There's been a big dustup between atheist blogger PZ Myers and the authors of a new book called Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, which started around the time Myers posted his first comments about the book. At the core of the dispute is a philosophical difference about how scientists who are also atheists should speak and behave with regard to religious believers.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum apparently think that blogs like Pharyngula and books like The God Delusion harm the public perception of science and thus scientific literacy by alienating the general public by strongly linking atheism and science, while talking bad about religion. Myers obviously disagrees.
And check out some of the comments to this Daniel Dennett editorial in The Guardian. Commenters quickly label Dennett a "militant atheist", calling him "irritating" and "intolerant". The implication is that he should shut the hell up about his atheism and leave people to their own beliefs, whatever those might be.
But here's where I'll go ahead and agree with those who compare the proselytizing of religious folk with that of the atheists. It's perfectly understandable to try to change someone else's mind, as long as it's with words.
Time to assume each side's point of view for a little thought experiment...
If you were a devout religious adherent who believed fervently in a heaven and hell, and also believed that those that didn't believe as you would suffer an eternity of torment, what would be your most humane course of action? It would be negligent of you not to try to sway others to believe the same as you. So, if you care at all about the suffering of others, and you believe others will suffer forever if they don't accept your beliefs, the perfectly sensible course of action is to attempt to convert others to your belief system.
On the other side, let's say you're a skeptical unbeliever. Let's say you live in a society where the majority of people believe that three magical dragons created and control the universe. There are sacred books that detail the history of the dragons and their teachings, some of which seems a little outdated and have been used to justify pretty horrible acts, but others which seem to convey some nice messages about how to treat others. Now, one could argue that even though you think the dragon worship is unsupported by any reasonable standards of evidence or common sense, you should simply go about your business believing what you believe, while leaving others to their beliefs. But what if your society was a democratic republic, and every public official was a dragon worshiper? And public policy was decided on the basis of dragon worship? And what was taught in schools and where your tax money was allocated and decisions of foreign policy were all guided and influenced by belief in magic dragons?
The point here is that no one is an island. What I believe affects my neighbors and what they believe affects me. If you lived in a community that strongly believed in witchcraft and you happened to be an older woman who lived alone, and witches were being accused left and right and being burned alive in the town square, then of course you would care what your neighbors believed. This is an extreme example, but illustrates the basic concept. What others in your society believe affects you.
In this light, doesn't it make sense that an atheist would try to convince around them to be more skeptical and discerning regarding their beliefs?
And if the proponents of a particular religion do have a monopoly on the truth, then what do they have to fear from a book here or there that's critical of their beliefs? As far as the stance particular scientists take on religion, they should be able to say whatever they want. I understand strategic PR, but value it much less than I value the truth. And I believe the best way to get at the truth is to have an open marketplace of voices and ideas, all free to say what they will and let people think and sort out what the best ideas might be.