The Two Atheist Communities

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?

  • Tom

    I see the two approaches as such:

    Here lies the Bathtub of Reason, upon wich taking a bath in one becomes an atheist. One group of atheists, in trying to change other’s beliefs, tries to force the theist into the water. But despite all the pushing and jostling, the theist braces themselves over the tub and only very rarely do they ever get pushed in. The other group of atheists understands that forcing someone is often futile: it can challenge the theist, but hardly ever gets results. They rather opt to rather place their efforts on moving the bathtub, ever so slowly, closer to the theist. Inch by inch, the bathtub moves into the awareness of the believer, and while they become aware of it, they don’t feel threatened as it’s only moving verrry slowly, not something to give much attention. Then, before they know it the bathtub has moved right next to them, and in astonishment they find themselves in the water, surprised and astonished, but quickly thankful for the dip!

  • Beowulff

    Nice to see the real friendly atheist taking Nisbet to task, thanks for a great post :)

  • Wes

    That’s one of the most level-headed and fair appraisals of Nisbet’s claims I’ve seen so far. I agree with pretty much everything you say.

    Count me as part of the “Many approaches” school of communicating atheism. I think there’s a place for the more aggressive styles, so long as they aren’t the only one’s and they aren’t too aggressive. I tend to get very frustrated with what religious people do from time to time, and I totally sympathize with guys like PZ who don’t hold back and call a spade a spade. But, at the same time, PZ frequently goes farther than I would. I also don’t see anything necessarily wrong with connecting one’s atheism to promoting science (as PZ does), so long as there are also other voices who don’t do this (and are better at reaching liberal and moderate religious people). Different frames for different audiences.

    John Wilkins described Nisbet’s framing concept as “A good idea run amok”, and I think this is a perfect example. Nisbet seems to think “framing” consists of constantly badgering PZ Myers. I don’t understand what he thinks he’ll accomplish by lobbing insults at PZ. There’s no chance PZ will back down, and because of the things he said about PZ, Nisbet has made a lot of enemies among people who would probably have been on his side had he not used framing as an excuse to hurl needless insults at people.

    There’s an irony in this: Nisbet claims that by being aggressive, PZ is making things worse for science. But by needlessly insulting his colleagues, Nisbet has made things worse for framing. Just another example of the framer not being so good at framing.

  • Wes

    One group of atheists, in trying to change other’s beliefs, tries to force the theist into the water. But despite all the pushing and jostling, the theist braces themselves over the tub and only very rarely do they ever get pushed in.

    I’ve never seen any evidence of PZ forcing anyone to do anything. Do you have anything to back up this claim?

  • Darryl

    I’ve never seen any evidence of PZ forcing anyone to do anything. Do you have anything to back up this claim?

    Wes, I read that as a metaphor–not real force, but forceful (insulting) polemics.

    I suppose some theists will be given cause to rethink their positions by the PZ types though they wouldn’t by the friendly approach, but I’m not sure how effective it is compared to bridge building.

  • http://thehappyhuman.wordpress.com jtradke

    Tom – I think that’s kind of a crappy analogy. The first group sounds like they employ violence (verbal violence is still violence), whereas the second group sounds like they’re gradually brainwashing people.

    Both of your groups leave out the necessity of the individual’s decision to hop in that bath. You cannot possibly force someone to be an atheist without their cooperation.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Wes: “I don’t understand what he thinks he’ll accomplish by lobbing insults at PZ.”

    Maybe it’s an attempt at a “Sister Souljah” moment? Well, in Nisbet’s case, it’s a stream of such moments, but I think you get the rough idea.

  • Aj

    PZ’s blog is a good one, it’s his content that makes him popular, not how loud or harsh he is. I didn’t care about the wafer thing, that’s not why I read his blog. I thought what he said about the dead guy was bad form, too personal, on a non-public figure. However, no one is perfect and many people have these kind of moments. I don’t understand why PZ is cast as the big bad atheist.

