I was reading Pharyngula today, where PZ Myer's account of a protest outside the GAC got me thinking about how the conversation between believers and non-believers is meant to happen. One could say that it's just human nature that any exchange of this matter will be hostile - we're born believers, not born reasoners after all - but for all the talk of having a fruitful exchange on the topic of religion, how can we possibly do it?
Depite the amount of flyers I get in my mailbox, it's not like I can just walk into a church and start up a spirited, yet respectful, exchange. Likewise I think that any bible study that would have me through the doors would find me a disruption - and in any case my desires are more to talk about the philosophical rather than theological nuances of belief. Where can we go to have this spirited debate?
When I see books like The God Delusion, blogs like Pharyngula, and events like the Reason Rally, what it represents to me is the pushing for a voice in the current cultural climate. I was an atheist long before I found a voice for atheism, but there was little I could do about it other than annoy anyone and everyone with long rants on the topic. Lucky there is personal blogging where I can (mostly) keep it to myself while exercising that desire to speak out. The atheist movement, if movement isn't overselling what is a very small action, in its totality is being one minor voice in a huge sea of voices and topics. One might speculate that the impact it has had in part due to the lack of previous representation.
And even with those few voices and fewer outlets, there's already quite a strong push back. Even among secularists there's at best lukewarm support for the people who have become prominent voices. And at every push to make beyond the most banal of points, there's the accusations of arrogance, stridency, militancy, etc. Jonathan Haidt, in a piece on moral psychology (very interesting stuff, I must add), felt it necessary to take any flaw in the works of the new atheists as being symptomatic of a morally-based militancy. Case in point, that Dawkins didn't spend enough time talking about group selection in The God Delusion as being an example of his moral reasoning rather than scientific reasoning on the process. Hold secular voices to a higher standard? Perhaps. But hold them to an impossible one? Dawkins isn't the only voice sceptical of David Sloan Wilson on group selection...
To make some sort of point with all this, the calls for a civilised conversation are noble. It would be really nice to be able to have civilised conversations, to have constructive dialogues, to have informed and respectful exchanges where being learned was an asset. The question is how that can be achieved. It seems that however a respectful dialogue is meant to be achieved, it's not the way it's going now. And maybe that's true, but it seems that a little incivility is needed to even start the dialogue. Because what other option is there?