Dividing the world up into believers and non-believers, while accurate in many ways, doesn’t draw the distinction between friends and foes. I see my allies as being the community of the reasonable, and my enemies as the community of blind faith and dogmatism. Any religion that is not unreasonable and not dogmatic should likewise recognise that it has a kinship with atheists who hold those same values. And it should realise that it has more to fear from other people of faith who deny those values than it does from reasonable atheists like myself.Sounds reasonable, n'est pas? But let's unpack it a little bit.
First, what might Baggini mean by "friends" and "foes"? Why are "reasonable" atheists the friends of the religious who are "not unreasonable" and "not dogmatic"? Observe especially the distinction between reasonable and not unreasonable: is this just a rhetorical device to avoid repetition — i.e. is reasonable the same as not unreasonable — or is there a subtle difference between the two? If there is a difference, then we should examine more closely whether the difference really does allow us to be friends. It is not always the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
To examine the consequences of this difference, let's look at our (more or less) agreed upon common enemy, "the community of blind faith and dogmatism." Why is this particular community an enemy? Note that Baggini does not (as I do not) predicate enmity on the content of the dogma, but on dogmatism itself. But even here we must ask: why do we consider someone who dogmatically holds to the exact same values that I as a humanist rationally (or so I think) hold? Why should I consider how we hold the values to be more important than the the values themselves? Why not consider someone who rationally and flexibly holds contrary values to be more of an enemy than someone who dogmatically holds compatible values?
There are two possible answers. The first might be that rational, flexible people can hold only one sort of values just by virtue of being rational and flexible. In just the same sense, rational, flexible people can hold only one notion of science. (There may be some disagreement in the details, but we've found that rational, flexible people have always converged on one notion of scientific truth, regardless of their initial biases.*) Alternatively, rationality and flexibility are themselves core values; irrationality and dogmatism are inherently contrary, in just the same sense that indifference to or approval of the suffering of others is inherently contrary to concern for and disapproval of the suffering of others.
This statement is definitely controversial; many postmodernists have in fact strenuously and fundamentally disagreed. But that's a debate for another day.
I think I'm entitled to use a philosophically stricter reading of "not unreasonable": Baggini is a professional philosopher, he is speaking in public and on the record. Regardless of of Baggini's specific intentions, however, the characterization of the "moderate" religious as "not unreasonable" in a different sense than "reasonable" is the core of the Gnu Atheist critique of the "moderate" religious. I think the distinction is substantive and accurate: there really is a difference between "not unreasonable" and "reasonable", and one essential difference between atheism and the moderate religion really is that the former is reasonable and the latter not unreasonable.
Ethical philosophy often tends to three-valued logic: required, prohibited, and optional; or in psychological terms: approval, disapproval and indifference. Furthermore, our basic beliefs (beliefs about actions or outcomes) do not always match our ethical meta-beliefs (beliefs about others' beliefs). For example, one might positively approve of eating healthy food, but one might be indifferent to others' beliefs about eating healthy food. On the other hand, one might disapprove of others' suffering and disapprove of another's belief that he approves of or is even indifferent to others' suffering. So a rigorous ethical analysis of Baggini's position will be complicated.
One can be rational, irrational or not irrational*. Therefore there must be three corresponding classes of ideas: ideas that are rationally compelled (in the descriptive sense), ideas that are rationally prohibited, and ideas that are neither rationally compelled nor prohibited. We can define a rational person, therefore, as someone who believes (holds as true) every rational idea**, disbelieves (holds as false) every irrational idea, and most importantly has no belief about ideas that are neither rational nor irrational***. The "rational" person thus considers ideas that are neither rationally compelled nor prohibited to be noncognitive. An irrational person believes some rationally prohibited ideas and/or disbelieves some rationally compelled ideas. The "not irrational" person, therefore, believes all compelled ideas, disbelieves all prohibited ideas; he however believes as true (or disbelieves as false) some ideas neither rationally compelled nor prohibited.
*"Rational" is more easily adapted grammatically than "reasonable" to different word forms.
**More precisely: those ideas that she knows about and knows are rational.
***She is also agnostic about those ideas — and only those ideas — that appear susceptible to rational analysis but for which insufficient information is presently available to perform the analysis.
