It’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on the atheist movement. On the one hand, more than a few of my closest friends count themselves as leading lights in skeptic circles, and the work they do, pushing back the fog of fundamentalism and bigotry, serves an invaluable counterweight to the type of religious militarism that’s almost as dangerous under cross as it is under crescent.
On the other hand, there’s a tendency at the movement level for atheism to lapse into a new kind of dogma and, like fundamentalist Christianity, reject the very pluralism that the movement used to hold out as a goal. Ross Douthat notes the problem, and I tend to agree: atheists and religious moderates should be able to find common ground in rejecting fundamentalism, both as a worldview, and in validating those parts of organized religion that tend to actually create better people. I object to, and take offense at, the notion that humanity needs a divine being to provide an objective morality substantial enough to quash our naturally selfish impulses. To men and women of a certain conviction, a decent respect for the life and property of others should flow naturally — without any need for recourse to some heavenly notion of punishment and reward — from the simple fact that we are, in fact, bound together in our destinies. But for those who need the crutch of religious morality, let them have it.
But if we see an angry, militant type of atheism emerging as a dominant force in the movement, we shouldn’t overlook the role religious fundamentalists have had in creating that wing. Any alliance between religious moderates and non-theist moderates would face fire from both sides: militant atheists who view religion as a plague to be eradicated, and militant theists who see atheists as something less than human. Productive dialogue requires two willing players; arguably, we don’t have either.