Aggressive Atheism Versus Friendly Atheism

Stephen Prothero, the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t, wrote an article for USA Today about how atheists would be better off with some new voices.

Specifically, friendlier, female-ier voices — as opposed to the “angry white male atheist” voices, which we already hear plenty of. (There’s been plenty of discussion on how that stereotype isn’t very fair or accurate — Richard Dawkins, for example, isn’t an “angry” guy; he’s just perceived as such because he’s passionate when discussing the harms that religion causes — but I won’t dwell on that right now.)

Prothero also mentions William Lobdell and me as examples of “male types who also qualify as kinder, gentler atheists.” It was nice of him to include me in that list and I could easily mention several other men and women (several of whom contribute to and comment on this site) who belong there, too.

What I did want to talk about was the following excerpt. The context is that Prothero attended an event for the Boston Coalition of Reason and heard speeches from several old school (angry, white, male) atheists and one friendly, female atheist:

I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.

These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

I think there’s a lot more overlap in the atheist community than Prothero is giving us credit for.

The “aggressive” types want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint while at the same time persuading others that it’s the most rational point of view.

The “friendly” types want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint while at the same time persuading others that it’s the most rational point of view.

The difference is that the “aggressive” types don’t care who they offend. They’ll go after religion in all its forms — it doesn’t matter if they criticize the Vatican or the local church down the street or your sweet neighbor who happens to be religious.

The “friendly” types are willing to do some triage here. They’re not going to spend the same amount of energy going after a local pastor or national politician who happens to espouse a personal belief in a god. There are more important battles to fight.

I would much rather keep as allies those religious people who do things like support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state.

I know others prefer a no-holds-barred approach, but I think that’s counterproductive when dealing with the people we want to reach out to the most — those who are on the fence, somewhere between “I’m going to call myself an agnostic” and “I go to church on Christmas and Easter.”

There’s a lot of people in that mix, and I think we turn them off by not acknowledging that we can’t offer everything that religion can at the present time. When we say that atheism is *obviously* right, we’re not addressing their real concerns about losing all faith and they stop listening.

That’s not to say the “aggressive” types aren’t important.

They get the attention.

As openly-anti-theist Brian Sapient once put it to me, the aggressive atheists provide a bitter pill for the religious to swallow. The friendly atheists are like the water that helps them get it down.

  • TXatheist

    I’m aggressive when someone tries to tell me I’m wrong. Not just we agree to disagree but that I’m wrong. I may even likely go to anti-theist if it heats up.

  • Eddie

    How can we afford to be anything but aggressive in the face of stories like these?

  • http://www.freethoughtfilmfest.org Andrea Steele

    As the Director of Communications for the Tampa Bay Coalition of Reason, I am one of those “female-ier” voices.

    The demographic of Facebook Fans for the Freethought Film Festival Foundation is 60% male and 40% female; and the proportion of vocal male vs. female atheists is even more skewed.

    In my opinion, the negative perception of atheists may dilute more rapidly if female freethinkers publicly come out of the woodwork. It would be nice if enough women became vocal to at least reflect the actual male/female ratio of the overall demo.

  • Tyro

    Sounds like a silly false dichotomy, that women can’t or aren’t outspoken against religion. Have you ever read Ophelia Benson?

    And let’s talk about this BS about building friends & allies for good science education. Can you name any Christians who have said they would stop supporting science education unless atheists stop speaking out against their faith? Have you heard of anyone that actually has done this? Just how mushy-minded do you thing Christians are anyway?

    There are Democrats & Republicans who support science education, environmental legislation and other common actions yet you don’t hear them abandoning their beliefs because an ally in one area is an opponent in another. It’s just absurd.

    And lets not forget the decidedly un-friendly attitude that you take when dealing with other issues (eg: “Sanjay B. Jumaani is full of shit” – aren’t you worried about losing support from numerologists? Why are you aggressive and unfriendly?). It appears two-faced when you take this pompous “just be friends” attitude towards the powerful, established religions but kick and spit at the smaller faiths.

  • Thornavis.

    The trouble with this is that it confuses two separate issues, giving offence and being offensive and also ignores the problem of those religious who are anything but tolerant of unbelief. Giving offence is easy to do with some people just disagreeing with them is enough, if everyone holds back from saying what they think because some delicate flower might get upset then we might as well shut up completely, which is what a lot of people would like, including most “accomodationists”. Being offensive is another matter, if I went round to the local church and called the vicar a lying bastard he would have every right to take offence but that really has nothing to do with atheism.
    It’s all very well making common cause with nice religious types with impeccable liberal opinions but they aren’t the problem are they? Anyway does an atheist necessarily have to have “nice” opinions? What is it with this “feminine” stuff by the way, that’s pretty stereotyped and patronising isn’t it?

  • http://alessamendes.blogspot.com Alessa Mendes

    Tyro makes some excellent points.

    Richard Dawkins is viewed as aggressive (much to my dismay), but his contribution to science, rationalism, and Atheism has been significant. That should speak volumes right there.

    Let us not forget that Christians and Muslims (for example) are very loud and proud. They are not as delicate as you think, but rather dishonestly portray this image and play the victim card at their whim for manipulative purposes.

    This is just another attempt for the religious to play the weak, helpless card – I think. They don’t offer us the same courtesy or respect. Your previous posts have demonstrated this.

  • http://knowledgeisnotveryfar.blogspot.com/ Jake

    As a religious believer who “supports sound science, fights for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believes in separation of church and state” I can say that the quote you have from Prothero is closer to what many of us on the other side of the fence see. Atheists such as Dawkins and company do come off as arrogant and do nothing to further discussion. If their only purpose is to sway the fence sitters, then I guess they are using the best approach. But if atheist ever wish to actually have two way discussions with us believers who are tolerant,and accepting, of differing world views then these kind of tactics will do nothing but hinder progress.

  • Ed

    Tyro what are you talking about? No where in Hemant’s post does anyone claim someone is “abandoning their beliefs because an ally in one area is an opponent in another.”

