One of the methods used by the religious to marginalize atheists and our increasing visibility is to accuse us of becoming that which we originally opposed, or in other words, just like them. It’s even better if they have the convenience of one experience with these so-called “secular fundamentalists” from which they can draw unfounded conclusions as to the validity of this argument and, ultimately, the character of all those who have no belief in gods, goddesses, or other mythical creatures.
This is the route taken by Michael Brendan Dougherty in the November issue of The American Conservative. His article, entitled “Secular Fundamentalists: Can atheists form a movement around shared disbelief”, uses this year’s Atheist Alliance International convention as fodder for his clumsy attempt to represent atheism as a new phenomenon comprised of the dogmatically anti-religious.
The title alone is an oxymoron—would Mr. Dougherty mind explaining the fundamentals of secularism before he starts labeling us as adherents to them? He tries to use Sam Harris’ speech about the word “atheist” and the subsequent reaction as proof of this claim, pointing out the discomfort of the audience during his speech. He goes on to assume that Sam Harris would prefer that there be no AAI conference next year, which is only true in one scenario—that in which religion is no longer a menace to society and has been effectively stripped of its power.
Of course, according to Mr. Dougherty, the only reason we get together is to tell jokes about pedophile priests and fight the morality imposed upon us by the “prudes and prigs” who surround us, it is really unnecessary since all of this can be done online anyway. As a matter of fact, most of the conference attendees or those with whom I have spoken regarding Harris’ speech, which was reprinted in The Washington Post, were pleased to see a dissenting position presented, even if some may have disagreed with that position. This is an example of the very thing that makes atheism different from religion; we’re allowed to ask questions and present our differences of opinion. There’s no excommunication from atheism. Apparently, he hung around for the Q&A, but failed to mention that in my question to Sam, I stated that I agreed conceptually but see no other way to gain any influence as a group by avoiding the one word under which we can unite. Harris agrees with that, and furthermore, I think that as atheists, we all agree that we would prefer to live in a world in which the word was not even necessary.
Dougherty goes on to the addition of Harris’ somewhat controversial affinity for meditation. He adds the jab frequently used against us, that we hate all religions, rather than just not believing in them, and goes on to misrepresent Daniel Dennett’s comment that he himself had been practicing meditation. Of course, in his mind, the audience was deeply troubled by this, despite the fact that meditation does not necessarily have a religious connotation and does have scientific evidence to show that similar contemplative practices have health benefits. Meditation may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there were certainly some in the audience who understand this point, but mentioning that would undermine his initial claim that we are “fundamentalists.” So he chooses to be dishonest instead, proclaiming that “the leaders of unbelief are exposed as potential monks and mystics.”
At least we still have Hitchens, whom he briefly addresses by using the well-worn “he’s just angry at God” argument. He then finds it humorous that conference attendees are excited by the opportunity to meet these distinguished individuals, and points out a person that had a conversation with Hitchens and was ecstatic, claiming that this is a form of “idol worship” and a religion of its own. If that is true, then Christians are assuredly in violation of their precious commandments by idolizing their own batch of celebrities such as Rick Warren, Dinesh D’Souza, or Lee Strobel. Being happy to meet a person that you admire and respect, who has potentially influenced your life through their work, is now a religion, folks. Again, nothing other than juvenile and amateur attempts to disparage atheists and a simple restatement of that childish taunt, “I know you are but what am I?”
In an egregious violation of journalistic objectivity, he goes on to personally insult Margaret Downey, referring to her as a “dippy hostess.” Margaret has fought for the rights of atheists and gays to join the Boy Scouts, has given a presentation to the United Nations on the discrimination of atheists, and is still the UN expert on atheist discrimination in the US. She has worked tirelessly for years on end and put her own life at risk to make separation of church and state a reality, not just some words on an aged document· The fact that he would have the audacity to refer to one of the most influential women in the world of atheism as he did displays the utter lack of respect and contempt that he holds for those who do not worship his imaginary friend, yet he wonders why we feel the need to rally together, speak up, and rattle cages.
The fact that, in his opinion, holding a conference qualifies your group as a “movement” is mildly amusing. I guess that makes attendees of “Star Trek” conventions members of a pro-Star Trek movement. In much the same way that the aforementioned “Trekkies” are chided for having their apparel, costumes, and merchandise, Dougherty goes on to more trivial evidences of this subversive “atheist movement.”
Apparently, Dougherty finds “young men with haircuts fit for their mother’s basement” a valid point upon which to base an argument that we are nothing more than a “cranky subculture” that wants to ridicule religion much as a teenager wants to rebel against his/her parents. He interestingly notes that we did not view “The Passion of the Christ” and instead chose “Life of Brian”. I take it he didn’t consider that we atheists have no desire to watch a man brutally tortured and ultimately murdered for two and a half hours. I consider that to be a good thing, and would certainly allow my children to watch “Life of Brian” before that snuff film of which he apparently approves.
