, but continue to stay involved because it is their culture, source of social interactions and network of support.

  • pennyroyal

    It would help if Richard Dawkins didn’t make such egregiously fatuous tweets and side with MRAs who vilify women atheists. It gives me pause, when the hoary old white-headed continue the same cult of male supremacy I, for one, have faced my whole life. First in Christianity and now in Humanism, I’m too old for any patience with this stupidity, no matter how famous.

    • Fnordian72

      Cult of male supremacy… interesting. Say more?

      • pennyroyal

        phrase used to describe Swastika Night, a novel by Katherine Burdekin. “Whereas Orwell uses Stalinism as the basis from which to launch his attack on totalitarianism, Burdekin sees Nazi fascism as the ultimate exhibition of the the cult of male supremacy.”
        Daphne Patai, introduction, (utopian fiction, women writers; feminist theory).

  • disqus_ggvdslgvY6

    I’m sorry, but a very crucial part of this is just plain WRONG.

    Unlike the LGBT or African American movements, being an atheist or a theist IS something that is subject to choice; this battle is one that CAN be won by changing minds. Even if, as suggest, humanity is “hardwired for religion”, that doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome intellectually.

    I know plenty of people–both in person and from my moderately successful atheism-based YouTube channel–whose minds have been changed after being presented with the facts. Hell, plenty of them had very skewed ideas of what it meant to be an atheist thanks to religious propaganda; upon learning the truth, many went, “Oh. Gosh. That sounds a lot like what I’ve been thinking to myself but wouldn’t admit. Huh.”

    Atheism can succeed by changing minds, and thinking otherwise is what’s truly naive.

    • Atheism can succeed by changing minds, and thinking otherwise is what’s truly naive.

      But what is the aim of atheism? To get religious people to understand that nonbelief is as valid a worldview as belief? Or to do away with religion altogether? I only ask because one of these things seems very reasonable, and the other seems like complete fantasy.

      • Saying that nonbelief is as valid a worldview as belief is like saying that not believing in fairies is as valid a worldview as believing in fairies, isn’t it?

        There is no aim of atheism. And insofar as an atheist aims for anything, it isn’t adequation. There really is no equal footing.

        • Saying that nonbelief is as valid a worldview as belief is like saying that not believing in fairies is as valid a worldview as believing in fairies, isn’t it?

          As far as believing in nutty things, pretending that you’re going to make the world a saner and more equitable place by regurgitating stale rhetoric about religion being just like belief in fairies is almost as delusional as believing in fairies. If the aim of atheism is ham-fisted grandstanding, you’ve done fine work here.

          • Do you mean that it isn’t the same thing? Or it isn’t nutty?

            I’m not pretending to make the world anything; all I said was there is no aim.

          • José, if you’re convinced that you’re doing justice to the entire problematic phenomenon of religion —which involves subjects like philosophy, anthropology, psychology, art and literature, history, economics, and politics— by comparing it to belief in fairies, then I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. My point is that it’s more important, and more realistic, to change people’s minds and tolerate our atheistic worldview than get them to abandon religion and think exactly the way we do.

          • I understand now. The way you phrased it on your first comment was what prompted my response. It sounded like you were giving ‘believing something without evidence’ and ‘not believing something due to lack of evidence’ equal weight in validity.

          • Andrew

            Shem – religion might encompass all those subjects you stated but so do many fairy tales. If you read the religious texts with an open mind you can only agree with Jose. (apologies for missing off the accent)

          • Andrew, what’s your point? I would argue that the important thing about religious myths and urban legends is not their literal truth but what they mean to the community in which they resonate so strongly. That’s what reading them with an “open mind” would force you to conclude.

    • Geoffrey Lee Hodge

      Interesting. I didn’t choose to become an atheist, and I am willing to wager you didn’t either. To test this idea, try this thought experiment: Could you choose, right now, to believe in the God of the Old Testament? Or that the earth is 6000 years old and that Christopher Hitchens’ soul is being roasted on a spit in Hell? Not go through the motions, but actually believe these ideas fully as actual truth? We don’t choose what to believe (although we can choose to be open to or defensive against new ideas, put up psychological barriers, etc.). We believe what makes sense to us.

      It is great that you are providing compelling information to people who are open to it, but I suspect these were people pre-disposed to logical / scientific thinking. From 2007 to 2014, atheism in the US increased from 1.6% to 3.1%. At this rate we will have a majority in about 220 years. In the interim, atheists should be able to be open about their beliefs without fear of jeopardizing job advancement, losing votes as a politician, being abused in school, etc. This is not an either/or article. We can do both.

      • JNWesner

        By my math, almost doubling every seven years would achieve majority status by the middle of this century.

      • josh

        “This is not an either/or article. We can do both.”
        Which is exactly the position of Dawkins, Dennett and company.

        Also note the point disqus_ggvdslgvY6 made had nothing to do with whether people choose their beliefs.

    • James

      Have you overcame being hardwired? I would think that if many are hardwired and we evolved and that gene is present…um..I rather have it than not…that may answer the question about think?

