So, the debates. Chris Mooney and Eugenie Scott vs. PZ Myers and Victor Stenger; then Robert Wright vs. Sam Harris; then a Point of Inquiry rematch of Mooney and Myers. All coming out of the Center for Inquiry bash in LA last weekend.
There were basically two areas of debate--what should secularists be fighting for--what's the goal? And is belligerence counterproductive?
Mooney, Scott, and Wright are for modest goals--promoting the teaching of evolution, cultivating science literacy in the US so that the electorate can take informed stands on pressing issues like stem cell research and climate change; keeping church separate from state; challenging those religious ideas that cause people to do morally despicable things. All these battles are worth fighting, but not some colossal war for atheism.
From Myers, Harris, and Stenger: the war for atheism itself is worth fighting. Why? Because atheism is the truth. You can't acquiesce to the idea that science and religion are compatible, to validate your liberal religious allies, because it isn't true. Truth, truth truth.
So what about this war for religious truth, as opposed to the specific battles? I don't think Myers & Co. made the case that it's worth fighting. Suppose you could win all the specific battles. So people stopped having the sorts of religious beliefs that interfere with science and cause people to do morally despicable things. Would it make sense to keep going and work toward universal atheism?
Well, theism is false (let's assume), and it's bad to have false beliefs. Then it's obviously worth waging a campaign against all forms of theism, right? No, not necessarily. It could be that some false beliefs increase well-being, on the whole, so there's a tricky judgment to be made. Truth is valuable, but it's not the only valuable thing. It may be worth giving up a little truth to get more of the other good things.
Moreover, it's not obvious that it's my business how other people deal with those issues and strike that balance. It might make sense for me to hope one day they see the truth, but not make sense for me to work toward that day. Surely the problem with missionaries is not simply that they're selling something false--it's the selling, the intrusion into other people's private business, the arrogance of thinking you know what's best for people. On that score, evangelical atheism is just as problematic as evangelical anything else.
Clarification: by all means, the case for atheism should be made. People will keep writing books and articles debating religion, and all positions are welcome. But I can't see why the secular movement should aim for universal atheism instead of just at winning specific battles. Despite the glory of the word "truth", a war to make everyone believe the truth about God isn't one with any clear moral imperative behind it.
On strategy, Mooney & Co. say atheists should make alliances with liberal religious people who are fighting the same battles. And they say belligerence is counterproductive. Wright was excellent on the topic of anti-Islamic zeal (see Sunday's NYT article about Pamela Geller, for example)--obviously not productive. He thinks new atheists sound far too much like that, and sometimes they do.
The other side: If you're speaking the truth, it can't be bad to speak plainly.
Well, maybe not bad if the goal is universal atheism, and that's way in the distance. But yes bad, if you're involved in specific real-world battles, and it's morally important to win them sooner, rather than later.