But do the tactics of popular atheism work?

The following is an excerpt from chapter 3 of the book.

Okay, you may say, there’s nothing wrong with criticising religion, and argument in general often works. But aren’t the tactics of prominent atheists counter-productive?

That’s a hard question to answer conclusively. We can’t go and examine an alternate universe where Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris used significantly different tactics and see how things turned out. However, what we can say, I think, reflects well on popular atheism.

First of all, the recent surge in public advocacy of atheism can’t be blamed for the depressing statistics I cited in chapter 1. When Gallup first asked people if they’d be willing to vote for an atheist president in 1958, only 18 percent said “yes.” In 1978, it was 40%. In the most recent poll, in 2012, it was 54%–still less than the percentage for any other minority, but a definite improvement [21]. People who blame anti-atheist bigotry on atheists simply show they don’t understand the problem at all.

Recent years have also seen America continue to get less religious. The percentage of adults with no religious affiliation is now 20%, including 6% self-identified atheists and agnostics (the remaining 14% of “nothing in particular” mostly claim to believe in God, but also seems to include atheists and agnostics who are avoiding those labels, something I already discussed in chapter 1) [22]. Maybe these numbers would be even higher with better tactics from the atheist movement. Or maybe there’s no connection at all, and the recent successes of atheist books and organizing efforts has been purely an effect, rather than a cause, of declining religiosity. But however you look at them, the numbers don’t fit with popular atheism being the disaster many people would like it to be.

And directly changing minds isn’t the only reason for atheists to be outspoken. One thing that’s changed enormously in the last decade is that atheists in the United States are now much more likely to know that they’re not alone. Christopher Hitchens deliberately chose to focus the tour for his book god is not Great in the American South–the so-called “Bible Belt”–and found that at event after event, “half the people attending had thought that they were the only atheists in town” [23].

When it comes to making fun of religion (something that’s often a target of complaints about atheists being big meanies), I think it’s important that the best reason to make fun of religion is that religion is funny. Watch the South Park episodes on Mormonism and Scientology if you don’t believe me. We shouldn’t have to worry about the tactical effectiveness of every anti-religious joke, any more that we worry about the tactical effectiveness of every political joke.

That said, you’ll be missing a lot if you can’t see the serious point behind much anti-religious humor. Take The Onion headline “Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World.” This reminds us that Young-Earth Creationism is incompatible not just with the fossil record and radiometric dating, but also with history and archaeology. Can you think of a better way to make that point in nine words or less? Or, go to Venganza.org and Bobby Henderson’s “Open Letter to the Kansas Schoolboard,” a parody of creationist “teach the controversy” rhetoric which is the original source of the Flying Spaghetti Monster meme.

Of course, there is a cost to being an outspoken critic of religion in a society where such criticism is taboo. Maybe that’s even reason to sometimes keep quiet about our criticisms of religion for the sake of other goals. But we can’t do what many people would like us to do and never speak up. For example: the Chris Mooneys of the world sometimes suggest that if atheist scientists like Dawkins ever say anything bad about religion, it will turn off religious believers from supporting science.

If that’s true (and I’m not sure that it is), it’s a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than something we should just accept. After all, atheists don’t threaten to withhold their support for science unless religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller stop using science to try to argue for their religious beliefs. We’re happy to just point out the flaws in those arguments. Religious believers should be willing to return the favor. If they’re not, as far as I’m concerned that’s another reason for atheists to be a bit in-your-face with our criticisms of religion: to get believers used to the idea that religious ideas can be criticized like any other idea.

On a related note, I’m a huge fan of atheists going out of our way to break religious taboos when religious believers try to force them on non-believers. I’m talking, for example, about the Muslim taboo on making pictures of the prophet Muhammad. If your religion has a taboo against something, don’t do it. Don’t try to force everybody else to stop doing that thing. When members of a particular sect try to force their taboos on the rest of the world, the rest of the world needs to respond by violating the hell out of that taboo, until the attempt to force the taboo on everybody else has become hopeless. That, by the way, is why there’s a drawing of the prophet Muhammad on the back cover of this book.

Finally, if you hang around the websites of some of the more outspoken atheists, you may notice that discussions of tone and tactics have a bad name. Why is that? you might wonder. What’s wrong with worrying about those things?

