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.

  • hotshoe

    Wow, great post. Thank you for providing an outlet for your astronomer friend.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    You see, your friends problem is not understanding what “don’t be a dick” means to most theists. You can say the most outrageous and cretinous things about islam, or hinduism, or just about anything else they also disagree with. But as soon as you even:
    A.) Show them that their One True Religion(TM) ins’t internally consisten.
    B.) Atheists exist
    Those are two incredibly dickish things by their dictionary. Sorry he was caught up with it.

    Reminds me of the time I was chased out of a public library by religious zealots because I had the audacity to want to give a public talk about the Sprit and Opportunity rovers…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=80401939 christucker

    I agree, this was a great post.

    I myself fight the good fight in a few small ways at work. I work for a state government(____ vs Darwin). I make sure that my cubicle has a Darwin Tree of Life, as well as a picture of FSM and a Sagan quote, proudly displayed. On top of it I wear in a “Scarlet A” tie pin.
    We don’t have do seek out and accost theologins. We just have to exist, and not be afraid of existing.

  • Lambur

    Sadly, this is the kind of problem I’ve been running into. I’m always being called hypocritical just because I won’t read a book. It seemed like everyone had the case of the Mondays, because my Christian friends felt attacked….its exhausting JT. I don’t know how you’ve managed as long as you have.

  • rhubarbthebear

    Glad to see that, once again, you’ve let someone express themselves in your blog when they didn’t have a platform of their own. That particular kindness is something that I once would never have expected.

    I have been wrestling with these issues ever since… wait for it… ever since atheists in the early ’80′s acted dickly to the fundamentalist Christian version of me. It’s entirely too late now to revisit those moments and decide if I had any reason to feel so offended and hurt; what’s obvious is that I absolutely did feel this way, and I’m still feeling the effects thirty years later. I’ll never know if they were reacting to my beliefs, or the way I presented them, or just ME.

    I’m reminded of the YouTube video where PZ Myers called some kid an “ignorant fool”. Granted, the kid was asking, asking, ASKING for it. But I’m pretty sure – or, shall I say, I’d bet good money – I know what the kid thought and felt. Why should he actually investigate the claims of science now? He now has all the evidence he needs to dismiss atheists as hateful, uncaring people who got that way because they don’t know the saving grace of God and are instead led by a diabolically tricky devil. It’s not GOOD evidence – I’m pretty sure PZ would be quite charitable to the kid if he’d go and study up a bit and divest himself of superstition and presumption – but the evidence doesn’t have to be good. It only has to be emotionally charged. If so, it will work, perhaps for a lifetime.

    Not sure where I’m even going with this. I just hate to see anyone suffer for as long as I did, but I don’t see any way around it.

  • http://rixaeon.blogspot.com Rixaeton

    I just want to say this is a very good posting, despite the frustration that comes with being as nice-as-pie and still being dismissed. Please keep it up (and your astronomer friend too)

  • John Morales

    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.

    Speak for yourself; I have no such qualms.

    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.

    Being (rightly) scared of being perceived as one due to its consequences is sensible but asymmetrical; clearly, the religious have no issue with us perceiving them as such.

    (But then, might makes right is their attitude as exhibited by their coercive tactics; this second reason would certainly give me qualms)

    • Andrea

      Might I point out that he was speaking for himself? Yes he was commenting on how often it happens that others also call themselves agnostic or a skeptic to avoid full on fights. And yes that points out that many people do it. He, however, did not say all atheists hide behind these labels. If he had done so, I could understand your response there. But since he didn’t you just took some bit of offense and perhaps only to point out that you don’t have “such qualms.” Good for you. I’m happy you stand up fully and claim your atheism. Don’t mock the ones who struggle. Rather, they need your support.

      Also pointing out the asymmetry of his other comment seems, well, pointless. You are addressing something that wasn’t there. He was just saying it is a shame that he can’t actually claim his own post due to their likely unfavorable consequences. Yes, the religious don’t seem to have much problem letting us think they are dicks so long as they get to look the victim. That is fair enough. But he wasn’t addressing that was he? So pointing out how there seems to be an oversight because you agree with the statement’s sensibility but for its asymmetry is just unhelpful. You could have left it at being sensible. Then if needed start a new sentence that pointed out the shame that it is asymmetrical and then your point about the religious have no issue with being perceived as dicks.

