Jerry Coyne isn't mincing words today. A science-friendly minister commented at his blog--at length, respectfully, calmly, intelligently--and said things Coyne considered completely wrong. Today Coyne writes (in a post to his readers) "The proper response to this kind of argument is derisive laughter." He goes on to talk about a rabbi who wrote a column at HuffPo. After quoting his first point, he says, "If you can swallow this kind of stuff with laughter instead of nausea, have a look at the rabbi’s three other explanations."
This is the sort of thing people associate with "new atheism," and that's why there's a lot of talk in the blogsphere about "tone." Here's what occurs to me as a good guideline: atheists should speak about religion with the same tone we want to see when Christians talk about/to Muslims, or Muslims about/to Jews, or Jews about/to Hindus, etc etc. If a Muslim comes to a Christian blog and talks at length, respectfully, calmly, intelligently, do we want the Christian to respond as Coyne did? Or turn it around. Should Muslims speak that way about Christians? That model occurs to me because of all the ugly talk about Muslim these days -- Brian Leiter has choice examples here.
What we want between members of different religious groups is, in a word, "tolerance." Tolerance isn't relativism. It isn't the idea that each person has their own truth. It also isn't anti-realism. You can be tolerant and think that one religion is true, and the rest false. Now, there are limits. I can laugh at the Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Jones, the almost-Koran-burner, but that's because I'd be laughing at people who are grossly disrespectful. These people waive their right to certain (but not all) forms of respect. Obviously, the minister at Coyne's blog is no Pastor Jones.
Can tolerance really be expected from atheists? You might think No. After all, Christians and Muslims (for example) have things in common. They "believe in belief," as Dennett puts it. They're pro-religion. They're often said to worship the same God (does that concept even make sense, if there isn't a god?). So you might think there's more of a basis for mutual respect there. But surely not really. It's a huge, huge thing to disagree about the divinity of Jesus. It's got to shock Christian sensibilities that Jews and Muslims "just say no." It's got to shock Muslim sensibilities for the Koran not to be seen as the word of God, by Christians and Jews. There's plenty of room for sharp disagreement between members of different religions, as history painfully proves. So surely it's not true that atheists disagree with all religious people just too much for mutual respect to be a possibility.
So here's my suggestion to atheists: speak to the religious as you would have Christians speak to Jews, Jews to Muslims, etc. Making it sound more Kantian than Golden Rule-ish: conduct yourself in a way you could universalize. In other words: follow the policy, where tone is concerned, that you'd want everyone else to follow. How 'bout it?