In principle, nothing. But let me refer you to Greta Christina’s excellent essay, “An Open Letter to Concerned Believers,” which begins, “Dear Believer: Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it.” After noting these concerns and advice and thanking believers in greater detail, Christina explains the evidence that these concerns are probably misplaced. Then, at the end, she says:

It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I question the motivation behind this advice, and take it with a grain of salt. [24]

When passing a law is the easy route
Avoiding divorce doesn’t make you a traditionalist
Analogies for animal rights: civil rights vs. the antiwar movement
Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
  • ctcss

    Argument works only if the person being argued against has failed to make their particular religious beliefs their own (as opposed to merely parroting the beliefs of someone else) and thus have failed to establish a strong foundation for their particular belief and practice. Successfully storming the battlements of someone with a shallow belief in God is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the arguments of non-belief.

    Anyone who approaches their religious belief and practice in a persistent, thoughtful, and inquisitive way is going to encounter doubts and fears along the way. That’s a given. But spiritual growth based on one’s successes (and sometimes even one’s failures) in practicing their religion can take one past such difficulties. (It certainly has made a difference in my own practice.)

    So arguments from a non-believer might very well plant questions or doubts in a believer’s mind. But what happens as a result of such things being planted depends a great deal on what the person now does with those questions and doubts. If they persist in their quest, they may very well find answers to their questions. And just as non-believers often ask one another for help in puzzling through their own journeys of non-belief, believers, likewise, may also wish to call upon their more experienced believing friends and teachers who can help them puzzle through such questions. Thus, both the believing and the non-believing may very well come through battles with such questions with a stronger trust in God (or in their non-belief in God.)

    Arguing against someone’s approach to life only works if they have no useful counter arguments. And since believers and non-believers have differing views that cannot be absolutely and definitively be evaluated in this world (but evidence and personal experience may impel them down one path or the other), I think we would be better served by respectfully and harmoniously co-existing in this world rather than spending our time arguing with each other over what should be rather personal viewpoints and ways of living. We are all on journeys of discovery and should actually wish each other well rather than snipe at one another.

    Does this mean I think that criticism of religion or of non-belief is off the table? Of course not! I just think that most arguments and debates about belief and non-belief are rather pointless. Want to to point out uncaring, unloving, or hypocritical behavior in either camp? Go for it! Want to call into question shallowness of approach or mere self-serving-ness of approach in either camp? Go for it! Such actions often need to be called out and addressed. (Do be aware that this may very well call into question the less-than-stellar qualities of one’s own approach and motives. Humans can be amazingly blind to their own shortcomings.) But far too often arguments against believers and non-believers make about as much sense as Jews arguing against Christians and Christians against Muslims and Muslims against Hindus, etc. Could such arguments be engaged in? Yes, obviously. Would they really achieve anything constructive? No. All they would serve to do would be to increase tension among parties who might actually be better served by learning to love their neighbor as themselves. Having a differing thought from one’s neighbor does not automatically call for being at war with one’s neighbor.

    Belief and non-belief are personal choices that should be about ways of life, not mere venues for petty arguments by people in armchairs. My belief calls on me to live up to the loving and caring ideals of my faith. Someone else’s non-belief may cause them to seek out their own high ideals and thus to live according to those high principles. Who am I to judge them and who are they to judge me when undertaking such personal journeys? Unless I am physically attacking them or their right to believe (or they to me), we should be content to live quietly side by side.

    So to say that arguing over belief/non-belief is “fun” is, to me, a sad way to trivialize what should be a very serious area of one’s life. Pondering life, one’s place in it, and trying to live up to high and caring deals is rather hard work from what I have experienced of it.

  • MNb

    “Pondering life, one’s place in it, and trying to live up to high and caring deals” is so hard work that we better make fun of it to avoid a nervous breakdown. Life is too short to be dead serious, especially about ourselves. Am I mocking? I wouldn’t know.

  • BKsea

    The thing that bothers me about all of these “are the tactics of atheisms working?” discussions is no one ever states what the tactics are trying to accomplish. The answer of whether the tactics are working depends on what the actual goal is.

  • qbsmd

    “We can’t go and examine an alternate universe where Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris used significantly different tactics and see how things turned out.”

    I’ve read that (some, most?) political organizations extensively test messages with focus groups before publicizing those messages. I think it would be useful if some organization (maybe the Secular Coalition) hired some researchers to investigate how conservative christians, moderate christians, nones, etc. respond to various messages parts of the atheist movement have produced. Then individuals and groups would be able to evaluate which messages are most fitting with their priorities.