Listening to the Atheist Diplomats

Listening to the Atheist Diplomats June 11, 2015
[Back to Part 1: Listening to the Anti-Theists] [Part 3: The final roundtable]

puzzles

Part 2 hands the mic to Steve Neumann and James Croft, Patheos Atheist bloggers who identify as diplomats in their approach.

Why do you take the “diplomat” approach in terms of religion and atheism? Why do you think it’s the best approach?

JAMES CROFT: In my work as a Humanist activist, I am interested in what works. I want to spread Humanist values and reduce the cultural power of anti-Humanist values. And all the evidence from psychology and cognitive science shows that a friendly, open, funny, yet authoritative approach works better than one seen as aggressive or furious.

STEVE NEUMANN: That’s exactly right. It’s self-evident to me that rudely attacking someone’s religious beliefs is not only ineffective at getting them to consider your arguments, but very effective at creating a backlash effect whereby the religious believer’s deepest convictions and beliefs only get stronger. And as James said, there’s more than enough evidence to support this.

JAMES: This doesn’t mean that we’re always sunshine and roses, of course. Sometimes you have to be more forceful than friendly – that’s just good strategy. I like the term “diplomat” because good diplomats know how to shift their approach in different situations, and understand that no one way of communicating is appropriate in every situation.

STEVE: I’d add that despite individual deconversions here and there, the firebrand approach to discussing religion feeds the stereotype of atheists as angry and arrogant contrarians. Perception is reality for most people, and a better approach to discussing religion would be to change that perception.

What do you see as the difference between your approach to religion and the religious, and the approach of anti-theists/firebrands?

STEVE: The line between a firebrand and a diplomat is sometimes blurred. Passionate argument isn’t the problem. Being a passionate advocate for something has a greater effect on one’s listeners than an abstract, detached approach. But when that passion tilts toward arrogance and ridicule, you’ve lost your audience. When a firebrand attacks a believer’s beliefs as silly or stupid, the reality is that they are attacking the believer as silly and stupid, even if they explicitly claim they’re not. Again, perception is reality, and I think diplomats understand this fact of human nature better than firebrands.

JAMES: Anti-theists often seem to display an over-sensitivity to religious oppression and an under-sensitivity to oppressions not based on religion. They often see religion as an automatic problem, rather than as a complex array of interconnecting social forces that can have both positive and negative consequences. If the rallying cry of the anti-theist is “religion poisons everything”, then I think my response would be “religion poisons some things, and may make others sweeter.” Diplomats see the task as untangling the good from the bad, while anti-theists tend to see the task as dismantling religion wholesale.

What are the most persistent misconceptions about the diplomats?

JAMES: That any friendly engagement with religious people, or any attempt to make common cause with religious groups, is capitulation. That we are afraid of identifying openly as atheists. That we so love religion that we want to be held in its sweet embrace. That our position is rooted not in an ethical commitment to civil dialogue, nor a pragmatic commitment to successful social change, but in a desire to pander to religious communities whose indulgences we crave.

STEVE: I’d add the idea that we somehow aren’t committed to truth. There’s this notion that by not pouncing on every false belief and trouncing it into submission, we’re not “real atheists.”

What do you object to most about the anti-theist approach?

STEVE: What I object to is the approach itself! I think it’s counterproductive to all of the goals of movement atheism: the deconversion of believers, the social and political acceptability of atheism and atheists, and advancing other social justice-related goals like feminist, minority, and LGBTQ issues.

JAMES: I find the approach most objectionable when it demeans and denigrates religious people or other atheists who take a different approach. Any activism that sees as its goal the emancipation of people must prize the dignity of people above all. Our atheist discourse doesn’t always do that, and that’s when I strenuously object to the anti-theist approach.

Can you describe expressions of the diplomat approach that you felt went too far in the direction of religious accommodation or were otherwise counterproductive?

JAMES: Absolutely. Interfaith Youth Core Founder Eboo Patel, while not an atheist, is definitely an arch-diplomat. In a recent article, he defended the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish people who have been refusing to sit next to women on airplanes. This strikes me as capitulation to religious privilege borne of a mistaken notion of what respect for religious people means. There can be a fine line between attempting to be likable and pandering, and this crossed that line.

STEVE: I would say that never criticizing religious beliefs and practices would be wrong, because there is prejudice and discrimination that needs to be eradicated. I’m not advocating refraining from all criticism of religion and religious believers; I’m advocating for the most propitious approach.

