Can Negative, Rude Attacks On Religion From Atheists Work? Yes, But It’s Complicated

Does rudeness work?

Several people have told me that I’m a bit too rude when it comes to Christianity, expressing strongly the opinion that my “strident” response is ineffective.  What is commonly known as “Firebrand Atheism” does nothing to convince people, or so the claim goes.  So I wondered:  Is this true?  And the truth, it seems, is highly dependent on the situation you are in, your goals, and the content.  People may be vocal about rude, negative arguments, but the fact is that, like it or not, they can be quite effective in several situations.

Let’s take a look, starting with the test case of those nasty negative campaign ads.  According to this article from the American Psychological Association, positive campaign ads and negative campaigns do work — but in different ways.  If you don’t want people to really research your argument but just take it for granted, and if you want to reinforce the views people already have, a positive campaign ad will often do the trick.  It’s reassuring.  However, if you want to change minds and unsettle the status quo a negative campaign ad will be more useful.

As the APA article puts it:

“Fear ads heighten attentiveness and weaken people’s reliance on partisan habits, while enthusiasm ads reassure you, and reaffirm the choice you’ve already made,” [Dr. Ted] Brader [who based this conclusion on a 2005 study he led] says.

Given these effects, a smart campaign would use positive ads when they are ahead and reserve negative ads for when they are behind. That’s exactly what most campaigns do, according to a study of Senate campaign ads by Washington State University political science professor Travis Ridout, PhD, published in the March issue of Political Psychology. “If you’re behind, you need to shake things up, and that means making people anxious about the other candidate so they will reconsider their voting decision,” he says. “If you’re ahead and want to cement peoples’ support, appeal to the emotions of pride and enthusiasm.”

However, the risk of using a negative campaign ad is that people WILL research it and scrutinize it more.  If it does not hold up to scrutiny, it will be less effective than a positive ad, which people want to be true and, thus, don’t scrutinize quite as much.  But if it does hold up to scrutiny, it will likely be much MORE effective than a positive ad in the long term, because people remember negative statements longer than positive ones.  It is also more likely to induce fear in someone’s mind and cause them to change their position.

So if you’re behind, if you’re in the minority, it helps to be negative — but you better be right, because people are going to research your claims, and if you’re wrong they are less likely to forget.

If we are going to win the current culture war, then, it seems that atheists are helped by a negative campaign that helps others think.  Positive discussion concerning atheism is going to invigorate our base, but it will do little to get the religious majority to reconsider their own religious beliefs and think about atheism.  At the same time, too much of a focus on negative discussion regarding religion among atheists might eventually, ironically, alienate a base that is looking to be reinforced and reassured, that desires more positive reinforcement…which might explain some of the weariness some of the more long-time atheists often seem to express regarding the negative attacks on religion that atheist groups bring up regularly among themselves.

Furthermore, the mere facts that your attack ad is accurate and you’re in the minority don’t mean the campaign will be successful — you gotta be strategic in your presentation.  For example, the APA article states, a group of environmentalists trying to change minds might be able to get ahead with a negative image ad featuring a trashy beach — but that positive effect might be hampered by the fact that disgusting images are shown in many studies to cause people to retreat into their conservative views rather than open up to new ones.  So in the end, it might be a wash.  The article goes on to say that the use of children may have a similar effect — parents tend towards more conservative values in ads featuring children.  So although a liberal candidate might get a positive effect with a negative ad featuring children from those without kids, any progress that candidate may make might be hampered by the conservative values and distaste for negativity in kids’s lives that the parents watching the ad might have.

I could see this as getting more complicated — if you focus on stating that a certain action is going to negatively impact otherwise oblivious children (like use of fossil fuels), you may be ineffective, because you’re discussing something that would disturb the child’s view of the world if they knew about it — and if the child doesn’t know about that negative view now, the parent is more likely to be biased to keep that way.  But if you, rather, show how the parents are ALREADY giving children a needlessly negative outlook on life (like, for example, teaching them the concept of hell), that might have a degree of effectiveness.  It may not prompt parents to leave religion — after all, religion is frequently seen as the home of conservative values that keep children safe — but it might be more likely to strongly encourage parents to give their children a more positive outlook on life (by, for example, focusing more on heaven and less on hell).  Indeed, this has been my experience, actually…

In addition, other studies indicate that conformity to social norms (aka politeness) does not give you the greatest influence in culture — if you want to be perceived as dominant, it helps (with, as we will see, several caveats) to NOT conform to social norms. Several pieces of research indicate that this is the case.  As a 2014 examination states:

A series of studies demonstrates that people confer higher status and competence to nonconforming rather than conforming individuals. These positive inferences derived from signals of nonconformity are mediated by perceived autonomy and moderated by individual differences in need for uniqueness in the observers. An investigation of boundary conditions demonstrates that the positive inferences disappear when the observer is unfamiliar with the environment, when the nonconforming behavior is depicted as unintentional, and in the absence of expected norms and shared standards of formal conduct.

