Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Militant atheists, friendly atheists and appeasers

Shalini Sehkar's blog Scientia Natura is presently closed because, according to a Sandwalk commenter, there's "some bad stuff going on." I hope Shalini resolves whatever is going on and returns to blogging. But rather than kiss her ass and tell her how great I think she is, I'll write instead about a topic I think she would find interesting.

I've identified three stances of atheist writers towards theism: "Militant" atheists (myself, Shalini, P.Z. Myers, Pat Condell, perhaps Hitchens); friendly atheists (Hemant Mehta, Dawkins); and appeasers (Shermer).

Friendly atheists are willing to engage logically, rationally and politely with theists. Militant atheists are not. In my case, I've tried being nice, and the level of bullshit, obfuscation and direct personal attacks have entirely worn away my patience. Theism is, in my opinion, all bollocks from start to finish, and its adherents are impervious to reason. But that's just me; I'm not a very patient person to begin with. If you want to be patient, reasonable and polite in your advocacy of atheism and naturalism, more power to you. I don't even need to be "patient" at all with friendly atheists; I don't object to friendliness per se.

But I personally am not "friendly" about atheism, and I resent being told directly or indirectly* to tone down my rhetoric or be more friendly. I bristle when anyone demands that I change what I write or say for any reason other than the truthfulness of my words. And if you think I'm wrong about something, don't tell me to shut up, just tell me where and why I'm wrong.

*Easy way to spot an appeaser: He calls Dawkins a "militant" atheist or criticizes Dawkins for his stridency, shrillness, fundamentalism or similar characterizations. Dawkins is one of the most patient, reasonable and polite atheist advocates ever; his worst "crime" is making atheism popular.

The number of stone cold stupid atheists seems vanishingly small. I've hung out extensively on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, I subscribe to Planet Atheism, I regularly audit blogs on the Atheist Blogroll, and I follow the Carnival of the Godless. I even go to the occasional meatspace American Atheists meeting. Out of the thousands of atheists I know or have read, I can't remember ever meeting one who was an illiterate asshole.

There will never be an atheist mass movement*. Atheists are individualists and proud to be individualists. Our individuality is our greatest weakness (especially in a democracy that deifies mass movements), but it's also our greatest strength: We cannot be easily manipulated or driven like a herd of sheep off the cliff of some ridiculous ideology like Stalinism.

*It is possible to make the members of a mass movement atheists, usually by virtually deifying some person, but that's a little different.

So, if you want to be friendly, be friendly. I won't criticize you for being friendly, and I won't demand that you say "theistard" and "cretinist" or that you relentlessly mock religion a la Pat Condell. In return, I expect that you won't criticize me for saying that theism and supernaturalism is utter bullshit, and simply mocking and not bothering to rebut for the thousandth time the dumb theist argument du jour.

Tell me (or anyone else) to shut up, tell me to toe the atheist party line, and I'll say, "Fuck you very much, appeasing bastard," and keep on writing the way I want to write.

10 comments:

  1. Nice post. Theism is the only illogical, moronic, and irresponsibly dangerous ideology that is protected by the "everybody's entitled to his/her beliefs" principle. You don't hear people trying to protect idiots who run around spouting bigotry; unless that bigotry was written down 2000 years ago!

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  2. I'm not quite sure what makes an atheist go out of his/her way to be "friendly" when it comes to delivering rational discourse. I understand that presentation is just about as important as content, but when one is conversing about bullshit, one can only be so friendly before growing increasingly frustrated and eventually exploding.

    It's true that reason often won't work when it comes to faith-based belief because there's no reason involved. As you said before, logical consistency is not the same as rational or reasonable, but they are often synonymous with each other in theology. If theists don't have the intellectual integrity needed to want to know the truth and admit that their beliefs are bullshit, no amount of rationality will eradicate that type of indoctrination; oftentimes, it's actually a catalyst for theists to develop even more convoluted answers to "tough" questions, which assuages their fear of doubt even more.

    However, I don't think that justifies one being a condescending asshole either. Presentation does count for something.

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  3. I guess I would count myself somewhere between the "friendly" and "militant" streams. I understand how difficult it is to break away from religion, especially when one has been reared in it from birth (as most religionists are). Nevertheless, all of it is crap and the world would be better off if more people realized that and learned to live with it.

    Regarding Dawkins, I think someone people mistake his wry humor for shrillness. Many of his critics probably aren't used to dealing with subtleties of either thought or expression.

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  4. Larry,

    Good post. I would consider myself a reasonably friendly Atheist, at least while trying to debate a Theist. What I mean by friendly here is that I am unlikely to tell a Theist that they are being a fucking tool but at the same time I'll continue to point out how bad their argument is. Ultimately, I have to agree that they do seem largely impervious to reason but maybe I just haven't entirely run out of hope just yet. I think that Atheists like yourself ,who present a logical argument and pull no punches in telling Theists what you think about their faith, are a vital slap in the face for smug waffling Theists. Also, I think most Atheist debaters occasionally need to vent and, to that end, reading yourself and Shalini can be quite theraputic. I for one would be very dissapointed to see you start censoring youself. Fortunately, I don't think there is any danger of that any time soon. :)

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  5. Unfortunately, due to the mindset, it has been my experience the militant atheist only re-confirms the theist mind, whereas the friendly atheist doesn’t make a dent.