What do you see as the atheist end game? What kind of future should we be trying to bring about?

JAMES: I’d like everyone to get on the same page about reality, and I think the most accurate picture right now is the one provided by atheistic materialism. But that’s less important to me than helping everybody learn to respect our right to ask the question, to respect reason and evidence as the way of addressing the question, and respect the fundamental rights of all as they do so. So I’m working toward a good world more than a godless one.

STEVE: Different atheists have different end games in view, but the future I envision includes a pluralistic society with a secular government — a global community committed to inquiry, dialogue, equality, and environmental stewardship.

[Read Part 1, Listening to the Anti-Theists] [Part 3: The final roundtable]

 

SteveNeumannSTEVE NEUMANN is a writer and philosophile interested in doing for philosophy what science journalists do for science—preparing the arcana of academia into a dish digestible by the public.

His work has appeared in media including the New York Times, Salon, the Daily Beast, and the Good Men Project.

Steve blogs at Notes Toward a New Chimera at Patheos.

 

 

11259145_10153303143188459_1756461083636245353_nJAMES CROFT is a prominent Humanist activist and speaker, as well as a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement. His forthcoming book The Godless Congregation (with Greg Epstein) is being published by Simon & Schuster.

He holds an M.Ed in Arts in Education from Harvard and an MA in Education from the University of Cambridge.

James blogs at Temple of the Future at Patheos.


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  • ctcss

    If the rallying cry of the anti-theist is “religion poisons everything”, then I think my response would be “religion poisons some things, and may make others sweeter.” Diplomats see the task as untangling the good from the bad, while anti-theists tend to see the task as dismantling religion wholesale.

    This is the main reason that I, a very non-mainstream Christian, have issues with anti-theism. Any time a simplistic, sound-bite approach to a complex situation is voiced or acted on, I find myself becoming very leery of that group or individual’s mindset. Both believers and non-believers have individuals or groups within their ranks that (sadly) act dismissively towards the other side. As someone who is non-mainstream, I tend to get hit by dogmatic types from both sides who disapprove of what I believe and do, but who never seem to make the effort to delve deeper in order to actually understand it. As such, I rather appreciate the diplomatic types who seek to understand, rather than the ones who assume that they already do understand, and then act in harsh ignorance. (And if I am mischaracterizing the approach of anti-theism or anti-theists by saying such, I’m more than willing to hear a corrective response.)

    Looking forward to the upcoming cage match! (Just kidding. I’m hoping to read some really thoughtful input.)

  • KoreanKat

    At our most extreme, anti-theists accuse atheist “diplomats” of being not just apologists but complicit with the actual prejudice and violence that religions promulgate.

    Atheist “diplomats” respond to anti-theist with hyperbolic, often dehumanizing personal denunciations, linking our views to racism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, “white supremacy”, terrorists like Anders Beivik, etc.,

  • Dago Red

    The “diplomats” are making a categorical error when they site psychology and cognitive data to support their position. They are ignoring the fact that this whole debate between firebrands and diplomatic atheists is all about a sociological phenomenon, not a psychological one. Its akin to mixing botany up with ecology. One does not turn to studies on tree physiology, for example, when they are primarily interested in saving rain forests. Likewise, one does not look to psychological and cognitive studies — which are primarily about how the human mind works — when one is trying to maximize the influence of their group upon the larger national culture. Diplomat-atheist complaints about firebrands, as a result, is largely a mixing up of psychological apples with sociological oranges.

    And when one examines the proper sociological data (and dismisses the psychological data as irrelevant) — perhaps to the chagrin of diplomatic atheists — what we find is that socio-political movements that have been the most successful in the past have (1) embraced a varied and diverse approach that includes both diplomats and firebrands alike within it, and (2) didn’t sabotage itself with in-fighting about who has the best approach, and rather (3) presented a unified presence in the greater society, utilizing the strengths of ALL its factions rather than merely relying upon just one approach alone.

    It is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the culture war is all about if people turn to psychological and cognitive studies to justify their positions worth. The culture war is *not* about how the human mind works nor how an individual responds to another individual. Its about group dynamics, and how best to sway public opinion. What works/fails in a one-on-one dynamic simply does not apply in general when we are actually talking about social change…and the sooner that diplomatic atheists accept this line of reasoning and stop seeing this only in terms of human psychology, the faster we can end this rather frivolous debate over who has the best tactics and, instead, unite as a movement again. We are all needed to make this work.

