The Sciences

Real Freethinkers Don't Try to Close Down Debate

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 14, 2013 5:15 PM

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Every movement has a discourse that is shaped by people who are passionate, committed, and forceful. Some feel so certain in their rightness that they try to control the discourse and purge those deemed insufficiently true to the movement's cause. A political example of this would be today's U.S. Republican Party, which, as David Frum recently observed, has become "increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America." It is now so far-right that some leading Republicans say that even conservative icons like Ronald Reagan would have a hard time winning the GOP nomination today. After President Obama's reelection in Novemeber, Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote:

At a time when the need to broaden the party’s appeal seemed overwhelmingly compelling, Republicans narrowed their appeal to the most ideological fragment of the conservative base.

The same hardball tactics and ideological purity tests that have made the Republican party inhospitable for moderate conservatives are on display in the burgeoning atheist movement.Whenever some of the more tolerant brethren dare to acknowledge "that religion has some points in its favor," one of the doctrinaire anti-religion enforcers shows up, teeth bared. The contempt these atheist knuckle-breakers have for religion is almost pathological. What's more, their intolerance for dissent within their own community borders on the fanatical, as I've pointed out here. P.Z. Myers, one of the loudest and most influential voices in the New Atheist pantheon, is unrivaled in his religion hatred. A recent post of his was titled: "How about we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?" Hey, why stop there? Let's just pretend that religion doesn't exist at all? I mean, what is so important about understanding the history and role of religion in humanity? Fortunately, there are atheists who aren't in favor of closing down intellectual discussion. Such dialogue is both rewarding and frustrating, as Adam Frank writes this week at NPR's Cosmos & Culture blog:

Sometimes the debate between atheism and religion can be enlightening, showing us how both of these different approaches dive deeply into the currents of human experience. Sometimes, however, it can be deeply depressing, devolving into hard lines and acrimony. As an atheist, I often find myself exasperated with what I call "strident atheism." People in this vein seem intent on ignoring the long narrative of human spiritual endeavor. They often reduce it to histories of ignorance and intolerance. Believers in strident atheism convince themselves that it's OK to ignore the scholarship on the long and ancient history of human spiritual endeavor.

Frank goes on to pay tribute to scholarship that has explored the religious domain and

the long history of humanity's sometimes stumbling, sometimes horrific, sometimes transcendent attempt to engage with this persistent sense that there is more to life than day-to-day survival.

Frank makes it clear he is not a believer. It is also clear that he doesn't believe in ridiculing those who derive some kind of meaning from religion. That's the sign of a real freethinker. UPDATE: Another atheist has responded brilliantly to P.Z. Meyers. An excerpt:

Religion is important not because it’s a human universal or because people find it important. It is important to study because it has direct, large impacts on the life of every human being on the planet. It impacts those of us who are atheist, raised atheist and will die atheist. It infiltrates our culture, out literature, our art, our history, our politics, and our philosophy. And if you want to be able to understand the human beings around you, their decision making process, or ANY of the topics that i mentioned previously, it is important to have a basic understanding of the theology and doctrine of a.the dominant religion of your culture and b.the major world religions. These are hugely important to being able to function as a human being who interacts largely with other human beings who are religious.

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