Atheism and cyber-abuse
Former philosophy tutor Barney Zwartz, the Age's Religious Affairs writer, is an open-minded, softly-spoken and intelligent Christian.
So it is quite astonishing to read the level of extreme abuse heaped on Barney because he dared to question the positive contribution to society offered by the Atheist Convention in Melbourne held this weekend. (read the 600+ comments)
Any believer who has bothered trying to dialogue with atheists on most chats sites knows that the response will be this kind of abuse, bullying and harassment. Rarely a sensible word of rational argument is spoken.
(The exception, in my experience, has been ironically on this website.)
The growth of atheistic cyber-abuse has become so bad that when the Godfather of the neo-atheists Richard Dawkins tried to clean up his own site he suffered the same fate: one user reportedly expressed “a sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails” down his throat.
Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of unleashing a hoard of self-absorbed Gen Y anarchistic individualists whose only sense of the civic good is that society must be purged of religious belief/believers? Young people (men?) need a cause to fight for.
Or perhaps it says something about the internet as a medium? Atheists are certainly now able to network in a way they never were before. But perhaps more generally the de-humanising impact of cyber-anonymity reinforces a tribal mentality amongst the dominant group on any given chat room. In the end this group-think rewards bullying behaviour towards outsiders. Indeed I have seen the same phenomena develop on Christian sites in debates between liberal and conservative Christians.
(I would be interested to hear if any of the half dozen atheists who post here feel bullied on this site because of the weight of power imbalance against them.)
Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins is kidding himself he can't see that his own rhetoric and behaviour is part of the problem. He raised the temperature by linking all religious belief with the word "delusion" (ie insanity) and "evil".
Dawkins likes to think of himself as a 'Bright', which I assume means the rest us are Dulls. Apparently this means he has a more highly evolved ability to label his opponents with puerile abuse.
I'm no fan of Senator Steve Fielding and his brand of Pentecostalism, but to say he is 'less intelligent than an earthworm' is just juvenile.
[UPDATE: You can read Dawkins’ explanation of his comment on his blog.]
Likewise, Dawkins makes a good point about the Catholic saint process but then simply dismisses the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, mocking him as 'Pope Nazi'.
[CORRECTION: The secular journalists who reported this now acknowledge they misheard and that Dawkins was referring to Pope Pius XII who was the pope during WW2)
National survey data (such as the Fairfax Neilsen poll) suggests the impact of the neo-atheist verbal assault has been merely to polarise already entrenched camps. There is a hardening of anti-Christian feeling on the already disbelieving secular-left. In turn anti-secular feeling is growing on the Christian right.
Tim Roberts made similar point yesterday in Eureka Street.
". it’s unclear whether the convention’s overall aim is to reduce the intensity of religious belief or to crush religion altogether. Though Richard Dawkins and others may earnestly hope for the latter, attempting this will only pick off religious doubters while steeling firmer believers against compromise."
And goes onto make the interesting point about the inclusion of so much comedy on the atheist conference program.
"Comedians, while good for boosting ticket sales, are as inappropriate at an atheist conference as they would be at a science conference. The organisers’ failure to recognise this basic point suggests that many take comfort from sneering at those who disagree with them. Comedians, who are paid to outrage rather than inform, are unhelpful when pragmatism is sorely needed."
Beyond that, the impact of neo-atheism is minimal. The commercial media in Sydney, including the Herald, gave the Melbourne conference scant coverage. (Sydney is too parochial after all!)
But my gut feel is that mainstream Australia is not really listening to Dawkins and his ilk. The language is just too aggressive and intolerant. Nor does it gel with a very deep cultural attachment to the good works of the Christian charities - Anglicare, World Vision, Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul to name a few.
Dr Greg Clarke from the Centre for Public Christianity has always argued that Christians who debate atheists must hold themselves to Jesus’ ethical standard of being beyond reproach and showing "love for your enemies". I was once concerned that this might lead to an intellectual wussi-ness. Fight fire with fire was my view.
I now think Clarke is right. Rational debate is almost beside the point.