I was inspired to write this post after reading Martin Robbins’ recent article in Vice, How to Make Atheism Less Awful in 2014. Unfortunately, I don’t find Robbins’ approach very compelling; call a lot of other atheists dicks and pricks (especially Richard Dawkins), stop following those he doesn’t like (especially Richard Dawkins) and start following those he does like (his friends – and definitely not Richard Dawkins).
I think there’s some truth that can be coaxed out of the article, and I will do my best to detail what that is while contributing some of my own (hopefully constructive) ideas.
When talking about improving ‘atheism’ what we really mean is improving the way atheists behave towards religious believers and each other. Now, there’s something a little presumptuous about telling others how to behave. Recognising this, I try my best to understand that there are multiple approaches and that I can only make suggestions, inviting others to share my opinions on the basis of the reasons I provide.
There have been a few other similar articles taking a certain kind of atheist to task – the sort of atheist who shares memes on Reddit, who tries to humiliate believers on Twitter – those sorts of things. So much of the criticism towards ‘atheists’ in these articles is mostly directed towards atheists on the Internet. I think this criticism is mostly deserved, though we should be careful not to generalise over all atheists who visit r/atheism or share a meme now and again.
What is the objective?
We must at some point consider what we intend to achieve with out output online. Being rude to believers is often criticised for its inability to change minds – it is an ineffective method of deconversion. This of course assumes that the goal is to deconvert believers, but there’s no reason why it should be. For example, an atheist might just find it fun to read #athiest [sic] and, before pointing out the spelling mistake and attempting a pithy retort:
Now, I find this pretty boring, and have unfollowed quite a few atheists who churned out this kind of thing on a daily basis. There’s nothing particularly wrong with doing it, if that’s what you (and your followers) enjoy, but to me it just seems like a waste of time. Nothing is learned, nothing is advanced, nobody on either side is convinced.
The Public Face of Atheism
We do have to think about what this looks like to reasonable people. If one of our objectives is to make atheism look reasonable, palatable and tolerable (and I’d say it ought to be), then simply picking a bunch of uninformed creationists to insult online isn’t going to do that. I can offer a couple of reasons for this. First, insulting someone personally is not a very good way of advancing an argument. Even if it isn’t explicitly fallacious, it still is not conducive to a productive and worthwhile discussion. When tempers start flaring, thought and rationality are often lost. Second, by selecting silly comments on Twitter to attack, we are not attacking the strongest possible argument against our case. Instead of an intellectual pursuit, ‘atheism’ becomes an online sport on the same level as trolling and ‘block-botting’.
This can make atheism look like an unattractive option, and may explain why so many atheists start saying things like “I am no longer an atheist” (even though they still don’t believe in God).
It isn’t limited to online atheists, either. David Silverman (conspicuously missing from Robbins’ criticisms) is possibly the most confrontational atheist, frequently appearing on Fox News to talk about people who ‘believe in an invisible man in the sky’. Though there’s nothing wrong with expressing this opinion, even on TV, if you’re the head of the most well-known American atheist organisation, this might cause some de facto atheists who don’t agree with describing religious faith in such scathing terms to abandon what should be a common cause – the fight for equal treatment by the state.
It’s easy to criticise others. What is hard is coming up with positive ideas of how to proceed. I will do my best to humbly suggest a few things that both I and others could do better in 2014:
1) When disagreeing, be sure to stick to the arguments, and argue in a disinterested and honest way.
When engaging believers or other atheists, try not to get sidetracked by other considerations, like how bad their ‘reading comprehension’ is, or what they once said in a blog comment. Don’t just try to ‘win’ – rather try to lose honestly. By that, I mean offer your best arguments in the hope that they will be solidly refuted. For what feeling is better than realising that you were wrong about something and adjusting your beliefs accordingly?
2) Concentrate your arguments against the strongest opponents and objections.
It’s easy to point and laugh at a teenage creationist on Twitter. It’s not easy to argue against Plantinga or Swinburne (at least, I cannot claim to find it easy). So don’t be a coward – actively seek out those who stand the best chance of defeating you, and have a full, frank, and calm discussion with them.
3) Socrates had the right idea!
Ask your opponent questions. Don’t tell them what they need to believe, or point them to a “My Beliefs 101” document saying “read this, then read it again and again until it fully sinks in”. That way dogma lies. Real intellectual progress comes from continually questioning ourselves and others, from discussion and debate, from listening to everyone, not just the loudest and angriest.
I’m sure there’s much more that can be said, but I hope I’ve made a few constructive points without resorting to calling other people dicks, douchebags, asshats… you get the idea. As always, all suggestions, comments, questions, disagreement is welcome, so please feel free to leave a message! Happy 2014!