August 25, 2007



Comment: Atheism la carte;

Rational arguments, not emotional lobbying, are the best way to sell atheism in America, says


Lawrence Krauss


Lawrence M. Krauss is director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His most recent book is Hiding in the Mirror





SPARE a thought for atheists. In the centuries-old struggle for hearts and minds, atheism finds itself at a serious disadvantage compared with the world's organised religions. There are several reasons for this, but included among them, I would argue, are atheism's lack of deep emotional symbols, lack of a celebratory mythos based on oppression and discord, and lack of a sense of exclusiveness based upon a "holier than thou" approach to life. Because, in large part, of this latter fact, atheists do not generally cluster into large and vocal like-minded power groups, and thus tend to visible only when being stigmatised by religious fundamentalists.


Bothered by this, one of the world's most outspoken atheists, Richard Dawkins, has issued a new call to those of like mind to come out of their closets and proudly proclaim their lack of belief. This is not the first time Dawkins has tried to raise the profile of atheists. Recall that he, along with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, has previously urged atheists to relabel themselves as "brights" in order to remove what many see as the stigma associated with the "atheist" label.


What is surprising is that Dawkins is now calling for atheists to behave more like their religious counterparts. Perhaps to make up for the lack of a religious symbol, the Dawkins website is selling T-shirts emblazoned with a large scarlet A, presumably for "atheist". At the same time, he has written a cogent plea for what he calls an "Out" campaign, urging atheists to band together and come out and organise atheist events and organisations, speak out against religious nonsense, and vote out representatives who discriminate against atheists. To help motivate these actions, he argues that atheists are "more numerous than religious Jews, yet they wield a tiny fraction of the political power, apparently because they have never got their act together in the way the Jewish lobby so brilliantly has".


Before proceeding I had better emphasise that I have great respect for Dawkins's intellectual honesty and his ability to communicate. Our own dialogues over the tensions between science and religion, and the need for consciousness-raising among non-believers, have helped to refine my own views in this regard. Moreover, I am acutely aware of the inappropriate stigma that is associated with atheism in the public arena here in the US. It is difficult if not impossible in this country to rise to any level of stature in business, politics or perhaps even Hollywood if one openly admits to atheism. We do need some way to make being non-religious as publicly respectable as being a Mormon or a Muslim.


But having said that, what on earth does Dawkins think his latest campaign will achieve? It seems to me to be as ill-advised as attempting to label atheists as "brights" - with its implication that those who are not atheists are dumb. Dawkins has a great record of using sound intellectual arguments to try to convince the faithful to abandon their faith and persuade non-believers to be open about their scepticism. But before embarking on this new effort to appeal to people's emotions, he might have been well advised to consult a public relations firm. The scarlet A is strongly reminiscent of the A for "adulterer" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel The Scarlet Letter . I don't know who thought that this, combined with the phrase "coming out" with its gay connotations, and references to a "Jewish lobby", would win hearts and minds in middle America, but I can't imagine that it will.


If we are to open minds and induce a more rational public discourse that does not always pander to religion, appealing to the lowest common denominator is not the way to go. Far better to promote rational ideas, and celebrate rational individuals as role models. If, as Dawkins has suggested, there are far more atheists out there than public opinion polls suggest, they should be given the opportunity to be vocal by encouraging or financing polls that are carefully worded to truly reflect the mindset of the American public. At the same time, work could be done behind the scenes to convince high-profile individuals in American public life to speak out in the media or to run for office.


Advertising and hype are not, it seems to me, likely to be the most effective ways to promote an ideology that is at its heart based on rational thought. It is for precisely this reason that people like Dawkins, as well those like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens who have also written about the dangers of religion, can play such an important role, using their considerable intellectual and literary skills to broadcast their message.


If one nevertheless decides to forgo an intellectual assault in favour of an emotional one, it would be wise to mount the campaign in a way that will, at the very least, not alienate the very communities one is trying to rally to the cause.


Lawrence M. Krauss is director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His most recent book is Hiding in the Mirror