As we all know, New Atheists have long had a problem with civility. Whether it’s Richard Dawkins encouraging his followers to mock religious people, who he routinely attacks as “faith-heads,” or Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne trying to thwart Francis Collins appointment to head the NIH with a public smear campaign, or PZ Myers looking for publicity by threatening to destroy a Eucharist wafer, or it’s just the hundreds of mean-spirited anti-religious memes New Atheists soldiers post, civility is something that New Atheists have struggled with. In fact, it’s so bad that many atheists distance themselves from the New Atheists, causing the New Atheists to lash out at them as “accomodationists” and “faiththeists.”
Perhaps because of the bad public image that follows from such incivility, atheist activist Peter Boghossian is trying to reign it in with his new app, Atheos:
Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, and a team of PSU students have created a new app called Atheos to facilitate respectful debates between atheists and people with different religious beliefs.
The target audience is clearly the New Atheist community and Boghossian identifies the need:
“There are ways to have productive, civil conversations about contentious issues such as religion, faith, supernatural beliefs, even politics,” says Boghossian
Boghossian recognizes that the New Atheist community is in need of learning ways to have productive, civil conversations and his app is part of the solution.
As an example of how Gnu’s need to have their uncivil behavior constrained, here is what one atheist had to learn from the app:
One of the first categories is “Time to flee,” which tackles the best way to respond to extremely emotional situations by backing off. For example, if someone says, “I was just diagnosed with cancer, but I know God will heal me,” DO NOT respond with, “Didn’t God give you cancer to begin with?” Instead, you should respond with, “I’m sorry you’re sick. Is there something I can do to help?” Being diagnosed with cancer is scary enough without adding a faith crisis on top of things!
Yes, trying to score debate points with someone’s cancer is not civil. If Atheos can teach just a few Gnu’s this basic lesson, there might be some good to it.
While it’s encouraging the Gnu’s have made a small step to hold back their hostility, it appears they also need help when it comes to reasoning about their own atheism:
Boghossian, author of “A Manual for Creating Atheists,” says that his goal with the app is to give users the confidence and tools to have challenging conversations about beliefs. “How do we help people think critically when there are so many forces aligned against that? It’s through reason and rationality.”
Despite the good intentions of teaching New Atheists how to be civil and finally giving them to the tools of reason and rationality, I doubt Atheos will be successful.
Boghossian himself has his own problems with civility and reason as can be seen from his book on creating atheists. For example, Boghossian views religious people as mentally diseased and thinks the “cure” can be had by purchasing his book and app. Put simply, his misguided “us vs. them” approach poisons the well.
An example of such well poisoning from the app is as follows:
The app also contains a glossary that includes terms from classical philosophy, along with newer ones such as “deepity” (a term coined in 2009 by author and philosopher Daniel Dennett, meaning “a statement that looks profound but is not”).
The definition itself makes little sense given there is no way to objectively measure whether a statement is profound. That is something each individual subjectively experiences and is thus a matter of personal opinion. What’s going on here is this – by referring to religious views as “deepities,” Boghossian is mocking them.
While Boghossian might be savvy enough to mask his hostility, I doubt his Street Epistemologists can mimic him well and, if they can, I doubt they can keep it up for long. The problem is not that New Atheist incivility is too obvious; the problem is that it is entailed in the New Atheist posturing.