    What does your MASSIVE strawman “Can you name any Christians who have said they would stop supporting science education unless atheists stop speaking out against their faith?” have to do with anything in this post?

    Your last point though has a bit of merit. I don’t find “Sanjay B. Jumaani is full of shit” to be particularly friendly either though I would point out numerology is, contrary to what you wrote, not a faith.

  • Josh Spinks

    Christians who cannot abide criticism of their religion are undesirable as political allies. If we had to refrain from voicing our opinions on religion to keep them as allies, they would, in fact, not be allies at all, but rather, we would be subordinating our opinions to theirs.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I vote for the friendly approach. Although, when religious people try to force their beliefs on the rest of us, I will be aggressive (or use ridicule). As long as the religious defer their discrimination (like who is “in” and who is “out”) to their notion of “God” or the “afterlife”, then I’m fine with living with and among religious people.

    I’d be happy to give them the supposedly infinite afterlife if they let us live in peace (and without discrimination) in this finite temporal life.

    That sounds like a deal they should accept.

  • JulietEcho

    I think that an important point here is that there aren’t just “friendly” and “aggressive” atheists – they overlap. Hemant isn’t always what most people would call “friendly” when he posts, and PZ has some downright soft, cuddly moments. No one is required to pick a “type” and stay there, so we can neatly categorize them.

    I do think the terms are helpful, in a way, but it does encourage the “We need more nice atheists! Too many atheists are mean!” reaction from many. The confusion of “aggressive” with “mean” isn’t going to go away, and it’s important to remember that “friendly” doesn’t equal “accomodationist” either.

  • Thornavis.

    Jake. Actually no I don’t wish to have a two way conversation with you about your beliefs, neither of us is going to convince the other. I am more than happy to leave you alone with whatever private opinions you hold but if you or any other religious person attempts to have those beliefs influence public policy I reserve the right to be as “loud” and “aggressive” in my opposition as I see fit. In fact even if you support things I support if you use religion to back up your position I will oppose you, it’s this that I suspect you can’t cope with, the realisation that people like me simply don’t think religion has any place in public discourse at all.

  • infideljoe

    The problem is we should be trying to get people to listen to what we have to say, but the aggressive approach just turns people off. The other problem is that atheists need to pick their battles carefully. Making a big stink about trivial things like whether a business or person says “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays” or whether a government building displays a menorah doesn’t help open minds of people sitting on the fence. We need to worry about religion being pushed in schools, government, and the military. Pick our battles and we might we the war.

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

    Tyro:

    It appears two-faced when you take this pompous ‘just be friends’ attitude towards the powerful, established religions but kick and spit at the smaller faiths.

    Not really. Simon Blackburn had pointed out why such an approach would make sense:

    I think that intuitively we understand that beliefs are contagious. So if someone goes along with the herd and follows one of the major surrounding religions of their culture, this need not demonstrate much of a defect. But if someone gets taken in by a minority cult, there is less excuse. It might seem more or less wilful, or the result of an unfortunate stage of life at which they were especially at sea. Other things being equal, someone who believes that Jesus walked on water is not, in our culture, so many bricks short of a load as someone who believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was his vehicle to heaven. Holding the first belief is excusable, given that so many people have been repeating it to you since childhood, whereas you have to go out of your way to pick up the second. You have to acquiesce in your own deception, or want to be deluded.

    Indeed, that is why the “Religious people are stupid” message is such a problem, since those who put it forth are indicating that they aren’t being reasonable, and when that message is coupled with a message touting the value of reason, it comes off as hypocritical to boot.

  • Tyro

    Ed,

    To differentiate the “friendly” from the alternative (“unfriendly”? try “outspoken” or “unapologetic”), Hemant writes “I would much rather keep as allies those religious people who do things like support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state.” What could this mean but that he believes religious supporters of GLBT, sound science and church-state separation would drop their support because nasty folk like Dawkins think their religious beliefs are silly? Sounds pretty clear to me and not a strawman at all. An as the whole post is set up to justify why he’s taking a non-confrontational, placating, “friendly” approach, I think it has everything to do with this post.

    “numerology is, contrary to what you wrote, not a faith.”

    Oh, you think that it’s a belief based on evidence and reason do you? Sounds to me like it’s just as much a faith-based position as any religion but perhaps we’re quibbling over semantics. Let’s say you are right and it isn’t a “faith” under some definition, does this mean that the arguments for being friendly no longer apply?

  • Tyro

    Indeed, that is why the “Religious people are stupid” message is such a problem, since those who put it forth are indicating that they aren’t being reasonable, and when that message is coupled with a message touting the value of reason, it comes off as hypocritical to boot.

    You’re badly confused if you imagine that any of the New Atheists (you know, the unfriendly ones) have a message that religious people are stupid. The message is that they are wrong, that their beliefs are held in spite of a lack of evidence and reason, hence Dawkins comparison with a delusion. I don’t think any of them has said religious people are stupid. Indeed, Shermer wrote an entire book on why smart people can believe in silly things.

    Religious people may feel that they’re being called stupid but that’s their hyper-sensitivity and persecution complex. Best way to deal with this is to expose them to contrary viewpoints :)

  • http://claire-chan.livejournal.com Claire

    The split between a “female” and “male” viewpoint wrt Atheism is distressing. There are some aggressive and others less-so.

    I agree with Tyro, albeit with a lesser range of vocabulary.

  • http://alessamendes.blogspot.com Alessa Mendes

    I have not encountered many “aggressive” atheists unless Agressive and Passionate are synonymous.

    If Richard Dawkins, Ariane Sherine, Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, and the secular groups across the nation are considered “aggressive” then I’m on board.

    And before you argue that they’re not considered aggressive, I’ve encountered numerous Christians and Catholics who think they are. Generally speaking, it seems that anyone in opposition of their beliefs or willing to voice their opinions are considered aggressive.

  • http://ottodestruct.com/ Otto

    It’s fine to get angry when religious beliefs are actively trying to do bad things, like interfering in government and such.

