Sam Singleton on Polemics

Another guest blog from Sam Singleton.  Check out his website or read his other guest posts:

  1. A Case for Mockery
  2. Atheism is Just Another Religion

Polemicist? Brother Sam Has Been Called Worse

Brother Sam is a polemicist. I can say that, as I am not running for office. I accept that the term is usually seen as pejorative, but no more so than atheist, which I likewise proudly self-ascribe. So make that an atheist polemicist. As such, my role is to draw the clearest possible distinction between the atheist minority and the believing class, to prompt fence-sitters to declare themselves. My working theory is that if everybody had to categorically state their belief or nonbelief in God, the proportion of atheists at the end of the exercise would be greater than at the beginning.

And, as I keep saying, numbers are important. Achieving full civic inclusion for all atheists depends on all atheists stepping up and being counted. Nothing counts so much as the sheer weight of numbers. But, the history of women’s rights proves that numbers alone are insufficient to counter the power of an entrenched privileged class. Those possessed of privilege never turn loose of it without a struggle. Wresting the atheist minority’s due from the ungenerous clutches of the believing majority is not for the faint of heart and uncertain of resolve. Assertiveness is what’s wanted. Anything less is swept aside or rolled over and crushed. Every successful social movement in American history has depended on its divers members and factions doing to their utmost that which they do best.

Women, gays, ethnic and racial minorities: not once has a marginalized group achieved greater acceptance solely by demonstrating that they are decent human beings deserving of respect rather than contempt. Nor has any such group achieved acceptance without so demonstrating. It appears to be a necessary, though not a sufficient condition, effective only in concert with other actions— resistance, confrontation, directing all manner of shame, opprobrium, and scorn toward those who would deny the group its rightful standing. Enter Brother Sam.

There have also always been insider entertainers far more well-known within the movement than to the general population— cheerleaders of a sort, who make it their job to buck up the rank and file. The things they say and the language they use are not intended for the privileged majority. That very fact is anathema to those accustomed to being at the center of cultural attention. The work of insider satirists, comics, parodists, and, may I say polemicists (actual or fictional) often causes outsiders discomfort, which is why I do not encourage believers to attend Brother Sam’s events.

There are as many personal styles of atheist activism as there are atheists, and all are important, from conciliatory to confrontational.  The movement needs goodwill ambassadors to the believing majority. But a movement comprised solely of goodwill ambassadors will inevitably find itself struggling just to keep from losing ground. Bullies confuse kindness with weakness. Let them shove you around once, and they’ll do it all the time. No. As Brother Sam says in Patriarchs and Penises, “Excuse me, if, while they take my lunch money, I crack wise about their superstitions.”

Still, some atheists regard Brother Sam as bad for The Cause, the sort of character that gives atheism a bad name; they fear the backlash, say that I empower the opposition, that I embody stereotypes, that, by resorting to ridicule and mockery, I lower the tone of the discourse.

I say polemicists like Brother Sam make run-of-the-mill atheists look nicer by comparison. That may be a happenstance, but it’s one I welcome. They can point to me and say, “We may be atheists, but, as you can plainly see, we’re nothing like Brother Sam.” Makes me feel useful.

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