Preaching to the Choir


Damon Linker argues that if Bill Maher and other “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins were really interested in having an impact, practically, against what they see as pernicious effects of religious belief they would stop being such assholes and try instead to engage sympathetically with religious people:

Instead of hurling insults and indiscriminate denunciations at religion-in-general, Maher and his fellow atheists could do far more good by encouraging the growth and flourishing of open-minded belief–the kind of belief that lives in productive tension with modern science and cultural pluralism. In doing so, they would be following the example of Thomas Jefferson and several of the American constitutional framers, who advocated a liberal, skeptical form of piety as the kind of religion best suited to a free society.

That’s right, but of course that’s not what they’re doing. The editors gave his piece the deck “If Bill Maher and his fellow ‘new atheists’ want to be effective, they need to stop preaching to the choir.” I think that’s an apt metaphor. But of course while a responsible Christian minister will spend some time seeking converts he also will spend some time preaching to the choir. After all, the choir’s an important part of the church. You want to keep the church’s most dedicated members — the ones who volunteer for stuff and sing in the choir — engaged with the life of the institution. In much the same way, a successful politician needs to court moderate voters but also does need to spend time getting “the base” jazzed up since these are the folks who’ll donate money, stuff envelops, make phone calls, etc. Solidarity building is important.

And what I take to be the key idea of the “new atheists” is that it’s somehow not good enough to just try to go along and get along and hope that things will sort themselves out. Instead, for some reason they think it would be a good idea for everyone who’s not currently observant to form some kind of mass movement based around observing a lack of observancy in order to do battle with those who do. Hence, the need to preach to the choir. Why they think an organized, self-consciously atheistic mass movement would be a good thing is a bit beyond me. But I think that’s really the issue here.