    I suspect much of this is about etiquette and strategy. People aren’t used to have their religion questioned like the other aspects of their lives. There’s a lot of special pleading going on. In some places religions are not to be questioned, in others religions are shunned if they’re not kept private, but if they’re private they’re completely out of discussion. This may work for many, it might be how we were raised, but we’re not winning any more. Times are hard, we need hard people.

    It’s a false dichotomy, there’s not two groups, friendly and non-friendly. I really don’t see PZ, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins as aggressive. There’s definitely levels of militancy, but the vast majority of atheists I’ve read here or else where seem to at least agree that the less religion the better.

    I’m pretty sure it was this blog telling me that religious people leave their childhood faith more than they stay. I can empathize with faith, as superstition and wish thinking that it is, everyone’s prone to error and bias. I can’t empathize with the embrace of superstition and wish thinking as a way of life, as a chosen method of decision making. That’s not a genuine mistake, that’s wilful ignorance.

    That kind of ignorance has to be worthy of the harshest of criticism if anything is. I understand that some people don’t want to, or aren’t capable, of that kind of criticism. It’s great that we have people who are great at other things, not every atheist has to be like PZ. I agree with Hemant and Brian, more than one strategy is needed.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    Tom, you exactly described how this former devote Roman Catholic became a atheist…for me it was a slow evolution, aided by the fact that I joined academia where atheism is relatively common and accepted.

  • Darryl

    It’s a false dichotomy, there’s not two groups, friendly and non-friendly. I really don’t see PZ, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins as aggressive. There’s definitely levels of militancy, but the vast majority of atheists I’ve read here or else where seem to at least agree that the less religion the better.

    There’s more to your statement than a single topic can hold. I can agree in part that atheists are a whole, but of course anything can be divided by whatever scheme, and friendly versus unfriendly is useful at times.

    I certainly do see the writers you mentioned as aggressive to varying degrees.

    I would also agree that less religion is better, except to say that a multiplicity of competing interests is about the best we can hope for. Even a majority of atheists would have its problems. Also, I have found myself sharing values and views of human conduct more with moderate and liberal believers than, for example, with radical, conservative atheists. I know I’d rather work with a liberal priest than a capitalist atheist.

  • Wes

    Wes, I read that as a metaphor–not real force, but forceful (insulting) polemics.

    I know, but I don’t think it’s a good metaphor. The religious right wants to use genuine force to impose their views on others. They want to use the government to put gays down, to promote their religion, and to force others to comply with their narrow-minded view of morality.

    People are constantly trying to draw a false analogy between people like PZ Myers and people like Pat Robertson, calling people “fundamentalist atheists” who want to “force” their views on others. I think that’s BS. What PZ is doing is not force. It’s aggressive, in that he’s unapologetic and doesn’t care if he offends people, but he’s not forcing anything on anyone.

    I’m not saying you have to agree with PZ. It’s just that I think it’s misleading to call it “force” in any sense.

    I suppose some theists will be given cause to rethink their positions by the PZ types though they wouldn’t by the friendly approach, but I’m not sure how effective it is compared to bridge building.

    It’s probably less effective overall, but more effective in certain limited circumstances. Building bridges with the religious is crucial, and there need to be people out there doing it. But sometimes outrage and mockery are necessary, and we shouldn’t count those tactics out entirely.

    One problem I have, though, is that sometimes people use the term “bridge-building” to mean pandering to people’s bigotries or being afraid to speak your mind for fear of possibly being offensive. There’s a difference between politely building bridges (a good thing) and being a condescending, spineless relativist (a bad thing). Nisbet seems to be doing a bit of the latter, the way he plays right into all the false stereotypes of atheism in that National Catholic Register article.

  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com The Science Pundit

    I see the two approaches as being pushing emotional buttons and reasoned argumentation. First, let me mention that there is no clear demarcation between the two; they blend into each other.