      At this point, I’ve probably upset you. I get that. I’m just asking for you to be a bit more conscious of your arguments. You’ve made some good points but unfortunately they were response to items that weren’t present and were at the expense of the writer.

      • John Morales

        Might I point out that he was speaking for himself?
        [...]
        But since he didn’t you just took some bit of offense and perhaps only to point out that you don’t have “such qualms.”

        Not only might you, but you in fact did!

        To that I say no, he wasn’t, else he would’ve used the singular, not the plural first-person pronoun.

        Also, your inference that I took offence is unwarranted (and incorrect, as it happens).

        Don’t mock the ones who struggle. Rather, they need your support.

        To what mockery to you refer?

        Also pointing out the asymmetry of his other comment seems, well, pointless. You are addressing something that wasn’t there.

        Clearly, I didn’t (nor do I now) consider it was pointless, rather it was an observation engendered by his own, and not lacking in relevance.

        (You think it was dickish? ;) )

        So pointing out how there seems to be an oversight because you agree with the statement’s sensibility but for its asymmetry is just unhelpful.

        You are inferring incorrectly again, I made no implication of oversight.

        At this point, I’ve probably upset you.

        No.

        (I suspect you are projecting your own delicate sensibility unto me)

        I’m just asking for you to be a bit more conscious of your arguments.

        I could hardly be more so.

        You’ve made some good points but unfortunately they were response to items that weren’t present and were at the expense of the writer.

        Your opinion is noted; I’ll spare you mine regarding your response.

  • Rieux

    And as the little postscript about the “young girl” indicates, being any kind of “dick” at all need not be productive in somehow changing the mind of the person with whom we’re in direct confrontation; much more often, telling the truth rather than dissembling has salutary consequences on people watching from the sidelines.

    This is by no means a new point, but it’s one the “You’ll never convince anyone with vitriol” crowd utterly ignores.

  • Sarah

    Was this at the Fall Fest @McFarland? My son and I were there…

  • https://plus.google.com/100177776801127531910/about The Nerd

    There’s a difference between being a dick and being called a dick. Phil didn’t say “don’t let anyone get upset at you or dislike you”. He said “don’t be a dick”. I don’t refrain from dickery so that other people will like me. I refrain because I have to live with myself at the end of the day, and nobody else. If Mr. Astronomer wasn’t a dick, then he wasn’t a dick, and it royally sucks that he was treated with hostility.

  • jonvoisey

    The Nerd: I agree that the person in question wasn’t a dick, but that’s a subjective question. And I think that’s the whole point. When Plait says “Don’t be a dick”, it can be interpreted two ways:
    1) Don’t be what you perceive to be a dick
    2) Don’t do what others would perceive as being a dick

    The reason, accommodationists say, is so you won’t turn others off. In that light (2) actually bears on the conclusion whereas (1) would be a non sequitur. I think it is this dichotomy that the writer was trying to express: We can’t control how others will view us, and as such, worrying about it is counter productive; it’s far more important to be right.

  • http://war-on-error.xanga.com/tags/diplomacy/ Ben

    I don’t think the idea that someone will be offended by the truth should keep us from telling the truth. The virtues of diplomacy cease to be virtuous when we are prevented from calling out moral evils as they are. On the other hand unless we want to be guilty of only focusing on one value at a time like a stereotypical Libertarian or the Tea Party member, that doesn’t mean we give up trying to plausibly connect with our audience across vast value divides if we even want them to have some clue of why we think they are so wrong.

    So “don’t be a dick for being a dick’s sake.” Do what is morally right even if that will inevitably come off as dickish to certain demographics of your ideologically hostile audience. Yeah, showing up is more than enough to offend some Christians. That’s a tough egg to crack. Navigating the chaos of conflicting and unfair values normally means having a particular righteous goal in mind. Being mindful of the costs and knowing when to say when. Being open and able to recognize when it happens to be you who has been wrong the whole time. Etc. That tricky balance is not something easy to mandate with any catch phrase.

    The vice of habitual moral condemnation of ideological enemies is another issue to manage, especially when it is obvious that people on all sides of hot cultural issues stop looking for as much evidence to make sure they actually are right in favor of too quickly filling out their narrative of the other side as the bad guy. I’ve seen many online bru-hahas started and persist over many years for no particularly compelling reason other than everyone was mainly just being dicks to one another while of course forgiving all their own sins and not letting it go.

    It seems many here want too easy an answer and the answer isn’t easy. It will always be a struggle navigating all the important values at play.


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