"The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins."It's worth clarifying that the award is not given by Richard Dawkins, but is rather named in his honour by Atheist Alliance International, which is a coalition made up mostly of US atheist groups, along with a few others from around the world (none of the UK secular or humanist groups are members).
Maher, of course, was behind the 2008 comedy, religion-mocking, documentary Religulous, which came out here earlier this year, and it's for that reason that the AAI decided to present him with the Dawkins Award. However, Maher, while standing alongside atheists and rationalists on questions of religion, has some fairly unorthodox views on health care and medicine. Most notably, he blames poor diet for the poor health of many Americans, and argues that the answer is not modern medicine. This post at the Respectful Insolence blog helpfully points out some of Maher's past comments on the subject (there are many more in that post, too):
- "I'm not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic."
- "A flu shot is the worst thing you can do."
- "Well, I hate to tell you...but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease."
- "A flu shot just compromises your immune system."
"Let's be clear about something else. This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. Our strategy for dealing with these ideas is the same as the scientific approach — constant, relentless criticism. There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma."It's an interesting controversy, as it raises the question of, if there is indeed something we could refer to as an atheist "movement", then what exactly is it for? If an organisation called the Atheist Alliance International has an annual award, then perhaps that award is purely for contributions to promoting atheism, in which case releasing a documentary called Religulous in cinemas around the world would seem like a good reason for winning it. But the AAI itself says the Dawkins Award is in part presented to those who promote "increased scientific knowledge", and the Maher quotes I included above demonstrate why he hasn't achieved much in that department.
I think this demonstrates why the groups operating in this country tend to talk about humanism, or rationalism, or freethought, or secularism, rather than just atheism – because all atheism means is not believing in a god. You can be an atheist and still believe lots of other unsubstantiated nonsense - this Maher controversy shows that. If we're promoting scepticism, critical thinking and a secular state we should do it under a banner of more than just atheism, because there are often many more important things as stake than simply the rejection of religion.
To throw this out to comments, what I'm asking is whether there is such a thing, or should be such a thing, as an atheist movement, and if so what would such a thing stand for?