    Second, while the pushing emotional buttons may seem unproductive as makes theists dig in deeper, it’s the approach that stays with them longest. That’s the approach that’ll have someone, months later, still thinking about that argument he had with that atheist. Ideally, one would want to mix the two approaches so that it’s your best rational argument that’s churning in their heads. There’s something to be said for comparing a person’s sacred deity to a cartoon character.

    Lastly, let me be clear that I’m not saying that mine is a one size fits all approach.

    Wes said:

    There’s an irony in this: Nisbet claims that by being aggressive, PZ is making things worse for science. But by needlessly insulting his colleagues, Nisbet has made things worse for framing. Just another example of the framer not being so good at framing.

    Beautifully put!

  • http://thehappyhuman.wordpress.com jtradke

    Wes, well put on the assessment of Nisbet re: framing.

    Either atheists are not his target audience (since they’re all put off by what he says), or he’s just plain awful at this framing crap.

  • http://blog.lib.umn.edu/fole0091/epistaxis Epistaxis

    Wes:

    I’ve never seen any evidence of PZ forcing anyone to do anything. Do you have anything to back up this claim?

    More to the point, I’ve never seen any evidence of PZ trying to (de)convert someone. He just mocks them in front of people who already agree with him. But he does that very well.

  • Maria

    Any fellow atheist who disagrees with their Don Imus rhetoric, they label as appeasers.

    that part is true for some people I’ve seen. As for the comment Sapient made, while it makes an interesting point, he did make it after putting up a page insulting half the readers on here b/c they didn’t agree with him, so it’s kind of hard to take him seriously. As for the pill, there’s a difference between giving it and forcing it, and let’s be honest, some people aren’t going to take it no matter what, and that’s their choice, as long as they allow me mine and don’t get into government (which I know is happening too much) I don’t care.

    I don’t know if I’d say “two” communities, b/c there are a lot more viewpoints than that, but I have noticed a segment of the population that is hellbent on labeling anyone who doesn’t agree with them as an “appeaser” and all kinds of other names, be it religious, secular or otherwise. And I do not support them or their methods unless there is no other way. I don’t include Dawkins or even PZ in this, but let’s not pretend those people don’t exist.

  • Adrian

    A good rundown and displaying a lot more insight into politics than Nisbet who supposedly does this for a living.

    We need all kinds of atheists, and we need all of them to get more attention. We need the Myers and Dawkins of the world to incite change, to ridicule the ridiculous and inspire all of us to be more open. They are at the forefront of the movement, swinging sledges at the walls religions have constructed around themselves. We also need the Hemants to soothe egos and build communities. Without the latter we have a mess, without the former we have religious oppression.

    I’ve yet to see the role for Uncle Toms who attack atheists in order to suck up to the religious power brokers. Nisbet may be smart, but he has lost his way and become deeply misguided. Shame as he could bring much to the table if only he’d gain some perspective and lose the ego.

  • Siamang

    There are two kind of people in this world: those who make false dichotomies and those who don’t.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Why do I keep repeatedly getting the impression the people who say things like this are total morons? I mean, if you look at the civil rights movement you can see the divide between militant and friendly- the militants are the people who are stockpiling weapons and declaring the need for a seperate community.

    Any atheists done that… ever?

    Maybe commies are a better example- ideology and all. Except the commies called for the overthrow of the government. Any atheists called for that in the name of atheism?

    Do people bother reading history textbooks any more?

  • Darryl

    I know, but I don’t think it’s a good metaphor. The religious right wants to use genuine force to impose their views on others. They want to use the government to put gays down, to promote their religion, and to force others to comply with their narrow-minded view of morality.

    People are constantly trying to draw a false analogy between people like PZ Myers and people like Pat Robertson, calling people “fundamentalist atheists” who want to “force” their views on others. I think that’s BS. What PZ is doing is not force. It’s aggressive, in that he’s unapologetic and doesn’t care if he offends people, but he’s not forcing anything on anyone.

    Agreed.

    There are many thoughtful comments here. I agree that diversity of approach is wise.