    See, in the Christian circles I travel in, the Christian is told the world is out to get them. They will be persecuted. That the world will hate them. So to many of my Christian associates, having a flight “bump” them off a plane is not a normal hiccup—it is persecution. To have to live in a country that does NOT have a law against homosexual marriage is persecution. To be denied a tax deduction for a contribution to their church is the worse kind of persecution possible.

    Let alone television showing people living together, Hollywood putting out movies with sex, drugs, violence and/or graphic language. And books with the word “damn” in them. All of which the poor Christian has to read, watch and partake, while being terribly persecuted for doing so.

    Being called a “theitard” or “delusion” (which would be protested, of course) is simply confirmation they must be doing the “right thing.” ‘Cause they are being persecuted simply for being a Christian.

    And many theists think militant atheism is confirmation of the legitimacy of their belief. If it wasn’t true, why would you be so “mad” about it?

    On the flip side, friendly atheists are ignored because they are seen as too quiet. Sure, they are nice and all, but what fun is that? Like tapioca pudding—it sounds good because it is “pudding” but in the end it turns out to be bland oatmeal instead. Many theists think a friendly atheist is a closet deist crying out for help.

    At one time, I would have said it required both militant atheists and friendly atheists to get the point across. Now I wonder if the point will ever be communicated regardless of the type of presentation.

    Say what you want, as you want, The Barefoot Bum.

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  6. Excellent article.

    I seem to have a few lingering shreds of patience left, so I probably fall into the "friendly" atheist category by your definition.

    That said, I agree with your point completely. All that should matter is the facts of your argument- not how the argument is delivered. Anyone who argues about the tone rather than the content is only trying to deflect attention from an untenable position.

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  7. See, in the Christian circles I travel in, the Christian is told the world is out to get them. They will be persecuted. That the world will hate them. So to many of my Christian associates, having a flight “bump” them off a plane is not a normal hiccup—it is persecution. To have to live in a country that does NOT have a law against homosexual marriage is persecution. To be denied a tax deduction for a contribution to their church is the worse kind of persecution possible.


    And yet, when you point out that this is exactly how a cult behaves, you're a dick.

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  8. I'm not out to "reach" anyone, to save anyone, to rescue anyone. If I happen to have the opportunity to do so, I will, but everyone has to figure life out for himself.

    I don't think our present-day human civilization has much longer to live. For civilization to survive everyone were to wake up tomorrow and start acting like they wanted the place to last a while, and even that might be too little, too late. Too many people, too much shit. I think we'll count ourselves fortunate if the human race lasts at all.

    If civilization does fall, I'm going to go down fighting the church; the last time Christianity presided over the collapse of civilization, we had a thousand years of tyranny and ignorance.

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  9. I think it's funny that on the one hand you say you aren't out to save anyone and on the other that you'll go down fighting the church. How do you suppose any fight against the church could be won, except by actually reaching and converting the members of said churches one at a time?

    I'm also probably a middle of the roader. I try to be civil in order to have a discourse with religious people, but I find myself increasingly angry with their wilful ignorance and intellectual dishonesty. And I've only been an atheist for a couple of years...I can imagine after another 5-10 years I'll be picketing churches.

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  10. I think it's funny that on the one hand you say you aren't out to save anyone and on the other that you'll go down fighting the church.

    If I'm trying to "save" anyone, I'm trying to save myself. But that's not even quite right.

    How do you suppose any fight against the church could be won, except by actually reaching and converting the members of said churches one at a time?

    Did we win the fight against Nazism by converting the German people one at a time? Did we win the fight for Independence by converting the people of England one at a time? The fight against slavery?

    Maybe we'll get a Gandhi. When that happens, if the conditions are right for that sort of resistance, I'll have something different. But I don't think conditions are right, I don't think we have a Gandhi, and, frankly, even if conditions were right, that I'm a Gandhi.

    Besides Gandhi had it easy: a million to one advantage in people, an opponent with some connection to humanistic ethics, and only a weak existential commitment to colonialism. All he had to do was to convince the Indian people to resist the tepid coercion the British were willing to implement. His ecumenicalism did not fare nearly so well confronting the Muslim/Hindu divide in Indian society.

    If I knew with reasonable confidence that some tactic or another was definitely optimal, I would adopt it. But I don't know; nobody knows. People have been making calm, moderate, reasonable, logical arguments against religion — arguments that do in fact persuade any rational person — since the 18th century; it's now the 21st and religion is still strong.

    I don't think it's wrong to try to convert individuals. It's just not my nature. It's my personal nature to become offended, irritated and outraged by stupidity, superstition. Until I know there's some better way, I'm going to express my outrage and declare my stubborn resistance in colorful language.

    I can imagine after another 5-10 years I'll be picketing churches.

    I hope that's all you'll be needing to do.

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