A sneaky double standard

For the last seven years scarcely a day has gone by when I didn’t wind up sparring with somebody claiming god exists.  In that time I have come to realize that the only tool in their arsenal more plentiful than excuses for why they do not need evidence is conversation-stoppers – things that are supposed to get us to be quiet.  These are things like insisting that criticizing them is unmannerly or “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

But Michaelyn wrote a post the other day in which she identified one I’d never caught, but should have.

Here’s why I hate starting arguments with believers: When atheists start arguments with believers, they’re seen as assholes. When believers start arguments with atheists they’re seen as good people trying to save our souls. This should change.

And quite so.

When we say faith is flimsy and dangerous to a shared world, we are the ones who just can’t seem to live and let live.  However, when those commanded to share the good word obey, they are noble servants of the lord.

It’s a double-standard that needs to be done away with, but not by asking that everybody live and let live.  No, everybody should jump in and contribute to the conversation.  What I believe dictates the way I interact with the world, how I vote, and how I treat my neighbors.  My beliefs are the business of those they affect and I’ll not pretend otherwise.  People should try to change my mind.

Likewise to the other side.  Their beliefs are my business once they step out of their home or church.  This environment, where ideas are scrutinized and made to be defended, is lethal to faith.  Which is why conversation-stoppers exist.

FAITH: Jesus is not the answer to this question.
FAITH & POLITICS: Theocrats are in control in Arkansas.
POLITICS & GAY RIGHTS: Arkansas about to pass an anti-gay law just like Indiana’s.
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.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/Erulora Erulóra Maikalambe

    Even unbelievers fall into variations of this. My unbelieving wife (who won’t call herself an atheist) watches enough news that I know she’s hearing story after story of the right attacking women’s rights because of some archaic patriarchal superstition, and yet she gets annoyed at me when I gripe about how poisonous religion is. As if I should just let it go rather than fight it, because it somehow makes me a jerk.

  • http://militaryatheists.org Jason Torpy

    This double-standard stems from our objection to proselytism. If atheists uniformly deride proselytism as a bad thing, then we should keep our mouths shut about other peoples’ beliefs. Only by recognizing that it’s acceptable to try to make others adopt our own beliefs can we wander around badmouthing others and avoid being called hypocrites.
    It can’t be a bad thing to tell someone something you think is both true and good. Christians think they have a true and good thing, and I don’t fault them for encouraging people to think it to. I think we humanists have something true and good through science and human-based ethics, and I think others should adopt it.
    We can talk about restrictions on time, place, and manner, but we atheists need to lift our blanket objection to proselytism if we want to lift this double standard (because now, it’s not a double standard – they have theirs and we have ours, but we both chose our standard).

    • Jessica

      Most people I know object to proselytizing in inappropriate contexts (such as public schools, etc.), to the exploitation of people in need by proselytizers who dangle emergency supplies in front of them and offer to help in exchange for religious participation (the “we will trade you this bowl of rice for your immortal soul” operations), and to the cultural expectation that proselytizing will not meet with counterarguments or challenge. I don’t know anyone who objects to any and all proselytizing. Or rather, I don’t think I know anyone who would have any wholesale objection to it if it were just as socially accepted for us to reciprocate.

  • iknklast

    In fact, I had a friend once start an argument with me (he is a Mormon), and when I answered, he shot back that I was obviously “eager to engage”. We’ve known each other for 38 years, I’ve been an atheist for 40 years, and until 3 years ago, he didn’t even know I was an atheist. And it was only because I thought he’d be interested in something about women’s rights (he was – he wanted the site where I got it – I directed him to FFRF, and he apparently spent a great deal of time there). This friend, a member of the Mormon church, accused me of being part of a hate group, then jumped all over me when I defended myself and my friends. Ouch.

  • Beth

    I have to disagree with the statement that When atheists start arguments with believers, they’re seen as assholes. When believers start arguments with atheists they’re seen as good people trying to save our souls. This should change.

    Proselytism is generally seen as annoying and irritating (i.e. asshole behavior) by an unwilling target whether it is the atheist, the Jehovah’s witness, the feminist, the PETA member, whatever.

    The double standard is nearly universally adopted regarding not atheist/theists but rather those ideas you agree with versus those you don’t. Atheists are as likely as any other ideologist to see those promoting the ideas they favor as ‘fighting the good fight’ while seeing those promoting the ideas they object to as ‘assholes’.

    I agree that these things need to be discussed, but like Jason above, I think we need to define the time and place where it’s acceptable. In general, I feel it’s bad form to proselytize the unwilling or uninterested.

    • Marshall

      I think you’re missing a few things. While I largely agree with what you’ve said here, I would just like to point out the following:

      Suppose you had two groups of people going door to door; one group is a two person team of evangelists from a local church, the other is a two person team of atheists from a local atheist group. I know that atheist groups don’t usually go door to door, but for the purposes of this thought experiment pretend that they do.

