Matthew Nisbet recently wrote about the two images of atheism: Hate vs. Community.
Atheists have a major image problem. There’s a reason that when people ask me what I believe I have to say with a smile: “I’m an atheist…but a friendly atheist.” For sure, atheists for a long time have been unfairly stereotyped in the mainstream media and in popular culture. But we also have a lot of lousy self-proclaimed spokespeople who do damage to our public image. They’re usually angry, grumpy, uncharismatic male loners with a passion for attacking and ridiculing religious believers. Any fellow atheist who disagrees with their Don Imus rhetoric, they label as appeasers.
I want to agree with Nisbet, but it’s extremely difficult…
First, I never tell anyone I’m a “friendly atheist.” I tell them I’m an atheist. Period. Then I let my actions guide them to the appropriate adjective.
Second, anyone who’s met PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or any other popular atheist will say they’re in fact not angry or grumpy or uncharismatic. And all have significant others.
Third, we’re not divided into just the two camps. It’s not one or the other.
For example, I don’t always agree with things that PZ writes, but more often than not, I find myself defending him among religious friends.
I think a lot of readers here understand the value of being a “friendly atheist” — not always trying to provoke arguments, focusing on the more positive/Humanistic aspects of life, etc. — but there are plenty of times when we need to point out the absurdity of religious beliefs, perhaps because they affect people we know and love.
When Webster Cook is threatened with expulsion from his university because he took a communion wafer back to his dorm room instead of ingesting it during a church service, religious beliefs have simply gone too far. (If you haven’t heard Webster’s side of the story yet (MP3), it’s really incredible. It’s horrifying what he had to deal with. Let’s not forget that the Great Desecration should be secondary to the real story of what happens to Webster.)
So you can be “friendly” while pointing out where religion gets it wrong. Or you can be more “militant” about it while also giving credit to religious communities when they (tangibly) help people out.
Nisbet goes on:
Consider this recent article at the National Catholic Register. Titled “The Face of the New Atheism,” it profiles PZ Myers and his rants against the Eucharist and the Catholic community. Notice the key words emphasized. The dominant image of atheism portrayed in the article is one of “hate,” “contempt,” “dogmatism,” “a junior high level understanding of religion,” “irate,” “incredulous,” “bigoted”…the list goes on.
Is this how we really want Catholics to view us? Do we really want a group of moderately religious Americans — who polls show otherwise prize science and reason, and who stand for many of the same values that we hold dear — to think of us through the prism of PZ Myers?
We don’t choose how others view us.
The truth is that the loudest voices tend to be heard. But this isn’t PZ’s doing. If all of us weren’t linking to him from our sites or talking about him, he wouldn’t have the popularity he rightly deserves.
If you want to place blame on anyone for placing PZ on a pedestal, the finger should be pointed at us, not him.
And did anyone expect the NCR to write a glowing endorsement of atheism regardless of the spokesperson?
The media goes to the story wherever it is. PZ’s story was noteworthy because of the overreactions it spawned.
When Camp Inquiry was featured on NPR recently (or the more popular Camp Quest was mentioned on The Colbert Report and in other newspapers), the media loved the idea of atheists doing something typically reserved for churchgoers.
No doubt if the writers wanted to put a negative spin on those positive atheist stories, they could have done so.
In fact, they almost did. A year ago, Camp Quest was featured on NPR. The headline accompanying the story on their website was the following:
“Summer Camp Teaches Anti-Christian Beliefs.”
It wasn’t until CQ president Amanda Metskas informed NPR that their headline was misleading and wrong that they changed it to “Children’s Summer Camp Teaches ‘Free Thinking’.” Why the original headline? Possibly because inflammatory messages draw readers and listeners… or someone on staff disliked atheists… or someone just had an incorrect perception about the camp. The headline was politely corrected. Hopefully, the NPR folk learned a lesson.
The point being: we must continue speaking out in favor of atheism and against harmful religious thinking in our own ways. Some will stick. Some won’t.
Brian Sapient of the Rational Response Squad once made a comment about the “two camps” that I thought was very effective.
When explaining why atheists needed to come at religion from all angles (friendly or otherwise), he said his (more aggressive) method was like a bitter pill for the religious to swallow. My (friendlier) method was like the water that helped them get it down.
The biggest names in our “movement” are the ones who hand out those pills. A lot of religious people enjoy taking them and complaining about the taste. We can offer to give them more pills — something I don’t always find to be effective — or we can help them wash it down. (Or, ideally, we can do both and convince them why they want to take the pill. Or maybe I’m taking this metaphor too far…)
I empathize with the emotional pull of faith and the difficulty of leaving one’s childhood religion. I want religious people to understand where we atheists are coming from. That’s not going to happen if you insult them.
I wish the more outspoken among us used a bit more tact. Too often, they’re just dangling a worm in front of the religious fish, waiting for someone to grab it.
But if no one is calling out religious ignorance, nothing will change. Or if it does, it’ll change for the worse.
You don’t have have to be a jerk to point out the flaws in religious thinking. However, you also can’t shake the fact that the atheists who have thrown the hardest punches have something to show for it.
Why not focus on finding that grey area that all of us can inhabit?