Milquetoast Agnosticism

The November issue of Wired, with my story on The New Atheism, was posted online yesterday. I’ve been reading as much of the comment as I could.

Much of it is positive, some it is loony, but there are also some compelling complaints. One complaint in particular touches me. Some of the readers have wished for a more rousing send off, a call to arms. I disappointed them in this regard. Well, disappointed is putting it mildly. Milquetoast, milksop, cop-out — that’s more to the point. “Better a tepid, ambivalent truce,” says one of them sarcastically, “that tolerates nearly anything as long as it is proclaimed as faith.”

At the heart of the problem, say the fans of the New Atheism, is the tacit agreement in our secular society not to place too much emphasis on “correct belief.” One person holds that Joseph Smith discovered the history of an ancient Christian civilization in the Americas; another person is convinced that Mary was subsumed into heaven without dying. Neither person is written off as a delusional idiot unworthy of holding public office, teaching in schools, controlling the education of their children.

Now, from the perspective of secular knowledge, these beliefs are nutty. And yet they are given a special respect. We do not judge such believers as harshly as we would those who think they get messages from friendly space lobsters through the fillings in their teeth.

Dawkins, Harris, and some of the posters on Wired News and Pharyngula find the “free pass” given to religion to be worse than embarrassing; to them it is actually evil.

I can’t manage to go along with them. I’m fine with banning such theories from scientific debate. (After all, science is a field with fairly strict requirements for admittance. Science has strong boundaries. Science coexists with all kinds of other social institutions, and those denied admittance to scientific conferences because they cannot meet the standards have many other ways to live and prosper.) But all social life does not require or thrive on the intellectual strictness of science. I see our tolerance of religious beliefs as part of a larger trend toward secularism. We’ve learned, through hard experience, that a gentle respect for a broad range of superstitions is a safe policy.

I understand that the chief violators of this sensible laxity are religious fundamentalists. Dawkins has pointed this out, correctly, as have many others. But to match these violations with a harsh, crusading spirit — fighting fire with fire — seemed odd to me. Do the New Atheists think that, crusade vs. crusade, strictness vs. strictness, legislation vs. legislation, they can win? Could religious education, for instance, be banned, as it was in France after the revolution; or priestly vestments be made illegal in public, as they were for many years in Mexico? Of course they don’t think that – they are too worldly and too smart. So what gives? In the end, the proposal for an atheist crusade struck me as a philosophical and theatrical gesture, rather than a real political proposal. I understand that this conclusion is seen as a cop-out by those who want to end this period of dull shilly-shallying and have it out once and for all. Let the most correct belief win! The others shall be thrown in the dust heap of history.

That’s not for me. I take a certain pervasive secular laxity, a certain “milktoast agnosticism,” to put it in its harshest light, as a good thing, a sign that our secular faith is stronger and more pervasive than we may sometimes fear.

3 Responses to “Milquetoast Agnosticism”

  1. Daniel Morgan Says:


    We are not advocating removing anyone’s civil liberties. We are advocating a public and serious rebuttal to the fallacious thinking of religious extremists.

    We are advocating a no-holds-barred, pull-out-all-the-stops, free-for-all in exposing the dangers here, examining the false claims of religion, passionately arguing for reason to prevail over faith…

    The “crusade” here will not be fought with a sword, or in a courtroom, but on Mars Hill: the public square, the philosophers’ corner. We have to counter the fear inspired into the hearts of believers about liberalism and secular humanism with rational arguments; and show them they have nothing to fear but themselves.

    That’s my crusade. I fight it with spilled ink.

  2. Daniel Morgan Says:

    I think we all see the effect of gentle respect — the spreading cancer that is religious fundamentalism has grown and grown. It is time to say “fuck tepid atheism” and “fuck gentle respect”; those with brains will understand the danger, and willingly sacrifice their sensitive religious sensibilities to the greater cause of preserving the human race from religiously-driven extinction. Those who don’t, won’t. There is a greater concern here than feelings and causing offense.

    Gary just doesn’t focus enough on that.
    I don’t know that the charge against secularists that we are “tolerant of everything except religion” is even wrong; so long as it is qualified that secularists are intolerant of violence-laden and dangerous religion. I have never, in all my time reading atheist sites and etc., seen a rant against Buddhism or Taoism.

    I have never seen the godless rally around an article by a Quaker and demean and belittle his pacifism.

    I have seen, over and over, atheists, secular humanists, etc., rally around those extremist elements of the Christian and Muslim religion and expose the folly and danger of their thinking (or lack thereof). And I hope to see more and more of it. I hope.

  3. Alan Cooper Says:

    So, Gary, you have decided to “refuse the call” to join in the crusade of the non-believers. But this begs the question of what you would say yourself when asked to declare your position. This you did quite innocently to your friends in the anecdote in your article but it also often happens less benignly in courtrooms, political meetings, and tax forms.

    The proper call is not for an end to tolerance for religious beliefs (at least for those that are relatively benign in their consequences) but an end to the intolerance of non-belief which is manifest throughout North American society – and to which your article contributed by implicitly identifying all who declare non-belief with the atheist fundamentalists (which you did by failing to acknowledge the alternative).

    Your blog posting here goes some way towards correcting that, at least to the extent of clarifying your own position, but cannot come close to undoing the damage done by the article.