Richard Dawkins has a bright idea: Atheists are the new gays. Is he joking? Not at all. The bestselling author of The God Delusion has been suggesting for two years now that atheists can follow the example of gays. This would put the atheists last in the line of liberation groups: first the civil rights movement, then the feminist movement, then the gay liberation movement, and now the cause of atheist liberation.
What makes Dawkins want atheists to be like gays? Dawkins explains that gays used to be called homosexual, but then they decided to pick a positive-sounding name like "gay." Suddenly the meaning of the term "gay" was entirely appropriated by homosexuals. Gays went from being defined by their enemies to defining themselves in a favorable way.
Dawkins cited this example in advocating that atheists call themselves "brights." After all, atheist is a somewhat negative term because it defines itself by what it is opposed to. "Bright" sounds so much happier and, more important, smarter. "Bright" kind of reflects the high opinion that atheists have of their own intellectual abilities. Even the stupidest village atheist gets to pat himself on the back and place himself in the tradition of science and philosophy by calling himself a "bright."
Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett have both written articles promoting the use of the term “bright.” Not all atheists have warmed to the term, but Dawkins and Dennett clearly envision themselves as far-looking strategists of the atheist cause. But how bright, really, are they?
Dawkins has also suggested that atheists, like gays, should come out of the closet. Well, what if they don't want to? I doubt that Dawkins would support "outing" atheists. But can an atheist "rights" group be far behind? Hate crimes laws to protect atheists? Affirmative action for unbelievers? An Atheist Annual Parade, complete with dancers and floats? Atheist History Month?
Honestly, I think the whole atheist-gay analogy is quite absurd. It seems strange for Dawkins to urge atheists to come out of the closet in the style of the all-American boy standing up on the dining table of his public high school and confessing that he is a homosexual? Dawkins, being British, doesn't seem to recognize that this would not win many popularity contests in America.
If Dawkins' public relations skills seem lacking in this area, they are positively abysmal when they come to building support for science. Remember that Dawkins is professor of the public understanding of science. He has a chair funded by the Microsoft multimillionaire Charles Simonyi. If I were that guy, I'd withdraw the support, not because I disagree with Dawkins, but because I think he is setting back the cause of science.
Basically Dawkins is saying if you are religious, then science is your enemy. Either you choose God or you choose science. No wonder that so many Americans say they are opposed to evolution. They believe that evolution is atheism masquerading as science, and Dawkins confirms their suspicions. Indeed Dawkins takes the same position as the most ignorant fundamentalist: you can have Darwin or you can have the Bible but you can't have both.
Dawkins is in some ways a terrible representative for atheism, which I'm glad about because a bad cause deserves a bad leader. He is also a terrible advocate for science, which I'm sad about because science deserves all the support it can get.
Having debated Christopher Hitchens, I’d like the opportunity to debate Dawkins. I think I can vindicate a rational and scientific argument for religion against his irrational and unscientific prejudice. When I wrote Dawkins to propose such a debate, however, Dawkins said that “upon reflection” he decided against it. He didn’t give a reason, and there is no reason.
In his writings on religion, Dawkins presents atheism as the side of reason and evidence, and religion as the side of “blind faith.” So what’s he afraid of? How can reason possibly lose in a contest with ignorance and superstition? I have written Dawkins back offering him the most favorable terms: a debate on a secular campus like Berkeley rather than a church, with atheist Michael Shermer as the moderator, and a donor ready and willing to pay both our fees.
So I hope Dawkins takes me up on my challenge to an intellectual joust. If you want to encourage him, write Dawkins and send the email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll forward your thoughts to our wavering atheist knight. He may want to pattern atheism on the gay rights movement, but surely he doesn’t want the world to think that he’s a sissy.