A few years ago, as a newbie assistant professor, I was visited in my office by an editor at The Free Press. He was basically trolling the corridors, looking for people who had interesting ideas for popular-science books. I said that I liked the idea of writing a book, but I didn’t really want to do a straight-up cosmology tome. I had a better idea: I could write a book explaining how, when you really think about things scientifically, you come to realize that God doesn’t exist. I even had a spiffy title picked out — God Remains Dead: Reason, Religion, and the Pointless Universe. It’s not any old book that manages to reference both Steven Weinberg and Friedrich Nietzsche right there on the cover. Box office, baby.
The editor was actually intrigued by the idea, and he took it back to his bosses. Ultimately, however, they decided not to offer me a contract, and I went on to write another book with more equations. (Now on sale at Amazon!)
All of which is to say: I totally could have been in on the ground floor of all this atheism chic. These days, between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a prominent publicly-outspoken atheist of one form or another. That could have been me, I tell you.
These guys have gotten a lot of attention — especially Dawkins, who was recently voted Person of the Year by at least one reputable organization. Of course, some of the attention has been negative, especially from folks who are unsympathetic to the notion of a harsh, materialistic, godless universe. But even among self-professed atheists and agnostics (not to mention your wishy-washy liberal religionists), some discomfort has been expressed over the tone of Dawkins’s approach. People have been known to call him arrogant. Even if you don’t believe in God, so the argument goes, it can be a bad strategy to be upfront and in-your-face in public about one’s atheism. People are very committed to their religious beliefs, and telling them that science proves them wrong will lead them away from science, not way from God. And if you must be a die-hard materialist, at least be polite about it and respect others’ beliefs — to be obnoxious and insulting is simply counterproductive. Apart from any deep issues of what we actually should believe, this is a separate matter of how we could best persuade others to agree with us.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.
Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.
In other words, by being arrogant and uncompromising in his atheism, Dawkins has done a tremendous amount to make the very concept of atheism a respectable part of the public debate, even if you find him personally obnoxious. Evidence: a few years ago, major newsmagazines (prompted in part by the efforts of the Templeton Foundation) were running cover stories with titles like Science Finds God (Newsweek, July 20, 1998). Pure moonshine, of course — come down where you will on the whole God debate, it remains pretty clear that science hasn’t found Him. But, within the range of acceptable public discourse, both science and God were considered to be undeniably good things — it wasn’t a stretch to put them together. Nowadays, in contrast, we find cover stories with titles like God vs. Science (Time, Nov 13, 2006). You never would have seen such a story just a few years ago.
This is a huge step forward. Keep in mind, the typical American thinks of atheists as fundamentally untrustworthy people. A major network like CNN will think nothing of hosting a roundtable discussion on atheism and not asking any atheists to participate. But, unlike a short while ago, they will eventually be shamed into admitting that was a mistake, and make up for it by inviting some atheists to defend their ideas. Baby steps. Professional news anchors may still seem a little befuddled at the notion that a clean, articulate person may not believe in God. But at least that notion is getting a decent public hearing. Once people actually hear what atheists have to say, perhaps they will get the idea that one need not be an amoral baby-killer just because one doesn’t believe in God.
For that, Richard Dawkins, thank you.