This past weekend I got to be on a panel in the Skeptrack segment at Dragon*Con in Atlanta to debate the merits of varying approaches to atheist activism in the United States. On one end of the table, there were four guys from the board of the Atheist Alliance of America representing the “firebrand” approach which favors confrontational activism, direct challenge and debate of supernatural beliefs, and in the words of one of them, “calling people stupid when that’s what they’re being.” On the other end of the table, there were two of us representing the “diplomatic” approach to activism which seeks out common ground among religious allies and favors dialogue over debate, picking our battles more selectively due to a belief that not all religions (or specific beliefs) are created equally.
Not only were the diplomats outnumbered 2:1, but even the framing of the discussion was worded so one-sidedly that fellow diplomat Jason Brocious and I were laughing out loud reading the promotional blurb to each other. In the brochure it read:
A discussion between firebrand atheists and “diplomatic” atheists who think it’s a bad idea to challenge religion. Is it advisable to keep a low profile and “go along to get-along” with religion as “diplomatic” atheists suggest, or is there more to be gained by openly challenging religion?
Besides the telling use of “scare quotes” not once but twice in as many sentences, this description mischaracterizes diplomats as spineless accommodationists contented to turn a blind eye to the dysfuctional aspects of religion, overlooking any of its flaws in the interest of getting along with the people around us.
As usual when my views are misrepresented this badly, my first reaction was laughter followed by incredulity. Then after a few minutes, the slow burn of anger began to set in and I suddenly remembered why it was that I accepted an invitation to have this discussion in the first place. There are things that need to be said about this topic whenever enough atheists come together to denounce all the problems caused by those other people, most notably that religion itself is not the sum total of our problem.
I contend that many of the things we attribute to religion are actually social and psychological dynamics to which even atheists fall prey—and I mean regularly—especially when we gather online or at meetings and conferences. We fight the same demons of tribalism, sexism and racism, cronyism, and yes sometimes even anti-intellectualism. And just because we’re atheists doesn’t mean we are immune to the religious impulse. I would argue it’s even possible to make a religion out of rationalism despite the fervent belief of some that such an extreme shouldn’t even be possible.
I’m not sure when (or if) the recording of the discussion will be available online, but I think most of us felt after it was done that both sides got their chance to make their respective points. As you’d expect, one end of the table felt the other was too nice, while the other thought the other can be too mean. But the discussion went deeper than that, for which I think most of us were grateful.
My take on this disparity is that the real question isn’t “Which approach is better?” but “Which approach is needed at each moment?” To my mind, both the confrontational approach and the conciliatory one have their place. It’s a false binary to suggest that you have to pick one or the other. They are each equally effective tools at our disposal, provided that you use discernment to determine which is demanded by the situation you find yourself in at the time.
[Related: “Why I Am (Still) Not an Anti-theist“]
I argued on the panel that the incendiary use of billboards, for example, won’t achieve the same effect in places like Jackson, Mississippi that it might accomplish in other parts of the country. Messages that are antagonistic toward religion as a whole inspire what they call the “backfire effect” in highly religious places like the Deep South. Last year, when American Atheists tried to place billboards advertising their national conference in Memphis, they weren’t even able to secure any spots along the most heavily trafficked interstate corridor heading into the city from my state (probably because most of those spots are owned by company run by an evangelical Christian). This summer when the Freedom From Religion Foundation managed to put up a billboard of their own in Tupelo, MS, it was taken back down within less than week due to severe community backlash.
The firebrands on the panel argued that these methods are appropriate for places like my home state because the most religious places need exposure to that message more than anywhere else. I submit that this tactic only makes religious people dig in harder, increasing their level of disgust toward those of us who don’t see the world the same way they do. As a resident of this region of the country, I feel like I know better than people who are not from here what will work here and what will not, and for the most part I’m hearing fellow Southern atheists around me saying the same thing.
But I would stop short of rejecting the firebrand approach out of hand, because I see the value in directly confronting erroneous beliefs which affect the way people behave. As many have said, I see no reason why religious beliefs should get a free pass just because people have strong feelings about them. I simply would argue that discernment is needed to distinguish between which tool is needed at the time.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail, but sometimes a screwdriver is what’s needed. If you bring the wrong tool to the job, you’ll only make a mess of things.
Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight
During the panel discussion, newly appointed AAA president Aron Ra argued that it pays off down the road to embarrass people by showing them their own ignorance. He gave as an example a confrontation he had during the Reason Rally in which he argued so forcefully that the married couple he was debating shut down and stopped talking to him. Then when their young child spoke up and offered him an evangelistic DVD, he told her he wasn’t interested in fairy tales, which brought her to tears.
The firebrand side of the table argued that this approach can shock people out of their complacency, causing them to question their own beliefs sincerely enough to potentially let go of them somewhere down the road. Aron tells of how a confrontation like that happened to him when he was young, and it embarrassed him into reconsidering his own beliefs as a Young Earth Creationist.
I certainly can’t argue with another person’s life story, because it’s not my place. But I can offer that I believe this approach should be used sparingly, reserving it mostly for interactions with people who have already demonstrated an inability to carry on constructive dialogue in the first place. Even as a diplomat, I might resort to a (carefully worded) taunt from time to time, but only after I’ve exhausted all other avenues for constructive dialogue and have found the other person unwilling to have a real conversation.
I challenge religion all the time, speaking personally as a representative diplomat. Being such doesn’t mean we don’t openly challenge religious beliefs, it simply means that we pick our battles carefully. Where possible, we use precision in our approaches to calling out those beliefs which we find most harmful—and we don’t treat them all the same. Some beliefs are more harmful than others, so it makes sense to employ a more nuanced approach. Think of it as a surgical air strike versus a carpet bombing of an entire region.
It’s no skin off my back if another person believes that a Supreme Being is watching over them, guiding their steps, so long as they don’t check their brains at the door and let their beliefs override the good use of common sense. As Thomas Jefferson famously said,
It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Like Aron and the others on the panel, I see value in directly confronting beliefs which do adversely impact the world around us. His ongoing battle against creationism in the science classroom is a noble fight, and I support him in it. I simply have a different set of battles to fight, and we each have our functions to serve in the freethought movement.
I don’t see all religious beliefs equally, and as such I will choose from a diversity of tools at my disposal. Some of these I know how to use well, and some not so much. I know which ones I’m best at, and those are the ones I will stick to the most. I trust my firebrand counterparts will do the same, and only ask that we maintain a mutual respect, especially since we’re ultimately on the same team.
UPDATE: The video from this panel discussion is now available. See video link below.
[Featured Image: Adobe Stock]