    Siamang, you show-stealer.

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    Great post, Hemant. I agree with all that you said, and I was wondering where you would come down on the framing debacle. And you are entirely correct that the two-ways approach is the best. As you said, the loudest voice gets the most attention. People like PZ Myers and Dawkins are giving atheism a public, and they are finally putting us on the agenda for a change. The “friendly” atheists, because they are not as confrontational, naturally do not gather as wide an audience, but like Brian Sapient said, you guys act as the water to help swallow the bitter pill, to show that we are not all rants and screeds. (However, I also think that PZ and Dawkins can play this role, as anyone who has seen them in person would not find them to be angry, fire-breathing atheists at all. PZ’s case is particularly exemplary. His blog is reknowned for pulling no punches, and yet when you hear him give lectures in person or over the radio or some medium that lets you hear his voice and tone, you get more of the impression of a meek professor, which just goes to show that much of the venom and “hatred” we read into his remarks is put their ourselves.)

    The rabble-rousers gather the attention, the nice guys show the crowd that we deserve the attention. There’s a reason PZ’s blog outranks Nisbet’s in terms of popularity and readership, and it is frankly ironic that someone who champions the communicative technique of “framing” has done so poorly in framing his arguments for framing. It’s a bit like having someone try to teach you how to do gymnastics and they can’t even do a somersault.

  • geru

    From what I’ve seen and heard from PZ in interview, he must be one of the calmest and most non-agressive people of the planet. I bet you couldn’t anger him even if you set his toes on fire. :)

    But of course when you have that kind of ‘take shit from no one’ attitude AND you happen to be non-christian, you are automatically labeled as a rabid fundamentalist. (Or actually you get that label even by publicly coming out as an atheist.)

    Of course in a society where people are offended by reality, those who have a low tolerance for stupidity are considered as intolerant hate mongerers.

  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com The Science Pundit

    Siamang said,

    August 10, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    There are two kind of people in this world: those who make false dichotomies and those who don’t.

    Actually there are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can’t.

  • http://friar-zero.blogspot.com Friar Zero

    I myself dont see PZ or Dawkins as agressive atheists. However I have seen aggressive atheists who are not interested in engaging reason or winning converts. To a minority of atheists their goal is simply to launch as many school-yard taunts against christians, and anyone with whom they disagree, before they walk off in disgust.

    I make a distinction between being intellectually engaging like PZ and Dawkins and being aggressively partisan (for lack of a better word). One of the above posters said button-pushing was what stayed with a christian. That may be true but so do insults. While PZ and Dawkins may push buttons that linger there are still a vocal minority who I believe give our community a black eye by perpetuating the stereotype of the bitter angry atheist. Instead of pushing buttons or being friendly this minority reflexively slings mud which turns off the would-be convert and gives the reader a bad impression of atheists.

    I’m not defending the particulars of what Nisbet is saying. However I think we, as a community, should focus on encouraging the articulate intellectual activists over the poo slingers. It should be the community, as viewers rankers and commenters, that should work toward cultivating an image of intellectual integrity and respectful disagreement. We have the power to choose our mouthpiece, in other words.

    And of course, I’m not talking about letting anything slide, or appeasing fundamentalists, or letting the Christians get away with a single irrational or bigoted idea. I for one just think it can be done without the immaturity that is seen in the far corners of the atheosphere.

  • Pingback: Spore attacked by ‘militant’ atheists at Terahertz

  • Richard Wade

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Hemant. The comments are very thoughtful and insightful. It’s encouraging to see reason used to promote reason when atheists speak to theists and when atheists speak to each other.

    Friendliness is not appeasement and earnestness is not aggression. A polite argument is not a weak argument and a strong argument is not a rude argument. Determination is not militancy and patience is not passivity.

    So regardless of our personalities we can all be friendly, earnest, polite, strong, determined and patient

    and none of us need to be appeasing, aggressive, weak, rude, militant or passive.


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