Christopher Hitchens was his usual bombastic and arrogant self on CBC's "Q" today (MP3 file). That's no surprise, since he is perhaps the angriest—or at least the most provocative—of the angry New Atheists who have had bestselling books over the past few years. Many religious people, and a good number of my fellow atheists too, think Hitchens's take-no-prisoners approach is wrong and counterproductive. Why, they ask, should atheists antagonize believers the way he and others, like Richard Dawkins, do?
"Q" host Jian Ghomeshi asked Hitchens a similar question today:
Tell me who you think your audience is, because you're quite aggressive with your argument. [...] If you really want to change things, it might take some effort to overcome organized religion in the world, but I'm wondering if [...] being a little softer in your approach might be more effective?
It's true that most atheists would prefer to be more conciliatory towards the world's religious majorities. But I think Hitchens and his compatriots serve a valuable purpose. With their polemics, their public profiles, indeed with their anger, they have made atheism visible in this new century, especially in America. Without them, we might not have heard Barack Obama's acknowledgment of non-believers in his inaugural address.
The angry New Atheists are like the activist vanguard of the LGBT rights movement, and of other civil rights movements before it. Not every gay person wants to march in protests, or make films outing hypocritical homosexual politicians. But the demands and self-righteousness of the vanguard are why same-sex marriage is a reality in Canada, and in several European countries and American states, today, rather than decades from now.
I grew up in an ostensibly secular Canada in the '70s, but we still said a prayer every morning in public school, and the Lord's Day Act prevented stores from opening on Sunday. Those rituals didn't offend me at the time, but as a non-religious youngster, I still felt like an outsider. The assumption seemed to be not only that everyone was religious, but that we were all Christians too. That has changed, largely because of Canada's increasing multiculturality.
High-profile writers like Hitchens and Salman Rushdie and Douglas Adams and Barbara Ehrenreich; scientists like Richard Dawkins and David Suzuki and Richard Feynman; comedians like Julia Sweeney and Ricky Gervais and George Carlin; musicians like Ani DiFranco and Mick Jagger and Eddie Vedder; actors like Omar Sharif and Eva Green and Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen and Katharine Hepburn; and others from Penn and Teller to Linus Torvalds to the MythBusters to Nigella Lawson—around the world, all profess their atheism.
In doing so, they affirm that the non-religious and non-spiritual among us are part of the full and honourable diversity of human society. So the audience for Christopher Hitchens need not be religious people he is trying to de-convert (even if that is his goal). Rather, it can be the millions of us who believe in no gods or spirits, and who are comfortable saying so, because Hitchens is shouting it too.
UPDATE: Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is outspoken in his assertion that science and religion are incompatible, has an interesting post on this same topic.