    But most the rest of the time, there’s nothing to be angry about. Instead, it’s funny. I mean, think about it. A surprising lot of people actually think that there are real supernatural entities which actively interfere with events in the world.

    You either have to find that amusing or sad, there’s nothing there that should make you angry.

  • http://forumethix-ch.blogspot.com/ Samia

    Bottom line is, our societies allocate the right to ask for regard just as much as they allocate regard itself. If you ask for more than you’re ‘allowed’ to ask for, you are viewed as aggressive. If you are ‘allowed’ to ask for very little, you will be viewed as aggressive very quickly and often. In the US, it seems that atheists do not need to attempt converting the world to be viewed as aggressive. Neither do gays need to want to turn everyone gay to be categorized similarly.

    The discrepancy between what the religious can ‘legitimately’ ask for, and what the non-religious can ‘legitimately’ ask for is simply a reflection of this…

    Back home, I wouldn’t know. We tend to not speak of these things at all. So I guess any request related to religion -or lack thereof- by anyone could be viewed as aggressive or strident. Although this has advantages, we sometimes pay a price… (that link in French, just so you know…)

  • http://alessamendes.blogspot.com Alessa Mendes

    Samia – well said.

    I’ve been called “aggressive” by family members by simply asking a question in a non-condescending tone. No matter how gentle or friendly my approach, they see me as an Atheist addressing religion. A big no-no, I suppose

  • Ed

    Thanks Tyro, that helps considerably. I apologize and concede your quoted sentence does seem to imply what you claimed.

    “Let’s say you are right and it isn’t a “faith” under some definition, does this mean that the arguments for being friendly no longer apply?”

    No, they do still apply that is why I agreed with you earlier in my previous post.

    On the semantic issue which I’m sure does not really need to be examined, I was just pointing out numerology is no more a faith than esp, dowsing, or alien abductions.While perhaps subject to faith its rather different from a faith.

  • http://krissthesexyatheist.blogspot.com krissthesexyatheist

    Sometimes you fight fire with fire. It takes extreme voices to fight religious extremism, unfortunately & I appreciate Hitchens and Dawkins for their efforts. I would like to see more female atheist activists though. Anytime women can break into male dominated endeavors, that is a good thing. Kriss

  • Sackbut

    I think this is a false dichotomy, not just because the “two” categories overlap, but because there are a lot of different aspects to the “two” categories.

    To pick just one aspect: there’s a large difference between criticizing religious people and criticizing religions viewpoints. Sometimes, even often, these two are conflated; people take “your religious views are superstition and illogical” to mean “everything you think is illogical and you are stupid.”

    Some atheists, I’m sure, do indeed think that religious people are stupid, but others don’t generalize in that manner. Still others don’t like to refer to religious viewpoints as superstition. It seems to me that most of the voices critical of “aggressive” atheism want atheists to be in the third group and are complaining about the first group, but they completely ignore the existence of the second.

    To consider another aspect: there are atheist signs (like bus ads and holiday signs) of various types. Some carry more blunt messages that decry religious thinking; some have positive messages that promote acceptance of atheism and atheists; some are simply acknowledging the existence of atheists. Different people like different sets of these signs, while some prefer no signs at all. Criticisms of “aggressive” atheism sometimes seem to lump all signs into the first category, and expect the only alternative to be no signs. How does an atheist’s sign preference indicate whether the atheist is “aggressive” or “friendly”?

  • Eskomo

    Making a big stink about trivial things like whether a business or person says “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays” or whether a government building displays a menorah doesn’t help open minds of people sitting on the fence. We need to worry about religion being pushed in schools, government, and the military.

    But displaying a menorah in a government building is a push, small, but a push. Many small pushes lead to a big push.

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

    Tyro:

    You’re badly confused if you imagine that any of the New Atheists (you know, the unfriendly ones) have a message that religious people are stupid. The message is that they are wrong,

    The message from Hemant Mehta is that the religious are wrong, but you don’t see him coining a playground insult like “faith-head.” To be fair, though, among the New Atheists, there is less of an emphasis on the supposed stupidity of the religious than there is a more general tendency to rouse atheists to anger about the religious, even if that means exaggerating or cutting corners on their reasoning. Hence garbage like the “Neville Chamberlain” school from Dawkins, an implicit argumentum ad Naziium, or Sam Harris’ idea that the more crazy religionists are the ones who are truer to their faith, or Christopher Hitchens thoughtlessly repeating the libel about Orthodox Jews having sex through a sheet, or Ophelia Benson’s rousing bit the beginning of her book Does God Hate Women? decrying religion as always being on the side of the strong. The New Atheists do a lot of talk-talk about the value of reason, but their movement is more about passion than making sense.

  • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

    Frankly, I’m annoyed that Hemant is included on any list of “kindler, gentler atheists.”

    He is not kind or gentle. He’s a rotten, evil , mean-spirited, baby hating bastard. Sure he’s an “atheist”…so what?
    He’s a thoroughly disreputable, rotten bugger of the worst sort.
    He is my enemy.

    It is said that if one wishes to take the measure of a man, examine who he counts as friends. The truly wise dismiss such blather and prefer as a more accurate measure the question, “Who are his enemies?”

    I have many, but foremost among them (by consent, if you must know), is Hemant Mehta.
    For that I consider myself, not to coin a phrase, blessed.

    /Hey…Hemant! Go F*** yourself.

    Kindly
    Worst Regards,

    Cousinavi

  • Meredith

    I am wholly disinclined to allow religious people to dictate what they believe is appropriate (friendly) and inappropriate (aggressive, unfriendly, unfair, disingenuous) when it comes to how I want to express myself as an atheist.

    The fact of that matter is that if I want to express my displeasure about how religious institutions, religious leaders, or groups of religious people are behaving, this will probably be deemed “unfriendly,” “aggressive,” or “disrespectful” no matter what. It doesn’t really matter how staunchly I defend religious freedom (always) or how much I try to argue that separation of church and state is mostly for the good of the churches, or even how much I love and respect my religious parents.