As with the negative campaign ads, there are caveats here.  If you seem like you don’t know about the norms you violate, you are likely to be seen as incompetent as opposed to influential and dominant.

But if you know the norms and confidently violate them, you can be seen as a more dominant individual.  Now, people may not like that you’re a more dominant individual.  In some cases, it may get you fired on a job or banished from a group, etc.  However, if you can get away with social norms and you flaunt that you can get away with social norms, people may see you as more influential.

I’m not saying that these are beautiful facts, but they do seem to be facts.  Now, respect of religion — specifically Christianity — in the United States is a social norm.  If you conform to the social norm of respecting Christianity, according to the study, you may lose respect and influence that you might otherwise gain.   But that doesn’t mean that you get an automatic free pass if you’re rude, because if your lack of conformity to the social norms of respecting Christianity indicates that you do not understand the social norms of respecting Christianity, you’ll look incompetent, not influential.  The fact that someone’s violation of social norms can be seen as a sign of ineptness (instead of power) if the person can be portrayed as ignorant of these social norms would explain part of the reason (though certainly not the whole reason) why Christians have a vested interest in telling ex-Christian atheists they were never “real” Christians or telling atheists in general that their rudeness is based on a misunderstanding of Christianity (again, not the only reason, but it does seem to be one of them).

Where you may start to become dangerous, in looking at the results of the study, is when you show that you know the norms for respecting the religion, you show you  know the reasons for the norms, you show an understanding for why people follow the norms — and you flaunt your violation of the norms in spite of it all (and strategically enough to get away with it without being shut down by the powers that be).

That is a very difficult spot to occupy.  It takes tremendous skill and knowledge to be rude that productively, which is why it may not be a preferable course for everyone.  And being seen as dominant will create you enemies even as it will emanate influence, and some people, of course, do not want enemies or to deal with the headache in general.  This is understandable.  Also, some individuals may get away with violating social norms — not just in religion, but in other places as well — more than others, and that may affect the number of people who seem able to get away with atheism; it is no surprise that atheists, for the most part, are predominantly white males in Western countries.

One last thing — as I’ve indicated, being rude in the preceding way can make people perceive you as dominant, but it can also make you hated, which can diminish your influence.  How, then, do you translate this to creating friends, as opposed to enemies?  A 2012  study (full text is here) gives the key:

Previous research suggested that norm violators are perceived as more powerful than individuals who live by the rules, but it was unclear whether norm violations also influence power affordance. The present findings indicate, perhaps reassuringly, that power is afforded only to those individuals who violate norms in a way that benefits others. Individuals who broke the rules at the expense of others were afforded less power than those who obeyed the rules. Together, the two sets of studies suggest that norm violations may lead to perceptions of power irrespective of their social consequences. However, norm violations only inspire power affordance when they benefit rather than harm other people.

And therein lies another piece of the puzzle.  If you are rude regarding religion and at the same time seen as selfish, you will be seen as dominant, but you will also be hated for that perceived dominance and people will try to reduce it.  If you are rude regarding religion and at the same time seen as trying to make things better for people, as being unselfish, you are likely to make much more progress.  And you see this in the “new atheists” frequently, which is why they are often seen as being so effective (Hitchens seemed to sanctify his sense of morality more than his life, Dawkins seems dedicated to protecting science education, and Sam Harris — although he has come under fire — also seems fairly externally focused).

Again, doubtlessly, other factors — race, gender, class — play into how much respect one is given and how much he or she is seen as representing a group.  And rude, strident stances have a ton of potholes in them, as we have seen, and quite a bit of attention to nuance and knowledge of your audience is needed for them to be successful.  In addition, some may be more predisposed to a more conservative stance than others — there has been some speculation that some die-hard conservatives may just naturally be that way.  Due to these factors, some may think that it is best to give up the rude stance altogether regarding if they have found ways that work better for them in accomplishing their particular goals. But the fact, it seems, remains that a violation of social norms (like the respect of the religion of Christianity) can be much more effective for a minority population (like atheists) than polite compromise that seeks to stay within the bounds of social norms.

You may not like these indications that flaunting violations of social norms can be the most effective route in crafting change, and that’s OK.  But that doesn’t change the facts of the case.

For more on how Christian demands for respect seem to be a strategy to silence atheists, see the following:

For my dispute with fellow blogger Steve Neumann’s article in Salon on  “Atheists’ Self-Defeating Superiority” that inspired this discussion, see here:

For Steve Neumann’s response to my response to his article (and our wrangle in the comment section) see here:

In case you need some help finding some arguments against Christianity, check these out, and feel free to add your own in the comments:



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