      In my experience, when evangelists pay an unsolicited visit to someone’s house, they are quite likely (at least a good percentage of the time, which is why this is still done) to at least be humored. They are usually, at the very least, allowed to say what they have to say and sent off with a friendly goodbye. What differences do you think there would be for the team of atheists who pay unsolicited visits to people’s houses? Do you think that they would be greeted as warmly as the evangelists?

      I think the central point of your comment is correct. But there is a disparity in the general public’s perception of the two groups; Christians are expected by most to be ‘good, decent people’, whether you agree with them or not. Atheists are often simply EXPECTED to be assholes, or worse. I mean, just look in the comment threads of recent posts here and you’ll find people who are convinced that atheists are actively planning to imprison and kill them. It isn’t exactly like there’s an even playing field here, so it isn’t JUST a matter of people not liking unsolicited prosyletizing, the degree to which they are likely to view it as asshole behavior is different depending on the source. Even those who may not be explicitly religious are probably going to be steeped in the cultural idea that religion is nevertheless to be respected, and there is no similarly prevalent cultural idea promoting respect for LACK of religion.

      • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

        I think your example is a bit wonky precisely because atheists don’t usually evangelize door to door. I’m unsure that people will view an ‘atheist missionary’ with any more derision once they were accustomed to the idea. It might be the case, but we can’t make the case.
        A better example would be the reactions to theist and atheist billboards.

        All this isn’t to say I disagree with your main point, which I find pretty much dead on.

        • Marshall

          Oh no, I absolutely agree that it’s a problematic example. It just seemed a simple enough thought experiment to make the point I was getting at. I was actually a little bit worried about USING that particular example, for precisely that reason, but it appears my point is being seen regardless.

          Anyway, thanks for the entirely valid criticism.

        • Dalillama

          In the one case I’m aware of they were received very poorly, but the video is absolutely hysterical. (Possibly NSFW)

      • lizdamnit

        Creepy…the crux of this post has been on my mind for a week, the subject of discussions with Mr. Lizdamnit, and here it is in real life. Apparently JT is in my headmeats!

        Seriously, I’m quite torn on the idea of being public with atheism, since I find proselytizing so objectionable *but* I’m equally displeased with the stereotype of the Angry Atheist(tm). While the only way to deflate a stereotype is to put a human face on the issue at hand, I tend to feel like Michaelyn does, where I don’t even want to bring it up, lest I be termed an asshole (or worse) and all discourse will be shut down. Then I’ll just be talking to myself, which fails to be fun after the fifth hour.

        Personally, I’d rather preserve whatever open avenue of discussion I have, and bide my time to see who I can at least talk with, even if we never agree. So I stay incognito, largely, since there’s little time to warm up the religion vs atheism debate machine.

        And yet, and yet….Marshall, you got pretty close to one of the sides of the coin I was thinking on, “Atheists are often simply EXPECTED to be assholes, or worse”. As much as I want to avoid confrontation and want to find a good time/place for this sort of thing, I am concerned about that expectation. Same deal as being feminist – I used to feel I had to spend so much time distancing myself from the Angry Feminist stereotype I never got around to actual dialog. Yeah, grew outta that one.

        So as reticent as I am, I feel there’s a need to throw caution to the wind, to be public about it, in the interests of humanizing atheism to people, and actually encouraging interesting dialog, as opposed to piddling around with provisos. There is a lot at stake, as JT points out: “What I believe dictates the way I interact with the world, how I vote, and how I treat my neighbors….”

      • Beth

        What differences do you think there would be for the team of atheists who pay unsolicited visits to people’s houses?

        I think the differences would be dependent on the beliefs of the person answering the door. I would expect that Atheists would generally regard the atheist evangelists as Christians do the Christian evangelists while the Christians would regard the atheist evangelists (and possibly also the Christian evangelists from different denominations) as atheists do the Christian ones. This is what I mean by the double standard being applied to those share your beliefs versus those who don’t.

        there is a disparity in the general public’s perception of the two groups; Christians are expected by most to be ‘good, decent people’, whether you agree with them or not. Atheists are often simply EXPECTED to be assholes, or worse.

        This is true, but I think a somewhat different issue than what the OP was discussing.

  • Randomfactor

    We’re trying to save them FROM their souls, which are like Scientology’s body thetans–an alien influencing presence installed into them before they could think rationally.

    That they fight so hard to PUT souls into us shows how thoroughly the parasites have taken over their poor hosts…

  • Charlesbartley

    Militant Atheist: an atheist who treats Christians the same way that the Chrstians treat atheists (but only calls the fools instead of damning them to hell, calling them satanic etc)

  • Amber K

    I’m kind of uncomfortable with the use of the word proselytizing in regards to atheism. I’m fully aware that we as a community at large promote secularism and critical thinking and scientific thought…but I don’t equate that to the type of religious proselytizing that is dedicated to inducing conversion to a specific faith. Most atheists wouldn’t give a crap what other people believed if it didn’t negatively affect their lives. It’s not so much proselytizing as damage control.