    No matter how you cut it, when religous people are looking for atheists to be “kinder and gentler,” what they really mean is that they want them to shut the hell up. Stop questioning their beliefs and actions? Of course, or even worse, atheists should pretend to be religious and roll over for the Christian takeover of government institutions because “our society is a religious one.”

    How many of you have experienced these reactions to things you shouldn’t have to apologize for? Coming out to your religious parents as an atheist? Aggressive and disrespectful. Declining an invitation to a religous service? Unfriendly. Choosing Atheist as your religion on Facebook? Instigative. Placing a billboard that says “You can be good without God?” Should be illegal.

    At no time of the year is this overreaction more clear than December, when the simple act of saying “Happy Holidays” or declining to display a creche in your place of business is deemed an “Attack on Christmas.” What rubbish.

    In short, I pay no attention whatsoever to how religious people feel about my atheism and what they believe is the appropriate way for me to behave. If that makes me aggressive, so be it. I am glad to align myself as friends or political partners with religous people when I see fit. However, this female atheist is not going to allow anyone to dictate appropriate behavior for me simply because I decline religion.

  • http://www.DangerousTalk.net DangerousTalk

    I have to agree with Brian on this. I don’t think the so called “friendly” atheists need to attack other atheists. I find that confrontational attitude toward other atheists to be counterproductive. I support people like Greg Epstein and other so called “3.0″ atheists in wanting to build a humanist community. But I also support Sam Harris and others in criticizing religion at every turn. Atheism isn’t a religion and we all don’t have to agree. But we are all fighting a common problem and that is religion.
    -Staks

  • JulietEcho

    I agree, Meredith, that when categories like these are used, it’s all too often part of a “shut up, that’s why” argument (to use a great Greta Christina phrase). Everyone is going to define “friendly” and “aggressive” in terms of what they personally find offensive – and for many religious people, the fact that atheists speak up about anything at all is offensive.

  • wackadoodle

    It appears two-faced when you take this pompous “just be friends” attitude towards the powerful, established religions but kick and spit at the smaller faiths.

    THIS, THIS, a thousand times THIS.

    Scientology is stupid, Scientologists are morons. The only reason you could ever believe something as idiotic and illogical as Scientology is if you were a delusional moron.

    Lets be honest, no one disagrees with this. Most people don’t even consider it rude to point out such an ovious fact. So how am I being ‘aggressive’ by applying the same standards to all religions we apply to scientology?

  • http://alessamendes.blogspot.com Alessa Mendes

    I vote for Meredith’s response, wholeheartedly!

  • Flah

    Meredith, you’ve swayed me.

    No matter how you cut it, when religous people are looking for atheists to be “kinder and gentler,” what they really mean is that they want them to shut the hell up.

    From the atheist point of view, you must see this as no different than the days when blacks and women were expect to “know their place”. The aggressive team is necessary for you to get even a modest amount of attention to your issues. But you will also need the kindler/gentler voices to get your message heard. Why not both?

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

    wackadoodle:

    The only reason you could ever believe something as idiotic and illogical as Scientology is if you were a delusional moron.

    Yeah, there’d be no way that someone could come to believe in all that stuff by being introduced to it piecemeal, starting with the stuff that looks like a cousin to psych therapy sessions and then slowly learning more about the weirder stuff as they become entrenched. You know that the Xenu thing was leaked, right, and that new and prospective members of the Church of Scientology weren’t supposed to know about it?

    Lets be honest, no one disagrees with this.

    Wow, we go from a gross, unsupported generalization to an argumentum ad populum. Lovely.

    Given that you call yourself “wackadoodle,” though, it’s hard to tell if you are trying to be a parody or not.

  • Tyro

    J. J. Ramsey,

    The message from Hemant Mehta is that the religious are wrong, but you don’t see him coining a playground insult like “faith-head.”

    Just a couple of days ago, he said someone was full of shit. I know I’ve heard that on the playground but I can’t say I’ve heard “faith-head” there. Strange how you can say that a person of one group is full of shit and be friendly but if you call someone a “faith-head” then suddenly you’ve crossed a line.

    But you do have some strong points with some legitimacy:

    Hence garbage like the “Neville Chamberlain” school from Dawkins, an implicit argumentum ad Naziium

    And when people pointed that out, he has backed away from it and adopted the equally accurate but less inflammatory terms “appeasers”. It was a good analogy for how not speaking up and making compromise after compromise with nothing given in return doesn’t lead to freedom, it just emboldens the foe.

    Ultimately this seems like a distraction, attacking individual words while ignoring the message.

    or Sam Harris’ idea that the more crazy religionists are the ones who are truer to their faith

    When you say “crazy” are you talking about people who are genuinely crazy or are you talking about fundamentalists? From someone that’s arguing about calm, dispassionate, friendly discussion, calling someone “crazy” seems very insulting merely because their words (“I believe the bible is the literal word of God” and actions are more congruent than others.

    The New Atheists do a lot of talk-talk about the value of reason, but their movement is more about passion than making sense.

    There are real civil and human rights issues at stake here. In some countries, people are literally at a stake, and this is inflamed (also literally) by religion. In the face of these events, passion sounds like an entirely appropriate response!

    It’s a false dichotomy to say that, merely because people are passionate or that they occasionally have poor word choices, that they aren’t using reason. That would be crazy.

    If one believed that religion was contributing to suffering and harm and that the religious beliefs were unsupportable or factually incorrect, how should one act? As Hemant has demonstrated, even meek billboards asserting the existence of atheists or having the temerity to say that faith is anything other than an unqualified virtue are met with accusations of bigotry and intolerance.

    Meredith has it right – “friendly” is synonymous with silent, which isn’t a good method for bringing about social change.

  • Dan Covill

    I think we need to think about our objective(s). Many of us, apparently, are angry about our treatment at the hands of religionists and want blood in recompense. Others seem to be bent on prohibiting religion on the grounds that it is stupid. I hope I’m in a third group – those who are willing to give tolerance in order to get it.