  • jflcroft

    ” Likewise, one does not look to psychological and cognitive studies — which are primarily about how the human mind works — when one is trying to maximize the influence of their group upon the larger national culture. ”

    This is highly misinformed. All professionals who work in fields related to creating social and cultural change – brand managers, marketeers, politicians, activists, military experts, propagandists etc. – base much of their work on cognitive science and psychology. This is not to say sociological insights aren’t useful – they are frequently invaluable – but we must understand the organism we are working with in order to affect changes in behavior. That means looking at psychology and cognitive science. I know this for a fact because I teach this stuff to those people, and we use psychological studies all the time.

    Further, this statement assumes there is a clear divide between the disciplines of sociology and psychology. There is not: psychology informs sociology in multiple ways, and vice-versa. They are complimentary disciplines, and the best communicators will be well-versed in both. That’s why this statement is meaningless (or worse, misleading):

    “The culture war is *not* about how the human mind works nor how an individual responds to another individual. Its about group dynamics, and how best to sway public opinion.”

    Any reasonable understanding of group dynamics is heavily infused with individual psychology.

    “when one examines the proper sociological data (and dismisses the psychological data as irrelevant) — perhaps to the chagrin of diplomatic atheists — what we find is that socio-political movements that have been the most successful in the past have (1) embraced a varied and diverse approach that includes both diplomats and firebrands alike within it, and (2) didn’t sabotage itself with in-fighting about who has the best approach, and rather (3) presented a unified presence in the greater society, utilizing the strengths of ALL its factions rather than merely relying upon just one approach alone.”

    While most of this is accurate (the final statement is questionable), you seem to think that we are against having different approaches. I, at the very least, am not – as I said explicitly in the piece:

    “I like the term “diplomat” because good diplomats know how to shift their approach in different situations, and understand that no one way of communicating is appropriate in every situation.”

    So here we have a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of psychology and sociology and their relationship to communication, combined with a misunderstanding of our position.

  • jflcroft

    “Atheist “diplomats” respond to anti-theist with hyperbolic, often dehumanizing personal denunciations, linking our views to racism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, “white supremacy”, terrorists like Anders Beivik, etc.,”

    Who on earth does that?

  • jflcroft

    “If I am fighting for civil rights, I am going to do it even if the guy next to me goes on and on about how atheists don’t have morals, how I am going to burn in hell for all eternity, how I should never be trusted with political power, how I am scum for my atheism. And most atheists are the same, note how many atheists stand against anti-Muslim bigotry for example.

    If me making a joke about religion means the religious guy next me is going to suddenly turn around and start opposing gay marriage, I am sorry but a huge part of me thinks he can piss right off.”

    I totally agree. I don’t see anything here which really addresses the arguments made in the piece above. I get this is your position, but it is not really related to the discussion we were having in the OP.

  • jflcroft

    I think there are times when anger is justified, certainly – diplomats sometimes choose to show controlled anger for strategic purpose (read some of my speeches – I’ll wait here 😉 ). But if you are perceived primarily as angry, you will not be a highly effective communicator. Arrogance is even worse – it drains your authority in almost every conceivable situation.

    Again, this is a mock-discussion. No one is arguing the position you are arguing against.

  • KoreanKat

    Seriously?

    Calling critics of Islam “racist” is one of the most common form of apologetic/derailing. Ben Afleck may or may nor be an atheist, but he is the best known example of that smear in use. How many atheists attacked Charlie Hebdo as “racist”?

    In the wider world of avowed atheists forging specific political alliances with religious people, usually Muslims, Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Max Blumenthal, CJ werleman, and a gaggle of writers at The Guardian all employ these tactics, linking atheism to racism, imperialism, etc.

    Atheist who embrace Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong, are tacitly supporting their direct use of many of these smears.

    I could go on and in greater detail, but scoffers like you tend to just want to scoff.

  • jflcroft

    Charlie Hebdo was racist, but that’s beside the point:

    Where are these claimed links, made by “diplomats”, to Stalinism, Maoism, and Nazism? You don’t give any examples at all.

  • jflcroft

    “Pretending to respect a person’s religion, so you can make them do what you want them to do, isn’t really respecting the person.”

    Who is arguing we do this? Point to a quote in the piece above which argues this. It’s certainly not my position.

