Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mean Atheist or Nice Atheist: What should I do?

Should I be a nice atheist or a nasty atheist?

Honestly, I haven't decided which side of this purported divide I'm on. Should I be conciliatory and inclusive, or abrasive and critical? Am I trying to have a dialog or give a diatribe?

Last week I wrote a blog criticizing a Christian web site because although their motives were good, the language of their web pages gave a bad impression of their philosophy. A reader Jerry Ballwell, responded, "It's made me look closer at my own arguments and how they can be perceived by Christians. ... If Christians think that we're calling them idiots, and if they get offended with what we say, perhaps we should look at our presentation too?"

I really try to be friendly to everyone (unless they're overtly rude to me). I welcome all points of view and appreciate it when theists take the time to comment on my blog. I try to listen to all viewpoints and to treat everyone with respect.

Most importantly, I try to always remember that most religious people are sensible, thoughtful people who are sincere in their beliefs for good reasons. In other words, I try to stay on the "nice" side of the nice/nasty atheist divide.

And yet ... sometimes it's hard.

I'm falling victim to the cynicism that seems to pervade the non-theist community. I get outraged at fools like William Lane Craig who has a magnificent intellect and wastes it, an entire lifetime of study and thought, developing his devious and dishonest apologetics. I'm infuriated by Christian homophobia that drives teens to suicide. I'm appalled when a rape victim is stoned to death for adultery.

And if all that isn't enough, I read the news. Religious extremist terrorists are spreading anarchy and killing hundreds of innocents. Creationists are diluting our science, sociology and history books and crippling our children's intellects. Evangelical Christian politicians are still blocking stem-cell research (and not preventing a single abortion) and condemning an unknown number of people to suffer diseases that we could have cured. And worst of all, I hear preachers soothing everyone, telling them "God works in mysterious ways ... Faith is stronger than reason ... God will reward your suffering." These are words of enslavement, words designed to keep people from thinking.

These things make me mad. They make me want to be a mean atheist. They make me want to ridicule religion, to be nasty, rude, condescending and snide. It's so obvious to me ... why can't everyone see things the way I see them?

But then I remember why I started writing The Religion Virus in the first place. A lot of good, intelligent, thoughtful people whom I respect immensely are religious. They're not fools. They're not anti-science. They want the same things that I want: A peaceful world, a safe place to raise their children, prosperity and happiness. These are good people, and they deserve a respectful debate.

I'll never forget the first feedback I got from the first draft of The Religion Virus. A good friend marked one passage and wrote in the margin, "This is offensive in the extreme – what are you trying to achieve?" It really made me think: What was I trying to achieve? Did I want to be one of those intellectuals who takes the easy path of sarcasm and ridicule, or did I actually want to communicate with religious people? And the answer was clear. I sat down at my computer, adopted a whole new attitude, and started rewriting.

I think there's a place for both types of atheist. We need abrasive, nasty atheists because there are abrasive, nasty religious people who have managed to make atheists the most reviled group in America. These nasty atheists are breaking ground that's never been plowed before, and it's no job for the meek.

But behind those front lines, we need a real dialog. We need respect. We're not going to get far if anyone who approaches is immediately insulted. And to achieve that, we need to be genuinely respectful. We have to remember that for every extremist, there are a hundred reasonable people. We have to remember that for every William Lane Craig, there are a thousand honest intellectuals who don't resort to tricks. We have to remember that creationists are being kicked off the school boards, even in states like Texas, by citizens who actually appreciate that science is important.


  1. When did atheists become the most hated by the right? I guess us pagans are becoming more accepted. It only took 300 years.

  2. hi - good blog! Question re: next to last paragraph. Why not put the real dialog and respect on the front line? When people who are still deciding what is truth perceive an axe to grind they will gravitate toward the other side of the discussion or am i assuming that because i do that a lot?

  3. I think what makes me mad as a non-theist talking to religious people, is that their religious views have to be treated with respect, no matter how silly they are. they are somehow immune to any criticism at all, and if you try, no matter how nice you are, you are viewed as militant and mean.

    Just finished reading your book. Good read, now off to read Sam Harris.

  4. Mazz666 – Thanks, glad you enjoyed the book! Tell your friends ... especially your theist friends. Most Christians are put off by the title, but I'm amazed at the good reception I get from Christians who actually read it. Almost universally they say they learned a huge amount about their own religion, and a number have said it changed them profoundly, that their view of organized religion was forever altered.

  5. Why do so many insist on continuing with this false dichotomy? It's absurd. No one on the unapologetic side has suggested that one must be abrasive in all instances. No one on the unapologetic side has called for an end to all rational discourse, to be replaced by constant mockery and derision. The fact that a number of internet trolls are idiots is not representative of the nature of the dialog.

    This is more nuanced than the black and white "debate" that has sprung up of late. This whole thing has gone plaid.

