Diplomats and Rabble-Rousers

Adam Lee

As so-called New Atheists grow in numbers and prominence, led by such outspoken nonbelievers as Richard Dawkins, we have to expect some squalling from religious groups that are feeling the unaccustomed sting of criticism. That much is unsurprising, but criticism of the New Atheists has come from some unexpected quarters as well. Julian Baggini, a British philosophy professor who is himself an atheist, published an article on the Web site Fritanke.no last year in which he frets that the New Atheism is “destructive.” He writes that it is “characterised by its attacks on religion” and describes it as “a backward step” because it reinforces the notion that atheists “need an enemy to give them their identity.”

A similar note is struck by Stephen Prothero, a liberal Christian and a professor of religion at Boston University. In a December 2009 column in USA Today, Prothero says that atheists “need a different voice” and scorns the outspoken atheists whom he calls “angry acolytes” and whose speaking style he describes as “an invitation to a duel.” In its place, he calls for a “friendlier atheism,” one that does not seek “a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably,” where atheists do not attack religion or seek to convert people to atheism but merely to assert their own values.

The so-called New Atheists can offer an obvious reply: if they spend most of their time on the attack, it’s because there is so much to be attacked. The world’s major religions still command the allegiance of billions of people, possess enormous wealth and power, and use their resources to further immoral and dangerous goals: fighting science education and rational thinking; preaching against family planning in the poverty-stricken and overcrowded third world; opposing the expansion of legal rights for women, gays, and minorities; and in many cases even fomenting violence against outsiders. Why not speak out against these evils?

What is a secular humanist to make of all this? Is the New Atheism something secular humanists can join hands with or an example of what to avoid? We can begin by noting that critics often take issue with the New Atheism’s strategy, rather than its goals. Baggini says as much: “For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers, and isolate extremists. But if we demonise all religion, such coalitions of the reasonable are not possible. Instead, we are likely to see moderate religious believers join ranks with fundamentalists, the enemies of their enemy, to resist what they see as an attempt to wipe out all forms of religious belief.”

Reinforcing this view of two competing strategies, Prothero adds that he’d rather see an atheism “more like a civil rights movement than a crusade,” and that “if the hope is for a country where children can play with other children without regard for the religious (or non-religious) beliefs of their parents, then this is a wave many of us would happily catch.”

This argument sounds superficially reasonable: after all, who wants to alienate religious moderates, and who doesn’t want atheists’ children and theists’ children to be able to play together? But plausible as it sounds, it is wrong, and it shows that Baggini and Prothero have completely misread not just the New Atheist strategy but that of almost every successful progressive social movement.

From the distant past to recent memory, the historical record unequivocally testifies that every major progressive cause—abolitionism, feminism, civil rights—works the best and achieves the most when two sides work in unison. One side is the conventional thinkers, people within the system who can work with the establishment; the other is the radicals, people who are willing to take on the system, to confront the powers that be and demand a change of course. These two sides push and pull against each other, but despite inevitable friction they accomplish things together that neither could achieve alone. Simply stated, every successful political movement needs both diplomats and rabble-rousers.

The role of these two groups can be summed up in a famous metaphor by the policy theorist Joseph Overton. Overton’s theory states that for any issue, the range of socially accepted, “realistic” positions is narrower than the range of possible positions. This narrower range, whose boundaries are set by public opinion, is called the “Overton window.” In the center of the window are the “moderate,” “mainstream” policies, while those toward either end are usually described as “extremist” or “fringe.”

In terms of the New Atheist movement’s relationship to secular humanism, we can imagine the range of possible positions covering the spectrum from a completely atheistic society to a completely theistic society. Currently, in America and to a lesser extent throughout the Western world, the Overton window of socially accepted positions is shifted heavily toward the theistic end, with atheism widely looked down on and atheists commanding far less influence and respect than they should. What Baggini and Prothero are proposing is that we let this remain the default state of affairs and work within the Overton window by making alliances with moderate believers.

By contrast, New Atheists like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the rest aim toward a different goal. In essence, they want to move the Overton window by pulling on one end, shifting the range of socially accepted positions so that atheism is recognized as a legitimate and accepted alternative to religious belief. The way to do this is by strongly and confidently advocating positions that were previously inconceivable so that they become familiar and eventually approved of. This work is bound to cause discomfort and embarrassment among the guardians of the status quo, at least at first. But in the long run, it’s the only way to make genuine progress—to make atheism more widely accepted and more influential, as opposed to forever flattering the religious moderates. While there’s more to secular humanism than atheism alone, surely a society that has grown more comfortable with atheism will be friendlier to secular humanism, too.

History shows us many social-reform movements that have benefited from this same model of activism. The abolitionist movement had its compromisers, who felt slavery was wrong but would eventually die out of its own accord, and its radicals, who wanted to see it banned immediately. (Notably, Abraham Lincoln started out as the former but ended up more the latter.) The women’s suffrage movement had those like the Grimke sisters, who cast their desire for equal rights in religious terms, and those like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, who said the greatest enemy of women’s suffrage was the Bible. The civil-rights movement had leaders like Booker T. Washington, who thought African Americans had to fully assimilate into American society before they could expect equal rights, and those like W.E.B. DuBois, who argued for seeking full legal equality without delay. More recently, the gay and lesbian movement only took off as a mainstream political cause after the Stonewall riots. All these movements, thanks to the dynamic harmony between diplomats and rabble-rousers, successfully moved their issues’ Overton windows. In the process they banished well-entrenched prejudices to the fringes of society while making mainstream and accepted what was once unthinkably radical.

The New Atheists should follow this winning template, and secular humanists should welcome it when they do.

Of course, New Atheists and secular humanists should be willing to work together with religious moderates on issues where we find common ground. No one is denying that. But we should also be willing to speak loud and clear in defense of what we stand for—secularism, church-state separation, the supremacy of reason over faith, morality based on conscience rather than superstition—and let it be known that we are proud and happy of who we are. That is the approach that will ultimately win us all the most supporters. (If those vaunted religious moderates are so repelled by any hint of criticism that they run straight into the arms of the fundamentalists, then they were never our allies in the first place.) Neither atheists nor secular humanists have reason to enter into an alliance that is conditioned on our subservience.

There will be need for diplomats as well. Once the Overton window has moved and atheism is more widely noticed and accepted, we’ll need people to serve as the friendly faces of nonbelief—who can secure the social respectability that’s necessary for any reform movement to achieve majority acceptance. Secular humanists will bring a great deal to the table here.

But to claim we should rely exclusively on either of these strategies is badly misguided and shows a failure to grasp what makes social reform movements successful. Proud, rabble-rousing New Atheists will continue to speak out, fight back, and express forthrightly their conviction that reason is the only true and reliable way of understanding the world. In doing that they can serve our larger movement very well indeed.

Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an author and skeptic living in New York City. He is an unapologetic atheist who believes passionately that freethinkers deserve a  much stronger voice in our culture.


As so-called New Atheists grow in numbers and prominence, led by such outspoken nonbelievers as Richard Dawkins, we have to expect some squalling from religious groups that are feeling the unaccustomed sting of criticism. That much is unsurprising, but criticism of the New Atheists has come from some unexpected quarters as well. Julian Baggini, a …

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