In a post earlier today, I disagreed with the conclusions of Jen Fulwiler’s critique of Atheist Awareness Week, but there’s an element of truth in her article I want to acknowledge. There’s something exhausting and unpleasant about spending a lot of your writing/thinking time trying to argue with people you don’t respect. When you think of your job as smacking down morons, it hard to imagine you approach it with a spirit of charity, and it’s more than likely the contempt and arrogance you practice could spill over into other spheres of your life.
But atheists aren’t uniquely at risk for this kind of behavior. Political operatives and pundits often fall into the same trap. And, although everyone in my ideal line of work could stand to behave a lot better, it’s hard to remain patient and nuanced and kind when you debate with people who are irrational or nasty. I wouldn’t want to write a blog that primarily addressed fundamentalist evangelical beliefs or actions for many of the same reasons I would hate to spend all my time discussing politics with fans of Glen Beck; I’m sure it would be bad for me. It would be dispiriting and feed into some of my worst tendencies.
I can bow out, but someone needs to respond to these people; they’re too popular to be ignored. Taking on that job will definitely take a toll on your spirit, so I end up torn about how to respond to nasty or dismissive atheists. I have plenty of sympathy for the people who put themselves in the middle of a really unpleasant and necessary fight, but I don’t want their behavior to be admired or imitated by anyone else.
Talking about people martyring their own character for the sake of the cause or to keep back the barbarian hordes takes a bad situation and gives it a tragic, romantic quality that can be very attractive. That kind of rhetoric is very close to praising people for what we call “a willingness to get their hands dirty” but is really just the courage to do bad things.
I stick with calling out behavior I think is disrespectful or counterproductive and keep my sympathies private. If I were Christian, this is the kind of context in which I would like to pray for the offending person to rise above the stress and temptation of their circumstance, but, as an atheist, I don’t have a way to help these public figures I don’t know personally. I put my focus on the people I might reach, atheists who shouldn’t take this behavior as inspiration and Christians who should know it’s not indicative of us all.
I’d be interested in all of your thoughts on the best tack to take.