These "middle ground" ideas, these "not irrational" ideas, still have propositional character: they contradict other "not irrational" ideas. One cannot, for example, believe (hold as true) that God loves us and wants us to be happy and simultaneously believe that God hates us and wants us to be miserable. So one cannot simply believe or disbelieve all "not irrational" ideas*. Therefore, the "not irrational" person must have some methodology for choosing between not irrational ideas, and that methodology ex hypothesi cannot be rationality.
*We can also see by this analysis that rationality consists of more than just logical consistency. A person can be logically consistent and "not irrational"; it might even be possible to be both logically consistent and irrational.
I'll arbitrarily label this alternative methodology "not-irrational epistemic methodology" or NIREM. It is either the case that NIREM by definition cannot apply to or by definition can apply to ideas susceptible to rational analysis. If it can apply to rational ideas, either it always gives the same answer to those rationally-analytical ideas that NIREM also applies to, or it gives different answers to some of them. If it gives different answers, then the answers that conflict with rational analysis must be "specially" excluded.
To make a long story short (too late!), an important Gnu Atheist "confrontationalist" position is that all known forms of NIREM do apply to some rationally-analytical ideas, and they all give different answers to some of those ideas. The difference between the moderate "not unreasonable" religious and the unreasonable "dogmatic" religious is that the former specially exclude rationally-analytical ideas from consideration by their alternative methodology. Indeed it is our position that the "not unreasonable" religious are sometimes actually unreasonable (especially about women, homosexuals and sexuality in general); they're just not as outrageously or egregiously unreasonable as fundamentalists.
It would of course be an adequate rebuttal of this position to construct some NIREM that by definition could not apply to rational-analytical ideas, a NIREM without a "special" exception for the domain of rationality. In my investigations, however, I have not yet seen any such construction.
The most obvious problem is that everyone agrees (or at least Baggini appears to and I definitely take for granted that we all agree*) on what rationality is, and therefore on what ideas ideas are true and false according to rationality. But there is no agreement on what constitutes the "correct" NIREM, and many millennia of history have shown no progress whatsoever on developing a consistent NIREM. Furthermore, if it is the case that every NIREM applies to and gives different answers to rationally-analytical statements, there cannot be a feature within any NIREM that justifies the exclusion of those statements; the exclusion has to be external and special. Thus the insistence of the moderate religious that the fundamentalists should adopt this special exclusion has no influence. Similarly without influence is the Islamic insistence that I should adopt Islam because without it, I would have no reason to not eat pork. The rational atheist position has at least some influence: the fundamentalists' NIREM should be abandoned because it conflicts with rationality.
*Suitably constructed, even the fundamentalists agree on what constitutes rationality. They just think rationality so constructed is irrelevant or wrong.
Another problem is that almost any idea can be moved to the domain of "not irrational" by adding a qualifier. The idea that God created the entire physical universe ~6,000 years ago is definitely irrational: we know rationally that the physical universe is ~14 billion years old and the Earth ~4+ billion years old. The idea, however, can be "moved" to the domain of "not irrational" by qualifying it, for example, with the omphalos hypothesis.
Let me hammer the point home. It is rational to believe, "The universe is ~14 billion years old." It is irrational to believe, "The universe is ~6,000 years old." It is not irrational to believe, "The universe is ~6,000 years old and it was created to appear ~14 billion years old." Rational analysis is not capable of distinguishing one way or the other between a universe that actually is old, and a young universe created to appear old.
If it really is the case that all (or even many) rational ideas can be qualified into the "not irrational" category, then those who admit some NIREM have a severe epistemic problem: how do you determine when a rational idea should or should be qualified to move it into the domain of NIREM? More importantly, how do we differentiate between competing methodologies for qualifying these ideas? Different NIREMs thus introduce confusion not just in how to evaluate individual ideas that outside the domain of rationality, but collections of ideas with components that fall inside the domain of rationality. In short, just admitting any sort of NIREM potentially introduces confusion about all ideas, not just those outside the domain of rationality.
In conclusion, the Gnu Atheist position against moderate religion is that even though the moderate religious are the enemy of our enemy (the fundamentalists), they are still not our friends. Rational atheists criticize both the moderates and the fundamentalists for being religious, for adopting a NIREM in the first place; we are not particularly impressed that the moderates (sometimes) specially exclude rational ideas from consideration. The moderates criticize the fundamentalists for doing religion wrong, but there's no consistent account — and I fail to see how there can be any consistent account — of how we determine the "right" and "wrong" way to do religion. Better to just dismiss the middle ground as being noncognitive: either meaningless or (suitably constructed) a matter of pure preference.