    Doing battle with everyone who disagrees with you is hopeless – even in the unlikely case that you are infallibly right. In Judge Judy’s phrase, “pick a different mountain to die on.”

    Trying to abolish religion is to ignore 5,000 years of history and the very roots of human nature. Religion is one way human beings try to alleviate their anxieties – like all other pain deadeners, some need it worse than others, and some don’t need it at all. I consider myself fortunate that I’m one of the ones that doesn’t need it, but that doesn’t mean that all who do are stupid and evil.

    Bottom line, I guess you can rant, curse, and demonize if that’s what you really need/want to do, but if we actually hope to accomplish anything then the Friendly Atheist shtick is the only game with a chance.

    Dan Covill
    San Diego

  • http://daisiesandshit.com Tanya

    Perhaps Professor Prothero can explain to me the neurological mechanisms that tie my ownership of a vagina to a sweet, conciliatory, and diplomatic personality. Are my ovaries somehow responsible for a desire to foster coexistence rather than seeking to expose religion as a ridiculously illogical delusion? Has my womb secretly served not only as an incubator for my children, but also for an ideology that encourages superstition to be given the same respect as solid, rational thought?

    What crap.

    Is the desire to insure that women remain a minority in this movement? Make sure we all understand that we’re expected to conform to a preconceived mold of lady-like behavior. That we’re being invited to the party as hostesses, expected to smile and make all the guests comfortable. Make sure we understand that assertive behavior will relegate us to the same nasty rubbish bins that religion maintains for us. Attempt to use us as a white noise to drown out the voices you disapprove of, to soften the “arguments of angry men”, and to raise up the movement like a disobedient child.

    Dawkins and Hitchens have never made me feel uncomfortable as a member of the Atheist community. With this article, however, Professor Prothero certainly has.
     
    Kudos to those individuals, regardless of their gender, who seek to foster understanding while furthering the legitimacy of our community. You’re needed.

    Kudos also to those individuals, regardless of their gender, who seek to elevate science over bullshit by publicly denouncing it as such. We’re needed too.

    Every single combatant and peace maker plays a valuable role in our community and we’ll get a lot farther, a lot faster, if we stop apologizing for one another.

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

    Tyro:

    Just a couple of days ago, he said someone was full of shit.

    Yes, he said someone was full of shit. He wasn’t making dubious generalizations about a whole group.

    And when people pointed that out, he has backed away from it and adopted the equally accurate but less inflammatory terms “appeasers”.

    Well, I’ll technically agree with you on the “equally accurate” part, but not in the way that you might hope.

    It was a good analogy for how not speaking up and making compromise after compromise with nothing given in return doesn’t lead to freedom, it just emboldens the foe.

    The problem is that Dawkins applied the analogy to people who weren’t “making compromise after compromise.”

    When you say “crazy” are you talking about people who are genuinely crazy or are you talking about fundamentalists?

    I’m talking about what Sam Harris himself is saying:

    Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness: At the center, one finds the truest of true believers — the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.

    Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal.

    It’s pretty clear that Sam Harris considers the most extreme fundamentalists to be the truest believers, and he does consider them crazy or, in his words, “maniacs.” I think you missed my point, which was Harris’ assumption that it’s the extremists that are the truest to their faiths.

    There are real civil and human rights issues at stake here. In some countries, people are literally at a stake, and this is inflamed (also literally) by religion. In the face of these events, passion sounds like an entirely appropriate response!

    That doesn’t mean that passion overriding reason is a good response. If anything, cutting corners on reason is a good way to lose the moral high ground, especially for a movement that professes to be based in reason.

    It’s a false dichotomy to say that, merely because people are passionate or that they occasionally have poor word choices, that they aren’t using reason.

    Then it’s a good thing I’m not making that false dichotomy. The “Chamberlain” bit, for example, is more than just a word choice, but a misrepresentation of the facts.

    As Hemant has demonstrated, even meek billboards asserting the existence of atheists or having the temerity to say that faith is anything other than an unqualified virtue are met with accusations of bigotry and intolerance.

    Which is all the more reason to not bother with exaggerating and mischaracterizing the opposition. The billboards show that one doesn’t need to play dirty to get a reaction. Moreover, the gap between the understatement of the billboards and the bigoted mischaracterizations of them from the opposition highlights just how wrong the opposition is, putting it on the moral low ground.

    Meredith has it right – “friendly” is synonymous with silent

    Hemant Mehta is not silent. Julia Sweeney is not silent. They may be unfriendly to particular persons, but they aren’t prone to treating believers as an evil Other.

  • ckitching

    Those who are often classified as aggressive are not the ones who are trying to recruit. The aggressive stance is often less about changing minds, but rather attacking the taboo against criticizing any and all religious beliefs. The belief that Jesus was born of a virgin or that Moses heard a burning bush talk to him is pretty innocuous by itself. However, the same social taboo that protects that idea also protects those who pray over their children rather than taking them to a doctor, or those who infect male babies with genital herpes because of a religious tradition.

    It is a bit harder to stereotype those who loudly try to promote their message, though. I think the idea that all atheists are communists has finally been put to rest. There’s still plenty more stereotypes to knock down, although the angry one may need to wait until last.

  • http://feveredintellect.blogspot.com Viggo the Carpathian

    I’d like to see an ad campaign. Bill boards or buses or something that simply lays out 5 short logical reasons there is no god. I think that this would have more impact than the appeal to goodness for goodness sake. Plant the seed and let doubt run its course.

  • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

    There are many thoughtful and reasoned comments in this thread. It is a pleasure to read, and utterly reinforcing, so many considered and insightful perspectives.

    That being said, I would like some small measure of support for the proposition that Hemant is a rotten bugger.

    He hates babies…and his mother dresses him funny.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    And lets not forget the decidedly un-friendly attitude that you take when dealing with other issues (eg: “Sanjay B. Jumaani is full of shit” – aren’t you worried about losing support from numerologists? Why are you aggressive and unfriendly?). It appears two-faced when you take this pompous “just be friends” attitude towards the powerful, established religions but kick and spit at the smaller faiths.

