Are the New Atheists moving the Overton Window?

The Overton Window is the range of “acceptable” public reactions to some issue, based on some mainstream view of what is currently acceptable. The theory is that you can move or expand the Overton Window by coming up with some new idea that is outside the boundaries of what is acceptable, thereby moving some slightly less extreme idea into the acceptable range of discourse.  So, if someone can say, “I’m not one of those radical feminists, but I do believe in equal pay for equal work,” maybe the radical feminists have done their job, moving the window so that equal pay for equal work is a mainstream idea.

The New Atheists are a group people love to hate.  They are inevitably described as “shrill”.  Of the four million Google hits on “new atheists are shrill”, I picked this one at random:

The New Atheists are much too shrill for my decidedly agnostic tastes. In many respects, they are on a hiding to nothing. The religious impulse will always be with us and so will be a belief in the supernatural. But not all atheists are new atheists: It’s also quite possible for an atheist to admire much of the structure, cohesion and sense of tradition that some religions bring to society, not to speak of the happiness they can bring to many of their adherents.

This guy probably hasn’t done much if any reading of the New Atheists, because they are generally more than willing to admire this stuff; their issue is primarily with the truth of religion, not with the solace it brings to its adherents or the benefits it might bring to a society.  Daniel Dennett labels stuff like that “belief in belief.”

But anyway, I have wondered if the New Atheists have succeeded in moving the Overton Window on religion. Theoretically, they might make it easier for someone to say, “I’m not a believer myself, but I’m certainly not one of those shrill New Atheists.”  But that video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson I showed here gives me pause.  Maybe instead they have simply poisoned the term “atheist,” making it synonymous with “an active hater of religion.”  Whatever Tyson’s personal beliefs are, he doesn’t want to be thought of as that.

This came to mind as I started reading Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall, another one of those Harvard professors who published big popular books in 2011.  The book’s subtitle is “How physics and scientific thinking illuminate the universe and the modern world.”  Randall is certainly a spectacularly high achiever — noted theoretical particle physicist, opera librettist, rock climber, blahblahblah.  The book comes with blurbs by Bill Clinton, Larry Summers, Daniel Gilbert, and many others.

Alas, so far she isn’t a very engaging writer.  Here’s a grammatical error that someone at HarperCollins should have noticed:

For he and others who thought similarly, science and the Bible couldn’t possibly be in conflict if the words were properly interpreted.

Solecisms aside, her style is just very bland, as if writing were a chore for her.  But her section on religion and science made me wonder if she was benefiting from a shifting Overton Window.  She is very pleasant and understanding about religion.  She quotes Saint Augustine.  She talks about a nice lunch she had with Karen Armstrong.  She acknowledges that you can be religious and be a good scientist.  But ultimately she isn’t buying any of it. She says:

But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his belief.  The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one.  They are simply incompatible.

She believes Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” do in fact overlap.

A religious or spiritual belief that involves an undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic — or simply not care.

But she seems so intent on being fair-minded that it takes her almost to the end of the section before she says, almost parenthetically, that she herself is a nonbeliever.  Like Tyson, she doesn’t use the word “atheist”; but she doesn’t stop, as he does, at “agnostic”.  Was she helped by Dawkins and company?  I don’t know.  She’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, so my theory about their insensitivity to social stigma would suggest that she doesn’t need anyone’s help — she’s going to say what she thinks.

I’ll submit a full report when I’ve finished the book.

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2 thoughts on “Are the New Atheists moving the Overton Window?

  1. Pingback: Rule 7: Learn all them grammer and spelling rules | richard bowker

  2. Pingback: Knock-knock-knockin’ on the Large Hadron Collider’s door | richard bowker

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