  • GBJames


    Sure, let us ally with liberal Christians when it comes to advocacy for causes with which we agree, say… church/state separation. But if “respectful dialog” means pretending that liberal Christianity isn’t built on hollow descriptions of reality, leave me out.

    I have liberal Christian friends with whom I agree most of the time. But when they post on Facebook instructions that the way to address racism is for us all to be more “Christlike” I’m not going to politely keep my mouth shut. I’ll politely point out why that’s a dumb idea.

    • Rob Yates

      Sam Harris’ ‘Letter To A Christian Nation’ clearly defines the folly of the liberal Christian position.

      • Geoffrey Lee Hodge

        And in “The Moral Landscape” Harris develops the idea that people can make the world better without necessarily sharing one set of beliefs–whether you are climbing up vs. down the mountain of the moral landscape is more important than whether you are climbing the same peak as your neighbor. I’d argue that the liberal Christians are climbing a different peak, but they are moving in the same direction as Humanists.

    • Joe Gilliland

      YOU miss the meaning of “Christlike” or the other meanings of “Christlike.” Like is the key her; like does not mean the same as or equal to but having similar characteristics which in this case means, caring for your neighbor, helping the poor, all the major elements of his sermon on the mount–which form the basis of the social doctrine some churches follow, doctrines that are the source of ridicule by many fundamentalists which hold “All or nothing” as the ONLY way to truth. I am an atheist who grew that way and did so by not giving up many of the principles Jesus taught, Buddha taught, almost any humanistI know teachers, and most things that atheist should hold as well. Fearing what you may SOUND like rather than what you are takes a little guts. But “all or nothing” is infantile fundamentalism, which may mean fundamentalist atheist or fundamentalist Jew, or fundamentalist Christian, etc. etc.

  • Rob Yates

    “the scientist’s fallacy—the idea that truth is so powerful that facts alone will win the argument” Actually, that’s exactly what will happen. Women, gays, African American rights? Those are based on the subjective biases of people. A closer comparison would be Ptolomeic geocentricity vs Copernican Heliocentricity. Every sane person today follows the Heliocentric position for the exact same reason atheism will prevail over deity belief….because it is CORRECT.

  • Therese Marie Elton Bechetoill

    Atheist fundamentalism is an oxymoron. Free thinkers are just that, free from the fundamental teachings of the three Bronze Age texts which base their moral relevance on the exclusivity of ideals using blasphemy to an imaginary father figure, to enslave women, first and foremost. Then carry on with bonus condemnations lists, of infidels, apostates, adulterers etc…
    Non-theists, atheists, Nones, for god’s sake, stopped believing in Tinker-bell in a natural process of maturity. The true dangers have always been the fundamentalists who carry imaginary rights to their imaginary god to condemn beastly brutality in the past, now, and or, for eternity. What nonsense! We can be as stubborn as we like. We are not condemning anyone to death for believing in nonsense. Why would we want to ally ourselves with clearly diffident deficient thinkers.

  • Lynn Warner

    I believe the second wave cannot come soon enough! I certainly understand why humanists cannot fathom on an intellectual or rational level, why people cling to what we perceive as nothing more than superstitions. But trying to shame them, expressing total disrespect for them, mocking them, etc. will only harden them against humanists and atheists. We can be critical when need be but we should also be appreciative where we can be. We will more effectively influence others in a positive direction by demonstrating tolerance rather than hate.

  • Joseph Patterson

    I agree with Geoffrey Hodge, that we should not be trying to convert religious people, but rather, to gain their acceptance of those who hold diverging beliefs. Churches perform a vaiid function beyond propagating a belief in supernatural beings – – They provide a “glue” that holds communities together, and help to maintain certain standards of civil behavior, even though, for some, only fear of devine retribution holds them to the standards. “Love thy neighbor” has a validity that goes beyond theology. Religion becomes an enemy only when it tries to supress or exterminate those who disagree with their particular narrow theological views.
    Most of us agree that although no one possesses,or can possess absolute truth, the scientific method offers our best path to acquiring knowledge about the real universe. Religious beliefs are not going to go away any time soon, if ever. We need to be able to live with those who hold such beliefs.

  • When Hodge states that, “The overwhelming success of the gay marriage campaign in the US has not been due to a sudden increase in the number of people identifying as gay,” or African American, or female – these examples may not reinforce his argument as much he thinks. The fundamental difference of these examples to atheism is of course, that you can choose to become an atheist. You cannot choose to become gay, African American, or female.

    • Geoffrey Lee Hodge

      Ironically, that same argument used to be commonly used to justify discrimination against gays. Please see my response to disqus_ggvdslgvY6 . It’s not clear to me that we do actually choose our beliefs. In any case, the point is that it is not practical to try to convert everyone in the US to atheism. Working to develop understanding and acceptance of our views seems much more promising to me.

      • I wasn’t necessarily disagreeing with your overall point, just noting a fallacy in this part of your argument.