    Tyro — I have no desire to support or “act friendly” toward people who swindle unwitting people out of their money. What’s Jumaani is doing is dishonest and he’s trying to profit from it.

    I don’t mind treating a random person, who just happens to be religious, with more respect. As long as they’re not out to legislate their morality, and just trying to live their life the best way they know how, odds are we’re going to have quite a bit in common.

    But let’s not be so friendly, we let religion gain an upper hand or allow those who believe in superstition to run right over us.

    You make it sound like all “friendly atheists” ought to do is sing Kumbaya with religious people everywhere.

  • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

    Lyrically speaking, Kumbaya is the ugliest fucking song ever written.
    It has less going for it than the Hokey Pokey, 10 Little Monkeys and Down by the Station all put together. Peter, Paul and Mary ought to be embarrassed over that shit.

    Despite hating the s.o.b., I gotta side with Mehta on this one.
    If you wanna have faith, fill your boots. But there’s a LINE. You ain’t permitted to con the stupid out of their money, convince people that prayer is better than modern medicine, base your public policy arguments on Sky Wizard bullshit, or run about condemning those who don’t buy your unicorn to hell.

    [Someone doesn't buy you Lord...Kumbaya
    Someone rejects you Lord...Kumbaya
    Someone thinks you're bullshit Lord...Kumbaya
    Oh Lord, Kumbaya...]

    /irony

    //Hemant is NOT friendly. Keep your eye on him. He’s the Robert Tilton of atheism…the farting atheist.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYMuhN7OZgM

  • Tyro

    You make it sound like all “friendly atheists” ought to do is sing Kumbaya with religious people everywhere.

    I don’t want to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. In fact, I’m delighted that you speak out and add your voice to the mix. I do think it’s hypocritical for you to try to carve out two groups, mark yourself in the “friendly” one (as opposed to what, the nasty atheists with the bad B.O.?) and then proceed to act in the very way you decry in others. I dislike how Christians freak out and scream “bigotry” and “persecution” whenever an atheists assert their presence, accusing them of “militancy” and aggression and I dislike it even more when they’re abetted by atheists who claim to be allies. You of all people should know the difference between public vs individual speaking and you should know how the mild Dawkins gets positively docile when dealing with individuals. I also think you’re absolutely mistaken when you claim that speaking our mind and possibly offending people on the subject of religion will drive them away from supporting other causes like science education or GLBT-equality.

    As you’ve shown, sometimes the best way to be a friend is to speak the truth as loudly and as often as possible even if it ruffles feathers. No doubt some numerologists are offended by your speech but I think you’re trying to protect yourself and others, something that “unfriendly” atheists are doing as well, just that they may see more urgency or danger in religion than you do. That doesn’t make them unfriendly, just means they see things differently.

    But the latter issue, whether speaking out about our atheism and the problems in religion will drive people away is maybe even more important. You wrote:

    I would much rather keep as allies those religious people who do things like support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state.

    Could you really be arguing that GLBT defenders will abandon this if they learn that “unfriendly” atheists also support GLBT rights? That seems hard to credit yet this is what you say here and many others in the “friendly” movement say. Has anyone ever seen an Anglican who supported gay rights reverse (or threaten to reverse) their stance because an atheist said nasty things about their religious beliefs?

    I can just see you stepping into a meeting to defend evolution in schools when another person stands up to join you in support only to add that they were a Scientologist and believed that gay’s shouldn’t have the right to marry. I have no doubt that, after learning this, your views on evolution wouldn’t change one iota. Why then do you imagine that religious folk would be so fickle, so lacking in morals or identity that they would change their views on an unrelated issue simply because atheists attacked them on religion?

    Not only does it make no sense but it’s politically silly in my opinion. When addressing a person individually, yes of course you want to go softly and try to establish a dialogue but when writing or public speaking, there’s no reason to hold back. Without speaking out and ruffling feathers, the status quo remains. If we don’t rock the boat, it continues in its path but any attempt to change course will be seen as “unfriendly”.

    And yes, when issues are important, then you stop trying to reach out to them and be direct, forthright, blunt and unfriendly. You don’t try to curry favour with the numerologist, why would we try to do the same with all religious folk?

  • Pseudonym

    J.J. Ramsey:

    The billboards show that one doesn’t need to play dirty to get a reaction.

    This. A thousand times, this.

    The billboards are all the evidence that anyone should need that you don’t need to be “angry” to provoke a reaction or get noticed. All you need to do is announce your existence in public.

    Incidentally, those from outside the UK may not know that the term “appeasement” is a cultural reference to the Munich Agreement. However, the first sentence of the Wikipedia page is a quote from Paul Kennedy:

    Appeasement is “the policy of settling international quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody, and possibly dangerous.”

    I’m think I’m going to wear “appeaser” as a badge of honour.

  • Pseudonym

    Tyro:

    Could you really be arguing that GLBT defenders will abandon this if they learn that “unfriendly” atheists also support GLBT rights? That seems hard to credit yet this is what you say here and many others in the “friendly” movement say. Has anyone ever seen an Anglican who supported gay rights reverse (or threaten to reverse) their stance because an atheist said nasty things about their religious beliefs?

    I don’t want to put words into Hemant’s mouth, but that’s not the message I got. The message that I got is that the battle over GLBT rights are more likely to be won by those present a united front with GLBT-friendly Anglicans than those who do not.

    To put it another way, (and these are my words, not Hemant’s) the only way that “unfriendly” Atheists are really hurting the GLBT rights movement is by being ineffective, not by being counter-productive.

  • Hammurabi

    It is absolute lunacy to allow religious people to have the sole input on how to frame the debate, yet by falling into this “friendly/aggressive” dichotomy we are doing just that. Maybe we can get some religious leaders together and they can lay out some guidelines for us atheists so that we can be sure to stay underneath the “friendly” banner.