  6. Craig, I suggest you resist the abrasivity and nasty-isms, and continue the considered, humble dialogue typified by your exchange with Brad White. Having spent 30 years of my adult life here in Australia as a conservative, committed Christian, and only in the past year been honest enough with myself to let the mounting doubts surface and look objectively for the "truth", I have found such non-antagonistic arguments as espoused in your book to be of immense assistance in my gradual climb down from an increasingly untenable belief system. In fact it is the patronising manner and arrogance of many Christian apologists that first led me to question whether these guys really understood what they were talking about - it doesn't help the cause of either side of the debate. I enjoy your blog and will continue to follow it. Thanks.

  7. I think that it's pretty simple. I try to be nice when others are respectful. It's my point of view, and I think I'm right, but it doesn't mean that there is no way I could be wrong. The time to get nasty is when others trample my rights. Much like Ghandi, it is when we are oppressed that we must take a harder stance.

    I think about my workplace, which has a mix of opinions, mostly Christian, with a few more hardcore and the rest more "casual" Christians. I am willing to discuss and debate, but I don't have to get nasty with them, because it's not these individuals that are trying to make marriage a state-recognized but religion-driven affair, that want to teach religious myth as science, that want to legislate morality based on their holy book.

    I think what's important to remember is that each person is an individual, and should be treated as such. We all get frustrated sometimes, but if we think about the actual people in our lives, the family members, friends, and co-workers, we can see strangers that way, too.

    I liked this entry a lot, Craig, and my review at Amazon of your book pointed out that the work is not a salvo against Christianity, except for one small part that does seem to take it to task. The title is a bit loaded, but the content itself supports the title and really does a great job of explaining why religion is still out there.

    Keep up the blog, and I hope you keep the mindset you've outlined here. Knowing that yous truggle with it helps everyone, regardless of belief, remember that we all struggle to find that balance.

  8. As kind of a postscript, I've seen a lot of Christian individuals I know bow to circular logic. That the Bible is divinely inspired, and the Holy Spirit touches those who read it, and that's why THEY get it. Those of us that find fault with it simply aren't blessed with the touch of the spirit, so we remain in "darkness." I'm not going to engage in debate with that because it's a closed loop. If you're not filled with the spirit, you don't get it? All you can do is shrug and move on. These are people who don't want to use logic even on their own foundation, and if that's what they choose to do, I can't change them.

  9. Craig, good post. For the record, as a Reasonable Theist, I disagree with George Bush Senior's comment. It was ill-conceived.

    As the founder of Changing the Face of Christianity, I have met my fair share of radical theists that don't even believe WE (my organization) are on the right track. I listen as long as I can, and when I find they just want to talk AT me instead of having a conversation, I tune them out as well. There ARE Christians out here that want to talk respectfully about these incredibly important issues and do some 50/50 talking/listening. I'm trying to create more of them!

    The same is true for the non-theist side. I eventually tune out the radical ones that just want to tell me what I think or talk AT me. Anyone with that attitude, on either side, should eventually be tuned out.

    So, like many of those that have commented so far, my vote for you is to make your points, be as respectful as possible, and do some listening too. In my opinion, it's the only way to be heard and have a lasting impact anyway.

    Now, question. And maybe this is for a separate post. I'd be interested in you clarifying(e.g. backing up your comments) about William Lane Craig..."devious and dishonest apologetics", "...resorts to tricks". I'd like you to explain what tricks you are referring to, and where/how you feel he is being devious or dishonest.

    I've listened to over 30 hours of his arguments and don't see what you see. Please educate me :-).

  10. To all who responded, thanks. I think this blog brought some of the most thoughtful replies I've ever received.

    @RBW – regarding William Lane Craig, I'll definitely respond. I think it's material for a whole blogs, and I want to do some research to give a good answer.

  11. I've said much the same thing (though I choose to be on a little bit more on the "nasty" side if you want to call it that, heh). The reality is that a couple of decades ago, what the so-called "nice" atheists say would have been considered highly offensive (at least outside of academic circles) and it is only the work of the more vocal atheists that have made room for the others.

    Criticism of religion is considered inherently impolite by many people. If we only ever engage in polite criticism, that will never change. By engaging in really aggressive criticism, we push the boundary of what is acceptable, and make way for more measured criticisms.

    I remember after Hawking said his whole thing about there being no need for a God to create the universe, there was an article (I think in The Times?) that said something to the effect of, "How nice to have the wise sober voice of Hawking to speak on this, instead of the shrill polemics of Richard Dawkins." I'm pretty confident that without the gnus, The Times would have been characterizing Hawking's comments as shrill.

  12. I don't see much point trying to get respect from people who can and will take offense at your very existence. For those who complain about there being too many 'mean atheists', this article sums up why it's important not to give a shit what theists feel better than I can:


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