    “So you say “lets be strategic” what I hear is “lets not talk about the stuff that actually matters, lets not always be angry” – about stuff we should really be angry about.”

    So what you’re saying is you hear things people don’t say. That is a problem you should have looked at, because it makes for unsatisfying and dishonest discussions. I personally speak about all the issues you mention frequently in my work – I just try to do it in a way which works to improve the situation.

  • KoreanKat

    Charlie Hebdo was not racist, and that is not beside the point at all. In fact your attitude on that subject is precisely the one I am criticizing.

    But thank you for conceding all the other points, and pulling your disingenuous scoffing back to just the the political comparisons. Actually I did reference those implicitly, given that one of Karen Armstrong’s smear tactics is to liken criticism of religion to Nazism:

    http://www.salon.com/2014/11/23/karen_armstrong_sam_harris_anti_islam_talk_fills_me_with_despair/

    Armstrong claims to not not be an atehists per se, but her description of “god” is so esoteric that she is an atheist de facto if judged by the standards of the religions she defends. And of course atehists embrace her rhetoric, like David Shariatmadari at the Guardian.

    And that is all the time I will waste on you.

  • jflcroft

    I have not conceded any points – I just found them entirely unrelated to the OP, which is the only thing I feel I have any responsibility to offend.

    Karen Armstrong is not an atheist diplomat but a dishonest and disingenuous apologist for religion. She is not an atheist (as you say yourself, she says so), let alone an atheist activist, so making atheist “diplomats” responsible for her shitty writing is totally bizarre.

  • jflcroft

    “Note how diplomats argue for their own position, using the exact style of argument they say doesn’t work when applied to religion.”

    Did you find it convincing. Bruce? Clearly not, since you’re still arguing. I’d say that proves my point. It’s interesting how you argue for precisely a style of argument which doesn’t work on you. Highlighting this is why I am more forceful in this sort of discussion than I would ever be were this a discussion with actual stakes. It reveals the weakness of the opposing position.

    You go on to confuse my comments with the comments of the other contributor – I’m not sure how to deal with that. Suffice to say, I am not Steve and don’t feel the need to defend his comments.

    “One should note that the core issue with religion from most anti-theists, myself included, is that it is largely based on false truth claims.”

    I do not accept that characterization of religion, probably because we simply have different definitions of the term.

    “So what is it, is religion useful, or is it false?

    What should we be saying, how should we focus our arguments – on religion being false, even “silly and stupid” at times, or on it having elements that we can find useful?”

    The answers I would offer are “both” and “both”. The traditional religions all have within them false truth claims, and we have a responsibility to root those out and encourage people to discard them. I would prefer if no one believed in God.

    Sociologically speaking, the phenomenon of “religion” has many elements which people who are not religious might find valuable and which could be re-purposed to exist without false truth claims. The congregation is an example of a form of social organization which I think could be salvaged from traditional religions and turned into something extremely valuable (indeed I know this is possible because I serve a Humanist congregation). Others find value in practices like meditation, stripped from their religious context. These are the sorts of things I mean which can be useful.

    Of course, it’s extremely important to carefully remove the religious roots of these things so you guard against the negative aspects.

  • jflcroft

    Not quite, because again I don’t share your view of what “religion” is. I think we’d find, if we could sit together and discuss this at some length, that we would have less a difference in view and more a difference in how we express what we think.

    I think “religion” is a very broad concept, with lots of different parts. I don’t accept the definition that you offer: “a social structure engineered to control people’s behaviour [nice to see a proper spelling!] based around a central mythology.” Religions often function in that that way, but they also do a lot of other things, some of them quite well and to people’s benefit. I think nonreligious people like us would benefit from thinking through the things which religions have done well and redesigning them for our own purposes.

    I expect you disagree with parts of that, but I think it would be good to move on from the generalities about something called “religion” and talk more concretely about component parts, to see if we can agree there might be something there we agree on.

    For the record, Steve and I don’t share precisely the same position – for instance I disagree with the quote of Steve’s you offered. I think there are ways to call a belief silly without calling a person silly. Again, I am responsible only for what I say.

  • jflcroft

    This is an insightful point. I agree.

  • jflcroft

    I agree with you entirely: tribalism is bad wherever it raises its head, and can get really nasty in atheist circles. I appreciate this comment very much. Sometime we’ll have to sit down for that chat! 🙂