    Dear religious people,
    We were thinking, if it wasn’t too much of a bother, that it would be super cool if you would let us have open opinions on things that may directly or indirectly contradict your religious teachings. Is that ok? We’ll make sure to bend over backwards to tell everyone that we think religion is just totally awesome and a great thing and all and that religious people are, well… they’re just the best. If you have the time, it’d be swell if we could talk about some of the ways our tax money is going towards explicitly religious things. It’s not that we want it to stop, we know how much you all like that kind of stuff, but if we could work out some sort of magical solution where nothing has to change and yet there is no abridgment to the first amendment that would be really neat. Anyways, we know you’re busy and all so whenever you get a free moment if you could just shoot us a line on how to proceed, that’d just make our day.

    Thanks!

    On second thought, how about we just stand up for ourselves and stop adhering to the labels thrust upon us that misrepresent, devalue, denigrate, and homogenize our points of view? There is not one true atheism, nor is there some sort of atheist ideal to live up to. We are individuals, not a collective. There is no hierarchy, even if we wanted to take Mr. Prothero’s vapid advice there is no mechanism to “promote” women up to the “leadership” or “mouthpiece” of the atheism movement. The “leaders” are anyone with the respect of some of us, the “mouthpiece” is anyone willing to speak.

    Surely, friendliness is an admirable trait to have. However, you can be a friendly person and an outspoken, aggressive and even abrasive atheist. What constitutes a “friendly atheist” is not for our opposition to decide.

  • Ed

    Hemant wrote

    I have no desire to support or “act friendly” toward people who swindle unwitting people out of their money. What’s Jumaani is doing is dishonest and he’s trying to profit from it…But let’s not be so friendly, we let religion gain an upper hand or allow those who believe in superstition to run right over us.

    I understand the sentiment here and agree with it- there is no need to accommodate all behaviors or beliefs but in my opinion (and perhaps that is all this is here, my taste/predilection) cursing demonstrates a lack of respect for a person rather than for an idea or a behavior. Is it really necessary to disrespect a person in order to condemn or decry a behavior? OTOH Albert Ellis had this to say about cursing and I rather admire it though unlike Ellis I don’t consider it a part of being natural or “myself”…

    I was the first psychologist probably to say “shit” and “fuck” at the American Psychological Association Convention. Well, even when I was a nutty psychoanalyst I realized that people were afraid to use it. They always use it to themselves, but not in public, so in 1950 I was the first psychologist probably to say “shit” and “fuck” at the American Psychological Association Convention. It’s not just part of rational emotive behavior therapy – people think it is – but it’s part of my believing that I will be myself and use my language in public, and if people don’t like it they don’t like it. Too damned bad, but it’s not awful and horrible.

  • Ed

    Thornavis wrote

    Being offensive is another matter, if I went round to the local church and called the vicar a lying bastard he would have every right to take offence but that really has nothing to do with atheism.

    What if you called the vicar full of shit on your blog though?

  • Pseudonym

    Hammurabi:

    It is absolute lunacy to allow religious people to have the sole input on how to frame the debate, yet by falling into this “friendly/aggressive” dichotomy we are doing just that.

    And yet here you are, framing it as a “debate” as opposed to a “dialogue”.

  • Hammurabi

    Pseudonym, I used the word “debate” because I couldn’t think of a good word for “disparity of ideologies”. However, I think “debate” is an appropriate word. From dictionary.com:

    debate
    1. a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints: a debate in the Senate on farm price supports.

    dialogue

    1. conversation between two or more persons.
    2. the conversation between characters in a novel, drama, etc.
    3. an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, esp. a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.

  • Pseudonym

    The problem that I have with the word “debate” is that it seems to assume that the discussion must be adversarial. This is not a given.

  • http://twitter.com/achura Rooker

    I read that article yesterday and dismissed it out of hand for being absurd. The entire premise is rubbish. I know female atheists who would leave Hitchens cowering in a corner and male atheists who are the picture of politeness and patience.

    I think this is nothing more than a religious believer trying to drive a wedge into the atheist community by fabricating a gender conflict that doesn’t exist.

    As for whether we need more harsh or more polite atheists, the answer is that we need more of both.

    We need the loudmouths to keep shouting to put the believers on the defensive, to answer their bigotry and debunk their lies. We need them to let believers know that if they are going to believe in nonsense, someone is going to make fun of them for it. Shame is a powerful tool, one that all religions use. There’s no reason we shouldn’t use it too.

    We need the polite ones that can sit down with the believers and politicians to negotiate policy calmly. We need the polite ones who can work with religious leaders to oppose violations of the 1st Amendment, like the Secular Coalition did when they prevented South Carolina from promoting Christianity on license plates last month.

    We need both groups of atheists to remain active and outspoken. What we don’t need is to let a religious believer tell us how to be atheist activists.

  • Tyro

    Pseudonym,

    Maybe I’m misreading you but your clarification appears to make things worse, not better.

    The message that I got is that the battle over GLBT rights are more likely to be won by those present a united front with GLBT-friendly Anglicans than those who do not.

    Of course, who suggests anything different? Did Dawkins ever once refuse to support Kenneth Miller’s defence of evolution because he was religious? The suggestion is absurd.

    The idea that Hemant is saying the difference between “friendly” and “unfriendly” atheists is that the friendly ones will unite with theists to fight for GLBT rights or good science education where the unfriendly ones will not is even more ludicrous and unsupported than my initial impression, that outspoken criticism will somehow drive these shrinking violets away.

    In all other spheres of life, two groups can have vocal, strident even abusive disagreements yet still come together on other causes. Why should this be any different?

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

    Pseudonym:

    The billboards are all the evidence that anyone should need that you don’t need to be “angry” to provoke a reaction or get noticed.

    I don’t think “angry” is the right word here. MLK, for example, was angry, but he made a point of not channeling that anger into hatred, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, criticized those who did.

    The problem isn’t anger, but rather nonsense like this, which was called out by Isis the Scientist:

    The issue isn’t that religion has some specific alternative theory for this particular electron-size reality shit. The issue is that religion indoctrinates people into a mode of magical fantasy-based thinking that deludes people into thinking that reality shit in general simply isn’t important. Thus, the religiously indoctrinated pay no attention to any of it.

