How Can Atheists Help Ourselves?

Greta Christina has already written about how non-religious people can become atheist allies.

Now, she has written about how we atheists can be better allies ourselves. What can we do to help others who share our progressive, rational beliefs?

The full list with explanations is on her site, but here’s the condensed version:

  1. Treat other groups the way you want to be treated.
  2. Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid — and don’t talk to them or treat them as if they’re stupid.
  3. Don’t be quick to assume malice or willful ignorance.
  4. If you’re going to talk about religion, tread carefully.
  5. Be careful about making analogies.
  6. Remember that it’s not always about us.
  7. Support other atheists whose methods are different from yours.

The list is a good one. I agree with almost all of it.

That last item bothers me, though. Maybe because “support” is the wrong word.

I don’t support atheists who tear down religious people to make their point.

I don’t support atheists who think ridiculing religion is more important than offering an alternative way of looking at the world to people who have never considered it.

It’s ok to criticize other atheists’ methods. In fact, I think criticism supports our movement as a whole. It lets people know that there is not just one way of not believing in God.

I appreciate it when liberal Christians call out the conservative ones. Not that I’m inclined to become a Christian either way, but it’s good to know there are Christians who aren’t Creationist/Republican/anti-gay-rights. They offer a way to be Christian without the ugly side we always see the extremists showing. (I agree they’re still deluded about their fundamental beliefs, but that’s besides the point.)

Do you need both sides (as Greta Christina writes) to create the social change? Perhaps.

It doesn’t mean I like what the other side is doing and saying. And we don’t need to always support each other’s methods.

A “unified atheist front” isn’t going to make religious people lose their faith all of a sudden.

Knowing that there are many ways to “be” an atheist — and that some ways are preferable to others?

That could help.

  • http://virtualityforreal.blogspot.com Allytude

    I think one should be as well-behaved as possible. Not get int needless de-harmonizing discussion. Expressing an opinion is one thing- being too in you face another. I think its best to avoid “god ” and the rest topics, unless its necessary- in which case one needs to be firm. No dissing religion. But not giving in to bullying by the religious. In the long run graciousness counts a lot more than a heated exchange does. Also one should not proselytize- we are not them. Participating in religious ceremonies- well it depends on how important it is, how not to offend someone- but again one should not be too meek- nor be too aggressive. A fine balance is important.

  • Adam Jennings

    The list is a good one. I agree with almost all of it.

    That last item bothers me, though. Maybe because “support” is the wrong word.

    I think that the first 6 kinda take care of the 7th. If we all followed the first 6, we should easily be able to aid each other in the 7th.

    Not that we will ever agree on everything, but it gives us a good starting point.

  • http://asad123.wordpress.com Asad

    Perhaps instead of “supporting” atheists with different methods, it should read “tolerate” atheists with different methods.

  • http://www.atheistnexus.org/profile/Freethinker Freethinker

    “Support other atheists whose methods are different from yours.”

    That’s the hardest one. You have your good reasons for acting and you might think that other activist potentially undermine your work.

  • Beowulff

    It doesn’t mean I like what the other side is doing and saying. And we don’t need to always support each other’s methods.

    Other side? Are we “othering” amongst ourselves as well now?

  • http://learninfreedom.org/ tokenadult

    I think if point 7 is interpreted in light of point 1 this is a very good list.

  • Stephen P

    My take on the last point is that it is fine to criticise another atheist for an argument which is incorrect, or for an approach which was inappropriate in a particular context.

    What is not fine (and I think this is the point that Greta Christina is trying to make) is rejecting ridicule in all circumstances. Or rejecting a conciliatory approach in all circumstances. There are times when one approach is appropriate and times when another is appropriate. There are times when it is very hard to tell what is the best approach. And there are people who are better at one, and people who are better at another.

    In short: accept that there is more than one way to skin a sacred cow.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    I don’t know; I’ve tried being nice to theists but…well, let’s just say that I sometimes get sick of “less than intelligent” theistic trolls coming onto my blog and making the same, shopworn and bogus arguments.

    More and more I find myself channeling my “inner Evolved and Rational” in my responses. :)

    (dang, I love her at times!)

  • Pseudonym

    Hemant writes:

    (I agree they’re still deluded about their fundamental beliefs, but that’s besides the point.)

    Oh, man. This sentence really bugs me in so many ways, and it illustrates the importance of being careful with language.

    First off, and most importantly, don’t say “deluded” when you mean “wrong”. In fact, just to be safe, don’t use the word “deluded” at all unless you’re a qualified psychiatrist.

    Secondly, and more subtly, the word “fundamental” is a tricky one for reasons that should become clear after a moments’ thought.

    Apart from that one sentence, this was a great post. Thanks to both Greta and Hemant.

  • http://crazyrainbowunderwear.blogspot.com yinyang

    Greta covers your objection to #7:

    If we have a real difference about tactics over any given issue or situation, by all means we should air them. But the general ideological battle over whether firebreathing or diplomacy is always and forevermore the better tactic is ridiculous.

  • Stephen P

    First off, and most importantly, don’t say “deluded” when you mean “wrong”. In fact, just to be safe, don’t use the word “deluded” at all unless you’re a qualified psychiatrist.

