Michael Shermer is the founder of The Skeptics Society, and is also the Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic. He is widely known for his writings on topics pertaining to science, pseudoscience and religion. A piece he penned for Scientific American back in 2007 I thought to be quite interesting (1), and somewhat refreshing if we are to consider what routinely comes out of the New Atheist camps. Thus, I thought that it would suffice to capture the gist of Shermer’s piece. His article is essentially a some advice he gives to atheists, especially those who orientate themselves in the direction of fundamentalists such as Dawkins, Harris et al.
First off, Shermer opens by noting the rising militancy of the New Atheists: “Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad.”
However, although Shermer encourages responding to religious fundamentalism they should remain “cautious about irrational exuberance.” He is cognizant that fighting fire with fire only exacerbates the conflict between fundamentalisms.
Shermer then provides several pieces of advice. Firstly, he urges that atheists “must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be,” and, secondly, they must continue championing “science and reason.” Thirdly, the atheist is not only to champion science and reason but to be practical about it through applying it to daily life. Interestingly, Shermer encourages tolerance especially “If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same,” and wishes for fellow atheists to “Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.” But Shermer argues that freedom of belief ought to be promoted unless it threatens science and freedom.
He concludes that “Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.” Of course concerning the notion of rationality on atheism would require a separate debate, but Shermer, in obvious agreement with Martin Luther King Jr of whom he quotes, realizes “that their destiny [the religious] is tied up with our destiny [non-religious].” That’s certainly a line you won’t hear Dawkins admit.
1. Shermer, M. 2007. Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. Available.