Don’t say I’m one of the good atheists

In the comments on the Not So Different post, someone told me, “Chris, you are one of the actually reasonable atheists, and I enjoy your blog and have your book on UFO’s et al.” Sounds nice, but you know what? Don’t say stuff like that. It’s incredibly obnoxious. Here’s why.

When you say, “you’re one of the reasonable atheists,” or “you’re one of the good atheists,” you’re also saying, “those other atheists over there aren’t reasonable.” You’re saying, “those atheists over there are bad atheists.” You even imply that that being a reasonable atheist is unusual, that being a good atheist is unusual.

And while I can’t know what atheists you’re talking about, it’s a pretty safe bet I’ll disagree with you. No one is perfect, but on the whole I like people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and John W. Loftus–the people who most often get singled out as the “bad” atheists.

When you say I’m one of the “good” atheists in contrast to those “bad” atheists, you’re also implying that people should be able to look at me and see how bad all the other atheists are by contrast. It feels like I’m being made to support a cause I don’t support. It’s a little like taking the words of a scientists who accepts the theory of evolution and twisting their words to make it look like they reject evolution.

In fact, the fact that I don’t know who you’re talking about makes it especially sleazy. If you said, “ooh noo, Dawkins is so strident,” I can respond to that, but when you gesture vaguely at the “bad atheists,” that’s not something I can refute. It robs me of an easy way to respond to your misuse of my name and my writing. So don’t do that.

Abolitionism vs. reformism
Arguments for the existence of something that sounds kind of like a god
Analogies for animal rights: civil rights vs. the antiwar movement
Did Chris Mooney have a point?
  • jamessweet

    The flip side of this, of course, is that those “bad atheists” create space for you to be seen as a “good atheist”. So while I largely agree with your sentiments, comments like that are in a weird way sort of encouraging: It shows the effectiveness of a multi-pronged strategy.

    My favorite example is how the Times of London praised Stephen Hawking’s recent remarks about a godless universe by contrasting him to Dawkins. The slam on Dawkins was unnecessary and gratuitous, of course, but look at it another way: A famous physicist came out and publicly said that one of the most cherished beliefs of billions of people was silly and unnecessary, and the relatively conservative Times praised him for it — but only because they could contrast him with their punching bag Dawkins.

    It’s frustrating, but it’s also a sign we’re being effective.

    • Clarissa

      I guess Chris isn’t all that reasonable after all. He is whining like a little Middle School Queen Bee.

  • Randomfactor

    Ninety percent of atheists just make the rest of them look good.

  • Randomfactor

    Or bad. Not sure how I intended that to come out.

  • Emu Sam

    Probably ninety percent of atheists have no impact on how the population perceives atheists. Even higher if you subscribe to the idea that a child with no language skills cannot be a theist. Who looks at a baby doing something adorable and thinks, “Gee, atheists can’t be all bad”? But if that were part of the cultural mindset, those would definitely be considered the good atheists. They may not do anything that can be considered other than amoral, but they’ll still be perceived as good and innocent.

  • sumdum

    I don’t understand how you can contrast Hawking and Dawkins when they both said the same ?

    • jamessweet

      And yet the Times of London did so. That’s exactly my point: Dawkins has been declared to be one of the “bad atheists”, which allows Hawking to say the same thing and still be one of the “good atheists”.

  • Andrew Ryan

    So many times I’ve debated a Christian online and they’ve said to me “Thanks for your moderate polite tone”. It’s backhanded, a way of having a go at atheists even though the atheist their talking to is being reasonable with them.

    I always reply in a similar way, thanking them for not ranting and raving and being rude.

    • Ggodat

      If you are the same Andrew Ryan that posts on Tough Questions Answered, you are full of crap. You are incapable of having a normal conversation.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Sorry, ‘they’re’, not ‘their’.

  • csrster

    As someone once said, it’s rather like saying “I’m one of the nice Jews – not one of the the hook-nosed greedy kind”.

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

    I’ll add my agreement with one sentiment being discussed: Much of the time, it seems awfully arbitrary which atheists are the “good” ones and which are the “nasty” ones.

    And of course, sometimes it feels like they’re comparing the “good” atheist to the never seen, never named devils conspiring in the shadows, or, in other words, their stereotypes of atheists.

    It’s been a long while since I stopped by your place. How’s it feel to be on FTB with the big names? After a long limbo, I think I’ve gotten the blogging bug back with a new WordPress Bronze Blog, if you don’t mind a tiny self-plug.

  • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

    I think the poster of the comment, JD, is part of the Triablogue.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Wait, someone from Triablogue likes me? *My head asplode.*

  • http://chessconfessions.blogspot.com Blue Devil Knight

    I disagree with this post. I spend a lot of time with skeptics, and a lot of us are arrogant douchebags. I spend a lot of time with evangelicals, and a lot of them are arrogant douchebags. It is actually quite rare to meet a nice one, who is humble, doubtful, and doesn’t think the people on the ‘other’ side are idiots.

    PZ is a know-it-all who thinks the other side is intellectually deficient. That pretty much is a sufficient condition for being an ignorant douche.

    Same for Christians in the blogosphere, like those at ‘Thinking Christian’ who assume atheists are defective deluded misfits. Also qualification to be a douchebag.

    The good ones are the ones who aren’t like that, and unfortunately they are hard to find on the interwebs.

    Still curious re: your view on property dualism.

  • http://chessconfessions.blogspot.com Blue Devil Knight

    Interblog people who are not douchebags:
    Victor Reppert
    Jason Pratt

    On the skeptic side:
    Ken Pulliam at formerfundy, who sadly has passed away.