  • muggle

    Specifically, friendlier, female-ier voices — as opposed to the “angry white male atheist” voice

    OINK, OINK, OINK!!!

    Obviously some theists are putting the sexism of their dogma onto those who don’t believe in it. Um, excuse me, just because they don’t listen to female voices don’t mean they’re not out there. We have plenty of them. And if we’re talking books, some of them should check out one Annie Laurie Gaylor’s “Women Without Superstition” before some of those male voices published their books. I know it didn’t get the same attention but geesh. Julia Sweeney, however, did. Does she somehow not count? Maybe because she wasn’t as “sweet” as some Christian apologist preconceives women of being.

    I know I open my mouth plenty and frankly am not usually preceived warm and friendly. What I generally get dismissed as — and I’m willing to bet that the majority of women on this board can relate — is bitch, no matter how polite I try to be. It does tend to make one stop bothering to be polite and respectful. But I also think that’s the gist of it. There are women Atheists there in the spotlight but they’re being dismissed as bitches. Look at how Madalyn Murray O’Hair is depicted in the media.

    All that said, sometimes I’m friendly, sometimes I’m rather more abrupt, depends on the issues and the venue and what makes sense or seems to be most effective at that time.

    And I’ll add that this is also horribly stereotyping male Atheists, who come in a variety of personalities and debate styles and goals.

    I rather have to agree with everyone who said this is just an attempt to shut us all up — male or female — so we don’t fight their bullshit. This is a remark from a decidedly unfriendly theist. You do know what he can do with it, don’t you? I’ll tell you this much, he won’t pick either my battles for me or my weapon of choice.

    All that said, I ardently disagree with this:

    The “aggressive” types want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint while at the same time persuading others that it’s the most rational point of view.

    The “friendly” types want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint while at the same time persuading others that it’s the most rational point of view.

    I beg to disagree. I don’t give a horse’s ass about persuading others of the atheist viewpoint. That proposition seems futile at best and hypocritical at worst (hating be preached at while preaching disbelief). I don’t give a rat’s ass what someone believes as long as they likewise don’t give a rat’s ass what I don’t and don’t try to force their creed’s commandments on me by making them the law of the land. Perfectly reasonable laws sometimes coincide with their commandments but laws should be founded on reasonable conclusions of their necessity (laws should only be laws out of necessity) not any faith’s beliefs.

    That’s what I fight for, that and tolerance. Live how you choose as long as you’re not hurting anyone and leave me free to live my life how I choose to as long as I’m not harming anyone else.

    And, yes, theist, even if I like and respect you, if you bring up religion, I do have a right to criticize it or even mock it. (Depends how you present it which I’ll pick to do. If you ask me politely and respectfully how I cannot believe something you do, I’ll respond just as politely and respectfully why I don’t and ask how you can but if you sneer or strut like it’s all that or quote some idiocy like the fool has said in his heart, there is no “God”, I will mock you.)

  • http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com Ophelia Benson

    The difference is that the “aggressive” types don’t care who they offend. They’ll go after religion in all its forms — it doesn’t matter if they criticize the Vatican or the local church down the street or your sweet neighbor who happens to be religious.

    Well if that’s true there are very few “aggressive” types, especially if we don’t pad the numbers by treating blog comments as symptomatic of “New” atheism as such.

    I’m generally considered (to the extent that I’m considered at all – I don’t mean the whole world has an opinion on the subject!) to be in the ‘aggressive’ camp, and it’s flat-out not true that I make no distinction between the Vatican and a sweet neighbor who happens to be religious. That’s pretty much the opposite of the truth. I do not pick fights with sweet people who happen to be religious! I am in fact very reluctant even to discuss the subject in that context, more reluctant than I think I should be if the inhibition were not as it were built in.

    That’s a total straw man, and I have to wonder why it’s so pervasive that even some atheists believe it.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    I too think this kinder gentler VS aggresive atheist thing is a false dicotomy. I can be perfectly genteel toward non-proselytizing, science accepting, tolerant Christians who don’t seek to force their supernaturalism into our lives or government or dumb down our schools.

    But trying to reason with those who are the “other” kind of Christian is futile. Trying to “reason” with them as oppose to employing aggressive counter tactics is tantamount to trying to reason with a tyrant.

    I’ve heard atheists actually say they attend church just to demonstrate how accepting and friendly they are. Bullshit!! If being a friendly atheist means surrendering your principles and putting on a false front to win acceptence you’re nothing more than an atheist “Uncle Tom.”

    While they are doing that I’ll expose the irrationality, patently stupid rejection of reality, and fight tooth and nail to keep our country secular and our schools free of god.

    As for this Politically Correct nonsense about theists not beling less intelligent than atheists.. please. There have been over 30 studies since the 1930′s that have shown a lower intellectual aptitude of the religious on the aggregate. These studies are mentioned in my book, and are available on line. Religiosity expands in 3rd world coutries and mong the least educated in our own country, and declines where education advances.

    And try finding a Creationist or ID believer among the scientists in the National Academy of Science, or Royal Society of Science…the greatest minds we have

    Sure,there is room for a variety of approaches, but when push comes to shove trying to put on a face of gentility when there are those who seek to subjugate peoples rights, or destroy our freedoms (or lives) is simply burying ones head in the sand.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    I’ll add my voice to those who think Hemant erected a straw man when he wrote

    The difference is that the “aggressive” types don’t care who they offend. They’ll go after religion in all its forms — it doesn’t matter if they criticize the Vatican or the local church down the street or your sweet neighbor who happens to be religious.

    As far as I can tell, that’s simply false. On occasion a sweet neighbor may be offended as a side effect of an ‘aggressive’ attack on an institution that protects child sexual abusers, as the Catholic church has done, but I would like to see Hemant provide some actual examples of ‘aggressive’ atheists attacking that sweet young thing directly. I’ll bet they are few and far between.

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