Be Honest, Even If They Call You A Dick

The following piece was sent to me by an astronomer friend of mine.

This past weekend I had an experience I wanted to share with everyone. In the past, I would have simply done so on my own blog, but as I’ve become a public person and my chances of finding and keeping a job in my profession depend on me not being the outed atheist I have been in the past, I’ve tended to downplay such posts over the past few years. But the experience this weekend was too frustrating not to use to make a point that many in the atheist movement, have been hammering at for a long while now.

I have a tendency to do quite a bit of science outreach and this past weekend, I set up a telescope in a public place. I had a large number of people stopping by and my objective was just to let them look and marvel. I’d answer questions, but I wasn’t out to shove science factoids at them, and absolutely wasn’t going to bring up religion. Yet at one point, it happened. It wasn’t a theist that did so, but another of the bypassers that made some off hand comment that didn’t make room for any sort of God. A theist, standing nearby objected and although I’m not quite sure how (I was too busy having to adjust the telescope) they got onto the topic of Jesus invalidating the laws set forth in the Old Testament.

This is where I jumped in on the conversation. I pointed out that this depends on who you ask. Most Christians accept this, yet others note that Jesus at some point mentioned that Jesus claimed to come to “uphold his Father’s word”. This is an argument I’ve heard from several preachers. It’s often the basis for maintaining emphasis on Levitical laws to hate on gays. As such, the blanket statement from the theist, that Christianity as a whole rejects the OT laws and that he could treat his interpretation as the one true version. I made a few other quick notes that what various sects of Christianity, and other faiths that draw their basis from the Torah, deem as important varies wildly. And that was the end of the conversation at that point.

Yet a few hours later, as I packed up my telescope, the theist came walking by and asked why I was so “hostile to Christianity”.

I admit that I stumbled on this one. I didn’t think that I had been. I hadn’t in any way said that it was wrong, or even he was wrong. I only noted that there’s lots of interpretations on a vague source and no way to know if they were correct. He responded, not by disagreeing, but instead calling me “arrogant”, “close-minded” and “elitist”.

I’ll skip the part with all the other tropes where he tried to claim that science was just another religion, or that evolution didn’t have evidence, or the fossil record was incomplete, or that we’d never seen species diverge, and that Christians are horribly persecuted. I think we all know silly these arguments are. If you don’t, leave a comment and I’m sure someone will come along and explain it.

I’m not going to get into those because they really don’t phase me. They’re lies that are taught by religion that theists have never been taught to critically analyze so they blindly parrot. I really can’t blame them; religion is convincing and skeptical thinking isn’t taught in schools.

What does bother me is the attempts to claim that I was being “hostile”, “arrogant”, “close-minded”, and “elitist”. And here I thought I’d been being damn accommodating. I didn’t make the claim there was no God. I didn’t insult him personally. I just mentioned that there were many interpretations within the Christian faith. This is a simple fact that I would think is broadly recognized.

Yet it’s enough to make Christians feel attacked and lash out, playing the victim card, claiming that atheists are being mean.

And that’s the point I want to get at.

Phil Plait says not to be a dick.

I wasn’t.

But I was perceived as one.

This, and countless other experiences show that accommodationism doesn’t work. We don’t have to actually attack religion to be offensive. Simply existing will do it. And as this experience shows, even mentioning that other Christians may disagree will do it. It’s not atheists that scare them. They’ve been taught to fear every shadow, including their own.

In many equal rights movements, we hear about how simply the fear of being thought of as different will effectively silence the oppressed. “Gay baiting” (the practice of insinuating an opponent is gay in an effort to shame them so others stop listening) is a perfect example of this. Events like this are a direct parallel. Atheists are being shamed into silence for fear of being a dick. Even when they do discuss it, we often substitute other words like “skeptic”, or hide behind the “agnostic” label.

All because we don’t want to be a dick.

And that’s a damned shame. It’s a shame that pointing out something as mild as “Christians disagree” makes me a dick. And it’s a double damned shame that such things are so offensive that I’m asking JT to post this, because my employment may depend on not being even perceived as a dick.

We’re in a catch 22 here, which is exactly what the theocratic superpower wants.

What do I make of this? The lesson I’ve been so starkly reminded of here is that I can’t worry about being a dick when placed in such a situation. If I’m going to be thought of one no matter what, I should make the best, most devastating arguments possible. Someone else might be listening.

Which is exactly what happened this weekend. During the entire exchange, a young girl (who later told me had just started college) was listening. She approached me afterward and told me she could see where the better argument lie and that, having grown up in a tiny town, she had never seen anyone able to stand toe to toe with someone so adamant about their religion. I didn’t ask if she was religious. I didn’t need to. Even if she was, it was clear that the exchange left a deep impression.

And that’s what is important. We can’t let ourselves be shamed into silence because of some people that toss up their defensive distractions, calling people arrogant and elitist, whenever challenged. Because people are listening. And whether some people get freaked out over it, being right actually works.

He hits the nail on the head.  Even innocuous messages about atheism, like billboards announcing our existence, offend an appreciable number of believers.  If offense is to bar us from attempting to fix the problem of religion, if we are going to wait around until we can voice our position without it being an affront to somebody’s sense of propriety, we’re going to be waiting a very long time.

I say assault it with all we’ve got, regardless of who it offends.  If the truth offends someone, too damn bad.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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