    And what qualifies you to be laying down the law about language use? How would you feel if someone ordered you not to use the words “weight”, “mass”, “speed” or “velocity” unless you are a qualified physicist? (If you actually are one, I can find you an example from another area.)

    How do you know Hemant meant “wrong”? He may have meant “persistently clinging to an erroneous belief in the face of the evidence and repeated attempts to correct that belief”. In which case “wrong” just doesn’t cover it.

    If you wish to say that psychiatrists have a technical meaning of the term “deluded” which doesn’t match the everyday meaning, then just say that. And for extra credibility, how about explaining to us what that technical meaning is?

  • Jabster

    @Pseudonym

    Not to put words into someone’s mouth but “deluded” is far more descriptive of religious beliefs than just plain wrong. I think is easy to assume that we are not talking about the everyday usage and not the medical term.

  • Jabster

    Sorry must learn to read my own posts better! Should be ” … assume we are talking about everday usage …”

  • http://thishumanist.wordpress.com Clare

    I think the last point could maybe be ‘tolerate’ other atheists. I think it’s an important thing for any group without a set agenda or criteria to accept that there will be differences of opinion within groups and to allow space for all the voices. Friendly atheists shouldn’t silence confrontational atheists and confrontational atheists shouldn’t silence friendly atheists. Friendly atheists don’t have to support acts they may perceive as pointless or offensive (e.g. The advent sign messages) and confrontational atheists can choose not to support acts they might perceive as pointless or irrelevant (e.g. interfaith/interbelief events). The important thing is that everyone gets a chance to express their perspective and that everyone agrees to respectfully disagree and debate these ideas. I think this is a problem seen in other communities such as feminist or lgbt groups.

  • Pseudonym

    Stephen P:

    And what qualifies you to be laying down the law about language use? How would you feel if someone ordered you not to use the words “weight”, “mass”, “speed” or “velocity” unless you are a qualified physicist?

    It’s true that I’m not qualified personally in psychiatry. If it’s any help, the then-head of psychiatry at a certain major hospital used to be my next-door neighbour, and he was constantly annoyed by the misuse of words like “delusion”.

    However, it’s exactly like (and note the smooth seque into your second question) the way that woo-woo types use physics words like “energy” and “vibration”. The effect, whether intended or unintended, is to confuse whatever you’re trying to push with science, which makes it that much harder when you try to teach people real science.

    How do you know Hemant meant “wrong”?

    Several reasons:

    1. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

    2. He usually uses words like “wrong” or “mistaken”, particularly when referring to non-fundies.

    The liberal Christian beliefs with which most Atheists disagree are generally not scientifically falsifiable, and hence not contradicted by evidence, and Hemant is fully aware of this. He still thinks liberal Christianity is wrong, unnecessary and possibly a bit silly, but he does not, as far as I know, think it’s “deluded”.

    3. Most crucially, this is precisely one of the points under discussion. Had Hemant wanted to disagree with Greta so blatantly in her expanded discourse on point #4, he would have done so explicitly rather than implicitly. That is, after all, what he did with her last point.

    If Hemant wants to weigh in on this, I encourage him to do so, but I understand if he doesn’t want to for whatever reason.

    Complete change of topic, since Claire brought it up. I agree with what she said, but for me it’s really easy to say.

    OK, probably the best way to say this is just to say what Liberal Christians really think, but may not be willing to admit. Once we know what the problems are, we can talk about what to do about them.

    (Note: In that follows, I will refer to Liberal Christians as “I” or “us”, and Atheists as “you”, to save some typing.)

    As a Christian, I’m far more free to reject the likes of Pat Robertson than you are to reject Christopher Hitchens, even though they exhibit a similar level of arseholery, obliviousness to evidence and stupid statements. And I’m far more free to give a nuanced response to someone like Marcus Borg than you are to Richard Dawkins.

    I have the luxury of not having to present a united front. Perversely, even though I am in the least “exclusive” streams of Christianity (in the sense that we don’t waste any time divining who’s “in” and who’s “out”), the more I distinguish myself from “them”, the better it is for me.

    So this is the main sticking point that we need dialogue to overcome. Liberal Christians are used to distinguishing themselves from whackos, and so get annoyed when Atheists don’t. We don’t, as a rule, understand it that this is a luxury that you can’t afford.

    Greta quite rightly instructs potential allies to not “divide” Atheists, but that’s actually not the frame in which Liberal Christians see it. We can pick and choose whom we work with, and it’s intended as a compliment to you that we think you can too. It means we see you as a wronged group of people in need of real justice.

    We’ve also spent a hell of a lot of time on cleaning out our own house, and working on how others see us. We don’t attack fundies in public because it distracts from what we see as our central missions. The charities that we run, for example, need donations. If anyone thought for a moment that any of those donations would be spent on attacking Pat Robertson, donations would plummet, and our charities would suffer. We can’t afford that.

    So that’s another aspect to the problem: How can we support you, without us being seen as supporting anti-theism?

    All of this will be moot when Atheism becomes mainstream. Deep down, we all know that when that happens, anti-theism will be dropped like a bad smell. Just look at the current irrelevance of Germaine Greer in the feminist movement: that’s Christopher Hitchens in a couple of decades.

    Until then, we have some serious thinking and talking to do.


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