He comes back to the worst insult Christians have to offer, which is the conflation of atheism to a religion itself. It is about time that atheists come together at conferences and stand up for ourselves in a country dominated by irrationality. How ironic that the best argument he can muster is that we’re just like them. He claims that the conference “provides plenty of evidence” by “[resembling] an evangelical retreat weekend.” Wouldn’t any conference probably have similarities; such as there were speakers, there were meetings, and an amalgamation of people hanging out conversing? Again, if the Church of Star Trek hasn’t been founded already, it is now, whether the fans agree or not. He completely ignores the valid criticisms of religious belief and insists on using ridicule and insults to make the entire concept seem silly, much like Christianity. Is he projecting his own feelings regarding the absurdity of his own religion, maybe?
He attacks Julia Sweeney as a “D-list celebrity” eager for a second career as an atheist spokesperson. The fact that she does a monologue based on her personal experience with religion escapes him, and once again, he sardonically quips that she must be fun on dates after she recounts a story about debating evolution while out with a former romantic interest. Watch out ladies and gentlemen—we’ve entered the “no-humor” zone.
The ad hominems don’t stop there, either. His next target is Greydon Square, and Dougherty can’t stop himself from painting him as a thug with a rap sheet. We all know that getting arrested completely discredits a person despite the validity of their beliefs or lack thereof in this case. Any journalist with credibility would at least have done his research and known that Greydon was released that day—his only charge being an unpaid ticket. We can add this to the list of half-truths purposely written by Dougherty and designed to deceive the readers.
Coming full circle back to Sam Harris, he quotes Sam from The End of Faith as saying, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Not only is this completely skewed and out of context, he presumes that nobody would contemplate this statement. If you had the ability to stop the 9/11 hijackers before they boarded the planes that eventually slammed into buildings, killing thousands, would you have? What if lethal force was the only means by which it was possible? It is certainly a delicate subject, but it is not presented accurately in Dougherty’s piece. Dougherty’s defense then consists of the absurd claim that, “The Inquisition at least allowed defendants the chance to recant—often many times.” Yes, they did, offer a choice between keeping one’s integrity and dying or lying about one’s lack of belief and remaining alive. What a stunning example of Christian generosity and kindness. Maybe we should watch two and a half hours of that at next year’s AAI conference.
Finally, we have Richard Dawkins. Even this criticism isn’t bereft of superficial personal attacks, as he refers to Prof. Dawkins as “owl-faced” and “ignorant of religious people as a species.” Apparently, a speciation event occurred that officially separates the logical from the illogical; the reason-based from the faith-based. Unfortunately, it’s not true (sorry if he got anybody’s hopes up).
He argues that Dawkins’ proposition that religious indoctrination is tantamount to child abuse and that we should refrain from labeling our children as a particular religion is reductive and tendentious. Dougherty claims that religion is not a “mere set of mental propositions” and is, in fact, a way of life started at birth. I don’t imagine that Dawkins would disagree with the latter, but the issue is one of choice and the autonomy of children. It concerns the routine obfuscation that occurs when parents lie to their children with regards to evolution, history and the value of faith as a reasonable methodology. Many who have suffered from this treatment do not possess the ability to deprogram themselves as adults, and thus logic and rationality have been suppressed for yet another generation.
If he has no problem with that concept, why is it that he aims to make Julia Sweeney look like a child abuser for telling her daughter that they don’t believe in God? If the general consensus is that pushing religion on your children is not an issue, then why is the advocacy of non-religion? Why was there such a backlash to our own Blasphemy Challenge, largely because teens were being “targeted” by the evil atheists? It is the obvious hypocrisy that is most problematic here—indoctrination from Christian parents is fine, but atheist parents need to keep their lack of belief to themselves. The hazard represented by this mode of thought is actualized in the many cases of discrimination against atheist parents in child custody cases.
This article was nothing short of a long list of intellectually inept claims peppered with personal attacks which do more to reveal the character of the author than his intended targets. Michael Brendan Dougherty should be ashamed of himself for exploiting the kindness of the atheists at the conference who spoke with him in order to purposely malign and misrepresent us. His penchant for focusing on irrelevant, superficial details, such as age, clothing or hair-style, was deftly demonstrated in this piece, which I can only describe as being a supremely dishonest polemic aimed at the continued marginalization of atheists. Hopefully, his lack of journalistic integrity will prevent him from getting a press pass at any future events.