  • Cathym803

    I am a hospital chaplain. Every year I attend my spouse’s holiday party and last year was the best. These are brilliant folks who set policy and budgets at a huge university and they all self define as being atheist. During the party every single person came up to me and made some comment about religion, their experience of the church, and their varying beliefs. This is the third year this has happened. At the end of the party I stated that chaplaincy was the farthest thing from my head when I walked in…I had no need to talk about the existence of god or the nonexistence of god- I certainly didn’t have an agenda. That they needed to look inside themselves and figure out the need to justify or argue their faith in the nonexistence of god. It wasn’t me- I could care less what people believe as long as they aren’t harming someone. Very funny…FYI, atheists can be hospital chaplains because it is about the patient, family or staff belief- has nothing to do with what we as chaplains believe.

  • Vic

    I don’t think I agree. Atheists are already accepted, even the norm in many countries outside the US. If not the norm, they are certainly not discriminated against to the same degree as women, blacks and gays. Nobody apart from fringe lunatics suggest Atheists shouldn’t be able to vote, or get married, etc. Discrimination may exist in some places, but broadly speaking it’s like comparing apples and oranges. I agree with Dawkins and Dennett.

  • rationallefty

    If they can’t handle the truth, what is it we’re working together for? I have no wish to be a used car salesman.

  • richfeld

    There are two choices: an international ban on religious brainwashing or a premature demise to the human race. There’s absolutely no place for preying religious cults with violence inciting dogma in a world with weapons of mass destruction.

  • JNWesner

    It seems to me that winning over the — now relatively small — liberal protestants to atheism could be harmful to atheists. It would broaden the gulf between liberal non-theists and theists, and frighten the religionists to see their total number diminish, even though they never accepted Episcopalians as religious before. My wife is a liberal, educated, Methodist. She has come to terms with my Humanism, but I do not see her ever joining me, and she’d resent being recruited. Let’s work with those most like us on issues where we can; in doing so we can become friends and allies and perhaps they’ll even vote for one of us eventually.

  • Micky

    Being an Atheist I never feel the need to “Convert” as people of Religon do. I am comfortable in my choice. I question why they feel they must convert. Is it because if they dont keep the “Numbers” they think their belief of a God will go away? Shouldnt believing in a God and the possibility of an afterlife be personal? I dont understand what they are scared of.

    • Lara C. Moritz

      Hi Micky – I would say that what they are afraid of, as I am, is that they understand that people who are not what we consider based in realism are the ones being elected and running the country. It is not enough that you or I or even a small minority agree but that we do “convert” more people so that policies and laws are not based on religion but on facts. I believe, as Hodge stated, that scientist’s fallacy is our biggest weakness in this conversion. The belief that Dawkins keeps will stop theism from even being considered because it is the flip side of the same fundamentalist coin. We have to acknowledge that we are fighting against centuries of rout thought and socialization and maybe even “hard-wiring”. We need to convince and understand who we are speaking to in order access their ability to change their minds. If it is an us vs. them conversation we will make it a war.

  • Stephanie Savage

    I’ve often made the same point about insulting believers. You’re an idiot–come join our side! My two upcoming essays in Free Inquiry reflect a similar viewpoint. I hope atheist writers like you and me, who recognize that the true battle will not involve “converting” believers, but getting them to see that atheists aren’t mean and amoral, will join other like-minded atheists in this second wave.

  • JerkassWoobie

    As a secular humanist and philosophical materialist, it’s my position that the difference between a secular humanist and a religious humanist is literally nonexistent.
    I also find myself having much more in common in terms of real-world political/policy views with religious humanists than with anti-humanist atheists (such as elitist anarcho-capitalist “libertarians”, Ayn Rand fans etc.).

  • Maurice Dupre

    Hodge is correct in saying that a new wave is needed that uses liberal Christians to make atheism acceptable, but incorrect in his comparisons. No Caucasian can be persuaded to be African-American, it is not a question of choice, and we now know the same is true of homosexuality, so these movements have no possibility of spreading. Atheism on the other hand can spread throughout a population, and as far as the religion hardwiring is concerned, one can simply view atheism as an alternate form of religion. Likewise the same is true of popular views on any unanswerable question.

  • Do we really want religiously ‘hard wired’ people possessing all the powers of science? Lets step back and think about this for a second. They will undoubtedly use it for advancement of their world-view’s agenda. Unless we can ensure that agenda is benign, we should be reluctant to just go ‘all in’ for the lib-christ-folk…

  • chris guerrierro

    As a trans person I think that I know a thing or two about social movements. It is people like myself who identified themselves to their communities that they are trans. These folks will move the topic of conversation to the next level. Four years ago it was tougher to come out with a self revealling explanation to your colleges, family and friends than today. As more of the everyday folks take their stand communities are now having to deal with the issue. Its no longer somewhere else when it is in your town or family. Truth always wins in the end in the real world,

  • Dee Sportsman

    Thank you for this article. As a veteran of the feminist movement, your comparison to other successful movements was spot on. I find it interesting that I feel the same peer pressure when speaking with an advocate of the atheist movement as I did growing up in the Baptist Church. The pressure to believe and conform to the one right way.

  • Joseph

    Batshit-crazy article. What, exactly, is atheism? An atheist has no doctrine; no idol; no dogma; no goal; no agenda… An atheist says there is no evidence for the existence of a god or gods. It is a missing belief. It is a reply to a question, that’s it