A friend recently sent me this talk by Daniel Dennett, “How To Tell You're An Atheist.” Dennett is, I think it's fair to say, the least obnoxious of your Four Horsemen of New Atheism, and the talk is pretty interesting, especially at the bookends: the phenomenon of closet-atheist clergy is enormously fascinating, as is the observation that religious creeds must tend to impenetrability if they're to survive.
However, the talk's very title telegraphs something that thoroughly infuriates me about New Atheism, and that is its evangelical fervor. I realize I run the risk of making a false equivalency here, so let me state forthrightly that I absolutely do not think that New Atheists and the Christian right are like totally the same and both sides are as bad as each other and the truth lies in the fuzzy-wuzzy middle. The fact that the United States (where much of this discourse is taking place) is a Christian supremacist society means that the dynamics at play when an atheist speaks are very different than when a Christian speaks, even if they're saying the same thing. They're coming from different places, they got there in different ways, they have diametrically opposed agendas; but the fundagelical and the atheist telling me I'm not really a Christian are both very wrong.
The intense hostility of much of US culture toward atheists is pretty mystifying for us godless-commie-Europeans, but it certainly exists, and it completely explains the forcefulness of some American atheists. When you're a marginalized group trying to assert yourself to a dominant culture that would prefer to pretend you don't exist, you have to be loud and proud, and if you bruise the delicate fee-fees of your oppressors, well, cry me a frickin' river. I get that. But the marginalization of non-believers in the US really isn't exactly the same as other axes of marginalization and oppression, because belief (or lack thereof) is, as Dennett points out in that speech, entirely internal. His suggestion that Christians who help the poor are closet atheists is breathtakingly cynical (and that's coming from a thoroughgoing cynic), but his point stands: no matter what someone says and does, we can't know what they truly do or don't believe. Dennett's theory is that, for an awful lot of people, their behavior and their beliefs do not align. Christianity, on his reading, is teeming with closet atheists for whom the social consequences of admitting their lack of faith are just too high.
Now, I sympathize with the goal of making it socially acceptable to be openly atheist. Frankly, I find it nonsensical that it's not acceptable here. But I have a lot less sympathy for the accusation of widespread bad faith or false consciousness – for the practice of telling self-identified Christians that, if they're thinking people or not fully orthodox or lefties, they're probably not really Christians.
Since Dennett himself uses the analogy of gayness (which is totally not in any way a cheap shot or a false equivalency), let's roll with that. I am a queer person, and if I'm perfectly honest straightness baffles me. On a gut level it weirds me out and repels me, and, though I'm surrounded by self-identified straight people, I just don't get why anyone would be straight.
I could make the argument that they shouldn't be. I could say that, once upon a time, I thought I must be straight too, before I knew it was possible to be anything else; that I understand the fear of social consequences that keeps people closeted; that probably there are tons of straight-identified people who are really secret queers, but they're too uninformed or afraid to admit that they're anything other than straight.
To some extent, I think this is true (though the numbers are probably fewer than I'd like them to be), just as it's true of closet-atheist Christians. But that doesn't mean I think it's right to second-guess all straight people, to tell them their identity as a straight person is a lie (at best to everyone around them, at worst to themselves as well), to redefine the parameters of straightness so as to exclude a lot of straight-identified people (because I understand straightness better than they do? because I know them better than they know themselves? because I've put a lot of thought into this whole issue, and the fact that they still call themselves straight proves that they haven't?). My goal might be the noble one of encouraging self-actualization and greater self-understanding, but this tactic sucks. It's aggressive, it's arrogant, it's domineering, and it's hierarchical.
Saying “if you call yourself straight, but you've ever thought about kissing someone of the same gender as you, then you're actually a big flaming 'mo” isn't helpful. For straight people who are not ready to think deeply about sexuality, that statement sounds like a threat. For straight people who have thought deeply about sexuality, it's insulting and delegitimizes their process. Either way, it's accusing straight people of a false consciousness and co-opting their identity.
Of course, if your ultimate concern is swelling the ranks of people you can call queer, then I suppose this is the optimal tactic. But if your ultimate concern is giving people the tools for greater self-awareness, better critical thinking, and a richer engagement with the world and people around them, then you're better off sticking to education. Despite his title and some of his more condescending moments, Dennett does recognize this in that speech, and that is why I have more respect for him than for Dawkins et al.
By all means, be as loud and proud an atheist as you want. God (or whoever) knows the world needs more thinking people who will stand up boldly for what they (don't) believe in. People need to encounter others who think and live differently than they do. It's the only way to learn and grow as a person.
Tell me how you self-identify, what you think and believe, and why; I need to hear it. Just don't fucking tell me what I am.